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 book ‘the garden of equal delights’.

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

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, Principles of forest gardening, the garden of equal delights. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What work and time are needed in a forest garden?

  1. tonytomeo says:

    I would not have been so gracious with suggestions that my garden needs more or less management. We happen to work with landscapes that need to be groomed because they are in public spaces, but are otherwise left to grow wild. It is the style that is most compatible with the redwood forests that they are within. (Overly managed landscapes are too much work under redwoods, and have potential to be unhealthy for the redwoods.) Besides, it is the style that guests expect too see. There are a few planters with flowering annuals, but that is about all. In my home garden, the surrounding forest is an asset to the more refined garden within. I do not let my home garden grow wild, but I do not let it become a problem for what is outside either. It grows where the forest allows sunlight in, and where roots of surrounding trees do not take all the moisture from the soil. I do prune fruit trees and such very meticulously. Anyway, the suggestion that someone else knows more about how to manage it would offend me. They can tend to their own gardens. Since I work in other gardens, I know that none are managed as well as mine. So, the suggestion that I would make is that if it is working, you are probably doing it correctly, so should not be overly concerned with such suggestions. A wild garden might seem like less work, but as you probably know, it takes about as much work, just different kinds of work.


  2. Pingback: What work and time are needed in a forest garden? — gardens of delight | iSustainability Project

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