Forest Gardening

Forest gardening is a low-maintenance, sustainable, plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers to build a woodland habitat.

Forest gardening is a prehistoric method of securing food in tropical areas. In the 1980s, Robert Hart coined the term "forest gardening" after adapting the principles and applying them to temperate climates.


Is a land use management system in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops or pastureland. This diversification of the farming system initiates an agroecological succession, like that in natural ecosystems, and so starts a chain of events that enhance the functionality and sustainability of the farming system.

Woodland ecosystems

A woodland ecosystem is often defined as an "in between" ecosystem that appears between dense forest ecosystems and open land ecosystems. ... This allows much more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which allows for other plants and animals lower to the ground to flourish.

Companion planting

In gardening and agriculture is the planting of different crops in proximity for any of a number of different reasons, including pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial insects, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase crop productivity. Companion planting is a form of polyculture.

Robert Hart

Hart began farming at Wenlock Edge in Shropshire with the intention of providing a healthy and therapeutic environment for himself and his brother Lacon. Starting as relatively conventional smallholders, Hart soon discovered that maintaining large annual vegetable beds, rearing livestock and taking care of an orchard were tasks beyond their strength. However, a small bed of perennial vegetables and herbs he planted was looking after itself with little intervention. Following Hart's adoption of a raw vegan diet for health and personal reasons, he replaced his farm animals with plants. The three main products from a forest garden are fruit, nuts and green leafy vegetables. He created a model forest garden from a 0.12 acre (500 m2) orchard on his farm and intended naming his gardening method ecological horticulture or ecocultivation. Hart later dropped these terms once he became aware that agroforestry and forest gardens were already being used to describe similar systems in other parts of the world. He was inspired by the forest farming methods of Toyohiko Kagawa and James Sholto Douglas, and the productivity of the Keralan home gardens as Hart explains:

"From the agroforestry point of view, perhaps the world's most advanced country is the Indian state of Kerala, which boasts no fewer than three and a half million forest gardens ... As an example of the extraordinary intensivity of cultivation of some forest gardens, one plot of only 0.12 hectares (0.30 acres) was found by a study group to have twenty-three young coconut palms, twelve cloves, fifty-six bananas, and forty-nine pineapples, with thirty pepper vines trained up its trees. In addition, the small holder grew fodder for his house-cow."

Robert Hart

Seven-layer system

Robert Hart pioneered a system based on the observation that the natural forest can be divided into distinct levels. He used intercropping to develop an existing small orchard of apples and pears into an edible polyculture landscape consisting of the following layers:

  • A canopy layer that consists of tall fruit and nut trees.
  • A lower tree layer of dwarf fruit and nut trees.
  • A shrub layer of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
  • An herbaceous layer of culinary and medicinal herbs, companion plants, bee- and poultry- loving plants.
  • A ground cover of edible plants that function as a living mulch.
  • A rhizosphere layer that consists of root crops.
  • A vertical layer of vines and climbers.

A key component of the seven-layer system was the plants he selected. Most of the traditional vegetable crops grown today, such as carrots, are sun-loving plants not well selected for the more shady forest garden system. Hart favoured shade-tolerant perennial vegetables.

The Agroforestry Research Trust,

managed by Martin Crawford, runs experimental forest gardening projects on a number of plots in Devon, United Kingdom. Crawford describes a forest garden as a low-maintenance way of sustainably producing food and other household products.

Plants for a Future

Ken Fern had the idea that for a successful temperate forest garden a wider range of edible shade tolerant plants would need to be used. To this end, Fern created the organisation Plants for a Future which compiled a plant database suitable for such a system. Fern used the term woodland gardening, rather than forest gardening, in his book Plants for a Future.

Vegan organic gardening

Kathleen Jannaway, the cofounder of Movement for Compassionate Living (MCL) with her husband Jack, wrote a book outlining a sustainable vegan future called Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree in 1991. The MCL promotes forest gardening and other types of vegan organic gardening. In 2009 it provided a grant of £1,000 to the Bangor Forest Garden project in Gwynedd, North West Wales.

"Edible Forest"

Kevin Bradley in the US called his property and nursery "Edible Forest" in 1985, which combined trees and field crops. Today, his business and the 2005 book Edible Forest Gardens have spawned little "edible forests" all over the world.


Bill Mollison, who coined the term permaculture, visited Robert Hart at his forest garden in Wenlock Edge in October 1990. Hart's seven-layer system has since been adopted as a common permaculture design element.

Numerous permaculturalists are proponents of forest gardens, or food forests, such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton. Bell started building his forest garden in 1991 and wrote the book The Permaculture Garden in 1995, Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two volume book set Edible Forest Gardens in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.


Forest gardens, or home gardens, are common in the tropics, using intercropping to cultivate trees, crops, and livestock on the same land. In Kerala in south India as well as in northeastern India, the home garden is the most common form of land use and is also found in Indonesia. One example combines coconut, black pepper, cocoa and pineapple. These gardens exemplify polyculture, and conserve much crop genetic diversity and heirloom plants that are not found in monocultures. Forest gardens have been loosely compared to the religious concept of the Garden of Eden.

Asia In Kerala in southern India, as well as in northeast India and Indonesia, the home garden is a very common land use form. It combines for example coconut trees, black pepper, cocoa and pineapple. These gardens exemplify polyculture and conserve an important part of the genetic diversity of inherited crops and plants, a characteristic that does not exist in monocultures.

Nepal In Nepal, the Ghar Bagaincha, literally "house garden", refers to the traditional system of land use around a farm, where members of the household grow and maintain various species of plants, mainly intended for family consumption. In Nepal, 72% of households have home gardens covering an area of ​​2 to 11% of the total land.9 Due to their small size, the government never considered home gardens as a unit of food production very relevant and, therefore, was not included in research and development policies. However, at the household level the system is very relevant since it is an important source of food for the rural poor population and, therefore, Thus, it contributes significantly to the food security and livelihoods of agricultural communities in Nepal. Gardens are typically grown with a mix of annuals and perennials that can be harvested on a daily or seasonal basis. Biodiversity with immediate value is maintained in home gardens, which are not only sources of food, fodder, fuel, medicines, spices, herbs, flowers, building materials and income in many countries, they are also important for in situ conservation of a wide range of unique genetic resources for agriculture and food production (Subedi et al., 2004). Many under-cultivated and underutilized species could make an important contribution to the dietary diversity of local communities.

Americas The BBC's Unnatural Histories claimed that the Amazon rainforest, rather than being a pristine wilderness, has been shaped by humans for at least 11,000 years through practices such as forest gardening and terra preta. Since the 1970s, numerous geoglyphs have been discovered on deforested land in the Amazon rainforest, furthering the evidence of Pre-Columbian civilizations. On the Yucatán Peninsula, much of the Maya food supply was grown in "orchard gardens", known as pet kot. The system takes its name from the low wall of stones (pet meaning 'circular' and kot, 'wall of loose stones') that characteristically surrounds the gardens.

Africa In many African countries, for example Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Tanzania, gardens are widespread in rural, periurban, and urban areas and they play an essential role in establishing food security. Most well known are the Chaga or Chagga gardens on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. These are an example of an agroforestry system. In many countries, women are the main actors in home gardening and food is mainly produced for subsistence. In North Africa, oasis-layered gardening with palm trees, fruit trees, and vegetables is a traditional type of forest garden..

Why Create a Forest Garden?

The forest is one of the most successful ecosystems on our planet. So mimicking this ecosystem is a great way to make sure that our gardens can stand the test of time. Forest gardening has a wide range of benefits over and above the fact that this system can create beautiful gardens.

  • Introduce trees, which capture carbon from the air and help reduce the greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.
  • Help to store water locally, helping to ensure the healthy function of the world’s water cycle.
  • Increase biodiversity, of both plant and animal life, thereby improving resilience in the ecosystem.
  • Improve air quality and reduce air pollution, road noise etc..
  • Create shade for human comfort, animal life and water conservation.
  • Give abundant food yield and other resources for humans and wildlife.
  • Provide an abundant source of biomass to replenish the ecosystem and complete the natural cycles.
  • Improve general mental health and well-being by creating green, lush environments – wonderful places to relax, work and play.

For gardeners, the benefits of forest gardening also include the fact that once established, a forest garden can more or less look after itself. Aside from harvesting, and some management, there will be little human agency required. You should have far more free time when you create such a system, which will allow nature to more or less take over. So forest gardening can be a great solution for those who do not have the time to endlessly tend an intensively managed annual garden.

This short film by Thomas Regnault focuses on Crawford's forest garden, which is abundant, diverse, edible, and might be one answer to the future of food systems.


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