What makes a forest garden?

In July I posted about ‘Les Bois de St Hilaire’, a French campsite I stayed at which provides a wonderful model of the kind of natural woodland that a forest garden is modelled on.  As a follow up and contrast to that post this is about an English campsite I stayed at in September.

Like the site in France this site is situated in an agricultural area mainly devoted to cereal crops.  It was similarly an isolated island amongst many miles of fields and the landscape was not unlike that of northern and central France – large open fields, very few hedges and also very few trees apart from the occasional singleton or small copse.

The site was just like many other campsites that offer a green space with trees and shrubs etc; and it had been planted to look attractive and provide a nice environment for people to stay in. And indeed it was attractive to look at and very pleasant to stay in.

I am not in any way being critical of how the owners of this campsite had planted it, they have done it the same as many others that I have stayed at and have won conservation awards for it.  On one level it does have habitat for birds, for bats, for small mammals and for insects including bees, but on another level with a different approach it would have been possible to make even more of these features.

I wanted to look beneath the surface a bit more and pinpoint exactly what the differences are between this very conventional approach to amenity style landscaping as practised by humans and the way that nature works when left alone.  In other words why this one would not provide a model to follow even though it looks nice and superficially is biodiverse and apparently good for nature.

I didn’t have my camera with me and took pictures on an Ipad which unfortunately have come ot a bit fuzzy.

woodland edge

The planting on the site comprised the following components:

  • a woodland edge
  • a shrubby / bushy border
  • hedges between the pitches
  • fruit trees
  • a lawn
  • an herbaceous border near the lake
  • a raised flower bed close to the amenity block
  • a lake

I think that it was not so much what was there but how it was put together that meant the different elements did not appear to function together as a single (eco)system.

The woodland edge comprised a selection of trees that were all of similar size and age and they were planted very close together.  In a natural woodland / forest garden you would have trees of different ages and heights and they would not be growing so close together.

Alongside this edge was a shrubby / bushy border which included edibles such as goji berry (Duke of Argyll’s tea – which I have seen naturalised in the east of England before) and blackthorn (for sloes – also widely naturalised across England / Wales).  With the inclusion of some more diversity and some more wild plants such as primrose, dog rose, violets, vetch, ivy, holly etc it would become a really good habitat for birds and other species.

Blackthorn bushes bearing ripening sloes

The alder trees planted in the grass fix nitrogen which is a useful function in any garden but there could have been more of them or more nitrogen fixing species in general.

tree planting in the grass including alders

The hedges between the pitches were of laurel and some had not grown very well.  The laurel looked and felt very sterile and lifeless although it was green and glossy and it did provide a bit of greenery to break up the gravel of the pitches.  A more mixed planting including fruiting berries such as wild raspberry, blackberries and currants or jostaberries would have been both edible and something like hawthorn, cotoneaster, pyracantha or dogwood would have been better for wildlife.

laurel hedge between pitches

The fruit trees were planted in an immaculate lawn which was bright green and had no ‘weeds’ in it.  It has been a difficult and dry summer anyway and I am not surprised these trees are struggling.  But also they are planted in a lawn and grass is very competitive with other plants and the trees do not have the benefit of any other plants such as you might find in a polyculture to encourage a healthy growing environment.

immaculate lawn (plus a few leaves)

I think it more than likely that the lawn was both fertilised and had weedkiller applied.

I know that campsites need to keep the weeds down off the pitches.  The gravel is quickly punctuated with new plants appearing and on some of the pitches these were brown – having had some chemical treatment presumably.

‘weeds’ growing through gravel on pitch

All the elements of the landscaping and planting on this site felt very separate – which of course is the ‘normal’ way of doing things.

fruit tree

You could take virtually the same ingredients – woodland trees, birch, sycamore, ash, fruit trees, hedgerow plants and bushes like goji berry and blackthorn and some of the herbaceous plants growing in a flower bed – including eupatorium (Joe Pye weed) and hosta, add in some more planting into the mix to increase flowers and biodiversity and different spacing and more effective layers.  You would then have a more natural style of planting that would hopefully be able to function as a system.

poorly tree

So in summary I think that these changes would have made quite a difference:

  • fewer trees on the woodland edge, of different ages and with more spacing between them to enable new growth to begin
  • greater variety of shrubs and wild flowers in the hedge / shrub border including berry plants for birds
  • more nitrogen fixing plants
  • change the laurel between pitches for a mixed hedge of natives and some edibles with wild flowers
  • stop applying chemicals to the lawn and let wild plants, especially dandelions and clover grow in it
  • a greater mixture of plants in the herbaceous flower bed and the raised bed and including some herbs like fennel and sage for their flowers and also for the campers to cook with
  • fruit trees to be planted apart from the lawn and surrounded with a range of beneficial flowering plants such as herbs as above or chives or other alliums.  They also need to be pruned appropriately.



About Anni Kelsey

I love forest gardens and forest gardening, nature, reading and everything good about being alive. I have written two books - the garden of equal delights (2020) - about the principles and practice of forest gardening; and Edible Perennial Gardening (2014) - about growing perennial vegetables in polycultures, which is basically forest gardening concentrating on the lower layers.
This entry was posted in ecosystem, Forest Gardening, Fruit trees, Hedgerow, Herbs, Polycultures and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.