How to Build a Food Forest 2.0

A food forest is exactly what it sounds like, a forest that has food producing plants growing throughout. This does not mean all the plants in the forest produce food but at least some do. In fact it is best not to have too many food producing plants in your food forest as adequate support species are necessary to have a successful food forest.


Swale for Food Forest

Swales are great to install as part of your food forest, because they are excellent tree growing systems. You do not however have to do that to grow a successful food forest. I used swales to grow part of my food forest on the downslope berm, but I am also growing trees upslope and downslope of the swale, as these areas also benefit from increased moisture and nutrients that the swale provides. I used a heavy amount of nitrogen fixing support species, and a nitrogen fixing groundcover to provide for the higher maintenance food producing species. I also decided to use native trees to Central Pennsylvania for the most part, as I feel that my chances for success with these trees are higher than grafted fruit trees.


How to Build a Food Forest

1. Choose your plant material. For me, the plants I chose are:


Pioneer Species

Choke Cherry

Thornless Honey Locust

Allegheny Serviceberry (Also food producer)


Nitrogen Fixing Species




Kentucky Coffee

New Jersey Tea

Smooth Alder



Food Producing Species

Allegheny Serviceberry

American Persimmon

American Plum

Black Elderberry

Chickasaw Plum


Paw Paw

Red Mulberry

Young Food Forest with Swale


2. You should get rid of the grass, at least in strips for the to limit the competition with the tree roots. There are many options to do this. Sheet mulching, rototilling, plowing, sod cutting and removal, and using animals to do the clearing. 


3. Install any earthworks you may need. I installed swales.


4. Plant your trees. I planted the trees 6 feet apart and the shrubs 3 feet apart. I made sure to have at least one support species next to every food producer. We used an auger to speed up the process. I ended up with 60% support and 40% food producers. Bear in mind that my food producers are not high maintenance grafted trees. I would use more support species with grafted trees or avoid grafted trees altogether. Further this spacing is very close, but my nitrogen fixers and pioneer species are short lived. Nitrogen fixers are cut to six feet tall every year. This releases nitrogen into the soil to feed the fruit trees. In time the nitrogen fixers will die.


 5. Seed in a good groundcover. I used a nitrogen fixing groundcover of clover and alfalfa. Add straw as a covering to the seed.


6. Mulch all the trees. I used straw to mulch, but wood mulch is perfectly fine as well.


7. Do your rain dance, because it will be crucial initially that your trees get water to become rooted. Make sure your trees get watered initially, and to make sure they get at least 1 inch of watering or rainfall per week.


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