Backyard Food Forest - A Complete Guide | Build a Stash

This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

If you are thinking about planting a backyard food forest, then it is important to know how to plan and successfully build a backyard food forest.

When taking on a new project such as building a backyard food forest, it is crucial to have the proper knowledge about what is required to plant and grow a backyard food forest. This will ensure that you can grow your own backyard ecosystem that will last for many years.

To grow a backyard food forest, you must determine your goals for the food forest, plan where the food forest will go, choose the proper plants that will fit into each of the seven layers, and maintain the backyard food forest as needed.

By having a good understanding of what a backyard food forest is and how it functions prior to beginning the process, this will allow you to have the greatest chance of success and enjoyment out of cultivating your own food.

Although there are many different ways that a backyard food forest can be designed, the information listed below has been tested by leaders in the gardening industry to ensure that the most accurate information is provided to successfully grow your own backyard food forest.

Table of contents


What Is a Backyard Food Forest?

For someone that is working on growing their own food, a backyard food forest can be a great option. Unlike a typical garden that is in a flat layout, a backyard food forest is meant to mimic exactly how things would grow in nature. In a backyard food forest the plants are layered in seven different layers. A backyard food forest is its own functioning ecosystem. You are trying to mimic what it would look like to walk through a forest, but this time it will be in your backyard.

A backyard food forest will be more work to set up than your typical garden in raised planters, but it can be easier to maintain in the long run as it will take care of itself for the most part. There are many benefits to a backyard food forest instead of a traditional garden.

Plants that are used in a food forest are mostly going to be perennials. This is so that the soil does not have to be tilled and disturbed each year. By planting perennials, they will die back in the winter months and new growth will reappear come spring.

Can You Have a Backyard Food Forest with Limited Space?

You do not need to have acres of space to create a backyard food forest and they can easily be created in a small yard or garden area.

The most important part is to cater your food forest to the space you have available. If it is a small space, you will not plant a tall tree layer. Your food forest will start with the second layer. As you move down through the layers, you will want to choose plants that are not extremely large at maturity in order to ensure that it will all fit into your smaller space.

Planning Your Backyard Food Forest

It is important to have a plan in place prior to beginning the process of planting your backyard food forest. The first step will be to determine your goals for the backyard food forest. This will include whether you plan to only grow food sources and if you are wanting to do this for business or for personal use.  Designing the layout of your backyard food forest will be the next step.

Once you have those items complete, you can choose exactly which plants you want to grow in each of your layers. It is important to also take your climate into consideration when choosing plants. The last step will be to begin the process of planting and growing your backyard food forest.

How to Create a Backyard Food Forest

Backyard food forests can be designed in a myriad of ways. It is helpful to evaluate the area in which you will be creating your backyard food forest and take note of where the sun and shade are. It is also great to know how the water flows in your yard or garden.

Once you have established these basic things, you can begin to figure out the design for your backyard food forest. The food forest will be created in several layers, each of which has its own purpose.

1. Tall Tree Layer

This is going to be the tallest layer of your food forest and what is known as the canopy. If you have the space, adding in at least one tall tree will provide great benefits to your backyard food forest.

Many people will want to have every plant in their food forest be edible. If you choose that route, you can plant a tall tree such as a walnut tree or a black locust tree. The black locust tree is a nitrogen- fixing, which can help to eliminate the need for fertilization.

If you do not necessarily want an edible tree for this top layer, people will also plant an oak or pine tree.

2. Sub Canopy or Low Tree Layer

If you are limited on space for your backyard food forest, this may end up being the top later of your food forest or your canopy layer. Those that have plenty of space, can have a tall tree layer and then this layer below. Most trees that are planted in this layer will be those that mature anywhere from 10 to 30 feet in height.

The trees in this layer will usually be fruit trees such as apple, pear, or cherry trees. It is important to note that you should not plant these trees too close together as sunlight still needs to get through the trees in order to reach the plants below.

3. Shrub Layer

This layer will be your shrubs that are closer to the ground. However, some of these shrubs can still grow up to 10 feet high. If you are primary seeking shrubs for food purposes then blueberries, raspberries, and elderberries are great options.

If you are okay with not just having food sources as part of your backyard food forest, then lavender and rosemary are also great options and they will attract pollinators, which is beneficial to the ecosystem of your food forest.

4. Herbaceous Layer

This fourth layer is going to be made up of plants that lack the woody stems that the above layers have. These plants will completely die back in the winter and then regrow in the spring months.

If you are seeking food sources in this layer, then plants such as asparagus, garlic, kale, and artichokes are excellent options. This layer can truly be planted with whatever will benefit your backyard food forest the most.

5. Ground Cover Layer

This layer will be those plants that will grow even closer to the ground than the herbaceous layer. These will typically be plants that tolerate good amounts of shade. They are very important as this layer will help to keep weeds at bay and prevent erosions.

It is a good idea to provide a heavy layer of mulch before planting your ground layer as this will also help to prevent excess weeds while these plants are still growing to full maturity. Great options for this layer include alfalfa and crimson clover if you want plants that are nitrogen-fixing. Mint and oregano varieties will offer food sources, medicinal sources, and they attract pollinators. If you are just seeking plants that are a food source then strawberries are an ideal choice for the ground cover layer.

6. Vine Layer

This layer will include any variety of climbing plant. They are not only beautiful, but they add another layer to your backyard food forest ecosystem. It is important to choose a viney plant that is not invasive in order for it to not kill other plants within the ecosystem.

For a food source vine, grapes, kiwi, tomato, and cucumber will make excellent choices. If you are looking to add more nitrogen-fixing plants into your food forest, then beans and peas can be great additions.

7. Underground or Root Layer

This will be the last layer of your backyard food forest. This layer is just as important and there are a large number of great options available to add to your underground layer. Not everything that is included in the underground layer will grow entirely underground.

Onions and scallions are great food source options for this layer. Jerusalem artichokes are a very popular root layer option as well. It grows edible tubers under the ground and a beautiful sunflower-like flower above ground that will help to attract pollinators.

Benefits of a Backyard Food Forest

One of the key benefits of a backyard food forest is the fact that you are cultivating your own food, but there are also other benefits.

Unlike a typical garden where you have to remove and replant plants each year, fertilize, and spray pesticides, the backyard food forest manages itself. It is its own ecosystem, just like in nature. A backyard food forest can provide habitats for wildlife, plenty of food for pollinators, and can help with soil erosion.