Forest gardening: introduction

What is forest gardening?

Forest gardening is creating a garden that is deliberately planted to mimic a natural forest ecosystem, except that the species chosen are mainly edible rather than (or as well as) decorative. Some will be chosen for other reasons though – for example firewood, nitrogen fixing or medicines.

Three layers of perennial plants -

Three layers of perennial plants – the herb layer is valerian (medicinal), the shrub layer is flax (fibres), and the canopy is fruit and firewood trees.

“Imagine a garden that needs no weeding, watering, digging or feeding and can be left to look after itself for weeks, even months, on end.” – excerpt from Jill Tunstall’s article the Garden of the Future? from the Guardian.

So a forest garden is sustainable garden using diverse, perennial edible species, based upon the structure of native woodland, which means that there are layers – from the tops of trees down to the ground, and to the roots under it. Seven layers are generally identified:

  • canopy trees – standard large trees
  • smaller shade tolerant trees, from dwarf stock, for fruit and nuts
  • shrubs and bushes such as currants and gooseberries
  • herbaceous  layer of perennial herbs and vegetables
  • groundcover plants
  • underground layer – root crops
  • vertical layer of climbers and vines, beans etc, trained to climb up the trees and bushes
Harvesting gooseberries from a forest garden,

Harvesting gooseberries from a forest garden, with rhubarb in the foreground and apple and damson trees forming the canopy.

Forest gardening is an ancient practice; there is evidence that people (and animals) have consciously shaped the forests in which they lived for millennia.
In tropical Asia, China and Africa, complex forest gardens have existed for thousands of years. In the UK most of the temperate forest was lost a long time ago – cleared for monocultures of grain crops, grazing or felled for building ships and housing.

Forest gardening pioneer Robert Hart visited tropical forest gardens, studied ecology, and then used his knowledge to create the first temperate forest garden in Shropshire in the 1970s.  He also wrote the first books on the subject. His work has been the inspiration for the UK forest gardening movement and many people have built upon his work, refining and adding to the theory and practice.

There are now approximately 60 forest gardens (often also called ‘home gardens’) in the UK. Most of these are less than ten years old and small scale (0.25-2.5 acres).

Robert Hart’s forest garden

What are the benefits of forest gardening?

At present most of our food needs are met by giant agri-businesses who use monoculture systems to produce fruit and vegetable crops. These systems are heavily oil and chemical dependent and are slowly eroding and polluting our soils and water courses. Farming may need to change radically quite soon though as oil is used faster than it is discovered.

The benefits of forest garden systems are many:

  • resilient, withstanding drought and flooding through well-developed root and mycorrhizal networks
  • maintain soil fertility and can be used to reclaim soils that have been polluted
  • control soil erosion and water runoff
  • provide their own nutrient requirements, through annual leaf fall, the planting of deep-rooting mineral accumulators (e.g. comfrey) and nitrogen-fixing plants and trees such as Eleagnus, alder and clovers, avoiding the need to constantly import materials, or use chemicals
  • low maintenance once established
  • the food they provide is nutrient rich and diverse, promoting good health
  • excellent for wildlife, creating a variety of habitats and attracting beneficial insects
  • can prevent or remedy soil salinization and acidification
  • utilize sunlight far more effectively than monoculture systems
  • attractive, and provide great spaces for play, education and relaxation
This is a good example of a guild

This is a good example of a guild – a group of plants that are mutually beneficial; here comfrey provides ground cover and is a mineral accumulator (can be cut to produce a mineral-rich mulch for fruit trees), aromatic herbs protect fruit from pests, currant bushes are planted around the drip line of the trees so that they get watered, plus redcurrants do well in the shade of the apple tree.

A few examples of typical produce from a forest garden:

Trees: apple, pear, cherry plum, quince, mulberry, medlar, peach, chestnut, pine nut, almond, hazelnut, juneberry, strawberry tree, pawpaw, blue bean, persimmon, bladdernut, snowbell tree

Shrubs: currant, Chilean guava, plum, blueberry, wineberry, Oregon grape, almonberry, whortleberry

Perennial vegetables: bamboo (shoots), sea kale, perpetual spinach, perennial broccoli, wild garlic, Babbington leek, good King Henry, fat hen, everlasting onion

Roots: pignut, Jerusalem artichoke, horseradish, earthnut pea, wasabi

Herbs: whole range of herbs for cooking and medicinal use

Climbers: grape, loganberry, tayberry, strawberry grape, kiwi fruit, hop

Fungi: oyster shiitake, lion’s mane

Cut and come again salad: sorrel, wild rocket, lambs lettuce, mustard, wrinkled cress

Plus: fuel wood from coppice, basketry materials, dye plants, garden canes and ties

Great introductory video from Permaculture People

What can I do?

  • transform an underused part of your garden into a mini forest garden; this could be a marginal piece of land at the bottom of your garden, beside the garage, behind the shed, a shady side of the house or  where the children build dens
  • or go the whole hog and adapt the entire area around your house into a multi-layered edible paradise
  • adapt part of your allotment into a perennial source of food and materials
  • transform your lawn, or a part of it, using a tried and tested ‘no dig’ technique
  • add to your design, year on year, as you would with any garden
  • if you’re going to have a forest garden, it’s probably a good idea to tailor your diet to include more of the things that a forest garden can produce. Of course, you can plant some non-perennials in there as well, or just have part of your garden as a forest garden, and another part to grow your onions, salads, potatoes, cabbages and other annuals
  • some animals – for example chickens (originally forest birds) – will love scratching around in a forest garden, and will help to control pests, and add manure
  • choose plants that are mutually beneficial – that can do things for each other like offer shade, fix nitrogen, attract insect predators, repel pests, drop leaves for mulch and compost, drip water or bring up nutrients with deep roots. This kind of mutually-beneficial group is known as a guild
Examples of good ground cover for a forest garden -

Examples of good ground cover for a forest garden – marjoram, wild strawberry, New Zealand flax, buckler-leaved sorrel, Babbington leek and good King Henry.

Getting going – stage one:

  • carefully observe your garden, and how it changes through the year
  • think about what you, your family, like to eat and how you would like to use your garden
  • broaden your knowledge of edible perennials (there are many species most people have never heard of, or realise you can eat)
  • attend a forest gardening course
  • treat yourself to a book about forest gardening or search the web for information

Getting going – stage two:

  • make a base map (plan of existing area, looking at aspect, existing structures/plants, type of soil and elevation)
  • create a design (this can be as simple or as complex as you like – but remember that the plants are perennial, and will stay where you put them for a long time)
  • gather materials and tools (many of the things needed can be recycled or gathered for free)
  • source the plants; this doesn’t have to be expensive – you can take cuttings and save/swap seeds, and build up your garden slowly
  • make a big pan of soup, get some beers in, invite your friends, and get planting – after that, there shouldn’t be much more work other than harvesting

 

Thanks to Mandy Burton of Redfield

 


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Chris Evans has been involved with permaculture for over 30 years, both in the UK where he’s a partner at Designed Visions, and in Nepal, where he works with the Himalayan Permaculture Centre. Chris was a regular visitor to the original forest garden at Robert Hart’s residence in Shropshire, and now teaches his own courses at Applewood Permaculture Centre in north Herefordshire and other venues.


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