How Long Does It Take To Grow A Permaculture Food Forest?


photo of picking fruit

A backyard food forest can be a wonderful long-term addition to any permaculture homestead. However, many avoid starting one because they believe it will take too long to establish and obtain a productive yield.

So how long does it take to grow a food forest? For a food forest to reach full maturity at every layer it can take several years. However, the lower 3 layers of the system referred to as the Ground Cover Layer, Root Layer, and the Vine Layer can reach full maturity in a few weeks to months and provide an abundant yield.

What Is A Food Forest?

I believe a lot of the confusion and fear about growing a food forest stems from not really understanding what it is. A food forest or forest garden is a form of permaculture designed edible landscaping that mimics a forest ecosystem for food production.

This is done by growing in verticle layers the way a forest would rather than horizontally the way traditional farming and gardening are normally done.

Food forests are made up of seven (or eight) layers.

Food Forest LayersDescription
Overstory (or Canopy) LayerThe tallest layer, usually made up of large fruit and nut trees that thrive on full sun.
Understory LayerSmaller fruit and nut trees. These trees are more shade tolerant.
Shrub LayerCan consist of any number of fruit and berry-producing, shade-tolerant shrubs.
Vine LayerShade tolerant climbers that can use the surrounding overstory and understory as trellises.
Herbaceous LayerThis layer can be a variety of perennial and annual herbs and leaf-bearing plants that accommodate one another and the guild as a whole.
Groundcover LayerThese are horizontal spreading crops that cover the soil around the upper layer plants providing food and benefiting soil health.
Rhizosphere LayerThe root crop layer which is mostly made up of annuals and biennials.
Mycelial LayerNot universally recognized as a layer. This is a mushroom layer that is mostly subterranean but can produce edible mushrooms.

Benefits Of A Food Forest

The main benefits of growing food in a food forest are resilience and sustainability. A well established food forest is more resilient against drought, erosion, and other farming challenges.

Growing food by this method commonly reduces waste, reduces pollution, costs less over time, reduces workload, and conserves water and energy.

You Don’t Have To Wait, And You Shouldn’t

The third principle of permaculture as taught by David Holmgren in his book “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” is Obtain a Yield. This principle exemplifies the saying “You Can’t Work On an Empty Stomach”.

In other words, you want your permaculture designed food forest to provide for you as quickly as possible. The fact is that a properly created food forest can start providing an abundant yield just as quickly as a traditionally planted garden in many of the layers.

Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Revised Edition)
  • David Holmgren (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 280 Pages - 09/01/2017 (Publication Date) - Melliodora Publishing (Publisher)

Last update on 2021-12-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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How Long Does It Take To Grow An Overstory Tree Layer

This will by far take the longest time to grow but will also provide an abundance of food for the longest period of time once it reaches maturity. How it takes of course depends on what you plant so let’s look at a few common overstory food production trees and their time to maturity.

Overstory Tree Years To Produce Yield
Walnut 8-10 years from seed. 5-7 years from 2 year old grafted sapling.
Pecan6-12 Years, depending on the cultivar
Pear 3-10 years, depending on the cultivar
AppleStandard, full-size trees take 6-10 years

These are just a few popular overstory trees, but as you can see it can take anywhere from 3 to 12 years to obtain a yield from your canopy layer.

photo of common permaculture overstory trees

How Long Does It Take To Grow An Understory Tree Layer

The understory tree layer can produce significantly quicker in many cases than the overstory layer. Many of these trees can be grafted varieties that tend to produce fruit in a relatively short time span.

2-5 years is a common production expectation from this layer depending on your choice of trees and growing conditions.

photo of common understory trees

How Long Does It Take To Grow A Shrub Layer

Some shrubs in this layer can produce the first year you plant them while others take 2-3 years to fully mature and provide an abundant harvest.

photo of common food forest shrubs

How Long Does It Take To Grow A Herbaceous Layer

Most plants in the herbaceous layer produce within weeks to months. This is a layer that can certainly provide a yield right away offering plenty of provision while waiting on the upper layers to produce.

photo of common herbaceous layer plants

How Long Does It Take To Grow A Ground Cover Layer

Like the herbaceous layer, the groundcover layer can provide a quick yield. Not only can this layer provide food quickly, it can also improve soil conditions that help other layers produce more quickly.

photo of common ground cover plants

How Long Does It Take To Grow A Root Layer

The root layer is usually made up of annuals which by their very nature grow quickly and provide food within weeks to months. This layer can easily produce as quickly and abundantly as a traditionally planted garden.

photo of common root layer plants

How Long Does It Take To Grow A Vine Layer

The vine layer can be made up of a variety of plants. Perennials vines such as grapes and kiwi mike take a little longer to establish but will provide food for many years to come. While vines like beans or cucumbers will grow quickly and produce a lot of food just weeks after planting from seed.

photo of common vine layer plants

Conclusion

As you can see, food forests are an excellent way to provide both a long-time food supply that provides long term and also a quick providing food system that gets food on the table as efficiently as a traditional row crop garden.


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Harold Thornbro

Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Public Speaker, Teacher, Homesteading and Permaculture Enthusiast. If You're Looking For Me, You'll Find Me In The Garden.

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