How to create your own Food Forest

Have a small backyard? Want to grow your own food but don’t think it’s possible because you don’t have much room? Consider creating your own food forest, one can be started in less than 6 square metres – Brent Cairns from Kaiapoi Food Forest explains how:


Food forest layers all fill a potential growing space, including vertical spaces, which allows you to grow far more in any given area than you could in a traditional garden. A food forest is less work as you will mainly be growing perennials which produce fruit each year, saving you loads of money

How to get started:

Kill the grass and build soil

Lay thick layers of cardboard or newspaper (not glossy as its toxic) then apply a thick layer (at least 300mm) of mulch ideally sourced from trees that have been mulched inclusive of leaf litter (leaf litter will assist with speed of breakdown of the mulch). To start you can’t plant directly into the mulch, it’s there to build soil, breakdown and feed the surrounding plants and trees, which will retain moisture. It will be at least a season or two before your mulch will be broken down enough to plant anything into it. Until then all plants should be planted through the mulch and into the soil below.

First/Canopy layer

The canopy layer is either a fruit or a nut tree, choose a fruit that you like, apple, pears, apricots, plums, peaches etc and plant the tree in the centre of where you want to create your food forest. Either plant the main fruit tree first or dig through the mulch and plant into soil, make sure you keep mulch 300mm away from tree trunks and ensure grafts are not covered. Otherwise the mulch will rot the tree trunk killing it.

Second layer

Choose a smaller fruit tree (semi dwarf apricot or nectarine etc) or a citrus tree (lemon, mandarin, lemonade etc), or even a small nut tree like a hazelnut. Depending on your space and amount of light you could choose 3-5 types of smaller tree to go in this layer. We also plant kowhai and kakabeaks in this layer to provide nitrogen to the other trees and plants.

Third layer

Choosing what berries you like, currants (red, black or even white), raspberries (red and golden) golden raspberries are so yummy, the birds don’t know they are ripe as it’s not until they turn orange that they are ready to pop straight in your mouth. Again space dependent you could have a multitude of different berry types at this layer.

Fourth layer

Choose perennial vegetables/herbs (asparagus, rhubarb, globe artichokes, chives, coriander), flowers that will attract bees and are edible, i.e. nasturtiums, rosemary, borage etc. We plant then chop and drop comfrey which has a long tap root which goes down and brings to the surface an abundance of nutrients for the other plants.

Fifth layer

Choose wild and normal strawberries (white and red), incredibly strawberries don’t mind a bit of walking over. At this layer you can include pumpkins, kamokamo, squash etc. The idea is to cover the garden with an abundance of plants, if you don’t do it, nature will with weeds.

However many weeds are edible and very nutritious i.e. cleavers, yes that sticky velcro plant can be eaten and even dried as a coffee substitute.

Sixth layer

The root crop layer. You don’t want to dig up and disturb the soil/mulch, so root crops are isolated too turnips, carrots, parsnips, beetroots etc. Pop your potatoes and kumara in a separate area to your food forest.

Seventh layer

Climbing plants, beans and peas, even hops. The plants will climb up the trees or you can install frames. Peas and beans are not only food, they are plants that will provide nitrogen to the other plants.

Gaps in your food forest add in annuals like lettuces, which don’t need lots of light to grow well so can be planted on the shady side of the food forest. If you wish, include brassicas like cauliflower, Brussel sprouts etc,… brassica flowers are so yummy to throw into salads.

We plant garlic and onions as food but also they ward away pests. We plant tomatoes and purposely don’t stake them as many varieties grow well by just letting them go bush.

In time you will find that in your mulch layer will start growing mushrooms, a sign that your soil is healthy and alive (do not be tempted to eat the mushrooms they may be poisonous) you may want to inoculate areas of mulch with suitable edible mushroom spores.

Food Forests are a far easier way of growing food, the only time you dig is to plant something, if you fill it with abundance you won’t have to weed as there isn’t room for weeds.

You won’t have to use sprays as the mixture and balance of different plants will keep the bugs away.

A food forest will provide you with such an abundance of fresh nutritious food.

I have described above a single food forest guild, if you have room, you can plant at a spacing of 5-10 metres a multitude of different canopy trees. The more guilds of course will give you a wider selection of food to eat.

Learn more at or visit the Kaiapoi Food Forest on Cass Street, Kaiapoi.
We have volunteer time each Wednesday after 4pm, a time for maintenance and learning.

Words: Brent Cairns