Findings From My 5-Year-Old Forest Garden

Forming an intimate connection with my forest garden and seeing how it changes over time has taught me a lot.

Beautiful branch of blackberry growing in the garden, close-up. Summer background.
PippiLongstocking / Getty Images

My forest garden is relatively small – around 2000 square feet in all. But it certainly is filling up fast, and already provides a staggering abundance of food and other resources each year. When we moved in around six years ago, the area, surrounded by stone walls, was already a mature orchard with six apple trees, two plum trees, two cherry trees, and a (sadly almost deceased) pear tree.

Soon after moving into the property, I made it my mission to renovate the orchard and replace the existing neat, grass sward with understory planting to turn it into an abundant and productive forest garden.

With many other projects on the go, including a polytunnel and vegetable beds, and a stone barn conversion, I always knew that this was going to be a slow project – one that I would work on one stage at a time, and which would slowly evolve. Though I still very much consider this part of my garden a work in progress, it provides us now with far more than just the fruit from the trees.

Much can be learned by studying the theory of forest gardening, delving into the science, and reading about the subject. But there is no substitute for actually seeing a forest garden up close and personal. Forming an intimate connection with my forest garden and seeing how it changes over time has taught me a lot. Here are some findings and tips from my own forest gardening experience:

Forest Gardens Are Not Formulaic

As anyone with a forest garden will know, first and foremost, no two forest gardens are quite the same. When reading about the topic you might be forgiven for thinking that there is a simple formula you can follow.

First there are the trees, the canopy. Below them there are the smaller trees and shrubs. Below them are the herbaceous plants, ground cover plants, climbers, and the rich and complex rhizosphere. Reading about this layered planting might lead you to believe that forest gardens can be quite structured and orderly systems.

But forest gardens don't follow the rules. They are natural, unpredictable, even anarchic at times. What works very well in a forest garden in one location will be a complete failure in another. Even reliable stalwarts of temperate climate forest gardens may fail to thrive in certain situations. Even when you choose the perfect plants for your location, surprising elements can still show up and change your plans.

You Need To Embrace Change

When you are forest gardening, it is important to remember that imposing on nature is not the way to get the most from the space. At first, as you watch your forest garden grow, you may have a set idea about which plants you want where, and how the layers will be formed.

But the forest garden I have now is not the forest garden I designed at the start of the process – at least – not in every particular. Though the overall patterns and scheme remain the same, the plants and smaller details have evolved considerably as the garden has grown.

Remember, you are not the only gardener in a forest garden. When you have a forest garden, you soon see the truth of the permaculture saying that "everything gardens."

I have birds "planting seeds" of native weeds that, though not originally intended, are actually beneficial additions to the space – docks, for example, and common hogweed, both of which, like the native nettles that pop up here and there, have edible uses. Of course other weed seeds blow in on the wind ... willowherb, thistles ... and these too have edible parts.

As the garden has evolved, more wildlife has moved in. Moles and voles and other creatures have "landscaped" certain areas, changing the flat site into something more complex, with mounds and hollows that change environmental conditions and mean that different "weed" species thrive and come to the fore. But with the ecosystem reaching a sort of equilibrium, no one species gets out of control.

You Forage as Well as Harvest

If you are used to traditional kitchen gardening, it is likely that you think about the gardening year in terms of a calender of set times for harvesting. In an annual polyculture garden, you will have a range of companion plants around your main crops. But will likely be used to harvesting many of your crops as certain times of year – often all at once.

In a forest garden, there are of course crops like that – the top fruits, and many of the berries. But when it comes to the understory plants, you will often become a "forager." Rather than thinking about harvesting at set times and all at once, you will pick many edible yields and often throughout the year.

For those used to more traditional growing, this can be quite an adjustment. But taking a trip into a forest garden to forage is so much better than having to head out to the store. Head into the wild, productive space to gather small quantities of things that you need for a particular meal. And you will soon see there is something wonderful about making small forays into an abundant forest garden.