What Is a Food Forest? How It Works

A food forest is a garden plan that mimics the ecosystem and growth patterns of a natural forest as a means toward organic, sustainable and profitable food production.

This can involve leveraging an existing forest to gradually integrate edible plants, and increase the biodiversity and sustainability of food production systems.

Food forests are three-dimensional, whereby life extends in all directions up, down, and out. 

The 7 layers of a food forest

There are seven basic layers of a food forest:

1. Overstory

Also called the canopy, it consists of fruits and nut trees that require exposure to sunlight throughout the day. These include pecans, chestnuts, and walnuts. These trees can grow to a height of 50ft.

pecan tree-overstory food forest

2. Understory

Lower tree layer, is composed of small fruit trees and nut trees like filberts.  The trees are shade tolerant and will produce fruit under partial shade. They include American persimmon and black mulberry. 

3. Shrub layer

Consists of fruiting shrubs which thrive in partial shade conditions such as elderberries, honeyberry, serviceberries, Aronia, and huckleberry. 


4. Herbaceous layer

Made up of perennial culinary herbs such as oregano, lavender, sage, and mint. It encompasses all leafy plants that remain dormant during winter and resprout during spring. You can also plant vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus, and rhubarb. 

food forest

5. Root layer

Also known as the rhizosphere. It consists of root crops, mainly annuals. Annuals only appear on this layer, if the sun is available. 

carrot plants
carrot shoots

6. Ground cover layer

The soil layer is made up of horizontally spreading cover crops such as alpine strawberries, which tolerate shade; watercress, which requires wet soil; nasturtiums, which have edible flowers and leaves. 

7. Vine layer

Comprises edible vines such as passion fruit, kiwis, and grapes. Shade tolerant specimens such as groundnuts, akebia, and chayote can also be considered for this layer. 

passion fruit vine- food forest
passion fruit vine

How does a food forest work?

Food forests place emphasis on trees, shrubs, perennials, and self-seeding annuals. You plant thickly and use ground covers to protect the soil from direct sunlight and suppress the growth of weeds. 

Choose the right plants

The first step to developing a food forest is choosing plants. Identify plants that thrive in full sunlight and those that require shady conditions.

Ideally, it is best to plant in late winter or when the ground thaws. Edible trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and vines are sold in bare form, and thus the roots have a more natural structure and are likely to thrive in your garden.

Incorporate nitrogen-fixing and nutrient-accumulating plants and once they shed their leaves and decompose, they return these nutrients to the land to create healthy soil.

Prepare your land and weed

The next step is the preparation of the ground. You should select an open, sunny location for your food forest.

Eliminate weeds, grass, or other vegetation before planting. This is done manually or by smothering through a sheet of mulch. Mulching is vital in keeping the soil moist, improving soil quality, and providing habitat for beneficial animals. 

You do not need to till the earth or form beds like in a conventional vegetable garden. Dig a hole for each plant, just as you would do when planting trees.

Here’s a guide on how to grow a food forest in your backyard.

Retain water

Use ground shaping techniques like swells and natural ponds to keep rainwater on-site and design plant placements to create micro-climates and windbreaks. 


The next step is planting. If you are in the northern hemisphere, place your canopy plants at the northern end of your forest area, with the plants getting progressively smaller towards the south.

Do the reverse if you live in the southern hemisphere. This ensures that the taller plants do not cast a shade over the smaller plants, especially at the beginning and tail end of the growing season. 

Shade tolerant plants can be planted throughout the forest garden. Consider saving the sun-loving annual vegetables for the edges of your food forest. You should plant sun-loving species in the open spaces between trees in their early stages of development. When the trees are fully matured, replace with shade-tolerant plants. 


The diversity of crops in a food forest attracts pollinators like birds and bees and manages the growth of pest populations and their potential for causing damage. 

Managing a food forest

Food forests flourish on the idea that natural forests thrive without human interference. They provide a bountiful yield, grow well, and will flourish without needing outside management.

You plant your crops intentionally, but leave the forest to grow on its own, allowing the layers to interact with each other to enhance growth, reduce pests and ensure health. 

You do not have to replant the food forests every year. Once it has established itself, it is very resilient to animals and other forces of nature. Deer and rabbits might feed on some herbaceous plants, but others will repel them.

Perennials in a food forest have healthy underground systems and will therefore grow back after damage to the ground cover and herbaceous layers by humans and wildlife. 

Looking for inspiration? Here is a list of successful food forests.

Is a food forest sustainable?

Yes, food forests are self-sustaining. They contribute to a diverse food system with perennial crops and recreational offerings of food and ecology. Other than the initial costs of setting up, you won’t need to do much in terms of labor and inputs after the first few years.

According to research by Albrecht, S., & Wiek, A (2021), the combination of companion planting, together with plant diversity means that food forests are low maintenance, resilient, highly productive, and can meet the caloric and nutrient needs of large numbers of people on limited space and minimal labor. 

What is the difference between a forest and a food forest?

A forest is a large tract of land filled with trees that usually grow naturally and is not mainly used for food while a food forest is man-made and specifically grown for food.

In a forest, some trees have edible berries and nuts which are beneficial to wildlife and humans. A forest is completely self-sustaining and does not require human intervention for weed control or maintenance. 

A food forest has seven layers, designed to replenish themselves annually. They don’t allow weed growth, are great for insects, and do not need to be replanted every year. You pick fruits from food forests occasionally, so there is some level of human intervention involved. 

Can food forests feed the world?

Yes, food forests can feed the world as the practice is scalable. Food forests have high yields, offer more diversity, and do not require maintenance.

They do not require the use of industrial chemicals for weed and pest control. Their resilience and natural connection provide a wealth of food for a growing population.

Food forests offer high nutritional value with less labor and financial inputs. They can help improve food security and food quality, especially in areas where community food forests are plentiful. 

Food forests build natural ecosystems full of life, containing plants of our choice that can look after themselves. They can be a dependable food source for decades. 


Food forests emulate forests but only with crops and trees planted by humans. They mimic a forest ecosystem, enabling resilient crops, greater biodiversity, and sustainability. They are self-maintaining and do not need pesticides, weeding, tilling, or crop rotation. Food forests are a good alternative to traditional agricultural practices which have heavy environmental impacts. 

Food forests lead to increased harvests, better soil quality, and high nutritional value for humans and wildlife. Their use of perennial plants, filling all available plant niches, and taking advantage of vertical growing spaces make them the preferred sustainable farming method for modern large-scale food production.