Forest gardening

Posted on: 5th November, 2018

Category: Home, Garden & Environment

Contributor: West Cork People

Noah Chase studied horticulture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. He now co-manages a family run nursery, Deelish Garden Centre in Skibbereen, specialising in rare, unusual and edible plants. His passion is sustainable gardening, useful plants and care of the environment.

A forest garden is designed based on the structure of young natural woodland. In tropical Asia, Africa and Central America this system of gardening is very common and is thousands of years old, whereas here in Europe it is relatively new. A true gardening hero, Robert Hart did the first pioneering work in the UK in the 1970s and he was the first person to use the term ‘Forest Gardening’. He gardened organically and was aware of plants’ relationship with soil bacteria, truly ahead of his time. His garden in Shropshire is the only known mature forest garden in the UK.  Today Martin Crawford leads the way and runs the Agroforestry research trust, a non-profit charity researching temperate forest gardens. He is regarded as the current authority on temperate forest gardens, with over thirty years of research.

A forest garden incorporates plants (and sometimes animals) that are useful for food, materials, fuel, wildlife and medicine. These plants are all grown together in various layers; there are up to seven different layers (eight if you count the underground soil web). For this article, I have condensed them into three layers; the canopy layer, including overstory trees, understory trees and large shrubs; the mid layer, including small trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials; the ground cover layer, including ground-cover plants, vines and root crops. Plants such as climbers, some perennials and shrubs can grow between all three layers.

In a healthy forest garden, there is rarely any need for fertilisers to be added, as nitrogen fixing plants and other plants that can raise nutrients from deeper in the soil are used in the design. Soil erosion and drought are rarely an issue, as the surface of the soil is covered by plants or organic mulches most of the time and foliage from fallen leaves and perennials quickly gets recycled back into the surrounding plants. As the diversity of plants is high, natural predators of possible pests are attracted into the garden and take care of any unwanted pests. Aromatic plants such as feverfew, lemon balm, mint and tansy are used to promote health in the garden. Due to the anti-fungal properties of the essential oils these plants exude during the growing season, problems with disease are also rarely an issue.

Unlike traditional annual vegetable gardening, where most of the work involved is weeding between the rows of vegetables, in a forest garden, weeds rarely have a chance to establish as the ground is covered with plant growth, leaving few gaps for weeds to start. The trees and shrubs rarely need pruning, leaving you with much more time to get on with other jobs or to simply enjoy your garden! Encouraging a high diversity of plants, wildlife and insects also increases the biodiversity of the forest garden, creating a healthy soil web, in turn producing healthy and productive crops!

You do not need to have a large piece of land or even any woodland to start a forest garden. In a small area you can grow a huge amount of useful  products including; traditional annual and perennial vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs and spices, mushrooms, medicinal herbs, firewood and building wood, gardening canes and posts, basket material, honey and many more useful products…

Forest gardening uses some permaculture (meaning permanent agriculture) techniques and practices. Most forest gardeners are not strict on using only native species, as using only native species in a forest garden would seriously limit the range of plants available. Caution and common sense should always be used when considering introducing potentially invasive species.    

When planning your forest garden, a network of paths is incorporated into the design, so you can easily access various parts of the garden. If possible, ponds, wildflower and seating areas are also included. Some areas are left without any canopy layer so that sunlight reaches the ground. Traditional annual (grows and dies in one year) vegetables such as squash, salad crops, peas etc. can be grown in these areas. Biennials (plants that take two years to grow from seed to flowering) such as kale, cabbage, leeks and onions can also be grown here. This is also a great area to grow flowering perennials (grows more than two years, flowers in spring or summer, hides below ground in the winter and comes back in the spring). These perennials can be used for food crops (for humans and insects), soil improvers or simply for their flowers or foliage.

Other areas in the forest garden are used for the canopy layer and will include fruit tree growing. Very little light will reach the forest floor here while the tree is still in leaf. Crops such as wild Ramsons, Strawberries, Creeping brambles (Rhubus) and Hostas will thrive here.

Around the edges of your forest garden, it may be necessary to establish a windbreak hedge. This hedge will have many beneficial effects on the garden, creating a micro climate within the garden and have a number of other benefits such as; a reduction of wind speed which will result in less damage to crops and flowers, increase of daytime air temperature of up to two degrees, Increase soil temperature of up to three degrees, less evaporation of water from the soil, more flowering plants for pollinators and an increase of fruit production. Plants used here can include; Alders, New Zealand flax, Rugosa roses, Elaeagnus and Pines. Hedging trees and shrubs should be planted at least a year or so before more delicate species go in in order to allow more time to get established.

You may already have lots of the plants used in forest gardening growing in your garden already. Some of the more common varieties for the canopy trees and shrubs include; Sweet chestnuts, Hazel, Quince, Fig, Apple, Medlar, Mulberry, Cherry, Plum, Walnut and Pears. These are all well-known fruit and nut trees. Some trees and shrubs used in this layer that you may not realise have edible fruit and nuts include; Amelanchiers, Strawberry trees, Dogwoods, Monkey puzzle (will need a male and female for the nuts), Hawthorns, Eleagnus, Ginko, Snowbell tree, Sea buckthorn, Blackthorn, Elder, Pines (stone pine grows really well here in West Cork), Oaks, Limes and Rowans.

If you have the space, firewood trees can also be incorporated into the design. All wood will burn in a fire after being seasoned, but some of the best that can also be coppiced (cut and will grow again) include; Ash, Eucalyptus, Hazel, Sweet Chestnut and Limes (which also have edible leaves).

Some trees and shrubs can fix nitrogen in the soil through bacteria that attach to the roots and help their hosts take nitrogen from the air and give it to the tree in return for sugars. This nitrogen is then spread to other plants via leaf fall, dead plant material and fungi. Some common examples of nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs include; Acacias, Alders, Broom, Robinia, Redbuds, Sea Buckthorn and Elaeagnus.

Moving on to the mid layer, there are even more common edible varieties that can be very useful in a forest garden. These include; Jostaberries, Worcesterberries, Currants, Gooseberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Japanese Wineberries and Blueberries. This layer can also grow some of the fruit trees mentioned above but grafted on a dwarf rootstock. Some of the more unusual edible varieties include; Chokeberries (a bad name for a tasty fruit!), Berberis, Plum Yews, Fuchsias (some varieties are very tasty, and all fruits and flowers are edible), Mahonias, Myrtus ugni, Roses (all hip flesh and flowers are edible) and Bamboos (all seeds and young shoots can be eaten). Mid layer plants used for herbs and spice include; Calycanthus, Drimys lanceolata, Bay laurel, Myrtle, Rosemary, Sage, Fennel to name just a few. Plants used for canes, tying and basketry material include; Cordyline palm, New Zealand flax, Willows, Hazel and Bamboos.

There is a huge choice when it comes to the ground-cover layer. This layer includes low shrubs, perennials, base-layer plants (1-2” high) and root crops. Edible fruit varieties include; Creeping dogwood, Strawberries (yum!), Wintergreen, Groundcover raspberry, Creeping bramble, Cranberry and Cowberry. Edible plants include; Onion and Leek family (look out for Babingtons leeks, one of the best!), Ramsons, Angelica, Asparagus, Sea Beet, Perennial Kale and Broccoli, Turkish Rocket, Red Valerian, Bellflowers, Sea Kale, Sweet Woodruff, Lovage, Hostas (lovely fried with butter), Mallows (leaves and flowers), Mint, Watercress, Plantains, Solomans seal, Dandelions, Violets (flowers in salads and leaves to thicken stews), Stinging nettle (no forest garden should be without a patch of them!), Cardoon, Jerusalem Artichoke, Day lillies (tasty flowers) and Rhubarb to name just a few!

Perennials used for fixing nitrogen and accumulating minerals include; Wild Lupins, Lungwort, Comfrey (great for homemade plant food), Clover (also loved by pollinators), Valerian, and Milk vetch.

Linking all these layers together are the vines and climbers. They can be very productive both in terms of food, flowers for pollinators, useful materials and overall appearance of the forest garden. Typical examples include; Sweet pea (annual and perennial), Hops (young shoots are edible and great for beer drinkers!), Nasturtium, Kiwis, Boston ivy, Mashua, Grapes (what a year we’ve had this year for the outside varieties), Honeysuckle and Wisteria (a nitrogen fixer).

As you can see from the above list of plants (nearly all available at Deelish Garden Centre), many of us are already well on the way to having a forest garden already! As well as being highly productive spaces, forest gardens are beautiful to look at, walk through and work in. They are diverse in plant species and habitat, making them ideal homes for insects and wildlife. This is hugely important at the moment, as so much of our native wildlife’s natural habitat has been lost to commercial farming and forestry practices, human developments and pollution.

If like me, you find yourself tired of mowing lawns with no end in sight, a forest garden could be a great alternative to your ‘Green Concrete’, also known as a lawn! You will still have to mow or strim a few pathways through your garden but the area of grass to mow will be greatly reduced. Established ornamental gardens can also easily be converted to a forest garden. These gardens will already have large trees and shrubs already in place, which can be incorporated into the new design. Even if you have a small (or large) pasture field, community space, a backyard, school grounds or a bit of woodland, your own forest garden may only be a few seasons away. With some careful planning and some hard work at the start, it may be the best thing you ever created, for yourself, your family, the wildlife and many generations to come. If forest gardening interests you, visit Deelish Garden Centre, and I can discuss what would grow well for you, as I now offer a forest garden design service. Gardening doesn’t have to cost the earth and forest gardening certainly won’t!

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