Designing Your Food Forest

Designing Your Food Forest

Here in the Northwest, we can feel the first signs of Spring emerging. The first terminal buds swell on native branch-tips; the first calls of Spring birds echo through the stark forest; the first sweet smells of the soil float aloft after an afternoon sunbreak. If you’re avid gardeners like we are, you can feel the excitement start to crest - and it’s all too easy to forget a crucial step in the process: consciously designing your garden.

An Edible Backyard Ecosystem

From the first visionary moments of Native Foods Nursery back in 2015, we knew we wanted to offer a catalog of plants that worked and fit together. While there are literally thousands of native plants, we wanted to choose a subset that not only offered the greatest edibility and medicinality, but also could be combined to create the very framework of a perennial, edible backyard ecosystem.

To do so, we chose native edible plants that occupied various physical niches in native forest and meadow ecosystems. From the top of the ecosystem to beneath the surface (and back up again), the following plant groups emerge:

  • tall and short trees
  • high and low shrubs
  • grasses and groundcovers
  • underground corms and bulbs
  • trailing or climbing vines
  • and nitrogen-fixing companion plants.

When combined, they synergize to create the framework of a native forest or oak savanna or open plain ecosystem - right in your backyard!

How to Begin Your Design:

This design approach goes by various names. In the design system of Permaculture, it is often called a “food forest”. In the system of habitat restoration, it’s often called “habitat gardening”. Or as I like to emphasize, it’s a form of “mindful gardening” where we consciously design a habitat for both humans and wildlife that helps us remember our place in the family of things.

Regardless of what you call it, when designing with this palette of plants, it’s important to first consider your goals.

  1. Edibility & Medicinality: Are you adding new Northwest edible/medicinal plants to a pre-existing landscape of native and non-native food plants?
  2. Restoration & Rehab: Are you restoring a disturbed backyard ecology to recover its natural pre-development state? Providing food for native insects and animals?
  3. Beautification and Inspiration: Are you accenting your ornamental landscape with the color and style of Northwest natives?

Or are you doing all three?

Once you’ve chosen your primary goal (or chosen one for each section of your land), you can more clearly design the living structure of your landscape, and choose the particular plants to occupy each space. As we say in Permaculture, design from patterns to details. Take the big view first, and allow the details to fill themselves in.

Questions For a Mindful Design:

While a book could be written on each goal listed above, here's a few design questions that can help us focus our attention on the next levels of detail:

1. Ensuring Your Place in the Garden: Where do you feel most inspired and alive in your landscape? Where are you drawn to spend the most time?

(TIP: Reserving a special place for you in the garden is most important. Set a chair out in "your spot". Use it as a place to relax, observe, and feel connected.)

2. Starting With Ease: What places in your landscape are easiest to access? What new native plants will be easiest to establish?

(TIP: Starting plantings closer to the house makes life easier. Beginning with well-spaced larger trees or shrubs makes them easier to see and maintain in the initial years.)

3. Creating Plant Communities: Do you have plants in your garden that occupy each physical niche of a forest habitat? (See categories above.)

(TIP: Start by adding new plants around existing established plants, slowly creating more complex plant communities. For example, you might add a shrub or vine under an existing tree, a groundcover under an existing shrub, or a wildflower bulb within an existing groundcover.)

4. The Dance of Timing: Do you have plants in your garden that flower and fruit at various times of the year?

(TIP: Spring is the best time to harvest most leafy vegetables, Summer the best time for most berries and small fruits. Fall is the best time for most nuts or large fruits, Winter the best time for most roots and bulbs.)

Enjoying the Design Journey:

While design is an important step in the process, it can also feel a little overwhelming at first to consider all the possibilities. If this happens, it’s best to remember the bigger picture: it's all a process of discovery and exploration, so relax and enjoy the journey.

If you’re paying mindful attention, and setting foot in your garden regularly, you’ll naturally notice new things each season. Each Winter, you’ll naturally bring a new dimension to your design process. Some plants with thrive, others won't - and that's just fine.

So, give it a try and add a few new plants this year. Make a few new friends. Transplant some older plants to new spots that might fit better. Above all, enjoy your time outdoor in your little patch of nature, and share it with the ones you love.

We’ll be in touch.

Justin Michelson, Owner