plan the food forest

If you want to establish a food forest or a permaculture orchard then the first thing you’ll have to do is decide what you want to grow.

Since there are many plant species you could choose you’ll need to narrow down your species choices to the most effective for your purpose. To do this you’ll need to consider your site’s conditions and other factors like plant functions, plant form and plant requirements.

Site conditions are the most important consideration in all of this as the site dictates what plants can grow there, and after you understand this, you then consider other factors. Eventually based on all these considerations you should end up a master list of plants you want to see in your food forest.

Note: this implementation guide has multiple spreadsheets and other resources attached as food forest plant selection is a huge subject. I wanted here to give you a framework and quick instructions on how to go through this process in an easiest possible way. For more information about this topic check the additional resources below.

What you’ll need?

Estimated time: 2h

STEP 1: Assess your site conditions

Your site conditions: climate, microclimate and soil, give you the first important filter when considering which plants to grow.

The plant species have a certain preference (full sun, acid soil, wet soil…), and can tolerate different conditions (drought, waterlogging, late frosts) so this is your first lens through which you must make your plant species selection. Your plants will almost certainly wither and die or grow poorly if you fail to obey “the rules of the game” that your site has set for you.

–>Action step: research and observe your site conditions —> identify your regional climate conditions, and site specific microclimate and soil conditions.

STEP 2: Consider plant-specific factors

After you identified your site conditions, there are some additional factors to consider when choosing plant varieties for your site. This is your second lens through which you make your plant selection.

A. Additional considerations when choosing fruit and nut varieties:

  • Locality

Locally adapted varieties are the best, as they will more likely be bred for a specific feature (e.g. local disease resistance) and because of this, they’ll generally be easier to grow. Choosing climate analogues, i.e. species that grow in similar climates but are not from your geographic area could work well as long as you obey step number 1.

  • Season of ripening

Different varieties ripen at different times and some varieties ripen over a longer period than others. You’ll have to decide whether you’re going to plant an early or late variety. This depends on when you want your crops to be ready for harvest.

  • Pollinators

Most commonly, grown fruits need pollen from a tree of another variety to pollinate them, as it is not possible to grow a single variety of these fruits on their own. Think about this when planning other tree-centered guilds in your food forest.

  • Size and shape of tree

This is influenced by how much space your guild can occupy and where it’s located within the food forest.

  • Taste

You want to grow things that you’re actually going to love to eat!

B. Additional factors to consider when choosing other perennials:

  • Function

  • Shade tolerance

Note: this is the ideal part of your food forest to experiment with, not only because the plants have a shorter lifespan than the trees and shrubs, but also because less is known about them.

–>Action step: Consider these plant-specific factors so that you better understand what type of plants you’ll need to choose in the next step.

STEP 3: Make a list of desirable plant species

Now based on the site assessment and the plant-specific factors choose the appropriate plants.

To make the selection use the pre-prepared plant list and online plant databases

A. Use the plant list to select desirable plant species

Few notes about the list:

  • Where applicable plants have a noted hardiness zone and tolerance/preference.
  • The plant list is divided into layers, so you’ll find individual sheets for canopy, sub- canopy, shrub, climbers, herbaceous and ground cover layers.
  • You can conduct your search based on functions you need them to fulfil; you’ll find that each plant has a plus sign under a specific function it performs.

B. Find out more details about the selected plants on the Plants for a Future database.

If you want a more thorough description of each of plant listed, use this database to find out more. In there you’ll find a suite of data about size, shape, preference, functions and other…

Some alternative databases you can use: TCPermaculture plant index and Practical Plants

–>Action step: Fill out this spreadsheet with plants you’ll want to grow in your food forest.

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