Grow a food forest in your backyard

“I am a forest, and a night of dark trees; but he who is not afraid of my darkness will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” 1883


The first forests I encountered as a young child were in storybooks. They tended to be dark, scary places where Hansel and Gretel wandered, lost and hungry, and where Snow White fled to escape the wicked queen and her huntsman’s knife. It was only after I visited a real-life forest that I discovered how beautiful and tranquil they are. Since then, I’ve come to agree with naturalist John Muir who wrote, “Come to the woods, for here is rest.”

Forests also captured the attention of author Robert Hart, an Englishman who pioneered the concept of forest gardens. Hart used principles of permaculture design to create human-made landscapes, also called food forests, filled with a variety of edible plants that mimic biodiversity and interrelationships among flora and fauna of the forest.

The emphasis in planning a food forest is to select plants with edible parts that happily coexist in our climate. Often this means using native plants and heirlooms. Equally important is choosing plants that work together to comprise what Hart called a “seven-layer beneficial guild,” similar to the multiple levels of forest vegetation.

The canopy layers include tall- and/or small-sized fruit and nut trees followed by a shrub layer, an herbaceous perennial or self-seeding annual layer, groundcover plants, bulb or tuber plants with edible roots that grow underground, and a vertical layer of climbers and vines.

Forest gardens provide several benefits. They maximize food production; create habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, songbirds and other wildlife; generate their own compost, mulch and organic fertilizer; and provide natural pest control. Individual members of a forest garden are strengthened by their connection to other plants in the guild; thus, an entire garden of healthy, resilient plants that need little human intervention is promoted.

Besides, food forests are beautiful and restful places to spend time. Gardeners who are committed to using native plants in their food forests will experience a variety of foodstuffs they might otherwise never try. Here are examples of plants with edible parts that are native to our region and suitable for a suburban food forest (I’ve omitted the tall canopy layer). For pictures and recipes, check out my blog at

Smaller canopy trees: Western redbud (young flower buds); Western hazelnut (nuts); Western crabapple (fruit); Klamath plum (fruit); Western chokecherry (berries)

Shrubs: Western serviceberry (berries); red-flowering currant (berries); Oregon grape (berries); evergreen huckleberry (berries); salal (berries); Pacific blackberry (berries); bald-hip rose (rosehips)

Herbaceous perennials/herbs: horsemint (leaves); cow parsnip (leaves, flower stalks, roots); monkeyflower (young stems and leaves); licorice fern (leaves and roots); see also bulb plants

Groundcovers: Ceanothus blue blossom (seeds); wild strawberry (fruit); trailing blackberry (fruit); wood sorrel (leaves)

Bulb plants: Spring beauties (corm, leaves); wild onions (bulb, leaves); chocolate lily (bulb); tiger lily (bulb)

Climbers: wild grape (fruit); wild strawberry and trailing blackberry can also be grown vertically.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for a forest garden, don’t miss the upcoming class, “How to Create Your Own Food Forest,” presented by Melanie Midlin from Siskiyou Permaculture. The class will take place from 3-5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center auditorium, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. The class is $10 with 24-hour advanced registration and $15 at the door. Register and pay online at or call 541-776-7371.

Growing a forest garden might be a novel idea for you, but perhaps it’s just the thing you’ve been looking for to try something different. Start slow and add plants each year. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.”

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at

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