Designing & Planting Your Own Forest Garden: Selecting Trees for the Top Canopy

| 6/30/2011 10:20:01 AM

Tags: forest gardening, fruit trees, top fruit, canopy trees, Maddy Harland,

Harland forest garden

In my last blog I introduced the idea of forest gardening. In tropical and subtropical regions, forest gardens have been used for producing food and a few cash crops for thousands of years. Today, forest gardens can be quite small – you can grow one in a back yard as it is the principles and design that defines them – and they are usually no bigger than 2.5 acres. 

In Kerala in south-west India and similarly in areas where traditional agriculture is still practised in Haiti, forest gardening is relatively easy. There is plenty of light and so the multi-dimensional design that exploits all niches below and above ground right up to the top canopy of trees is not difficult to achieve. Here the soil needs to be protected from the fierce sun and so the use of mulch and ground cover is very important.  

Temperate forest gardens have an entirely different challenge when stacking trees, vines, shrubs, ground cover and roots in a design because we have far less sunlight and trees can take decades to grow to maturity. A temperate forest garden will change over the years. In early years when the top canopy trees are tiny, we can grow far more ground cover and smaller shrubs and soft fruit. As the top canopy of trees (nuts, top fruit and nitrogen fixers like alder and Siberian pea trees) closes, even the vigour of gooseberries may be compromised. We are therefore not only stacking layers carefully with wider spaces in a temperate garden, we are also stacking time, working to a different rhythm taking into account the process of succession. In others words, the garden will change as it ages and evolves. 

Though we do use mulch in cool damp climates, especially to establish trees, it is important not to be too idealistic. Mulch is a haven for slugs and snails. It is important to get the ecology in balance before you set about mulching vast areas with newspaper and straw. Because our land had been an intensive agricultural field, in the early years we were beset with pests and had little biodiversity. We made ponds to attract toads and frogs and habitats to attract common lizards and slowworms. All these creatures ate the plagues of slugs and snails. We also planted wildflowers to attract in beneficial insects. This helped restore the land and cover the ground, reducing the need to mulch as well. 

Birds too have been important to establishing biodiversity. They too eat snails and other pests. They also eat some of our fruit but they bring in fertility and add a living dimension to the garden that gives us great pleasure. We feed them in winter and put up nest boxes in autumn and we share a certain amount of our harvest with them too. 

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