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Forest gardens

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Forest gardens are human-created woodland ecosystems that foster biodiversity and consist of plants useful for humans. These can include plants used for fiber, timber, medicine and food (hence the less inclusive term food forests). Forest gardening involves polyculture planting, ideally to create mutually beneficial relationships between neighboring plants. Sustained by the delicate yet powerful balance of natural living cycles, the multiple layers of a forest garden provide for each other the same way the layers of a natural forest do. Careful planning will also take into account the succession that may take place in the forest garden system.

Forest gardening is one of the main techniques associated with permaculture. Thus food production is only one of the factors taken into consideration when designing and planting a forest garden. Some plants are used to attract beneficial insects or birds. Others work to nitrogen fixation, build soil, or simply help keep out weeds. Vines on trees, shrubs, add another layer of growing space for edible fruits such as kiwi and passion fruit. Plants support one another as they store energy in their roots for later harvest and winter storage and when properly arranged help retrieve and disperse deep lying nutrients for each other.

Although forest gardening is not well-known, it has been practised around the world since prehistory. In the 1980's Robert Hart brought forest gardening to the attention of the permaculture community. Since that time the theory and practice of forest gardening has been developed by Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier, Patrick Whitefield, and Geoff Lawton among others. Agroforestry is a similar practice to forest gardening, but tends to employ more linear plantings (alley cropping) compared to forest gardening. The various existing forest gardens around the world can be categorized by age (recent or established) or by the climate (temperate, arid, or tropical).

Potential benefits

Compared to conventional methods, food forests may:

  • have a higher yield per area. An abundance of produce can be shared with friends and neighbors or to turn a small profit.
  • reduced reliance on a market with varying pricing and demand for a single product.
  • create wildlife habitat.
Food forest gallery

Definition and Terminology

Several closely related terms exist for this technique, such as forest gardening, food forest, (edible) forest gardens, woodland gardening, woodland edge gardening, forest farming. They all refer to broadly the same thing, although some argue that certain terms are more accurate. This article uses the term forest gardening as this seems to be the most frequently used term. An exact definition of the technique in precise language might be:

"An anthropogenic multistrata polyculture mimicking the layers of natural mid-succession stage woodland ecosystems and supporting biodiversity and resilience. Such systems are almost always operated on general organic farming principles, and tend to be subsistence level farming rather than being economically viable in terms of selling a yield. The system is largely self fertilizing and produces many yields at different times of year, mainly edible crops but also timber and other non timber forest products such as medicinal plants, soaps, etc."

Forest or Woodland?

Some argue that it is more accurate to use the term woodland rather than forest, since the latter usually implies a high density of trees with mature and closed canopy layer giving continuous shade and very limited light for other plants. Woodland usually refers to lower density of trees with understorey of shrubs etc. with lots of sunlight and limited shade.[1] Furthermore, forest usually implies a large area,[2] whereas most forest gardens are very small in comparison with the scales of commercial forestry and industrial agricultural. In theory, forest gardens could be any size.

Woodland Edge Garden

The edge of a forest has more diversity of species due to more availability of light. Consequently, the edge of the forest can be the most productive area and more food can be grown. This term refers to forest gardening idea on a very small scale, as small as a 1 m or 1.5 m wide bed along the northern side of a garden. Generally this type of garden has no full size trees, and the low tree layer acts as the canopy. Because it is a narrow strip, plenty of light is available from the side.[1]

Food Forest / Edible Forest Garden

Another very commonly used term is "food forest" or sometimes "edible food forest". While the main purpose of the forest garden is food production, there tend to be secondary uses and yields, such as medicinal plants, dyes, poles/canes, basketry materials, soaps, firewood and timber.[2] Therefore it could be argued that the more general term forest gardening is more approapriate.

Example Forest Gardens

"Forest Garden plots are to be found in various research trials and in small yards throughout the temperate world. A number of studies have looked at forest gardens in the humid tropics, and they can be a significant source of minerals and nutrients, as well as providing income and food security for the owners. Forest Gardens appear in many different societies in the wet tropics and go under various names including: Home gardens in Kerala in South India, Nepal, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania; Kandyan Forest Gardens in Sri Lanka; huertos familiares, the "family orchards" of Mexico; and pekarangan, the gardens of "complete design", in Java."[wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_Gardening]


The Rahma Free Health Clinic Edible Forest Snack Garden - http://www.indiegogo.com/Rahma-Free-Health-Clinic-Edible-Forest-Garden

The Rahma Forest Garden (for short) is an urban forest garden project in Syracuse, NY that will be located on the grounds of a new free health clinic that is opening this spring - bringing the mission of the health clinic outside it's doors using perennial Permaculture forest garden design - we hope this will be a model for health care sites everywhere in years to come. Providing a resilient food resource in the 'food desert' of the Syracuse south side. And contributing to the extensive green infrastructure goals of the city. A project of The Alchemical Nursery - http://www.alchemicalnursery.org

The Huntington Ranch - http://huntingtonblogs.org/theranch/2010/12/food-forest-intro/

The Huntington Ranch is a new experimental exhibit at The Huntington : Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (http://www.huntington.org/default.aspx) located in San Marino, Ca. The low maintenance food garden technique is being applied, tested and scrutinized to help evolve the food forest/gardening best practices. Reducing maintenance, creating an ecosystem with active synergies and ensuring a measured increase in soil quality are some of the main goals in the exhibit.

Wetherby Edible Forest - http://www.backyardabundance.org/AbundantLandscapes/WetherbyEdibleForest.aspx

The Wetherby Edible Forest (in Iowa City, IA) inspires our community to gather and grow healthy food in ways that rehabilitates our local ecosystems while increasing equal access to food. Join us to improve public health by regenerating our public land into an edible forest ecosystem. We work to reduce agricultural climate impact, improve our local food security, provide educational opportunities, and celebrate growing food for the benefit of all species. All food is free for harvesting and eating. No synthetic pesticides or herbicides have been applied.

Growing Food Forests in Seattle - http://www.urbanfarmhub.org/2010/03/growing-food-forests-in-seattle/

As a part of Transition Seattle - "an alliance of organizations and individuals who believe in living within the limits of the earth's resources, with healthier lifestyles, and in resilient, creative, just, and collaborative communities." This alliance goals and achievements include passing laws to secure land for sustainable food production and establishing these sustainable food production areas, organizing care taking and distribution. From food bearing street trees to urban food forests there is a growing movement in Seattle which wants to see it transformed into an urban food forest.

The Garden - A documentary on an urban food forest and it's struggle to survive in an environment of capitalistic enterprise of the poor & questionable political interests. "From the ashes of the L.A. riots arose a lush, 14-acre community garden, the largest of its kind in the United States. Now bulldozers threaten its future." - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1252486/


Wenlock Edge, Shropshire

This was Robert Hart's forest garden, no longer open to the public. Following his death based on aerial images it seems new owners have partially removed the forest garden.

Agroforestry Research Trust Research Sites, Devon

3 sites managed by the Agroforestry Research Trust exist in Devon. The oldest is about 25 years old, near Dartington.[1]

Bangor Forest Garden, Gwynedd

Run by volunteers. Located North East to Bangor at Henfaes Research Centre, Abergwyngregyn, Gwynedd LL33 0LB.[2]

Central America

Food forests have existed in Central America for thousands of years. The El Pilar Forest Network (http://www.mayaforestgardeners.org/forestgardening.php) continues this tradition today.

"We often think of the rainforest as untouched by humans, or "virgin forest." In reality, it can be understood as the garden of the ancient Maya: the product of millennia of management by forest gardeners who cultivated the cycle of milpa, forest garden, and forest. In fact, 90% of plants in the forest are useful to humans, indicating considerable human influence. The Maya Forest remains the second most biodiverse place in the world (the Amazon forest is the first). The legacy of the ancient Maya forest gardeners is continued by the Maya farmers of the El Pilar Forest Garden Network."

South America

The tribes of Ancient Amazonia lived within vast "garden cities" with shaping the landscape to suit sustain themselves while simultaneously enriching the already fertile soil. It appears much of the apparently useful planting utilized by the indigenous tribes found within the Amazon rain forest have been predetermined by ancient civilizations. The Amazon is today is subject to record logging, oil pollution and many other externally guided influences of recource depletion and ecosystem degradation.






Amazon Rainforest was Giant Garden City - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3350474/Amazon-rainforest-was-giant-garden-city.html

Tropical Forest Gardening - http://www.waldeneffect.org/blog/Tropical_forest_gardening/

Chevron Found Guilty in Amazon Pollution Case - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mitch-anderson/chevron-found-guilty-in-a_b_823864.html

Amazon Deforestation - http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/forests/amazon/





  • How to make a Temperate Forest Garden (Part 1,Part 2). Maddy and Tim Harland describe the planning and design of a forest garden, with reference to their own forest garden in Hampshire, UK, which is over 20 years old (brief excerpt of a visit to the same forest garden: [9]). They stress that the main difference between temperate climate forest gardens and those of the tropics is that there is less light available and so the trees must be more openly planted to allow light through to the lower layers. The mature spread of the plants is also an important consideration when drawing out the spacing between plants, otherwise they warn that pruning will be a constant task.
  • Establishing a Food Forest the Permaculture Way (Geoff Lawton) [10]


  • Forest Gardening - category page at Plants for a Future.[11]


See also

External Links