Saturday, 22 January 2011

Planning the Forest Garden

One of the main things I want to experiment with in our yard is the creation of a forest garden - for me, the ultimate permaculture garden. I've been spending the winter reading up on this and what follows are my notes on how to go about planning a forest garden.

Firstly, what is a forest garden? A forest garden is a productive garden formed around the principles of a woodland habitat. It includes edible or otherwise useful trees, shrubs, herbs, ground cover and climbing plants - all the layers found in a mature woodland. By mimicking nature at the end point of succession in this way, a very stable environment is created. This means that compared to growing food or products conventionally, a forest garden is very low maintenance and is also potentially very beautiful and great for wildlife. That's my kind of garden!

When it comes to planning out a forest garden, it’s important to work out a number of details before getting started. The following is what I'm working through at the moment.

Baseline conditions

Plants going in to this kind of garden need to match the site conditions well to keep it low maintenance. Look at elements such as climate and microclimate, soil type and water availability (actual and potential for extra).

Garden purpose

Is it to provide food or other produce for a single household or to be shared with friends or sold at market? Is it to be a mainly productive or mainly attractive garden? Is there a key crop that the rest of the garden must support or is the garden to be producing small amounts of a wide range of crops?

Choosing plants

Before you get planting, it’s worth selecting at least a few key species to start the garden off, including plants from each storey (tree, shrub, herb, ground cover and optionally climbing and root crops). To help in this task, I'm using a fantastic database of useful plants called Plants for the Future, which is available online. And of course, keep in mind the baseline conditions when choosing plants so that they'll thrive with minimal work from you.

Building in resilience

Plan out how the newly created ecosystem will keep pests in check and maintain water levels and soil fertility.

  • All my experiments with various organic techniques for keeping pests at bay will feed into this - for example keeping a diverse range of species and growing plants to attract beneficial insects or scare off pests.
  • If water is scarce, ponds or ditches can be designed in to maximise rainwater capture; keeping high levels of organic materials in the soil can help keep moisture where it is needed (i.e. from leaf fall or add home grown organic mulch).
  • Areas of fertility crops, such as alfalfa and comfrey can be planted out and later harvested as a nutritious mulch to be placed on the soil around cropping plants. Below is a photo of one of my young comfrey plants in my newly planted fertility patch, back last summer. This coming summer, I should be able to start cutting these plants back to use on the vegetable garden.

Spatial planning

When it finally comes to putting pen to paper and drawing up a garden plan, the following factors should be considered:

  • Access to crops.
  • The possible need to create sunny spots as well as shady spots.
  • The baseline conditions on site (water, soil and microclimates).
  • Use of companion planting to make the most of beneficial plant relationships.


  1. Hi, just found your great blog - love the photos. I started planting a small forest garden a couple of years ago with a similar aim I think - seeing what could be done to create a sustainable food producing system whilst working a full time job.

    There are a couple of resources that I found really useful just in case you haven't discovered them already:
    1. The new book from Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust. It came out a little late for me, but has lots of invaluable information.
    2. The forest gardening yahoo group.

    I've got links to them both from my forest gardening blog here:

    Also, the Permaculture Association is creating a list of forest gardens that are being planted this winter to help with some research. If you are interested you can find out more by emailing:

    Hope that's useful.

    Best wishes and have fun with your planning,

  2. Wow, thanks for that Simon. People keep recommending the Martin Crawford book to me, so perhaps I should take a look. I've been working from the Patrick Whitefield book and a little from the Robert Hart one.

    And I shall certainly check out the yahoo group and permaculture research thing and of course your blog. Great to find another Brit on here - most of the blogs I've found are on the other side of the world!

  3. Hi Nancy,

    yes Martin's book is really useful. The one thing that I wished I had read before I planned and planted my garden was his advice on not planting the trees too closely! It's advice that is also in the Edible Forest Garden books.

  4. I've got a woodland garden as well. Hard to improve on nature; I find grouping existing plants together one of the easiest, fastest and least expensive ways to can make a big impact while still looking natural.



Related Posts with Thumbnails