Thursday, 13 January 2011

No weeding required: The Forest Garden

 We’re slowly adapting our piece of land to forest garden principles, something I would have done years ago if I had been aware of the technique and just how suited it is for gardens.
I came across the idea originally in the pages of Permaculture Magazine, about a couple, who own a 7 hectare plot of land in Portugal, who have converted the space into a Forest Garden. I’ve come across the term ‘forest garden before,’ but never considered using its principles in my own, very large garden. But now I’m converted, and feel that this really will be the way many of us will use our spaces in the future. For this method of gardening, or non gardening, involves no weeding, watering, digging or feeding, and it can be left to look after itself for weeks, even months, on end. What’s more, It's organic, wildlife-friendly, disease resistant, it massively reduces your weekly food bill and brings  foraging to your doorstep.

Forest Gardening was introdiced into this country by the late Robertt Hart, in Shropshire in the 1960s. He wanted to create a healthy and therapeutic environment both for himself and for his brother, who was born with severe learning disabilities. He became interested in growing for medicinal purposes and he developed the concept of a forest garden, through observing the interactions and relationships between plants in natural systems, particularly in woodland. He set about rearranging his own garden on forest principles with edible layers of self-sustaining perennials that would provide food, fuel and medicines, as well as support wildlife. His philosophy was recorded in two books, ‘The Forest Garden,’ and ‘Beyond the Forest Garden,’ (Green Books),

A key feature of this type of gardening is companion planting, where you where plants are of mutual benefit to each other, just one of the many examples of companion planting is the ‘Three Sisters’ method, pioneered by some Native American groups in North America. Squash, maize, and climbing beans are planted together, and they work together: the beans grow up the stalks of corn, and add nitrogen to the soil that the other plants need in order to grow, while the squash spreads along the ground, which helps prevent weeds from growing and acts as a mulch for the other plants.

Unlike most gardens with their clipped hedges, manicured lawns and neat borders, a forest garden, mimics nature, in that everything is mixed up; fruit bushes grown next to herbs, and trees are intermingled with flowers, Just like a natural woodland! The sheer variety of plants available to use is mind boggling too. The main distinctive feature though of this way of cultivating the earth is that everything you plant is either edible or beneficial to wildlife and if for no other reason that should be reason enough for forest gardening to become the main way of gardening in the future. You don’t need a massive amount of garden either; a tiny strip in the centre of the city, or even a couple of window containers will be enough. The main thing to remember and this was another reason for my conversion, is that, once you have got the space up and running, no other work is involved, apart from harvesting!

Forest gardening is centered around differing layers or canopies; a first layer of fruit trees is followed by a lower layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks. A third layer of consists of fruit bushes, then an  ‘herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs. The fifth layer of edible plants covers the ‘ground and finally with a ‘rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers. With a vertical layer of vines and climbers climbing up the higher layers. 

You know, the more I delve into this method, the more I am amazed!  Plant disease is cured, because you use companion planting, no watering is needed, because of the natural mulching and, s all of the plants are perennials, and the taller trees keep the smaller plants moistened too. Never again will I grow cabbages and onions, I’ll use wild varieties like Welsh onions, 9 star Brassica and Wild garlic. We’ll eat delicious salad mixes of Lambs lettuce, Sorrel and Wild Rocket. I’ll grow Soapwort too, as an alternative to soap. Herbs will be used both in cooking and as medicinal remedies.  And, all of the plants will be perennials

Having just undergone weeks of scorching heart, where most of my time was spent watering, feeding and weeding, I count my blessing that I’ve ‘discovered,’ forest gardening. From now on, I’ll be able to sit under the canopies, a cup of tea in hand, enjoying the wildlife visitors and look back on those dark days of the past with a deep sense of gratitude that now life will be more simple!   

We already have a range of established fruiting bushes and a few fruit trees already and we aren’t in a rush to change the rest of our garden, we can’t afford to splash out on a whole load of trees and shrubs all in one go, so we will build up slowly

Here are some useful links:     

A short video where Robert Hart talks introduces the main principles of Forest gardening:

Plants can be ordered from these two specialised Forest Garden Suppliers:

The Agro Forestry Research Trust:
Plants for a Future:

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