My design tips for small-scale forest gardening

When you think of a forest, you are likely to imagine a large area with dense forest cover. But forest gardening, while it mimics a natural forest or woodland ecosystem in many ways, doesn’t have to resemble one in size. Forest gardening concepts can be applied even on a very small scale.

My own forest garden is about 66 feet by 33 feet (20 meters x 10 meters), but I have designed forest gardens for much smaller spaces. When it comes to small-scale forest gardening, your efforts at home can still be impressive and impactful. Here are some design tips for doing so in even the smallest of home gardens.

Determine the size of the system by choosing the right canopy trees

In a larger forest garden, you might have very tall canopy and sub-canopy trees. But in a smaller space, the highest level of a forest garden can be dwarf fruit trees or even larger shrubs.

By growing species on dwarfing rootstocks (to keep them smaller), or choosing naturally compact trees or shrubs, you can still reap the benefits of shade and other ecosystem services provided by tree species. canopy without the need for huge amounts of land.

Create diverse guilds at drip lines of trees and shrubs

Guilds are the human-made communities of plants that live under and around the base of a fruit tree. A drip line is determined by the span of a particular tree’s canopy, the area over which it can “drip” water onto the ground.

In a very small forest garden, the margins of the guilds around each tree should be defined by the eventual drip line of key species.

So, for example, if the tree has a mature drip line of 13 feet (4 meters), the forest garden can be created in that space, with smaller shrubs, vines and many herbaceous perennials or self-seeded annuals under the canopy.

Remember that forest gardens can also be more linear, spreading out as border strips or marginal planting, or forming divisions between different parts of your space.

Whatever small-scale layout you choose, the planting can and should evolve as the trees grow and further shade the space.

Create islands and think carefully about routes

By viewing a forest garden as a series of guilds around key species, you can take a modular approach, linking a small number to form densely vegetated islands. Doing this, and dividing them by lanes, maximizes edge and increases abundance.

In small spaces, it is especially important to think about how you will travel through space. We can use walkways carefully to bring light into the heart of the space, as well as to improve access, without taking up too much growing area.

You can also consider options such as stepping stones or tree trunk slices as walkways to and between the forest garden islands you create, so that there is more room to plant between them.

Remember that in some circumstances living plants as pathways (eg clover) are an option.

Manage more intensively to limit size and growth

In large forest gardens, it is common to take a minimal approach to pruning and other maintenance work. But in smaller spaces, judicious pruning — thinning out lower branches, for example, and pruning for size restriction of trees and shrubs — can help maintain rich productivity and biodiversity in the space.

Dividing mature herbaceous perennials as needed and, of course, as in other forest gardens, cutting and dropping plants into the system to maintain fertility, are also key strategies to employ.

Integrate planting forest gardens with other needs and wants

If you only have a very limited space to play in your garden, remember that whatever you include should serve multiple functions.

A forest garden planting strip, for example, could be included in place of a hedge or fence along one boundary of the space. Or it could be used to divide garden rooms, hide unsightly views or provide more privacy for an alfresco seating or dining area.

A forest garden can also become a playground for children, with hidden dens, balance tracks and walkways, and plenty of space for exploration and play in nature.

A forest gardening approach isn’t just for large spaces and landscape-scale projects. Even in much smaller gardens this can be an attractive option to consider, bringing a range of benefits to you, your home and the world.