For years I’ve been fascinated by the concept of forest gardening. Elderberries grow in our woods, along with nut trees. But we’ve had little luck seeding logs with mushroom spores, getting ginseng to grow, or fostering the growth of berry bushes in partial shade. Now, faced with the heart-wrenching uncertainties brought by climate change, the importance of exploring this permaculture-based possibility seems every more urgent.
Throughout time, people have relied on forests for an abundance of foods. The practice of forest gardening imitates the forest’s nature structure to grow an abundance in a sustainable way. It avoids the inherent instability of monoculture agribusiness and can be done on a small-scale in yards, community gardens, school lots, and parks without tilling, weeding, fertilizing, or irrigating (although a few paths covered with wood chips or stone are helpful).
You can find this concept in active use around the “developing” world today (despite the agribusiness lobby, with Bill Gates’s help). Wisdom passed down in tropical regions continues as tall mango and coconut trees loom over plantain and papaya trees, partially shading smaller plantings of cassava, with fruit vines climbing over all of them. Chickens (sometimes goats or hogs) may range freely through, eating thick weeds and contributing fertilizer. This is forest gardening, tropical style.
It’s possible in more temperate climates too. Robert Hart, from the UK, spread the idea in the 1980’s with his book Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape As he wrote, “Forest gardening offers the potential for all gardeners to grow an important element of their health-creating food; it combines positive gardening and positive health… The wealth, abundance and diversity of the forest garden provides for all human needs – physical needs through foods, materials and exercise, as well as medicines and spiritual needs through beauty and the connection with the whole.”
Although monoculture and backyard gardens typically rely on annuals, that’s not the way nature works. Annuals are a small segment of what makes up the natural landscape. Annuals in nature typically take over disturbed ground (turned up by migrating hooves or barren after fire). Annuals are high-energy, short-lived, get-it-while-you-can plants. In one season they germinate, grow, ripen, then die. (See a metaphor for our “developed world” diet based on annuals?) Perennials, in contrast, don’t require tilling. They preserve the soil structure, prevent loss of topsoil, and maintain the essential soil microbiome. Perennials dig deep into the earth, making it more drought and flood-resistant, shading more tender plants, and keeping everything more lush in sustainable forest ecosystems.
Robert Hart began his forest garden experiment to provide a healing environment for himself and his brother Lacon, who had some learning disabilities. Robert initially tried to maintain annual vegetable beds and an orchard while raising livestock. This proved too much work. But he noticed that a bed planted with perennials was thriving without intervention. And interestingly, these same plants were the most useful in promoting health. His investigations drew him toward nature’s lessons.
Robert adapted a small orchard of pears and apples into an edible landscape using what he called nature’s seven dimensions.
Although we’re not accustomed to a “productive” garden arrayed in what appears to be forest-like disorder, a tiny plot can produce all sorts of bounty when we’re attuned to what it yields. This means we need to look beyond the limitations of today’s crops. All sorts of plants are edible and useful, well beyond the few cereal grains, fruits, and vegetables that make up our limited diets. Robert Hart found that it took little more than an eighth of an acre to put out prodigious yields including apples, plums, pears, cherries, gooseberries, Jerusalem artichokes, grapes, currants, raspberries, sorrel, ramps, herbs, lovage, almonds, hazelnuts, mushrooms, and more. Plus medicinal herbs, basketry materials, firewood, and building materials.
A wisely planted forest garden provides nourishment, building materials, and medicinal stock. It also creates a wildlife habitat and attracts pollinators. It takes notice of naturally beneficial relationships between plants as any woodland ecosystem does, resulting in a productive space for the wise gardener.
The canopy, or top layer, might be made of full-sized fruit and nut trees such as apple, pear, plum, chestnut, pecan, chestnut, walnut, and pine nut trees.
The short tree layer might include some of the same fruit and nut trees in dwarf and semi-dwarf stock as well as peach, apricot, nectarine, filbert, almond, fig, elderberry, black mulberry, persimmon, pawpaw, and hazelnut.
The shrub layer might include blueberry, serviceberry, currant, and rhubarb.
Herb layer includes shade tolerant, non-invasive herbs such as fennel, chamomile, chives, ginger, cilantro, and cardamon.
Ground cover layer might include strawberries, comfrey, and nasturtium.
Root layer might include onions, potatoes, beets, garlic, and wild yam.
Vine layer might include kiwi, grape, squash, and hops.
Check out this wonderful video by Martin Crawford.
I’m excited to explore these possibilities, probably starting on a very small-scale. Here are some of the books we’re reading as we plan.
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel
The Food Forest Handbook: Design and Manage and Home-Scale Perennial Polyculture Garden by Michelle Czolba and Darrell Frey
Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops by Martin Crawford
There is also the need to plant ‘nurse’ species, fast growing but short lived, to protect the slower growing canopy species from bad weather or too much sun while they become established. The nurse species can either die back or become mulch or animal food once the canopy trees are established and no longer so tender. In a temperate climate this might be elderberry or hazelnut, in a tropical climate coffee, pawpaw or guava.
One of the best ones is leucaena, as it’s a nitrogen fixer and a valuable animal fodder, but it’s also very invasive, so not suitable except in arid conditions, and it has limited nutritional value; it’s possible eat the young seed pods.