How to Grow a Food Forest in Your Backyard

It is relatively easy to set up a food forest in your backyard if you have a comprehensive plan and are patient enough to wait for it to fully establish. Food forests do not require synthetic chemical inputs and therefore pose no risk to your home environment. In addition, they produce healthier foods and products that will provide a sustainable food source for your family. 

Plan your Backyard Food Forest

You can create a backyard food forest but you have to make some adjustments to the layout of the garden. Depending on the space you have available, you will have to determine whether it is feasible to plant tall trees.

profitable food forest
Leigh Blackall/Flickr

A food forest is made up of 7 layers: Tall trees or canopy, low growing trees, shrubs, herbs, roots, ground cover, and vines. Trees take longer to mature and will reach to significant heights of over 150ft over their lifetime. Additionally, they create shade and are therefore not feasible to plant in a small backyard.

Therefore, before you begin planting a food forest, determine the kind of foods you want to incorporate. On a small backyard, you can ignore the tall trees, instead settling for low growing trees, shrubs, vegetables, groundcovers and edible vines. 

Determine the purpose of the food forest

Identify your goals from the food forest. Determine whether you intend to only plant food crops or crops for sale. List the plants you want to include in each layer. Research on how the plants benefit or harm each other. Check for the local species and invasive plants. Make sure you know the soil, water and light requirements for each plant. It is best to ensure that the plants benefit each other in the long term. 

Check the Local Laws

Check the local laws regarding growing trees and potentially expanding your food forest into walkways and over shared boundaries. Many residential areas have rules that govern specific tree heights for a lawn or backyard garden.

Local and state government zoning laws, and Homeowner Association regulations on growing certain plants will be essential in determining the diversity of crops in your food garden. Talk with the city council or neighborhood management about the legal requirements for a food forest. 

Clear your yard and compost

Begin by clearing your yard of debris like stones, grass and obstacles including paths. Till your yard with a hoe or hire a tiller to turn the soil. You will only need to do this once since disturbing the soil too often discourages the growth of useful organisms like earthworms and aslo leads to soil compaction.

sheet mulching
sheet mulch

Once you’ve tilled the soil, use sheet mulching to kill any weeds .

A food forest will take some time to establish but it will provide sustainable yields for a long time. Setting up a food forest should not be expensive, but it is time-consuming when starting out. It will be difficult to enrich the soil once the plants are mature. It is therefore essential to ensure that your soil has the right nutrients before planting.

You can mix organic compost that will support the growth of annual and perennial food crops. Food forests will thrive in poor soils as they begin the organic process of soil enrichment. However, if you need faster yields, the soil has to be rich to support quick growth and production. 

Plant your seeds and seedlings

After you finish planning, begin planting. For fruit trees, you should ideally plant them close together. Your backyard does not have a lot of space, meaning you have to maximize what is available. Trees growing together creates a microclimate that will favor the flourishing of other layers of your food forest. Here’s a list of crops to plant in your food forest.

Shade loving plants will thrive under the canopy of your tall fruit trees. Begin planting the hardiest plants, leaving a significant space between them. Once they begin maturing, plant smaller, and less hardy plants in between. For instance, you can plant creepers and climbers between fruit trees for support. You can incorporate low growing perennials and herbs in the available empty spaces. 

Create shelters for small animals 

brown wooden bird house on tree
Photo by Brett Sayles on

The food forest will likely attract insects and other small animals to your backyard. They are vital to the functioning of the natural ecosystem in your backyard. Ideally, you should provide small and simplistic homes to provide habitat for the creatures.

Incorporate ponds, trees for birds and squirrels, bird houses and bug hotels for the variety of animals that will frequent your backyard. Birds will focus on fruits and nuts and this could potentially impact your yield. Bug hotels will bring insects to the garden, which will be the main food source for birds and limit the damage to your crops. 

Set up irrigation

With time, a food forest will become self-sustaining. However, some crops will need a significant amount of water in the initial stages of germination. New plants require regular irrigation to support the establishment of root systems.

If you live in a hot and dry climatic area, you might have to find a reliable water source to facilitate your food forest in the initial stages. Drip irrigation is efficient and offers the best cost saving setup for a small food forest. 

Space management

You should use all available space in your backyard for the food forest. This means you have to incorporate the fences and other pathways. Plant low growing trees and shrubs along fences. However, you have to ensure that livestock and other animals cannot get to your edibles. This might diminish the quality and size of your yield.

Pear trees, citrus trees, avocados and plum trees can create good edible hedges. They will offer privacy, and protection from wind and the sun. However, you will have to prune them regularly to limit their expansion and encourage vertical growth. 

a pear on a tree
Photo by Brixiv on

Gravel paths and stepping stones offer permeability and allow water and oxygen to enter the soil and create a healthy foundation for roots. Permeable materials in path will encourage healthy soil life. 

Diversify your plants

In a backyard food forest, your main goal should be providing a self-sustaining food source for yourself and your family. This means including wild plants and other native species that will fulfill your nutritional needs.

On the other hand, if you intend to sell your produce, diversity can help you fetch a better price in the local market. Experiment with different crop varieties to find the ones that fit the aesthetic pattern of your backyard and nutritional benefits for the community.

Avoid invasive species as they may negatively affect your yield. Visit local nurseries to learn about edible plants, fruit trees, vegetables and nuts that can serve as great additions to your food forest. 

Seek professional help

Engage with people who have worked with food forests before. They can offer important insight on how best to manage your space, which plants are best for your backyard and how to improve your yield.

Find local food forest support groups or interact with experts who will help you to streamline your design and plan for the food forest. This is an especially important move if you intend to grow crops for commercial purposes in your backyard. Professional advice can go a long way towards establishing a productive food forest.

Check out these successful food forest projects.

A backyard food forest is self-sustaining and creates its own ecosystem. It provides habitat for local wildlife, food for pollinators and is a solution against soil erosion. A fully established food forest ensures food independence and replicates natural forests in a small space. The proper layering and plant choices will result in a food forest that will feed your family and benefit native animals and plants.