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What is Forest Gardening?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Forest gardening is an approach to gardening that involves the replication of a woodland ecosystem with food-producing trees and plants. Several cultures have a long history of gardening in forests, as seen in regions like South America, but the creation of entirely new garden environments for forest gardening appears to have originated in England in the 20th century. Forest gardens can fit on very small plots of land, making them an option for people with limited gardening space.

Conventional gardening takes place in a single plane, as a general rule. Crops are planted flat and tended in the open. In a forest garden, intercropping is used to create different levels or layers. This results in very high yield because multiple crops are sharing the same space. It also creates a more natural looking garden that includes habitat for animals, as well as plants. Forest gardening can be practiced by people of all ages and levels of gardening skill.

The upper layers of a forest garden are the canopies of mature fruit trees. Dwarf trees and shrubs are planted below, with smaller plants in the lower layers of the garden, which creates a series of layers like those found in the natural forest. Climbing plants are interspersed through the forest garden. The companion planting provides plants with a number of benefits, including richer soil, protection from the elements for fragile plants, and greater water conservation.

Once the garden is established, depending on what plants are used, forest gardening can be less labor intensive than managing a conventional garden. Many of the plants are perennial or reseed themselves easily and the soil enriches itself just like it does in natural forests with fallen fruit, leaf litter, and other organic detritus. Plantings can be arranged to include plants that need sun, as well as plants that prefer partial shade. Pathways through the garden provide access to various plants for harvest and maintenance.

Forest gardening can be done with native trees and plants for an especially low maintenance garden, or introduced plants can be mixed with the native species. One benefit to this form of gardening is that the intercropping keeps weeds down, as there are few areas where weeds will have an opportunity to get a foothold.

Establishing a forest garden requires some planning and forethought. Major elements of the garden, such as fruit trees, must be planted with care so that they have room to grow, and the smaller permanent plants need to be arranged around them. Forest gardeners may find it helpful to draw overhead maps to organize their plantings, in addition to drawing the garden from the side to get an idea of how the layers will look once the garden matures. It can take several years for the garden to fully establish itself.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon226443 — On Nov 01, 2011

Forest gardening is an ancient culture in India, sustained for more than 10,000 years. Ages ago the saints in India lived in forests for the education and Research purposes and it was their practice to develop and maintain such Gardens around their Aashrams. To name a few: Hrishi Jamdagni, Hrishi Valmiki, Hrishi Vishrava etc.

By anon157111 — On Mar 01, 2011

it seems like madness. Don't all the plants need sun? and doesn't the shade of the canopy prevent the light from reaching the smaller plants lower down? Also, how does it affect ease of harvesting?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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