How to Plant a Food Forest | Part 3 – Selecting Species and Planting

Once the soil has been prepared, you can begin selecting species and planting trees for your site. There are several options for this:

  1. Do online research to see which trees, bushes, and wildflowers are hardy in your area.
  2. Visit a locally owned greenhouse or nursery to see which ones may do well for you. Big box stores are something we recommend avoiding when it comes to fruit trees and berry bushes. They generally sell the same varieties nation wide (which means they may not work in your area) and their quality often suffers. Find a local nursery and build a relationship with one that you respect their growing methods (hopefully organic).
  3. Get a permaculture consultation to help you determine what your site can handle. These can be done in person OR virtually.

There are many things to consider when putting fruit trees and berry bushes in the ground. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as merely deciding what you like to eat and planting it. If you live in Michigan, no matter how much you like avocados, they just won’t survive without a heated greenhouse. Likewise, if you live in Florida, the traditional Haas avocado that you buy in the grocery store hates the humidity. So, there are other varieties that will do better in that region. Learning what does best in your area is an important step and also a lifelong journey. Enjoy that learning process.

Here are some important things to keep in mind when selecting species and planting your new food forest

  1. Understand the cold hardiness zone for where you live. More important than the higher temps, it’s critical to know your minimum temps. Freezing is generally more likely to harm a sensitive plant than higher temperatures. If you want to learn more about your growing zone, click here.
  2. Know your sun exposure. If your yard is mostly shade, you are unlikely to do well planting tree species that prefer full sun. Though a mis-planted tree may “survive”, it may not do well or produce fruit. Keep in mind that there is full sun and full shade in every USDA growing zone, so regardless of where you live – there is something that will grow and thrive on your site. Choose well and work in harmony with your site.
  3. Plant during the right season. Depending on where you live, the ideal time for planting fruit trees may GREATLY vary. Don’t assume that just because a nursery tells you to plant it that it is the ideal time to do so. Remember, their job is to get you the plant – it’s your job to steward it well.
  4. Understand the differences in varieties. Within each type of tree (peach, pear, mango, etc.) there are hundreds and even thousands of different varieties to choose from. A peach is simply NOT a peach. For example, those peaching grown in Georgia are bred for that specific growing zone and will not produce fruit in Central Florida. However, varieties of peaches like Tropic Beauty (our staff favorite), Tropic Snow, and Florida prince are bred to require less “chill hours”, so they will bare fruit much better in zone 9 and 10. Likewise, avocados have a WIDE range in their varieties. Some (like “Fantastic” or “Joey”) are cold hardy down to 15 degrees. Some avocados are better for slicing and dicing (like Winter Mexican or Wurtz), while other avocados are more ideal for guacamole (like Brogdon, Oro Negro, or Mexicola). The benefit of having someone to consult with is that you are more likely to get a variety that meets your preferences in flavor, but also one that will THRIVE on your particular site.
  5. Think in layers. Don’t just plant one height of trees all over the property. Think about creating production at various heights and levels. What can you grow as a root crop? A smaller perennial? A bush layer? A dwarf tree? Top story tree? Vine? By choosing to plant multiple layers in your system, you not only maximize your space, but create a scenario where various plants can work in synergy with one another. One might provide the needed shade for another. Or, better yet, one might actually fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil to fertilize another plant.
New Food Forest Installation

Now, it’s time to get planting

  1. Plant away! Use something to suppress weeds. Apply compost. Layer up 4-6″ of wood chip mulch. For more in-depth planting instructions, CLICK HERE.
  2. Finish a smaller area before moving on to the next. This is one of the most common mistakes that new food foresters make… they want to just put the tree in the ground and walk away. However, one of the worst things you can do for your new tree is leave it to fight with the grass around the base. Cover the soil properly, using the method above and completely finish one area before moving on. This will not only give your tree its best chance at thriving, but it will also give you a sense of completion.
  3. Know when to water. There is no possible way to simply say, “water your plants three times a week.” Differences in heat, sun exposure, wind, and humidity all vary so much that it’s impossible to set a specific watering schedule. So, to know when to water, put your finger in the soil down to your big knuckle. If you feel moisture, do NOT water. Plants actually need to dry out between watering. This not only causes their roots to expand and grow deeper into the soil, but also helps prevent root rot.
  4. Maintain your food forest and garden by checking back on the blog for our free monthly To-Do Lists. We will help remind you when to fertilize, when to plant the next crops, and when to prune.

So, now that you’ve read the theories and have done some research – it’s time to get outside and plant. Remember, you can always find more help, information, and inspiration on our social media account.

See you in the Garden!

How to Plant a Fruit Tree or Berry Bush

Easy Instructions for Successful Fruit Tree Planting

how to plant a fruit tree
  1. Prep the site:  Make sure utilities have been clearly marked by calling 8-1-1 before you dig.
  2. Gather materials:  You will need cardboard or contractor paper for weed suppression, compost, wood chip mulch, shovel, water.
  3. Digging the hole – Remove the plant carefully from the pot and set it next to the hole.  When digging, the initial hole should be nearly twice as big as the root ball itself.  Put most of the dirt you are removing in a wheelbarrow or the pot it came in.  You will be filling the hole back up with the native dirt.
    • Placing the plant – Set the root ball in the hole.  The top of the root ball should be 2-3” higher than the soil line.
      • Do NOT let the root ball go lower than the soil level. Remember, the plant will settle into the hole.  Backfill the hole with the native soil. 
      • Do NOT put fertilizer or compost into the hole.  Doing so will cause the roots of the plant to want to stay inside the hole instead of venturing out and establishing a wider root system.  Amendments should always be applied to the top of the soil.
  4. Weed suppression barrier – Use contractor paper or cardboard around the tree (whether in a circle or in a row) to kill the grass and suppress weeds.  If you are using cardboard, be sure to remove any staples or tape.   This area should be several feet on each side of the tree in order to protect the roots and help decomposition.
  5. Compost – Apply a 1” layer of compost to the top of the soil.  Keep all top dressing away from the trunk / stem of the plant.  The width of the ring should be twice the width of the canopy of the plant.
    • Soft stem plants:  Use a compost that is plant and bacteria based.
    • Hard stemmed bushes / trees:  Use a mushroom or fungal based compost when possible.
  6. Mulch – Use a good mulch or wood chips as your top dressing (4-5” deep).
    • Wood chips:  Better for woody stemmed and /or mature plants.  The benefit is that it takes longer to break down and provides a cleaner look.  Drawback is that for annual vegetables it can tie up nitrogen when it initially breaks down. 
    • Straw or grass clippings:  Better for annual flowers and annual vegetables.  Benefit is that it breaks down faster and helps heal the soil quickly.  Drawback is that is needs to be reapplied multiple times a year.
    • NOTE:  You can layer your mulch (leaves, grass clippings, straw, and wood chips on top).  Do not mulch deeper than 6” at a time.
  7. Watering – For your first watering, consider using a probiotic spray (
    • After the initial watering, use the finger / soil test to determine when the plant needs to be watered.  In general, most plants like to dry out between watering.
      • Finger test:  Put your finger into the soil at the base of the tree down to the biggest knuckle.  If the soil is moist, do not water.  If it is dry, then consider watering.
    • Plants like to be watered less frequently with a deeper watering.  Do not water the trunk of the tree, always water about 12” from the trunk (or at the drip line of the canopy).  Watering the trunk can cause root rot.  If you are using drip irrigation, a sprinkler, or bubbler, make sure they are not spraying the wood or branches of the tree.
    • After the first year, with annual mulch application, you should rarely need to water.  Once established, let the tree roots do their job and only water during drought times or when the trees look overly stressed.

REMINDER:  Fertilization in subtropic and tropical climates is best done in February, June, and September on fruit trees and berry bushes.  In cooler climates, it should be done in March / April (just before flowers emerge) and again in June just before fruit set. After the first year, fertilization is best applied as a quality compost or manure.  Chemical fertilizers are unnecessary and do not help the soil in the long run.

For additional benefit you can also apply a compost tea or late spring foliar spray during the same months listed above


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