Forests are often among the most productive and biodiverse habitats on our planet. Traditional peoples around the world have studied their forests and designed sustainable agriculture based on them. These can be found in the Americas, Asia and Africa as well as Europe. Robert Hart (1913-2000), a pioneer of the idea of temperate forest gardening in Britain, based his ideas on tropical forest gardens in Kerala, southwest India. They are gardens based on the principles of the native forest ecosystem, but consciously using edible plants and other useful plants. Robert adapted this idea by replacing their subtropical plants with ones that could grow in the English climate. For him, forest gardening was both a productive and low-maintenance form of horticulture, as well as a method of gardening that embodied peaceful and productive cooperation between humans and nature.
Robert’s work was first adopted by permaculturalists in Britain and has now spread around the world. In Britain today there are many examples of forest gardens, large and small. These are designed and planted to mimic the structure of our natural forest where all vertical and horizontal niches are filled with plants – trees, shrubs, and mostly perennial vines, roots and ground cover – but these gardens all differ depending on the soil type, topography and personal preferences. What they share is the aspiration to be:
·biologically sustainable – so you don’t need a lot of external inputs
·robust – to be able to withstand climate change in the form of unusual extreme weather conditions
·productive – in terms of edible food, medicinal herbs, fiber, spices, fodder, firewood, poles, basketwork materials, mulch, game, sap for wines and others products
·ideally, they should also be low maintenance after the initial design and planting work.
Forest gardens don’t have to be big. The idea of stacking plants and filling vertical niches can be applied to a small urban lot as well as a larger rural yard. Tim and I acquired part of a field behind our house in 1991 and started planting our forest garden almost immediately. Today, twenty years later, from a denuded and windswept site, it has come alive with nature and filled with edible foods all year round. It has been a real journey for us and not without mistakes and some setbacks along the way, as well as great successes.
In this blog, I’ll share with you how to design and plant a forest garden, what trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, and roots have worked for us, and how to maximize space and yields. I can only speak from my experience and the prospect of a cool temperate climate, but by sharing the principles and practices I am sure we can adapt the information to many conditions. After all, all I had was Robert Hart’s Forest gardening book that introduced the concept but contained little concrete information about the varieties of plants for my garden. I am also sure that many of you will be able to share your experiences and expertise on this blog and we also have some wonderful books available on the subject now.
Forest gardening is an ideal way to apply permaculture design principles. (There is more on “what is permaculture” and the principles of permaculture in my first two Mother blogs.) Forest gardening is organic, meets many of my family’s needs, but for me my garden is also a refuge for a large and diverse population of invertebrates and vertebrates: animals, reptiles, birds and insects. They give me as much pleasure as the tasty fruits of the trees, the aromatic herbs and the beautiful and abundant wild flowers. All this biodiversity also means that the pest / predator balance is healthy. It is really a way of gardening that gives the impression of creating a little Eden.
Top Photo credit: Martin Crawford’s Forest Garden at Agroforestry Research Trust, UK by Tim Harland
Second photo Credit: Australian rhubarb (Rheum australe) provides both structure and nourishment in Martin’s garden by Tim Harland
Shortly! Set up your own forest garden
Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine. To learn more about permaculture, please visit www.permaculture.co.uk