Wednesday, 14 July 2010

No digging (or weeding or watering) required: The Forest Garden

I recently had one of those life-altering experiences, when you just marvel that you never considered taking such an action previously, before realising that we only understand something, when we are ready. I’m not talking of any mystical experience here, but just a down to earth (literally), awakening! In my case this awakening is all to do with the way I have gardened, for many years. I've awakened to the method of forest gardening 

I became interested in the method after reading an piece article in Permaculture Magazine, the article was about a couple, who live in Portugal, and who have have converted a 7 hectare plot of land into a forest Garden.
I’ve come across the term ‘forest garden,' before, but never considered using its principles in my own garden. But now I’m converted, and feel that this really will be the way many of us will use our spaces in the future. For this method of gardening, or non gardening, involves no weeding, watering, digging or feeding, and it can be left to look after itself for weeks, even months, on end. What’s more, It's organic, wildlife-friendly, disease resistant, it massively reduces your weekly food bill and brings foraging to your doorstep. I'm now actively transforming our large garden along these principles. 

Forest Gardening was introduced into this country in the sixties, by the late Robert Hart. He wanted to create a healthy and therapeutic environment both for himself and for his brother, who was born with severe learning disabilities. He became interested in growing for medicinal purposes and developed the concept of a forest garden, through observing the interactions and relationships between plants in natural systems, particularly in woodland. He set about rearranging his own garden on forest principles with edible layers of self-sustaining perennials that would provide food, fuel and medicines, as well as support wildlife. His philosophy was recorded in two books, ‘The Forest Garden,’ and ‘Beyond the Forest Garden,’ (Green Books),

A key feature of this type of gardening, is companion planting, where different crops are placed in proximity, to be of greatest benefit to each other. Just one of the many examples of companion planting is the ‘Three Sisters’ method, pioneered by some Native American groups in North America. Squash, maize, and climbing beans are planted together, and they work for each other: the beans grow up the stalks of corn, and add nitrogen to the soil that the other plants need in order to grow, while the squash spreads along the ground, which helps prevent weeds from growing and acts as a mulch for the other plants.

Unlike most gardens, with their clipped hedges, manicured lawns and neat borders, a forest garden, mimics nature, in that everything is mixed up; fruit bushes grown next to herbs, and trees are intermingled with vegetables and flowers, Just like a natural woodland. The sheer variety of plants available to use too, is mind boggling. The main distinctive feature though of this way of cultivating the earth is that everything you plant is either edible or beneficial to wildlife and if for no other reason, that alone is why, I believe that forest gardening will become much more integrated into gardening in the future. You don’t need a massive amount of space either; a tiny strip in the centre of the city, or even a couple of window containers will be enough. The main thing to remember and this was another reason for my conversion, is that, once you have got the space up and running, no other work is involved, apart from harvesting!

Forest gardening is centered around differing layers or canopies; a first layer of fruit trees is followed by a lower layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks. A third layer consists of fruit bushes, then an ‘herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs. The fifth layer of edible plants covers the ‘ground and finally a ‘rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers. With a vertical layer of vines and climbers climbing up the higher layers.

You know, the more I delve into this method, the more I am amazed! Plant disease is cured, because you use companion planting, no watering is needed, because of the natural mulching and all of the plants are perennials. There is no need for fertilisers or add-in plant foods, for the plants receive all of the nutrients they need directly from other plants or wildlife. Nitrogen, for instance is provided by ferns and legumes. The taller trees keep the smaller ones moistened too. Never again will I grow cabbages and onions, I’ll use wild varieties like Welsh onions, 9 star Brassica and wild garlic. We’ll eat salad mixes of Lambs lettuce, Sorrel and Wild Rocket. I’ll grow Soapwort too, as an alternative to soap. Herbs will be used both in cooking and as medicinal remedies. And all of the plants will be perennials.

Having just undergone weeks of scorching heart, where most of my time was spent watering, feeding and weeding, I count my blessings that I’ve ‘discovered,’ forest gardening. From now on, I’ll be able to sit under the canopies, a cup of tea in hand, enjoying the wildlife visitors and look back on those dark days of the past with a deep sense of gratitude, that now life will be more simple!

Here are some useful links:

A short video where Robert Hart explains some of the basics of forest gardening:

Plants can be ordered from these two specialised Forest Garden Suppliers:
Plants for a Future:

The Agro Forestry Research Trust:


  1. i love this so much! for ages i have been dropping hints to my swampy about creasting a more forest like garden and the idea of layering the plants like a forest~this takes it a whole lot deeper and more exciting! the trouble is he is a very old fashioned gardener, enjoying his lawn and flowerbeds and we have very differing ideas of what weeds are! he is slowly coming around however and i think i may well be able to push this further...

  2. I love walking through woods, but I'm not sure about forest gardens. Our garden is surrounded by trees and hedges, which means things don't grow well where they are competing with tree and hedge roots, nor where it is too shady. Forest gardening would mean growing things I don't grow and not being able to grow a lot of the things I want to grow as far as I can see.

    There are also the problems we have as a result squirrels, foxes, jays and magpies, which all live in the surrounding woodland.

    However, I shall be interested to see how you get on with your forest garden. One day, when we eventually move, we might have scope to do things a bit differently.

    Meanwhile I shall continue to work out how to grow things organically, grow more plants for bees and butterflies, use companion planting, adopt permaculture principles and, last but not least, find out more about the no dig method!