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What Is A Forest Garden?


Wild food plays an important part in a forest garden. In this video Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust talks about his forest garden at the back of Schumacher College, Dartington, Devon which he began in 1994 and that started out as a pasture field.

A forest garden is designed and maintained specifically, not using the normal tenets of gardening, but taking its vision from nature and very much based on a natural ecology of a young forest.

It feels very wild in places which is all part of the system and deliberate. If you look at how people use land to grow food, it requires energy whether it’s tractor, people agrochecmical energy etc. The further you get away from a natural forest the more energy it takes to maintain that system, because land is always trying to get back to being a forest. If you leave a piece of land to do nothing it will become a forest… eventually.

The further away from forest you’re trying to keep land, the more energy you have to expend every year to do that.

A forest garden is very near to being like a forest, so in energy terms it takes very little to maintain a forest garden once it’s set-up. But by careful design you can still make it a very productive space in terms of food, medicine, dyeing, fibre use etc.

A forest garden is a designed ecosystem based on a young forest. In England the climate necessitates using a young forest, whereas in the tropics where forest gardens have been around for thousands of years they can get away with planting trees a little more densely because the power of the sun is eight times what it is in England, and you can get enough sun energy under the trees to grow a lot of stuff.

Over here we have to be a little more careful because we don’t have that amount of sun energy, so tree spacing is important. It’s important to let light through between trees so you can use the understorey layer productively. So everything in a forest garden is useful, directly or indirectly because it will help the ecology of the area.

So some of the plants are specifically planted to attract bees, and to attract beneficial insects that will eat any insect pests, so Martin doesn’t have any pest problems from things like aphids. If some do turn up, then they get eaten very quickly because of the huge population of beneficial insects.

“Useful” is a wide term, and it might involve some plants being around just to help other plants to grow, so there might not be a direct yield, or a direct benefit to people at all but everything will help the system in some way or other.

There isn’t much history of forest gardens in the English climate, but there is a lot of history in tropical areas, and in some temperate areas of the world, particularly temperate China, forest gardens have been around for a long time. In this country things are still slightly experimental but forest gardens have big potential as a low input sustainable land use.

If you look at how forest gardens are used in other parts of the world, people usually use them on a home-scale to grow most of their food. Plus their medicinal plants because most of the world still depends on medicinal plants. They may grow a staple carbohydrate crop maybe on a small field scale elsewhere. Because carbohydrates are high energy and they need high energy to make them, meaning they need full sun. You can’t grow carbohydrate crops in the shade of trees. If you wanted to grow them in a forest garden, then you’d need to make a space where it’s light enough in the middle in order to do so.

So apart from carbohydrates, forest gardens are usually used to grow everything else that a household needs. So by their character they’re really smaller scale systems. Martin’s forest garden is two-acres which is typical of the size if you look elsewhere in the world.

Typically there might be two or three hundred species in a forest garden that the person or people who manage it will know all those species, they’ll know where they are, they won’t get used all the time, some might be medicinal plants that only get used once in a blue moon when they’re needed. The intimate nature and small scale nature means it’s not a land use suited for vast areas managed by one person.

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Robin Harford

Robin is a forager and self-taught ethnobotanist. He specialises in wild edible plants and has been running foraging courses throughout the UK since 2009. He travels extensively documenting and recording the traditional and local uses of wild food plants in indigenous cultures.