Forest gardening is an increasingly popular way of creating an edible, yet relatively low-maintenance garden. It is one of the key techniques we're experimenting with here at Oak House.
The idea is to create a productive garden that closely mimics balanced natural systems. Think of oak woodlands...
They're full of trees, both tall and short, with an understorey of shrubs, wildflowers and creeping ground cover plants and the occasional climbing plant. That's a lot of plants. No weeding is needed, no pest control or soil improvement either and if you check the soil, it is rich, moist and looks almost good enough to eat!
Don't try that!
What's more, this system is thriving with wildlife. This is a natural system in balance, at what's called the 'end point of succession' - which basically means plants have filled all the available spots and everything is happy to stay just as it is.
Forest gardens try to mimic natural forest systems by filling in all the different canopy layers with plants that are useful to us and our local wildlife - tall trees, short trees, shrubs, herbs, ground cover and climbing plants. Even root crops are added in. And then the system works just like a natural forest - building its own soil through leaf drop in autumn, holding on to moisture because of the humus rich soil, keeping weeds at bay as every spot is filled with useful plants and providing habitat for a broad range of wildlife which helps to keep pests in check and nutrients cycling well through the system.
Choosing Suitable Plants
Growing this type of garden often means mixing some very familiar crops with some more unusual ones. Lots of familiar fruit crops are in fact native to woodland habitats, so are ideal for this type of garden. We've been planting out the following - strawberries as ground cover, raspberries (below), gooseberries and black currants as the shrub layer, with an apple, some pears and a plum starting off our tree layer.
Hazel can make a good addition to the low tree/large shrub layer, providing both nuts and garden canes.
Our herb layer will include shade loving herbs such as mint.
But we want to get a bit more adventurous than this and to experiment with some more unusual plants. A whole host of salad, vegetable and unusual fruiting crops can also be grown in the forest garden. Some gardeners are rediscovering traditional and native perennial vegetables, such as sorrel (below, a zesty leaf crop), salsify (a root crop), bath asparagus (for shoots that make a pretty alternative to asparagus) and sweet cicely (for sweet stems that can be used as a sugar substitute in puddings).
Others are looking to more exotic perennials, such as oca - an Incan root crop, the siberian pea tree - for lentil sized beans growing from a tree, and daylilies - for their edible and very beautiful flowers. I'd love to try all of these.
Plants can also be selected for herbal teas, for their fibre, oil, wood fuel, medicinal value or for a whole host of other uses. A lot of the plants that we grow will be selected for their use in cosmetic products, which will be made here at Oak House from entirely natural ingredients.
Some useful links if you want to find out more include:
The Agroforestry Research Trust - hosts the forest garden network and includes information about plants and temperate forest gardens.
Plants for a Future - a fantastic, searchable plant database, including information about edible, medicinal and other uses of over 7000 plants, trees and shrubs.
The forest gardening yahoo group - a place to swap ideas, questions and expertise.