4 Principles Behind Designing a Backyard Food Forest

Hand touching blackberries ripening on the vine

Lidia Puica / Shutterstock

It's not like other forms of gardening. Here's why.

Remember that awesome video showing the first three years of a backyard food forest? Even with the slideshow explaining how Dan from Plant Abundance turned a litter-strewn yard into an urban oasis, I have to admit that a Lazivore like me was still intimidated.

That's why I was delighted to see that Dan just posted a new video explaining the simple principles behind his method of gardening. Here's a summary:

1. He doesn't like to be too restrictive: That's why he hesitates to label his work "permaculture," "organic gardening," or "forest gardening," for example—instead taking inspiration from all of these disciplines and more.

2. Layering is central to everything: The most basic premise behind any food forest is the idea that we can maximize our yield if we learn to use all layers of the garden—using the vertical space above and below ground to cram in a much larger harvest than if we only rely on what grows at ground level. By using root crops, ground cover crops, herbaceous plants, shrubs, small trees, canopy trees and vines, Dan is able to more efficiently take advantage of all the space available to him.

3. Symbiosis doesn't necessarily mean self-sustaining: Dan points out that he's growing in a small urban yard, and manages the land accordingly. While a multi-acre food forest might be—by both necessity and design—largely hands off, Dan has to regularly prune back his trees and perform other management in order to maintain an optimal yield. He could let it go and it would probably still thrive, but his yield wouldn't be quite so large nor so diverse.

4. Understanding sunlight is crucial: The downside of layering your plants is that you now have to manage which plants shade what. (This is one of the main concerns folks have about vertical farms too.) So first understanding how sun falls on your property, and then designing your garden with spacing in mind, is critical to success. As Dan showed in his first three years video, though, it's OK for some plants to eventually get shaded out. You just need to plan for that—perhaps planting more annuals in the early years, until your shrubs, small trees and canopies really start to mature.

Obviously, there's more to all this than these four simple principles—and as someone who has dabbled and failed at much of what's here, I am still in awe of what Dan has achieved. but this seems like a useful primer for anyone interested in giving this a go. Check out Plant Abundance for more great videos.