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

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. 

Now we’ll take a look at some of the exciting shrubs we can grow in a food forest, and how to best manage them.


Shrubs in a Food Forest

Willamette Raspberry
Willamette Raspberry
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc.

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

Whilst raspberries, currants, and blueberries should be familiar to most readers, there are some fascinating shrubs from other parts of the world that 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 rhamnoids)

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, which 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!

Wild Seabuckthorn Seeds (Hippophae...
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Wild Seabuckthorn Seeds (Hippophae...
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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 and 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’re much better behaved than their brutish cousins – often only possessing 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!

Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata Japanese...
2 Reviews
Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata Japanese...
  • grows up to 20' tall
  • juicy edible fruit
  • 17x more antioxidants than tomatoes
  • Hardy zone 4-9

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 – meaning the berry season can be extended 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)

York Elderberry
York Elderberry
(Sambucus canadensis ‘York’) from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc.

The Sambucus family is a fairly well-known group of large shrubs or small trees, and there are several species 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 though is 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, Elder was considered a weed. Yet today, great plantations of them are being rolled out to meet soaring demands for their produce.

Black Elderberry Seeds (Sambucus nigra)...
149 Reviews
Black Elderberry Seeds (Sambucus nigra)...
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Other Unusual Shrubs for a Food Forest Garden

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

4. Honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea)

Berry Blue Honeyberry

Berry Blue Honeyberry from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc.

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.

Sugar Mountain'Kalinka' Sweetberry...
14 Reviews
Sugar Mountain"Kalinka" Sweetberry...
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 5. Chokeberries (Aronia sp.)

Iroquois Beauty Black Chokeberry
Iroquois Beauty Black Chokeberry
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

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, Aronia is often added to other fruits to make yummy jams, jellies, and juices.

8-12'' Aronia McKenzie, Black Chokeberry...
5 Reviews
8-12'' Aronia McKenzie, Black Chokeberry...
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6. Juneberries, Serviceberries, and Saskatoon (Amelanchier sp.)

Regent Saskatoon Serviceberry
Regent Saskatoon Serviceberry
from: Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

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 Saskatoon state, 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…

Rainbow Pillar Serviceberry Tree -...
2 Reviews
Rainbow Pillar Serviceberry Tree -...
  • Hardy in zones 3-7
  • Height: 15-25 feet. Bright Red fall color.
  • Prefers sun or partial sun
  • White Flowers in spring followed by edible red berries
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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 🙂

No products found.

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.

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9. Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus sp.)

Yewtopia Plum Yew Shrub
Yewtopia Plum Yew Shrub
from: Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

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 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.

2 Gallon - Yewtopia Plum Yew
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  • Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Plania'
  • Southern Living Plant Collection

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.

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1 Ugni molinae - Chilean Guava Live...
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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

Littleleaf Linden
Littleleaf Linden
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

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 a 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.

Aphrodite Sweetshrub
Aphrodite Sweetshrub
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

Planning Your 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.

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24 Reviews
Oregon Champion Gooseberry Plant - 2...
  • Goosberries are full of vitamins with multiple uses
  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-8

Fruiting Shrub Calendar

Regent Saskatoon Serviceberry
Regent Saskatoon Serviceberry
(Amelanchier alnifolia) from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

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)

January Cranberries, Luma Berries, Wintergreen
February Cranberries, Luma Berries, Wintergreen
March Cranberries, Luma Berries, Wintergreen
April Elaeagnus cordifolia, Elaeagnus ebingeii
May Elaeagnus cordifolia, Elaeagnus ebingeii, Honeyberries
June Amelanchier sp., Honeyberries, Summer Raspberries
July Amelanchier sp., Blueberries, Currants, Elaeagnus multiflora, Gooseberries, Loganberries, Summer Raspberries, Tayberries
August Autumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Blueberries, Elderberries, Wineberries
September Autumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Elderberries, Seabuckthorn, Wineberries
October Aronia, Autumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Elaeagnus umbellata, Seabuckthorn, Wineberries
November Aronia, Autumn Raspberries, Blackberries, Cranberries, Flowering Quinces, Plum Yews, Seabuckthorn, Ugni Berries
December Cranberries, Flowering Quinces, Luma Berries, Plum Yews, Ugni Berries, Wintergreen

How to Position Shrubs in the Food Forest Garden

Bless Your Heart Blueberry
Bless Your Heart Blueberry
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

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.

Vaccinium Vitis IDAEA 'RED Candy' -...
26 Reviews
Vaccinium Vitis IDAEA 'RED Candy' -...
  • PLANT IN A 2 1/2 X 3 1/2 INCH POT

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. 

Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata Japanese...
2 Reviews
Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata Japanese...
  • grows up to 20' tall
  • juicy edible fruit
  • 17x more antioxidants than tomatoes
  • Hardy zone 4-9

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.

Creating a Forest Garden: Working with...
267 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)

Last update on 2021-10-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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