Forest gardening

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Robert Hart's forest garden in Shropshire Forestgarden2.jpg
Robert Hart's forest garden in Shropshire

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. [1]


Forest gardens are probably the world's oldest form of land use and most resilient agroecosystem. [2] :124 [3] They originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. In the gradual process of families improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior foreign species were selected and incorporated into the gardens. [4]

Forest gardens are still common in the tropics and known by various names such as: home gardens in Kerala in South India, Nepal, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania; Kandyan forest gardens in Sri Lanka; [5] huertos familiares, the "family orchards" of Mexico. [6] These are also called agroforests and, where the wood components are short-statured, the term shrub garden is employed. Forest gardens have been shown to be a significant source of income and food security for local populations. [7]

Robert Hart adapted forest gardening for the United Kingdom's temperate climate during the 1980s. [1] His theories were later developed by Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust and various permaculturalists such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke and Geoff Lawton.

In temperate climates

Robert Hart, forest gardening pioneer Robert Hart (horticulturist).jpg
Robert Hart, forest gardening pioneer

Hart began farming at Wenlock Edge in Shropshire with the intention of providing a healthy and therapeutic environment for himself and his brother Lacon. [8] 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. [9] 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. [2] :45 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. [2] :28, 43 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." [2] :4-5

Seven-layer system

The seven layers of the forest garden Forgard2-003.gif
The seven layers of the forest garden

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:

  1. Canopy layer’ consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
  2. Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
  3. Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
  4. Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
  5. Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
  6. Ground cover layer’ of edible plants that spread horizontally.
  7. 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.

Further development

The Agroforestry Research Trust, managed by Martin Crawford, runs experimental forest gardening projects on a number of plots in Devon, United Kingdom. [10] Crawford describes a forest garden as a low-maintenance way of sustainably producing food and other household products. [11]

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. [12] [13]

Kathleen Jannaway, the cofounder of Movement for Compassionate Living (MCL) with her husband Jack, [14] 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. [15]

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. [2] :149 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. [16] [17] [18]

In tropical climates

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. [19]


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 . [20] Since the 1970s, numerous geoglyphs have been discovered on deforested land in the Amazon rainforest, furthering the evidence of Pre-Columbian civilizations. [21] [22]

On the Yucatán Peninsula, much of the Maya food supply was grown in "orchard gardens", known as pet kot. [23] 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. [24]


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.


El Pilar on the BelizeGuatemala border features a forest garden to demonstrate traditional Maya agricultural practices. [25] [26] A further one acre model forest garden, called Känan K’aax (meaning 'well-tended garden' in Mayan), is funded by the National Geographic Society and developed at Santa Familia Primary School in Cayo. [27]

In the United States, the largest known food forest on public land is believed to be the seven acre Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Washington. [28] Other forest garden projects include those at the central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Colorado and Montview Neighborhood farm in Northampton, Massachusetts. [29] [30] The Boston Food Forest Coalition promotes local forest gardens. [31] [32] [33] [34]

In Canada Richard Walker has been developing and maintaining food forests in British Columbia for over 30 years. He developed a three acre food forest that at maturity provided raw materials for a plant nursery and herbal business as well as food for his family. [35] The Living Centre has developed various forest garden projects in Ontario. [36]

In the United Kingdom, other than those run by the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART), there are numerous forest garden projects such as the Bangor Forest Garden in Gwynedd, northwest Wales. [37] Martin Crawford from ART administers the Forest Garden Network, an informal network of people and organisations who are cultivating forest gardens. [38] [39]

See also


  1. 1 2 Crawford, Martin (2010). Creating a Forest Garden. Green Books. p. 18.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Hart, Robert (1996). Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape (2nd ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green. ISBN   9781603580502.
  3. Douglas John McConnell (2003). The Forest Farms of Kandy: And Other Gardens of Complete Design , p.1, "Forest garden farms are probably the world's oldest and most resilient agroecosystem."
  4. Douglas John McConnell (1992). The Forest-Garden Farms of Kandy, Sri Lanka. p. 1. ISBN   9789251028988.
  5. Jacob, V. J.; Alles, W. S. (1987). "Kandyan gardens of Sri Lanka". Agroforestry Systems. 5 (2): 123. doi:10.1007/BF00047517.
  6. "Inspector Gadget's green fingers and politics". Times Higher Education (THE). January 2, 2004. Archived from the original on January 19, 2012.
  7. Douglas John McConnell (1973). The economic structure of Kandyan forest-garden farms.
  8. Graham Burnett. "Seven Storeys of Abundance; A visit to Robert Hart's Forest Garden". Archived from the original on 2011-11-17.
  9. Patrick Whitefield (2002). How to Make a Forest Garden. p. 5. ISBN   9781856230087.
  10. "Agroforestry Research Trust". Archived from the original on 2011-11-08.
  11. "Forest gardening". Agroforestry Research Trust. Archived from the original on 2013-02-11. Retrieved 13 Feb 2013.
  12. "Woodland Gardening". Archived from the original on 2011-11-28.
  13. "Plants for a Future - The book". Archived from the original on 2011-11-28.
  14. Kathleen Jannaway 1915-2003: A Life Well Lived Harry Mather & Malcolm Horne., Vegan Views 96 (Spring 2003)
  15. "Bangor Forest Garden" (PDF). The Movement for Compassionate Living - New Leaves (issue no.93). 2009: 6–8. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2011-07-18.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. "Graham Bell's Forest Garden". Archived from the original on 2012-03-08.
  17. "Edible Forest Gardening". Archived from the original on 2011-11-01. Retrieved 2011-11-13.
  18. "Establishing a Food Forest review". Archived from the original on 2016-05-22.
  19. Graham Bell (2004). The Permaculture Garden , p.129, "The Forest Garden...This is the original garden of Eden. It could be your garden too."
    • Also see Rob Hopkins (foreword), Martin Crawford (2010). Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops, p.10 "Perhaps what Hart created was the closest to what we imagine the Garden of Eden as being."
    • Helmut Lieth (1989). Tropical Rain Forest Ecosystems: Biogeographical and Ecological Studies, p.611 "Important food plants, such as sago-producing palms, fruit-producing trees and medicinal plants were purposefully aggregated and tended in convenient places. Eventually, the forest garden, a kind of Garden of Eden, emerged. These jungle gardens on good soils of easy access required little maintenance and hardly any hard work."
    • Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier (2005). Edible Forest Gardens - Volume One, p.1
    • Robert Hart (1996a), p.80
    • Deborha d'Arms (2011). Jardin D'Or: A Treatise on Forest Gardening, Recreating Sustainable Gardens of Eden
  20. "Unnatural Histories - Amazon". BBC Four. Archived from the original on 2015-12-29.
  21. Simon Romero (January 14, 2012). "Once Hidden by Forest, Carvings in Land Attest to Amazon's Lost World". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 20, 2016.
  22. Martti Pärssinen, Denise Schaan and Alceu Ranzi (2009). "Pre-Columbian geometric earthworks in the upper Purús: a complex society in western Amazonia" (PDF). Antiquity. 83 (322): 1084–1095. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00099373. Archived from the original on 2013-08-31.
  23. Michael Ernest Smith and Marilyn A. Masson (2000). The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica. p. 127. ISBN   9780631211167.
  24. David L. Lentz, ed. (2000). Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas. p. 212. ISBN   9780231111577.
  25. Ford, Anabel (May 2, 2009). "El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna". The Guatemala Times. Archived from the original on May 5, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-26.
  26. Ford, Anabel (December 15, 2010). "Legacy of the Ancient Maya: The Maya Forest Garden". Popular Archaeology. Archived from the original on January 15, 2012.
  27. "National Geographic Society Funds Mayan Garden". Archived from the original on 2011-12-23.
  28. Mellinger, Robert (16 February 2012). "Nation's Largest Food Forest takes root on Beacon Hill". Crosscut. Archived from the original on 30 March 2012. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
  29. "The Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute". Archived from the original on 2013-05-24.
  30. "Montview Neighborhood farm". Archived from the original on 2008-10-24.
  31. "The Community Food Forest Handbook: How to Plan, Organize, & Nurture Edible Gathering Places". Archived from the original on 2008-10-24.
  32. "Boston Food Forest". tell New England.
  33. "He's on a mission to turn Boston into a collection of food forests". Dorchester Reporter.
  34. "Community engagement sprouts fresh ideas and nonprofit leadership". GMA Foundations. May 10, 2018.
  35. "Richard Walker". Archived from the original on 2011-09-10.
  36. "Forest Gardening". Archived from the original on 2013-05-26.
  37. "Bangor Forest Garden". Archived from the original on 2013-08-01.
  38. "The Agroforestry and Forest Garden Network". Archived from the original on 2012-08-18.
  39. Martin Crawford (2014). "List of visitable forest garden and agroforestry projects in the UK, Europe and North America". Agroforestry Research Trust.

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