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Forest gardens

Dense green undergrowth in a forest garden

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

A forest garden is made-up of mainly perennial plants which are productive or useful and - as its name suggests - plants are stacked or assembled as they may be found in a forest or woodland. There is a universal recognised system of forest planting, but each forest or woodland is uniquely composed of species specific to climate and location.

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

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

  1. Upper Canopy (Sweet Chestnut)
  2. Lower Canopy or Sub-Canopy (Crab Apple)
  3. Vines and Climbers (Grape)
  4. Shrubs, and understorey bushes (Blackcurrant)
  5. Herbaceous perennials and annuals (Mint)
  6. Ground Cover (Strawberries)
  7. Roots and Rhizosphere (Ground Nut)<

A well-managed garden will yield nuts, fruits, herbs and annual crops. Once a forest garden becomes established, it requires little or no extra energy input and minimal labour, whilst continuing to produce harvestable yields. It is essentially a multi-layered foraging garden, sometimes referred to as a wild or outdoor pantry.  

Forest gardens also create a natural habitat for animals and insects and plants with greater pest resilience, producing continual food without annual tilling, pesticides, fertilisers or other high inputs of chemicals or energy.  

Forest gardens are part of the wider approach of agroforestry.

The 52 Climate Actions website has more advice for anyone wanting to Plant an Edible Forest Garden.