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The Herbaceous Layer and Edible Ground Covers In a Permaculture Food Forest

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This article is part of our Layers of a Food Forest series.

Edible ground covers and the herbaceous layer of the permaculture food forest. What makes a food forest garden different from an orchard? One of the distinctions lies in what’s growing on the ground…

In conventional orchards, the ground is either mown, grazed, or even stripped bare and exposed to the ravages of burning sun, and erosion of wind and rain. 

In a food forest garden, we mimic the shelter of the forest floor by planting species that are also edible, medicinal, or otherwise useful in some way. 

Replicating natural conditions, we create a resilient environment where an edible ecosystem can thrive. 

The first layer we talked about was the root layer, of which you can find more information in our article “The Root Layer of a Food Forest.”

In this article, we will explore some of my favorite herbaceous plants and how to best implement them in creating diverse, productive, and effective ground layers in the forest garden.


An Overview of the Ground Layers of a Food Forest

The plants that comprise the ground layer of your food forest garden can be divided into two parts:

  1. The groundcover layer. This layer is made up of low growing plants that create a living mulch – protecting the soil and inhibiting weed growth.
  2. The herbaceous layer – This layer consists of taller plants that are herbaceous (non-woody species that die back to the ground every year).

The groundcover and herbaceous layers perform a number of important functions in the forest garden:

  • They protect the soil from the damage of sun, wind, and rain.
  • They suppress weed growth.
  • They create conducive conditions for soil organisms to thrive.
  • They provide habitats and sustenance for animal life – especially insect species.
  • They sequester atmospheric carbon – the building block of topsoil.
  • They enrich the soil with nitrogen, potassium, and other important nutrients.
  • They produce useful crops themselves!

Starting From the Bottom – Groundcover Plants

Sweet potato plants as a groundcover

Low-growing groundcover plants are the key to a low maintenance forest garden. This is because these guys perform the same tasks the gardener would normally assume: preventing weed growth and keeping the soil in a conducive condition for growth. 

To do this successfully, we must choose the right plants that will cover the ground as densely as possible, for as much of the season as possible.

The Best Forest Garden Ground Layer Species

A pollinator’s paradise! By May, the wild strawberries are alive with the sound of bees

1. Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries are a real favorite of mine. Not only do they do a fantastic job at spreading themselves around via runners underneath taller plants, but they provide exquisitely aromatic berries over a long season too! 

2. Wild Garlic

Ramsons and Ramps (a.k.a. Wild Garlic) are some of the most versatile perennial vegetables around.

Great in salads, sandwiches, stir-fries, soups, pestos, and don’t forget to try pickling their flower buds for the gourmet touch!

Ramsons and ramps provide great groundcover but only over a short season…. they’re above ground from late winter until June, so it’s good to back them up with another plant that will succeed them. I’ve found oca and rhubarb work well for this – just harvest them more keenly if they cast shade too early on.

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3. Sweet Violets


Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) is the violet from which commercial perfumes are derived.

Wafts of its heady aroma can make one quite giddy on a warm spring day as you potter about the garden! These flowers are sometimes crystallized and eaten as a delicacy, and its leaves can be included in salads.

Sweet violets make one of the best season-round ground covers, even remaining evergreen in milder regions. 

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Other Fast-Spreading Groundcovers

Whilst in smaller forest gardens, you may wish for the entire ground layer to be edible, in larger gardens it might be more practical to cover certain areas with fast-spreading, robust species that won’t let any weed in sight!

For this purpose, my top picks would be Dwarf Comfrey, Sweet Woodruff, and Creeping Raspberry.

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Taller growing herbaceous species such as Apple Mint and Horsemint will also do a great job at this, as will Russian Comfrey varieties. 

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Other groundcover plants I’d recommend would include Siberian Purslane, Rock Saxifrage (Saxifraga), White Clover, Bugle, Pulmonaria and if you’re looking for a self-seeding annual to overwinter – Lamb’s lettuce makes an outstanding salad leaf for the early spring. 

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Siberian Purslane makes a very pretty backdrop of delicate flowers, self-seeding freely.

The Herbaceous Layer

The herbaceous layer tends to comprise more of plants that are useful herbs and vegetables in their own right.

Some of these such as oregano, ice plants, and mints can do a great job at suppressing weeds as well, but we can also grow more delicate species like onions and fennel through the existing groundcover of smaller plants.

The Best Forest Garden Herbaceous Layer Species

Welsh onions and chives grow beautifully through a low-growing groundcover of wild strawberries.

1. Allium

Perennial members of the onion and garlic family are great fun to include in the food forest ground layer.

Providing fresh leaves and edible flowers for most of the year, these can replace regular onion and garlic in most recipes. Aerial parts can also be pickled or frozen for winter use – so you might even be able to give up buying bulbs from the stores altogether! 

Chinese Chives, Welsh Onion, and Babington’s Leek are some of my very top picks and can be used in salads and cooking every day.

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2. Sweet Cicely

Sweet Cicely is a superbly versatile herb that is quite tolerant of shade.

It has a strong anise flavor that might not be for everyone – but if you like licorice allsorts, you’ll definitely love the young seeds of this plant which, to my tongue, taste almost identical! Its leaves, flowers, and roots also make good eating, and once it’s established it’s here to stay!

3. Daylillies

Day Lilies are not only a spectacular addition to the garden, but to the salad bowl too!

Many of the plants belonging to the herbaceous layer can be very decorative too.

Daylilies (Hemerocallis sp.) are not often grown as a vegetable in the Western world, yet in China fields of them are cultivated for their edible flowers. And a succulent, sweet, juicy flower too!

Its young leaves are also edible in small quantities when they arrive in early spring.

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In fact, many perennial vegetables make mock of the so-called “hungry gap” – filling the spring months with an abundance of fresh leaves and flowers.

 Many of these like Good King Henry, Siberian Purslane, Sea Beet, and Caucasian Spinach make wonderful spinach substitutes – and perennial species are usually richer in nutrients than their annual cousins too.

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Other herbaceous crops I’m particularly keen on include:

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Hoverflies feasting on Garlic cress flowers. In the background Tree Cabbage enjoying some sun.

Fertilizing the Forest Floor

We can also utilize the space under the tree and shrub layers to plant species that add nutrients to the soil.

Whilst not edible, Lupins are an excellent, deep-rooted nitrogen fixer

Nitrogen Fixers

Plants such as lupins, vetches and clovers are members of the pea and bean family and as such form a special symbiotic bond with nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the nodules of their roots. This nitrogen is effectively filtered from the air and condensed into solid form for the plant to use. 

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When the plant dies back down into the soil as part of its annual cycle, this nitrogen becomes available to other members of the garden

Nitrogen is one of the very most important nutrients for soil fertility, so having plenty of nitrogen fixers in the mix is a big step towards the overall prosperity of the garden.

Mineral Accumulators 

Here I discover why hogweed is so difficult to weed out! (Its leaves and flower buds actually makes a delicious vegetable…)

Another way we can enrich the soil is to incorporate plants with deep roots that will mine the subsoil for minerals, bringing them up to a level where other plants can access them. 

Russian Comfrey and Lucerne can plug their roots 3 meters (almost 10ft) down into the ground, accumulating nutrients that are out of reach even for some tree species! 

Other tap-rooted herbs like Valerian, Pulmonaria, Rhubarb, Hogweed, Chicory, Borage, and Sorrel also make great deep divers.

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When we cut back the leaves of these plants and leave them on the ground, we’re supplying a nutrient-rich mulch to the surrounding soil.

When we plant these “fertilizer plants” near hungry crops such as apple trees and raspberries, we can increase overall yields and diversity at the same time.

Designing the Ground Layers of a Food Forest

Diverse polycultures are possible with enough time and experience, but take it one step at a time

Step 1. Decide What You Want From Your Food Forest

As always, the key to starting your design is to ask yourself: “What do I really want from my forest garden?

In the ground layer, this is especially important. 

I’ve seen many people get into trouble a few years down the line with a ground layer that was ill-conceived from the beginning – without proper attention paid to which crops to prioritize, and where to plant them.

Forest gardening is meant to be efficient and funjust be sure to be discerning in the beginning and you’ll save yourself a lot of work later on!

Step 2. Write a List of Crops You Want to Harvest

Write a list of crops that you would like to harvest from your ground layers. This should include root crops since they tend to be herbaceous too.

List your crops under categories, namely:

  • Salad ingredients – leaves, flowers, and seeds
  • Perennial vegetables – leaves, flowers, roots, and shoots
  • Herbal teas and medicines
  • Culinary herbs

Think carefully about the quantities you’ll need. 

My favorite part of the ground layer is probably the amazing diversity of salad ingredients – yet for these, a few plants go a long way.

If you’re planning on replacing conventional cooked greens with perennial alternatives, you’ll need plenty of plants like Good King Henry or Wild Cabbage to provide an adequate quantity.

Good King Henry is a classic perennial spinach, good to plant in quantity

As mentioned in our article on roots, you can never really have enough root crops to keep you well-fed over the winter months. 

And also, if you drink lots of herbal teas or like using culinary herbs in the kitchen, then I’d recommend planting plenty of these to ensure you have enough for drying and saving for those seasons when they’re less plentiful.  

Now, let’s think about where to plant things…

Step 3. Where to Plant Your Plants

To maximize harvesting efficiency, it’s a very good idea to think in terms of zones!

You don’t want to have to traipse across your entire garden every time you need to cut some chives to go on your pizza! So, locating plants according to how frequently you’d harvest them is essential. 

Zone 1 – Everyday Crops

Which crops will you be collecting every day?

Plant those ones closest to your house or entrance to the forest garden. Culinary herbs and teas like oregano, mint, and thyme would definitely tick this box.

Zone 2 – A Few Times a Week

Plants that you’d go to every other day or a few times a week would be your zone 2. These might include salad crops and greens for cooking.

Zone 3 – Once in a Blue Moon

Plants that you only need to harvest once in a blue moon can be planted furthest away at the rear edges of your garden.

These might include root crops or plants that only produce at particular times of the year – like globe artichokes and rhubarb

Globe Artichokes only need picking a few times a season – so definitely a zone 3 kind of plant

Step 4. Harmony Between All Species

Finally, how do we ensure a healthy harmony between all species?

This might be the trickiest bit of all.

Herbaceous plants like to move. Some will do this aggressively through underground rhizomes or overground runners. Others will form clumps that will gradually expand. 

While waiting for perennial colonies to expand, short-lived plants like Calendula and Fever Few fill in the gaps nicely.

Understanding each plant’s growth habit and being able to see several years down the line is the key to the long term success of your forest garden ground layers!

If we plant an aggressive, spreading herb like peppermint a few meters away from a smaller, more delicate species like strawberries, we might have a real pickle on our hands keeping them apart after a few years.

In the worst-case scenario, we might even need to start again.

To keep each species in their allotted part of the garden, it’s essential to form barriers to prevent them all jumbling up into an epic “who can smother who the fastest” kind of fight.

Barriers, in this sense, could mean a mown or frequently trodden path, or a “living barrier.” Domineering, clump-forming plants like Russian Comfrey and Sweet Cicely won’t let much cross underneath their shady foliage. 

Ground layers are not only for us! Bees, butterflies, and all manner of creatures will be eternally grateful for you providing them a diverse and accommodating home.

Whilst it might take a bit of research, careful planning really does go a long way when it comes to the food forest garden ground layer. Done well, it can be the most productive layer of all.

For more information on designing your forest garden ground layer in a temperate climate, I’d highly recommend Martin Crawford’s books based on his twenty years of experience in the UK: Creating a Forest Garden and How to Grow Perennial Vegetables.

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The Forest Food Web

Successful forest gardens and food forests are all about recreating the ingenious design principles that natural ecosystems were created with in the first place. 

The more we go out and observe nature, the better gardeners we can be because, as our understanding deepens, we can apply that understanding to improve our garden design.

Here, we take a look at a few examples of how you can apply your understanding of forest food webs to give your forest garden that extra boost towards self-sufficiency.

Shy, predatory birds like owls play an integral role in your garden’s food web – and those precious glimpses are a joy to behold

Everything Starts in the Soil

Everything starts in the soil. Healthy soil is itself a living organism made up of billions of micro-organisms. Without interference, a healthy balance in the soil will always gradually emerge under natural conditions. 

We can however help fast-forward the soil’s recovery from the ravages of industrial farming or misguided garden methods by boosting micro-organism populations in the soil from the beginning.

Mycorrhizal Fungi are one of the key players in a thriving soil and do heroic work at keeping almost every family of plant happy – from the tiniest herbs to the most towering of trees.

They form networks of underground white “roots” called hyphae which link up the roots of different plants, enabling access and transportation of nutrients to where they are most needed. They also help plants resist disease, and some of them are even edible to boot! 

Mycorrhizal fungi hyphae latch onto plant roots and vastly extend the plant’s reach of water, nutrients, and even signals from other nearby plants. GIF credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f3/Arbuscular_mycorrhizal_root_tuber.GIF

Chanterelles, Truffles, and Boletes are some of the most sought-after of all gourmet mushrooms and each of them can only be grown in association with living plants. Harvesting mushrooms from your forest garden can be the cherry on top of the bountiful harvests you’re already receiving from your plant allies.

From the depths of the soil… Boletus species are among the most prized of all edible mushrooms and will form a symbiotic relationship with a wide variety of tree species

Incorporating mycorrhizal fungi in the form of gels, powder, or inoculated charcoal into the plant’s roots during planting time is a great way to get your soil and plants off to a running start. There are many proven products on the market for this, and the results can be quite dramatic. 

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On the Ground

Ever had a problem with slugs? Who hasn’t?!

It’s well known that amphibians – frogs, toads, and newts – love to eat slugs and snails. But you may be surprised to learn that small snakes, ground beetles, glow worms, and thrushes prey upon mollusks too.

They can all be encouraged by creating a garden pond and including plenty of rocks, logs, and overgrown areas for them to hide in. 

Creating a pond for amphibians is one the biggest steps you can take to tackling mollusk problems in the garden

Don’t forget that slugs and snails also play their own important role in the garden. They tend to focus on clearing away weakly plants that are not thriving anyway – so can be considered an indication rather than a cause of an unhealthy ecosystem. 

And before putting them all in one basket (perhaps literally) – it’s worth noting that some species of slug actually eat very little living plant matter. 

Feeding instead on fungi, dead plant material, and even other mollusks, some slugs may even become your friends! Understanding these nuances will greatly help you understand how to respond to epidemics in your garden.

Leopard slugs won’t cause any damage to your crops – unless you are growing mushrooms! Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/Limax_maximus_Estonia.jpg

Other ground “pests” perennial gardeners may suffer from in the beginning is burrowing rodents, especially mice, voles, and shrews. These creatures can cause havoc in the short-term – their burrowing and root nibbling habits can seriously set back or even kill young plants. 

Mice can be friend or foe in your garden, but epidemics normally settle down with time

The trouble is that the mulches we tend to use in permaculture gardens: straw, woodchip, or even sheet materials, create a perfect habitat for rodents. In the early years, their numbers may multiply exponentially, but here, patience is key. 

In time, predators such as owls, hawks, snakes, and larger mammals will move in to have a feast – and bring things back into balance. 

The vacant burrows can be utilized by useful insects such as bumblebees, meaning that along with all the mayhem, the little critters may have done you a service!

Perennial gardening is all about playing the long-game – so accepting short-term losses can be an important part of yielding a long-term gain.

In the Air

In the forest garden, no component of the eco-system is overlooked. The air is a rich habitat for all kinds of creatures, great and small. Some of these we may consider friends, others foes – but in reality, it’s all about striking a healthy balance.

Birds and wasps may “steal” your fruits, greenfly and black fly may prey on your precious herbs, and certain species of butterflies and moths will raise their young on your fruits and vegetables. Yet, if these species are kept in a healthy balance, they can actually add to the all-round diversity and wealth of your garden’s ecology.

Members of the thrush family love to devour most kinds of fruits from the forest garden. Yet, don’t forget that bird droppings in turn act as a significant natural fertilizer!

If you notice these species becoming too numerous and causing a problem in your forest garden, consider what would control their populations in nature. 

An excess of fruit-eating birds can be balanced by providing or protecting good habitats (such as breeding boxes or hollowed trees) for predators such as hawks, owls, and predatory mammals.

Wasps and hornets can be controlled very effectively by dragonflies. In fact, providing a pond for dragonflies to breed in is a big step towards insect control in general. As these aerial masters scour the garden’s skyline, other flying pests such as cabbage white butterflies will rarely get out of hand.

Sap sucking insects such as aphids and mites are the prime sustenance for predators such as hoverflies, ladybugs, and lacewings. 

Hoverflies and ladybugs can be encouraged into your garden by offering them their favorite plants such as umbellifers, alliums, and elder tree species to feed on. 

Hoverflies can play an important role in both pollination and aphid control. Here one feeds happily on Calendula. Image by Charlie Morton

Lacewings and other beneficial insect species can also be encouraged by providing them with “insect hotels” or simply by allowing them to overwinter in the hollow stems of your garden plants rather than cutting them back. 

Insect hotels do the same job as the standing remains of hollow plant stems in the winter – providing a dry, sheltered habitat for beetles, bugs and other invertebrates to make it through the winter

Most species of bats are also incredibly useful in a food forest and will help to keep insect numbers in a healthy balance. Installing bat boxes is the ideal way to boost their populations. 

Bats may also help keep mosquito and gnat populations in check, meaning less predation to a key part of the garden – you!

…And the Big Guys!

Deer, moose, wild boar, and other large mammals may also be a significant consideration as part of your food forest web, depending on where you’re located. In the early years especially, these fellows can do some significant damage!

If you’re backed onto wild moorland, bush, or forest, the chances are these herbivores will be just thrilled by all of the new trees and shrubs that you’re planting on their doorstep.

Deer are surely among nature’s most graceful creatures, but limiting their access to your garden may be crucial to its long-term success

If you have a large surrounding population of large herbivores or omnivores, it may be a worthwhile investment erecting a deer fence around your entire land. 

There are however some alternatives following our understanding of nature’s food webs…

Remember that, historically, one of the biggest predators for these species was…us! Therefore, even the smell of humans can be enough to deter small populations of garden-busting beasts in your garden.

If you’re using a compost toilet, try locating it in the part of the garden that large mammals would normally enter. Pee around your garden’s periphery. And when you next have a hair cut, try hanging up your hair in places you’d rather deer and pigs wouldn’t go. 

As far as other predators go, there may not be many forest gardeners out there who would welcome wolves or mountain lions into their plot! But, if you have a fast and fearless dog who doesn’t mind playing wolf once in a while, it might fill the niche of a large predator in your ecosystem very nicely. 

Permaculture Is All About Thinking Long-Term

Understanding nature’s food webs will allow you much greater power to implement natural systems of restorative control and provide perennial resilience in your garden’s eco-system.

Leaving out pesticides and intrusive methods may seem risky at first, but the long-term benefits you’ll be providing for yourself and your entire ecosystem will far outweigh any short-term gains. 

The sights and sounds of a garden in harmony will also be sure to yield one of the most important harvests of all – gladness of heart

Thanks for reading! How are you keeping a balance in your garden? Do you have problems with pests or is nature helping you out? Let us know in the comments!

Keep an eye out for more from Charlie, including an article on mindful foraging, coming up soon.

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