A Food Forest In Your Garden

Growing an edible garden

This is a compilation of information gathered from various sources to illustrate the principles involved in growing a forest garden. It was created for the Grow Food Eat Well workshop ‘A Food Forest in Your Garden – Growing an Edible Garden’ at Kymin Community Gardens on Sat 28 May 2022.

A Note on Terms

We can use the words food forest, forest garden, edible garden, home garden and foragers garden interchangeably – they all relate to the same thing.

Our Temperate Forest Geography 

Where we live, woodland is our true nature. If left alone, all land here in our moist temperate climate would return to woodland. We are forest dwellers. Perhaps then, a forest garden is instinctively familiar.

Forest gardens offer a way to grow food that is long term and sustainable, and regenerative. It makes things better, soil, wildlife. A way to heal the earth and our broken relationship with nature and her awesome abundance. A way to reconnect with nature’s way of growing food. 

In years past we have been hunter gatherers. We have only been farming in the way we know now for a brief period in our history. For most of our lives on this planet we have harvested food from woodland – we have gathered, much as a forager does today. We have enjoyed the wide range of wild food our lands offer, and we have held their knowledge in our psyches. Time has seen that lost, though it’s being rekindled for many. A forest, or foragers garden then, reconnects us with our true nature.

What is a Food Forest? 

Put simply, a food forest is a layered system with perennial plants at different heights. It is a designed and maintained ecosystem. 

System – a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network, a complex whole.

Ecosystem – an ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit.

In the forest garden, food is grown in a system which reflects the patterns of growing we find in a forest or woodland. From the tall trees of the canopy to shrubs and shade-loving plants on the forest floor. The difference is that in the food forest all the plants have been chosen for their use, which might be as food, building materials, fibres, dyes or medicines.

It’s also about how waste and nutrients are cycled in the forest – no one picks up the leaf litter and no one fertilises, nature has her own way of meeting her needs from the resources which are abundant within the forest itself. A forest garden aims to do the same.

In his book, ‘‘Creating a Forest Garden, Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops”,

Martin Crawford states that a ‘forest garden is a garden modelled on the structure of young natural woodland, utilising plants of direct and indirect benefit to people – often edible plants. 

It may contain large trees, small trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, herbs, annuals, root crops and climbers, all planted in such a way as to maximise positive interactions and minimise negative interactions, with fertility maintained largely or wholly by the plants themselves.’

The Future of Food – Food, Everywhere

“When I am asked to articulate a vision for the future, that vision contains urban agriculture, localised food systems, local markets, agroforestry and  urban fruit and nut tree plantings…’

Rob Hopkins (Co-founder of the Transition Towns movement)

Martin Crawford grows a large example of a forest garden on the Darlington Estate in Devon, he runs The Agroforestry Research Trust. He asks ‘How do we transform everything we do, including the systems by which we feed ourselves?’

Food growing in a forest garden is:

  • diverse, robust, resilient, resistant
  • perennial, no dig, organic, chemical free
  • soil building
  • self-supporting (nutrients are cycled, nothing is wasted – a true example of a circular economy)
  • locks up carbon, helps us move away from fossil fuels

*Did you know that rural lands are barren, like wildlife deserts? Urban areas now show more plant and wildlife diversity than some parts of the countryside.

Why grow a Food Forest?

‘One way to think of forest gardening is that you are creating a compressed foraging resource on your doorstep.’

Alan Carter

How we get our food will become more and more important for us to think about as we head into an unpredictable future. The impacts of climate change and other local and global issues will mean we need to begin to create more resilient (able to bounce back) and more resistant (pointing out what’s not working read this) food systems. 

Our gardens will also be at risk from warming, more extreme weather, drought and flood, wind, emissions, storms and declining frosts, plus other yet unknown impacts. We can already see these effects now.

The plants we choose and the way we garden can limit the negative effects in our gardens and in fact bring many positives, being able to grow plants from warmer climates for instance. Plus food forests by nature capture carbon, store water better, provide shelter and reduce energy use.

Choosing to grow a food forest in your garden brings a number of benefits:

  • Environmental benefits mentioned above
  • Less work, more food – lots of work to set up, but once established most work is harvesting, with a bit of pruning and weeding
  • Food all year – the hungry gap of the annual veg garden is covered by the influx of new growth from the foragers garden in spring. The foragers hungry gap in July is covered by the annual veg garden crops
  • Less gluts
  • No need to buy, sow and pot on seeds every year (although most forest gardens do have some annual food plants)
  • Less issues with pests and diseases from mixed planting and more balance
  • Healthier soil – not disturbing the soil leaves the beneficial microbes, insects and other soil creatures to do their thing, especially mycorrhizal fungi, this is beneficial for the plants growing in it
  • Nature does not leave soil uncovered – soil is covered most of the time with plant growth or plant matter, covering soil with plants means minimal weeding
  • Herbaceous plants leave a mulch of dead leaves and stems over the soil surface 
  • Mulch means less water is needed as it retains mositure
  • Using green manures on annual crop areas maintains soil health over winter
  • Excellent for wildlife – welcoming pollinators and wildlife into your garden with habitat and food sources
  • Self supporting – so all the resources you need to care for your garden are in the garden itself, nutrients are cycled, nothing is wasted
  • Evidence suggests that crops from perennial plants are more nutrient dense, plants in the ground for longer accumulate more minerals
  • The structure and diversity of a forest garden ensures good resilience, for example to the impacts of climate change – some of which will be more extreme weather conditions.
  • The sustainability of forest gardens comes from their diversity and the complex web of below and above ground interactions between species

Produce from the Food Forest 

Food forests are designed around the requirements of their users, and can yield a wide variety of products, including fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, salad crops, herbs, spices, firewood, mushrooms grown on logs, poles and canes, tying materials, basketry materials, medicinal herbs, dye plants, soap plants, honey from bees and sap products.

Harvesting in a Food Forest

Harvesting a food forest is more like foraging, which is why the term foragers garden is used. Rather than large gluts that we get from an annual veg garden, we get small harvests, little and often. There is always enough for one meal.

Layers in a Food Forest 

Forest Garden Diagram by GrahamBurnet

Fertility in the Forest Garden

We use plants to provide all the nutrients. Nettles and comfrey are most common. You can mulch around plants with comfrey, or make a tea from the leaves of plants. 

Nettles – high in nitrogen, good for green growth

Comfrey – high in potassium – good for fruiting and thickening cell walls, which is good for controlling pests and diseases.

Seaweed is a high potassium feed.

All the dynamic accumulator plants described below bring nutrients up from the soil – surprisingly, dock, the bane of some gardeners, offers a range of nutrients and benefits – it’s all about experimenting! Try making a tea with dock and see what happens, or use it as a mulch or compost activator. Same goes for dandelions. Love your weeds, they are useful and tell you something about what’s happening in your soil.

Plants in the Forest Garden

Different plants are used in the different layers of the food forest. They include:

  • Trees
  • Shrubs
  • Herbaceous – perennial (growing for 2,5,7 – 20 years), biennial (flower in 2nd year) and annual (grow,flower and produce seed in 1 year)
  • Ground cover
  • Roots
  • Climbers and vines

It’s the perennial plants in a food forest that creates its long term nature, making it more sustainable, and regenerative.

Here’s a crazy big list of plants – take your own time to research and learn about these plants. There are some excellent resources on the internet – I use the Plants for A Future database. 

NF means its a nitrogen fixer.

Trees – quince, fig, apple, medlar, apricot, cherry, plum, peach, nectarine, pear, hazelnut, walnut, sweet chestnut, juneberries/serviceberries, strawberry tree, dogwood/cornus, hawthorn, alder, autumn olive, sea buckthorn, mulberry, cherry plum/Mirabelle, blackthorn/sloe, elder, rowan, Siberian pea tree NF, pine, almond, oak, limes (tillia cordata), bay, Szechuan pepper, maple, birch, sumach, black locust NF, magnolia, rowan, damson, Witchhazel 

Shrubs – jostaberry, Worcester-berry, blackcurrant, redcurrant, whitecurrant, gooseberry, blackberry (thornless), raspberry, loganberry, Japanese wine berry, blueberry, barberries, flowering quince, fuchsia, salal, juniper, broom NF, honeysuckle, lavender, rosemary, sage, oregon grape, rose, red elder, cop picked lime, bamboo, New Zealand flax, coppiced willow, Japanese quince, lemon verbena, lilac 

Herbaceous perennials  – Comfrey bocking 14, anise hyssop, babbingtons leek, welsh onion, Egyptian walking onion, garlic chives, chives, marshmallow, wild Angelica, asparagus, sea beet, 9 star perennial broccoli, daubenton’s kale, tree collard, sea kale, Chinese bramble, Turkish rocket, pig nut, lady’s smock, red valerian, cardoon, artichoke, Solomon’s seal, echinacea, everlasting pea, fennel, sorrels, lemon balm, mint, good king Henry, chicory, mitsuba/Japanese parsley, rosebay willow herb, mallow, hosta, lovage, Scots lovage, ostrich fern, sweet cicely, oregano, wild marjoram, plantains, salad Burnet, ice plant (sedum), dandelion, dock (if you have them, don’t plant them on purpose), nettles, day lily, rhubarb, St. John’s wort, valerian, yarrow, feverfew, milk vetch NF, wild lupin, toadflax, hyssop, wild bergamot, ox-eye daisy, cleavers, fat hen, tansy 

Ground cover – ground elder (if you have it), bugle, ladys mantle, wild garlic, Siberian purslane, strawberry, sweet woodruff, campanula, birds foot trefoil, creeping Jenny, Wood sorrel, violets, golden saxifrage, ground ivy, primrose, red clover, wild ginger, periwinkle, daisy, rocket, self-heal

Climbers – hop, groundnut, sweet pea NF, Caucasian spinach, everlasting pea, earthnut pea, mashua, grapes, wisteria NF, honeysuckle, sweet potato, 

Roots – oca, yacon, mashua, burdock, salsify, scorzonera, horseradish, liquorice, Jerusalem artichoke, skirret, ground nut, evening primrose, 

Annuals – borage, calendula, phacelia, nasturtium, garlic mustard, hairy bittercress, winter purslane, chickweed, cosmos orange cosmea, Viola, cornflower, forget-me-not, marigold, chervil, dill, chamomile, salad leaves/lettuce, sunflower, radish, nigella, bread seed poppy, caraway, basil, lambs lettuce

Biennials – land cress, Swiss chard, honesty, Alexanders, 

Fungi/mushrooms – shiitake, oyster 

Ornamentals with edible uses – Hawthorn, bamboo, fuchsia, Oregon grapes, New Zealand Flax, campanula/ bellflower, red valerian, daylilies, hosta, Violet, calendula/pot marigold, nasturtiums

Things to consider when planning your food forest:

  • What type of soil do I have?
  • Does it get much sun?
  • How much space do I have?
  • What’s pre-existing (trees/plants etc)

*Plant trees in winter when they are dormant

*Ground cover and herbaceous perennials in spring

Planting a Food Forest – Where to start

To begin our food forest, we will explore the concepts of planting in monocultures, polycultures and guilds. 

Here are some terms and examples that will help first:

Monoculture – the same crop grown side by side in a large area, eg field of rapeseed, whole bed of beetroot. Problems arise in monocultures with pests and diseases, with so many crops pests can wipe them out. To protect against this we can plant in polycultures.

Monoculture – Rows and rows of cabbages – the cabbage white will have a field day!
Potager kitchen garden – rows of similar crops
A more mixed planting potager style

Polyculture – mixed planting where different plants are grown together in the same space. A kind of companion planting scheme, but with plants all mixed up, rather than in neat rows like you might see in a companion planted potager style of bed, or in examples of interplanting.

An example of a polyculture with lots of companion planting.
What your Forest Garden could look like! Vera Greutink @growntocook
 A food forest – this might be a bit extreme for an urban garden!

Planting in Guilds

Guilds take the idea of planting in polycultures to the next level, not only do you have mixed planting, each plant also carries out a specific function. When they come together in a guild, the needs of each plant are met by other plants.

So, to begin to plant our forest garden, we will take a plant from each layer of the forest garden – tree, shrub, herbaceous perennial, ground cover, climber, root, and assemble them in a guild, identifying each of the plants function. 

You can see an example of this in action in my front garden at 24 Windsor Terrace – feel free to call by to look. It’s just in its second year, so it’s a work in progress.

What is a Guild?

In Permaculture, a guild is a community of plants, animals and fungi arranged to support each function required by the members of that community. Every function should be supported by more than one element, and every element should support multiple functions. Guilds are often created around a central element, such as a fruit tree. In order to reduce the need for outside inputs and to make the garden more self-sustaining in keeping with natural ecosystems.

Fruit tree guilds consist of several layers that can be made up of edible plants, shrubs and climbing plants that co-exist under and around the fruit tree. You can see the link here to the structure of the food forest.

There are many benefits to planting a fruit tree guild:

  • Maximise space in your garden to grow edibles.
  • Attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.
  • Suppress weeds and reduce root competition.
  • Improve condition of soil.
  • Deter bad bugs from the garden.
  • Deter animals that may cause a problem to your trees.
  • Help to retain moisture in the soil.
  • Create habitat.
  • Balance fungal populations.
  • Increase nutrient levels in soil.

The core layers of any plant guild are:

Nitrogen fixers – plants that draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and make them available to plants through their roots and leaves, usually legumes eg clover, broom

Dynamic accumulators – deep rooted plants that draw up nutrients eg lemon balm, yarrow

Mulchers – compost makers, chop and drop around your tree eg comfrey

Suppressors – can be planted in a ring around the guild to suppress grasses, usually bulbs eg garlic chives, daffodils 

Attractors – insect/pollinator plants, draw pollinators to the area eg wild marjoram

Repellers – keeps away unwanted visitors eg fennel

Putting it all into practice – Making a Pear Tree Guild

Let’s plant!

You can see from the list below each plant (element) has multiple functions. Most of the plants are edible, most will provide some sort of habitat for wildlife, most contribute to soil health.

What’s here already

Brenhines y Wyddfa/Snowden Queen Pear 

From Ian Sturrock & Sons

Pear trees tend to grow taller than they are wide

Semi dwarf – will grow up to 15ft/4.5m tall and 10ft/3m wide

To know where to plant, we need to identify the drip line. Guild plants tend to be planted within the drip line, with a ring of suppressors at the drip line to keep out competition from grasses.

Goosebury x 3 – Ultimate height 1.2m/4ft width 1m/3ft 3in  5-10yrs

No info about cultivar given by KWT

Elder – attractor, indicator of nitrogen rich soil, edible fruit, flowers, used for colouring and tea, medicinal

Nettles – dynamic accumulator, compost maker, edible young leaves, high nitrogen plant food, attractor, 

Cleavers – spring tonic, indicator of high nitrogen

Butterfly bush/buddleia – attractor, beautiful blooms

Hawthorn – a canopy tree close by, edible young leaves and berries/haws (make ketchup with them)

Ash – a canopy tree, not sure how long this will be here for due to ash dieback

Broom – Nitrogen fixer, legume, short lived perennial (12-15yrs), 2.4m/7ft high by 1m/3ft 3 wide, attracts insects away from nearby plants

To Plant – we won’t necessarily plant all today, some plants are too small

Comfrey bocking 14 – dynamic accumulator, compost maker, fertiliser, mulch, insect/pollinator plant

Wild marjoram/oregano – ground cover, insect/pollinator plant, edible leaves and flowers

Yarrow – insect/pollinator plant, medicinal, dynamic accumulator, repellent

Lemon balm – dynamic accumulator (potassium), insect/pollinator plant, 2ft 4 x 1ft 4, perennial, repellent, self seeds, cut back hard after flowering

Strawberry – berries, soil stabiliser, insect/pollinator plant, dynamic accumulator, suppressor, 45cm x 30cm

Clover – fixes nitrogen, ground cover, suppressor, perennial, 2ft x 2ft, attractor, salad leaves

Chives – dynamic accumulator, insect/pollinator plant, suppressor don’t use this plant as Pfaf says it poisonous for dogs

Garlic chives – repellent, suppressor, don’t use this plant as Pfaf says it poisonous for dogs

Mallow – annual, young leaves in salad, dynamic accumulator, tea, root used as egg white

Burdock – biennial, attractor, dynamic accumulator, edible root, 1m

Good king Henry – edible greens, dynamic accumulator, 1ft x 1ft, tolerates light shade 

Wild bergamot/monarda – pot herb, nectar source for pollinators, repellent, perennial, 1.5m x0.5m

Red/white currant – 1.2m, shade tolerant, edible fruit

Anise hyssop – insect/pollinator plant, perennial, 0.9m x 0.4m, edible leaves, liquorice mint, sun

Hyssop – evergreen shrub, 2ft x 2ft, attractor, pot herb, cross between sage and mint, repellent, attracts cabbage white, ground cover

Fennel – dynamic accumulator, insect/pollinator plant/attractor, evergreen perennial, 1.5m x 1m, whole plant edible, sun, self seeding so probs best to collect seeds

Calendula/pot marigold – annual, 0.6m h x 0.5m w

Semi-shade, full sun, edible leaves and flowers, insect deterrent, attracts hover flies, young hoverflies eat aphids, flowers attractive to bees and butterflies, flowers close when rain is expected, can get powdery mildew so space well to allow air circulation, root pattern is branching, flowers make a skin healing cream and can be used in place of saffron.

Blackberry Merton thornless – 2m x 1.8m, compact habit, choose a thornless variety so you can tell it apart from the bramble

Placement and Spacing 

We need to think about how big the plant will be when it is fully grown. We want to plant close enough together to make sure there’s no bare soil, to inhibit weeds, but far enough apart that they have space to reach their full potential.

This takes time to get right. Robert Hart, who planted the first forest garden in the UK, was notorious for over planting. 

Let’s lay things out and see how things look and feel. We want the tallest plants towards the centre of the area, lower plants towards the outside.

Other things we need

Mulch – we will be removing a lot of the grass around the tree, so we need to mulch to stop weed growth before our plants get to full size. We have lots of leaf-mould for this, but you could use semi-decomposed woodchip, bark, even grass clippings, but a thin layer to stop it going slimy, you could also use compost. You could also lay cardboard down under your mulch.

Tools – spades, forks, hand trowels, wheel barrows

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Resources

For more on layers and a more in depth look at the principles and practices in an edible garden see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/articles/edible_forest_garden

I used a number of books to compile this information:

Alan Carter – A Food Forest in Your Garden, Plan it, Grow it, Cook it

https://www.foodforest.garden/ – excellent resource for learning about perennial plants

Anne Locke – The Forager’s Garden

Anni Kelsey – Edible Perennial Gardening: Growing Successful Polycultures in Small Spaces

https://annisveggies.wordpress.com/

Martin Crawford – Creating a Forest Garden, Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops

https://www.agroforestry.co.uk/

You can learn more and buy seeds here:

http://penarthgrowingcommunity.co.uk/resources/

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