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Creating a food forest

A forest requires no human maintenance and no inputs of fossil fuel energy, pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers to create an abundance of life. By modelling our edible and medicinal gardens on the principles of a forest, we too can also have low maintenance, low input gardens – gardens with all the diversity, resilience and beauty of natural systems!

Food forest

An Introduction to Food Forests Course Notes

© VEG Very Edible Gardens; Deep Green Permaculture



The whats and whys of food forests

A ‘food forest’ is a system of gardening using a diversity of mostly perennial (long-lived species, as opposed to annual vegetables) chosen and arranged such as they compliment and support each other, minimising weeds, pests and maintenance while providing a rich variety of harvests.

Fruit trees are the centrepieces, the framework, of the food forest. You can further stack the system out with a variety of other food and support plants at different heights. They should be arranged in such a way that they complement each others’ needs.

The following diagram from Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and gives an example of how in a food forest, trees and understory plants are combined to use different spaces both below and above ground.

Food forest drawing

A ‘food forest’ example

Food forest image

Above is a photo of a lovely food forest, planted on bare earth less than two years before the photo, which is now producing fruit, herbs and edible ground covers.

Food forests lend themselves to cottage garden style aesthetics, however, is possible to also have a more formal look employing the same principles. There are some photographs of both in the collection linked to below.

Why perennials?

Perennials are plants that live for more than a year. One principle of sustainable agriculture is total coverage of the soil, all the time, with plants or at the very least mulch. Perennial plants are inherently more sustainable, as they can provide a permanent ground cover protecting the precious soil from drying out and erosion.

Why diversity?

Polyculture systems are resilient systems, less prone to disease and pest attack, and better equipped to make optimal use of light, water and nutrients. You also get a variety of harvests spread throughout the seasons, and a beautiful, interesting garden, full of wildlife.

Food forest scales

We use the term ‘food forest’ liberally to apply to anything from highly managed kitchen gardens scale suburban systems, through to larger rural (or urban wasteland) systems which have minimum intervention composed of hardy wild and semi-wild species.

Food forest species

Let’s start from the canopy and move down with some suggested species for the backyard. The canopy of the food forest is usually the fruit trees. Often in the Victorian climate, these are best deciduous, allowing winter light through to layers below. Evergreen trees might be included too, but kept small or at the southern borders of the area.

Large shrub / small tree layer

Nitrogen-fixing plants

Wild forests almost always include nitrogen-fixing species. In many food forest systems (especially larger ones where we need to improve the soil) we can intersperse fruit trees with nitrogen-fixing small trees and shrubs such as acacias or tree lucerne (tagasaste). Many recommend using the latter only in urban areas where it will not spread. These plants provide bird habitat, nitrogen, mulch, and chook fodder (some have edible leaves and seeds) to the system.

In a smaller area you may design these (generally short-lived) species as sacrificial, destined to fill in space and improve soil, and then be removed or heavily seasonally pruned as the fruit tree canopy matures and closes. In the meantime, they can be considered ‘nurse trees’ – as well as nitrogen-fixing, they will grow faster than the fruit trees and provide shade and shelter for them.

Springtime is a good time to ‘chop and drop’ – ie. heavy prune the nitrogen fixers, allowing the prunings to fall as mulch for the fruit trees, right where it’s needed. The ornamentally bred commercial shrub varieties of Acacia cognate (such as ‘Mini-Cog’) are great soil builders and have lovely weeping foliage.

Other plants

Also in the large shrub / small tree layers, we can include some semi-shade tolerant food-producing plants such as tamarillos, elderberries, hazelnuts and plums (the latter two kept small by regular pruning). Monstera (fruit salad plant) can fruit in quite shady locations.

Tree mugwort is a fast-growing aromatic and medicinal plant great for quickly establishing windbreaks.

Shrub layer

At the shrub layer, some suitable herbs and companion plants include wormwood, southernwood, rosemary, lavender, hyssop, lemon verbena, citronella, scented geraniums, tansy and other shrub sized daisies and mountain marigold and all of which produce strong smells which are thought to confuse pest insects (and please us). The latter few examples also have flowers attracting beneficial insects. Edible shrubs include currants, gooseberries, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, goji berries, cherry and yellow guavas and blueberries (which require an acid soil patch).

Cane/bramble berries like blackberry cultivars and raspberries can be included – but these berries require training, annual maintenance and probably netting, so give them a discrete area.

Herbaceous layer

Moving down into a herbaceous layer, some edibles include globe artichoke, pepinos (a prolific melon-flavoured fruit), rhubarb, asparagus, perennial silverbeet, mints, french sorrel, stevia and horseradish. Companion plants at this level include comfrey, a classic for its deep roots and nutrient accumulating capabilities, and medical uses; borage is a relative with similar properties.

Lemon balm, yarrow and calendula are useful medicinal and companion plants. Alliums such as perennial leeks, angled onion and garlic chives provide strong smells for pests and good flavours for us.

Ground covers

At the ground cover level, some edibles include strawberries (especially the rapidly-spreading alpine strawberries), warrigal greens (aka New Zealand spinach), nasturtium (also a good companion plant around apples and pears), scurvy weed (a native), camomile and sweet violets.

You might include sage, thyme and prostrate rosemary in sunny areas. Natives such as convolvulus species, prostrate grevilleas, native spreading daisies, pigface and creeping boobialla can be used in hot dry areas, most of them having companion plant values for bringing in beneficial birds and insects. Alyssum is a good beneficial-insect-attracting plant to have in the mix.

If edible weeds such as fat hen, dandelion, amaranth, mallow, sow thistle, purslane, fat hen or chickweed want to grow, feel free to let them! They won’t overwhelm a food forest like they might a veggie patch.


Climbers you might consider include scarlet runner beans (the ‘seven-year’ bean – they reshoot from their base each year). Passionfruit, chokos, dragonfruit, grapes and kiwis could be considered if you have large deciduous trees for them to climb up, or walls or pergolas to cover.

Root crops

Annual plants that will disturb the roots of the perennials when harvested like potatoes, are generally not appropriate in the food forest, but you can grow carrots and parsnips in bare patches in a food forest. Allowing carrots, parsnips and anything in this family to go to flower (this includes fennel, dill, celery, coriander, parsley, angelica) brings in beneficial insects. Winter active or perennial onions and garlic species can be included.

If contained (because they spread vigorously) you can grow Jerusalem artichokes in a sunny edge – try them in buried pots. Yacon is a sweet root crop in the same family. Edible canna lilly (arrowroot) make for a great border plant, stopping the growth of runner grasses.

Incorporating locally indigenous plants

The food forest offers a way for us to get beyond a native vs. food production dichotomy, since many locally indigenous plants can assist us in food production while providing habitat for wildlife (not that, counter-intuitively, wildlife necessarily prefer local plants). In general bush tucker plants are of mostly novelty value in the small garden because they have not been cultivated towards productivity, but they may offer many other services. Here are a few suggestions:

Warragul Greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides) – We’ve mentioned this spinach substitute before. It’s fast-spreading but just a short-lived perennial, great for covering ground quickly.

Pigface (Carpobrotus modestus) and Rounded Noon Flower (Disphyma crassifolium) – succulent ground covers with edible fruits

Nodding Saltbush (Einadia wutans) – A low ground covering shrub with edible sweet berries and leaves which are also edible if boiled.

Prickly Currant Bush (Coprosma quadrifida) – a prickly shrub with edible berries great for bird habitat.

Austral Indigo (Indigofera australis) – A delicate and shade tolerant nitrogen-fixing understory.

River Mint (Mentha australis) – A beautiful smelling perennial mint. It was used to treat coughs, colds, stomach cramps, and as a food flavouring.

Large Kangaroo Apple (Solanum laciniatum) – a quick growing shrub, great for coving ground quickly, and adding to composts.

Silver wattles and black wattles have fine feather foliage which is excellent for soil building. There are many others! Eucalypts are generally too large and competitive for moisture and nutrients to grow in small productive gardens.

Sub-tropical areas

In nice ‘sun traps’ (areas which collect the full sun in winter and are protected from winds – often on the north side of buildings or dense plantings) you might also arrange some sub-tropical areas.

You need to place larger plants such as bananas at the south, with babacos, curry leaf plant, galangal, taro for example to the north, stacked from highest to lowest. A pond towards the north-west or wherever your prevailing hot winds come from, can humidify the the air in summer and cool hot breezes while reflecting light in winter.

More tips

Click here to see some of our photos and examples of food forest plants and food forest systems.

For information on how to keep healthy fruit trees see www.veryediblegardens.com/iveg/healthy-fruit-trees

For Angelo’s notes on Backyard Orchard Culture – strategies for keeping fruit trees very small and productive, see: http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/backyard-orchard-culture/

Sample guilds for food forests

Commonly used, synergistic arrangements of a group of plants are called ‘guilds’. Angelo has compiled the lists below.

NasturtiumGround cover – repels codling moth
Chives, Onions, GarlicRoot zone – inhibits apple scab, pest repellent
FoxglovesHerbaceous layer – stimulates growth, protects against fungal disease
WallflowersHerbaceous layer – beneficial companion plant
HorsetailGround cover – anti-fungal
Bad CompanionsGrass, Potatoes
BasilHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
TansyHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
SouthernwoodHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
Chives, Onions, GarlicRoot zone – inhibits apple scab, pest repellent
ComfreyHerbaceous layer – dynamic accumulator of potassium, natural fertiliser
Bad CompanionsTomatoes, Sage
ComfreyHerbaceous layer – dynamic accumulator of potassium, natural fertiliser
TansyHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
YarrowHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
Bad CompanionsBlackberries, Potatoes
GuavaCanopy layer – beneficial companion plant
NettlesHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
GarlicRoot zone – pest repellent
HorseradishRoot zone – prevent root diseases
Bad CompanionsGrass
BasilHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
TansyHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
GeraniumsHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
HyssopHerbaceous layer – helps plant growth
ChivesRoot zone – inhibits fungal diseases
MulberriesCanopy layer – beneficial companion plant
Bad CompanionsRadish, Cabbage
GarlicRoot zone – inhibits leaf curl, pest repellent
SouthernwoodHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
BasilHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
TansyHerbaceous layer – pest repellent
ChamomileGround cover – stimulates plant growth
ComfreyHerbaceous layer – dynamic accumulator of potassium, natural fertiliser
Bad CompanionsTomatoes, potatoes
BorageHerbaceous layer – increases general health of plants
CloverGround cover – adds nitrogen to soil
ComfreyHerbaceous layer – dynamic accumulator of potassium, natural fertiliser
Bad CompanionsGrass
These plants increase the growth and health of other plants:
Borage, Chamomile, Foxglove, Valerian, Yarrow

Additional Notes:

Include bee-attracting plants in fruit tree guilds as pollinator insects are required by fruit trees to bear fruit.

Construct guilds using other edible species – both annuals and perennials can be used. Consult a companion planting table to ensure that these are compatible with each other.

The companions used for the fruit trees listed can be used for other varieties of fruit trees, depending on their properties required, such as adding nitrogen to the soil or repelling pests.

Ponds and attracting wildlife

Food forest pond

A client’s pond

A food forest is a way of inviting in wildlife by providing habitat and letting them help us with the pest control. A pond also really helps to bring in beneficial wildlife, including predator insects, frogs, lizards and birds – especially if it surrounded by plants, rocks and logs. The wildlife then eat caterpillars and other troublesome insects in the food forest or veggie patch, and help pollinate your crops, increasing production and plant health.

The pond margins can be a unique environment in a garden, providing moist-boggy growing areas and rocky niches, enabling plants and small lifeforms unique to these conditions to flourish, increasing the biodiversity of your garden. Frogs and lizards like to be able to travel around the garden unseen from above, so love dense foliage between them and veggie patch or compost pile where the bugs are. Some tufts of native grasses such as kangaroo grasses and poas can be great habitat.

Populate your pond with goldfish, White Cloud Mountain minnows, or the diverse invertebrate life from a local large pond in a park – any of these will prevent mosquitos from breeding.

Other factors that bring in wildlife include dense prickly foliage for small insect eating birds, bird baths, and nectar producing plants for honey eaters.

One form of Melbourne wildlife that are not always so welcome sometimes in large numbers are possums! They can devastate some plants in the garden or sometimes the entire garden. There are various strategies, such as making fences difficult for them to walk on (they don’t like floppy tops or corrugated iron), possum guards on large trees and netting. Some sacrificial plants can sometimes help too.

Food forests and scale

The term food forest can apply to anything from a tightly managed suburban kitchen garden consisting of a diverse range of perennials, through to semi-wild larger systems. While the principles are the same, in the less managed larger systems we are often working with plants that are already there, and choosing wilder, hardier and less domesticated (and often less well known) plants to add to and complement the existing systems.

Where to put food forests in your system

Before planting a food forest you want to locate it well. While you can grow some of your annual veggies within a food forest, often because of different management regimes, you may want to delineate devoted annual areas.

In general we’d tend to put these higher-maintenance veggies closer to the kitchen door, or along otherwise easily accessible areas. Perennial systems tend to be further away or in less accessible areas. Veggies are often scrappy looking too, so many people don’t like them in the front yard.

For these reasons, the front yard is often a great spot for a food forest, as are areas a little further back in the backyard. The aesthetic can be that of a cottage garden, and very attractive.

Other factors to which influence where things should go in a permaculture design include soils, sun and wind exposure and microclimates. We also look for synergies between the elements of the system. VEG offer permaculture design and Intro to Urban Permaculture courses, which can help you design your entire garden.

Chooks or food forest?

Chooks and fruit trees make a great match! But unless your area is large you generally have to choose between a chook-orchard system with minimal shrubs and ground covers, or a food forest, since chooks scratch and eat groundcovers. In VEG designs fruit tree systems are usually either chook systems or food forests.

Planning your food forest

When you are happy with the location of your food forest, this might be a rough implementation order:

  • Water systems – putting down irrigation or passive greywater systems (food forests can be a good spot for greywater to go, and VEG have some low budget, low maintenance passive systems we offer). The infrastructure should be put in first. We often also include passive water harvesting off driveways etc. where possible, and these micro-earthworks have to happen before planting.
  • Weed suppression – if you have runner grasses (esp. couch or kikuyu) or any other particularly troublesome weed, you will want to thoroughly suppress these before planting, or you may never be rid of them! There’s some info about using newspaper to ‘sheet mulch’ as a form of weed suppression here: http://permaculturenews.org/2012/07/20/gorgeous-gardens-from-garbage-how-to-build-a-sheet-mulch/
  • Compost and mulch – while you can gradually build your own fertility on-site through legumes, food forest strategies, chooks and composting, it usually it makes sense to bring in some compost and mulch to fast-track soil improving.
  • Planting time! Winter is often a good time as you can get bare-root fruit trees.
  • Maintenance and pruning – the first two or three winters are especially crucial for developing the form of your fruit trees. You may then focus more on spring/summer pruning to maintain the size and shape and fruiting of your fruit trees. Pruning back overly vigorous plants is one of the main maintenance tasks of the food forest. Most of the rest is harvesting!
  • Evolution. We’re all learning here so let us know how you go.

Further resources and links


Northcote Library Food Garden www.northcotelibraryfoodgarden.blogspot.com.au

Merristem community greenhouse (propagating and sharing perennial crops): merristem.blogspot.com

Permablitz – get some hands on experience implementing: www.permablitz.net


Edible Forest Gardens by David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. A two volume book for the real enthusiast!

  • Creating A Forest Garden: Working with nature to grow edible crops by Martin Crawford.
  • How to Make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield
  • West Coast Food Forestry by Rain Tenaqiya
  • Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier

Online info

Lots of excellent articles on Angelo’s very informative website: www.deepgreenpermaculture.com

And info on a range of topics at www.veryediblegardens.com/iveg

Good nurseries

Ceres — nursery and eco-park, Brunswick East. The Permaculture and Bushfoods Nursery carries a large number of the plants listed here. www.ceres.org.au

Bulleen Art & Garden — a great food-oriented nursery with knowledgeable staff. www.baag.com.au