How to Design Your Backyard Food Forest

Food forests aim to utilize all potential growing space available to a farmer. They incorporate several vertical layers that allow efficient utilization of space. An appropriately designed system will not only produce enough food for yourself but also for your community. When designing a food forest, it is best to incorporate plants that function to improve the soil, attract beneficial insects, act as fodder for your farm animals and provide food for local wildlife. Take these steps to design a successful food forest:

Plant short trees if you have limited space 

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)
Nannyberry. Photo by Wendell Smith on Flickr

A food forest is composed of seven layers that mutually support and benefit from each other. Tall trees are vital in a food garden but they may be impractical to plant if you have a very small backyard. They can cast a shade over your space which might block sunlight from reaching the ground. In addition, there are local laws that govern how tall trees can grow in residential areas. Therefore, you would have to consider the local regulations on the types of trees that are acceptable for your locality. 

Short trees and shrubs are easy to grow and maintain, don’t take too much space and are easy to harvest.

Plant annuals close to your house and perennials further

Think about what you will be growing. For example, if you intend to grow a lot of annuals, it is advisable to keep the food forest close to your house. Perennials take longer to establish, so you can plant then farther away from your house. However, if your backyard is small, you have to intercrop both annuals and perennials for efficient use of space. 

Capsicum. Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr

When starting a food forest on your backyard, plant dwarf fruit trees that are heavy producers. 4-6 trees are ideal for the backyard. Space them adequately to avoid overcrowding and to leave adequate space to grow your other plants.

Plant the trees in rows so it is easy to design the other layers of your food forest. Rows also allow for efficient harvesting and makes movement in the garden easier. The spacing of your fruit trees will allow more sunlight to reach the ground and thus you can grow more crops in the empty areas. 

Plant shrubs and herbs around your trees

Add berries and other shrubs around your fruit trees. Ideally, these should be shade-tolerant varieties such as currants and raspberries. Make sure that the berries do not grow too big and crowd your tree.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Oregano. Andreas Rockstein/Flickr

For the best results, your fruit trees should not compete with other plants for nutrients and space. Do not plant too many shrubs as they will cover all the space making it difficult to navigate the forest during harvesting.

You will want to grow an appropriate number of shrubs that grow moderately and do not require a lot of nutrients. Incorporate nitrogen-fixing shrubs to enrich the soil in order for other plant species to flourish. 

Plant herbaceous vegetables and herbs around the shrubs. Strawberries, garlic, onions and other culinary herbs are best for a backyard food forest. You can include some native flowering plants that will attract pollinators and other beneficial organisms. These plants should tolerate a good amount of shade. Further, they should serve as weed controls and prevent soil erosion. 

Before planting groundcover crops, apply a layer of mulch over the soil. Mulch chokes out weeds and eliminates competition from these plants in their initial stages of growing. Options such as alfalfa and crimson clover serve as great groundcover plants while also fixing nitrogen in the soil. Oregano and mint are food sources, attract pollinators and also have various medicinal uses. 

Test your soil quality

Soil quality is vital to the success of a food forest. Test the soil pH and mineral content to determine any potential deficiencies that might affect the quality of your yield. Knowing your soil type and quality will also inform the type of crops you can grow in the food forest.

If your soil is of low quality, you should add organic compost. Rich soil is an essential requirement for the development of a robust ecosystem. In the later stages of your food forest, the plants will put nutrients back in the soil and you will not need any chemical inputs to increase your yield. 

You can buy soil tests online. Alternatively, you can consult a professional who will be better placed to classify your soil and determine what is needed to increase its nutrient content. A food forest is permanent when it is fully established so you will have no opportunities to evaluate the soil quality later. This is therefore an essential step that will determine how successful your food forest venture will be. 

Plant species that attract native wildlife

Consider local animals. Food forests aim to copy natural forests, which are full of birds and other small animals. When choosing the best plants for your backyard, consider native species that will serve local wildlife best.

Kowhai (Sophora microphylla)
Geoff McKay/Flickr

Flowering plants attract pollinators and birds and frequently produce fruits and berries that feed small mammals. Research the type of animals that are most abundant in your locality and the type of food they prefer. As you design your food forest, you should anticipate an abundance of wildlife to your backyard. 

Build birdhouses and install bird feeders to create a habitat for avian visitors. Birds are natural predators for some harmful insects. Bug hotels provide spaces for insects to breed and shelter from tough winter conditions. Create an environment that welcomes insects and encourages natural feeding and breeding behavior. 

Identify your water sources and layout piping and storage

Plan for water resources. Water is a vital resource for young seedlings and seeds in the ground. The initial stages of the food forest are water-intensive therefore you will need to account for your water usage needs.

You can apply drip irrigation to keep the soil damp while conserving water. Avoid using sprinklers or flooding as they foster extravagant use of water which is opposite to the sustainability goals of food forests.

You can recycle and reuse water for domestic purposes for irrigation. Use detergent-free bathwater or dishwater to irrigate your tree seedlings. Install water catchment systems to capture rainwater which you can use for irrigation in the dry season. 

Consider terrain and topography

The terrain of your landscape is essential for the future of your food forest. Natural forests do not always exist in flat surfaces. The topography of your food forest should encourage beneficial relationships between insects, animals, plants and the soil.

James Preston/Flickr

Design raised and lowered areas in your backyard, creating natural paths for drainage and small pools to trap moisture. You can also specifically plant in hilly sections of your backyard that will force your food forest to emulate real forests in your locality.

Use logs, dead branches, rocks and dead wood to provide a habitat for wildlife. Birds will set up perches on snags and logs on the ground. The fallen branches will support beneficial fungi that will enrich the soil and help your crops to increase their yield. 

Keep a few livestock

Analyze the possibility of keeping a few animals in your home. Animals are vital to a flourishing and sustainable food forest. When incorporated well into your system, animals can reduce your workload and consumption of fossil fuels.

chicken feeding on grass
Photo by Lisa Zins on Flickr

Animal droppings will improve the quality of the soil. Further, some livestock are natural predators for small insects. Identify the specific needs of animals before deciding on the type of animal you want to keep in your food forest. 

Keep a few chicken or ducks to eat bugs and feed on fruit on the ground. Livestock are a source of valuable protein in products such as meat, and eggs. These can supplement your diet while also helping you increase your profit margin. 

Read more on my guide on how to grow a food forest.


Growing a food forest will require an investment of time, effort and money. However, once you are successful, you will not only become self-sufficient, you will also be contributing towards environmental conservation. Use your backyard to create a food forest that will provide sustainable yield, while providing value to the local community and wildlife.