My Permaculture Garden – Planning an Edible Food Forest in zone 2b-3

Pineapple sage seedlings

Sunshine and mud is upon us and thus brings unrealistic hopes of gardening in the near future, if you live in the North. We have at least one more month of cold temps and snow before we can begin to see the landscape change into spring. And our springs a little muddier and a little chillier than most, earning it the unrivaled title of Break-Up. Like I really need to label my feelings on how I feel about winter right about now…

BUT, spring is coming. And so I must be ready, because in the North, gardening season happens fast, happens dirty and happens to never last.

Since January hit, I’ve been scouring the internet and several books to gather the information I’ll need to start putting our garden into place. Exciting! In a previous post, I discussed my interest for permaculture gardening and how we implemented some practices last summer (read more here). This summer, we plan to take on a larger chunk of our property and start building a food forest, a lush perennial garden as well as a possible annual market garden. I mean, you know, because we don’t have a lot to do around here. In my quest to put as much research together before the soil thaws, it made sense to start piecing together a list of plants that are both favorable to a permaculture garden as well as the garden zone in which we live.

The garden/food forest site

Fort St. John, British Columbia is noted as a garden zone of 2b-3, although it is apparent after much observation we have a pretty great micro climate on our property, especially in our 1 acre garden plot. Most of our 1/4 section is south facing towards the Peace River and our garden plot slopes slightly towards agriculture fields, downwards from a large hill and in between a shelter belt of trees and a dugout. I’ve noted that it warms incredibly fast in the the spring, has good drainage and isn’t terribly affected by our winter winds. We did a soil test last summer that came back great, made some amendments, mostly with old manure soiled hay and left it to it’s own devices. We also tested for pesticides since it is so close to traditionally farmed fields which came back negative (whew). All in all, the plan is to plant with the zone 2b-3 in mind, but experiment and have some fun as we go.

I’ve been making lists and lists. Lists of fruit trees, of bushes, of varieties, of herbs, of nitrogen fixers, of dynamic accumulators… pretty much anything I’ve come across as favorable to our zone. Well ladies and gents, it’s time to put those lists to work and start piecing them together.

Let’s talk about edible forest gardening. I’ve always wanted an orchard and with land comes the opportunity. Though, the more I read up on permaculture practices, the less I wanted a traditional orchard. Enter the edible food forest garden. The principle of a forest garden is to build in layers, 7 layers to be exact, imitating the natural process and growth patterns of a natural forest. If you’ll notice, no one ever has to weed or water a forest because there is a balance. Building a forest garden allows the gardener to use similar patterns while allowing a break from too much weeding and watering. Sounds good, right?

Here’s a handy drawing I made to explain the layers:1-DSC_0076

  1. Canopy – large fruit & nut trees
  2. Low tree/tall shrubs – dwarf fruit trees, tall shrubs
  3. Shrub layer – berries, nut bushes, etc.
  4. Herbaceous layer – comfrey, herbs
  5. Rhizosphere – root vegetables
  6. Soil surface – ground covers
  7. Vertical layer – climbers, vines

When you include each layer surrounding a main large fruit or nut tree, we refer to this as a plant guild. Each plant has a “job” within the guild and an overall purpose to the health of the guild. Jobs include providing nutrients, mulch, pollen, protection, etc. Plus, with each group of plants comes differing root length and spread, so planting in guilds cuts down on competition. Two major types of plants within a guild are described as nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators.

Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for plants and plant growth. In traditional farming practices, nitrogen is added through fertilizers. In a permaculture garden, nitrogen is added through plant systems. As a nitrogen fixing plant grows, it creates a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Excess nitrogen is built up in the plants tissues and when leaves fall, roots die, or gardeners prune back leaves and leave as mulch, the excess nitrogen is released back into the soil. This excess nitrogen is picked up by the other plants in the area and utilized for their own growth.

Dynamic accumulators (DA) involves the idea that certain plants (often deep-rooted ones) will draw up nutrients from the lower layers of the soil, and these nutrients will be deposited in the plants’ leaves. When the leaves fall in autumn and winter and are broken down, those stored nutrients are then incorporated into the upper layers of the soil where other plants will benefit from their decomposition. You can hasten this process by cutting back vigorous growth and leaving the leaves as a green mulch layer.

Pretty cool, huh? Making your own fertilizer with living plants – sounds good to me!

So I’ve started my list. I’ve gathered plants that will survive in our 2b-3 garden zone that I will use to create my plant guilds and it was quite the research project. But I am so happy to finally have them all in one place. Now I can share them with you and hope that other northern gardeners will find it helpful.

PDF found here – Food Forest Plant List

Food Forest Plant List

There you have it… the beginning of something beautiful. Food forests are a labor of love and can take a few years to establish, but I’m up for the challenge. Looking forward to many days spent planning, planting, pruning and providing… with so much to do, it only makes sense to make my plants work too.

Do you have plants with jobs in your garden?





27 Comments on “My Permaculture Garden – Planning an Edible Food Forest in zone 2b-3

  1. Oh, My Gosh you guys how interesting , Well anxiously be waiting for the process on this … Great job on all the information “Whew” .. Love Uncle Leo & Judy

    • Thanks A. Judy, it does seem like a lot of work, but I’m hoping in the long run it will cut down on the labor in garden… I guess we’ll find out!

  2. Wow, sounds amazing! I’m impressed with all your research and will be interested in reading about your experience. Glad I’m in 7b, as we seem to have a lot of choices. I let Chamomile run rampant in my flower beds, but only learned this year that they’re great companions to cabbage, so will be digging some up to transplant in my vegetable garden. Keeping my fingers crossed, as I haven’t tried growing cabbage before.

    • Thanks Karen, I only wish I could get Chamomile to run rampant, my chickens just love it. I didn’t know it was a good companion for cabbage so thank you for sharing that!

      • I’m in zone 3 and have wild German chamomile naturally occurring on the edges of my dirt/gravel driveway. I bet if intended would work as ground cover. Smells so good.

  3. Well, once again I am impressed. The information you shared was so clear, much clearer than when hearing similar things in science class – when my response was “huh?” Makes me want to build one too (except for all that hard work part), so excited for the results.

  4. This is fantastic! I’m actually in the process of planning my own food forest, although I’m going about it a different way. I’m focusing on fruit trees and soil building for the first couple of years. So I will be planting Moringa (I’m in zone 5b) in the winter, inside, transplanting them out in the year and then mulching them. Along with comfrey and other plants of course. But the moringa can grow in excess of 5 meters in one season, produce a ton of foliage, they pull a lot of micro nutrients out of the soil and they compost very quickly. I’m hoping to build the soil quickly and I’ll keep adding other plants as I go. It should be a really fun experiment! I’m pretty sure some bamboo will be involved too.

    • Sounds like a good plan. I just Googled Moringa and it seems like a really amazing plant! Wish we could grow it all the way up here. Can’t wait to follow your journey!

      • I think you would have to start it early, but you could grow it! I’m using it as strictly chop and drop material. The winters here will kill it, but not before I gather seeds for next years trees.

  5. Very interesting. My butterfly bush, in the middle of my vegetable garden, does a wonderful job of attracting pollinators. It also acts as shade for herbs and other palnts that don’t enjoy the afternoon sun.

  6. Yeah!! This is awesome! You can add jerusalem artichokes and Daikon to the root layer, and hops and schizandra. Planing and planting a food forest is a lot of work, but so rewarding!!

    • Thanks Saskia, I’ve never even heard of schizandra but it looks like a wonderful addition!!

  7. Katy
    I am so impressed with all your research and knowledge. I wish I found you sooner but I definitely will be following you now and learning. Seeing we are almost neighbours I can definitely learn a lot from you. Your pictures are all so beautiful and the goals you make and the drive you have to accomplish them is all so very inspiring.

    • Thank you so much Julie! I am glad to provide any information I find as this is all a learning process for me. Any advice from your end would be greatly appreciated! I am very much enjoying living here and look forward to sharing my future adventures with you 🙂

  8. I’m a few years after the post – but such a great list! We just finished planting the start of our food forest yesterday . We’re near Calgary, and also zone 2b/3. We planted a combination apple, crimson passion cherry, 2 haskaps, 2 Saskatoon s and a rhubarb. Our soil is pure clay, so we mixed in a good bit of compost & layered with wood mulch . We also have a swale attached to our rain barrels at the top of the food forest.

    I’m excited to start getting in some of our nitrogen fixers & DA’s! Your list will be super helpful 🙂

    • So exciting!! Sounds like you’re off to a great start! I’ve added to my list this past year and will update it soon through the blog so maybe it will give you a few more ideas 😊

  9. I know this post is several years old but I am just starting on my permaculture journey in Grande Prairie and would love to pick your brain about what has/hasn’t worked up here for you.

  10. I would love to see your updated list!! My food forest plan has been marinating in my brain for the last two years.

  11. Welcome to the Peace. When I moved to Dawson Creek in 1975, I would have thought the Peace was Zone 2. Things have warmed considerably since then. Recently, it was pointed out that the place where climate is changing the fastest in North America, is basically along the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. As the crow flies, it is only 1400km to Dawson City (close end of Dempster). I am pretty sure Dawson Creek is Zone 3b now, and it could be Zone 4a. I am trying to make time to gather the data and calculate it for myself. You should try to find the time to visit Ag Canada at Beaverlodge. They have a Bee Day every year, this year is June 21. But, they have a 90 or so year old Bur Oak on the property.

  12. Hi Katy
    Just stumbled upon your post as I’m looking to start my own permaculture food forest .
    I see your list but I still am a bit confused as to where you would plant the rest of your actual food garden in this plan ? Like tomatoes, peppers , peas , beans, potatoes, cucumbers etc . I would love to learn more about your food forest and how it has developed since the start several years ago. I’m.doing back to eden as well as a food forest which are similar anyway. It’s my first year here and have a big garden spot. Want to start right. I live in northern Saskatchewan in same zone as you 2b to 3 .Please add me on face book so we can chat . Thank you

    • Hi Paige,

      The annual vegetables would be in your herbaceous layer 🙂 I will add you on facebook as I’m hoping to do more info on our gardens and food forest this summer!

  13. Thanks for your informative post and detailed PDF. Have you updated the latter in the past few years? I’d be grateful for the newer version if so, or even just a nod to a good source of info for northern climate food guilds. Thanks again!

  14. I applaud your efforts to create a food forest in one of the toughest climates there is. I noticed that you were planning to grow autumn olive, which in Alberta, is an invasive species. May I suggest Trebizond date or cherry olive instead, they are from the same family but not as likely to spread uncontrollably. I also noticed that you were considering Manchurian apricot which in your zone, is going to be a monumental challenge just to get the trees to survive, let alone fruit. Again, may I make a suggestion, and you exchange them for Manchurian walnut and Bur Oak. I am from a fairly northern climate as well and have been disappointed by trees and plants that were supposed to be cold hardy to my zone. Where you purchase your stock from is also important. Canadian grown varieties have a better chance of survival. Tree guards and loads of mulch before winter will be your best friends. Heavy snow cover is also invaluable There are also a lot of northern native berry trees that are worth a look such as: Serviceberries. Both species of Buffalo berry. High bush cranberry. As well as smaller shrubs like Arctic raspberry and lingonberry to name a few. Tried and true varieties are always less of a gamble. Anything else should be experimented with on a small scale to avoid expensive losses. Good luck on your project. Permaculture is the future and the only cost effective and environmentally friendly option available.

    • What wonderful suggestions! Yes, it is always a challenge to see what we can get to not only survive but thrive this far north! I do love to push my zone however, so am always up for an experiment. Mulch is definitely my best friend haha. I will say that I’ve had a zone 4 cherry tree over winter and fruit the last three winters and my apricot trees grown from Canadian root stock are getting bigger every year. I am hoping to add some bur oak’s this year and I’ve never head of a cherry olive before so will definitely look into that. I am working on updating my list as it was created a few years ago and I’ve learned so much on this great land we call home. Permaculture is definitely the future 🙂

  15. You’ve had a few years up on this project now. Super curious about how it’s going!

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