On the face of it, the phrase ‘forest garden’ is a contradiction in terms, since trees in mature forests do not allow enough sun through the canopy for satisfactory gardening.
On the face of it, the phrase ‘forest garden’ is a contradiction in terms, since trees in mature forests do not allow enough sun through the canopy for satisfactory gardening. But it is meant simply as a shorthand for ‘a garden of useful plants (trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables) in an environment similar to a young natural woodland’ — which, if not exactly snappy, is certainly an interesting concept whichever way up you hold it. Indeed, ‘forest garden’ is likely to be a phrase heard more and more since, if properly managed, it represents a perpetuating and low-carbon ecosystem. It is therefore an attractive concept to anyone concerned about the substantial requirements for energy of every kind, which is necessary to cultivate a conventional garden.
‘Properly managed’ is the apposite expression because those who wish for success in this kind of gardening must give their lives over to it. One of the best-known practitioners is Martin Crawford, who cultivates at Dartington in south Devon a forest garden of two acres that was once pasture. His Agroforestry Research Trust provides consultancy and running courses. The fact that he is a mild-mannered and engaging chap does not alter the fact that he is on a serious-minded and determined mission, using his scientific expertise and (bitter) experience as an organic market gardener for impulsion.
He works from the premise that there are many edible, medicinal or otherwise useful (i.e., for wildlife) temperate plants available to us, and that gardens composed of these, in a diverse and multilayered system, can be both productive and beautiful. Even more importantly, they can sustain the buffets of climate change better than conventionally organised and maintained gardens. He knows that, in the forest garden, he fosters a complex of symbiotic relationships, which traditional gardening usually badly disrupts.
To appreciate Martin Crawford’s forest garden fully, one must abandon preconceived ideas of what a garden is, or should be. He says his garden is beautiful and I am sure he is sincere, but many people, including myself, will think it scruffy, even while admiring the attractive qualities of individual plants — and enjoying the birdsong. The maintenance regime is extremely low, but highly targeted. Docks and buttercups are sheared, not dug up. ‘Neatness is very expensive; I’m just giving a competitive edge to the plants I want.’
Where the forest garden scores highly, as you would expect, is in providing fruits and salads in great variety and diversity, and welcoming wildlife. It is not a system that most garden owners would dream of embracing wholeheartedly, but there is much to learn from it: growing phormiums for strong plant ties, which take several months to degrade; cultivating shiitake mushrooms on fallen branches; planting redcurrants in semi-shade; growing bamboos to cut the shoots to eat or use as canes; growing comfrey around fruit trees to draw up potassium deep in the soil. And this system expands the range of what gardeners consider edible: the seed pods of Halesia carolina taste like peas; the fruits of Eleagnus umbellata (the ‘autumn olive’) make a delicious preserve, believe me; the fruits of the Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum) can be used as a spice; those of the Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonii) taste of sweet butterscotch and pine nut, apparently.
Creating a Forest Garden — Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops by Martin Crawford, just published, is a book all gardeners would profit from reading. It is an important book whether or not you buy into the forest garden concept.