Today, "Forest Gardening" is a type of permaculture in which trees and other plants are grown for food and other renewable resources in a method that mimics a woodland ecosystem or forest edge. Pioneered and popularized by the late Robert Hart in the UK, the idea has been further developed by Ken Fern (see the Plants for a Future website) and others. The concept is sometimes also called woodland gardening, edible landscaping or food forests.
Forest gardening, by whatever name offers enormous benefits for human civilization.
Why Forest Gardening Is a Good Idea
In addition to the abundant food and other renewable resources they provide, forest gardens have several other benefits for the environment and people, including cleaning the air, preventing soil erosion, controlling flooding, maintaining freshwater supplies and increasing biodiversity.
"Obviously, few of us are in a position to restore the forests. But tens of millions of us have gardens, or access to open spaces such as industrial wastelands, where trees can be planted. and if full advantage can be taken of the potentialities that are available even in heavily built up areas, new ‘city forests’ can arise." -- Robert HartThe advantages of forest gardening over typical gardens and modern agricultural methods include: 1) extremely productive, 2) relatively low maintenance, 3) do not require inputs of man-made fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals, 4) make more efficient use of water, and 5) can be grown and maintained by anyone with even a very small plot of land.
What Makes a Forest Garden a Forest Garden?
Forest gardening isn't gardening in a forest. Rather, it is gardening like a forest, using the principles that are used by nature itself. One of the main differences between a traditional backyard garden or agricultural field is the emphasis on perennials (trees, shrubs, vines, etc.) rather than annuals (most garden vegetables). Here is how Harvey Usserydescribes this difference and what it means, in his Mother Earth News article Plant an Edible Forest Garden:
"One of the main differences between a forest garden and the typical food garden is that forest gardens rely on perennials. Most vegetable gardens include mainly annuals — such as tomatoes, lettuce or radishes.
To understand the difference this makes, consider the role of annual plants in nature. Annuals colonize and cover disturbed ground, because theirs is a high-energy, in-a-hurry lifestyle. In a single season, an annual sprouts from seed, grows to maturity, ripens fruits and seeds, then dies.
Because of the speed and fecundity of the annuals’ lifestyle, they are able to cover patches of bare ground quickly. This energy intensive lifestyle is only possible in full sun — in shade, most annuals will not receive sufficient power for their task. Over time, however, as the annuals protect and build the soil of the disturbed area, they give way to perennials, and these are the plants we want to establish in a forest garden.
Most gardeners are used to a fair amount of disturbance and change in their gardens, from tillage, crop rotation, and so on. In contrast, a natural forest tends to maintain its character over time, and resists rapid change. Changes in plant species do happen in a forest, but they usually take place very slowly. The goal of the forest gardener is to follow these patterns and establish a perennial polyculture from which food is harvested with minimal disturbance."
Texture in a Forest Garden
A forest garden contains seven layers according to Robert Hart:
- A canopy layer consisting of mature fruit & nut trees.
- A low-tree layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
- A shrub layer of fruit bushes such as berries and currants.
- A herbaceous layer of perennial vegetables and herbs.
- A ground cover layer of edible plants that spread horizontally, such as strawberry.
- A underground layer of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
- A vertical layer of vines and climbers.
Fruit- and nut-bearing trees, shrubs and vines are an important part of a forest garden. However, there are a lot of vegetables, legumes, tubers and herbs that tolerate shade well and could be included in any forest garden. I will talk specifically about which plants do well in a forest garden in future posts.
Edible mushrooms could be grown in a forest garden, as well as those producing dyes. Free range chickens could be raised within a forest garden for both eggs and meat, as could other small livestock. Wild game could also be encouraged within a forest garden. Medicinal plants and herbs could be grown (make sure you know what you are doing, of course). Host and food plants for butterflies, native bees and other pollinators are another good idea. The possibilities are virtually unlimited as to how you can use your forest garden.
For other articles on Forest Gardening, click here see an index.