Forest Garden Design – The Down and Dirty

So what is all this Forest Garden Design Stuff

This post explains what forest garden design is and gives examples and pictures of plants in a forest garden design and even touches on companion planting.

Forest Garden Design - 1st Year Forest Garden

Forest Garden Design – 1st Year Forest Garden

A “forest garden” and a “food forest” and a “permaculture garden” are pretty much the same thing so I will just use the term “forest garden” to mean all three of these terms for the purpose of this article.  They are a form of gardening where you try to mimic the way nature does things in a forest. We choose plantings that benefit other plants through companion planting, but the one big difference between what nature does in a forest and what we do in a forest garden is we gear the plantings toward our needs as well.  These needs could include food, fertilizer, fodder, or fuel.

The Wikipedia Definition: “Forest Gardening is a low-maintenance sustainable plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans.  Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to build a woodland habitat.”

Robert Hart is credited with coining the term Forest Gardening in the 1980s.  He took the pre-historic tropics method of gardening and did it in a temperate climate on his .12-acre parcel.

Forest Garden Design - The Plants

Forest Garden Design – The Plants


Forest gardening is closely aligned with permaculture.  One aspect of the similarities of the two are the seven dimensions of a food forest: canopy layer, low-tree layer, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, ground cover layer, rhizosphere layer, and the vertical layer.  These are the same as is taught in a permaculture course or manual.  In fact, most permaculture manuals include forest gardening as one aspect of permaculture.

Forest gardening is based on perennial systems that you don’t have to plant yearly and the maintenance is less. The maintenance is less because you put plants in that are companions to each other and the plants help and provide for the other plants in the forest garden.

Companion Plants

An example of a companion plant is comfrey which is a dynamic accumulator.  It uses an extremely long tap root and mines down to levels that other plants can not get to.  Comfrey brings nutrients from deep down up to the surface.  Then as the comfrey leaves die back each year the nutrients from deep down are made available to other plants through these dead and decaying leaves.

Another example of a companion plant is mimosa.  It is a member of the legume (Fabaceae) plant family and is capable of fixing nitrogen.  The nitrogen fixation is accomplished by a symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia within the nodules in their root systems.  The plant and the bacteria work together to make nitrogen.  When the plant dies that nitrogen is released into the soil for other plants to use.  If a branch breaks or is pruned, some of the nitrogen will be released to other plants.

My Forest Garden

I put in a forest garden this past year out at the farm in WV.  I put in perennial canopy trees, low tree layer, shrubs, a few herbaceous plants, and groundcover (clover).  In the next year or two I will add the vertical layer (vines).  I want to give the other plants a little while to establish before I add the vertical layer.  This is simply so I don’t disadvantage certain slow growing species.

As you can see in the picture titled “1st Year Forest Garden” the area looks a little untidy.  That is in part because I threw down a bunch of clover, and diacon radish seeds to help with the bare soil.  The clover will add nitrogen and the radish will use deep taproots to loosen the soil.  This fall I covered the ground with a deep layer of oak leaf leaves to conserve water and build topsoil.

The picture titled “Forest Garden Design – The Plants” give you an idea of what is planted in this area.  It actually takes two pages to show the entire forest garden.

I’ll give you updates on the forest garden in the spring and as time goes on.

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