What Is a Forest Garden?

Grandmother with granddaughter picking peppers in garden together.
Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

When we think of gardens, prim and manicured expanses often come to mind. The antithesis of that is a forest garden. These gardens are intentionally created to mimic the natural structure of a forest—using nature's age-old designs to optimize a harvest.

Instead of neat rows of monoculture, forest gardens mix a diverse range of (often) food producing plants that nourish each other, use different nutrients from the soil, and make the best use of space available. Crucially, they also rarely leave the soil bare, meaning that soil carbon is preserved and underground biodiversity can thrive.

In the UK, one of the pioneers of forest gardening is Martin Crawford, whose 20-year-old forest garden started out as a a flat field in 1994. It now produces a huge amount of different fruits, nuts and other food crops, and also acts as an educational resource for others interested in forest gardening.

A new video from Permaculture Magazine—part of an upcoming series called Living With the Land—provides a fascinating tour of Crawford's forest garden, and also provides insight into the practice of forest gardening overall.

It should be noted, of course, that forest gardens are hardly a panacea to our food woes. While they may require very little in the likes of chemical or fuel inputs, they do require careful design and a long timeframe to mature. With diversity also comes complexity: harvesting is more like foraging, and what ends up on the plate may be very different to the large crop of tomatoes and cukes you might get from a traditional garden.

Forest gardens are one tool among many, and a great complement to a more traditional approach to sustainable agriculture and gardening. That's why we also like the rest of the Living With The Land series, which includes segments on regenerative agriculture, urban permaculture, vegan farming and organic gardening too.