Understanding a Food Forests Layers

Food Forests, Permaculture

Designing and maintaining a food forest can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t understand its different layers and what plants go into each layer.

However, this shouldn’t discourage you from adopting this incredible permaculture approach; we’re here to help you!

In this article, we’ll discuss the different food forest layers, how these layers support each other, how they function, and the types of plants that you’ll find in each layer. 

So, let’s get started!


The overstory layer is the tallest layer of a food forest system. It consists of tall trees that are approximately 9 meters (30 feet) high or more once fully mature.

Such trees include apples, pears, tall nut trees like walnut, nitrogen-fixing species like black locust, and some inedible timber species like pine and oak.

This layer acts as a productive windbreaker and helps improve the soil structure and composition. Depending on the size of your food forest, it may be hard to incorporate this layer successfully because the tall trees might shade the underlying plants.


This layer consists of small trees and large shrubs about 3- 9 meters (10 -30 feet) tall when fully mature.

Small trees such as almond, apricot, peach, pawpaw, and nectarine thrive well here. Others include flowering species like mountain ash and dogwood and nitrogen fixers like mountain mahogany and silk tree. Depending on where you are, this layer can also support other tree species like coffee and olives, which are a huge source of income.

The understory layer helps improve crop yield by offering sufficient shade and improving soil composition.

Shrub Layer

The shrub layer is the third tier of a forest garden consisting of perennial plants that don’t grow as tall as trees but reach a height of 3 meters (10 feet). These include berries (currants, raspberries, blueberries, etc.) and medicinal plants like rose, witch hazel, and elderberry.

This layer creates a habitat for insects and birds (that help with pollination) and provides mulch and nitrogen to the underlying crops.

Herbaceous Layer

Unlike the first three layers, plants found in this layer lack the thick woody stem present in most trees and shrubs. These plant species, which are a mix of annuals and perennials, die in winter and come back to life in spring.

The herb layer supports almost every vegetable you’d wish to grow in your backyard, such as asparagus, kale, horseradish, etc. It also includes culinary herbs like thyme, basil, and parsley and medicinal herbs like valerian, chamomile, and Saint John’s wort.

Most of these herbs confuse pests reducing the spread of diseases.

Ground Cover

Also known as the creeper layer, the ground cover layer features plants that thrive well closer to the ground.

These crops are tolerant to shade and are perfect for filling up any spaces left by plants in the herbaceous layer. They include creeping thyme, strawberries, spearmint (or any type of mint), creeping rosemary, oregano, etc.

These plants act as a living mulch layer vital in keeping weeds at bay. They also protect the soil and create a habitat for beneficial insects.

Underground Layer

This layer consists of anything that produces a root crop. 

Here you can grow crops from the allium family like onions, leeks, garlic, or scallions, to mention a few. Some flower species like lily and dahlia also do well in this layer. These flower species produce starchy tubers, which can be consumed as vegetables or ground into flour. 

Medicinal roots like ginger and ginseng also thrive here. Crops in this layer are vital in improving soil structure and fertility.

Vertical Layer

Here you can incorporate vining or climbing plants. This tier creates an additional layer of productivity, forming a vertical growing space. 

This additional layer of productivity increases yields and boosts pollination throughout the food forest. The climbing or vining plants use the taller layers as trellises and can grow from the ground to the uppermost layer. They include grapes, beans, cucumbers, passion fruits, kiwis, and some tomato species.

When choosing climbing or vining plants, be sure to select species that won’t choke smaller crops.


There you have it, the 7 primary food forest layers. Now that you understand what each layer in a food forest entails, you will be better prepared to create one of your own. 

Would you like to have a food forest landscape blueprint created uniquely for you? Check out our store and get one for yourself!

What is a Food Forest?

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