Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Permaculture is becoming more of a common term these days and along with it, I’m finding more and more people are aware of forest gardening. The romance of this idea struck me immediately when I first heard of it and later, the practicalities, the rationale for growing in this way captivated me perhaps even more strongly, especially within the context of climate change and the biodiversity crisis. These days, as a garden designer, I love to grapple with the limitations and opportunities presented by forest gardening, creating gardens filled with layer upon layer of functionality, while also containing the added dimension of inspirational beauty – that elusive connection that great gardens can bring with our very soul. This is the type of gardening that makes my heart sing and this is what I’m always striving to achieve in my garden at home.
So what is forest gardening? In a nutshell, from a completely practical perspective, forest gardens, or ‘food forests’ are gardens that are created to provide food in a naturalistic, forest format. It works with the natural tendency of the land, to create an abundant system that can feed us as well as garden wildlife.
The important thing is to go with the natural tendency of the land and this is important for a number of reasons. The vast majority of land here in the UK wants to be a forest. If you leave a patch of land alone for a few years, it’s going to start growing the sorts of plants that will nurture a forest. Nettles and brambles are never far away and quickly create a thorny scrub. From nature’s perspective, this impenetrable barrier protects an area of ground from large, destructive animals – people and ‘browsing animals’ – animals who eat woody plants, such as rabbits, squirrels and deer. Within that protective barrier, trees can not only set seed, they can also successfully grow to maturity without being eaten, ultimately becoming a forest and a very stable system. At last, this little patch of land stops rushing to push out smothering weeds or to cover everything in that thorny scrub. Opportunistic pests don’t tend to be a problem, as there is a balanced system, including predators of all the pest species. The plants in a long-term forest system gradually build up relationships with each other and work to keep each other healthy, passing nutrients and medicines throughout the forest community via fungal threads connecting from root tip to root tip throughout the forest.
What I’m describing is a natural forest and as I say, it’s a really stable system. No gardener needed! Forest gardens are different, in that – as gardeners, we’ve chosen the forest plants – the trees, shrubs and ground cover plants - and we’ve picked ones that provide us with food, such as the plum tree you can see above with its white blossom and the understorey of apple mint that's flowering at the top of the page. But once the forest has grown to maturity, apart from taking a harvest, there is very little work needed. And while it can take a while for a forest garden to reach that point of maturity, in the long-term, that’s a big bonus of growing this way.
Another benefit is that the system keeps itself really healthy, with very little problem with pests or diseases. Food grown in this way is coming from mature plants, with massive great root systems – they’re able to forage for so much more nutrition than our usual food plants with their relatively tiny root systems. So we get better nutrition too if we can integrate some of these mineral-rich foods into our diets. The forest system – even if it’s designed to grow food for humans, will also provide food and shelter for loads of wildlife. It’s not a nature reserve, it’s not a natural forest, but it’s massively better for nature than an monoculture field of crops. Even in small gardens, by growing food with multiple layers of plants – from trees at the top, down to shrubs, such as the rugosa roses you can see below and beneath those, a layer of ground cover plants, like those mints at the top of the page or perhaps something with edible flowers or leaves, like a primrose or perpetual spinach, that’s a lot of habitat in a small space and it can also provide quite a lot of food – feeding both us and our wild neighbours.
And this is where that romantic element comes in. I just love the idea of eating at least part of my diet in this really natural way; of sharing my food with other plants and animals – or being able to share their food, because this method of growing food rebalances the system and places us all on an equal footing. It brings to mind ideas like the Garden of Eden, of paradise gardens or oases in the desert, where people can wander freely in an abundant system, enjoying nature’s bounty along with all the beautiful birds, butterflies and other wild creatures that live there too.
If you’re interested in growing in this way and would like to learn more, then I’d love to welcome you along to my home garden for my new Volunteer Tuesdays. Come see what I’ve been up to and to get involved in helping progress my latest forest gardening plans to the next stage. I’ve been creating a half acre forest garden here at Natural Gardener HQ for the last 10 years and I’ve got lots of exciting ideas for it in the pipeline, and I’m hoping, with a little help from lovely people like you, we can get some new features built and create a brilliant venue for inspirational garden visits, talks and workshops in the future.
So I’m starting to run Volunteer Tuesdays once a month, working mainly in the forest garden, but also in the regenerative veg patch. I’ve got loads of skills to pass on and I love talking gardening more than anything else, so there will be lots of work, lots of chat plus tea/coffee and tasty goodies to keep us going. I’ve often got interesting plants and seeds to give away too, so I would hope that this will be a really great win-win situation for us all. Please get in touch if you think this might be for you and I’ll be happy to tell you more about getting involved.