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Food Forest / Edible Garden Starter Packs for the Pacific Northwest

The last few years have been marked by the single largest increase in gardening within our lifetimes. As more people stayed at home, they found ways to transform their living spaces into home grown food. Even with people returning to the office and schools, many are still maintaining their gardens, whether that’s in their yards, their patios, or in communal spaces. More and more people are getting into edible gardening in order to relieve pandemic stress, to mitigate grocery price inflation, or just as a hobby to improve mental well-being.

Regardless of how they started, many new gardeners are discovering that to garden in a way that’s effective, low-cost, and sustainable can be a challenge. The conventional raised-bed farming method can be quite resource and time intensive. Every season, you have to haul in new soil and composts, fight pests, pull weeds, water tentatively, just so your annual vegetables even have a chance to survive. Then, you start all over next year. Most working families simply don’t have the time and resources to make this happen.

So what’s the alternative? It requires challenging how we think about gardening. Instead of raised beds that require constant upkeep, another option is a food forest (or forest garden). At SymbiOp we have created a few Food Forest Starter Packs to help beginners jump start their edible backyard journey.

What is a Food Forest?

Source: Permaculture a Beginner’s Guide, by Graham Burnett

In contrast to the 2-dimensional horizontal layout of conventional farming, a food forest uses the 3rd dimension, by layering the plants vertically, in order to create a more self-sustaining food production system.

For example, we can plant a large fruit/nut tree (20-40 ft tall) first. This is the canopy layer. Underneath that, we can plant some dwarf fruit trees (10-20 ft tall), or some tall berry shrubs. This is the shrub / dwarf tree layer. Then underneath that, we can plant with shorter shrubs, herbs, perennial vegetables, edible ground covers, etc. This is the understory layer.

You can further sub-divide these 3 layers into 7 or more layers like the diagram above. However, for simplicity, we are only going to use 3 layers in this article.

Once established, the dense foliages of the taller layers will filter out the harsh sun and trap soil moisture. This creates a stable microclimate to protect sensitive understory plants, fungi, and bacteria. Since there will be little exposed soil, it will be harder for weeds to grow too. And by adding certain herbs and native shrubs, you can also attract beneficial insects that prey on pests, and pollinators that help your plant fruit.

This means in a matured food forest, you don’t need to water, weed, or apply pesticides as much as conventional farming.

Instead of planting annuals, you will be planting mostly perennials that require less and less maintenance as they mature. The accumulation of the plant debris will naturally fertilize the soil over the years. A dense forest also has added benefits of erosion control and carbon sequestration.

This means in a matured food forest, you don’t need to reseed, fertilize, or re-apply compost/mulch as much as conventional farming.

This type of plant grouping that centers around a canopy tree is called a plant guild. You may already be familiar with guilds from our previous article on Native Yard Starter Packs. Plant guilds are essential for regenerative ecological gardening. They maximize ecological and human benefits much more effectively than the individual plants would by themselves, because all the symbiotic relationships in a guild help create a more self-sustaining ecosystem.

A food forest is usually composed of multiple fruit tree guilds. However, you don’t have to plant a bunch of guilds in your yard in one day. The beauty of a guild is that it’s often self-contained. You can plant just one guild, and it will benefit you for decades.

Food forests and regenerative ecological practices aren’t new. They are inspired by how natural forests work. Indigenous communities have been using them for tens of thousands of years, while conventional farming have been around for a much shorter time span.  (For a more detailed explanation of what regenerative ecological practice is, read this article).

Each starter pack below is of a different fruit tree guild designed specifically for beginner gardeners. While these guilds aren’t one-size-fit-all solutions for every yard, they will be good starting points for most yards.

If you’d like more information on guilds and regenerative gardening, check out our Native Yard Starter Packs article.

Table of Contents

Some Terminologies First

  1. A Nitrogen Fixer plant forms a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria, and convert atmospheric nitrogen into a soluble form of nitrogen that is usable by plants as fertilizers.
  2. A Suppressor is a plant that suppresses weed growth through its own growth habits.
  3. An Attractor is a plant that attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects.
  4. A Repeller is a plant that repels unwanted pests.
  5. A Dynamic Accumulator is a plant that draws nutrients and metals from the soil into its leaves, which can be reused after the leaves fall and decompose. More scientific research is needed for this. So far the evidence for this are anecdotes. See this article for more a detailed explanation.

Food Forest Starter Pack 1: Apple Guild

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Get 15% off of each plant, when you buy at least 10 plants together that can form this guild. This discount can only be claimed at our physical location. Only one discount can be used at a time.

Canopy Layer: Apple

Shrub / Small Tree Layer: Jostaberry (Ribes x nidigrolaria), Black Currant (Ribes nigrum), Skirret (Sium sisarm)

Understory Layer: Nodding Onion (Allium cerium), Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) or Cultivated Strawberry, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis)

Ecological Functions:

Nitrogen FixerSuppressorAttractorRepellentEdible / MedicinalNativeDynamic Accumulator
AppleX
JostaberryX
Black CurrantX
SkirretXX
Nodding OnionXXX
Woodland StrawberryXXXX
YarrowXXXXX
Wild MintXXX

Additional Notes:

Not all apple varieties are self-fruiting (aka self-fertile or self-pollinating). If the variety you pick is not self-fruiting, you will need to plant another apple tree nearby. Meadow Checkermallow (Sidalcea campestris) can be used as a substitute understory plant for Wild Mint.

Food Forest Starter Pack 2: Mulberry Guild

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Get 15% off of each plant, when you buy at least 10 plants together that can form this guild. This discount can only be claimed at our physical location. Only one discount can be used at a time.

Canopy Layer: Mulberry

Shrub / Small Tree Layer: Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Douglas Aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum), Sickle-Keeled Lupine (Lupinus albicaulis)

Understory Layer: Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) or Cultivated Strawberry, Nodding Onion (Allium Cernuum)

Ecological Functions:

Nitrogen FixerSuppressorAttractorRepellentEdible / MedicinalNativeDynamic Accumulator
MulberryX
Autum OliveXX
Douglas AsterXXX
Sickle-Keeled LupineXXX
Nodding OnionXXX
Woodland StrawberryXXXX
YarrowXXXXX

Additional Notes:

Not all mulberry varieties are self-fruiting (aka self-fertile or self-pollinating). If the variety you pick is not self-fruiting, you will need to plant another mulberry tree nearby.

Food Forest Starter Pack 3: Pear Guild

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Get 15% off of each plant, when you buy at least 10 plants together that can form this guild. This discount can only be claimed at our physical location. Only one discount can be used at a time.

Canopy Layer: Asian Pear

Shrub / Small Tree Layer: Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), Streambank Lupine (Lupinus rivularis)

Understory Layer: Swamp Onion (Allium validum), Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) or Cultivated Strawberry, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis)

Ecological Functions:

Nitrogen FixerSuppressorAttractorRepellentEdible / MedicinalNativeDynamic Accumulator
Asian PearX
Black ElderberryX
Streambank LupineXXXX
Swamp OnionXXX
Woodland StrawberryXXXX
YarrowXXXXX
Wild MintXXX

Additional Notes:

Not all pear varieties are self-fruiting (aka self-fertile or self-pollinating). If the variety you pick is not self-fruiting, you will need to plant another pear tree nearby. Also, we recommend elderberry varieties like Haschberg, York, Ranch, Allesso, because they are semi-dwarf and self-fruiting. Not all elderberries are self-fruiting. Meadow Checkermallow (Sidalcea campestris) can be used as a substitute understory plant for Wild Mint.

Food Forest Starter Pack 4: Fig Guild

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Get 15% off of each plant, when you buy at least 10 plants together that can form this guild. This discount can only be claimed at our physical location. Only one discount can be used at a time.

Canopy Layer: Fig

Shrub / Small Tree Layer: Pomegranate (Punica granatum), Slender Goldenbanner (Thermopsis gracilis)

Understory Layer: Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Beach Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) or Cultivated Strawberry

Ecological Functions:

Nitrogen FixerSuppressorAttractorRepellentEdible / MedicinalNativeDynamic Accumulator
FigX
PomegranateX
Slender GoldenbannerXXXX
Nodding OnionXXX
Woodland StrawberryXXXX
YarrowXXXXX

Additional Notes:

We recommend varieties like Favorite Pomegranate, Wonderful Pomegranate, Crimson Sky Pomegranate. These varieties are self-fruiting, but can be more prolific in fruit production when planted with another pomegranate tree within 18 feet.

Food Forest Starter Pack 5: Chestnut Guild

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Get 20% off of each plant, when you buy at least 14 plants together that can form this guild. This discount can only be claimed at our physical location. Only one discount can be used at a time.

Canopy Layer: Chestnut (Castanea)

Shrub / Small Tree Layer: Hazelnut (Corylus) or Apple, Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbelatta), Currant (Ribes), Aronia (Aronia melanocarpa)

Understory Layer: Yarrow (Anchillea millefolium), Lupine (Lupinus Polyphyllus), Stawberry (Fragaria),

Ecological Functions:

Plants to add for extra diversity: Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum), Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis), Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana), Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris), Skirret (Sium sisarum), Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

General Planting Tips

  • See this article for the basics of how to plant plants. Although the article is targeted for native plants, non-native planting guidelines are pretty much the same. The only difference is non-native plants often need a bit more soil amendments.
  • When choosing plants for your guild, be mindful of mature size of shrubs and trees that you select. Shrubs should generally be smaller than of the canopy-layer tree.
  • Larger trees should be planted 10 – 15 ft away from buildings and 5 ft away from patios or fences. Ones that grow over 15′ tall should be a safe distance away from power lines.
  • Not all fruit-bearing varieties are self-fruiting. Some varieties may require at least anther plant for cross pollination. Even for self-fruiting varieties, adding another variety nearby can increase its production.
  • Best times to plant are fall and spring seasons – when it’s not too hot or cold and there’s regular rain. Winter planting can work if it’s not too cold, but it’s still risky.

General Maintenance Tips

  • Mulch new plantings with hardwood chips, straw or other organic mulch (avoid bark mulches).
  • Water new plantings 1-2 times a week in hot weather for the first 2-3 years
  • Making sure the roots never sit in standing water (unless it’s a rain garden guild) and have ample time to dry out. As the plantings mature, watering needs will decrease, especially for the Edible Native Guild.
  • While young plants are establishing, it is important to remove undesired vegetation such as invasive species, noxious weeds, and common naturalized weeds that will outcompete your plants for light, water, and nutrients. Use USDA Noxious/Invasive Plant Database and OregonFlora.org to help you identify plants and weeds as they appear in your newly planted guilds.
  • Spread other support species seed to encourage them to be the dominant understory species, when needed. As other native species naturally find their way into the guild, encourage their growth to increase diversity and support larger amount of native fauna. As plantings mature the density of plants will increase, take advantage of the increased plant cover for moisture retention and weed suppression.

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