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Mapping out the best food forest for you in a practical way is a matter of following a few simple steps.
Find out what costs you the most
To map out a food forest you’ll need to know what to grow before you can begin to begin.
So, I scanned a month’s worth of grocery store receipts to discover what we spend the most money on.
I was pretty surprised as the most expensive foods were different from what I thought they would be.
I was also delighted that most of what we eat, I could grow in a food forest!
Make a list of all food you’re going to grow
As I scanned receipts, I made a list of everything I could grow in my climate.
I also thought about items we would eat, but generally don’t, because they’re too expensive to buy, and included those for my food forest grow list. (if suitable to my climate—I’d grow mangoes, avocados, lemons, limes, and pecans if I could!)
Sort your plant list into necessary categories
Categories such as “windbreak,” “drought tolerant,” or “shade loving” will help you make the best possible plant placements for your landscape.
For our landscape, a windbreak would be a good idea for protecting all the other fruit trees and crops.
- Consider what your landscape offers and categorize accordingly.
Since we have good windbreak species on our list, might as well take advantage of their abilities.
- Identify the strengths (and weaknesses) of the plants on your list.
Group plants into companion guilds
After Identifying the best wind-tolerant plants on our list, I made groups with 2-4 plants that enjoy each other’s company and are of varying heights.
- Pick a main tree or shrub, and search for suitable companions that are on your list of consumed foods. Put them in a group together.
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Add in other plants for regenerative functions
After grouping all the plants onto my list with suitable companions, I’ll add in other functional herbaceous perennials and flowers where needed.
- Research “nitrogen-fixing,” “native,” and “fast-growing windbreak” plants to grow in your climate.
Even if you have legumes such as peas and beans on your food list, as we do, you’ll want to include perennial nitrogen fixers too.
Annual legumes are great for quick turn-around nitrogen fixation of your soil as the plants are terminated every year (so a boost of nitrogen becomes available quicker). Perennial nitrogen fixers are great for a long-term and larger source of nitrogen fixation to serve your food forest proportionally.
Later, when larger growing nitrogen fixers are manually terminated, or shorter-lived 3-5 year herbaceous perennials expire in their life cycle, a larger root system (with an established relationship to mycelium) can be shared more widely and in greater quantity in your food forest system.
- Find herbaceous perennial nitrogen fixers, shrubs, and trees if you have the space to include all sizes.
Even if it’s just one tree or shrub, then several nitrogen-fixing herbaceous perennials, longevity is better served than with the small root systems of annuals only.
You’ll also want a heavy focus on adding native plants to your forest garden plan. Important pollinators and other species will be provided habitat and can help lower maintenance demands.
- Find and include a variety of native plants, at least one per guild (or grouping) of plants.
If the windbreaker plants in your list are trees that take a long time to mature, you may want quick-growing windbreaks.
For us, (and perhaps you!) sunchokes are a fast-growing windbreak. But they also don’t grow as high as trees, so the effects of windbreak may not be tall enough to take the place of your windbreaking species.
The wind isn’t a large enough concern for our area to need a succession of windbreak trees.
But maybe you’d prefer a more sturdy fast-growing tree such as alder to protect your food forest while you wait for food-producing windbreak trees to mature.
- Find quick-growing windbreakers for early food forest protection as a succession to your ideal food-producing windbreaker species.
- Make a list of these functional species and add them to your groups where appropriate.
Draw landscape and determine elements
When drawing the landscape, you’ll want to determine which way the general slope is, which way the wind enters and exits, and plan the swales accordingly.
If you plan to have swales in your design, they should only be used on slopes below 15% incline/decline. Swales are for shallow slopes, not hills. They are great for capturing and storing water to hydrate your food forest when it’s dry and to make clay soil sites plantable.
When drawing your landscape; show the physical wind direction, and slope direction, and draw lines to represent swales. Swales should be largely spaced about 15 or more feet apart and be perpendicular to the direction of the slope (+).
Finally, but crucially, always keep swales 15 or more feet from foundations as well as trees.
Maybe, you only have one swale, even none. That’s fine! Draw what you have.
This drawing is my dreamscape! It isn’t what we have. What we have is very all over the place due to the layout of the family property. The open section we do have has solar panels behind it so we can’t grow a “proper” food forest in front of it.
So rather than drawing a hard-to-see scattered food forest map for you, this is a simple example of how I would plan an open space, this is it! When we get a place with an open backyard, I’ll take these same steps to make a plan for it.
Realistically the “home” is likely much bigger by the way.
Start with paths and suddenly planting areas appear
When planning pathways, consider how you’ll maintain them. How wide do they need to be not only for plant spacing, or room to move, but maintenance?
What type of pathway will you have? What will you leave room to try if it fails?
Mulched pathways? Living pathways?
Personally, living pathways seem to be the easiest to upkeep and grow in value without demanding excessive amounts of mulch or compost (work). Eventually, a mulch pathway will become a living pathway if it isn’t maintained.
That’s why I say living is easier. Yes, it requires cutting it if you want to cut it, but if you don’t want to cut it, it’ll still be what it is.
Many living ground covers keep to a low height too. Several options exist that tolerate foot traffic. Clover is popular but corsican mint would smell divine!
Start assigning homes for your guilds
I’ve started with the windbreak section. Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) are pretty vigorous growers. They can afford to protect the food forest and take the brunt of bare exposure of the windy corner even if they don’t produce their best.
The pine tree as the central windbreak is the best choice since it isn’t a broadleaved species and wind passes through easier. It’ll take most of the force and settle the wind somewhat for the broadleaved walnut and hazelnut tree windbreakers.
The sunchokes will protect the blueberries as they are not best situated in wind, but are nicely paired with pines, thyme, and strawberries.
For the walnut guild, I’ve replaced the annual section for cauliflower with natives. The back of the property will be accessed less frequently so it only makes sense to keep annual beds closer to the home.
In the hazelnut guild/row, I’ve added a long-living nitrogen-fixing species (seabuckthorn) to accommodate these long-living trees in the long term.
Then the outer edges have some sumac followed by thorny raspberries and blackberries. I’d probably gravitate toward the non-thorny varieties since they do exist. Either way, they need to be held up by a structure—on a fence, deer usually don’t favor eating blackberries and raspberries.
Notice, all trees are planted on the berms of each swale. Swales aren’t swales without trees!
In between the swales are regular rows of non-tree species.
Close to the home, the “entryway” into the forest garden, I imagine an arbor.
I put grapes on the left and kiwis on the right with wisteria—a nitrogen fixer. They’ll all climb the arbor and make for a gorgeous way in.
Shade-tolerant day lilies are under the arbor with annual crop space continued behind in open sky space. The annual sections would likely have a continued structure, even a tunnel for tomatoes and cucumbers, or squashes and beans.
Trees can easily shade out annuals, so in the middle swales, I’d imagine smaller dwarf trees of apples, sumac would be regularly cut back for biomass, and cranberry and blueberry shrubs don’t grow high like full cherry trees.
Pawpaws may be large and dense with foliage but most are tucked out of the way, and only the bottom one may cast excess shade to one annual row.
The cherry tree to the right would be full size and the cherry tree to the left would be a smaller dwarf size, but still large. Elderberries stay around 6-12 feet in height so they won’t cast too much shade on the annual sections.
Elderberries can also be pruned to be shorter if needed. They are vigorous growers.
Leave empty space in your plan
As you plan and plant a food forest you’re bound to make more discoveries and have new desires along the way. Leave room for that.
My list of plants is nothing compared to what could be!
You can also plan all day, but before you plant anything, I highly recommend protecting your space if deer are an issue in your area.
Space doesn’t have to be a limit if a community project interests you! You clearly like to plan and make maps: How To Start a Community Food Forest Garden: Complete Guide
Before, after, or while you’re figuring out the fencing, those swales need to be made if you have relatively flat land. There’s always a slope though.
For best forest garden results you’ll want to plan to retain water on your landscape.
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