Put Your Yard to Work For You!
By Amanda Rose Newton
If the thought of making a simple raised bed garden makes you overwhelmed, having your backyard serve as a food ecosystem may seem out of the question! However, creating your own food forest is not only obtainable but it’s built around a few classic permaculture principles (keywords being a few- there are massive books on the subject) that reduce your overall maintenance load while providing you with a nice output of fruits, veggies, and herbs. By observing nature’s natural tendencies, you can mimic and encourage a bounty of edibles to produce in your landscape year-round.
Seven Layer System
Traditionally, the standard food forest consists of seven distinct layers: the canopy, the lower tree area, the shrub layer, the herbaceous layer, the rhizosphere layer, and the groundcover zone. Using this model, you will maximize the production of not only edibles but also enhance and introduce the soil richness through the promotion of mycorrhiza, a fungus that harnesses nitrogen to be taken up by plants as well as simply increasing the organic matter through debris. As with all gardens, it’s best to have a plan which encompasses at the very least, how much sun/shade you receive, how much maintenance you are willing to do, and, of course, what you enjoy eating most. See our top choices for ease of growth in our county for each of the layers below.
The Canopy Layer
This is the top layer in your forest, so think tall! Most of the plants on this list top out at around 20-30 feet.
Atemoya (Sugar Apple) 25-30 ft tall. Heart-shaped fruit with custard-like sweet flesh perfect in smoothies, baked goods, and puddings.
Avocado 30 ft tall. Did you know we stock at least 15 varieties at a time? When selecting an avocado, it’s all about the oil content. Choose one with at least 15% in order to get creamy guacamole.
Black Sapote 25-40 ft tall. This tropical favorite is known as the chocolate pudding fruit for a reason. Deliciously decadent and different!
Carambola 6-20 ft fall. The star fruit is easy to grow and bears fruit multiple times a year.
Citrus 10-25 ft tall. What would a Florida landscape be without a citrus tree? Consider adding lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, tangerine, or kumquat to your canopy.
Jakfruit 30 ft tall. Currently all the rage, this enormous fruit makes a great substitution for pulled pork. Who would have guessed?
Loquat 15-20 ft tall. Loquats perform fantastic in Brevard and we carry 3 varieties: Champagne, Christmas, and Golden Nugget. All delicious.
Mango 10-30 ft tall. Another easy to grow tree, there truly is a mango for everyone. Fiber content seems to be the dividing line for most people, so make sure you select your variety accordingly.
Mulberry 30-50 ft tall. This fast-growing tree puts out a large amount of fruit each season.
Papaya 6-20 ft tall. Though not a true “tree”, the papaya is another easy to grow fruit in Florida.
The Lower Tree Area
The next layer down features trees coming in at about 15 feet in total height. These trees benefit from some shade and help with shading the lower layers. Best choices for this category include:
Banana 4-15 ft tall- With so many to choose from and natural dieback each season that contributes to soil health, a banana is a great choice.
Barbados’s Cherry 12-15 ft tall. If you are not familiar with this one yet, it is time to get acquainted! This tropical cherry features a pumpkin-shaped fruit with a slightly sour bite. Addicting!
Fig 10-15 ft tall. If you are impatient by nature, a fig is perfect for you! It is not uncommon for figs to produce in the year of purchase. Most fruit trees take at least 3.
Jaboticaba 10-15 ft. This is another sleeper hit in the making. Jabotocobia produces fruit directly on the stem which is unusual in the plant world. The fruit is musky and soft and truly unique!
Strawberry Tree 15 ft tall. As the name implies, the fruit tastes like strawberries. It sells itself.
Falling in under the lower tree layer is the shrub layer, which encompasses plants reaching up to 8 feet in height. There are dozens of plants that would be superb in this layer, but to help narrow down your choices, here are our picks:
Blackberry 4-6 ft tall- Thorns aside, picking your own blackberries is a pleasure. Not to mention how many pies you can get from one plant.
Blueberry 4-9 ft tall- Florida has many native species of blueberry, several that we stock at Rockledge Gardens. Delicious and easy to grow, this is a great plant to use to get the kids excited about gardening.
Lemongrass 4-8 ft tall. Probably not the first thing that pops into your mind when you think shrub, but lemongrass can get strikingly tall. Not only that, it adds a rich scent and flavor to stir-fries and other savory dishes.
Miracle Fruit 5-7 ft tall. This little plant holds an interesting trick up its sleeve. It contains a compound that inhibits your taste buds from detecting sour notes in foods for a short time after consuming. Try eating a miracle fruit and then taking a bite out of a lemon.
Okra 3-6 ft tall. Another plant that you often do not think of as a shrub, Okra is a wonderful choice for a food forest. With its cheery flowers and ability to bear fruit in the heat of Florida summer, it’s a winner.
The herbaceous layer serves several purposes. It fills in those gaps under the shrub layer and it also aids in assisting the groundcover in choking out potential weeds. It also tends to provide harborage for natural enemies, which are insects that attack insects not desirable in your yard. Win-win.
Arugula– 2 ft- This peppery lettuce goes well on anything. Even pizza.
Dill– 2-4 ft- Dill moonlights as the Black swallowtail’s hostplant, so you may not end up with must to use in your kitchen in the end.
Fennel 2-5 ft. Also, a favorite of the swallowtail, fennel produces a delicious bulbous stem with a slight licorice flavor.
Rosemary 3-4 ft. Rosemary is hardy, beautiful, and has a lovely smell.
Sweet Basil 1-3 ft. Basil, like arugula, pretty much enhances everything it touches.
As one would suspect, the vertical layer includes all the vining fruiting plants. Here are our top picks:
Beans of all kinds- delicious, versatile, productive. Everything you want in a plant.
Grapes– Muscadines naturally perform well in Florida
Cucumber- A great starter vegetable, cucumbers produce beautiful flowers and attract bumblebees to the garden
Peas– sweet, crunchy, and can be stored in so many ways. You can not go wrong with peas
Hops– a new to Florida option! Beer fans can try Cascades hops which are a variety that you can pull off even in your hot and humid yard.
In the food forest, even the “Turf” is edible! Any trailing herb would make an excellent choice but if you need suggestions, see below.
Cuban Oregano– beautiful variegated leaves, this oregano is delicious in cooking and in appearance.
Nasturtium- This lovely sprawling plant produces leaves AND flowers that are edible. Who wouldn’t want to eat a salad with flowers on it?
Thyme– Creeping thyme makes a lush, fragrant groundcover that transforms your backyard into an English woodland garden
Creeping rosemary– rosemary is so versatile and hardy and the creeping variation is no exception.
Strawberry- everyone’s favorite Florida grown fruit also happens to make a great groundcover.
This layer might prove to be the most difficult to interpret for most. The rhizosphere occupies the area between the soil and the ground, so think root vegetables. These plants create air pockets and help with breaking up the soil in that layer, making it healthier and happier.
Beets– Savory and a little sweet, beets are a great treat from the garden.
Carrots– Get fancy and select purple, white, or a mix of colors for your yard
Onions– Onions, scallions, and leeks are all successful here
Radish– Whether French breakfast or the eye-catching watermelon variety is your favorite, radishes are often underappreciated in the kitchen.
Turnip– Perhaps even more underappreciated than the radish, turnips make a great stand-in for potatoes. Just try making them into fries!
Enjoying your Bounty
As always, to get up to the date information on disease and pest control for the plants you end up selecting, consult the specialists at Rockledge Gardens. For a step by step video tutorial on how to start, maintain, and be successful with your new edible landscape, check out Josh’s video on creating a food forest and enjoy the satisfaction of eating fresh food YOU grew!