(Food Forest in June of its first year at Lillie House. Ugly? Heck no! Not at Lillie House! PS – all those beautiful flowering plants are EDIBLE!)
Gaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! This is driving me crazy!
I keep hearing from people that one of the LAWS OF NATURE of forest gardens is that for AT LEAST the first few years they’ll be ugly tangled messes that will drive your neighbors to drink – and then rotten egg your car, T.P. your house and vote you off the island. 5 times this week alone I heard this concern from 5 different people! I’m not entirely sure where this is coming from, but I’m guessing it has to do with rural agriforest systems.
Here’s the thing, rural agriforest systems on farms aren’t designed for beauty. So don’t judge them for it!
They’re designed to get farmers and homesteaders up and going with an easy and cheap planting that gets fruit trees in the ground on a large commercial scale with as little fuss, investment and planning as possible. Eventually, they turn into beautiful landscapes, but that’s just an added benefit, not their goal for the first year of planting.
Forest gardens in urban/suburban areas CAN ABSOLUTELY be designed to be beautiful places, even in the first year. Personally, I consider it one of the most important factors of these gardens, that unlike conventional agriculture, forest gardens create a beautiful landscape for our communities. In fact, most academic researches include “beauty” as a part of the very definition of traditional forest garden systems, from the cottage gardens and hedgerows of England to the “home gardens” of the tropics!
“Young food forest = ugly” is totally and completely false. Period.
In my opinion, early establishment can be the neatest and most conventionally beautiful stage of a forest garden, if planned to meet that goal.
The fact is, if you’re willng to spend as much on a forest garden as you are on conventional landscaping, you can have a functional forest garden that looks just like conventional landscaping.
Of course, I have no idea why anyone would ever WANT to do that, because I personally think 99% of modern conventional landscaping looks horrendous and appalling and reflects the worst of cheap, disposable destructive consumer cultural values. “Conspicuous consumption” in plant form. But still, as a matter of point, there’s absolutely no reason that it can’t be done.
(This is “attractive?” Sigh. Everybody’s entitled an opinion, right? Still, with plant substitutions this depressing landscape could AT LEAST be a productive edible forest garden…)
These landscapes are designed for one thing, and one thing only: making money off of the human need for conformity. The style means that any unskilled laborer, with absolutely no understanding of plants, ecology, garden history or aesthetics, can make your yard look like every body else’s.
On the other hand, well-designed forest garden aesthetics can reflect a whole history of human cultures, ideals of wealth and happiness, art and architecuture traditions, and a more rewarding relationship with nature that modern landscaping doesn’t even concern itself with.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean forest gardens are “messy” or “ugly.”
So lets put this bad, totally wrong idea to rest once and for all. Let’s look at some well-designed forest gardens in their first year in the ground. Some, in their very first spring, judging from the daffodils, not long after snow melt! So, not just beautiful in year 1, but from the beginnings of the first growing season. Beautiful.
Forest garden polyculture bed in year 1 at Lillie House, in classic “Jardin de Cure” style. Dug just months before….
Center for Alternative Technology forest garden in year 1. Now, that’s beautiful! Speaks of a balanced, appreciative view of nature and our place in the world.
Young food forest in an English back yard, from the great blog: Reminds me a great deal of George Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon, which could a great model for a food forest!
There it is, one of the most famous gardens in American history, designed by the father of our country – I dare you to say THAT’s un-American! I can design you a food forest that looks just like this in its FIRST SEASON for a fraction fo the cost of conventional landscaping and it would feed you fresh vegetables, salad and fruit every day of the growing season. And your “patriot” neighbors won’t be able to say a word about your Washington-inspired aesthetics!
Seriously, does anybody on the planet think this looks better than George Washington’s garden? Think anybody’s going to be visiting this place to admire it’s beauty in 200 years? And keeping that ocean of chemical lawn from washing away those lonely little lumps of green – clearly all hunkered down in battle formation – probably takes way more time and energy to care for than Washington’s work does.
Now, here’s a professionally installed forest garden in year 1. Beautifully done! Great use of color and texture, plus a feeling of being in cooperation with nature, rather than dominating it to submission with precise ruler-measured plant spacings, plastic cloth, poison and bizarre dyed mulches. I guarantee you it takes less work to maintain than the picture above it!
Beautiful beginnings of PJ Chmiel’s forest garden in Lawton, early implementation on a large, challenging site! Just one dude did that on a very limited budget as just one small part of a large project.
Simple, standard suburban home forest garden year 1. Very well done. Anybody can do that. And it even looks good in suburbia!
Row of beautiful guilded fruit trees in their first year. Great use of layers and seasonal interest.
Angelo’s famous sub-tropical Urban food forest in its first year. Well done! This micro-mini organic forest garden is famous the world over as a beautiful back yard that beats the productivity of professional, chemical agriculture many times over. In this early picture the largest plants are all annuals that could grow in our Michigan climate. You want to invest in quality hardscaping and your forest garden can look just like this – or better!
Young fruit trees in their second spring. There’s nothing about this guild that couldn’t look like this in year one….
Young (first year) fruit trees guilded with a beautiful herb garden. A great strategy for early succession.
The CAT forest garden ground covers, again in year 1.
At our place again. See that stick in the ground on the right? Year one!
My “stick collection” in its first Spring. Guilded with beautiful, edible plants. Formal layout and mown grass paths kept a formal feel.
Beautiful thickly planted carpet of daffs act as a pest deterrent. Also pretty.
Fall of year 2. Still lookin’ good! Visitors would often say: “Beautiful garden! Do you also grow food?” Clearly our forest garden didn’t look like a tangled mess of ground covers.
Another view of daffs in the forest garden. All of what you see is in its first year, though we had the benefit of an unusually warm spring to get an early start. And our project prioritized low cost and ease of establishment over early aesthetics. We were dead broke after buying a house and relocating to a new state. That there garden probably cost around $100.
And finally, Hidcote Manor garden, one of the most famous and beautiful gardens in history. Often considered an “ornamental forest garden,” could easily be adapted with mostly edible species. Edible Hidcote, imagine that. Not hard, actually, since I see many edible species in the virtually every garden at Hidcote! Just one of MANY gardens in the English and French tradition that could easily be food forest gardens.
So that’s that! I could have posted another 50 pictures from well-done projects I’m familair with… because food forests are just plain beautiful places.
And if you’ve got a horrible, weedy tangled mess of a forest garden and the neighbors are starting to egg your car, get in touch with me and I’ll come show you how to fix it!
For more on food forest aesthetics, check out: