three forest garden essentials

The three forest gardening essentials are biodiversity, biomass and perenniality – because:

  • biodiversity strongly supports a healthy and resilient ecosystem
  • biomass strongly supports soil fertility
  • perennial trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants support the living food web in the soil
  • together these three fundamental facets of forest gardens encourage all kinds of abundance for people and other living creatures[i]

However of the three carefully chosen biodiversity can encompass both biomass and perenniality.

A forest garden can be likened to a stage that is being designed and constructed for a play – the forest gardener is akin to the theatre designer and the stage manager – getting the right scenery and props assembled in the right place at the right time to facilitate the best possible performance.  However although they may be seen scurrying around in the darkness behind a curtain shifting scenery their role is not to actually appear in the play – that is for the cast of actors.  And in this analogy the cast is all the members of the natural world who can find some food, make a home or just spend a bit of time hanging around in the forest garden before becoming dinner for someone else.

This is not an exact parallel, but I hope it sets the scene (as it were) for the understanding that nature is far more important than the gardener for everything that happens in the forest garden and that including as much diversity as possible gives nature the greatest scope to bring on the real stars of the show, that enliven and invigorate everything about the fledgling ecosystem.

Now – as the days begin to lengthen, as the first bulbs are peeking above ground and the snowdrops will soon be out – this is the time for planning and for starting some of the planting.  It is the ideal time to consider how much and what kind of biodiversity to incorporate into a forest garden design or to add to an existing garden.

There is diversity of size and shape – both above and below ground, of purpose and of function, of plant family and variety and of growth and flowering and harvesting time – and thinking about all these things can start to make your head spin.  But it doesn’t necessarily have to be all done at once and making a gentle start with incremental additions to a forest garden is just as valid as trying to get everything going all at once.  I think it is a matter of personal style and preference (and it can also be a financial consideration as plants are not cheap).

Right now, whilst they are dormant, this is the time to choose and plant bare root fruit trees and bushes.  I already have quite a lot of fruit trees but every year I seem to find out that there is room for more!  I haven’t decided on everything I am going  to plant yet and I would really like to try some unusual fruits that I have been yearning for.  I always find that browsing website provides plenty of food for thought and opportunities to consider plants and trees I may not have been aware of and here are a few I have been looking at lately:

[i] For further details / explanation of how and why see Jacke and Toensmeier volume 1, my book Edible Perennial Gardening or my forthcoming book the garden of equal delights.

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healing for the garden

At some point in the remote past right there where you live and right here where I live there was a healthy, intact ecosystem.  Unless you live in a desert or tundra landscape there would have been animals from the large to the microscopic, insects, birds, fish, fungi and many different trees and plants; and all of these living beings were bound tightly together within the immeasurable complexities of a fully functioning, self-maintaining, beautiful, energetic, powerful and resilient ecosystem.

However right now, for many of us living in urban or even suburban areas when we look out of the window – at home or at work – apart from the people, there is often very little life to be seen.  Gardens are diminishing in size and ever more paving and fencing is replacing greenery, people perceive gardening as a battle and time consuming and increasingly prefer to have a space to relax in that needs very little maintenance.  Even in rural areas the amount of actual life that can be seen in most places is immeasurably reduced and simplified in comparison to the distant past.

We are born into this world as it is and therefore we take it for granted that this is normal.  Our lives are totally embedded in human-centric landscapes intended to serve our purposes and scant thought is or has ever been given to the other life that used to thrive anywhere.  This largely destroyed and almost lost web of life has been damaged by land clearances, mining and quarrying and landfilling with wastes of all kinds, by industry and building, by farming, by chemicals and pollution and more; and all of this as a result of human activity in our attempts to make a better world.

But the world cannot be a better world for us alone, it has to be a better world for all of life.

Our world needs to be healed and now is the most opportune of times for many of us to participate in this healing.  It is not about trying to reinstate or recreate what was here in the past – even if we knew for certain what happened in the past there has been far too much change and damage to return.  What life is crying out for now needs to be utterly practical and very, very effective.

The initiative for starting the healing must come from us – because we are the ones that keep on preventing nature from getting on with this work.  This is not just for farmers, large landowners, governments and conservationists, environmentalists and charities – this is for all of us who have in our care a garden or another patch of land.  However this is not about conventional gardening but about finding a way to integrate ourselves within the local ecosystem in such a way that radically reorganises our understanding and perception of the world around us.

Looking out of the window what we see is no more or less than our own reflection as in a mirror.  Whether as individuals or as part of our collective society our choices and lifestyles are the fundamental causes of the brokenness of nature.  By the same token, to work for the healing of the natural world – to support and nurture life, beauty and abundance is also to reflect some of that healing back to ourselves.

And actually it is not even difficult!  It is deceptively simple as long as you have the willingness to let go of past preconceptions, to learn and to be involved in a different way.  I know from over a decade of experience of learning to relinquish control of the garden and to take nature’s cues about how to proceed that she has immense potential and will indeed lead the way that is appropriate.  I have seen nature move into my seven year old garden in Wales transforming a bare and boring lawn into a beautiful, healthy and abundant haven.

Nature is asking of us, giving us, the opportunity for action that will make a real difference and her energy, fecundity and power is available to us, we just need to learn to listen.

As 2020 unfolds I will be publishing a series of posts to complement my forthcoming book ‘the garden of equal delights which encompasses the themes of ecosystems and of healing and much more besides.  Through the book and my blog and any other means available to me I hope to enable other people with what we would all recognise as normal back gardens (yards in the USA) to heal their own patch of land and to restore its links with adjacent ecosystems.  The global situation is so very, very serious that every little bit of land brought back to health is significant.

Right now at the start of the new year in the northern hemisphere we are enfolded in winter – the time for taking stock and planning for the future – and in that context my next post will be about thinking of what to sow or plant as practical and effective starting points.

the starting point – an empty lawn


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What work and time are needed in a forest garden?

As mentioned in the previous post I have recently both read and heard claims that a forest garden (a) needs intensive management and (b) does not need any management.  Either way there seems to be a lot of interest in finding an answer to the question of whether or not a forest garden is a more efficient or effective way of growing food than conventional methods.  So which is it?

My reply is that this is not the most appropriate question to be asking; or at least it is not the most helpful or even pertinent question to ask.

I think that one reason people ask the question is to find out if growing a forest garden is worth their while and that this is a clear indicator of how we 21st century people think – we need to know in advance what will happen, we need proof, we need assurance etc etc.  You will not find that kind of assurance in a forest garden because it is not all about us.  My experience is that the amount of ‘work’ and therefore time required in tending a forest garden is entirely subjective.  Rather than following the conventional and prescribed activities of the horticultural calendar, in a forest garden is all depends.  It depends on the garden that has been planted and on what is in it; it depends on what plants and animals visit it and how it develops as a result; it depends on what the forest gardener wanted initially from the garden and how that changes and it depends on how their relationship with the garden develops.

A forest garden is planned and planted with the aim of being an edible ecosystem wherein natural processes and a wide assortment of living beings – plants, fungi, micro-organisms, insects and vertebrates facilitate all manner of natural processes which effectively accomplish what horticultural gardeners strive and labour to achieve.  This means that once the garden has been planted there is no need for most of the regular tasks such as soil preparation, sowing, planting, weeding, dead-heading, pest control, fertilising or even watering.  Although that said, if the garden includes conventional fruit trees or bushes they will need pruning in the same way as any other setting.

In a forest garden the ‘work’ of a forest gardener is to abstain from ‘real’ work in order to let go of control and start to learn about this ecosystem and how it is functioning.  There will indeed be interventions to be made but they are for very different reasons and purposes to those we are conventionally used to.

Welsh heritage apple tree trwyn mochyn (pig’s snout) bearing its first crop

This is where time comes in again – but in a more relevant way – because it takes time to get to know the garden.  A lot of time – and a type of commitment to the garden that you cannot understand before you have begun to interact with it.  And it is only by knowing the garden that you can start to find out what intervention and support it would need or benefit from.  Over the past few years I have paid particular detailed and thoughtful attention to myself in the garden and to the garden itself.  I have done this in order to learn from my relationship with this patch of land some principles that can guide other people in taking on this fascinating and rewarding challenge.  These principles are fully described and explained in my forthcoming book ‘the garden of equal delights’ to be published in the new year.

When I first started out to grow a forest garden I was entranced by the idea of lots of crops for very little work, of doing little more than harvesting the perennial fruits and vegetables that would come back effortlessly year after year.  These days it is not so much an entrancing idea as an everyday reality that I just accept.  But what was completely unexpected at the outset was how much this would change my attitude to the natural world and refocus my own priorities and assumptions about my role in the garden.  Before my attitude was one of entitlement but now I find myself much humbler and infinitely more appreciative of the wonders and bounty of the natural world.

And to address the underlying question of deciding whether or not to plant a forest garden – I say yes, yes, yes – if your heart is in it – if you are intrigued and curious, if you want a challenge to your understanding of your own role in the world and to how you treat the rest of the world in the garden and beyond it.

However because I would actually love everyone to have a forest garden I won’t actually say not to plant one if the paragraph above does not describe you – a forest garden is a radically different garden and one that you can only truly learn about through experience – an experience that is almost certainly guaranteed to alter your outlook not just on the garden itself but also on much more out there in the wider world.

the garden of equal delights, something for everyone

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forest gardens are amazing but they are not a panacea

And I will repeat it with emphasis – forest gardens are amazing but they are not a panacea.

I could not be a bigger fan of forest gardens and forest gardening and it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that forest gardening has profoundly changed my life.   Forest gardens are beautiful, vibrant, healthy and abundant places bearing all kinds of edible plants and I will return to wax lyrical about their benefits in a future post.  Perhaps it is this deep love for and delight in forest gardens that raises my concerns when I read online or hear people advocating forest gardening as a near universal panacea by asserting that it is a better and potentially more productive means of growing food than conventional means.  (Here I am speaking only of forest gardening and not of the related, but different, techniques of agro-forestry.)  I have read / heard the same people also advocating that forest gardening is either totally maintenance free or paradoxically requires intensive management.

I will return to how much maintenance or management or attention or loving care a forest garden may need in another forthcoming post; but for now want to say a bit about forest gardens and productivity –which is to say that I now see that focussing on productivity is actually missing the point.  Making such statements may be a triumph of enthusiasm over experience and my current understanding is not where I started out either.  When I first heard about forest gardens it was their potential for productivity that attracted me – and certainly it is an attractive proposition.  However I have learned that once you become fully involved in a forest garden your primary focus changes completely from what you thought it would be at the beginning.

A forest garden is conceived as an ecosystem – that the forest gardener first planned and then planted.  From that point on the forest gardener is not a controller at the apex of a hierarchy of domination.  Rather they become but one member among an ever increasing many in this fledgling ecosystem.  One member – with their own niche or role within that system – to tend the garden for the benefit of everything growing there and everything else that visits it or that may visit it.  This altered role has many, many facets – there is a huge amount to learn.

On the subject of productivity one crucial thing is to learn that the forest gardener needs to ‘harvest only enough’.  No matter how productive the garden is or may become the human requirement for food is only one consideration among the many other beings who could and should equally dine there.  Sometimes this entails what we have previously called ‘competition’ – for example when the cabbage white butterfly caterpillars start eating the kale and the slugs and snails nibble other greenery.  I have learned that these occurrences may well be positive for the garden and they are certainly not to be outright condemned as negative.

First and foremost the forest gardener must learn to know their garden.  There is food to be had – and not just for them.  There are many decisions to be made and they are all a matter of judgement – a judgement that requires the overall interests of all of life are included.  This involves a very different mindset to our conventional cultural expectation that all the world’s resources are just for us.

promise and hope of apples to come – for people and for birds too

There is so much more I could say right now, but this post is just a taster.  The intricacies of tending a forest garden are the subject of my forthcoming book ‘the garden of equal delights’ which is due for publication sometime in the new year.  It is the culmination of years of being with and in my forest gardens past and present, and is written with the aim of opening up sensitivity to what is going on right before our eyes and learning to apply that sensitivity in every action and activity the forest gardener undertakes.

chokeberry (aronia) growing for the birds to eat

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Hooray for nettles, thistles and docks

and because of them hooray for ever more butterflies.

This summer I have seen more butterfly species in the garden than in any previous year.  Whilst none of them are rare I am delighted by each sighting.   Counting actual butterfly numbers is not something I would attempt, save to say that my perception is that there are also more individuals as well as more species.  At times there have been lots!

From the table below it is clear that they must have the (often unpopular) wild plants such as nettles for caterpillar food in order to complete their life cycles.  I no longer allow nettles to grow in the polyculture beds – because I don’t want the grandchildren to get stung – but there are plenty in the hedge.  I do let docks grow everywhere and there are a few thistles too.

This table shows the butterflies that I have seen this year.  The new ones – for here – are painted lady, holly blue, small copper and comma.

Name and Latin name Over wintering and larval food plant Habitat
Orange tip

Anthocharis cardamines



Damp meadows, woodland rides, flowery roadside verges, gardens
Red admiral

Vanessa atalanta


Nettle and hop

Flowery meadows and other flowery habitats
Small tortoiseshell

Nymphalis urticae



Open areas often in vicinity of nettles

Nmyphalis io


Nettle and hop

Woodland rides and glades
Painted lady

Vanessa cardui



Sunny and open with thistles
Holly blue

Celastrina argiolis


Holly and ivy

Diverse habitats with larval food plants
Small white

Pieris rapae



Open clearings, flowery meadows
Large white

Pieris brassicae



Open clearings, flowery meadows
Small copper

Iycaena phlaeas


Common sorrel, sheep’s sorrel, dock

Flowery pastures, heathland

Maniola tithonius



Hedgerows, grassy areas, woodland

Nymphalis c-album


Nettle, hops, elms, currants

Woodland rides and glades

I haven’t been taking photos much this summer so didn’t actually capture any images, so here is one from 2017:

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Love that lasts forever my partner’s new book!

I am thrilled to announce that my partner – Pat Barrow – has her first novel published next week!

Pat is retired from work now but spent decades working in the family courts with families enmeshed in high conflict private law cases about post separation arrangements for children.  In the course of that work she met many, many people – children and adults – who were very damaged and even heartbroken by their experiences.

Pat had an incredibly effective way of working with these families and was often able to find ways through seemingly intractable difficulties enabling parents and children to have an ongoing relationship that at one time looked most unlikely.

Love that lasts forever is a fictional tale based upon the work that Pat did and it shows some of the behaviour patterns that individuals can fall into when they are in dispute over their children.  Pat was always very aware that a child’s age and developmental stage plays a crucial role in their understanding of their family’s dynamics and whether or not they are able to cope with what is happening to them.  As the narrator of the story looks back over her young life she recognises that as a young child she was utterly inequipped to cope and reflects on the consequences of being forced into experiencing an anguishing conflict of loyalties between her parents.

This book is for anyone who has experienced this type of painful family breakdown whether as an adult or as a child, or anyone who has watched helplessly from the sidelines as their friends or loved ones go through such pain.  It is also for any of us who care about how families work and would like to have some idea of how to help when they don’t.

It is available in paperback and ebook format and if you want to buy a copy it is available through Austin Macauley the publisher (who at the moment have the best price, much better than that well known online giant) and also through Waterstones in the UK and Barnes and Noble in the US.

Love That Lasts Forever

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A Thoughtful Guide to Planting Trees and Saving the Earth — Blog – The Food Forest Project

Here’s a post from ‘The Food Forest Project’ blog – one with which I heartily concur:

Climate breakdown is unfolding before our eyes, the planet is losing species faster than at any other time in human history, and people are panicking. We are right to panic. As individuals we feel that there is only so much we can do; stop eating meat, stop flying, pressure our governments to take action on…

via A Thoughtful Guide to Planting Trees and Saving the Earth — Blog – The Food Forest Project

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