What is a Food Forest / Forest Garden?

Forest gardens were pioneered in UK & Ireland by Robert Hart. The idea is to mimic what naturally happens in a forest or woodland, except we substitute fruit trees and shrubs, edible plants and roots instead of the wild flowers and trees that nature normally supplies .

Observe how abundant growth is in a wild woodland, even in a field left untended for a few years. Notice that the ground underfoot is not bare soil. No, it’s full of ‘litter’: grass, leaves, seed husks, twigs, rotting logs and sprawling plants and animal dung. Notice too just how abundantly things grow, even though they’re all seemingly bunched up together: trees, shrubs, brambles, herbaceous and mossy groundcover.

Hart suggested that a forest structure had as many as seven ‘layers’ as follows:

  • Canopy or tall trees
  • Smaller trees
  • Shrubs
  • Herbaceous plants
  • Ground cover
  • Roots and fungi … the ‘rhizosphere’ (lovely word) and finally
  • Climbers and ramblers

So basically the one area of ground can support several or even of all these ‘layers’. Each utilises the sunlight at different heights and times, has roots at different levels, and despite being beside the others, all seem to grow successfully. There is no interference from humans: no digging or ploughing, no chemicals to feed or kill plants or insects, no weeds (what’s a weed?), no pruning. Nothing. The system works away, year after year, on its own. Strong plants thrive and out compete their weaker neighbours. Weak plants die and are gradually consumed by the forest fungi, by the composting processes of the natural world until they provide rich soil and food for their successors and all the other plants round about.

So next time you’re driving your car in the countryside, pay attention to hedgerows as you drive by. Notice their abundance of growth and diversity of plants. They are teeming with life and energy… and wildlife.

WHY do farmers insist on growing one plant type for acre after acre and expect it to be happy and productive? Truth is, it’s not. They have to pile on petro-chemicals every year to help it grow, insecticides to kill off this or that creepy crawly, herbicides to kill weeds, fungicides to protect it from blight and the like. Crazy or what? then we eat the stuff.

Over time I’m learning that we don’t need all these chemicals. Man has been on earth for millions of years but we’ve only had oil for about 150 and already we have used most of it. Man created ‘waste’. If you notice, there’s no waste in nature. All is gain. In the forest, if birds or insects don’t eat it on the tree, it falls to the ground and rots (feeds fungi & bacteria) and becomes humus in the soil. This in turn feeds the next generation of small plants and then larger plants, bushes and eventually more trees. In permaculture any input not provided by the system is called WORK and any output not used by the system is called POLLUTION. In  a natural forest or woodland there is no outside input like compost or chemical spray; there is no ‘waste’ messing up the forest floor. There’s two or three inches of soft, moist organic material. it’s teeming with worms and beetles, snails and fungi. It is all being recycled by nature. When will we ever learn?

On my way to work today I passed a corner surburban house-site with a ‘For Sale’ sign. It has been closed off for 5 or 6 years. Weeds all around the edge. Brambles growing maybe 5 or 6 feet high. There are several sycamore trees growing to around 15 feet or more and lots of other shrubs. In just a few short years, it has made big steps to returning to its natural state: forest. Amazing. It probably has the most fertile soil on the street.

So much to learn. So much to share. Catch you later. R

p.s. I’m currently reading a great book: ‘Permaculture Design’ by Aranya. I’ll write a review when I’m finished.


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