Tips for Avoiding Common Forest Gardening Mistakes

I’ve been thinking lately about this old article on common forest garden mistakes. 

Filling this out more, I’ve come to conclude that there are probably about 5 top most important elements for establishing a temperate food forest or Permaculture garden, to help improve the aesthetics, lower the workload, and ensure a good early yield. If you’ve been one of my students, you’ll know I advocate for these all the time! Sometimes I sound like a broken record. 

1. Establish clear permanent paths and permanent beds, preferably using a series of different sized paths and “nodes.” This allows you to never have to till again and makes gardening way easier and the garden appear more organized and attractive. The level of detail might be different on very large agriforest scales, but even then some form of permanent paths and growing areas are almost always necessary. On the largest scales, a zoned approach to establishment would be very beneficial, and should still probably have intensive areas with clear permanent paths and beds. Gardens without clear paths and permanent beds are just too hard to work in, confusing and frustrating, hard to plant in, plan guilds, and avoid damaging plants. It makes it very difficult to analyze and correct problems and you’ll never get to a point of accessible “self-mulching” planting densities. 

2. Density and diversity within beds. I aim for “post wild” planting densities where there is no ground visible between plants. For vegetables, we aim for Grow BioIntensive research-based spacings between plants at maturity. High diversity is also important. This ensures that nature has the tools necessary to fill as many ecological niches as possible. “Guilds,” which are designed plant families which mimic the roles found in nature, can be especially useful for ensuring nature has the tools she needs. A few especially important roles are “mulch-maker plants” which produce a lot of mulch within the garden, and rampant ground covers which spread to keep soil covered, like creeping thyme, clover, creeping chamomile, etc. Together, density and diversity can increase early yields, increase beauty, help establish plants, reduce watering, reduce weeding, reduce pest pressures etc. 

3. Plan for high early yields. This isn’t always necessary or possible. Sometimes a motivated gardener with longterm goals is willing to invest in the long game without early rewards. Or sometimes the early yield has to be prioritizing soil and ecosystem repair. But most projects will feel more rewarding and be more successful if they start yielding high-quality fruit and vegetables and beauty in the first year and every year afterwords. 

4. “Accept feedback and apply self-regulation.” How are things working? Perhaps the most important rule is if things are working well, fix them! Have pests become a major issue on your site? What are you going to do about it? Either you’ll need to address the pests or change the planting to resist the pests. Is your soil to dry to support the plants you wanted? Do you have enough labor to sustain the plants and planting style you’ve chosen? No? Again, you’ve got two options. But do something, or else your project will continue to work poorly. 

5. Have a good clear plan and expectations! Know what you want out of your garden. Do you want lots of food? A beautiful landscape feature? A low maintenance place to observe wildlife that will also grow some food? Some mix of these? If you’re not clear about what you want and expect, you’re unlikely to get it!

Of course, there are quite a number of other important factors, including planning for good integrated social functions, planning a good support structure, resisting the temptation to intervene too much, etc. If you’re interested in learning more of these, check out our summer class on forest gardening starting in May!

One thought on “Tips for Avoiding Common Forest Gardening Mistakes

  1. Great article, since starting my forest garden in 2010, I feel like I've made all of these mistakes to a greater or lesser extent. Living off-site, working on a large plot (3+ acres) singlehandedly in my spare time, dealing with wildlife, and most importantly, trying to grow on very dry, sandy soil has made it somewhat of an uphill battle for me, and often made me question my own sanity. Soil moisture/fertility have been my main limiting factors, many things have grown slowly or poorly, with a good number dying outright. I'm not typically replanting those same things, at least not until the site succession gets to the point that the shade and mulch-making increase enough to retain more soil moisture through the heat of the summer. Planting density has been an issue, mostly due to limited time to plant/maintain it at that scale, 95% of scattered seeds (clovers and cover crops) not surviving, and limited plant stock (Oregano is one of the only things that does well there, but do I need an acre's worth of Oregano? :)) Comfrey and other typical “go-to” mulch makers can barely stay alive at my site unless I plant them in a mountain of woodchips or leafmould, so I continue to try other species. Daylilies and some native prairie plants have held their own pretty well among the sparse grasses. Tree/shrub growth has been less than spectacular, and harvests in general have been slow in coming, though there are more every year (every year that we don't get crazy late frosts, like 2017). Rampancy of any sort, even weeds, would be welcome, but nothing really grows rampantly there in a dry-ish year or creates a lot of biomass, so that's mostly had to be brought in from local waste streams by the truckload. I think it's finally starting to accelerate, but it's sometimes hard to step back from our own project and take inventory. Anyway, sorry for rambling, but appreciate the wisdom and advice you've shared over the years.

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