Gardening Like the Forest
Written onMarch 01 , 2010
Modern gardeners have grown accustomed to segregating different types of plants into different places—herbs in one bed, veggies in another, perennials and flowers somewhere else, while the orchard stands alone. But this isn’t the way things work in a forest. Nature functions in wholes, enabling cooperation between species to generate robust, resilient systems that optimize the use of available sun, water, nutrients, and space.
With this understanding, we can model the inter-connectedness of the forest in our own backyard. When we plant an edible forest garden, we create a “cultivated ecosystem” composed of a wide diversity of primarily perennial plants (trees, shrubs, and perennials) that work together so that the needs of one species (minerals, mulch, pollination, and pest and disease suppression) are filled by the products of others (nitrogen-fixation, mineral accumulation, mulch, beneficial insect attraction, etc.). In time, the garden becomes largely self-maintaining, minimizing work for us while providing us with food. To be clear, we aren’t talking about establishing a garden in the forest. This is designing, installing, and maintaining an ecosystem that functions like the forest, while providing myriad yields sometimes referred to as the “Seven Fs”—food, fiber, fodder, fuel, fertilizer, “farmaceuticals,” and fun.
While annual gardens are very effective at producing large quantities of food for humans, they require a significant amount of work—much of it devoted to fighting against the natural process of succession (the evolution of field to forest through a shifting mosaic of species over time). Additionally, annual gardens are often planted in single-species rows or blocks, making them far more susceptible to pests and disease. As forest gardeners, we ask, “Instead of motoring against succession with each passing season, why not put up a sail and follow along?” So with this in mind, we design our gardens to develop and evolve over time, requiring no tillage and little to no watering or planting once established, all while letting the garden grow more productive with each passing season. Following is a very basic overview of what it takes to establish your own backyard edible forest garden.
Edible forest gardens will thrive at just about any scale; an urban or suburban backyard (or front yard!) is just about perfect. As for a specific site, many of the species you’ll want to highlight in your forest garden are much more productive in full sun, so paying close attention to the patterns of sun and shade will pay off greatly. (Generally, if possible, I plant trees and large shrubs along the northern boundary of a property to reduce the effect of their shade on the rest of the yard and garden. In this way, the garden takes on a “stepped” character, with plant height increasing from south to north.) You’ll also want to test your soil, especially if you’re in an urban setting or planting a garden for the first time; it’s incredibly helpful to know the status of your soil’s mineral reserves, and in urban areas it’s vital to test for contamination, namely lead. (The University of Vermont Extension offers soil testing services.)
Once you’ve chosen your site, it’s time to develop a plan. To do this, let’s look briefly at the components of a forest garden. We simply break it down into two primary categories: structure and function. Consider a natural forest. Its vegetative structure is made up of vertical layers—trees, shrubs, perennials/herbs, annuals, ground covers, roots and vines—and it’s this stacking of vegetation that makes natural forests immensely productive. We can do the same thing with our gardens. So start off by making a list of the multi-functional plants you like most (plants that provide at least a few of those “Seven Fs”), and categorize them into layers. When approaching design for backyard-scale forest gardens, I typically begin with the “overstory”—the trees that will comprise the canopy of the system—and here, Vermonters have an impressive array of fruit and nut trees from which to choose. Depending on your local microclimate, you could plant peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, quince, apples, pears, walnuts, hickories, hardy pecans, paw paws, and many others.
Once you have canopy trees chosen, you can begin to select a complementary “guild” of species that fill in the structure and provide some of the important functions—fertilization, pest control, pollination, and mineral cycling—that make for a healthy, resilient plant polyculture. You may choose to include a native nitrogen-fixing perennial vine like groundnut, a couple of fruiting, shrubby currants, a white clover ground cover, patches of mint for tea and pest deterrence, and a few tomato and basil plants to fill in the gaps while the guild is still young. While the process may seem overwhelming at the outset, if we approach it systematically, we develop gardens that thrive in beauty and productivity, while we become intimately connected to the guilds we create. As our forest gardens grow and evolve, our role as gardener changes as well. Because the garden is primarily composed of perennials, it regrows each year, minimizing our need to start seeds and to plant. The diversity and varied structure of the garden make it much more resistant to pest and disease outbreaks, while providing habitat for a healthy and balanced insect population. And since trees, shrubs, and perennials, once established, are much hardier and resistant to fluctuations in soil moisture, they don’t need to be watered after the first year. We even begin to question the concept of “weeds,” instead recognizing them as gifts of “green manure” that we can use to mulch our precious fruit trees and shrubs. This isn’t to say we won’t ever find unwanted plants (a.k.a. weeds) emerging in our gardens, but in this system we learn to appreciate the contribution they make, in light of the work they create for us. A stroll through an edible forest garden takes us on an ecological adventure, allowing us to meander from observation to harvest to mulching and fertilization (“weeding”) to relaxation.
Edible forest gardening is really about building connections between natural elements. As we actively and knowingly participate in our gardens, we create living legacies that nurture, maintain, and evolve themselves over time. And what could be more rewarding than leaving a little piece of the planet more diverse, healthy, beautiful, and productive than it was when you found it?
For more information on edible forest gardens, Mark recommends Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, Volumes 1 and 2, which he calls “the most extensive work on edible forest garden design and species selection.” For plants, he recommends East Hill Tree Farm in Plainfield, Elmore Roots Nursery in Elmore, and St. Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, N.Y.
Illustration by Mark Krawczyk