What Is a Forest Garden and How Can You Set One Up?

The term and concept of “forest gardening” or “food foresting” were coined in the UK during the 1970s by Robert Hart. He took his inspiration from the interactions and relationships taking place between plants in natural ecosystems and habitats. According to the ecological succession model, if left unharmed by humans, any ecosystem can turn into a forest, if given enough time. This means that any ecosystem can become stable or self-perpetuating as a climax community. Have you ever wondered what a forest garden is? The answer is simple: a novel way of growing edible crops, with nature doing most of the work for you.

According to specialists, you can model a forest garden with a wide range of crops grown in different vertical layers. Unlike in a conventional garden, there is little need for digging, weeding or pest control. The only thing you need to pay attention to is the careful choosing of the species. They should have beneficial effects on each other, creating a healthy system that maintains its fertility, health, and endurance.

What Is a Forest Garden and Where Can You Create One?

Contrary to popular belief, a forest garden does not necessarily belong in the forest. This would be quite inconvenient for urban dwellers, wouldn’t it? In fact, forest gardens do not require large amounts of space, as their name implies. However, this can be a way of introducing edible and useful trees, bushes, shrubs, herbs and others into our home gardens, even in urban settings. You can adopt the basic principles of forest gardening (just as you can do with rooftop gardening) in all available spaces: on allotments and in communal open spaces, inner-city housing estates, school playgrounds, your backyard, containers and tubs planted on balconies, etc.

How Can You Start a Forest Garden?

The main idea behind forest gardening is the natural layering of plants. A forest garden should mimic the natural layering of plants with well-defined areas and rows of vegetables, herbs, shrubs, and flowers. Plants are somewhat “stacked” all in the same place and have its particular “level” in the system. Robert Hart even developed a model for future forest gardens according to the natural order of things. This is what you need to know:

  • Begin with a canopy layer consisting of mature, large fruit or nut trees;
  • Next, you should add a lower layer of smaller trees – dwarf fruit and nut trees;
  • Add a shrub layer consisting of fruit shrubs and bushes – berries and currants are a great option;
  • The next layer is dedicated to herbs: think about perennial vegetables, scented herbs, and spices;
  • Do not forget about the ground level. Add here a layer of edible plants that spread horizontally and make excellent ground cover crops;
  • There is also an underground layer you need to concern yourself with. Think about vegetables you grow for their roots and tubers, together with subterranean fungi that yield via their fruiting bodies and move nutrients between plants via mycorrhizal associations; root vegetables are incredibly healthy and tasty, and they will add variety to your forest garden;
  • The last layer is the vertical one – composed of vines and climbers. You can mix in vine fruits and vegetables with climbing flowers for companionship, scent, and beauty.

Other Considerations

There are other things you need to consider before setting up your forest garden according to Hart’s model. Here are the main issues you need to factor in other than the wide diversity of plants you should host:

  • For a low maintenance abundance of fruit, nuts, berries, and herbs, you need to recreate a forest-like system where fertilization comes from various sources;
  • You need fungal help;
  • Wildlife should be your primary defense system in pest control;
  • The soil holds water and allows oxygen and nutrients to circulate to all plant levels;

We have learned these essential and necessary conditions for you to build a successful forest garden. Now, let us take a look at the main steps one can take to make a dream come true:

1. Find the Perfect Spot

The perfect spot meets all the necessary criteria to allow the successful thriving of your climate-specific edibles and decorative plants. In other words, your spot should meet the proper requirements of sun/shade, temperatures, frost, wind, humidity, soil pH, and more.

When you make the matching between the land you choose for your forest garden and the plants you want to grow, you also need to figure out the relationship between deciduous and evergreen species (and which plants will shade others out over time).

2. Manage the Perfect Spot

You also need to consider adding wind-sheltering trees and an irrigation system in case the soil needs extra water. Eventually, the forest garden will become an independent ecosystem with its own micro-climate. However, in its early stages, you need to control all the factors you can control. This includes soil fertilization and ground covers against snow and ice.

If you have some pastoral dreams about setting your forest garden in a grassy area, consider this. In 99% of the cases, those grasses are weeds and will interfere with your own ground covering edibles. You may need to apply some herbicides.

When it comes to soil amendments, things can get tricky. Some plants will never grow in sandy soil, while others will die in wet soil. Make sure you conduct a soil test and plant the trees and veggies according to the soil type. If you must give the soil a boost, try organic amendments and fertilizers that will also please the plants.

Moreover, besides a mandatory soil test, you should also consider aeration and dethatch. This will allow the seeds or seedlings to thrive in their new home.

3. Plant Your Layers and Have Patience

Some trees and plants are sacrificial and you have to get used to the idea. Many will only assist the forest garden to grow for a few years, acting as companion plants or windshields. Other plants, the mature canopy ones or even the ground covering ones, need time to fully develop and yield. However, just as it happens with any garden, the forest garden needs patience, your green thumb, and plenty of love. Even if it will eventually manage to self-maintain, it does not mean you should treat it with indifference. On the contrary, annual soil tests, drainage if necessary, amendments, and some extra weed/pest control will turn it into a veritable patch of delicious, fresh paradise.


Now that you learned what a forest garden is, would you try this concept? Would you build one in your backyard, balcony, or a free patch of land? The forest garden can make one of the most exquisite community gardens in an area, so why don’t you have a chat with your neighbors?

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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