Growing your own food at home is a wonderful way to move towards a healthier and more sustainable way of life. Imagine if you could grow your own food without having to do lots of hard work. Imagine a garden that would do almost all the work for you, without the need to plant anew each year. Imagine if you could provide for all your own nutritional needs, while also lending the wildlife a helping hand, protecting the soil, and creating a beautiful space for fun and relaxation. Forest gardening can offer all that, and more.
A example of a forest garden in a walled orchard in Scotland.
What is Forest Gardening?
Forest gardening is exactly what it sounds like. A forest garden is a garden which is designed to mimic a natural forest. The only difference is that we design a forest garden so that the trees and plants we include provide for us in a range of different ways. While it looks and operates in all the same ways as a natural forest, a forest garden will be designed for human needs. It is a way for us to get the things we need by working with nature, rather than fighting against it.
Forests are one of the most successful and biodiverse ecosystems on earth. They truly are amazing things. The more scientists learn about forests, the more we recognise that they operate as a whole, and the more we realise that we can learn from them.
Sometimes, we humans do not see the wood for the trees. But when we look at the whole picture, we can begin to understand why forests are so successful. Forest gardening is all about looking at a forest ecosystem, and thinking about how we can mimic a forest in our own gardens, harnessing the mechanisms and interactions within them to grow more food, with less fuss.
Why Choose Forest Gardening?
There are many reasons why forests make a good model for garden design. Forest gardens are a good choice for our planet, and for the gardener. Here are some of the reasons why forest gardening is an eco-friendly and sensible choice:
Forest Gardening is Good for the Planet:
- Introduce trees, which capture carbon from the air and help reduce the greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.
- Help to store water locally, helping to ensure the healthy function of the world’s water cycle.
- Increase biodiversity, of both plant and animal life, thereby improving resilience in the ecosystem.
- Allow us to grow a lot of food in the space available to us, thereby reducing the amount of food we have to buy and reducing our reliance on damaging agricultural systems.
Forest Gardening is Good for the Gardener:
- Are a way to grow food (and provide other resources – fuel, crafting materials, medicine etc.) with less effort from the gardener.
- Allow us to grow more food in less space, thereby saving money and allowing us to become more self-sufficient and resilient.
- Improve the human environment by improving air quality, reducing air pollution, road noise etc..
- Improve general mental health and well-being by creating green, lush environments.
The Principles of Forest Gardening
Those who are interested in creating a forest garden should begin by taking a good look at how a natural forest works. There are a number of principles that can be derived from this study that will inform how a forest garden should be created and maintained.
Forests gardens are not entirely natural systems, as we plant them and maintain them with our specific needs in mind. However, they do share a range of features in common with natural forests, namely:
- They are polycultures. (A range of different trees and other plants grow together.) In a forest garden, we must use and value diversity.
- Resources are naturally recycled within the system. In a forest garden, we must ensure that natural cycles can take place. There should be no waste, and all biomass should be returned to add goodness to the soil.
- The right plants grow in the right places. In a forest garden, we must think carefully about the needs of each plant, the sunlight, wind and water on the site, and place plants where they are naturally able to thrive.
- Plants work together. Forests have amazing communication networks. Trees and plants co-operate with bacteria and fungi in the soil ecosystem below, and with other wildlife. In a forest garden, we must take note of, and make use of, the ways in which plants and wildlife interact in order to achieve our own goals.
Comfrey is one excellent example of a helpful companion plant in a forest garden.
Another principle in forest gardening is that we should do what we can as human beings to obtain a yield from a piece of land. As humans, we are unique in our ability to enhance an environment. While, all too often, we have a detrimental effect, it is important to remember that we can also be a force for good in this world.
Good forest garden design is not only about working with nature, but also about finding ways in which we can enhance natural systems rather than detracting from them while meeting our own basic needs. It can be helpful, when designing a forest garden, to keep three basic ethics in mind: care for the planet, care for people and fair share.
The Features of a Forest Garden
Imagine a productive garden where you can stroll through an area bursting with life to pick fruits from your own trees, stopping as you stroll to pluck some berries from a bush, or to harvest some herbs for your dinner. In a forest garden, you will see food at every turn. Each plant will be chosen to provide some benefit – either in the form of an edible yield or as a support plant to other plants in the ecosystem.
The plants chosen for a forest garden will vary depending on geographical location and climate considerations. But all forest gardens will share certain characteristics or features:
Layers in a Forest Garden
As in a wild forest, in a forest garden, you will have layers. In the top layer you will have trees, underneath and around which you will find shrubs and smaller trees, under which you will find a herbaceous layer. Climbing plants may make their way up through the layers. Ground cover plants will spread to protect the soil, while below the soil root crops may grow, and hidden elements such as bacteria and fungi ensure that the whole ecosystem continues to cycle and to function as it should.
‘Guilds’ or Companion Planting in a Forest Garden
The core of a forest garden is usually a number of fruiting trees that provide edible fruits or nuts. Once established, these trees can be the most abundant resource in a forest garden. But these trees will be more productive when they are backed up with ‘guilds’ of smaller ‘helper’ plants. ‘Guilds’ are collections of plants that are chosen for their beneficial interactions with one another.
Plants can help your fruiting trees, or other nearby plants in a range of different ways. They might help environmentally, by providing shade, wind-break/ shelter, or ground cover to reduce water loss. They might attract beneficial wildlife, or deter common pests. Plants can also help others by dynamically accumulating nutrients – either from deeper levels of the soil, or from the air.
A Range of Habitats
A forest garden is not only made up of the trees and plants included in the design. It is a complete ecosystem which also takes wildlife into account. A forest garden should provide a wide range of different habitats for plants and animals. Even the smallest of forest gardens can provide habitats for a huge variety of flora and fauna. There will be vegetation at a range of different heights, areas of shade, dappled light and sunny edges. We, as gardeners, can make the most of all of these different habitats to allow a variety of life to thrive.
A pond in a sunny glade in a forest garden can help to attract the wildlife.
It is obvious, perhaps, but forest gardens are not maintained with the aid of harmful chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. One essential feature of forest gardens is that they allow nature to reign – gardeners always use organic growing methods to maintain them. One of the great things about forest gardens is that, as diverse ecosystems, they are far more resilient to pests and disease than traditional growing areas where single varieties are grown alone.