Forest gardening offers the possibility of meeting human needs in a far more ecological, connected way than conventional farming, either organic or chemical. It is the art and science of designing complete ecosystems that bear a useful, varied yield for people.
The approach originated in the tropics, where forest gardens mimic the structure of a rainforest, with canopy trees, understorey trees, shrubs, the ground layer, creepers and animals all made up from useful species. In Scotland, not much light reaches the ground layer in this sort of ‘high forest’, so forest gardeners plant something more like a forest edge, with more space between the trees and a thicker ground flora.
The plants in a forest garden are mostly perennials – trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials – but some annuals that are able to maintain themselves by self-seeding are also used.
A forest garden can be almost any size, from a few square metres, through allotment size up to the 1-hectare forest garden maintained by the Agroforestry Research Trust in Dartington, Devon.
Products from forest gardens include fruits, nuts, edible leaves, starchy roots, fungi, sap, herbs and spices, medicinal plants, poles, basketry materials, honey, firewood, and animal products. As well as the directly useful species, plants are used which fix nitrogen or scavenge nutrients from the lower levels of the soil. As a result a forest garden is to a degree self-feeding.
The diversity of a forest garden and the fact that most of the plants are able to complete their full annual cycle including flowering and seeding means that forest gardens are havens for wildlife. Once they are established they are pretty low maintenance since there are few niches for weeds, but there is still plenty of work to do picking the produce.