How to Plant a Food Forest | Part 2 SOIL

Preparing the Soil for Your Food Forest

Transitioning your decorative landscape into an edible one is much easier than you may think. Learning how to plant a food forest can be as simple as replacing one “inedible” plant at a time over a period of years, or it can be as complex as installing a productive food forest through intentional permaculture design. Either way, I am convinced that I am “winning at life” is when I can go into my backyard and pick a peach right off the tree OR fix a full garden salad right from my back porch. It’s true, there are few things more fulfilling than having friends and family over for wine and cheese, and then stocking your charcuterie board with nuts, berries, and pickled items from your property.

Before you start plopping your new fruit trees and berry bushes into the ground, it’s important to take time and assess the site. As a designer, I am convinced that it takes a year of studying the site before you can REALLY get to know it. However, a trained eye can definitely get a plan into motion and help you get started. If you want to look into a consultation to help you develop a site plan, click here. Planting a food forest is an invitation to know and interact with your site and learn to steward the land accordingly. Whether you decide to hire a permaculture designer to partner with you or assess the land yourself, there are a few initial questions to get to you started in selecting your location (CLICK HERE).

The Most Important Step Starts Right Under Your Feet

The single most important step you will take in this entire process will be how you prepare your soil before you even put anything into the ground. In fact, the best thing you can do is prepare the soil for an entire season before you even plant your first tree or shrub. There are multiple ways you can both clear the land and/or build organic matter in the soil. Some of these methods will depend on what you have available and how much land you need to clear and prepare.

Option 1: Animal and Livestock to Build the Soil

This is, perhaps, the best possible way to not only clear the land of weeds and grasses, but also build the soil at the same time. If you have a lot of bushes, shrubs, or undergrowth, then goats are the best way to clear this area. In fact, some of their favorite foods are things like Virginia creeper and poison ivy! They have amazingly strong digestive systems and will do a great job at turning the bushes and underbrush into fertilizer for the new plot. Once the shrubs are removed, then you can send in the chickens to take care of the grasses and smaller weeds. They will finish the job nicely, till up the soil, scratch up the dirt, remove bugs and pests… and again turn them all into fertilizer for you! Not only is this source of fresh feed better for your soil, but it’s far better for your animals that bags of conventional feed.

In order to control them and focus their energy, I like to keep them in a smaller area (which I rotate) using a solar electric fence. Personally, I use a set-up from Premier One Fencing Supplies and have had minimal escape problems or predator animal attacks. Once the animals have cleared an area, then move the fence to the next zone to keep them working and fertilizing.

Option 2: Light Tilling and Smother Cropping

If you do not have access to animals, then you will need plan ahead several months before starting your food forest. Another way you can clear the area and also build your soil is to lightly till the area to remove weeds and grasses. Get as many of them out by hand as you can, and then follow with a ground cover or smother crop. Ground covers for the cooler climates are listed here. My favorite smother crop for the Midwest and cold climate growing zones is buckwheat and crimson clover. If you are in a warmer climate, the primary ground cover I would use is Sunn Hemp. Plant this is June and let it grow to max height (6-8 feet), and then chop-and-drop it in August. This plant can easily be buried or tilled under in August and will not only build the organic matter in the soil, but will also repair nitrogen content. Because of its dense growth habit, it will often smother out other weeds and grasses. At the end of the growing season, till these under and then you’ll be ready for a fall planting. Otherwise, you can leave it over the winter to decompose in place and plant in the spring.

Option 3: Layer Mulching

This method works really well and provides fast organic matter, but it does require higher inputs into your system. Often called lasagna mulching, this is a much better alternative to the “Back to Eden” method, which only uses ramified wood chips. Starting at the ground level (and working our way up), here are the layer I would recommend.

  1. Cardboard (remove tape and staples)
  2. Chopped up leaves (using a lawn mower)
  3. Grass clippings
  4. Straw (not hay, because you do not want seed heads)
  5. Manure and/or compost)
  6. 4-6″ of ramified woodchips

Once you have this in place, you can either plant immediately or wait for a few months to let the worms and microorganisms do their job. My preference is to wait a bit and let the layer mulching start working before plant installation.

Option 4: Black Tarp

This method is fast working (during warm summer months), but is also one that does the most harm to the soil. Putting a black tarp down over the area will most definitely cook the grasses, weeds, and pests. However, it will also cook a lot of the good bacteria, worms, and microorganisms in the soil. I rarely, if ever use this method.

Option 5: Spraying

The least recommended method in my book is to use a chemical spray. The ONLY two organic sprays I would recommend for a weed and vegetation killer would be either orange oil OR horticultural vinegar (30-45%). Both of these are effective at removing weeds, but they also have a short impact on the soil. The downside is that vinegar and orange oil will both kill any insects (topically) and will impact the pH of the soil you are working with. Though they will remove the weeds, it will also cause more work in the long run to repair and rejuvenate the soil.

Food Forest at A Natural Farm in Howey in the Hills, Florida

Soil Regeneration is the Key to Your Food Forests Health

Spending adequate time in the stage of soil building is absolutely key to the longterm success of your food forest. However, keep in mind that a good garden or food forest will be a continuous journey of rejuvenating soil and creating more organic matter. Perhaps even more than producing a good crop for human consumption, the role of a gardener is likely better described as one who stewards the soil and all the life therein. I’m not saying that all problems in the garden (fungal, pests, insectary imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, etc.) can be solved by compost alone… but 97.3% of them can be. If the soil (and its microbial and fungal balance) is in healthy shape and rich with organic matter, the fruit and flowers that appear above ground will likewise be healthy. Inversely, it’s nearly impossible to maintain healthy plants at the expense of soil biology. Personally, I apply compost every spring and refresh my wood chips each fall. In (sub)tropical climates, compost is best applied in February, June, and September.

If I notice that plants are on the struggle bus, I almost always start with two steps. First, add organic compost and the secondly apply a foliar spray. Either way, building soil is the single most important step of planting a garden or food forest. Generally speaking, when applying compost, use a fungal dominated compost for hard stemmed plants (trees, shrubs, and bushes) and a bacterially dominated compost to soft stemmed plants (veggie gardens and perennial flowers). If you do not have a fungal compost available to you, you can introduce mycorrhizal activity by adding flour to your compost pile.

So, before you plant your trees, shrubs, and bushes – consider how you might improve your soil quality and build organic matter. Share your ideas for new site soil preparation below…

More Articles in the “Planting a Food Forest Series”

Part 1 – Food Forest Myths

Part 3 – Selecting and Planting the Layers of the Food Forest

Three Ways to Improve Garden Soil | Matthew Capps

Wood chips for Garden Beds

Three Ways to Improve Garden Soil

One of the main ideals of Permaculture is to catch and store energy in whichever form it takes. Most people spend heaps of cash importing what they need and disposing of their waste, when if they only examined their system a little, they would discover that what they pay the trash collector to take away is actually a valuable resource if harnessed and stored correctly. This is problem of biological waste is often an opportunity to improve garden soil.  The ideal system is one in which no “waste” is produced; every byproduct of every element is captured and channeled to some other purpose.  In essence, we capture the waste (aka. sink) of one system in order to feed another.  Of course, this is physically impossible per Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, but for the practical purposes of everyday life, we can actually come quite close. So, let’s just get real – how do you find cheep and easy ways to improve your garden soil?


1 – Kitchen Compost

This is probably the best understood method for recycling resources, but surprisingly few people actually do it. If we are honest, the few that do compost, never actually get to use what they create because it’s in a forgotten corner of the yard.  Whether from fear of the smells and sights of rotting vegetables or merely the inconvenience of gathering scraps and toting them to the compost pile, most people miss out on this simple and productive system. It does take a bit more work, but for a serious gardener it is more than worth it as piles of fertile earth become available.

You can compost vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds (in moderation), however meats, dairy and fats should be avoided as they will stink and attract pests.  Unless, of course, you are using the Berkley Method of Composting, but that’s another article.

Where heat and moisture are concerned, the microorganisms that make compost have a goldilocks zone: warm and moist. Accordingly, if you live in a cold climate it is best to have the compost in the sun where the microorganisms can benefit from the heat, but if you live in a hot climate, you may want to put your compost in partial shade as too much heat will hamper the process or cause it to go anaerobic.  If you live in a dry climate, you will also need to watch the moisture; a dry compost will not only kill microorganisms, but if overheated may actually catch on fire.

Compost should be turned regularly to provide oxygen for the microorganisms. This provides the perfect chance to check for moisture and heat. Also, compost should maintain about a 1:2 ratio of brown (leaves, twigs, dried stalks) to green (veggies, fruit, chicken manure), the term ‘brown’ referring to those materials higher in carbon and ‘green’ those higher in nitrogen. A healthy compost needs both. If properly maintained, this ratio should be enough to neutralize any odors coming of your compost. For a chart of compost items on the carbon/nitrogen continuum you can go to

A “cheater” alternative, if you just can’t bring yourself to hassle with composting, is to take your kitchen scraps to a corner of the garden and just bury them a foot deep with your shovel. Boom.

Wood chips for Garden Beds
Wood chips for Garden Beds

2 – Fallen Wood

One source of biomass and organic matter that is almost completely forgotten is fallen wood. After a windstorm when the trees shed their weak and dying limbs, people regularly bundle them up and set them on the street corner to be carried away. A treasure trove of sticks and logs can be easily harvested by a pickup truck or even a regular vehicle if you don’t mind vacuuming afterwards. When compiled, this wood can be used for hugelkultur swales, mushroom growing, or wood chips if you’re willing to rent a chipper.  It can also be burned for wood ash, which is really useful for the home orchards.  Apply wood ash around your apple trees and blueberry bushes.  You can also use the finer wood ash in your chicken dust baths, instead of diatomaceous earth.  DT is a highly controversial substance with livestock, because research is showing that the powder can get into the lungs of the animals (birds) causing respiratory problems.  If none of these options are viable, you can store the wood to burn in the winter, heating your house and providing nutrient rich ash for your compost.  You can even use the wood ashes, once they are cooled down to help alkalize the soil and add potassium (potash) to the soil.


3 – Weeds, Leaves and Grass Clippings

Last of all are weeds, leaves and grass clippings. These are the waste products that homeowners spend hours pulling, raking, bagging, and shipping off to a dump where they will do no good. Weeds and grass can be used as feed for chickens or goats; once dried they also make good scratch’n thatch to neutralize the odor of chicken manure and keep disease at bay.  However, in the chicken coop, dandelion greens, plantains, and clover don’t last long at all!  My girls devour it!

Leaves too can be used as mulch or mown over and put in the compost. Fortunately for the permaculturist, leaves are like fallen wood in that no one seems to want them. Bags and bags can be found by every driveway during the fall. By collecting them you can capture the biomass that it would have taken your trees 10 years to generate. My permaculture teacher, Kris Edler, shared in our PDC about how he will collect dozens of bags from his neighbors trees to add to his gardens and compost piles in the winter.  By spring time, most of it has decomposed and is forming a rich layer of organic matter on the top of the garden beds.  It is important to run it over with a lawn mower if applying to flower beds, to help the decomposition process.

Grass Clippings on Garden Beds
Grass Clippings on Garden Beds

A note on grass clippings:  It is dangerous, however, to take bagged grass clippings from people you do not know, as these are often covered in chemicals from their former owner.  They could have pesticides, herbicides, or other toxins that you may not welcome in your organic garden.

To use toxin-free grass clippings, you can add them around the open soil of flower pots to add instant nitrogen and help prevent water evaporation.  These clippings go great at the base of tomato plants or the garden veggies, though I would not put them around the base of squash, because their stem does better when slightly dry.  You can also dump a load into your chicken coop and allow the birds to forage through for weeds, bugs, and seed heads.  There are so many things to do with great clippings around the yard, so don’t bag them up and send them away – save them for yourself to improve garden soil.

Catching and reusing energy is essential to a sustainable future, but with so much going to waste in our own neighborhoods, it only takes one good neighbor to make a difference for many. Building your permaculture property and organic garden can make a huge difference in the community, when it’s done well and with careful planning.  Geoff Lawton says, “We should have 10 hours planning before the first hour of labor.”

We can talk and study about permaculture all day, but until we take these small, practical steps, nothing really matters.  By taking a few steps we improve our neighborhoods, one yard at a time.  Each of these three simple methods are great ways to use biomass to improve garden soil.

If you enjoyed this article, comment below with your own tips and tag a friend on social media.  Thanks for the SHARE!