Forest gardens

Forest gardens are food-producing gardens which seek to emulate natural woodland ecosystems as closely as possible.

A forest garden is made-up of mainly perennial plants which are agriculturally productive or useful, growing as they would in the wild.

Forest gardening is the intentional process of cultivating a diverse culture of useful plants and trees. The forest garden is so-named because the plants are stacked or assembled as they may be found in a natural forest or woodland. There is a universal assembly of forest plants, found worldwide. Whilst this structure is universal,  each forest or woodland is uniquely composed of species that are specific to climate and location.

Most temperate forests consist of seven layers of plants, whilst some sucessionally-advanced tropical forests may feature up to thirteen layers.

The most common seven plant layers are as follows (with examples for forest gardens in temperate climates):

  1. Upper Canopy (Sweet Chestnut, Cherry, Pear, Victoria Plum)
  2. Lower Canopy or Sub-Canopy    (Hazel, Crab Apple, Fig, Medlar and dwarfing trees)
  3. Vines and Climbers (Kiwi, Grape, Passion Fruit, Runner Beans)
  4. Shrubs, and understorey bushes (Blackcurrant, Gooseberry, Raspberry, Eleagnus)
  5. Herbaceous perenennials and annuals (Mint, Chives, Fennel, Rhubarb)
  6. Ground Cover (Strawberries, Clover, Ramsons)
  7. Roots and Rhizosphere ( Parsnips, Welsh Onion, Ground Nut, Garlic and Chives, Jerusalem Artichoke)

A well-managed garden will yield nuts, fruits, herbs and annual crops. Once a forest garden becomes established, it requires little or no artificial energy input and minimal labour, whilst continuing to produce harvestable yields.

The objective of a forest garden, is to epitomise the diversity and stability found in wild forest systems, whilst choosing productive trees, shrubs, bushes and herbs which are benficial to humans. The purpose of this is to create natural pest resilence though biodiversity, to create natural habitat, and to create cultures of plants which can produce food perpetually, without annual tilling, pesticides, fertilisers or other high inputs of chemicals or energy - indeed as an alternative, and also as an ecologically regenererative and sustainable source of organic and seasonal food. 

A polyculture (a mixed species of plants), is the opposite of a monoculture. Monocultures are largely absent in the natural environment and consist of one species of plant growing on a flat plane. Almost all of nature may be considered polycultural. A polycultural food forest (forest garden), consists of multiple species of food, growing on multiple planes. Thus, food growing and cropping occurs on multiple layers, as opposed to a single yield on a flat growing plane. This increases the input of human labour, but eliminates any dependency on petrochemicals.

The forest gardener seeks to create as much diversity as possible to maximise the stabilty and resilience of the agriultural system, and to create a greater range of potential crops, harvestable throughout the season. It is essentially, a multi-layered foraging garden, sometimes referred to as a wild or outdoor pantry.  

A micro-forest garden can be created in pots on a patio by stacking dwarf fruit trees, with vines and herbs for instance.