I have two swaths of trees I've just planted in areas that are/were lawn. In a week or two have some of my understory fruit shrubs coming in: highbush blueberry (16), jostaberry (10), currants (10), gooseberries (10), and honeyberries (78 1" plugs- real babies). I also just received seeds for many perennial or self-seeding annual medicinal herbs: mint, catnip, borgage, dill, chamomile, horehound, and nettles.
One of my tree patches is 18 conifers (red pine and balsam fir), but they're babies: 6-12" tall and I spaced them in a big patch between 6 and 10' from one another. Close, but I wanted it to fill in for privacy soner, I assume some will not make it, and I'm ok thinning later for Christmas trees. I know these guys will take a very long time to grow up and I want to grow other plants around them both to create a more complex system and so the space is fully utilized. I don't know if I can add much of anything that won't shade them and slow their growth though. I'm also not sure at what rate understory trees will become shaded by the conifers.
The other tree patch is ~ 20 fruit/nut trees: dwarf apples, native plums, sand cherries, and filberts. The apple trees already some guilds going around/near them (comfrey, lupine, prairie clover, wild indigo, bush beans) but the rest just went in. Each new tree did get a comfrey planted nearby. These trees are all 3-4' and came bare root so currently no branches. These are further apart, maybe 10' between all because I was trying to be mindful to leave space for harvesting. So again, I have large patches that are currently full sun but I anticipate will be shaded much sooner than the confier patch. They are tall enough I'm not worried about sub-story plantings blocking their sunlight.
All this is to ask, what should go where? I don't want to plant a shrub to have it stop producing in a few years because it's too shaded, but I don't want to leave these spaces open either. Any experience or input anyone has on planning for the future light/space changes in a food forest would be greatly appreciated.
to answer your question how to plan what goes where i'll say don't worry about it too much. shrubs and understory plants are really flexible. if you think about the trees as the bones and plan for adequate spacing on those, the understory, shrubs, vines, etc can be cut down, moved, trimmed, pruned, etc if need be.
something i've also noticed in our 4 year old food forest is that plants will find the niches they like. we've planted dozens of indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) and in some spots they're leggier (more shade, poorer soil) than others, but it doesn't really matter. we chop and drop their foliage after they provide their abundant dazzling function as insectaries and trim them up how we like based on the other plants around them. vines also climb on them. furthermore, some patches of nettles, mints, medicines, etc do better than others. we have 4 different plantings of spearmint and a couple of them flourish while others are in shade and don't expand much.
i think it's cool to vary plantings and observe the habitats different things like. you can really get to know a plant when you see how it performs under all different types of conditions.
forest gardening in the Ozarks on 18 acres. 2 high tunnels, 3 acres of young food forests, tiny cabin living. solar off grid. building a straw bale house this summer - come intern with us! established 2016.
I like to plant fruiting and other vines next to most of my trees and fruit trees, so the vines grow up along with the trees, and then you can have a double harvest of the fruit tree crop and the fruiting vine.
I also like to plant berry bushes at the southwest and southeast corners of my fruit trees, where they can generally get good sunlight and fill in the area there. Some berries like blueberries will also expand as the tree gets bigger and grow outwards with the tree.
Good luck with your food forest, sounds like it's going to be great!
Striving to grow things as naturally, simply, and cheaply as possible!
My YouTube channel
I would second and third that the plants will figure it out amongst themselves for the most part. It sounds like you are planting a lot of things, which will give your food forest/savanna a lot of opportunity to find its own niches.
I am curious how much pruning you are intending to do? If you are willing to coppice or do hard pruning, you can designate areas to be rotating meadow disturbance areas to produce a big crop of berries until the overstory recovers. It does not have to be huge, cutting back two trees will allow light to hit several trees/shrubs behind them.
If you are interested in a little more refined pruning and training, why not prune some trees to be smaller, or very open and leggy? Does each tree “have” to be grown as big as possible? You could have fun and train a cherry tree into a weird spiral, or prune some of the sand cherries and plums into a bush height. You’ll still get food, and the variety of forms will add to the beauty.
I try to figure out the best placement of new plants. I take in account light, drainage, soil type, and water. I try to envision future changes to find the best placements as the plants grow . I plant 10% more plants than I wish to end up with knowing I will loose some and others will not reach full potential because of my not understanding all the factors affecting the plants in the future. I let the plants figure out the final "design" and teach me what my errors are so that I can do better with future additions. I have learned to not be in a hurry to put in new varieties until I have studied the present successes and failures. After all, we need to evaluate the latest additions through all four seasons to be able to understand the possible mistakes we have made and to be able to do better in the future. I try to do a walkabout through the forest every day and just observe how things are growing.
Bob Waur, not as prickly as it sounds.
Eat what you can, and what you can't you can
What I noticed was that after 30 years, my selected seedlings are now all over my farm with their progeny. Without mowing there is no reason to plant much anymore if at all. Since there is an over-story, it allowed birds and small mammals to create my new generation food forest. I limb up those trees and try to direct them to light and remove the plants I do not want in size by using lopers. I do not own a tractor but I have weed whacked the thick areas and protected the new vigorous apples, pears, shellbark hickories and plums. Many of these animal planted seedlings are very vigorous. Eventually though it may get too dark for them and I am started a mix of black currant seedlings to see how these do in these heavily shaded areas. I think it is the savanna institute that says they can tolerate a ton of shade and still produce. There is also a means to develop future cultivars of black currant this way too.
I am setting up more of a standrad orchard, because I have the room & need the open grass to pasture poultry & rabbits in my food cycle, maybe sheep later.
The little I have done with food forest, they will get out of hand in a short time, an established orchard can go months without care if the pruning was completeed the winter before & organic do not require spraying.
I was out of the garden for 12 months on health problems & the little food forest went wild, but the row orchard is as is. The blue berries sucker do need thinning, but that the only thing.
The wild prennials,weeds(non food plants) are taking over, many trees limbs are in the way. My garlic beds are covered with grasses & bambles, I am going to clean it out & go back the raised beds in rows.
When I get lost in planning, I get analytical!
Measure your space and go to a free graph paper generator online so you can get the scale right for you, usually one foot per square (or whatever fits your situation on a single sheet of paper.)
Make a cheat sheet of how much spread to expect on your mature trees and shrubs.
Use scrap graph paper, or even better, a sticky note cut to the size of your future mature tree/shrub. Move your simulated plants around on your graph paper until you're satisfied.
Cardinal directions come into play when figuring for shade. But you should be able to factor that into your projections by studying the site.
And once you're satisfied with your future on paper, stick a few marker flags in the ground you can start digging more secure in the knowledge that you factored in future growth.
Bonus: while your young trees/shrubs are still small and not making much shade yet, you have room between them to sneak in some annual vegetables!
Another tip: download Google Earth Pro on a PC and you will have a tool that shows you past satellite imagery. This has really helped me because you can see different years and different seasons of your site from the comfort of your desk. You can also use Pro to draw and measure superimposed on your site. I will try to do a tutorial on using satellite imagery for garden planning soon.