Food forest is a truly fascinating idea and it suits every climate, also Mediterranean. Even though permaculture started in Australia, in sub tropical climate, with the time permaculture practitioners from all over the world got amazing results, implementing the food forest design. When we moved to Central Portugal couple of years ago with the intention to set up a permaculture farm, we found out, that adjusting your design to the climate is not that easy. If you are curious to see more pictures about the beginnings of our journey with the food forest in Portugal, follow this link.
We needed to learn not only about the seasons, temperature and rainfall differences, but also about the species of plants we didn’t know much about. Fortunately in permaculture everything comes with practice and observation is your best habit to have. I would like to share couple of notes we figured out about growing food forest in Portugal. As well as list some plants for every layer, that give us good results.
The seven layers of the food forest
First of all, I would like to point out, that the classical seven layers of the developed forest is a helpful design frame, but it doesn’t have to be an absolute goal. Also all those layers as well as the density of the vegetation will vary depending on the climate you live in. In my most favorite book about food forest design Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 1 and Volume 2, Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier write: While we know that these layer names might be confusing, the terms help one visualize and understand what might be going on in the ecosystem. For this reason it is important not to take the specifics about the layers not too seriously. Each layer has an important function in the ecosystem and this is why the food forest concept works so well. Because it imitates the natural, most resilient system in the nature – the forest.
Food forest layers apply in Portugal, Mediterranean climate
You will probably find many different ideas, what should be growing in the canopy and the understory layers. Those two I find specifically confusing, specially in our climate. The canopy layer can grow not as fast as in tropics, and not as tall as in temperate climates. And other trees, like fig or chestnut could be maybe considered as understory, but in Mediterranean countries they grow huge and strong, becoming a category of the canopy layers. Layers can also change with the time and development of your food forest. In the first year, when the trees are just seedlings, even the sunflowers can grow higher and becoming your temporary canopy, providing shade and structure for the beans to grow up.
I decided to write about canopy or understory layers together, giving you some examples for both of them.
Canopy and understory plants:
- umbrella pine (Pinus pinea)
- ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- olive tree
- linden tree (Tilia)
- hazel nut (Corylus avellana)
- almond tree (Prunus amygdalus)
- European chestnut (Castanea sativa)
- English walnut (juglans regia) or black walnut (juglans nigra)
- black mulberry (morus nigra) or white mulberry (morus alba)
- cherry tree
- fig tree
- persimon tree
- peach tree
- apricot tree
- nectarine tree
- all sort of citrus trees
- prunes and plums
- nashi pear (Pyrus pyrifolia)
- pear tree
- apple tree
- avocado tree
- bay leaf
- carob tree
- sweet gum
- strawberry tree
Of course this is just a set of examples to get you inspired and help with finding good ideas for your specific design. Within the species, there will be as well varieties, that are better or worse to your side. I would like to invite everyone to search for the varieties that are hardy and native to your area. Choosing plants, that can grow easily on your side is saving a lot of effort with making the plant growing and producing well. Every of those plants have their specific niche, they prefer more shade or water, well drained or heavy soils. That’s where the fun with the design starts!
Bushes layer in the food forest:
- dog rose
- white willow
- pineapple guava, feijoa
- lemon verbena
- oregon grape
- scotch broom
- elder bush
Again, as well as the canopy and understory layers, some of those bushes could also belong to other layers. Elder bush or pomegranate, or hawthorn can grow up to the understory or even canopy layers. Physalis will die with the frost and come back in spring again, therefore it could be considered as a herb layer. All of them vary in size and density, so couldn’t be treated equally in the design.
Herbs layer in the food forest:
- lemon balm
- lemon grass
Bushes and herbs layers very often mix with each other and sometimes it’s hard to tell where is the difference. In general bushes are woody, perennial plants. Whereas herbs are green and often annual or survive the winter only in the root layer. Herbs are in majority serving as spices or medicines for infusions or tinctures. So often they are not directly edible as a row products.
Ground cover plants for the food forest:
- strawberry (cultivated or forest varieties)
- New Zealand spinach
- Saint John’s Wort
Here again every type of ground cover depends on your soil, sun exposure, water etc. Chickweed grows on our land over the winter time and New Zealand spinach dies with the frosts. If your side is very sunny and rocky, I recommend introducing succulents or typical Mediterranean herbs, like thyme.
Examples of the roots layer in the food forest:
- topinambur (jerusalem artichoke)
- walking onion (perennial onion)
- all the root vegetables
Root layer of the food forest is the one that we often forget about, because that’s the only one we can’t see. But every permaculture enthusiast knows, that the underground world of the plants is just as important, as above ground. It is also hard to define plants only for the roots layer, because obviously all of the living plants contribute to that part of the forest. And the other way around – the edible roots can be also edible or useful above the ground, like beetroots. The root layer is basically a reminder for us, that every part of the forest should be appreciated by us – while designing and consuming!
Examples of the climbers layer in the Mediterranean food forest:
- grape vine
- climbing nasturcium
- chocolate wine (Akebia quinata)
- achocha (Cyclanthera pedata)
- climbing rose
- passion fruit
Nitrogen fixing plants for the food forest in Portugal
Nitrogen fixers play a huge role in the forests development. As often being pioneer plants, they preparing the soil for others to establish. They also grow vigorously, provide shade and supply other plants with nitrogen. We can divide all of the nitrogen fixers into annuals and perennials. Annuals are easy to establish during the first years of the food forest. They grow fast and provide us with lot’s of biomass. They also die after one season, but many of them are coming back from the seeds or roots next year.
My favorite annual nitrogen fixers are:
- lupin (Lupinus arboreus)
- all kinds of clover varieties
- all beans and peas varieties
- especially fava beans (vicia faba), because of it’s dense biomass production
Perennials grow slower, but provide the ecosystem with long-lasting nitrogen and biomass supply. They also protect young trees with their shade. We are able to design the food forest in a better way, if we know the approximate life length of the plant species. Eventually we might even want to cut down the nitrogen fixers, in order to give the crop trees more space.
Examples of the perennial nitrogen fixers:
- acacia longifolia
- robinia pseudoacacia
- carob tree
- autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
- sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
- judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum)
- alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
- siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens)
- ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
- alder (Alnus glutinosa)
Unfortunately there are just a few of the perennial nitrogen fixers that we had good experience with growing in the full sun. Acacia longifolia, carob and autumn olive we found most drought resistant so far. Others will need a bit of care and observation during the summer time. Please, be careful specially with planting siberian pea shrub, ash or alder, because they definitely prefer to be in the shade or close to the water. Intense mulching can solve problem with the drought, but sometimes the strong sunlight can damage the plant as well.
For the very dry and exposed land, I recommend planting umbrella pines as the canopy, since it is the native and very hardy plant in this climate. It is not a nitrogen fixer, but serves as a wonderful shade tree, and the nuts can be harvested. Umbrella pines grow slowly, so some annual quick growing plants can also serve as a shade, like sunflowers or jeruzalem artichoke.
Good design require a lot of research, but the best design is always based on practice and learning from our own mistakes. Growing food forest is a great adventure and can be a life changing experience. So try out and experiment as much as you can, practice makes the master! If you feel like you want to dive deeper, we also run workshops and courses related to food forest and permaculture. FIND MORE INFO HERE.