How To Pick Plants For Your Food Forest

How To Pick Plants For Your Food Forest

A food forest (or forest garden) is a great way to supplement your pantry.

It’s an integrated human-centered food-producing system that is self-supporting and requires little maintenance.

Once you decide to build one, the question then is which plant species to pick for which area.

The following information should help you in research and deciding the plants you want for your food forest.

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Food forest layers

There are several ways to design a food forest:

  • Savannah – trees more widely spaced than the others, sometimes with silvopasture and alley cropping
  • Orchard – Closer trees, more suitable to a pick-your-own operation, like Stefan Sobkowiak in The Permaculture Orchard
  • Woodland – A forest in mid to late-succession, or approaching “climax”

For a ton more information on food forests/forest gardens, see the awesome books Edible Forest Gardens 1 and 2 by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.

A classic permaculture food forest has 7 layers. Let’s start from the top and work our way down.

First, the canopy layer. These are the tallest trees in the system. They are planted on wide spacing, to still allow sunlight to get down to the plants under them. These could be food-producing trees like nut trees, or shade and timber trees.

Next, the sub-canopy/small tree/large shrub layer. Lots of different types of food-producing trees. Commonly fruit trees are in this layer.

Lower down is the shrub layer. Here we have smaller multi-stemmed plants like hazelnuts, currants and soft berries. Many of the non-tree food producers are in this layer.

Then there’s the herbaceous layer. If winters are below freezing, these soft-stemmed plants will die as annuals. This contains most annual garden veggies and herbs, as well as most medicinal and other food plants.

Now on top of the ground we have the ground covers. These are low-growing, shade-tolerant plants that grow densely to cover bare soil. Examples are strawberries,

Under the ground is the rhizosphere. This is also known as the root layer. Plants that produce underground food (tubers or rhizomes) go here. Examples are potatoes & sweet potatoes, sunchokes, groundnuts, peanuts, carrots, turnips and radishes.

Last we have the climbers & vines layer. Examples are passionflower, kiwi, grapes, beans, air potatoes and cucumbers.

Generally plants will fit into one or more of these layers. Some though don’t easily fit into one layer, like mushrooms and other fungi.

Plant functions

Plants can have many roles:

  • Nitrogen-fixer
  • Insectary
  • Nutrient miner
  • Ground cover
  • Nurse/mother plant
  • food/medicine source
  • Compost
  • Green manure
  • Mulch
  • Shelterbelt

In permaculture, we use them to create a multi-functional system supported in many different ways.

When searching for plants for your food forest, make sure to pick plants to fill these supporting roles.

If you don’t pick a plant to fill a particular niche, some other plant you didn’t pick (AKA a weed) will fill it.

Information sources


Nitrogen-fixer, more Vitamin-C than oranges. Seaberry AKA sea buckthorn.

Now that you know what role and layer a plant needs to be in, it’s time to do the research.

Here’s a few of my favorite sources for finding plants.

Plants For A Future at

This is one of (if not the best resource) for in-depth searching, though the site is often frustratingly slow and broken. It also focuses on plants in England and the UK.

Go to the link and scroll down until you start seeing checkboxes.

You can select edibility/medicinal rating and uses, size/habit, zone hardiness, along with many other criteria.

Select what you want and click the Search button.

You should get a list of possible plants to fill your niches. If not retry with fewer options selected.

Continue going through all the niches and plant functions you want to fill until you’ve found options for every place.

Another site I just recently found is Practical Plants at

It seems to have about as much search options as PFAF.

It does currently have a limit of 25 results, which they say they’re working on. Just limit your searches if there’s more than 25 items returned.

It also has some broken parts on the website, so you may have problems seeing the info you want.

Finally, try the USDA’s Plant Search at

They also have lots of search options, though different from the above two.

This is probably the most up to date database.

State Extension

Call your local state extension office or visit the website to find native and hardy plants to use.

They should know what kinds of trees/shrubs do well. They are usually more focused on agriculture and commercial orchards than backyard growing.

But they also have quite a bit of information about home food production.

See for backyard and garden information.

Local nursery

I hope you are lucky enough to have a good local nursery that actually know what does well in your area.

If they have a good nurseryman, he/she can tell you how best to plant and care for your plants.

If so, this is a great resource to use.

Some nurseries even carry native and adapted plants.

You might even be able to order some plants that aren’t normally available by talking to the nursery’s buying agent.

Filtering & more research

Now that you have a huge list of possibilities, it’s time to narrow them down.How To Pick Plants For Your Food Forest

For each niche and function, look into whether the potential plants in question will fit into the size and roles you have for them.

Also consider how big (width and height) they will eventually get.

Next consider the other properties of the plants.

For example, let’s assume the role is for nitrogen-fixation and you’re deciding between two similar plants.

You might want to pick a food-producing plant over one that doesn’t make food. On the other hand, shade and neighbor compatibility could be more important.

This process will be highly dependent on your desires and particular microclimate.

Guilds are another way to put together small sections of the food forest.

Normally centered around a tree, usually a fruit or nut tree, these groups contain 5-10 species of plants.

If you connect several of these together you have the beginnings of a food forest.

Many people publish this information on what they have found to work. One thing to watch out for is that the guild has actually been implemented, and isn’t just theoretical.

Do a search for “apple tree guild” and see what comes up.

Other considerations

In general, always lean towards more integration and more diversity.

You probably can’t pick a plant for each tiny niche, so the more diverse the plants the better.

You are trying to give as much interaction between elements as possible to provide multi-functional support.

We put lots of different types of elements together for the same reason.

Once you have selected your varieties, make sure to read my article on How to Get Free Fruit and Nut Trees.

This will make building your food forest much cheaper and can allow you to build a bigger and better one for the same amount of money.


Picking plants for a food forest can take a long time, but I find it enjoyable.

This is especially true when I find a new (to me) plant that fits a role really well.

For more information about food forests, see my article on how to make a food forest.


If you’d like to know more ways to live better, we’ve partnered with Claire Goodall to offer the Everyday Roots ebook. It’s over 350 pages of home remedies, natural beauty recipes, and DIY household products.


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OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about food forests, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.

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