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Blueberry shrub in a food forest

Backyard Food Forest

Have you ever considered transforming your home landscape into a lush, thriving, food-producing system? Though it may seem like an impossible task, the design and creation of a backyard food forest is certainly possible. Our warm climate and ample sunshine provide the perfect conditions for the growth and development of your own backyard produce section. Food forests are a type of agroforestry system that emphasizes the intentional planting (and planning!) of food producing trees, shrubs, and herbs. Imitating natural forest design and dynamics, these food systems strive for production and sustainability. These particular systems are organized into seven complimentary layers: canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, groundcover, root, and vertical. Each layer plays a specific role in the formation of a truly productive food forest.

The first layer, and the most important for the foundation of a backyard food forest, is the canopy. These species are the largest and most robust members of our community. As they grow, they will provide much needed shade and cover for their smaller companions. Canopy species are typically between 30-60 feet tall. The canopy layer, depending on composition, will also provide an abundance of leaf litter and food. Here in western Manatee County, Florida; the canopy may consist of avocadoes, mangoes, mulberries, and lychee trees.

Enclosed in the protective cover of their larger neighbors, the understory strata makes up the second and one of the most productive layers in the food forest. Understory members can provide the bulk of fresh fruit produced in a food forest due to their extremely productive nature and their relatively small size. These species are typically between 18-25 feet tall and thrive among the larger, more supportive trees in the forest. Species from this layer may consist of carambola, jaboticaba, bananas, papayas, and grumichama.

Further into our backyard food forest composition, the shrub layer is revealed. These species typically range from 5-15 feet tall and can be tucked in groups of three or five among the larger species. Though small in stature, these members of the forest community provide an exceptional, albeit highly seasonal abundance of produce. The shrub layer may consist of southern high bush blueberries, Mysore raspberries, and feijoas.

Dispersed throughout our forest is a wonderful collection of herbaceous food-producing plants. The herb layer constitutes one of the most diverse layers in the food forests. In this layer, both food and pollinator plants reign supreme. Small flowering plants such as coreopsis and sunflowers provide fuel for the all the bees and other pollinators that make our forest work. While nestled next to them are peppers, eggplants, squashes, and collard which provide food for us.

Blanketing the forest floor, the ground cover layer protects and preserves the forest’s most important aspect; the soil. These members of the food forest function to exclude weeds, preserve soil moisture and temperature, and provide food. Successful ground cover species in a food forest should be both vigorous and productive. Strawberries, black-eyed peas, and sweet potato vines all fill this forest niche.

Citrus fruit in food forest
bambi corro unsplash citrus

Buried beneath the life-giving soil in the forest, the rhizosphere or root layer is uncovered. This subterranean coalition contains a various selection of root or tuber-producing plants. While they may comprise the root layer, these plants may also act as effective groundcovers. For example, sweet potatoes and jicama produce vigorous, vining growths that can effectively cover large areas. Other rhizosphere members may include potatoes, carrots, onions, and leeks.

Climbing back into the light, our final layer is revealed. The vertical layer is comprised of the vining, food-producing plants that require a partner to ramble over. Seasonal abundance and exotic delights can be achieved with these often over-looked plants. Passion fruits, grapes, chayote, and various beans define this layer in our food forest.

With the intentional planting and purposeful design, a food forest can transform your landscape. Imagine a canopy of avocados and mangoes covering an extremely diverse array of berries, fruits, and vegetables. After several years of growth and maturity, and with diligent care and maintenance, a backyard food forest provides the opportunity to develop your own sustainable food system.

Do you need more ideas to turn food into profit, visit our Small Farms webpage at https://smallfarm.ifas.ufl.edu/production/crops/

Or call Lisa Hickey, Sustainable Food Systems Extension Agent at (941)722-4524 ext 1817. https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/manatee/agriculture/vegetable–row-crops/

Article written by Mack Lessig, Community Garden Program Assistant, edited by Lisa Hickey, Sustainable Food Systems EA II