Don't forget the shrub layer of your food forest!

The Shrub Layer of a Food Forest – 5 Reasons Shrubs Are Awesome

Did you know that shrubs are awesome? While trees tend to get more focus in food forest designs, the shrub layer can provide a large amount of food along with other great benefits. Let’s look at 5 reasons shrubs rock, and why your food forest may need more of them!

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When you hear the term “food forest,” you likely start to think of, well, a forest. A place with tall trees forming a canopy. A place where you can walk under them and feel the cool air provided by their shade.

Most of us love taking hikes in a forest, and the idea of being able to create your own forest that also provides a ton of food is just awesome.

In tropical or sub-tropical areas, you can get enough sunlight to have a dense canopy and still have lots of light filtering through for abundance below.

But in temperate climates, the sunlight is much less intense. And it’s difficult to get a large food harvest from a closed-canopy forest, where the edges of the branches all touch.

Luckily, you don’t have to make your food forest with a closed canopy if you live in a temperate climate.

Instead, you can plant less trees and more shrubs. By focusing more on the shrub layer of the food forest and creating an open tree canopy, you leave space for sunlight to reach more of your plants.

The result is greater harvests—but less trees.

I call this sort of food forest a “recovering forest” type of food forest. This is because this type of food forest mimics a natural forest that is recovering from a large fire or windstorm.

After this sort of disturbance event, the canopy is opened, but there are still some tall trees remaining. The result is that a bunch of shrubs and non-woody plants pop up between the existing trees.

These shrubs and non-woody plants remain until the forest closes up again as the trees regrow. But in your own food forest you can keep it in this early state of recovery through design and management.

You can read more about this type of food forest (and 2 others) in the post—Types of Food Forests – Which is Right for You?

The key take-away is that if you live in a temperate climate and you want to grow a food forest that creates the most abundant food harvests, focusing on the shrub layer and less trees is your best bet.

Let’s dive into the 5 reasons why you should focus on the shrub layer of your food forest.

But before we do, keep in mind that the shrub layer is just 1 of 7+ layers found in a food forest. Don’t forget about these other layers when building your food forest. So make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet all about these other layers so you can plant a truly abundant food forest.

1. Using the Shrub Layer to Support Your Trees

A goumi berry growing in a food forest

I like to plant goumi berries near my fruit trees. These great shrubs help my trees grow while also providing my family and I berries to eat! This is one of 3 goumi berries that I planted in a new food forest.

Some shrubs like goumi berries and seaberries fix nitrogen into the soil from the air through a partnership with soil bacteria.

By planting nitrogen fixing shrubs near your trees, you can improve the fertility of your soil and help your trees grow.

This is a great way that your shrub layer can support your trees.

But many of your shrubs can also be chopped and dropped on a regular cycle to provide quick woody debris and mulch to add organic material to your food forest.

Fast growing shrubs that re-sprout after being cut are great for this. Hazelnuts can be grown as bushy shrubs and cut back every few years in this way.

This is a great way to quickly build up the soil in your food forest.

Shrubs can also quickly shade the soil around your trees and block some of the wind. This can help retain moisture and also reduce the stress on young trees.

2. Shrubs Provide a Quick Harvest

Gooseberries are a great addition to your shrub layer

These gooseberries were planted back in February but even though this is their first year they’re already producing berries. I can’t wait to try them out this year!

One big reason shrubs are awesome is they can provide you a harvest much quicker than trees will. Many shrubs will start producing harvests for you within 2 years, and some even quicker.

Many shrubs like raspberries, currants, gooseberries and goumi berries will start to give you a harvest within a year or 2 of being planted.

But just a heads up—some shrubs like serviceberries can be slower, taking 3-4 years to provide a harvest.

While some fruit trees can start to produce in a similar time frame, many take much longer. It’s not uncommon for fruit trees to take 3-5 years to start to produce, and sometimes as much as 7 years.

And it can take a few more years for fruit trees to really start producing large harvests after they first start to fruit.

This is a big benefit to planting shrubs around your young fruit trees. You get to enjoy harvesting the berries while your trees are growing!

3. The Shrub Layer Supports Your Local Wildlife

Shrub layer is an important part of a food forest

This hedgerow runs alongside the edge of one of my food forests. While there are trees mixed in, they haven’t topped the shrubs yet. But our local birds just love this hedgerow and spend a ton of time in it.

Birds just love hanging out in shrubs, and so do lots of other wildlife. Shrubs provide shelter as well as food.

While your trees will do the same eventually, they can take a while to provide much shelter. Plus, if you’re pruning your fruit trees for fruit production, they’re likely more open and won’t provide a lot of cover for birds and other wildlife.

But if you have a good shrub layer the birds and other wildlife will use them for cover. Anytime I look outside at my hedgerows and shrubs, there are always birds moving around in them.

These shrubs create dense cover that birds just love.

While supporting wildlife is great in and of itself, you also get a number of benefits from doing it.

Birds eat massive amounts of insects every year. So by providing shelter for birds, you can reduce your pest issues.

It’s true that birds will eat some of your fruit, but insect pests can be far more damaging than birds are.

And birds aren’t the only critters that shrubs support. They provide cover for all sorts of wildlife. The result is a more balanced ecosystem that will help keep your pests in check and truly provide an abundance for people, plants and animals.

4. Shrubs Take Up Less Room – Great for Backyard Food Forests

Blueberries can grow in your shrub layer

These dwarf blueberries provide great harvests each year but only take up a couple feet (less than a meter) of space each. I couldn’t fit a tree in this area without shading out other plants.

Another great benefit of focusing on your shrub layer is that shrubs take up a lot less space on average than trees do.

Even dwarf fruit trees are larger than a lot of shrubs—dwarf fruit trees are generally between 8 and 10 feet (2.4 to 3 meters) tall. Though you can sometimes keep them smaller through pruning.

I should note, some shrubs like serviceberries and hazelnuts can get as large as a semi-dwarf fruit tree. Make sure to keep that in mind when picking which shrubs to grow.

But 6 feet (1.8 meters) is a common max height for edible shrubs.

This means that you can fit a lot more shrubs than trees in a small area.

Wild Tip: Creating a Mini-Food Forest

If you have limited space, consider picking out 2-3 dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees. Plant them with 2-3 times the recommended spacing. Then add a bunch of small shrubs in your shrub layer (the area between the trees). Don’t forget to add some perennial vegetables and flowers around the shrubs—toss in a few native plants and some habitat features for good measure. Oh, and make sure to add some mulch!

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The result will be a mini-food forest that will provide an abundant harvest for you and your family and support local wildlife, that could easily fit in an average front yard.

Each shrub will provide less of a harvest than your fruit trees will. But you will be able to fit in a greater variety of shrubs, and the overall harvest will still be large—it’s not hard to grow more berries than one person can eat!

Even if you have a lot of space, a well-planted shrub layer will increase your overall harvest and provide all the other benefits covered in this post.

5. Shrubs Can be More Resilient with Less Risk

The shrub layer can be dense

A shrub died in one of my hedgerows. But because I planted so many other shrubs you can’t really tell that one is missing. The loss of a tree can have a larger impact. Do you see the dead shrub? It's right in the middle.

Let’s face it—fruit and nut trees can be expensive to buy. And losing one can really hurt. But shrubs tend to be cheaper. And while you don’t want to see your shrubs die, it’s easier to replace a shrub than a tree.

And because you will likely plant a lot more shrubs than trees, losing a single shrub will have less of an overall impact than losing a single tree.

This means you can experiment a bit more with shrubs and not have to worry as much about things not working out.

Shrubs are also generally more resilient to mistakes than trees. A shrub will bounce back more readily from a bad pruning than a tree will.

Trees really do form the foundation and the core of a food forest. You will want to pick each one carefully and give it the best chance you can to thrive. If you experiment on your shrubs, instead of your trees, you can grow as a gardener without risking a big loss to your system.

Wild Tip

The exception is nitrogen-fixing trees. These trees can be planted en masse and then either coppiced or just cut down after a few years to make room for your more productive trees. This is a great way to quickly build soil while your fruit and nut trees are getting established.

Having a diverse shrub layer also means that if you lose one, your overall harvest won’t be that impacted.

Unless you’ve got a lot of space for lots of trees, chances are, losing a single tree could significantly impact your harvests.

Ultimately this is why food forests are resilient—through their layers, they contain a wide range of potential harvests. So if 1 or even a handful fail, you will still get an abundant harvest.

Planting out your shrub layer builds out this natural resilience of a food forest.

Don’t Forget About the Other Layers

Grow native vegetables around the shrubs in your shrub layer

Wild native vegetables like these checkermallows can be planted around your shrubs.

But as awesome as shrubs are, don’t forget about the other layers of your food forest. The shrub layer is ultimately just a part of a healthy food forest—even if it's the focus.

Even the recovering forest model of food forest should have trees, groundcovers like strawberries, and non-woody plants like perennial vegetables. Plus, you can always mix in some annual vegetables!

But in temperate climates, if you give your trees more space and fill the gaps with productive shrubs, you can get more harvests than if you planted your trees close to each other.

It would even be possible to grow a food forest where the largest plants were all shrubs. This could be called a “scrub-shrub garden.”

This could be a great option for someone who has limited space and limited time. A scrub-shrub garden could provide you with an abundance of harvests in as little as 2-3 years, and keep producing for decades to come.

But in general, I would still try to mix in some fruit trees if possible.

In a traditional food forest, there are 7 living layers (canopy trees, sub-canopy trees, shrubs, herbaceous, groundcover, root crops, and climbers) plus 4 non-living layers (snags, logs, fallen branches and large rocks).

Whether you’re going for a recovering forest type of food forest or a scrub-shrub garden, you will still want to include as many of these layers as possible.

Each of these layers results in more harvests and an overall increase in the resiliency of the system.

Plus, the result is simply more beautiful and fun to be a part of than a system that only has 1 or 2 layers, like a traditional orchard.

Just make sure not to skimp on the shrub layer. In a temperate climate, this is key to creating a food forest full of abundance for people, plants and animals.

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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Jay says:

    Another great thing about shrubs is that they’re often easy to propagate by layering or have a natural tendency to put out runners which one can transplant elsewhere, so they’re easy on the pocketbook from that point of view also!

    • Daron says:

      Very true and thanks for sharing Jay! Some can also be live staked–just cut off a branch and stick it in the ground. I’m planning to do this with some of my native shrubs to quickly plant new hedgerows.

  • Karl says:

    Great blog post! I am really glad that I discovered this site!

    Having built several forest-style gardens in Rhode Island, I rely heavily on shrubs and understory plants. My primary shrubs, at the moment, are blueberries, honeyberries, beach plums, and bush cherries. I also have gooseberry, yellowhorn, and a lone hardy pomegranate whose mate died back to the roots and is currently in recovery. Hardy figs usually end up as bushes, too, since they mostly die back to the roots.

    “Alpine” strawberries, perennial herbs, and other groundcovers encircle my shrubs, sea kale, garden sorrel, rue, artichokes, hosta, and other perennial or self-seeding edible flowers fill in the gaps, annual vegetables climb trellises and stake their claims in vacant spaces, perennial kale (a newer addition from the Experimental Farm Network) stands, shrub-like, on massive stalks, and the occasional fruit tree makes its stand on the northern edge or, in the case of the pawpaw trees, under the one decorative and shady dogwood that my wife negotiated to keep. 😉

    While bushes naturally stay lower, fruit trees must be carefully pruned, coppiced, or espaliered so as not to take sunlight from the plants beneath them. Fruit must also be religiously collected, to interrupt the life cycle of pests — whereas most of my bushes are cleaned by the birds and experience very low rates of disease. Some fruit trees are worth the effort, when things work out, but they need to be carefully chosen to ensure success, as there is no space to be wasted.

    Bushes make food forestry possible in small spaces. Thanks again for this thoughtful article.

    • Daron says:

      Hello and thank you! Glad your enjoying the site and this post! Shrubs do have a lot of advantages and thanks for sharing your thoughts on why shrubs are awesome! Sounds like you have a really great selection of shrubs and herbs in your food forest. The herb layer is of course another great layer to add diversity to a food forest (as you shared there are a ton of great options) which is another perk of keeping the canopy a bit more open. Thanks again!

  • Cécile Stelzer-Johnson says:

    Our forest is dying. there were red oaks mostly and they caught the wilt, so I will have no choice but to plant replacements. Wild cherries grow in abundance, and the soil is good for hazelnuts. our poplars are growing a lot of oyster mushrooms. One thing I really like about bushes is that a number of them lend themselves to layering, so you plant one and every ear, you can get multiple ‘suckers’ to add to the forest without any additional expense. And bushes, like trees, get to clean the groundwater as it passes through.[ It is quite sandy here, so groundwater moves a lot, and farmers are in the bad habit of over fertilizing].

    • Daron says:

      Sorry to hear about your forest. Hopefully with the new plants you’re adding you can improve the health of your forest and bring it back to a state of abundance. Layering is a great option with many shrubs–thanks for suggesting that!

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