Food Forest Introduction – The Seven Layers of the Forest Garden


In this series of articles, I will walk you through the seven layers of the forest garden or backyard food forest, explaining the purpose and function of each one and some of the species that can be grown there in a temperate climate. 

Drawing on over ten years of practical experience, I hope that this series will give you an informative and inspiring framework to understand forest gardening a little more deeply.

Your backyard food forest and food forest layers await!

What Are the Food Forest Layers?

A thickly-settled permaculture garden in action!

One of the defining features of a forest garden is how various species of plants are grown together in a ‘polyculture’ – a mixture of species. That’s compared to ‘monoculture’ where only one crop species grows. 

Outdoor Happens is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Click to learn more

Just like natural woodland, various species are stacked up in several layers to maximize the growing space.

The layers of the food forest break down in the following way:

  1. The Rhizome or Root Layer – Everything that’s underground, including edible and medicinal root crops such as yacon and valerian.
  2. The Ground Cover Layer – Low-growing plants that ‘hug’ the ground and serve as a living mulch. Examples include wild strawberries and golden saxifrage.
  3. The Herbaceous Layer – Taller plants that die back down to the ground every season. Including rhubarb and sweet cicely.
  4. The Shrub Layer – Includes multi-stemmed woody plants such as blackcurrants and blueberries.
  5. The Understory Layer – The Understory layers contain smaller tree species such as apples and plums.
  6. The Canopy Layer – The giants of the tree clan, such as pines and sweet chestnuts.
  7. The Vertical / Climber Layer – Plants that climb up other plants, like kiwis and runner beans. 

Each layer links to a full, in-depth guide focused on that particular layer. Click on the title and it will take you straight to it!

Since there’s some cross-over between the seven layers, I’ve described the seven layers throughout five articles – with layers 2-3 (Herbaceous) and 5-6 (Trees) combined into one subheading. 

How Are the Different Layers Arranged?

Arranging the seven layers in the right way is essential to the long-term success of the garden. Unlike an annual vegetable garden, which gets renewed each year, a perennial approach demands that we play the long game!

When we’re planting a forest garden, we could be thinking 10, 20, 50, or even 100 years down the line.

It’s not just about us – it’s also about giving back to nature and future generations to come

It’s not so easy to change things around once planted, so it’s essential we do our homework first. We should also make a thorough, well-thought-out plan so that we start on the right foot.

In a temperate climate, we need to arrange the seven layers a little differently to a natural woodland to make sure all of the layers receive the optimum amount of sunlight as a whole.

In a typical temperate set up, the canopy opens wide up so that plenty of skylines get exposed, and rays of light can pour in to nourish the layers below.

The understory and shrubs layers below are also carefully positioned so that the climbers, herbaceous and ground cover layers also receive adequate sunlight.

Sunlight Requirements

The sunlight sneaks through and nourishes even the hardest-to-reach locations!

When it comes to direct sunlight, each plant will have its preferences. Edible crops in the forest garden can broadly divide into leaves, flowers, fruits, and roots. 

Leaves and shoots generally require the least amount of sunlight – some species will produce more significant amounts of tender leaf material when deprived of sunlight.

If you’ve ever tried ‘forcing’ rhubarb or seen a grapevine growing profusely in the shade, you’ll know how a lack of light can increase the production of abundant leaf and shoot material.

When given plenty of sunlight, on the other hand, most plants will make use of the opportunity to produce plenty of flowers and fruits.

Therefore, flower crops like daylilies and globe artichokes and fruiting shrubs like raspberries usually give better returns when offered generous hours of sunshine.

Roots are where a plant stores its energy intake from the sunnier months into the winter. Root crops also tend to give bigger yields in proportion to the hours of sunlight they receive during the growing season. 

Although each plant differs, we can make a general rule that sunlight requirements for different crop groups follow thus:

  • Leaves – Need the least amount of sunlight.
  • Flowers – Increase in numbers with more sunlight.
  • Fruits – Set and ripen successfully according to the hours of direct sunlight received.
  • Roots – Final size proportional to the hours of sunlight exposure over the season.
  • Medicines require their category, but as a general rule, medicinal crops will also grow more potent with increased levels of sunlight.

By its nature, few parts of the forest garden are likely to receive an entire day of sunlight exposure – but sun-loving crops can still tolerate sunshine for most of the day. 

Most species on the ground will receive at least some direct sunlight, while a few very shade-tolerant plants can dwell in the shadiest corners where the sunlight never shines. 

Did you know?

I’ve been studying from the University of Maine’s 12 Permaculture Design Principles, and it’s a great read! If you want to dive deeper into borderline-genius permaculture design strategies and ideas, then check it out for a fun, bite-sized resource!

Temporal Stacking

A bountiful walnut harvest!

We can also think about the particular rhythm of each plant’s growing cycle to position them in a way that will receive optimum results. 

Oaks and Walnuts, for example, are late to leaf out in the spring, meaning that plants underneath them that do a lot of their growing early in the season (e.g., sweet cicelycelandine) will already have received plenty of sunlight before being cast into the shadows. 

This principle can also work on the lower layers.

For example, wild garlic species like Ramsons and Ramps do a fantastic job covering the forest floor and suppressing weeds, but only until mid-summer, when they begin dying down. 

I like to grow ramsons in combination with species like oca, which come into growth later on in the spring – or even rhubarb, which can be regularly harvested until mid-summer, allowing in plenty of light to the plants below. 

Understanding each crop’s sunshine requirements and temporal cycles is very important when planning a forest garden – and for this purpose, I’d thoroughly recommend the book suggested at the end of this article. 

Miracles of Space – The Backyard Food Forest

The wonderful thing about stacking is that it allows us to grow a remarkable variety of plants in a tiny area.

The first forest garden I ever created was only around a 10-meter x 5-meter plot – yet we managed to squeeze in more than 70 species of plants, as well as a small pond!

Omitting the 7th layer of canopy trees, it’s still possible to create a mini-forest garden with just a couple of fruit trees, a handful of fruiting shrubs, one or two climbers, and a smattering of perennial vegetables thrown in underneath them.

Backyard food forests are some of the best examples of agroforestry principles in action. Because of the intense attention to detail, they can be planned and managed to impressive levels of efficiency. 

Bird’s-Eye View Backyard Forest Garden

Below is an example bird’s-eye view plan for a 6 x 4-meter backyard forest garden, utilizing as much sunshine as possible for maximum overall results. 

The sun symbol indicates the position of the midday sun or due south. This position is the most vital aspect to consider when planning. 

The two trees are positioned at the north side of the garden to allow for more sun to reach the fruiting shrubs and increasingly robust perennial vegetables in front. (For small gardens, it’s worth choosing self-fertile varieties of fruit trees so that only one of each species is needed.)

Fruiting shrub species can be placed directly under the south side of trees, especially if tree branches are high-pruned.

Some shrub species like currants are perfectly self-fertile enough to yield good crops on their own – while others like blueberries benefit from a partner of a different variety.

The Red Zone indicates the sunnier part of the garden, which could include a fruiting ground cover such as wild or garden strawberries, which fruit better with more sunshine. 

The Green Zone indicates the shadier parts of the garden where shade-tolerant leaf crop species like Ramsons and Siberian Purslane could be grown.

Even the shadiest corner of the garden can be utilized with a shade-happy leaf such as Small Leaved Lime – kept to the size of a small shrub.

Other smaller herbs and perennial vegetables such as oregano and Good King Henry could live among the ground cover layers, and shade-loving climbers like Caucasian spinach could be allowed to ramble up the fruit trees.

All-in-all a very productive, low-maintenance edible garden in a backyard, utilizing all but the tallest of the seven food forest layers.

With the correct planning, miracles of space are possible no matter how small your garden or yard may seem.

Did you know?

I also love the Permaculture Extension from Utah State University. Here’s an excellent permaculture resource center! You get beautiful permaculture garden plans and pictures of the epic Logan garden and Moab gardens. Both are worth checking out if you get a chance! (And, you can view the permaculture garden blueprints. Utopia for gardening geeks!)

Seven Layers, One Ecosystem

A forest garden or food forest takes a holistic approach.

Each layer contributes to another.

In response to each contribution, each part of the forest garden can give back even more generously to the next. When planned well, an ongoing symbiosis occurs, producing an ever-greater sense of abundance. 

To illustrate this, I’ve written a little story about a forest garden and the joy the gardener can find in it all.

Once Upon a Time In a Food Forest

A story about a wonderful permaculture garden food forest!

Once upon a time, in a food forest, a gardener tenderly planted an oak tree with raspberries, lupins, and wood sorrel surrounding it to create a harmonious, perennial polyculture, occupying several layers.

The oak tree positioned carefully to cast much-needed shade over its sun-shy, ground-hugging fellow wood sorrel. The patch of happy wood sorrel, in turn, flowered, offering copious amounts of nectar to some hungry hoverflies.

The hoverflies were well nourished by the wood sorrel’s gift, helping them to hatch a brood of predatory larvae, which then happily guzzled down aphids from the nearby patch of lupins.

The Lupins, which are nitrogen fixers, charged the soil with an excess of nitrogen, which gets greedily lapped up by the raspberries growing through them. The raspberries began converting all of that excess fertility into a hefty fruit crop.

Birds followed their noses (beaks) to the forest garden by the abundant raspberries that followed. They then began to eat some of the caterpillars that browse on the oak tree while they were there.

They also left their droppings which gave even more fertility for the oak and surrounding plants to grow.

In years to come, there was such balance and harmony in the ecosystem. All the plants were happy and well-nourished. Also, pests rarely became a nuisance. 

When the flourishing oak finally came of age to begin bearing seed, it materialized all of its overflowing vitality into bumper crops of acorns, year after year, as its way of giving back to the garden.

These acorns get happily harvested by the gardener to make acorn bread, which nourished him generously to continue his work.

A few acorns were also left on the ground to grow into the next generation of oak trees – gifts for his grandchildren to enjoy.

There is no end to this story, but only cycles of ever-increasing abundance and harmony between all the species and elements involved!

In this series of articles (you can find the links to all the parts above), you will find out more details about this never-ending story – and how to create your own. 

The Backyard Food Forest – A Way to a Better World?

The editor’s food forest going into its second year

Forest gardens are a magnificent way of responding to our global health, environmental, and mental crises.

What could be more life-affirming than planting an edible ecosystem that will not only be enjoyed by you but by myriad other species and fellow humans too?

If this speaks to your heart, please be sure to follow that impulse, and make your dream become a living, breathing, fruitful reality!

Also – we’re about to reveal our favorite food forest book that we’ve been teasing!

Are you ready?

Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford

Creating a Forest Garden: Working with...
272 Reviews
Creating a Forest Garden: Working with...
  • Green Books
  • Hardcover Book
  • Crawford, Martin (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 384 Pages - 04/13/2010 (Publication Date) - Green Books (Publisher)

As mentioned several times throughout these articles, planning a forest garden does require thorough research and planning. For this purpose, the best book I’ve come across is Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden

Based on his 20 years of experience in the UK, Creating a Forest Garden is an elite guide for beginners and experts alike, making for essential reading – especially if you live in a similar climate. 

If you’re seeking additional research, Martin Crawford’s work is an excellent place to continue digging.

For more in-depth information on each layer of the food forest, please see these articles by our Forest Garden expert, Charlie Morton:

Thanks for reading – and please have a great day!

Last update on 2021-11-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Notify of
Inline Feedback
View all comments
Scroll to Top