Creating a food forest or an edible forest garden is a wonderful choice for a sustainable garden. In previous articles, we have covered ‘Creating a Perennial ‘Food Forest’ in a Polytunnel‘ and ‘Forest Garden Design for Small Spaces’ but in this guide, I thought I would delve a little deeper into how precisely you should plan and prepare for a new edible forest garden.
There are of course many different approaches that can be taken to create a new forest garden. Some people may not plan quite so rigorously and things can still turn out just fine.
But putting some time and effort into planning and following the stages outlined below can help you to avoid many of the most common pitfalls and create a successful and abundant forest garden.
Table of Contents
Planning Stage 1: Fact Finding and Brainstorming
When you think about a forest, you might think of a large expanse of land covered with trees. But there are no limitations on the size of a food forest. A food forest can cover acres of land – or be a system with just a few small trees within a typical domestic backyard.
No matter the scale on which such a system is created, the general principles and practices remain the same. Whether you plant three trees, or three hundred, the goals will still be to create a bountiful system filled with layered planting that works harmoniously as a whole to provide for you, enhance the environment, and work for wildlife too.
Before you begin the process of actually designing a food forest you need to spend a little time determining the size and scale of your intended project, and what precisely you would like to achieve.
Think about whether, for example, you would like your food forest to double as an attractive and ornamental garden space, or whether maximising the quantity of food that can be produced is your main goal.
Do you want to create a food forest that will be only for you and your immediate household, or are you looking to create a commercial enterprise?
Think carefully about what your goals are and what you actually wish to achieve. Spend some time in general thought, working out the opportunities, challenges, strengths and weaknesses of your particular site and how you can work with what you have to achieve the desired results.
Planning Stage 2: The Main Forest Garden Design Phase
Forest gardens are usually designed using permaculture ethics and principles, and the permaculture design process.
There is a lot to learn about these things and a great degree of complexity, which is why some people will prefer to get a professional permaculture designer in at this stage.
But you can also carefully work on this yourself, with the aid of information in books, online, and from other sustainable gardeners. the most important thing to remember as you start out is that observation is key, and each forest garden should and will be unique – designed for a specific site, setting and situation.
The permaculture design process begins with the process of observation. This is, in many ways, the most important step in the creation of any design. We need to know where we are right now in order to see where it is that we are going, and how to get there.
This process of observation involves looking at sectors and flow. We can then analyse the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of the site or situation, undertake the process of permaculture zoning, and work from there to round out our holistic designs.
By the end of this planning stage, you should hope to have considered the basics of water, infrastructure and access. You should ideally expect to have a rough sketch showing the main elements and areas of the space – a holistic, big-picture plan that you can use to plan out in greater depth where plants will be positioned and precisely where different elements will go.
As you plan your forest garden, you have to make sure to regulate healthy temperatures within the garden. Here is how to protect plants from summer heat.
Planning Stage 3: Creating Full Planting Plans
Forest gardens typically have a more complex planting plan than other types of food producing garden. Food is not grown in rows or squares the way that it often is in an annual vegetable garden. Rather, in a forest garden, we create dense, layered mostly perennial planting schemes.
This can make creating full planting plans something more of a challenge. However, planning out precisely where the plants in all the layers of the forest garden will go before you actually begin creating it can be beneficial.
It can help you to see where problems could potentially arise and help you to create a truly ecologically functioning system, where the plants work together rather than competing too excessively with one another.
When creating planting plans for a forest garden, however large or small it may be, it can be helpful to think about creating specific guilds for each of the canopy trees (typically fruit or nut trees) included in your design. These fruit tree or nut tree guilds can then be joined up to create one greater food forest.
Remember, in a forest garden you will have multiple layers of planting, often trees, sometimes smaller trees, shrubs, climbers or vines, taller herbaceous perennials, groundcover plants, roots and tubers…
These all need to work well together and benefit the core food producer at the heart of a guild and/or the system as a whole.
This can be a complex thing to achieve and sometimes we cannot know before we try something whether or not it will work as expected, because there is still a lot that even foremost experts do not know about the specifics of plant interaction.
But trying as much as we can to anticipate and plan should reduce the number of failures in our experiments. When you have full plant lists and planting plans, you can then work out where you can procure the things you need.
For those that are sticking to a budget for your forest garden, check out these money-saving ideas for a garden.
Planning Stage 4: Outlining an Implementation Schedule
Once we have our full planting plans and plant lists, we may be tempted to begin the actual process of creating the forest garden. But it can also be helpful, before we begin, to have at least a rough idea of the order in which we will undertake various tasks and the schedule we will follow as we see the job through.
In some cases, it may be that plans will begin with the tree planting, before proceeding to the planting of lower tiers. In other cases, a forest garden might be created in phases one area or zone at a time, and gradually expanded outwards or to new areas over time.
How you will wish to proceed will no doubt depend on the specifics of your own site and situation. You will need to think not only about your interim and ultimate goals but also about how much time you have, your budget, and other practical considerations that will determine how much can be done, and how soon.
Remember that it is best to use small and slow solutions, and to remember that creating a forest garden or food forest is about the long-term rather than short term gains.
Planning Stage 5: Preparing the Site
In the creation of a forest garden, it can often be beneficial to prepare the site carefully before you actually proceed to put your plans into action.
Though you should, during the design phase, have considered how existing plants on site might potentially be incorporated into the design, often there may be some clearing to do before the first planting of the forest garden takes place.
If the site is currently bare soil, then planting into it will be a top priority as you should protect the soil with living roots and good cover as soon as possible.
As we create a forest garden, remember, we are looking to create rich, humus-filled forest soil more quickly by speeding up the process of ecological succession.
Chopping and dropping plenty of organic matter on the site of the forest garden will help to speed up soil improvement and help populate the soil with beneficial fungi that we want in a woodland soil environment, especially when we include ramial wood in the mulch mix.
If the site is already vegetated with grasses or other groundcover, then mulching over the top of the grass will help to speed up the process by which the area turns from a grassland to a woodland or forest environment. Laying some cardboard down before the mulch material can be helpful in order to stop the grass growing through.
You can then begin the process of actually planting up your forest garden, safe in the knowledge that you have done all you can to plan and prepare properly for the process.
Make sure to plan out your specialist polytunnel designs with us today.
Waddington, E., (n.d.) Food Forests – a Beginner’s Guide. PermaculturePlants. [online] Available at: https://permacultureplants.com/food-forest-beginners-guide/ [accessed 25/08/23]
Waddington, E., (n.d.) Understanding Sectors in Permaculture Design. PermaculturePlants. [online] Available at: https://permacultureplants.com/sector-analysis/ [accessed 25/08/23]
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.