Site Clearing

Site clearing refers to clearing the land from vegetation in preparations for growing food forests, orchards and gardens.

The scope and size of the site clearing project depends on the current succession stage and type of vegetation growing. Young trees, shrubs, vines of the early succession will be relatively easy to clear, while heavily forested areas with bigger trees are much harder to deal with.

This guide outlines the practical strategy of clearing your land from a permaculture perspective without the use of heavy machinery. Creating a blank canvas with heavy machinery (e.g. bulldozers) and removing the topsoil, stumps and roots from the ground while compacting the soil is affecting the soil in a negative way. It leads to loss of organic matter and soil biology, and can cause erosion issues. If you can help it avoid doing this.

For some commercial food growing projects and construction sites this might be appropriate way to clear the land, but in all other cases leaving the topsoil intact and woody material in the ground and on-site is much more advantageous.

That said, land clearing probably won’t be quick and easy DIY project that you can accomplish in a day, it will take time, effort and know-how. Especially if the terrain shape is challenging..

You could do a lot of things on your own, but you might also want to look for outside help with the project. If you decide to hire a contractor to take care of some aspects of the land clearing for you, use the strategy outlined below to navigate the best outcome for your land.

Note: you don’t want to clear any land that’s steeper than 12% to be able to cultivate food forests, orchards, garden unless you’re planning on using an appropriate erosion prevention systems, such as terraces.

What you’ll need?

Tools & Equipment:

  • PPE
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Chainsaw
  • String Trimmer/Weed Wacker
  • Axe
  • Pruning Tools (Shears, saws, and loppers)
  • Truck / tractor


  • Epsom salt
  • Fungal compost


Part 1. Planning

STEP 1: Check permits

Before you proceed with land clearing, check with your local county extension office to determine if you need any permits.

Depending on where you live there might be specific concerns about native vegetation, soil erosion or other factors that impact land clearing.

STEP 2: Size up the project

When you decide to clear land, you want to know what you’re going to do before you start with the project. This is important so that you know the size of the project, what jobs you could handle yourself and what you might outsource, and what are the available woody resources.

  • First take a walk around the area and size up the situation. Identify the size of the project and type of vegetation growing so that you better understand the needs of the project – the time, tools and know-how.
  • Second, observe the topography of the land. Note the locations of steep slopes, valleys and dips, large rocks and boulders, flat areas. This will help you determine the accessibility with machines and equipment you plan on using.
  • Third, check the trees for their value – can you use them for firewood, lumber, poles, fence posts…

If necessary, in this stage you can divide the land into sections so that you can focus on one of these at a time, as this will make the project more manageable. It’s not a good idea to cut down everything at once if you don’t have the capacity to manage it afterwards. This leads to overwhelm and more work in order to contain the regrowth.

Part 2: Clearing

STEP 3. Clear out the undergrowth

In the first stage of the clearing process, beginning with the undergrowth. This will give provide you with a clear access and space to work with when you start clearing larger vegetation such as trees in the next stage.

  • Use you hand-held tools (string trimmers, machete, tree pruners, loppers, axe, chainsaw, reciprocating saws..) to cut the vegetation at ground level. Make sure that you don’t leave any thicker woody pieces sticking out of the ground as that can be hazard to humans and vehicle tires.
  • Pile up all the cut vegetation where you find appropriate and where it won’t be on your way. You can leave the material to naturally decompose or use it later for making a fungal dominated compost.

Note: if the undergrowth is not overly woody and thick, you can also use grazing animals like goats or pigs to clear it. This will take more time but might save you labor of doing it yourself.

STEP 4. Fell trees

With the undergrowth cleared you can start cutting down the trees that form the canopy.

  • Use a chainsaw and cut down the trees so that they fall in the direction where you’ll be able to access and manage it easily.
  • Once the trunks are on the ground, cut off all the branches and the top.
  • Chop the remaining trunk into ~ 5 foot (1.5 m) long logs and stack them so they are ready for loading later on.
  • Place all the remaining woody debris onto a pile. If the terrain is steep and you are worried about erosion, consider placing it on contour. This will slow down water and trap forest floor debris eventually creating sort of terrace.
  • Haul away the logs with your tractor/truck with a trailer

Note: if you don’t have the skill and proper equipment hire a professional for this phase. It’s in your best intrest to not to do it yourself if you don’t feel confident enough. Search for certified arborists or tree specialists in your area and give them instructions above.

STEP 5. Deal with the stumps

After you cut down the trees you’ll be left with stumps. Ideally you would’ve minimised the height of the stump in the initial cut but if it is still sticking too high, make another cut as low to the ground as possible.

Some trees will simply die when cut down but some will put out new growth from the stump or from the roots. To prevent this you’ll have to either completely remove the stump or intervene in different ways to accelerate decomposition.

For chemical treatment you can use epsom salts. Large amounts of Epsom salts will draw out moisture from the stump and eventually dry it up, after which it will naturally rot. Any magnesium leached out into the soil will be absorbed by the plants so it’s safe to use it.

  • Use a drill to make a number of holes about 1 inch (25mm) in diameter, and as deep as you can get.
  • Then fill the holes with Epson salt all the way to the top, and add water to dissolve it.
  • Finally cover with wet mulch to keep the moisture in and to prevent the rain from washing out the salt.
  • Alternatively you could simply pile up some fungal compost over the stump. The fungi in the compost will begin to decompose the stump. Initially apply a generous amount of compost to cover the whole stump, and top up if necessary as the time goes on.

Note that depending on the type of the tree, it could take up to several years for the stump to fully decompose.

STEP 6. Mow the regrowth

  • Use a string trimmer to keep cutting the regrowth. This includes regrowth from woody perennials which roots are still in the ground and existing grasses.

As woody perennials after repeated trimming die off, the grasses will slowly take over the whole area.

Note: You could manage the initial regrowth with goats and let them do the mowing down the woody perennials work for you.

Part 3: Maintaining

Now that clearing stage is done, you’ll need to continually manage the regrowth until you are ready to cultivate the cleared area. Otherwise the forest will simply reclaim the area back.

All of the plants you cut back will grow back in some capacity so you need to mow it down to keep the area in the current succession stage.






    hi, the link leads to a not found page.

    • papprentice

      Yes, they removed the doc. But I was able to create a PDF from my local file. I’ve updated the link.

      • Juanita Venter

        Hi William, I also get an error of the PDF from your site. Thanks for looking into this –

        • papprentice

          Hey Juanita, I was making some changes to my Gdrive where doc. was uploaded. It’s fixed now.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © 2023 Permaculture Apprentice. All Rights Reserved | Privacy | Terms of Service |Member Agreement