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Forest Gardening in a Nutshell

Forest gardening takes an ecosystem approach to growing food, by integrating fruit and nut trees with shrubs, herbs, roots, vegetables, fungi, and supporting fertility plants. Requiring an initial investment of time and energy, forest gardening is a long term, sustainable and low maintenance system that is well suited to those who have access to an area of land over a long period of time.

The following article was kindly contributed by Kip of Victoria Farm. Kip is currently establishing a Certified Stockfree-Organic forest garden in Geneva, Florida, and has recently taken a forest gardening course given by Martin Crawford, director of the Agroforestry Research Trust at the Schumacher Forest Garden site in South Devon, England.

What is a forest garden?

Forest gardening, also called woodland or three dimensional gardening, falls under the umbrella of Agroforestry, which as Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, England has said “means different things to different people”. Agroforestry has been defined as the mixture of trees with other crops and/or livestock.

Veganic growers might prefer the following definition: “Any agricultural system (agro-ecosystem) in which planted or protected trees are seen as economically, socially or ecologically integral to the system” (from Agroforestry Guides for Pacific Islands edited by Elevitch and Wilkinson). Agroforestry in general and forest gardening in particular are perfectly suited for vegan organic management techniques.

Forest gardening has been around for thousands of years in tropical regions. Indigenous peoples have cooperatively managed highly efficient polycultures for millennia. Temperate forest gardening is relatively new in comparison. Evidence has been found in eastern North America of pre-colonial forest management by local tribes. Starting a temperate ecosystem from scratch was famously accomplished by Robert Hart in Shropshire, England, late in the 20th century.

In Edible Forest Gardens, a two volume work by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, a forest garden is described as a ‘mimic’ of an existing ecosystem. Jacke and Toensmeier make the analogy that forest gardening involves self sustaining forest systems moving towards agriculture as compared to organic farming, which is agriculture moving towards self sustaining natural systems.

Functions of fertility (nutrient cycling), beneficial insect habitat, wind protection, soil cover and many more that exist in natural systems are designed into forest gardens by using multi-purpose trees, shrubs, herbs, roots, vines, ground covers and fungi. Many plants perform more than one ecological function, and many of these have more than one human use as well. Perennial plants are the key to forest gardens, although self-seeding annuals and biennials are sometimes used.

Forest garden with perennials
Forest garden with perennials

Qualities of a well-planned forest garden

A well planned forest garden will:

  • capture sunlight at many levels
  • offer many different fruit, nut, herb, root, vegetable, spice, mushroom, medicinal, floral, essential oil, fiber, resin, dye, coppice and other crops in a continuous flow throughout the year
  • have diversity of species as well as in varieties of similar species
  • offer redundancy of ecosystem function as well as in crops produced to offset occasional anomalies
  • provide habitat for wildlife, including beneficial insects to maintain pest/predator balance
  • be self-fertile
  • sequester carbon
  • protect itself from wind
  • prevent erosion and nutrient leaching
  • build and protect soils
  • absorb rainfall
  • transpire water
  • moderate dry periods
  • be very low maintenance
  • exhibit stability
  • have social and spiritual value


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Note the difference between a forest garden above, and an adjacent ‘climax’ forest below.


An idea that’s time has come back

Dave of Darlington, a vegan organic grower who operated a commercial no-till box scheme in Durham, England, and wrote on agricultural efficiency, believed for years that only annual plants could provide enough yield to feed the growing global population. He did some research into the work of the Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, and Plants for a Future of Cornwall, England, which illuminated for him the problems of annual cropping and the benefits of perennials.

Today’s agriculture, even organic agriculture, requires a large and increasing amount of energy to accomplish. Much more energy is put into the system than is taken out in calories. Energy is used to till the soil, process, package, deliver and plant the seed (for conventional systems: produce, deliver and apply the fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides), to harvest the crop, to manufacture and maintain all of the equipment necessary to perform these functions and so on.

Technology has increased productivity, or the amount of work done per person, to high levels. Unfortunately this commonly requires hybrid seed, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, expensive specialized machines and the like. The efficiency, or energy input compared to energy output, decreases to low levels in most of today’s highly productive farming systems.

Annual cropping, Dave wrote, even done organically, is not sustainable and we must look toward perennials in the years to come. Perennials require much smaller amounts of energy to manage, especially when grown locally, organically, and fed to human beings directly. There are many perennial vegetables, legumes, grains and salad plants to choose from and most can make excellent additions to a forest garden.

Forest gardens are among the most energy efficient growing systems in existence. When forest gardens serve local populations, the energy input/output ratio becomes a surplus, often yielding several times more energy in output than total energy input. Robert Hart and even Martin Crawford-sized forest gardens can be managed with as little energy as one HP (human power) applied 10 to 20 days per year!

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