Why is it that nobody ever walks into a healthy forest and says, “boy, does somebody ever need to do some mulching in here! Somebody needs to weed, water and fertilize this forest, too!”
For the most part, healthy forests don’t require human managers, volunteers or employees to keep them running and productive. The necessary “work” is accomplished in the casual interactions of plants and animals – the forest community – as they go about their lives. Some mulch, some fertilize, some catch and store water. Others attract beneficial allies and keep pests in check.
With the ability to do all that work for us, “ecosystem services” are an invauable source of energy that clever human societies have put to good use in the form of “forest gardens,” “food forests,” or “home gardens.”
In fact, many researchers across disciplines are calling forest gardens “the oldest human land use,” recognizing that this kind of garden has been nearly univeral across continents and cultures. Where ever trees grow, people have created systems that meet human needs by mimicking forests and learning to cooperate with nature.
In the tropics, these gardens really do resemble thick, wild forests with a diverse set of plants growing at all different levels from tall trees to creeping groundcovers. Only they’re filled with fruit, vegetables, medicial herbs, animal systems and materials for crafts, fuel, clothing and building.
But in colder climates with less sun, these systems require a more open structure to let in more light and warmth. Temperate forest gardens tend to resemble open woodland, savannas, forest edges and hedgerows.
So imagine for a moment a beautiful woodland, a trail along a forest edge, a forest clearing, some beautiful ecosystem that has spoken to you, that has held you in awe. Above, birds fill the trees and their songs fill the air. Flowers blossom through the understory and a beautiful diversity of invertebrates bring their own color, movement, music. The air feels cool and sheltered, conditioned by trees and perfumed by flowers. But everything here is useful, edible, medicial. Fruit and nuts hang from the trees, salad plants, vegetables and edible flowers fill in below them. There is no such thing as “waste” here and the only “work” to do is foraging and harvesting.
That is the vision and goal of “forest gardening.”
On the technical side, we can define a temperate forest garden as a highly diverse, multi-layered polyculture production garden specializing in trees and woody perennials. They’re traditionally culturally important spaces that integrate food production with social uses such as family living, ritual gatherings, meetings, and ceremonies. Typically, they include fruit and nut trees and bushes, large perennial and annual herbaceous plants that produce fruits and vegetables, ground cover plants, root crops, mushrooms, and vines. Beyond that, the design can vary widely to deepending on the goals the gardener wants to achieve.
If you would like to learn more, I hope you will check out these other articles and resources on forest gardening that we’ve put together:
Forest Gardening Blog Posts: