Creating Layers in Your Food Garden

Good things from the lower layers of your food forest

By Joshua Burman Thayer | Illustration by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Permaculture seeks to build harmony between people and nature. It calls upon us to care for the earth while producing food for our nourishment. Planting a food forest is one way to realize these goals. By creating vertical layers in our gardens, we can fit more edible and symbiotic elements into one intensive growing area.

A reach for the sun

If you’re building a food forest here in the East Bay, you might start with a tall upper story of canopy fruit trees such as apple, pear, or avocado. Fruit production is enhanced by the sunshine that taller trees can receive. Pruning out lower branches as the trees mature brings better light penetration into the understory, where a whole other harvest is possible.

Situate taller elements on the north and/or eastern edges of the garden to maximize sun exposure for the rest of your plantings.

Espalier is an ancient agricultural practice of pruning and tying to control woody plant growth for production of fruit. This particular espalier pattern is called a Belgian fence.

Harvest near at hand

Fruit trees can also be part of the mid-story. Dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties make for easier harvests. Dwarf citrus, pomegranates, and espaliered apples and pears are good examples. This is also the layer for berry-producing plants like blueberries, cane berries (i.e. blackberries and raspberries), and Ribes genus shrubs like currants and gooseberries. Many Ribes are native to our area. They can be beautiful landscape plants with flowers and fruit that attract pollinators to your garden.

Miraculously, many berry-producing plants yield sweet fruit even in the dappled light under the canopy. Red or golden gooseberry, native pink-flowering currant, northern highbush blueberry, dwarf apple and pear, and even strawberries can produce decent harvests in dappled or mixed-light locations. Some mid-height species—black and red currant, native chaparral currant, raspberry, dwarf citrus, pomegranate, and olive, for instance—want full sun, so you can help them receive more light by positioning them a few feet south, away from the shade of the top-story trees.

If your larger canopy trees are well established, a good ground-up strategy for more food production is to plant beans and peas at their bases. The vines wind their way up the trunks of the trees without causing problems. If you are still waiting for the trees to mature, build tepee-shaped trellises out of bamboo stakes to create pea and bean towers. For the warm season, plant scarlet runner beans, Italian pole beans, and hops as climbers. For the cool season, try sugar snap peas.

Food underfoot

Ground covers can be especially valuable in providing edible harvests while also suppressing weeds, reducing evaporation, and helping pollinate the crops above them. Examples are sweet potato, yarrow, and cucumber.

Root crops and mushrooms each work to break down and enhance the soil. Root crops loosen the compacted clay we often deal with here in the East Bay, while mushrooms can provide a sizable harvest, even in the under-utilized dappled light of the food forest understory. Try growing oyster mushrooms in a three-by-three-foot area spread with four inches of wood chips, and start enjoying your food forest bounty from top to bottom. ♦

Learn more at schoolofpermaculture.com. Their page called “Permaculture Tip of the Day – The 7 Layers of a Forest” offers a good chart of the food forest layers.

Find the author of this article at nativesungardens.com.

Order oyster mushroom spawn from fungi.com.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a permaculture designer and educator. He has written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. He writes a monthly “Gardener’s Notebook” for the Edible East Bay newsletter. Find Josh and his work at nativesungardens.com, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.