Layers of a Food Forest: Permaculture Shrubs [Part 3]

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

So far, in our exploration of the different layers of the permaculture food forest garden, we have covered the underground and herbaceous layers that comprise the smaller plants of the ecosystem. Today, we’ll look at permaculture shrubs we can grow in a food forest, and how best to manage them.

Shrubs In a Food Forest

red raspberries colorful snack
Delicious raspberries!

Shrubs are multi-stemmed woody plants that usually grow under trees, in natural woodlands, and also in forest gardens. 

Raspberries, currants, and blueberries are probably familiar to most readers. However, there are some less-known, fascinating shrubs from other parts of the world. These shrubs can all add a wealth of diversity to the forest garden. 

There’s a saying: Diversity = Resilience.

So, if we want to create really resilient, robust ecosystems, let’s open our minds to the tasty possibilities outsides the bounds of the conventional garden…

My Top 3 Alternative Fruiting Shrubs

1. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

The author getting stuck into a Seabuckthorn patch at East Devon Forest Garden, UK

Sea Buckthorn is becoming better and better known to the masses for its amazing health-giving products. Juices, herbal teas, and oils can all be derived from this distant relative of the olive tree. Yet, few people seem to grow it in their back gardens.

There is some justification – I admit…

Sea Buckthorn is a fast-growing, thorny thug of a plant. It can reach up to 6 meters (almost 20ft) high, with an extensive root system that sometimes suckers wildly. Especially if you try to cut it back!

So whilst it might not be a great choice for a small garden, it does deliver some amazing benefits to a larger plot or plantation.

Its berries contain some remarkable nutrients. Epic quantities of vitamins, minerals, and even the entire range of omega fatty acids omega-3, omega-6, omega-7, and omega-9.

It’s highly esteemed in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. It is my personal go-to remedy if I feel a cold or virus coming on!

Sea Buckthorn is also nitrogen-fixing, meaning that other plants nearby will benefit from the natural fertilizing effect this species has on the soil.

2. Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)

Elaeagnus umbellata berries

Elaeagnus species are closely related to Sea Buckthorn and as such will fertilize the soil in the same way. Yet, they are much better behaved than their brutish cousins. They often only possess a few thorns and rarely suckering. 

Among many species, Elaeagnus umbellata, or Autumn Olive is probably my favorite, owing to its delicious berries that are borne prolifically in October (hence the name). 

Whilst they are quite astringent at first, a fully ripe berry really blasts the body that “wow-pop!” feeling, that something very nourishing indeed is going in there!

Also in the genus are Elaeagnus multiflora (Gumi Fruit) and Elaeagnus ebbingei (Silverberry). These produce similar kinds of fruits, but at different times of the year. This means you can extend the berry season from spring to autumn.

Autumn Olive grows to 4 – 5 meters (13-16ft) high and wide, making it one of the larger members of the genus. Its size makes it very useful in medium-height windbreaks and hedges. An Autumn Olive hedge that offers shelter, berries, and fertility is something I could only recommend for a medium to large forest garden.

3. European and American Elder (Sambucus nigra and Sambucus canadensis)

The Sambucus family is a fairly well-known group of large shrubs or small trees. There are several species of Sambucus and they are spread out over different continents.

Elder is undergoing a renaissance just now as a culinary and medicinal crop – its highly nutritious berries even becoming a popular supplement to ward off some well-known viruses of late!

(Whilst ho-hum… no clinical research has proven the benefits, many hospitals around the world now administer vitamin C as a matter of course to Covid-19 patients, proving that medical professionals must indeed have faith in natural remedies! )

Equally prized as the fruit, however, are the highly scented flowers of Elders which are fantastic in syrups, cordials, alcoholic beverages, or even eaten raw in salads.

Only a few years ago, many people considered Elder a weed. Yet today, great plantations of them are being rolled out to meet soaring demands for their produce.

Other Unusual Shrubs for a Food Forest Garden

Lonicera coerulea a3
Little blue snouts! Honeyberries are a singular looking fruit

4. Honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea)

The Honeyberry or Haskap (Lonicera caerulea) is an untypical member of the honeysuckle family.

Tasting like blueberries, but more adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions, I imagine these will become a lot more popular in a few years to come.

 5. Chokeberries (Aronia sp.)

Aronia species or Chokeberries are eclipsing the likes of blackcurrants and blueberries in the “richest antioxidant berry contest.”

Super rich in vitamin C and manganese, there’s a lot of exciting research going into whether Aronia extracts could be used to treat cancer and viral infections. Whilst they’re very tart to eat raw, you can add Aronia to other fruits to make yummy jams, jellies, and juices.

6. Juneberries, Serviceberries, and Saskatoon (Amelanchier sp.)

Amelanchier species, a.k.a. Juneberries or Serviceberries, are another fruiting shrub that is better known in their native range.

The Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) is probably the best of them all – and in the Saskatoon region, Canada, there are substantial plantations of this valuable crop.

Reminiscent of blueberries in both taste and nutrition, the rest of the world seems yet to wake up to their potential…

7. Raspberries, Blackberries, Loganberries, and Tayberries

My mother’s beloved loganberry wall. The jam has to be tasted to be believed!

Raspberries and blackberries should need no description here, but there are some other members of the Rubus family that are well worth a try.

Loganberries and Tayberries are hybrids of raspberries and blackberries combined. Their fruits are larger, richer but also sourer than either of their parents.

This zappy, tart flavor is really brought to life through cooking. For me, Loganberry Jam might be just about the best jam on the planet 🙂

8. Japanese Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius)

Rubus phoenicolasius D

Japanese Wineberries are a Rubus species that are better for eating fresh, straight off the bush.

Offer them plenty of space, as their spiny canes have an impressive ability of rooting themselves all over the place, even becoming invasive in North America.

9. Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus sp.)

Plum Yews (Cephalotaxus sp.) might be the weirdest fruit on our list.

From the far east, these purplish fruits grow on evergreen shrubs that love the shade. As you might expect from a conifer, their fruits taste markedly “resinous”, and whilst this is much of a love or hate affair, in my book a fully ripe one is heavenly.

Food Forest Berries to Extend the Growing Season

Luma apiculata is a little-known evergreen fruiting shrub from Chile

Whilst jams and jellies are a nice way to preserve the taste of summer, there’s something lovely about stepping out into the forest garden on a crisp December morning, dusting off a thin layer of frost, and guzzling some fresh fruits straight off the bush.

Fruits that can be eaten right into the winter include Cranberries, Flowering Quinces, Wintergreen (Gaultheria sp.), and a couple of delectable Chilean specialties: Ugni and Luma Berries of the Myrtle family.

It’s not only about fruits in the shrub layer though. Here, we take a look at some of the other types of harvest that might be had from under the trees…

Leaves, Spices, and Fibres

Salt Bush (Atriplex sp.) gives beautiful silvery leaves to use in a salad or as spinach throughout the whole year.

Similarly, Tilia Cordata and Toona Sinensis species can be coppiced and grown as salad-bearing shrubs. (See our article: Salad Grows on Trees – 5 Trees With Edible Leaves)

Juniper and Carolina Allspice (also known as Sweetshrub) are good examples of shrubs that bear spices, and New Zealand Flax reminds us that food forest gardens are also here to provide utilitarian materials with its amazingly strong fibers for twining.

Planning Your Food Forest Shrub Layer

Plum Yews may taste like heaven to some, but wait until you’ve tried some before planting a whole hedge full!

Consider your needs. The shrub layer is mainly about berries. How many different types of berries do you need? In what quantity? And at what times of the year?

Jams, jellies, compotes, and fruit leathers are fantastic ways to preserve berries if you have a glut – and they might taste even better in the winter when your body is craving those health-boosting vitamins and a taste of sunshine.

Fruit leathers are a fantastic way to preserve fruit and make healthy candies for children.

I’d recommend starting out with a broad variety of fruiting shrubs in small quantities at first, and see what works well for you.

Don’t take others’ word for it!

Whilst I might like gorging on gooseberries straight off the bush, one bite might make you squeal and eject with haste!

No need to rush things. Leave some empty spaces in your plan, and fill in the gaps when you know what you want more of.

Fruiting Shrub Calendar

ripe chokeberry branch growing thick leaves
Lovely ripe chokeberries

In the table below, I’ve made a broad overview of when different fruits from the shrub layer are available in a temperate food forest garden to help with your planning (dates may differ according to region)

JanuaryCranberries, Luma Berries, Wintergreen
FebruaryCranberries, Luma Berries, Wintergreen
MarchCranberries, Luma Berries, Wintergreen
AprilElaeagnus cordifolia, Elaeagnus ebingeii
MayElaeagnus cordifolia, Elaeagnus ebingeii, Honeyberries
JuneAmelanchier sp., Honeyberries, Summer Raspberries
JulyAmelanchier sp., Blueberries, Currants, Elaeagnus multiflora, Gooseberries, Loganberries, Summer Raspberries, Tayberries
AugustAutumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Blueberries, Elderberries, Wineberries
September Autumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Elderberries, Seabuckthorn, Wineberries
OctoberAronia, Autumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Elaeagnus umbellata, Seabuckthorn, Wineberries
NovemberAronia, Autumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Cranberries, Flowering Quinces, Plum Yews, Seabuckthorn, Ugni Berries
DecemberCranberries, Flowering Quinces, Luma Berries, Plum Yews, Ugni Berries, Wintergreen

How to Position Shrubs In the Food Forest Garden

It’s important to understand the requirements of each of your shrub species to know the best place to locate them.

If you have areas of damp, acidic soil you could try planting Aronia, Amelanchier, or Vaccinium species. On the other hand, drier areas might lend themselves well to Seabuckthorn, Elaeagnus, and Salt Bush.

And whilst some fruiting shrubs like Plum Yews enjoy some shade from the sun, most will prefer as much direct sun as possible to give maximum yields and sweetness.

To ensure plenty of sunlight hours, shrubs need to be carefully placed in relation to the tree layers above them. 

A clearing in the canopy might be the best bet for sun gluts like Seabuckthorn, whilst the west side of a tree would be suitable for currants or raspberries which will do fine given half a day of direct sunshine.

Elaeagnus multiflora does well in a dry, sunny location

It’s also important to know the eventual shape and size of each of your shrubs in order to plan properly. 

One way of planning is to make a scale map of your plot and set out circles of paper to represent the size of shrubs and trees you’d like to plant.

On the ground, you can also use bamboo stakes or something similar to signify the location and size of your intended species. 

Take your time and do the research – for this, I’d especially recommend the book mentioned at the end of the article.

May Your Sweetest Dreams Come to Fruition…

It’s my sincere wish that reading this article has helped inspire you in planning your food forest garden or edible backyard – or at least to dream about the possibilities when you finally have your own plot of land…

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments section below.

To learn more about forest gardening in a temperate climate, I highly recommend Martin Crawford’s book Creating a Forest Garden based on his 20 years of experience in the UK.

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Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops!
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06/07/2024 08:08 pm GMT

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  1. Autumn olives are an invasive plant here in Ohio and are successfully choking out many native plants. I love your articles and have shared them with several people, but I warn that some of the plants are not native and some are considered invasive. Have you given any thought to using only native plants, and yes, I am ass u me ing that you are in the USA.

    1. Hi Jo! I entirely agree that planting native plants is always best. We at Outdoor Happens are from all sorts of places, and Charlie is largely based in the UK. I, however, am right in your neck of the woods! Some great native edible fruiting shrubs that might grow well in a food forest in Ohio include red mulberry, highbush blueberry, black huckleberry, hawthorn, black raspberry, and elderberry. I’ve had a lot of success with black raspberries, as they are very common in my area. I also always recommend checking whether a plant is invasive before planting it. Thank you so much for the feedback, and I hope you have a great day! Happy spring!

  2. Yes! diversifying berries!

    Gentle clarification: Saskatoon is not a state, it is a city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

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