A Forest Garden

Sheet mulch around New Zealand flax

Sheet mulch around New Zealand flax

Forest gardens are hard to photograph.  They are one of permaculturists’ favorite ways of growing food—but they tend to look like masses of green when you shoot photos.

Martin Crawford, of the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, knows about as much as anyone can about growing forest gardens.  He’s been developing one for about fifteen years, and we took our Earth Activist Training course to see it last week.

Here’s a link to their website:


A forest garden looks a lot like a forest—because it is.  But it’s a special forest—a mimicry of a native woods, with food bearing plants that make up the layers of a forest:  high canopy, low canopy, shrubs, vines, herbaceous layers, groundcovers, root crops.  A well designed forest garden produces its own fertility, more or less takes care of itself, and looks like a lush and healthy woodland—but just about everything in it is edible, medicinal, or actively contributing to the health of the whole.  It’s one of those things that look easy and obvious but are not that easy to do:  like back flips or hitting the high notes on Amazing Grace.

If you succeed, you’ve got something that offers long-lived, perennial sources of food with minimal need to fertilize, prune, till, or disturb.  You just wander and graze—that’s the idea.  You might get your salad greens from the leaves of the linden rather than planting out your annual greens.  You might eat more fruit, more nuts, less grain and fussy sorts of vegetables.

Robert Hart pioneered the concept of forest gardening more than thirty years ago on his smallholding in Shropshire.  Other folks with great skills and information are Patrick Whitefield and Geoff Lawton.

and David Jacke, who wrote the ecyclopedic two-volume set Edible Forest Gardens published by Chelsea Green. Not to mention my dear friend Erik Ohlsen—you can check out my video about him at livingmandala.com, it’s called “Permaculture Principles and Work”.  Erik is so passionate about food forests he’s launched a new project “Food Forests Across America,” to plant them everywhere, for food security, to sequester carbon in plants and soil and restore the health and vitality of the land.

Our visit made me homesick for my own gardens, and somewhat jealous of the rain.  How wonderful it would be to plant in a climate where you don’t have to irrigate!  On the other hand, it’s been raining almost nonstop for three weeks here in England and those hot, dry Cazadero summers are starting to look good to me!

Martin took a field, sheet mulched it—which means, he laid down a thick layer of mulch to kill the grass and weeds, then planted his main canopy trees.  Later, he goes back and fills in the small stuff.  He propagates his own plants, which I can now see I need to do more systematically than I’ve done before.  It takes thousands of plants to fill in a forest garden—or a few really vigorous and fast growing ones!

Geoff Lawton, in contrast, plants his support plants first—hardy, drought tolerant nitrogen fixers, lets them prepare the ground and then puts in his main crop plants.  Of course, he’s often working in harsh, dry environments.

Crawford has lots of standard fruit trees—apples, pears, plums, underplanted with elderberries, currants, autumn olive  (I planted twenty of those two years ago but for some reason none survived), bamboo, linden (or lime as they call it here), ground cover raspberries, rugosa roses, and a few patches of annuals in small, open areas that get sun.  Plus a lot of things I haven’t seen before and now lust after.  Truly, gardening and permaculture are not good for my character.  They bring out my greed, lust and raging envy on a regular basis.  No Buddhist detachment here—I want that Chinese dogwood!  I want more elderberries, more, more more.  You can never have enough elderberries, from my point of view.  Down, Starhawk!  Remember, in a permaculture system it’s not what you have, but how it all connects.

Enough—here’s some pictures to look at while I go away and work on my Personal Flaws.

5 comments to A Forest Garden

  • I am so glad you are still having a wonderful time in England. I just baked a delicious apple tart last night for our morning breakfast. It reminded me of the time I baked you that apple tart all those years ago.

    Reading about forest gardens is almost enough to lure me back out to the countryside. But, my small gardens here in the heart of Minneapolis are home now. Did I tell you though, we are planting two plum trees to replace an ornamental tree that died over last winter? Well, its a very small forest garden.

  • How exciting! I thought this was the year I was going to start a garden, but so far it’s not – which I guess is OK for now as we’re doing the CSA thing and have no shortage of veggies. Autumn olive swept through here in the past number of years as an invasive species, so we have some in our yard. Someone I know made a tart, magenta smoothie with the berries & some cider. I don’t really know David Jacke, but he lives around here & I’ve met him. Those books look pretty intense!

  • The owners Ian and Barbara Pollard who do alot of the gardening themselves, but only when the gardens are not open to the public. Destin Garden

  • hello,

    thanks for the great quality of your blog, every time i come here, i’m amazed.

    black hattitude.

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