Note added September 2020: This post relates to my work on the development of the principles of forest gardening and is a snapshot of the work in progress as it stood in April 2018. My final list of forest gardening principles is available here, it is not very different to where I had got to in 2018.
I want as many people as possible to plant forest gardens and having done so to be able to interact with them in a sensitive and appropriate manner. However forest gardens are unlike any other gardens and cannot be ‘gardened’ in the conventional sense. You need to understand the ecology that governs their operation and to integrate your own actions into that ecology.
When I began forest gardening it was the ecological understandings of Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in their two volumes of ‘Edible Forest Gardens’ and Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘method’ of natural farming that enabled me to interact with my garden in a sensitive and appropriate way. But for their invaluable guidance I would have been floundering I am sure. After a number of years I realised that I was acting in a sort of intuitive way in the garden, but that below that apparent intuition was (probably) a set of guiding principles. I set out to uncover these and sought to get beneath the surface of how I interact with my garden and how I have learned to do what I do. Eventually I arrirved at a set of interconnected principles that all also relate directly back to the ecology of forest gardens.
The first four principles below are the fundamental principles undergirding why and how a forest garden is (and remains) a fertile, low maintenance, productive and resilient edible landscape. They are described in one form or another in forest gardening literature. The other eight principles are my own derivations from my experience of forest gardening and represent a summary of my findings. They are but a small fraction of my thinking and writing to date, the bulk of which is focussed on writing a book about the subject, seeking to explain carefully and thoughtfully exactly how experience led me to this point. So whilst I continue working on that here is a summary and very brief explanation of my understanding the principles of forest gardening.
Fundamental principles of forest gardens
- The greater the biodiversity in the forest garden the more resilient and healthy it is.
- Plant material (biomass) accumulating in the soil increases soil fertility.
- Permanent plantings of perennials ensure a healthy underground soil system.
- Biodiversity, biomass and perennial planting are the foundations of health and fertility in the forest garden ecosystem which in turn are the foundation of abundance.
Principles of forest gardening
- A forest gardener learns slowly, accepting that forest gardening is a radically different way of gardening and they will continually be learning and increasing their understanding, there is no hurry.
- A forest gardener has a clear vision of the forest garden they hope to co-create. This vision can be revisited and revised as appropriate.
- A forest gardener relinquishes responsibility for and control of the garden, accepting the freedom to trust in nature.
- It is vital that a forest gardener stops before undertaking any action in the garden; and having stopped that they both watch and wait a while.
- When the forest gardener does make an intervention it should be the minimum required to achieve the purpose.
- When the forest gardener does make an intervention there is no ‘right’ and no ‘wrong’.
- Most trees and plants in a forest garden will live out their entire life cycles concluding with a natural ending.
- When harvesting produce the forest gardener always remembers the needs of other members of the ecosystem and does not take everything that is there; instead s/he harvests ‘only enough’.
The principles (briefly) explained
The structure and function of a forest garden
Like a woodland a forest garden has a multi-layered structure and a diverse mixture of trees, shrubs and perennial plants comprising a canopy, understorey trees, shrub layer, herbaceous plants, ground cover, below ground zone and climbing plants. All these layers are important for enabling the forest garden to function as a mini ecosystem but not all the layers have to be included in every forest garden.
- Each tree, shrub, bush, plant etc is occupying a specific ‘niche’ in the forest garden, for example a food producing niche, a nitrogen fixing niche or a nectar plant niche. The forest garden is therefore by definition biodiverse – it has lots of different plants within it which will attract many different insects and birds and some mammals. Interactions between elements of the ecosystem are the natural processes which regulate, sustain and enhance the garden. The greater the biodiversity in the forest garden the more resilient and healthy it is.
- Plant material (biomass) accumulating in the soil from plants that die back or are cut back (and placed on the soil) increases soil fertility. The generation of fertility is particularly driven by the herbaceous layer in a forest garden.
- What happens below ground, out of sight, is just as important as what happens above ground. Bare soil is detrimental to soil health and to fertility and permanent plantings of perennials ensure a healthy underground soil system.
- From these three principles another emerges: Biodiversity, biomass and perennial planting are the foundations of health and fertility in the forest garden ecosystem which in turn are the foundation of abundance.
The role of the forest gardener
Having designed and planted a forest garden the next thing is to learn to live with the forest garden in such a way as to enable it to function well, but not to overrule or inappropriately intervene in the natural course of events. In this way forest gardening both challenges and enables us to re-integrate ourselves into the processes and cycles of the natural world and thereby to become nature’s support in returning the land to health and vitality. To do this the forest gardener is focussed (as above) on supporting ever increasing biodiversity, biomass and ensuring permanent plantings. In support of this:
- The forest gardener and their own needs is an integral part of the forest garden ecosystem and their original and evolving vision for the forest garden is an important element that guides their choices in caring for and supporting the garden.
- By convention our culture and experience has been to manage, control or subdue nature to meet our own needs, breaking the links in the ecosystem with harmful consequences all round. Forest gardeners need to challenge their assumptions and the conventions and ‘rules’ they have learned in other contexts and instead to trust nature and the natural principles underlying the structure and function of the garden.
- In order to adjust to different ways of interacting with the forest garden (compared to conventional horticulture) it is vital that forest gardeners STOP before undertaking any action in the garden; and having stopped that they both watch and wait a while. This pause gives the forest gardener the opportunity to relax and begin to see what nature is already doing and how best s/he can support or perhaps even enhance this.
- When the forest gardener does make an intervention it should be the minimum required to achieve the purpose and s/he will learn to judge this by experience.
- When the forest gardener does make an intervention there is no ‘right’ and no ‘wrong’. As an integral part of the ecosystem and holding the intention of loving and supporting the forest garden s/he makes the appropriate action by definition in the same way that the blackbird cannot eat the ‘wrong’ worm.
- From all of this (and everything else that experience brings along) the forest gardener is continually learning and increasing their understanding of the garden which in turn helps them learn and understand yet more.
- Most trees and plants will live out their entire life cycles concluding with a natural ending.
- When harvesting produce from the forest garden the forest gardener always remembers the needs of other members of the ecosystem and does not take everything that is there; instead s/he harvests ‘only enough’.
Implementing these principles
It may not be immediately clear from these principles what a forest gardener would actually do in their garden! It is not a matter of planting a forest garden and then ‘gardening’ it like any other garden with a set list of tasks and activities so here is a brief guide to the activities that will be needed from time to time which falls into three types of activity:
- Introducing additional trees or plants
- Reducing or removing trees or plants
- Harvesting produce
Plans to introduce new trees or plants will be in support of one or more of the following and relate to the ecology of the garden:
- Implementing the forest gardener’s vision for the garden
- Filling additional niches or functions
- Increasing biodiversity
- Increasing biomass
- Keeping the soil planted /covered
- Increasing harvests
If nature brings new plants into the garden (that may in other contexts be called ‘weeds’) the forest gardener will not remove them by reflex action. S/he will watch and wait to see how (or if) they fit into the garden’s ecosystem. In general the presumption is that because they have grown there in the first place that they probably are filling a niche, even if the gardener cannot as yet identify it. At the very least they are additional biomass and often additional diversity as well.
However they arrive in the garden once they are established most trees and plants will live out their entire life cycles concluding with a natural ending thereby maintaining the maximum number of productive and useful plants (increased biomass and harvests) and allowing the next generation of plants to establish naturally without the forest gardener’s assistance.
Reducing or removing plants
When a plant or tree dies naturally they fall to the ground where they grew. When the forest gardener needs to remove some or all of a plant or a tree s/he emulates this by placing the plant on the soil where it grew or as close by as practically possible (out of sight beneath a bigger plant if need be). This is also part of doing the minimum.
The forest gardener harvests only enough. For example leaving some fruit for the birds or, as above, allowing some plants to remain in order to flower and produce seed for the future.
 A ‘niche’ is one way of describing the purpose or function a plant fulfils within the system.