Why You Should Consider Transforming Part of Your Home Garden Into a Backyard Food Forest

Rethink the raised bed with straight rows of produce and turn your landscape into an edible oasis that mimics nature.

women working with cabbage plant in garden
Photo: Getty / alyfromuk2us

While you might be used to confining the edible portion of your garden to straight rows in a raised bed, there's another way to grow your favorite produce. A backyard food forest seeks to mimic nature—think: a more self-sustaining ecosystem than flat agricultural field. Using layered plantings, backyard forests offer plenty of food production, but also so much more, like food for pollinators, habitat for wildlife, and erosion control for your soil. While setting one up set up is more difficult than plotting out a rectangular bed, a food forest ultimately requires less maintenance over time. Ahead, everything you need to know about creating your own.

Think Small

You don't need acres of land to create a backyard food forest—in fact, this garden type can be any size, and can actually work in a small side yard or a sloped front. The trick is rethinking your landscape entirely: Don't confine edibles to one area, but rather weave them throughout the entire thing.

Cultivate Your Own Ecosystem

Beyond yielding plenty of food (like fruits, vegetables, herbs, and even nuts), backyard food forests have a myriad of positive effects on your garden as a whole. Certain plants add nitrogen back into the soil, replenishing it and reducing the need for fertilizer. Others have deep roots that can break up clay soil and improve its tilth. In general, having an area planted helps stop erosion and preserves soil structure. Another benefit? Cultivating a diverse flower and plant count draws all kinds of critters and creatures, from pollinators and pest-predators, like parasitic wasps, to (thanks to the variety of trees) birds. Don't fear wildlife—sharing your garden and watching your visitors can be one of the most enjoyable components of a backyard food forest.

Work in Layers

The trick to establishing a food forest is to break it down into layers; each tier has its own functionality, be it food, soil improvement, pollinator-attraction, animal and bird habitat, or medicine.

Layer One: Tall-Tree Tier

This is the tallest layer of your food forest, also known as the canopy. So long as you're not completely limited by space, a larger tree (or trees) can be an important part of the ecosystem. Think about it: The leaves they drop compost in the soil and become nutrients for the rest of the garden. Certain trees, like acacia and black locust, fix nitrogen, making them extra beneficial to the plants below.

Layer Two: Low-Tree Tier

Below the tallest layer of trees comes yet another—add in dwarf or smaller varieties. (If you're tight on space, you might skip the tall-tree layer altogether and use this one as your canopy.) Be careful not to plant these trees too close together, since you still want sunlight to permeate the rest of the garden. Great candidates for this layer include citrus, fig, and loquat trees.

Layer Three: Shrub Tier

This layer is next closest to the ground. Keep in mind that when you first plant your shrubs, they might very well be taller than the tree saplings next to them; over time, the trees will grow to shade them. When selecting your shrubs, look for shade tolerance labels to account for this. If you're main focus is food production, plants for the shrub layer include blueberries, currants, or elderberries. Rosemary and lavender are good candidates, too, and are both attractive to pollinators.

Layer Four: Herbaceous Tier

Non-woody plants—usually perennials—compose this tier. Most gardeners usually skip labor-intensive annuals (except for freely seeding ones) that need to be replanted every year. The options are nearly limitless for this layer: Borage, comfrey, and mullein are fantastic for soil improvement and pollinator attraction. Asparagus, artichokes, and perennial herbs are also tasty food choices.

Layer Five: Ground-Cover Tier

Though composed of the shortest and smallest plants in the garden, the ground cover layer is extremely important. The plants prevent erosions and suppress weeds. Because they'll quickly grow around and above tree saplings, you might start out with sun-loving ground covers and switch to more shade-loving options when the food forest is more established. It's also important to add a several-inches-deep layer of mulch to prevent weeds before the plants reach full size. Alfalfa, crimson clover, and vetch are go-to options for nitrogen fixing. Members of the mint or oregano families offer food, medicine, and pollinators; strawberries can't be beat for food.

Layer Six: Vine Tier

Wrapped around trunks or large stems, vines add beauty and even more function to the food forest. Any pea or bean adds nitrogen back into the soil. Grapes and kiwi offer fruit, as does Malabar spinach, which unlike traditional spinach, can survive in the hottest of climates.

Layer Seven: Root Tier

Don't forget about what goes on underneath the soil, too. Jerusalem artichokes produce edible tubers topped by sunflower-like flowers. Horseradish is a delicious root crop. Not quite roots, but somewhere in between, mushrooms are a great option—try inoculating your soil or mulch with fungi spores for edible mushrooms, a great choice in shady areas.

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