How To Create A Permaculture Food Forest: Essential Guide

Permaculture Food Forest: Mushrooms in basket

Have you ever considered growing a permaculture food forest around or behind your house?

I used to dream about having a food forest farm where I could simply pluck my own grown crops like fruit and veggies without having to travel to the market.

It seems like a dream !

If you are dreaming of the same, gardening and permaculture enthusiast Aisha from Above And Beyond Gardening, will guide you on where to start and what to do to grow a successful food forest. 


But before we begin….

What Is A Food Forest?

A permaculture food forest or a permaculture food garden simply means growing a food garden around your house. Also called an edible forest or forest garden, it is the practice of cultivating forest ecosystems to produce human food. 

In other words, you are creating a forest-like structure around your house to produce crops for you to eat. A food forest has different layers and each layer has a different function. 

The food forest also grows in 3D – up, down, and up. 

All these create a healthy ecosystem. Apart from growing greens for your tummy, you are also contributing to a better ecosystem. Sounds like a win-win to me!

Permaculture Food Forest: Berries in a tin container

4-Step Guide To Create A Permaculture Food Forest

Growing a permaculture food forest requires effort, energy, and time. 

You can’t simply throw seeds on the ground and expect them to grow naturally. There should be a plan and you should study a bit about your surroundings.

  1. Prepare a notebook 

First of all, prepare a notebook. 

This notebook should serve as your catalog and journal throughout growing your food forest. You need to jot down the species of plants you’re planning to grow, the layers you will have, and your plant preferences. 

After that, you should observe a few native plants in the wild. 

Study how they thrive and what they need to survive. Observe their needs, either more light, less water, or whether they need shade. All these should be in your notebook. 

You could even read a few vegetable gardening books to really expand your knowledge !

  1. Choose the plants

Once you have studied all the information needed, you can now choose the permaculture plants you want in your food forest. 

Carefully find the seeds, leaves, or stems needed to be planted in your soil. You also need to sketch a permaculture food forest design to better understand how you want to grow it well.

You have to let your plants adapt to the site condition and let them grow at their pace. Provide them with all the necessary ingredients and accessories before you start planting.

  1. Prepare the ground

This step is important. After careful consideration of steps 1 and 2, you finally have to start getting your hands dirty.

Prepare the ground with suitable soil so your food forest has enough nutrients and water.

  1. Start planting!

Finally, you can start planting! 

Choose which plant should be planted first, until you can finally create your own food forest. Trust the process, and if you fail, you can always try again and see what works and what doesn’t. 

Failing and learning your mistakes are part of the process! 

Never give up as well. Trust that in the end, you will be able to have a magical abundant food forest to feed you and your family. 

Related Posts : 

Permaculture Food Forest: Ripening blueberries

The Layers Of A Permaculture Food Forest 

There are 7 main layers of a permaculture food forest. 

These layers build a strong foundation of a food forest ecosystem. Without these layers, your forest is not complete.

1. The Canopy

The canopy consists of tall trees with large fruit and nut trees. 

They are the support trees that will enhance your soil, like alders, which are nitrogen fixers. You need to create spaces between these trees when you design your food forest according to the type of food forest you’re growing. 

Other tree examples in the canopy layer are:

  • Rubber trees
  • Xate trees
  • Teak
  • Banana trees
  • Ceiba

2. The Sub-canopy

The sub-canopy layer is the stratum of the plant, consisting of palms and woody plants.

 They commonly have a trunk or main stem with a diameter at breast height (DBH) of around 1-4 inches. The sub-canopy plants also provide more vertical space for vines and a better shelter for the layers below.

Examples of plants in the sub-canopy layer are:

  • Mulberry trees
  • Raisin trees
  • Apple trees

3. Shrub

A shrub, or a bush, consists of small- to medium-sized endless woody plants. 

They have woody stems that are persistent above the ground, unlike herbaceous plants. Shrubs can be evergreen and are different from trees. This can be seen by their multiple stems and shorter heights of less than 6-10m.

Examples of shrubs or bushes are:

  • Lemon trees
  • Gooseberries
  • Currants
  • Elderberry
  • Honeyberry

4. Herbaceous

Unlike shrubs, herbaceous plants have no persistent woody stems above the ground. 

However, they may have underground woody parts like roots and bulbs. These types of plants are perfect when you need a little extra herbs and flavor in your cooking as they have a fresh smell.

Some common examples of herbaceous plants are:

  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Mint
  • Sage

5. Groundcovers

Groundcovers fill empty spaces in your forest.

 They also don’t need special maintenance. You can go about doing your business and they will grow just fine. However, you do need to trim them once in a while.

Some excellent examples for groundcovers in your food forest are:

  • Comfrey
  • Kale
  • Purslane
  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes

6. Root crops

Root crops form a vital element in food forests.

 If grown well, root crops can produce more than cereals, oilseeds, and legumes. These crops grow well underground and provide you with various health benefits in your diet.

Examples of root crops that will help you grow a permaculture vegetable garden are:

  • Onions
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Turnips
  • Ginger
  • Beets
  • Garlic
  • Fennel
  • Radishes
  • Carrots

7. Vines

Vines or climbers are woody and non-woody. Vines start as groundcovers, but they can climb up until the canopy layer.

Examples of woody climbers perfect for your food forest are:

  • Grapes
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Magnolia vine
  • Passion fruit
  • Honeysuckle
Fallen apples

Layers Of Function Of A Permaculture Food Forest

Each layer serves its own purposes and function. 

Other than creating a balanced ecosystem in the forest, a permaculture food forest serves its main purpose as a planned and strategic food forest for your own good.

  • Edible Permaculture Plants

Most plants in the forest garden permaculture are edible. They consist of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. All layers have edible plants. 

  • Medicinal And Aromatics

Aromatic plants contain aromatic compounds. They are mostly essential oils. They are volatile, odorous, highly concentrated, and hydrophobic. 

You can obtain the aromatic compounds from flowers, buds, seeds, leaves, twigs, bark, wood, fruits, and roots. An example is the lavender tree.

  • Ornamentals

Ornamentals are plants that are for display purposes only. 

Ornamental plants commonly have no other value than being beautiful ornaments. However, some people think that this is valuable enough.

Having ornamentals in your food forest adds visual calmness to your eyes. 

You can have a functional edible forest that is simultaneously beautiful too! Hence, it’s not wrong to plant flower trees for ornamental purposes!

  • Fiber Plants

As the name entails, fiber plants provide you with fibrous nutritional value. Examples of fiber plants include flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, roselle, and bamboo. 

  • Mulch Plants/ Dynamic Accumulators

Mulch plants, also known as dynamic accumulators, are plants that gather certain nutrients or minerals from the soil. This is then stored in a more bioavailable form and in high concentration in their tissues. 

After that, they will be used as fertilizers or just to enhance mulch.

  • Habitat Plants

Most plants are habitats for many animals.

 Hence, by having a permaculture food forest, you are also providing homes to various organisms. Habitat plants are also the natural place for organisms like animals to grow and find shelter.

  • Insectaries 

Insectaries provide a sufficient environment for rearing insects under certain conditions on host animals or plants. This can be seen when you grow flowers that attract good bugs to your edible forest. 

They will control the forest for you and even attract bugs away. This will help protect fruit in your food forest.


The Functions Of A Permaculture Food Forest

Once you have a fully functional permaculture food forest, you will notice that the functions are more prominent as time goes on. 

You will see various improvements and changes that your food forest provides. It also enhances your quality of life. The improvements are in the form of:

  • soil improvement
  • human food
  • medicinal uses
  • animal and bird habitat and food
  • insect attraction

These are all good results of a permaculture food forest. Besides that, it also provides shade to your home and a breathtaking view.

The Benefits Of A Permaculture Forest

A permaculture food forest serves many benefits as each plant has its own function. 

All you need to do is regularly check for pests and maintain them whenever needed. A food forest you grow in your backyard has many benefits to the ecosystem such as:

  • It doesn’t regularly disturb the soil
  • It restores the land, biodiversity, and habitat
  • It is ecologically beneficial
  • It adds a variety of nutrients to the soil 

History Of The Permaculture Food Forest

Let’s learn a bit about the history of food forests and how they come about today. 

Food forests have been known to exist since prehistoric times.

In 1975, Geoff Lawton found the ancient food forest of Inraren. The forest was cultivated in a 65-acre forest. He was lost in the jungle when he discovered it.

It was believed to be the oldest sustainable agriculture system in the world. 

Food forests are also found in the foothills of Nepal and Kerala, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. 

Food forests are known as family orchards in Mexico. The science underneath them was only kept to those who tended them, even after thousands of years. 

Small families and communities usually know how to keep their secrets. 

After his discovery, Geoff Lawton brought the idea to Morocco. He then founded the Permaculture Research Institute, giving advice on sustainable food policies and conducting permaculture courses. 

He also teaches students to grow edible gardens in their backyard.

Without Geoff Lawton’s food forest discovery, there would be no permaculture food forest concept in the world.


Frequently Asked Questions

Why Plant A Food Forest?

Growing a food forest, that is communally established and managed, is a sustainable way to adhere to increasing urban food needs, resilient communities, and having productive land. Food forests can help people care for and learn about edible fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

How To Grow A Permaculture Food Forest?

If you’re looking to grow a cold climate food forest this winter, you can try these 3 simple steps:

  1. Choose your plants. You have to first carefully choose your plants.
  2. Prepare the ground. You are advised to choose an open, sunny location for your edible food forest. 
  3. Start planting. After that, you need to arrange your plants in the landscape.

How Do You Make A Food Forest In NZ?

First, you must pick an area that gets at least 8 hours of sunlight daily. You have to lay thick layers of newspaper and cover them with a thick compost (minimum of 20cm). This prevents invasive grasses. Then, cover the compost with a layer of other mulch and straw. This should help you get started with your food forest in NZ.


In conclusion, if you have all the ingredients and the knowledge, you just have to start growing your permaculture food forest. 

Starting early is important so that your food forest has time to grow and flourish. Besides, you will also be able to identify any faults and improvements along the way.

Remember, never give up hope if something goes sideways, you’re just starting out. All the best!