I love digging in a garden and I also love walking through a forest.
Most people think of forests and gardens as two separate things, but forest gardening combines the best of both worlds.
In this video, I show you the mini forest garden I’m developing that’s only about 2000 square feet (you can do this in a small area).
Feel free to ask your questions down below…
Gardens And Forests
Gardens are where we plant organic vegetables and flowers, while forests are places where trees and understory grow without our help.
When we combine these two ideas, we create forest-like ecosystems that are highly productive in addition to being beautiful and sustainable.
These are different from orchards, where we usually see rows of fruit trees and maybe a cover crop between them.
Those are fine too, but with forest gardening, we incorporate many more different plants, which leads to more self-sustaining ecosystems.
What Is Forest Gardening?
My forest garden in year 2 – still focusing on many annuals until the perennials gradually take over
Forest gardening involves establishing a big family of mostly perennial plants, each with its own relationships to all the others.
For us, it means letting go of control in some ways, as we can’t foresee every possible interaction.
But this lets the creativity of nature unfold for our benefit.
This permaculture-based design concept is easiest to work with in the tropics, where there’s plenty of sunlight to share between the layers of plant life.
Yet some highly successful temperate forest gardens have been created in the past few decades.
Layers Of A Forest Garden
In forest gardening, we imitate natural forests by filling many vertical layers of space – as well as many ecological functions – with plants that are useful to us.
There are at least 6 vertical layers in a forest garden: big trees, small trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, groundcovers, and roots.
Mushrooms are often included as well. And as you get closer to the tropics, there are other layers such as vines and palms.
In cooler climates and smaller spaces, we may not fill all these layers, because we have to make sure there’s enough light for plants at lower levels.
Because of this, we’ll often leave out vines and the taller nut trees of the high canopy, and start our planning with fruit trees in the low canopy layer.
If we planted just one fruit tree, and surrounded it with helpful companion plants, that would be a simple kind of plant “guild” – like a small nuclear family of plants.
And then a forest garden is more like an extended family with lots of great-aunts and second cousins.
Functions In A Forest Garden
We’ll usually select a few types of fruit trees, then support them with other plants from shrubs to herbs to groundcover, performing various functions within the system.
Many of these may also produce food for us.
How many different functional niches exist for us to fill is limited only by our own creativity.
The more ecosystem niches we fill with plants, the less work we have to do, as they do it for us.
Some common functions include:
- Fixing nitrogen from the air so plants can use it
- Accumulating nutrients from deep in the soil and bringing them to the surface
- Attracting beneficial insects or repelling pests
- Making mulch right in place – some plants just make a lot of big leaves
- Shading the soil and new transplants
- And of course providing food, medicine, and fiber for us
These plants should mostly be perennial or self-seeding, as we don’t want to have to plant every year.
Plants For A Future, at www.pfaf.org, is an excellent free resource providing information on many useful temperate plants’ edible and medicinal qualities, functions, and habitat preferences.
It’s a valuable resource when you’re getting into forest gardening.
Fruit trees are a great place to start. Often semi-dwarf varieties work best for smaller lots. I prefer them over the smaller dwarf trees because the latter can be difficult to keep healthy, due to their tiny root systems and overall lack of vigor.
Nitrogen fixers are the next most common and important function – a rule of thumb is to have least 25% of your garden planted with nitrogen fixers. This can mean nitrogen fixing trees like redbud or black locust, flowering plants like lupines or sweet peas, groundcovers like clover or vetch, shrubs with edible and medicinal fruit like goumi, or even other plants that have a relationship with different nitrogen-fixing bacteria, even if they aren’t legumes.
Some plants are amazing at accumulating nutrients from the soil and then sharing them when they drop their leaves or when roots die back. Comfrey, nettles, and yarrow are superstars in this category.
For insectary plants, it’s great for both the insects and you if you choose plants with a variety of sizes and shapes of flowers, that bloom at different times throughout the season.
You can’t predict exactly how the whole forest garden family will get along, but you’ll learn as you go, and take pleasure in seeing a mature ecosystem develop that meets your needs while sustaining itself.
Any questions or comments about forest gardening? Feel free to let me know below.