Forest Gardening

Our Incredible Edible Civic Centre garden is off to a flying start, with lots of plants in the ground already, and we've been delighted with the number of people helping out and showing an interest in the garden. But a surprising number of people have been rather shocked at the idea of us growing food in such a location. "You can't grow vegetables under trees," we've been told! "You're doing it all wrong!"

Yes, traditionally the veg patch goes in the sunniest part of the garden. Traditionally the soil is plied with compost and manure until it's rich and bursting with nutrition. Traditionally vegetables are grown in neat rows and square beds. But this is not the only way to grow plants, and those traditional vegetables are not the only edible crops out there... There are more than 50,000 edible plant species! How many do we find in the supermarket or in the traditional veg patch?

Forest gardening is a sustainable and low-maintenance food production system that mimics a natural woodland ecosystem, to make best use of space and resources. It's a permaculture approach, designed in harmony with nature to benefit both nature and humans. Nature has been growing plants a lot longer than we have, and much more efficiently - there is plenty we can learn by looking at how it does things!

Imagine walking through a woodland. The tree canopy above casts dappled shade and sunlight, which changes throughout the year. Between the trees there are shrubs and bushes, and either side of the path a mix of medium-height herbaceous plants and low-growing groundcover weeds. Ivy and other vining plants climb a few of the trees. Everything grows in harmony and plants sustain themselves and each other for many, many seasons without input from any human. There are no straight lines or squares, there's no digging or manure, there's a rich mix of plants growing close together in endless combinations. Now imagine every plant in this woodland is edible...

Diagram by Graham Burnett

Forest gardening has much in common with agroforestry, which is gaining popularity in many parts of the world. Trees are planted in rows between and across fields of more conventional crops, to provide habitat for predatory insects and birds, reduce evaporation, reduce soil erosion and run-off, provide shelter from the wind, provide an additional fruit or fuel crop - and the list goes on. By moving away from conventional industrial farming towards something that looks a little more like nature, farmers are taking better care of the earth and getting more from their land.

Our new garden will contain lots of tasty and nutritious edible plants that you may not have heard of before. Many are perennials (which last through winter and go on for many years), others spread by dropping their own seed to come up the next year, and we will sow just a few 'crowdpleasers' from seed each year. Some are native wild plants that you can actually find in the forest or woodland (wild garlic, wild strawberries, various purslanes). Some are traditional crops and herbs that have fallen out of popularity because they're slightly less tasty or efficient somehow than their modern counterparts, or, more likely, don't keep as well on the supermarket shelf (Good King Henry, sorrel, lovage). Some aren't that unusual at all; many familiar berries and leaf crops can thrive in partial shade. All are chosen to tolerate the shady environment under the trees, and to provide a harvest that's easily shared by many people (no cauliflowers or giant pumpkins!). Planting them jumbled together instead of in rows brings all the benefits of companion planting (attracting a variety of insects, being less vulnerable to pests, using different nutrients from the soil etc.) and means crop rotation isn't necessary. And between them, they'll provide food all year round, and create a richly diverse and interesting garden where there's always something new to discover.

Oh, it won't be perfect. Not every single plant will thrive here, and a few are bound to need some extra nourishment along the way, and I can't promise we'll get the minimal input/zero waste thing right from the word go. But it will find its balance, it will be educational and it will be bursting with good food.

EDIT: Now you can also look up all our plants by name in our Plant Index - please give it a try!

FURTHER INFO: You can find further details on our plants and other 'permaculture plants' in the Plants for a Future database. Plants for a Future is a charity with the aim of "researching and providing information on ecologically sustainable horticulture, as an integral part of designs involving high species diversity and permaculture principles" and is a wonderful source of information on over 7000 edible and medicinal permaculture plants.

For more on forest gardening, read this in-depth article.

For more on permaculture try this excellent free ebook by David Holmgren.