Forest gardens are a low-maintenance plant based production system and in their original form are probably the oldest form of land use with forest gardens in Vietnam and Morocco dating back hundreds and thousands of years respectively. Much of our working knowledge on the structure and function of forest gardens comes from observations made on these traditional forest gardens and others in a range of cultures around the world including home gardens in Kerala in South India, Nepal, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania; the huertos familiars or “family orchards” of Mexico; the Kandyan forest gardens in Sri Lanka; and the forest gardens of Vietnam and pekarangan – the gardens of “complete design” in Java.
In the past 30 years, forest gardens (also called food forests) have become popular thanks to the efforts of dedicated people including Robert Hart who adapted forest gardening for the UK’s temperate climate during the early 1960s. Robert Harts theories were later developed by Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust and various permaculturalists such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke and Geoff Lawton. Many of who have published books on forest gardening and food forests.
So just what is a forest garden? Forest gardens are production systems that mimic a natural forest in structure and processes. A forest garden copies nature, having a canopy layer (fruit trees), berry bushes, and ground covers. Along with diversity in the range of food plants in the forest garden – other plants with yields such as timber, fibre and fuel are included in the plantings. There is also an emphasis on the planting of species to support these productive species – support species may provide shade, attract beneficial insects, deter pests, provide mulch or bring nitrogen into the forest garden system to help with the growth and production of the food plants. Another design goal for forest gardens is to build a system that when mature, will be almost maintenance free. Forest gardens once developed are low input systems that will provide a diverse array of products (for example food, fibre, fuel) over any given year. For this reason forest gardens have been shown to be a significant source of income and food security for local communities.
Within a forest garden plants are assembled in “guilds” or communities that create beneficial relationships. Every plant in the guild will have a function – some will be to attract beneficial insects like pollinators, others will deter pests, some have the ability mine minerals from deep in the soil, while the groundcover plants provide a living mulch layer. Through making use of companion planting, plants can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to build a woodland habitat or forest garden.
“The aim of forest garden design is to make the relationships as co-operative as possible, while acknowledging that very few plants will yield quite as much as they would if they were living alone. It is the cumulative yield of all the plants living on the same piece of land that makes forest gardens productive, not the high yield of individuals.”
― Patrick Whitefield
If you would like to learn more about forest gardens join Central Tablelands Landcare at their upcoming Forest Garden workshop at the ELF Community Garden Orange on Sunday 5th May – International Permaculture Day. For more information contact Marita Sydes, Central Tablelands Landcare Coordinator (marita.sydes(at)bigpond.com 0429 979 780)