Also known as ‘edible forests’ or ‘food forests’, forest gardens are a wonderful solution for a range of different climates and situations around the world. If you want to grow food in as low-impact a way as possible, but don’t necessarily have the time for a fully fledged annual vegetable plot, making a forest garden where you live could be a wonderful idea.
In this article, we will discuss what constitutes a forest garden. We’ll talk about why creating one is such a good idea, and cover some of the basic principles and concepts of this gardening method. We’ll then go on to give a step by step guide to the creation of one of these abundant, food-producing ecosystems, so you can get started with one in your garden.
What is a Forest Garden?
Forest Garden in Scotland.
When you hear the term ‘forest garden’ you may be imagining a wild and barely tamed place. But a forest garden is not a wild forest – rather, it is a managed space. It is a productive, low maintenance place to grow food, which takes lessons from a forest ecosystem. It mimics a forest system in certain regards. Forest gardens can be large or small, but what they all share in common is a desire to mimic nature’s ecosystems and provide a better, more sustainable way to grow food.
How a Forest Garden Mimics a Natural Forest Ecosystem
When creating a forest garden, gardeners will mimic a natural forest ecosystem:
By Taking the Holistic View
We tend to think of a forest as a collection of trees. But a forest is far more. A forest is a thriving ecosystem. It is made up not only of the trees and other plants that we can see but also the microbiota in the soil and other wildlife. Thinking about this can help us to develop our own thriving, food-producing systems that mimic this successful ecosystem model.
It is important to think about protecting and enhancing the soil in which trees will grow, taking advantage of natural patterns and looking at the big picture. In our gardens, what this means in a practical sense is designing from patterns to details, and making plant selections and other choices with reference not to individual elements, but with regard to the whole.
By Valuing and Using Change
A forest organically changes over the seasons, and we can embrace and make use of that slow and steady change. In an established system, with fruit trees, shrubs and a wide range of perennial plants, understanding slow decay, competition over time, and natural cycles is crucial.
Dead wood and decaying matter are as much a part of a forest ecosystem as the living plants. Leaving organic matter to decompose naturally in our forest gardens, perennial and annual polycultures can slowly, over time, improve the soil and build up a more resilient, joined-up ecosystem.
By Embracing Chance
In forest ecosystems, the ecosystem will evolve as plants that germinate or grow in the right places will naturally thrive, while others feed the system. An important part of organic gardening is, of course, finding the right plants for the right places.
It is important to recognise, however, that forests also incorporate an element of chance. Embrace chance and you will often find that all sorts of beneficial interactions and unexpected yields pop up. For example, self-seeded weeds can be a boon for you as well as the wildlife. So do not always yank them up at the first opportunity.
Sometimes, simply allowing nature to take its course can be a wonderful way to begin in establishing a forest garden. This might involve allowing wind-borne saplings to take root, or a ground cover of resilient native plants to form between plants we have chosen.
By Promoting Natural Biodiversity
Trees in a forest do not put all their eggs in one basket. Each tree will often send out many thousands of seeds. Of those seeds, only a fraction will grow into saplings, and of those only one may grow to maturity and fill the gap in the canopy left by the eventual death of the parent tree. Building a successful garden can often include taking many routes – not all of which are 100% successful.
When it comes to the trees and other plants we choose, the approaches we take, and the methods we apply in our gardens, embracing diversity is key. When choosing fruit trees, for example, do not just choose one variety. That way, if one does not thrive, you can still obtain a valuable yield.
By Seeking Out Collaboration and Co-operation in all its Forms
Collaboration and co-operation are fundamental to forests, and to our gardens too. Trees send out messages and nutrients through the fungal networks in the soil around them, and chemical signals through the air. They work in tangent with other plants and even ‘talk’ to wildlife. Certain trees, for example, send out chemical signals when under attack by certain pests to predators that will eat those pests.
Plants work together in myriad ways in a forest, and in a garden. By looking for beneficial interactions – in terms of environmental conditions, nutrient sharing and wildlife control – we can develop guilds that easily allow us to grow more food.
Why Create a Forest Garden?
The forest is one of the most successful ecosystems on our planet. So mimicking this ecosystem is a great way to make sure that our gardens can stand the test of time. Forest gardening has a wide range of benefits over and above the fact that this system can create beautiful gardens.
A forest garden can:
- 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.
- Improve air quality and reduce air pollution, road noise etc..
- Create shade for human comfort, animal life and water conservation.
- Give abundant food yield and other resources for humans and wildlife.
- Provide an abundant source of biomass to replenish the ecosystem and complete the natural cycles.
- Improve general mental health and well-being by creating green, lush environments – wonderful places to relax, work and play.
For gardeners, the benefits of forest gardening also include the fact that once established, a forest garden can more or less look after itself. Aside from harvesting, and some management, there will be little human agency required. You should have far more free time when you create such a system, which will allow nature to more or less take over. So it can be a great solution for those who do not have the time to endlessly tend an intensively managed annual garden.
The Layers of a Forest Garden
Different layers in a Scottish forest garden.
One of the key ideas in a forest garden is that plants are layered, both in space and time. This means that you can truly make the most of the growing space available to you. A forest garden will usually include:
- Large fruit trees and other beneficial trees.
- Smaller trees around and amongst these larger specimens.
- Shrubs and fruiting bushes.
- Herbaceous plants, potentially including shade-tolerant root crops and climbers.
- Ground cover plants (to protect the soil and conserve water and nutrients).
In addition to considering the plant layers of a forest garden, it is also important to factor in:
- The biota of the soil ecosystem.
- Other wildlife that visits, lives in and uses the space.
Beneficial Interactions in a Forest Garden
As mentioned above, mimicking a forest ecosystem means seeking out co-operation and collaboration in all its forms. The more beneficial interactions there are between the different layers, or elements in a garden, the more stable and resilient it will be.
Here are some of the types of beneficial interaction that can be established in a forest garden:
Some plants in a forest garden can help other plants nearby by altering their environment for the positive in some way. For example, larger plants and trees may provide beneficial shade for plants grown below. Other plants may help others by forming a ground cover which will protect the soil and reduce moisture loss, so there is more water available in the soil for other plants to take up.
Other plants can aid those near them by dynamically accumulating nutrients that they either return to the soil surface, or release back into the topsoil for the use of other plants when chopped and dropped.
Dynamic accumulators include plants that work with beneficial bacteria on root rhizomes to fix nitrogen from the air, such as legumes.
Other dynamic accumulators include plants with deep tap roots, like comfrey, yarrow, and dandelions, which gather nutrients from deep below the soil surface, where many other roots won’t reach. When you chop these plants down and place them on the soil surface, they will decompose naturally and return the nutrients they gathered to the top layer of soil, where other plants can reach them.
Pest Control Services
Another way in which beneficial interactions can be established between plants is when one helps in the control of a pest that bothers another. Certain plants, for example, may attract predatory insects, which eat aphids, or other pest species and help to keep their numbers down. Other plants may release scents or chemicals which repel or confuse pest species. They may also attract pests preferentially to themselves, and serve as trap crops.
A bumble bee is attracted to pollinate plants.
Finally, certain plants will help others by attracting more pollinators to an area. By increasing the number of pollinators, these plants can help others to set fruit.
Designing a Forest Garden
When designing a forest garden, it is important to:
- Consider sunlight on the site, and think carefully about placement of plants in relation to the patterns of the sun. (Which areas will be in sun and shade now, when plants are placed, and in the future once the plants grow and the forest garden becomes more established?)
- Think about how much rain falls in your area, when, and how often. Consider how water will flow through the site, and whether you can create a system that will not require irrigation.
- If irrigation is required, this about how you can catch and store water on site, and develop a sustainable system.
- Think about the climate of your area, and the plants that will be best suited to the temperatures and conditions that you usually experience.
- Determine the soil type, soil fertility and soil pH of your area. (And identify sustainable and eco-friendly methods to improve this as required.)
- Think about how the space you have available will best be utilised to meet your needs, and those of your family, friends and perhaps your wider community. (What food can you grow? Could you grow fuel for heating/ cooking? Could you grow ingredients for home-made cleaners, beauty products, crafting, DIY projects etc…?)
- Think about how you will move through and spend time in your forest garden (to harvest, work, relax etc.). Consider path placement, and where the forest garden is in relation to other elements of your garden/ property.
These are just some of the important things to consider before you draw up a design and determine where to place all the different plants and other elements in your garden.
Creating a Forest Garden
Preparing the Ground
Before you even begin to think about planting your trees and other plants, you should make sure that the ground is ready and all the frameworks, paths and big-picture elements are in place.
If the area where you are establishing your forest garden is overgrown, you may first which to clear the area. It is always best to do so organically. While this will take a little more effort, it will be far better in the long run. Clear larger dead trees, unwanted trees or shrubs and large tangled areas of briars or vines or invasive weeds manually before you begin work on creating your new forest garden.
Slow and steady solutions are always better than rushing in too fast. If you ultimately wish to create a larger forest garden, it is worthwhile considering the option of establishing it one area at a time.
If you wish to create your forest garden on an area which was lawn, the first stage will usually involve laying an area of cardboard over the grass to suppress its growth. Cut holes through this cardboard layer to plant your trees and shrubs. You can then build up layers of organic matter on top of this cardboard layer (in layers of green nitrogen rich and brown carbon rich materials) and topped with compost/ soil to make a ‘lasagna bed’ style growing area, into which your herbaceous plants and ground cover plants can later be sown or planted. (Take care, however, not to pile materials up around the trunks of your trees as this can cause them to rot.)
The benefit of doing things in this way is that the soil beneath will be left largely undisturbed, which will allow its fragile ecosystem to remain intact. This is a key principle in ‘no dig gardening’, which goes hand in hand with forest gardening.
Of course, at this stage, you should also make sure that all paths are marked, and any swales or ditches for natural irrigation (if required) have been established.
Choosing & Planting Trees
Apple is a great tree for many temperate climate gardens.
Looking at which trees are already to be found in your area can help you to determine which trees may do well in your garden and can also give clues about the soil type and condition. But in addition to considering environmental factors and planting for your area and climate zone, it is also important to think about which fruits and nuts you and your family actually like to eat.
Fruit trees that you may like to consider in cooler temperate climate gardens include but are of course not limited to apple, crab apple, sour cherry, sweet cherry, plum, damson, pear, medlar, mulberry, persimmons, quinces and greengages. Potential nut tree options include the hazel/ cob nut, sweet chestnuts, pine nuts and perhaps even walnuts or almonds in warmer regions. Warmer temperate climate gardens and sub-tropical or tropical zones can have even more options to choose from.
Fruit and nut bearing trees are not the only ones that can be of use in a forest garden. Some trees may be planted to provide environmental protection to your fruit and nut trees by blocking a busy road or by reducing the impact of strong prevailing winds. Some trees may be added for firewood/kindling and be coppiced on a regular cycle. Still others may be nitrogen fixers or in some other way aid the improvement of the soil on a site. Deciduous trees will provide leaf litter/ mulch/ leaf mould and more each fall… For all of these reasons and more, a wide variety of trees can be usefully included in a forest garden.
Choosing & Planting Shrubs
Beneath the tall trees that are the highest layer of the forest garden you will usually find small trees and shrubs that can tolerate a little dappled shade from the canopy above. This can be a pivotal layer in the ecosystem of an establishing forest garden and can provide a significant quantity of food as well as feeding the system and providing other resources. This is usually the second layer that you will plan after you have planned the upper tree layer.
Many bushes will thrive in the dappled shade of a temperate climate forest garden or on the edge of one. Try classic soft fruits such as raspberries, blackberries (for ease, a thornless variety is best), redcurrants and blackcurrants and other currants. Gooseberries are very well suited to forest garden growing, both the green and red varieties. Larger shrubs/ small trees include hawthorn and elder, bamboos and serviceberries. Other berries to go for are barberries, chokeberries, Mahonia, gaultheria shallon and Chinese dogwood, to name but a few.
There are a number of nitrogen fixing shrubs considered to be beneficial additions to forest gardens in temperate climate zones, including several species of Elaeagnus (some of which also provide edible berries). Broom is another nitrogen fixing shrub and there is a long list of other potential candidates. Of course deciduous shrubs also often provide prunings and leaf fall, both of which can contribute to the health of the soil on your site.
In other climate zones, the plant choices will of course be different, but the general principles will remain the same.
Choosing & Planting Herbaceous Plants, Roots & Climbers
A wild mix of plants in the herbaceous layer.
Beneath the tree layers and shrub layer you will find a dense, lush herbaceous layer in a forest garden. This layer is planted for the benefit of the trees above but can also be a rich source of food and other useful things.
In a temperate climate garden, he herbaceous layer in a forest garden can contain many perennial vegetable crops, which will provide a good quantity of food. These include a range of options in the brassica family, including brassica oleracea, nine star perennial broccoli and perennial kales for almost year-round greens. Good King Henry, fat hen, nettles, plantago major, hostas, chard, sorrel, and many others add to the variety.
Alliums also have a place in this layer, from shallots, to perennial onions, chives and garlics. Root vegetables, both familiar and less familiar, also find their place. Parsnips and carrots, beetroot and other similar crops and a range of less usual tuber plants are also good additions in dappled shade or around the edges of your forest garden.
A range of beans and peas are used to add nitrogen to the soil in the herbaceous layer of a forest garden. Other nitrogen fixing plants such as lupins can also find their place here. Meanwhile, other dynamic accumulators such as comfrey, yarrow, borage and dandelions bring nutrients up from deep in the soil which can then be returned to the soil surface to the benefit of surrounding herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees.
Then, of course, there are many shade tolerant flowering plants and herbs that are used to bring beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators to the area.
Choosing & Planting Ground Cover Plants
There are also plenty of plants to choose that will create a dense ground cover around your other plants. Nitrogen fixing clovers and vetches, alpine strawberries, mint, land cress, lamb’s lettuce, arugula, or other leafy greens and many other plants are used for this purpose in temperate climates.There are plenty of different plants to choose from and, of course, as with all the categories above, the key is to choose plants that are well suited to your climate and the conditions in your garden.
The information above should help you to understand how to create your forest garden. There is a lot more to learn, but these basics should help point you in the right direction. Designing and creating a food forest might seem like quite a lot of work. But it is important to remember that, once established, a well designed food forest should more or less take care of itself. A forest garden will alter and change constantly over time, but as long as you use and value that change, and work to mimic the forest in other ways, it should continue to feed and otherwise provide for you and your family for years to come.