How to establish a Food Forest

Overall view

Howdy !
Like for many, 2020 didn’t really go as expected and most of my ambitions for Permaculture Journeys had to be put aside for a long while. But 2021 is finally around the corner and will hopefully bring about new beginnings !
So let’s kick things in with a new blog post, and an exciting one please !

Food Forests have definitely been a theme for me in 2020. From an advanced Permaculture Design Course on the subject which includes an ongoing design work for a client and future implementation, to the creation of a tiny food forest during my time in France, and an upcoming project about a 30-acre system to be part of a real estate development, I’ve had the opportunity to explore this wonderful topic further.

About Food Forests

Agroforestry, syntropic farming, forest gardens and food forests are becoming increasingly popular, and for all the right reasons. They are rich, biodiverse, stable and resilient ecosystems. They also represent the climax, i.e. mature stage of most natural ecosystems on Earth, so they’re the perfect example of what we’re trying to achieve in permaculture.
Moreover, they are amongst the best solutions to fight against climate change. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read my blog posts on landscape regeneration and on biodiversity which both talk about the importance of trees. These are truly spectacular beings indeed.

Here I want to share how I designed, prepared and planted a 60-ish sqm food forest within a 800 sqm (1/5 of an acre) property in mediterranean climate, France.

Step 1: Design

Location / Exposure:
The best is to select a place that is in full sun for optimal growth, however it’s also okay if the area gets a decent amount of sunlight hours per day, including in winter time. Here in my design we can see a couple of the trees are behind the house in its Northeast corner, but that’s okay since in winter they will still catch the sunlight up from sunrise till it goes to its south-south-west (SSW) point. And in summer the sun is high enough to light everything pretty much all day.

Here the main factor from the standpoint of infrastructure is the power line that runs 8m above the ground above the northeast corner of the house. So whatever is planted underneath cannot grow higher than 6m to be in the safe side. Here we decided upon the apricot tree and the feijoa. The cherry tree is sufficiently ex-centered from the power line trajectory to not be a concern should it reach a decent height.

The other factor was a consideration of time, money and effort to maintain the forest. Indeed, the tenant is my mum and she’s not so keen on garden work in general. She doesn’t mind seeking the services of a gardener, but only on occasion. Moreover, any wilderness ought to remain inviting and feel safe. For these reasons, I included low-maintenance and mostly perennial crops, a simple irrigation system and a walking path in the design. This means the only costs for gardening services will be to prune the trees once a year, and maybe whipper-snip a little to freshen-up the looks of the ground and herbaceous layers.

7 Layers:
Talking about layers, we usually count 7 of them in a natural forest.

  1. Canopy layer or Tall trees
  2. Sub-canopy layer
  3. Shrubs
  4. Herbaceous
  5. Ground cover
  6. Rhizomes (root vegetables)
  7. Climbers & Vines

We can see I included all 7 of them in the design. Of course this is only a schematic view with the initial species that I planted, but as the trees grow and the system develops, we can add more plants and therefore increase the biodiversity further.

Food Forest Design

Species Selection:
I only had space for about 5-6 trees and I wanted a mix of fruits and nuts. Also, I needed plants that can tolerate harsh sun in summer and strong cold winds in winter. I chose almond and hazelnut for nuts, and prune, apricot, fig, feijoa and cherry for fruits. These would constitute my top and sub-canopy layers.
From there, it’s easy to fill-out the remaining space: I got some medicago, caryopteris and caragana as nitrogen-fixing shrubs. They are also native to the region, attract pollinators (Caryopteris), provide edible pods (Caragana) and bring different colours to the area (Caryopteris has purple flowers, Medicago orange and Caragana yellow).
For the herbaceous and ground layers, I wanted a mix of green manures to feed my trees and edibles, so I got phacelia, clover and mustard plus some garlic chives, perennial leek and creeping verbena. Note that the clover and verbena are also used as alternative lawn and tolerate trampling.
I wasn’t too inspired for a perennial root layer that fit the climatic conditions so I simply put some beetroots in as we already had seeds and we’ve eaten them over the following months. I might think of something better at some stage.
And last, I’m not supposed to plant the climbers around the trees until they’re big enough, so I just planted a Passiflora incarnata onto the wire-netting. It will form a vegetal fence and produce beautiful flowers and passionfruits.

Before planting your trees, it’s important to find-out what their width will be once they’re fully grown. The idea is plant them not too close and not too far apart from each other as to form a canopy. It’s okay to have a few spots where the light can come in through the canopy, but we still want to aim for a fair amount of shade under it and the effect of a somewhat dense forest.

Step 2: Preparation Work

The first step before we started anything was to wire-fence the property. This was done last year as part of the general garden work. The fencing protects the future food forest from the too many boars that roam the area these days. This imbalance in the ecosystems is a result of hunters who have bred boars with pigs in the past, and now a sow will give birth to 6-12 babies per litter while they were 2-6 before. 

Then, because the soil was poor (former vineyard / monoculture), rocky, pretty hard (clay) and with a depth of only 80cm to a meter, I decided to make some amendments so the food forest would have the best chances of surviving harsh conditions and little ongoing care, as well as to boost tree growth. I had already obtained spectacular results in the front yard by moving one cherry tree in a permaculture bed while another remained in its original spot, and the former is already 3m tall in just 2 years while the latter is still about 1.75m high.
After clearing-up the weeds (that were 60-100cm high as in the first picture) and decompacting the ground, we integrated some materials that were available locally and for free (3rd picture). Here, a mix of 6-12 months old sheep and horse manure (rich in nitrogen), plus some wood mulch and vegetal debris (rich in carbon). We also left the weeds we had whipper-snipped for extra-nutrients. We then mixed-up and spread-out everything together to obtain an homogenous render, ready for planting.

Soil Amendments

Step 3: Planting

After placing each plant at their final spot and ensuring the result would look satisfying, we started digging the tree holes with a backhoe. The ideal size is 2-3 times deeper and wider than the root ball so the roots have enough space to expand in a welcoming environment. You can see in the 1st picture that I made sure to mix up some of the manure, wood debris, plus some potting substrate and compost to the soil. This is to obtain an optimal texture, oxygen pockets and plenty of nutrients for the tree to grow in. We repeated the operation for every tree and watered-down generously.

As mentioned earlier, some species will be planted much later. This includes for instance the shade-tolerant species that will come only when the trees have formed a canopy, and other vines such as the kiwi fruit that will be planted at the foot of the bigger trees like the almond or fig, once their trunk will have reached a decent size. 

After planting every single plant and according to our design, I created the walking path. I wanted to keep it fairly organic so I merely raked a clean path, added some geotextile, then a thick layer of wood mulch and extra pine chips on top. This will slow-down the growth and spread of weeds on the path but I expect it will likely disappear in a few years, and that’s okay.

Tree Hole
Walkiing Path in progress
Plum Tree
Walking Path in progress
Walking Path Complete

Step 4: Planned Irrigation & Maintenance

I applied a deep watering regime during the first months, especially as I planted my trees in early summer. The timing was of course far from ideal but I wasn’t there earlier so I had no choice. Deep-watering means providing a lot of water, enough to sink-down deep in the soil, and at less regular intervals. Here I watered them with a gentle flow for a 1-2 hours every 2 weeks, even with daily temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius. This encourages the roots to go deep down where it is cooler and moist. If on the other hand you only water-hose a few minutes every day, the moisture will stay on the surface and the roots will follow. So it is very important in a hot and semi-arid climate to do things right in the beginning.
After summer I no longer watered the trees since seasonal rains should be enough to keep the plants happy until next year.
And for next summer, I have implemented an automated sprinkler system so Mum will only have to plug the hose in and turn the water on. We will apply the same deep-watering regime, i.e. leave the sprinker on for a few hours every 2-3 weeks. 
Normally, after 3-4 years the trees will be resilient enough and will no longer need irrigation, except in case of extreme weather.

Mowing / Whipper-snipping:
Only occasionally to tidy-up a little as desired, or to cut-down the green manures and feed the soil in spring time, or to prevent invasive species to go to seed after flowering. Again, this is an activity for the first couple of years only.

Weeding was necessary the first 3-4 months until the ground cover grew but should now be self-maintaining as mustard and clover are smothering plants and will prevent new growth. Occasional weeding may still be beneficial as needed.

Ít is not really necessary to touch the trees the first 3 years as they were already pruned and given the right shape when we bought them. Except, that said, if we want to boost the fruit production of cherries for instance, but otherwise I’d rather leave them alone to establish roots and grow quickly the first couple of years.

Clover & Phacelia
Plum in autumn
Overall view


As Mediterranean summers are really hot and dry and trees do not really grow during the hotter months, I reckon it will take 3-4 years to start resembling something, i.e. clearly notice the trees in the landscape, and about 7-10 years for the canopy to form.
It is a work of patience but the results are well worth it and will benefit the wildlife and humans for many generations to come.

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