The Sustainable Blog


Starting a Permaculture Food Forest

Jan 10, 2023

Permaculture is a design philosophy and set of techniques that aim to create sustainable, self-sufficient systems that mimic the patterns and relationships found in natural ecosystems. Permaculture food forests are a type of permaculture system that integrates trees, shrubs, herbs, and other plants in a way that mimics the structure and functions of a natural forest ecosystem. In a permaculture food forest, the plants are chosen and arranged in a way that maximizes the production of food and other resources while minimizing the need for external inputs such as water, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Permaculture food forests are not only a source of food, but also a way to provide habitat for wildlife, improve soil health, and capture and store water. They can be established in a variety of climates and landscapes, from small urban backyards to larger rural properties. In this article, we will cover the basic principles of permaculture and how to design and establish a permaculture food forest.

1. Understand the principles of permaculture

Permaculture is based on three core ethics: care for the earth, care for people, and fair share. These ethics are reflected in the design principles of permaculture, which include:

  1. Observe and interact: Pay attention to the natural patterns and processes in the ecosystem and design based on that understanding.
  2. Catch and store energy: Use natural processes to capture and store resources such as water, sunlight, and nutrients.
  3. Obtain a yield: Work with the ecosystem to produce food, fuel, and other resources in a sustainable way.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Design systems that can self-regulate and adapt to changing conditions, and be open to learning from the outcomes.
  5. Use and value diversity: Foster a diverse range of species and relationships in the ecosystem to create resilience and stability.
  6. Use edges and value the marginal: Utilize the edge or boundary between different ecosystems, as this is often where the most diverse and productive relationships occur.
  7. Creatively use and respond to change: Adapt to changing conditions and find opportunities in times of change.

2. Assess your site

Before starting a permaculture food forest, it is important to thoroughly assess the site to understand the existing conditions and potential opportunities and challenges. Some things to consider include:

  • Climate: What is the average temperature, precipitation, and humidity? What are the extreme weather conditions?
  • Soil: What is the soil type, pH, and fertility? How well does the soil drain?
  • Sunlight: How much sunlight does the site receive and at what times of day?
  • Water: How much and what kind of water is available? Is there a natural water source such as a stream or pond, or will you need to provide irrigation?
  • Slope and elevation: How steep is the slope and at what elevation is the site located?
  • Existing vegetation: What plants are already present on the site and how healthy are they?
  • Infrastructure: What structures, utilities, and other infrastructure are already in place on the site?
  • Regulations: Are there any local, state, or federal regulations that could impact the permaculture food forest?

3. Design your permaculture food forest

Once you have assessed your site, the next step is to design your permaculture food forest. The design process will involve creating a map of the site, identifying the zones and sectors, and choosing and placing the plants.

Create a map of the site

A map of the site will help you visualize the layout of the permaculture food forest and see how the different elements will fit together. You can create a simple hand-drawn map or use a software program such as Google Earth to get a base map to scale. If you have a drone fly up and take a high quality image.

Include the following on the map:

  • The location of the site and its boundaries
  • The location and size of any existing structures or infrastructure
  • The location and size of any existing trees, shrubs, and other plants
  • The location of any water sources
  • The direction and intensity of the sun at different times of day
  • Any other relevant features such as slopes, elevation changes, and views

Identify the zones and sectors

Permaculture design uses the concept of zones and sectors to organize the elements of the system according to their frequency of use and the intensity of management required.

The zones are numbered from 0 to 5, with 0 being the center of the site where the highest intensity of management and use occurs (e.g., the house or main garden) and 5 being the outermost zone with the lowest intensity of management (e.g., wilderness).

The sectors are the flow of energy and resources into and out of the site, such as sunlight, wind, water, and wildlife.

By identifying the zones and sectors, you can place the elements of the permaculture food forest in the most appropriate locations. For example, the highest-yielding and most frequently used plants would be placed in the closer zones (0-2), while the lower-yielding and less frequently used plants would be placed in the farther zones (3-5).

Choose and place the plants

When choosing the plants for your permaculture food forest, consider the following:

  • Climate: Choose plants that are well-suited to the local climate, including the temperature, humidity, and precipitation.
  • Soil: Choose plants that are tolerant of the local soil type and pH. You may need to amend the soil with compost or other organic matter to improve the fertility and structure.
  • Sunlight: Choose plants that are adapted to the amount and intensity of sunlight available at different times of day.
  • Water: Choose plants that are tolerant of the amount and quality of water available.
  • Function: Choose plants that serve multiple functions such as providing food, shade, shelter, and habitat for wildlife.

When placing the plants, consider the following:

  • Guilds: Group plants together that have complementary relationships and functions, such as a nitrogen-fixing tree with nitrogen-loving plants at its base.
  • Stacking: Utilize vertical space by planting trees and shrubs with smaller plants at their base, such as herbs and berries.
  • Companion planting: Plant different species together that have mutually beneficial relationships, such as marigolds and tomatoes.
  • Diversity: Plant a diverse range of species to create a resilient and stable ecosystem.

4. Establish and maintain the permaculture food forest

Once you have designed your permaculture food forest, the next step is to establish and plant the plants. This will involve preparing the soil and planting the plants, as well as providing irrigation and protection as needed.

Prepare the soil

Before planting the plants, it is important to prepare the soil. This may involve amending the soil with organic matter such as compost, leaf mold, or animal manure to improve the fertility and structure. You may also need to loosen the soil and remove any weeds or debris.

Plant the plants

When planting the plants, follow these guidelines:

  • Plant at the appropriate depth and spacing: Follow the recommendations for each plant species regarding the optimal depth and spacing.
  • Water the plants: Water the plants thoroughly after planting to help them establish.
  • Mulch the plants: Mulch the plants with a layer of organic matter such as wood chips or straw to retain moisture and suppress weeds.

Provide irrigation

If the site does not receive enough natural rainfall, you may need to provide irrigation to the permaculture food forest. There are several options for irrigation, including drip irrigation, sprinklers, and hand watering.

Protect the plants

Depending on the site and the plants you have chosen, you may need to provide protection for the plants. This could include fencing to deter animals, netting to protect against birds, or covers to protect against frost or extreme heat.

5. Maintain the permaculture food forest

Once the permaculture food forest is established, it will require ongoing maintenance to ensure the health and productivity of the plants. Some things to consider include:

  • Weeding: Remove weeds regularly to prevent them from competing with the plants for water, nutrients, and sunlight.
  • Pruning: Prune the plants as needed to maintain their shape and encourage growth.
  • Fertilizing: Use organic fertilizers such as compost or animal manure to provide nutrients to the plants.
  • Pest control: Use natural pest control methods such as introducing beneficial insects or using organic pesticides.
  • Harvesting: Harvest the plants as they become ready, and consider preserving the excess through methods such as freezing, canning, or drying.

By following these guidelines, you can create a thriving permaculture food forest that provides food, habitat, and other resources in a sustainable and self-sufficient way. Permaculture food forests require planning, hard work, and dedication, but the rewards of establishing a self-sustaining ecosystem are well worth the effort.