Skip to main content

Everything You Need to Know About Forest Gardening

Published on December 5th 2020
A forest garden with lots of plants

What is a Forest Garden?

I’ve always loved gardens that are productive, beautiful and ecologically sound. Forest gardens follow this ethos, creating self-sustaining, diverse and resilient ecosystems that mimic the structure of natural woodland.
Originating in tropical regions, this method of gardening has become popular in temperate areas over the past few decades, particularly as we face the dual challenges of climate breakdown and massive biodiversity declines.
The majority of plants used for forest gardening are edible while others are grown for medicine, dye and timber, or to provide physical support or nutrients for other plants.
A close up of a flower
Apple blossom is a good choice to base your forest garden around

How to make your own forest garden

Many renowned examples of forest gardens, like Martin Crawford’s demonstration garden on the Dartington Estate in Devon, are extensive in scope. But this doesn’t need to be the case.
At the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in 2017, Jon Davies and Andreas Christodoulou’s gold-winning garden ‘London Glades’ showed how the same methods can be developed in a small urban plot by combining compact edible and ecologically supportive plants in every layer of the design.
The London glade garden at the Rhs Hampton Court Flower Festival 2017
© RHS Credit: RHS / Sarah Cuttle

Forest garden layers

Like natural woodland, forest gardens are structured in several layers.
Martin Crawford, director of the Agroforestry Research Trust, lists seven layers, beginning with the high canopy, then moving to smaller trees and large shrubs, smaller shrubs, herbaceous perennials, ground cover, climbers and finally crops beneath the ground.
Not only is this system highly productive, but once established it requires relatively little maintenance due to the perennial nature of many of the plants and the self-sustaining nature of the ecosystem.
A forest garden
Credit: Martin Crawford

Trees and shrubs

In a small garden, rather than having three distinct upper layers, the canopy could consist of a single fruit or nut tree (ideal choices include hazel, which can be coppiced, or an apple or plum on a dwarfing rootstock) with the second layer comprising shrubs like shade-tolerant currants, Chilean guava (prefers acid soil and a sheltered position) or a nitrogen-fixing shrub, like sea buckthorn with its vitamin-C rich berries.
A fruit hanging from a branch
Chilean guava
When planning these layers, it is important to ensure there is sufficient room for plants to mature without becoming overcrowded. In smaller gardens, one or two shrubs might fill the space, whereas in a larger plot, more shrubs of differing sizes can be used.

Herbaceous plants

The herbaceous layer can include nectar-rich choices like monarda, echinacea and sedum to provide for pollinating insects, alongside herbal plants such as chamomile and edible plants like perennial kale, rhubarb, oregano and wild strawberries.
For ground cover, plants such as creeping thyme, stonecrop and nitrogen-fixing white clover act as a living mulch, helping to prevent weed problems and reducing water loss.
A close up of a flower garden
Thyme as ground cover

Climbers and roots

Climbers and vines, such as hardy kiwi, nasturtiums, hops and grapes, add to the variety of a forest garden and, beneath the ground, plants with edible roots and tubers like skirret, oca and earth chestnut or nitrogen-fixing plants such as liquorice increase the productivity and resilience of the system.
A close up of hops hanging from a tree in a forest garden
Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Related articles

A family planting a tree in a garden

How to Plant A Tree: The Complete Guide

If you're looking to spruce up your garden this National Tree Week, you're in the right place. Tree planting experts the...
A group of people from the community forest trust standing next to a tree

Who Are The Community Forest Trust?

Across England, there is a network of small organisations, charities, people and partnerships all passionate about creating...
An infographic of the top five trees you can plant in your garden

Top Five Trees to Plant in Your Garden

As well as making your garden more visually attractive, trees will provide a huge range of environmental benefits from locking...