A food forest is a permaculture zone-2 growing system that mimics the structure of a natural forest. It’s made from a variety of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials grown together in many different layers.

Usually the main water strategy of a food forest is swales. But since swales follow natural contour lines, in a very complex terrain the layout of your food forest rows won’t be uniform.

If you want to have a layout that conforms to uniform rows, you can opt-in for food forest without swales. You can then decide on the general pattern of your food forest yourself. The terrain will dictate whether that’s going to be rows that are in straight lines or on approximate contours.

Water across this type of a food forest is usually distributed by a network of irrigation pipes.

What you’ll need?

  • Big sheet of paper and a drawing pen or computer drawing software
  • Google Earth desktop version

Estimated time: 1h

STEP 1: Choose the general patten for the food forest

First, you’ll have to decide on the general pattern of your orchard, whether you’ll have your trees in rows that are in straight lines or on approximate contours.

This all depends on your terrain, and a general recommendation is that, as soon as you’re on a slope, you should follow the approximate contours.

Image below: David Holmgren’s permaculture orchard following approximate contours.

Note: If you were to follow the real contours of your land with each of your rows, the width between your rows would start to vary, and, depending on your terrain, sometimes significantly…That’s why in order to get uniformity between the rows we need to stick to the terrain’s contours only approximately.

–>Action step: Choose the general pattern of your food forest based on yor terrain shape.

STEP 2: Mark the reference row

Now that you know what the general pattern of your permaculture orchard will be, let’s see how to create the layout.

For this you’ll need to find your reference line; an original row that all other rows will be referenced against…

On a flat site, this can be a line adjacent to the fence, on sloped land use a contour line mid-way up the slope.

–>Action Step: Mark the reference row

Now you have your reference line.

STEP 3: Decide on the distance between the rows

The spacing between rows primarily depends on the type of trees you’ll be growing and the size of equipment you’ll use. The bigger the trees and the equipment to maintain and harvest, the more space you’ll need between the trees.

The distance between the rows is generally somewhere between 10 – 30 feet (3 – 9 meters).

For example, a tree on a dwarf rootstock will spread only 8 feet (2.5 meters) in diameter and 10 feet (3 meters) in size. To manage an orchard made of trees on dwarf rootstock, you might need a smaller tractor, so the distance between the rows can be as little as 13 feet (4 meters).

Trees on vigorous (standard) rootstocks can grow up to 30 feet (9 meters) or more in height and width, requiring bigger machinery to maintain, so the distance between the rows should be at least 30 feet (9 meters) or more.

When in doubt, opt for the wider spacing. As a rule of thumb use 1.5 times the spacing that you have chosen for trees within the row.

STEP 4: Outline the final layout

Now that you have a reference line and you know the spacing between the rows, you can outline the layout of your permaculture orchard.

Copy-paste the reference line across the whole width of the designated growing area.

–>Action Step: Use the row spacing as your guide and create a set of regularly spaced rows.

STEP 5: Define access points and water irrigation lines

Finally, outline the orchard’s access points and irrigation pipes that will supply the supplementary water to your orchard.


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