The Secrets Of Creating a Food Forest In Almost Any Climate

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I taught a 3-hour workshop on food forests this last week.

My class and I stood beside a chunk of North Florida woods and tried to figure out which plants served which roles… and how those roles could be taken up by edible tree and plant varieties.

At the end of the class, a fellow stuck around to ask a few questions. One of them was “How do I establish a food forest in arid Texas?”

I get this a lot, though the location varies.

“I live in the Miami area… how can I do a food forest?”

“We live in Canada… can we plant a food forest here?”

“I have a friend out West… isn’t it impossible to grow ____ there?”

Let me get the bad news out of the way first: if you live in a place where there are no forests, chances are you’re going to have a hard time growing a food forest. That’s not to say it can’t be done, this experiment proves it can be; however, for the amateur, it’ll be a major uphill battle.

Assuming you live someplace where forests already grow, I’m going to give you a few tips on how you can figure out what will thrive and produce in your region… and we’re going to start by taking a walk in the woods.


I took that photo in fall while hiking the Appalachian Trail approach on Springer Mountain. Up there in the woods there was plenty of moisture and a wide range of plant and tree species. The soil was rich clay and the climate was temperate.

Step 1: Analyze The Native Forest

If I were to plant a food forest in this area, I’d first take a look at what was already growing wild in the region. Hickories? Oaks? Persimmons? Wild plums? Crab apples? Rhododendrons? Pay attention to where these plants are growing in the forest and which ones are next to each other.

Once you’ve done that, take a look at those plants online and find their close relatives or species known to like the same conditions. For instance, pecans will often grow well in the same region as hickories; chestnuts basically like the same conditions as oaks, Japanese or improved American varieties of persimmon might be good choices, named plum cultivars could fill the niche filled by wild plums, apples for crab apples, and blueberries often grow excellently in the same acid conditions rhododendrons prefer.

Look for native vines and plants to fill in the gaps… observe which nitrogen-fixers are in the system… figure out what plants like dry soil, which like bogs, etc.

See how neat that is? You’re basically letting the native forest guide you as you plan your own forest garden. Often, many of the native species might be good additions in their own right. In my food forest, I have wild black cherries (Prunus serotina), native persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), beautyberries (Callicarpa americana), and rampant local muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia) creeping along my fence lines.

Step 2: Check Out Commercial Agricultural Operations

Are farmers growing orchards of any type? Blueberry farms? Just grains?

Look around and see. If you can, visit the local extension and ask them what’s being grown locally. If you find the area is great for peaches, great! Add those to your plans. You might also add other stone fruit or even almonds. If the soil is letting folks make money off a particular crop, it’s probably a good idea to add it to your food forest.

Okay… now let’s try another climate:


 That’s not even fair. I took that picture in Grenada, West Indies… one of the most fertile places in the world and a major exporter of nutmeg. But… let’s do it anyway.

Step 1: Analyze The Native Forest

The forest contains a wide range of nitrogen fixing trees, as well as edibles, both wild and feral versions of cultivated crops. Coconuts, bananas, hog plums, tropical almonds, papaya, passion fruit, breadfruit, citrus, mangoes, etc.

There’s plenty of water across most of the island, though coastal areas may have raised salinity that could limit crops.

Step 2: Check Out Commercial Agricultural Operations

Sugarcane, nutmeg, cocao and other spices are grown for export. Many other crops are raised on a smaller scale, including yams, sweet potatoes, tropical squashes and plantains.

It’s too easy when you have a climate this nice, so let’s take a look at the climate where my student was considering starting his food forest project:

Texas Desert

Photo credit. CC license.

I’m no expert on arid regions or desert life, but I do know there’s a lot more to that ecosystem than first meets the eye. Mesquite trees fix nitrogen and have edible components… many cacti make delicious fruits while others have edible pads… and some of the world’s tastiest fruits, like figs, pomegranates and dates, are from generally dry climates.

Let’s do it.

Step 1: Analyze The Native Forest

Look around. What are the tallest trees? The mid-sized trees? Shorter species? Do you see a profusion of life in low gullies or in roadside ditches? Then you might need to plan in swales. Are there plants growing in between rocks or against cliffs facing in specific directions? Pay attention to what is growing and where… then look for those plants’ edible cousins if the wild species are not directly useful.

Step 2: Check Out Commercial Agricultural Operations

You’ll find that in many arid conditions farmers will move towards raising goats, cattle or other grazing animals. Think longhorns! This is because they can forage across a range of land and make do easier than, say, an apple orchard. (If you do see apple trees wandering around, you’ve been in the sun too long or eaten the wrong cactus). Obviously, this doesn’t help you plant a food forest, but it may prove to be an option for your greater homesteading plans. As I mentioned before, there are good arid climate crops. A few great ones, other than dates, figs and pomegranates, are pistachios, almonds, citrus, olives and Cereus cactus. Obviously, not all arid climates can take the heat or cold of your area – this is just a launchpad for your brainstorming. Again… if there are farmers, find out what they grow. And if there aren’t any, figure out why and then start testing species that can take local conditions… step 1 should help with that.

So… what are you waiting for? Get off the computer and go for a walk. I guarantee you’ll find some food forest answers.

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