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How To Create A Permaculture Food Forest? What is it?

by Jonathan Foley
Published: Last Updated on
How To Create A Permaculture Food Forest

Permaculture food forest helps to mitigate the risks associated with climate change, pests, and diseases. In addition, they can provide a consistent and varied food supply throughout the year, reducing dependency on external sources and increasing community self-reliance.

What is Permaculture Food Forest?

Define: A Permaculture Food Forest, also known as a Forest Garden, is a system of gardening or agriculture that seeks to replicate the dynamics of a natural forest ecosystem but with plants chosen for their direct or indirect benefits to humans. These benefits often include food production but can also extend to medicinal uses, building materials, fuel, biodiversity support, and more.

The concept is grounded in the principles of permaculture, which is a design philosophy emphasizing the creation of sustainable, productive systems that are in harmony with nature.

Each layer of it supports and interacts with the others, creating a diverse, resilient, and productive system. Companion planting is often used to pair plants that benefit each other in terms of pest control, pollination, nutrient cycling, and other factors.


A well-designed system requires less maintenance over time than conventional gardens or farms, as the system is planned to self-perpetuate. After the initial work of design and planting, the main tasks are typically just harvesting and occasional light pruning or mulching.

This approach can be applied at many scales, from a small backyard garden to a large farm or community project. Its principles of sustainability, resilience, and harmony with nature make it an important tool for addressing challenges of food security and environmental degradation.

How to design and create a permaculture food forest?

Starting a Permaculture Food Forest involves thoughtful planning and implementation. The design typically follows a layered structure similar to a natural forest. These layers often include:

1. Observe and Analyze Your Site:
Every location has unique features, so start by understanding the particular conditions of your site. Pay attention to things like sun exposure, wind patterns, topography, soil quality, water access and drainage, existing vegetation, and local wildlife. Make note of potential challenges and opportunities. This will inform your design and plant selection.


How to design and create a permaculture food forest


2. Design Your Forest Garden:
Drawing on your site analysis, create a detailed plan for your garden. Begin with the canopy layer and work downwards. For each layer, consider what plants are suitable for your site, how they can support one another, and how they can contribute to your goals. Consider the space that each plant needs to grow, how long it takes to mature, and its specific needs in terms of light, water, and soil conditions.


3. Canopy Layer:
The canopy layer is made up of the tallest trees, typically fruit and nut trees. These trees provide shade and habitat, and their leaves can also provide mulch. Depending on your climate and soil, you might choose trees like apple, pear, walnut, or chestnut.

4. Understory Layer:
The understory layer is the shorter trees that thrive under the partial shade of the canopy. These are often smaller fruit trees or nitrogen-fixing trees that help to enrich the soil. Examples might include peach trees, fig trees, or black locust for nitrogen fixing.

5. Shrub Layer:
This layer includes berry bushes and other productive shrubs. Depending on your site, you might plant things like blueberries, currants, or hazelnuts.

6. Herbaceous Layer:
Herbaceous plants are the non-woody plants that make up the bulk of a traditional vegetable garden. In a forest garden, these can include perennials like rhubarb and asparagus, as well as herbs like mint, rosemary, and chives.

7. Ground Cover Layer:
Ground cover plants help to protect the soil and conserve water. These can be low-growing food plants like strawberries, or other plants that provide beneficial services like suppressing weeds or attracting beneficial insects.

8. Rhizosphere or Root Layer:
Root crops can be integrated into it. Some root crops to consider include carrots, potatoes, and garlic.

9. Vertical Layer:
The vertical layer is made up of climbers and vines that grow up trellises, trees, or other vertical supports. These might include food plants like grapes, kiwi, or climbing beans.

10. Implementation:
Begin implementing your design by preparing the site, which may involve clearing unwanted vegetation, improving the soil, or creating infrastructure like paths or water systems. Then you can begin planting, starting with the trees and working your way down through the layers.

Tips for growing food in a permaculture forest

11. Maintenance and Evolution:
It will require less maintenance over time than a traditional garden, but it will still need some care, especially in the early years. This might include watering, pruning, mulching, and protecting young plants from pests. As your forest garden matures, you can also continue to observe, learn, and refine your system.

Tips for growing food in a permaculture forest

A forest garden models its design after a natural woodland ecosystem but substitutes in edible trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. Here are some tips for growing food in a permaculture food forest:

  1. Understand the Seven Layers: The standard permaculture design involves seven layers: the canopy layer, low-tree layer (dwarf fruit trees), shrub layer, herbaceous layer, ground cover layer, rhizosphere or root layer, and the vertical layer (vines and climbers). Each layer is a chance to grow a different type of plant. For instance, you can grow taller fruit and nut trees in the canopy layer, and then below that have a layer of dwarf fruit trees, and below that, shrubs such as berries.
  2. Permaculture Zones: Before you start designing, understand the concept of permaculture zones. Zone 0 is your home, zone 1 is the area of your property you visit daily, zone 2 is visited less frequently, and so on until zone 5, which is a wild area visited infrequently. You should place elements in your permanent agriculture forest according to how much attention they need and how often you need to harvest them. For instance, salad greens that you pick daily should be closer to your home (zone 1), while a fruit tree that only needs to be harvested once a season can be further away.
  3. Plan with Succession in Mind: In nature, ecosystems evolve over time through a process called succession. It can mimic this process. Start with pioneer species that improve soil conditions and prepare for less hardy species. Over time, as your system becomes more stable, you can introduce other plants that would naturally come later in succession.
  4. Utilize Companion Planting: Certain plants, when grown together, can help each other with pest control, providing nutrients, providing physical support, and more. The “Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) is a classic example. The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil for the other two plants, and the squash provides ground cover to prevent the growth of weeds.
  5. Optimize Water Usage: Plan your permanent agriculture forest to capture and hold water as much as possible. This could involve contouring the land to guide rainwater to where it’s needed or using a technique like hugelkultur to store water in large mounds of wood and organic material.
  6. Attract Beneficial Insects and Animals: Incorporate plants that attract pollinators and predatory insects that will help manage pests. You might also consider elements like birdhouses or bat boxes to encourage their presence.
  7. Practice Patience: It isn’t built in a day, a season, or even a year. It will take time for your system to grow and evolve. But with patience, observation, and ongoing learning, you’ll be rewarded with a diverse and resilient system that provides a bounty of food.
  8. Continuous Learning and Observation: It is not a “set it and forget it” kind of project. It’s a complex, evolving system that requires ongoing care and observation. You’ll need to monitor how your plants are growing, how wildlife interacts with your forest, and how seasons and weather patterns affect it.

Remember, it is unique because it should be adapted to the specific climate, soil, and conditions of the site. The design process should involve careful observation and thought about how to best work with nature in your specific context.

Benefits of permaculture food forest

It offer a multitude of benefits that make them a sustainable and efficient approach to food production. Here are some key advantages:

1. Biodiversity: They are designed to mimic natural ecosystems, incorporating a diverse range of plant species. This promotes biodiversity, creating habitats for various organisms such as insects, birds, and beneficial microorganisms. A high level of biodiversity helps maintain ecological balance and resilience.

Benefits of permaculture food forest

2. Food production: They are highly productive systems that can provide a significant amount of food in a relatively small area. By utilizing vertical space and incorporating plants with different growth habits and functions, they maximize the use of sunlight, water, and nutrients, resulting in a higher yield per unit area.

3. Nutrient cycling: They follow the permaculture principle of “closing the loop.” They emphasize recycling organic matter, such as fallen leaves, prunings, and plant residues, back into the system. This practice helps build soil fertility by promoting nutrient cycling and reducing the need for external inputs like synthetic fertilizers.

4. Soil health and erosion prevention: They employ various techniques to improve soil health, including mulching, composting, and planting nitrogen-fixing plants. This enhances soil structure, moisture retention, and nutrient availability, fostering a rich and fertile environment. The dense vegetation cover them also helps prevent soil erosion by reducing runoff and retaining water.

5. Water conservation: Through careful planning and the use of techniques like swales, rainwater harvesting, and mulching, it optimize water usage. The diverse plantings create a microclimate that reduces water evaporation, while the soil-building practices enhance water infiltration and retention. This results in more efficient water use and less dependency on irrigation.

6. Climate resilience: They are designed to be resilient to climate variability and extreme weather events. The diverse plant species and strong ecological connections within the system contribute to its ability to withstand and recover from disturbances. By building resilience, they help mitigate the impacts of climate change on food production.

7. Carbon sequestration: They act as carbon sinks, absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. The diverse vegetation, with its extensive root systems and continuous plant growth throughout the year, contributes to long-term carbon sequestration. This helps mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations.

8. Community engagement and education: They are often community-led initiatives that bring people together around a shared goal of sustainable food production. They provide opportunities for education, skill-sharing, and community involvement in the cultivation and management of the forest. They can also serve as outdoor classrooms, promoting ecological literacy and inspiring future generations to embrace sustainable practices.

It’s important to note that while these benefits are generally associated with permaculture food forests, the specific outcomes can vary depending on the local climate, soil conditions, and management practices.

What are the challenges of permaculture forests?

Permaculture forest, also known as forest gardening, is a concept that mimics the natural ecosystems to create sustainable agricultural landscapes. While they hold great potential for resilient food production and environmental conservation, they are not without their challenges. Here are some of the major challenges to implementing and maintaining them:

What are the challenges of permaculture forests

Design Complexity: Creating a permaculture food forest requires careful planning and intricate system. Each plant, animal, and fungi must be selected and placed in the forest in a way that takes advantage of its unique traits and contributions to the ecosystem. This level of complexity can be daunting and time-consuming.

Knowledge and Skills Gap: Permaculture farming requires a diverse set of skills and deep understanding of the natural world. One must understand the interactions between different plants, how to compost, how to harvest water, how to manage pests naturally, and much more. Many people interested in permanent agriculture don’t have these skills initially and face a steep learning curve.

Long-Term Commitment: Unlike conventional agriculture, the benefits of a permanent agriculture forest come over the long-term, as the ecosystem evolves and matures. It might take several years before a permaculture food forest starts producing a diverse and substantial yield. This long-term commitment can be a deterrent for those seeking quicker returns.

Regulation and Zoning Issues: In some areas, regulations and zoning laws might become barriers to starting food forest. Some practices, like water harvesting or keeping certain animals, might not be allowed in all areas. There might also be restrictions on the kinds of plants you can grow, especially if they are non-native or potentially invasive.

Initial Investment: Depending on the scale, starting a permaculture forest can require a significant initial investment. One needs to acquire land, source plants and seeds, and possibly make changes to the landscape for water management. There might also be costs for education and consultation.

Pest and Disease Management: In a diverse ecosystem, there will always be pests and diseases. In a permaculture farming system, the idea is to balance these out naturally without the use of chemical pesticides and fungicides. However, this is easier said than done, and it can be challenging to find the right balance.

Climate Change Impacts: The changing climate is a significant challenge for all forms of agriculture, including permaculture. Increases in temperature, changing rainfall patterns, and more frequent extreme weather events can all have devastating impacts on a permanent agriculture forest.

Despite these challenges, many individuals and communities are successfully implementing them around the world. These systems have the potential to provide diverse yields, enrich local biodiversity, and contribute to a more sustainable and resilient food system. As with any undertaking, success in permanent agriculture comes with time, patience, knowledge, and adaptability.

What is the future of permaculture forest farming?

The future is intertwined with our collective response to environmental, social, and food-related challenges. As we grow in our understanding of Earth’s systems and our place within them, the potential of these vibrant, life-sustaining ecosystems becomes increasingly evident. Undoubtedly, we stand on the cusp of a green revolution with permaculture food forests playing a central role.

What is the future of permaculture forests

Urban Adaptation: Urban permaculture is expected to grow as cities become more populated. The idea of creating food forests in urban settings can bring local, fresh, and sustainable food directly to urban residents. As technology advances, the implementation of vertical gardening and other innovative designs will further allow these permanent agriculture forests to thrive in smaller, urban spaces.

Regenerative Agriculture: Permaculture forests are part of a larger movement towards regenerative agriculture, which focuses on improving the land it uses. The potential of these forests to sequester carbon, enhance soil fertility, and restore degraded landscapes, could prove crucial in the collective human effort to reverse environmental damage.

Policy and Support: Currently, one of the challenges facing it is its recognition and support in agricultural and environmental policies. As we move towards a more sustainable future, it’s likely that more governments and organizations will incorporate and support permaculture practices, leading to its wider adoption.

Examples of successful food forests

Certainly, there are several successful examples of permaculture forests around the world, where individuals, communities, or organizations have harnessed its principles to create sustainable and self-sufficient food systems. These projects often aim to mimic natural forest ecosystems while maximizing food production.

1. The Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, USA: This project, located on a 7-acre plot, is an example of a community-driven farm. Volunteers work to plant and maintain a variety of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and other edible plants. It operates on permanent agriculture ethics, ensuring a diverse, sustainable, and resilient system that provides food and education for the local community.

2. Martin Crawford’s Forest Garden in Devon, UK: Martin Crawford is a pioneer in the field of forest gardening. His own permanent agriculture forest in Devon spans around two acres and includes more than 500 edible plants. He also runs the Agroforestry Research Trust, a non-profit dedicated to researching and teaching about agroforestry and permaculture.

3. The PermaTree in Ecuador: This tropical permaculture farm is an excellent example of implementing permanent agriculture principles in a tropical environment. They focus on a mix of bamboo and tropical fruits, using dynamic agroforestry concepts and strategies. Besides their work on food production, PermaTree also engages in numerous eco-social projects.

4. Zaytuna Farm in New South Wales, Australia: This farm is home to the Permaculture Research Institute, led by permaculture co-originator Geoff Lawton. It showcases its principles in a variety of climates and settings. The permaculture food forest at Zaytuna Farm is a thriving ecosystem of various fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and more.

Examples of successful food forests

Zaytuna Farm in New South Wales, Australia

5. Edible Garden City in Singapore: As an urban food garden project, Edible Garden City aims to ‘grow food in the city, for the city’. While it’s not it in the traditional sense due to its urban setting, it utilizes permanent agriculture principles in creating productive landscapes in small spaces, rooftops, and under-utilized urban areas. They have successfully proven that urban areas can be turned into sustainable food sources.

6. The Sonoma Permaculture in California, USA: This farm aims to demonstrate how land stewardship can be combined with productive agriculture. They have food forests, annual gardens, animals, aquaculture systems, and more. They are well-known for their demonstration of ‘keyline design’, an agricultural technique that maximizes beneficial use of water resources within a landscape.

Each of these examples illustrates the ways in which permaculture principles can be applied to create sustainable, resilient, and productive food systems. They also show the versatility of permanent agriculture, with successful projects in a range of climates and settings, from urban rooftops to rural farms.


In conclusion, permaculture food forest offer a sustainable and regenerative approach to food production that can address multiple challenges facing our current agricultural systems. This innovative system mimics natural ecosystems while providing abundant yields of diverse food crops, supporting biodiversity, conserving resources, and enhancing ecological resilience. One of the key benefits is its ability to create a self-sustaining ecosystem.

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