My Design Tips for Forest Gardening on a Small Scale

You can do a lot with a tiny plot of land.

Permaculture gardening principles, organic garden. Nasturtium, onion, dill, carrot, parsley, spinach, pumpkins. Sinergy between vegetables and plants, flowers
Edible plants can still thrive in small spaces. I am artist and scientist. This is my view of the world / Getty Images

When you think of a forest, you are likely to imagine a large area with dense tree cover. But forest gardening, while it mimics a natural forest or woodland ecosystem in many ways, does not have to resemble one in size. The concepts of forest gardening can be applied even on a very small scale. 

My own forest garden is around 66 feet by 33 feet (20 meters x 10 meters), but I have designed forest gardens for much smaller spaces. When it comes to forest gardening on a small scale, your efforts at home can still be impressive and impactful. Here are a few design tips for doing it even in the smallest of domestic gardens.

Determine the Size of the System by Choosing the Right Canopy Trees

In a larger forest garden, you might have very large canopy and sub-canopy trees. But in a smaller space, the highest tier in a forest garden might be dwarf fruit trees or even larger shrubs.

By growing species on dwarfing rootstock (to keep them smaller), or by choosing naturally compact trees or shrubs, you can still gain the benefits of the shade and other ecosystem services provided by canopy species without needing huge amounts of land.

Create Diverse Guilds to the Drip Lines of Trees and Shrubs

Guilds are the human-made communities of plants that live below and around the base of a fruit tree. A drip line is determined by the reach of a particular tree's canopy, the area over which it can "drip" water onto the ground.

In a very small forest garden, the margins of the guilds around each tree should be defined by the eventual drip line of the key species.

So, for example, if the tree has a mature drip line of 13 feet (4 meters), the forest garden can be created within that space, with smaller shrubs, climbers, and plenty of herbaceous perennial plants or self-seeding annuals below the canopy. 

Remember, forest gardens can be more linear, too—stretching out as strips of border or marginal planting, or forming divisions between different parts of your space.

Whichever small-scale layout you choose, planting can and should evolve as the trees grow and shade out more of the space. 

Create Islands and Consider Pathways Carefully

By thinking about a forest garden as a series of guilds around key species, you can take a modular approach, linking a small number together to form densely vegetated islands. Doing this, and dividing them by pathways, maximizes the edge and increases abundance.

In small spaces, it is especially important to think about how you will journey through the space. We can use pathways carefully to introduce light into the heart of the space, as well as to improve access, without taking up too much of the growing area. 

You might also consider options like stepping stones or slices of tree trunk as walkways into and between the forest garden islands you create, so there is more space for planting between them. 

Remember that, in certain circumstances, living plants as pathways (e.g. clover) are an option. 

Manage More Intensively to Restrict Size and Growth

In larger forest gardens, it is common to take a minimal approach to pruning and other maintenance. But in smaller spaces, judicious pruning—thinning of lower branches, for example, and pruning for size restriction of trees and shrubs—can help maintain a rich productivity and biodiversity in the space.

Dividing mature herbaceous perennials as necessary and, of course, as in other forest gardens, chopping and dropping plants within the system to maintain fertility, are also key strategies to employ. 

Integrate Forest Garden Planting With Other Needs and Wants

If you only have very limited space to play with in your garden, remember that everything you include should have multiple functions. 

A strip of forest garden planting, for example, might be included in place of a hedgerow or fence along a boundary of the space. Or it could be used to divide garden rooms, screen unsightly views, or provide more privacy for an outdoor seating or dining area. 

A forest garden can also become a play area for kids, with hidden dens, balance tracks and walkways, and plenty of spaces for exploration and nature play.

A forest gardening approach is not just for larger spaces and landscape-scale projects. Even in much smaller gardens, it can be an interesting option to consider, bringing a range of benefits to you, your household, and the wider world.