Backyard Food Forest: Planning, Prepping, Design & More

While exploring a woodland, one can observe a variety of plant life, including wild shrubs, small plants, and diverse tree species, all coexisting peacefully.

But what if you could create this working ecosystem in your own backyard and produce food as well? Planting different species in layers can make your yard beautiful and productive! 

A backyard food forest is a self-sustaining landscape of diverse food-producing plants created to work in harmony. Fruit and nut trees shade smaller plants; the understory contains trees, shrubs, vines, and berry bushes; and the ground layer contains edible herbs, vegetables, and groundcovers. 

To learn what you need and the best steps to create a food forest, continue reading!

You’ll find important tips, easy-to-follow guidelines, and how to keep your food forest growing for years to come. 

How a Backyard Food Forest Works

A backyard food forest works much like a forest does. The upper canopy trees provide shade for lower shade-loving shrubs, vines, and small plants.

As leaf litter falls to the ground, it decomposes and feeds the plants growing in the area — all while creating an ecosystem for beneficial insects to make a home and help produce bountiful fruit and veggie harvests. 

How Much Space Do You Need for a Backyard Food Forest?

As much space as you have! In general, there is no specific requirement of space for a food forest. As long as you have some land, it can be utilized for growing.

Usually, you’ll want enough space for trees to create a canopy and provide shade, space for a walkway, and an area to collect debris to create compost to fertilize your plants. 

How Much Food Can a Small Food Forest Produce?

While it depends on what variety of food you choose to grow, you can easily have something ready for harvest in each season.

On average, a food forest growing on 1/10th of an acre will produce between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds of food per year! You don’t need much space for a bounty! 

Are Backyard Food Forests Self-Sustaining?

Food forests are primarily self-sustaining; however, they can be helped by putting some effort into the forest.

The entire idea of a forest is that it drops old organic material to the floor where it is then composed by insects, animals, and weather conditions.

This then feeds the plants and keeps them thriving. On average, it takes about 5 years for the forest to become self-sustaining. 

Layers of a Food Forest

In total, there are 7 layers to a food forest. See the list below for more details! 

  1. Canopy: This encompasses the larger trees with varieties like avocados, apples, and nut trees. 
  2. Sub Canopy: This layer encompasses short-growing trees with varieties like dwarf stone fruits, berry trees, and citrus trees. 
  3. Shrub: Growing below the trees, you will find many different types of shrubs like raspberries, blueberries, and currants. 
  4. Herbaceous: Many annual plants will grow in this layer. Varieties like asparagus, rhubarb, ginger, kale, spinach, and tomatoes can be found growing in this layer.
  5. Groundcover: Ground cover usually consists of strawberries, oregano, and even types of non-climbing vining plants like pumpkins and squash. 
  6. Root crops: These are great for growing deep and utilizing hard-to-reach nutrients deep down. Crops like radishes, beets, carrots, and potatoes grow deeper than most plants. 
  7. Climbers: Growing anywhere they can, varieties like passionfruit, grapes, kiwi, and beans grow up trees, trail along the ground, and reach for the sun. 

Backyard Food Forest Design

The design is up to you! Utilize the 7 layers to plan out your edible food forest.

Take note of which varieties of plants will enjoy more shade than others, varieties good for nitrogen fixation, and the seasonality of species.

Varying the ripening seasons will allow you to always have something to harvest and mitigate everything being ready at once!

Getting Started

You may not even know where to begin trying to grow a food forest! Begin with the soil and work your way up. It all begins with the soil and a plan! Use the steps below to get started.

Planning a Backyard Food Forest

Decide the amount of space you will give to the project. This can help decide which plants you’ll be able to grow and need to plan for.

Before the fun begins with choosing all the varieties to grow, getting a basic understanding of the soil and moisture level of the yard is key. Then use these tips to help guide the next steps you’ll need to make. 

  • You’ll need to add irrigation if it is dry. I would recommend a drip line to save water and also ensure nothing will block the path of sprinklers once plants grow in. 
  • If you plan to plant trees, they should be planted at a minimum of 10 feet apart or even further for larger species. 
  • Companion planting is the idea of planting species that can benefit one another, allowing for better growth and maximization of space.
  • Thinking about the health of your soil is one of the most important things. Choosing plants that are nitrogen fixers and others that will bring beneficial insects is very important. 
  • It’s a good idea to test the pH of your soil before beginning (do it yourself with this handy tool). This will provide a good baseline to understand the planting areas and if any areas need to be amended to make them more favorable for growing certain crops. 

Preparing the Area

Depending on the area, you may need to do work to get it into planting shape. Other times, the areas will be ideal for planting and not need much modification. 

Clear any weeds and remove any plants you do not want in your food forest. If the soil is hard and compacted, it may be best to rototill the soil to break it up.

Adding manure, compost, woodchips, and other natural material is a great way to ensure the area has ample nutrients for all of the plants you will be planting.

Selecting Plants and Trees

While we all have our favorite fruits and vegetables, not each variety requires or prefers the same growing environment. Researching each plant is key to a successful food forest.

Most fruit-producing plants will prefer lower pH levels, but always check on each plant species. Two plants that prefer different pH levels will not thrive planted near one another.

Take a look at each layer below for tips on what to plant and the requirements they need. 

  1. Canopy: This is best for the larger varieties of trees you may be growing.  Large trees should be planted 15 feet away from one another. 
  2. Sub canopy: Shorter fruit trees make up this layer. Plant these trees about 15 feet away from the larger ones and 10 feet from one another. 
  3. Shrub: Shrubs will grow in full sun to partial shade. About 5 to 10 feet away from one another should be ideal depending on the size of the tree. 
  4. Herbaceous: These can be planted almost anywhere there is the sun. Be aware that many herbaceous plants will spread slowly and the plants’ roots will regrow each season. 
  5. Groundcover: These can be planted in between the shrubs and annuals. Know that they will grow anywhere they please, covering the entire ground if left unchecked. 
  6. Root crops: These will grow best in soft soils and will utilize the nutrients deep in the soil that other plants with shallow roots can’t reach. 
  7. Climbers: These will grow best along fences or walls and should not be planted too close to trees and shrubs. They will grow into the trees and shrubs and overtake the entire area. 

Plant Placement To Create Multiple Guilds

Guilds are great for creating subgroups of plants that grow well together and benefit one another.

As long as they have the same moisture, light, and nutrient requirements, they can be planted together. Just be sure not to inadvertently shade other plants. 

Maintaining a Healthy Ecosystem

While maintaining your food forest sounds like a headache, it will become self-sustaining with time!

Establishing your ecosystem is important to ensuring everything will grow well, so be sure to take note of the list below to help get it started. 

Mistakes To Avoid With a Backyard Food Forest

One common mistake is not having patience. It is key to establishing your food forest, so give it time to allow the natural world to take over, and try not to interfere.

Avoid over-planting and over-manicuring things, and avoid using pesticides and herbicides to allow the harmony a natural forest has to establish itself.

Closing Thoughts

A food forest can be a magical area of your yard, but deciding where to start is the hardest part. Maintaining it should be easy once it’s established.

Use the guide above to get your food forest up and running, and in no time, you will have a bounty larger than you could imagine!