Food Forest Plant Arrangements

Edible Landscapes, Food Forest Design, Self Reliance

Are you thinking about planting a food forest? While you may already have an idea of the plants you’d like to include, it’s essential to design your food forest with an informed approach. How do you arrange a food forest, and what are some of the plants required for a healthy ecosystem? Keep reading to learn more.

What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is a cultivated forest garden that attempts to imitate nature. In contrast to traditional farming, where a single crop is planted, food forest design emphasizes growing a wide variety of complementary plants. 

The goal of food forests is to create an ecosystem where plants benefit each other instead of competing for the same resources. For a more thorough definition, see our ‘what is a food forest’ page.

Arrangement & Planning

Food forests require variety in both plant species and arrangement. Unlike field cultivation, where planning rows of crops is relatively straightforward, food forest design requires creativity and flexibility.

Most importantly, the design should minimize disturbing natural features and maximize the use of beneficial resources like freshwater springs or natural slopes. 

Food forest design requires careful planning and a detailed understanding of the land: climate zone, energy inflows and outflows, then comes water cycle restoration, and other several aspects to take into account while planning. 

the basic arrangement of a food forest can be boiled down to eight different layers. To be successful, a food forest should have plants in each category.

What Are the 8 Layers?

In order from the top to the bottom, the layers of a food forest include:

Canopy Layer (Large fruit and nut trees)

Low Tree Layer (Small fruit trees)

Vertical Layer (Vines)

Shrub Layer (Berries)

Herbaceous Layer (Herbs, comfrey, beets)

Soil Surface Layer (Ground cover, clover, strawberries)

Rhizosphere (Root vegetables)

Which Plants Make for a Healthy Food Forest?

A healthy food forest requires multiple layers of trees, shrubs, perennials, and self-seeding annuals. There’s an endless variety of plants you can select depending on your particular climate and personal goals. Do you live in a tropical or temperate climate? Do you wish to prioritize fruiting trees or fresh herbs and vegetables? 

To understand what plants will work well in your food forest, try taking a walk in some nearby woodlands. While the woods near your house may not have the most plant variety or exotic species, they can give you an idea of how plants naturally grow in your climate. It also gives you a better spatial understanding for designing your own forest. 

Below, you’ll find some general suggestions for different plants often used in food forest design. 

Canopy Layer

These large trees require full sun and may grow higher than 50 feet. 

– Pecans

– Walnuts

– Chestnuts


These plants can climb up the trunks of medium or large trees and bear fruit. Since they don’t take up much horizontal space, they boost your food forest productivity.

– Passion fruit

– Chayote

– Kiwis


Many of these plants tolerate shade and help suppress weeds in the undergrowth. They also attract beneficial organisms and accumulate nutrients.

– Clover

– Nasturtium

– Sorrel

– Watercress


Plants in the rhizosphere also have above-ground parts, but the root area is just as important. Here, microorganisms and fungi play important roles in feeding and cleaning the forest foundation.

– Sweet potato

– Garlic

– Carrots

– Onions

– Yacon

You can also incorporate plants that have specific functions such as Nitrogen Fixers, Dynamic accumulators, pollinators. These plants perform functions like capturing nitrogen from the air and releasing it below ground for other plants to absorb through their roots. As a result, these plants can be vital components of food forests;

Nitrogen-fixing trees for temperate climates:

– Acacias

– Alders

– Autumn Olive

– Mimosa

– Mesquite

Nitrogen-fixing herbaceous plants:

– Beans (Soybeans, Garden Beans, Runner Beans, etc.)

– Peanuts

– Licorice

– Clover

– Alfalfa

Need help building your own food forest? Explore our food forest landscape blueprints, and let us assist you!

What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is thoughtfully designed to produce maximum nutrition, beauty and abundance.