Transition Plan For Establishing A New Food Forest

Establishing a food forest (or edible woodland) is a great way to convert acreage into production. Follow these steps for a proven plan.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: images courtesy of Zach Loeks

When you want to grow a food forest, you have to remember that the correct steps will bring success. Going out and planting trees and berries like you would an orchard or an ornamental landscape are not the right methods. With a food forest (or any edible ecosystem, such as a berry meadow or edible prairie), you need to replace all the current vegetation with chosen plants to fill all of the ecological layers of a woodland. 

In fact, the woodland is the best term to use because we often want more light in our food forests than a true forest provides. So here are my steps to creating an edible woodland. 

 1. Remove all the current vegetation.  

First, you need to clear the land of existing vegetation. There are three common practices for this:

  • Apply herbicide
  • Plow disc and cultivate
  • Install weed barrier 

I like the last two. If you are preparing a large piece of land consisting of many acres, then use the typical earthwork strategy. The key is to cultivate the plot continuously for several months during the hottest part of the year, and this only works well if a proper plowing has upturned the roots. 

If you use black tarps (commonly used for covering hay), then lay them on the ground and weigh them down with heavy sand bags. Heavy duty weed barrier works too (though plastic is best). But weed barrier is more useful later. 

2. Turn the area into Permabeds. 

Once the vegetation is gone, build Permabeds across the entire plot. These raised earthen beds will warm the soil and improve drainage in spring.

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They can also reduce routine compaction from humans and sustain better production zones for soil life and plant roots. 

Read more: Build Permabeds with a 2-wheel tractor and power ridger.

3. Use Permabeds to organize a pattern of plants. 

Now you can choose a pattern of plant to create your edible woodland. Some beds can be focused on fruit trees and shrub-type berry bushes (like currants) with an understory of herbs like chives. Other beds need to contain low-growing ground cover to create access, like strawberries.

Asparagus is good too because you can mow fronds after harvest. Thyme and violets are other great choices for ground covers, while some beds can grow just raspberries, which spread. 

Make a pattern of beds that allows easy access and alternates between the larger fruit trees and the lower ground covers and berries. Here’s a good example pattern: 

  1. Bed 1: Rhubarb and large-leaved companions to prevent encroachment of grass from the edge 
  1. Bed 2: Ground covers, like violets, thyme or strawberry 
  1. Bed 3: Fruit trees, currants and herbs 
  1. Bed 4: Asparagus (easy-access alley crop) 
  1. Bed 5: Raspberries 
  1. Bed 6: Ground covers, like violets, thyme or strawberry 
  1. Bed 7: Fruit trees, currants and herbs 
  1. Bed 8: Asparagus (easy access alley crop) 
  1. Bed 9: Ground covers, like violets, thyme or strawberry 
  1. Bed 10: Raspberries 
  1. Bed 11: Ground covers, like violets, thyme or strawberry 
  • Bed 12: Rhubarb and large-leaved companions to prevent encroachment of grass from the edge 

Zipperbeds edible ecosystem food forest

Read more: You can use Permabeds to better manage community gardens.

4. Use the Zipperbed technique for establishment  

The best method to establish the beds easily is the Zipperbed technique: using two pieces of weed barrier on a Permabed, bringing the edges meet in the center of the bed. 

You can plant the center row of the bed, but the rest of bed top, bed shoulder and paths remain covered. This allows the trees and bushes to establish while keeping everything free of weeds. 

Later you can “unzip” the weed barrier so the plant can spread into the new weed-free soil via suckers, seeding, runners or other method. You can also add more understory plants initially (if there is less aggressive weeds, like grass) or add them later (if aggressive weeds are still present for the planting). 

So that’s it! Four very useful steps to planting an edible woodland! 

Grow On! 


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