Forest Gardens 101

Graham Burnett - Wikipedia

Graham Burnett - Wikipedia

May 6, 2014

Forest gardening is an ancient gardening method which combines edible trees, bushes, vines, herbs, and perennials to create a beautiful, completely edible garden which is very low maintenance.

A forest garden requires less work, almost no weeding, and much less water than a "normal" food garden does, which makes it very nice for busy edible gardeners.

First developed in tropical gardens dating back to prehistoric times, horticulturist Robert Hart adapted the principles to temperate climates in the 1980's.

If you look at an edible forest garden, you could say that it has seven layers:


  1. The canopy (or top) layer has tall mature fruit and nut trees.
  2. The "low-tree" layer has smaller, perhaps less mature fruit and nut trees. Dwarf trees fall into this layer also.
  3. The "shrub" layer consists of fruit bushes like currants, pomegranates, and berry bushes.
  4. The "herbaceous" layer contains perennial vegetables and herbs. These can be of any size, from a small lettuce plant to a huge rhubarb or artichoke.
  5. The ground cover layer uses edible plants that grow horizontally, such as strawberries, creeping thyme, or wintergreen.
  6. The underground layer is composed of those plants which are grown for their roots, such as sweet potato, turnip, or carrot.
  7. And last but not least is the vertical layer: edible plants such as tomatoes, grapes, and peas, which climb upwards!

If you put edible plants into all these layers, you can produce a tremendous amount of food in a relatively small area of land.

Most of the typical edibles used in forest gardening are ones which can tolerate at least partial shade (for obvious reasons), but in very hot and dry areas, this growing arrangement is ideal.

The taller plants help shade and cool the smaller ones, moisture is kept in the area, and the combination of plants confuses and distracts most pests.

Permaculturists use the forest garden frequently in their designs.

Environmental scientist Jonathan White, who developed the ecological gardening method, has basically created a forest garden without the trees, making it suitable for areas with low light conditions or tiny urban yards where trees would be out of the question.

So how would you design a forest garden? The same way as you would any other --

  • measure your area,
  • plan where you want each plant to go,
  • decide on the color and shapes of your plants as they change through the seasons,
  • plan out your garden areas for size and shape,
  • add in paths, irrigation and drainage (if needed),
  • then select the plants which are best for your area.

I go over all these things in my Tasteful Yard Design course in a step by step manner, helping you to create the edible garden which is right for you.

I have described just the bare bones of how forest gardening works. If you have more questions or specific things you'd like answered about it, please let me know!

I just recently found out about this course on Udemy on Food Forests that you might like:



Toby Hemenway is one of the leaders in permaculture studies, so this should be a great course!

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May 15, 2014
Forest garden almost a necessity
by: Anonymous

I like the part of your article that says "without the trees." It really is a low-light situation here in maritime Olympic Peninsula, WA, and I can't afford to create more shade. When our ancient cherry tree finally dies,it will increase our garden possibilities. For now, it is a support for hanging containers of fuchsia and chameleon plant, both shade tolerant edibles.We do have the "layers of a forest garden sort of by accident - we let orach get quite tall, grow snow and snap peas and runner beans and nasturtiums on the chainlink fence enclosing the chicken run, and out-of-control kiwi and golden hops vine festoon corners of the house. Underneath, daylilies get sun enough.Two common edible weeds here grow through sun or shade rampantly, blackberries and sheep sorrel, and fiddlehead ferns do okay but get lots of competition from all the moss that fills every shady nook. Our goji-berries and seaberries would do better with more sun, but somehow they are surviving a north-facing , shady winter along the foot of our front porch We might not see much fruit from the young plants, but have nowhere else for them to be. In this climate, they probably couldn't make it under a tree. Strawberries get only a half day of sun, so we have lots of them planted to make up for less-than-great production. Just doing what we can on a city lot. Forest gardens are a challenge when neighbor houses block the sun, but it can still work.

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