3. Growing a Forest Garden

A quick overview. Extracts from Tody Hemenway – Gaia’s Garden.

Many yards already contain most of the elements of a forest garden: a few tall trees in front or at the back edge, some shrubs for a hedge or berries, a vegetable patch, a few herbs, and a flower bed. But in the typical yard these elements lie separate and disconnected. A forest garden simply integrates all these pieces into a smoothly working whole.

At its essence, a forest garden has several layers, as does a natural forest. The basic forest garden contains three layers: trees, shrubs, and ground plants. But for those who like to take full advantage of every planting opportunity, a truly deluxe forest garden can contain as many as seven tiers of vegetation. The seven layers of the forest garden are tall trees, low trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, vines, and root crops.

A simple forest garden contains a top layer of trees, a middle level of shrubs, and a ground layer of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Each plant is chosen for the role or roles that it will play, whether for food, wildlife habitat, herbal medicine, insect attraction, soil building, or any of other functions. The major trees and shrubs are spaced to let the sun fall between, and plants in the lower layers are placed in sun or shade according to their appetite for light.

A forest garden has a different feel from other garden styles, in large part because trees are a major element, integrated into and defining the other layers. But in a forest garden, trees control the landscape’s character with their leaves arching overhead, trunks thrusting skyward, and branches enfolding the space. We’re not strolling in an exposed group of bushes and flowers, our heads above most of the foliage; we’re nestled within a sheltering yet open canopy of trees of all heights. The trees predominate, yet without smothering.

The gardener can mix and match the styles to tailor a garden that combines food, beauty, habitat, species preservation, and income.

Forest gardens raise the obvious question: Don’t the upper layers cast too much shade for the lower plants? Part of the answer is that proper tree spacing and shade-tolerant plants will keep lack of light from being a problem. But to be perfectly honest — especially for northern gardens where the sun is weaker fruit yields and flower density won’t be as large in the shady parts of the understory as in full sun – pest problems dwindle. And once established, forest gardens are low maintenance since the thick vegetation cover reduces water needs, smothers weeds, and renews soil through self-mulching and natural soil building. Because the forest garden holds mostly perennial and self seeding plants, it also needs no tilling and little seasonal replanting.

“It is said that there is no creature as wise as the human being. By applying this wisdom, people have become the only animals capable of nuclear war.” Masanobu Fukuaka – The One Straw Revolution.

Designing the Forest Garden

Extracts from Tody Hemenway – Gaia’s Garden.

The forest garden design process largely follows the sequence laid out below: observation, visioning, planning, development, and implementation. As well, extra focus on a few points will be helpful:

  • In an exposed site, wind barriers (fences and hedges) will greatly speed the establishment of the other plants.
  • Trees and woody plants should go in first, since these take the longest to mature and define the shape of the garden. Remember to design for the full size of trees; it’s easy to place spindly seedlings too close together, leading to overcrowding and dense shade when they mature. Leave room for sunlight to penetrate between full-grown trees, rather than creating a closed tall-tree layer.
  • The open spaces between trees and shrubs can at first be filled with annual vegetables, flowers, nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as clover, and nursery stock. As the upper layers grow and the nursery plants become ready to transplant, these beds will shrink.

At the heart of any garden or landscape, at the base of the ecological pyramid, is soil. Create healthy soil and the rest of the job gets much simpler. Because we use techniques such as composting, deep mulches, cover crops, and nutrient-storing plants, the ecological gardener’s soil teems with worms and beneficial microorganisms that shunt fertility to plant roots. This rich, humusy earth can support a broad array of soil life, which in turn will nurture diverse plant species and the wide spectrum of helpful insects, birds, and other animals that come to share in the bounty.

Healthy soil ensures that the second element of a self-sustaining garden, water, is in abundance. Deep, spongy humus will hold every drop of rain and irrigation water, better and more cheaply than any other medium. Deep mulches slow evaporation. To weather long droughts, we can also store water in ponds and tanks that are filled by rain, recycled through greywater systems, or, less sustainably, piped from a well or municipal source. All of this means that the natural condition of this garden is abundantly moist.

Establishing a Food Forest the Permaculture Way

Soil and water are the behind-the-scenes elements that make the garden work. A third element on center stage is the vegetation. Chosen to play many roles, the useful and beautiful species have here been selected from native plants, naturalized varieties, noninvasive exotics, indigenous and foreign rare species needing preservation, heirloom crops, and cuttings from neighbors’ and friends’ yards in short, from as many sources as are available and ethical. Each plant serves at least two functions or, perhaps a handful of them just look pretty; we’re human, after all and in combination they offer benefits to both people and the rest of nature.

This entry was posted in Methods. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply