Let’s Grow Food Forests!

With the electricity shortages, petrol prices, and rising costs of fuel currently plaguing us and causing food price hikes, many people are starting to realise that growing our own food – the way that good ol’ gran used to – is not only the environmentally friendly option but also the economically savvy decision.

There are of course many ways of doing this, from creating a small veggie patch, using raised garden beds, or even growing herbs hydroponically right on our kitchen counters. These are all logical options if you don’t have a large garden or area to grow in but, for those who do have the privilege of space, we say why not grow a ‘food forest’?

What is a food forest?

Food forests are an incredibly efficient way grow your own food. By mimicking the natural structure of a forest, you create a multilayered ecosystem that not only improves the soils (there is no tilling necessary) and promotes biodiversity but also allows you to have year-round food that you can pick straight from the vine, tree, ground, or shrub. Like a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of everything edible…but much better for your health and waistline.

Not everyone can grow a food forest though as they do take up space but even if you have a small garden, we heartily encourage you to plant one. If you have no space, and are ballsy enough, you can even embark in some creative guerilla gardening and grow them on your pavement or an unused patch of land close to home.

Recently we had a Tshwane man called the ‘Cabbage Bandit’ doing just that.

Read about it here:  https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-22-cabbage-bandit-case-withdrawn-state-declines-to-prosecute-pavement-gardener/

In a permaculture system, food forests are usually situated in Zone 2 or 3, and are mostly made of perennial plants, which means they require minimal maintenance and upkeep, making them an ideal option for a busy lifestyle. You do occasionally need to do some pruning (to allow light to lower layers and promote plant growth) and mulching (to protect and improve the soil) but otherwise a food forest just does its thing and provides you with an abundance of healthy and nutritious fruits, herbs, and vegetables.

Food forests are created using ‘guilds’ (a type of companion planting) of different plants and trees that are grown together, at different levels, which promote and support the systems health and productivity. 

The height of your layers will depend on how big your space is, and sometimes a layer can be excluded entirely (such as the canopy layer) depending on the size of your food forest.

This man in Kenya shows us how it’s done:

What are the different layers?

If you go to a natural forest, you will notice that different plants grow at different heights. These are called the ‘layers’ and like with natural forests these layers are mimicked in a food forest. 

The 8 basic layers are:

Overstory/Canopy tree layer

These are your large trees that are typically 9m or higher when fully matured. 

Large fruit, nut, and nitrogen-fixing trees.

Examples: Walnuts, Mulberry, Medlar

Understory/Low tree layer

Consisting of Dwarf fruit trees 3m-9m when mature (this is your overstory/canopy layer if you only have a small space). 

Examples: Apricot, Almond, Pawpaw, Apple

Shrub layer

Woody perennials of less than 3m.

Examples: Gooseberry, Blueberry, Blackberry, Goji Berries

Herbaceous layer

These are usually non-woody vegetation and include vegetables, flowers, and culinary herbs

Examples: Asparagus, Borage, Mint, Globe artichoke, Mint, Rhubarb, Stevia

Roots and tubers (Rhizosphere) layer

For this layer you want to grow root vegetables that aren’t too deeply rooted so they can be easily dug out without disturbing the soil.

Examples: Onions, Garlic, Potatoes, Jerusalem Artichokes, Ginseng, Ginger


Groundcovers are your low, ground-hugging plants that help with weed prevention as well as provide food

Examples: Strawberries, Creeping thyme, Nasturtium, Clover


These are your climbing plants that use the trees within the guild as a trellis to grow up. They can stretch from the ground up into the canopy. 

Examples: Grapes, Beans, Cucumbers, Passion fruit, Kiwi.


Many don’t see this as an actual ‘layer’, but as our knowledge of soil and its microbiome increases, we feel this to be one, if not the, most crucial layer.

Mycorrhizal fungi, which is found underground supporting root systems and transferring nutrients, as well as edible mushrooms all fall in this level.

Examples: Reishi, Shiitaki, Oyster, Lion’s Mane

Reforestation of our land is crucial if we want to create a sustainable future. Growing a food forest is a great way of doing that and allows us to grow a huge variety of different edible plants for the home. If this is something you would like to do there is a wealth of information online to help you make this happen. We always encourage you to use as many indigenous edible plants as possible, but ultimately all you need to do is roll up your sleeves, go outside, and get dirty! 


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