Introducing Forest Gardening – Beautiful, Productive, Edible Gardens

Reader Contribution by Maddy Harland
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Forests are often some of the most productive and biodiverse habitats on our planet. Traditional people the world over have studied their forests and designed sustainable agricultures based on them. These can be found in the Amercias, Asia, and Africa as well as Europe. Robert Hart (1913-2000), who first pioneered the idea of temperate forest gardening in Britain, based his ideas on the tropical forest gardens in Kerala in south-west India. These are gardens based on the principles of the native forest ecosystem, but consciously using edible and other useful plants. Robert adapted this idea by substituting their sub-tropical plants with ones that could grow in England’s climate. For him, forest gardening was both a productive and low maintenance form of horticulture and also a way of gardening that embodied a peaceful and productive cooperation between human beings and nature.

Robert’s work was adopted by permaculturists first in Britain and it has now spread all over the world. In Britain, there are now numerous example of forest gardens, large and small. These are designed and planted to mimic the structure of our natural woodland where all the vertical as well as horizontal niches are filled with plants – trees, shrubs and mainly perennial climbers, roots and ground cover – but these gardens all differ according to soil type, topography and personal preferences. What they share is the aspiration to be:

·biologically sustainable – to not need lots of external inputs

·robust – to be able to withstand climate change in the shape of unusual weather extremes

·productive – in terms of edible foods, medicinal herbs, fibres, spices, fodder, fuel wood, poles, basketry materials, mulches, games, sap for wines and other products

·ideally they should also be low maintenance after the initial work of designing and planting them.

Forest gardens do not need to be large. The idea of stacking plants and filling vertical niches can be applied to a small urban lot as well as a larger rural yard. Tim and I acquired part of a field behind our house in 1991 and started planting our forest garden almost immediately. Today, twenty years later, from a bare, windswept site, it has become alive with nature and filled with edible foods all year round. This has been a real journey for us and not without mistakes and a few failures along the way, as well as wonderful successes.

In this blog I am going to share with you how to design and plant a forest garden, what trees, shrubs, climbers, ground cover and roots have worked for us and how to maximize space and yields. I can only speak form my experience and the perspective of a cool temperate climate but by sharing the principles and practices, I am sure we can adapt the information to suit many conditions. After all, all I had was Robert Hart’s Forest Gardening book which introduced the concept but had little hard information about plant varieties for my garden. I am also sure that many of you will be able to share your experiences and expertise on this blog and we also have some wonderful books available on the subject now.

Forest gardening is an ideal way of applying permaculture design principles. (There is more on ‘what is permaculture‘ and permaculture principles in my first two Mother blogs.) Forest gardening is organic, takes care of many of my family’s needs but, vitally for me, my garden is also a haven for a large and diverse population of invertebrates and vertebrates: animals, reptiles, birds and insects. They give me as much pleasure as the tasty fruits off the trees, the aromatics herbs and the beautiful and abundant wildflowers. All this biodiversity also means that the balance of pest/predators is healthy. This really is a way of gardening that makes you feel you are creating a little Eden.

Top Photo Credit: Martin Crawford’s forest garden at the Agroforestry Research Trust, UK from Tim Harland

Second photograph Credit: Australian rhubarb (Rheum australe) provides both structure and food in Martin’s garden from Tim Harland

Coming next! Setting Up Your Own Forest Garden

Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine. To find out more about permaculture please visit

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