Layers of a Food Forest
Food forests have grown in popularity recently. And what’s not to love? An interconnected system of food producing shrubs, plants and trees is any gardeners dream. But people have questions. For example, what are the different layers of a food forest? They also ask:
- How many layers are there?
- Why is each layer important?
- Which plants are best for each layer?
This post will begin to answer these questions. It will also set up a series of posts that will look in detail at each level of the food forest.
How Many Layers are there in a Food Forest?
The standard food forest has 7 levels.
These range from vegetables that grow in the soil to tall trees. In between you can find a mix of small shrubs, dwarf fruit and nut trees and climbing plants.
However, some permaculturists have argued that there are actually 9 levels.
These additional levels include an aquatic and fungal area. Good arguments have been made for both. However, for the purposes of this post we will be focussing on the main 7 layers.
What are the Different Layers of a Food Forest?
As you can see the 7 layers of a food forest are:
- Overstory Layer (Canopy) – Large fruit and nut trees.
- Understory Layer (Lower-Canopy) – Small dwarf fruit and nut trees.
- Shrub Layer – Fruit berry bushes and some medicinal plants.
- Herbaceous Layer – Perennial vegetables and herbs.
- Ground Cover Layer – Plants that grow across the ground.
- Underground Layer – Root vegetables and tubers.
- Climber Layer – Climbers and vines that grow up vertically.
Keep reading to see which plants are best for each layer!
Why is Each Layer Important?
Each layer in a food forest is important. However, it doesn’t mean you need to have every layer. For example, those with smaller spaces are unlikely to be able to have a 30 foot tree in their garden. You can have just two layers. It’s called two-storey agriculture.
Nonetheless, the more layers you have the closer you will become to having a complete food forest.
The more layers you have, the more productive the forest is likely to be. That’s why each extra layer you have is important. Each layer brings its own benefits to the system as a whole. I’ll share the specific importance of each layer in future blog posts (sign up to our newsletter not to miss them!).
However, this doesn’t mean you can just add any plants to a layer. Some plants are happier and more productive when planted alongside others. This is called companion planting. I’ll do a post on this soon. In the meantime, check out this great companion planting guide.
Which Plants Are Best for Each Layer?
The following tables list just some of the plants, trees and shrubs that are suitable for each level of a food forest. Bear in mind that this list is far from exhaustive. It’s just to give you an idea. Also, don’t forget that some plants sit on the border between two layers. Decisions related to this form part of the food forest design process.
Food Forests: To Summarise
Food forests typically comprise of 7 layers of different trees, shrubs and plants. Although, they can successfully have less layers.
Each layer is important. The most productive food forests have layers that not only produce something of need but compliment other layers too. This can occur in a number of ways. For example, some plants deter pests. Others attract pollinators. A successful food forest works with nature not against it.
Food forests are truly wonderful. Get yours started with a lemon tree by learning how to grow a lemon tree from a seed!
If you had never considered starting a food forest, it’s time you reconsider.
This post launches a new Pathway to Permaculture blog series on food forests. Sign up to our newsletter to be notified of new blog posts!