Starting a forest garden on your homestead is one of the best things you can do—for your own needs and those of your family, your local environment, and for nature and the planet as a whole. If you are starting a forest garden, however, there are a number of things to bear in mind. There is a lot of misinformation out there, or information that, while it works in one location, won’t work as well where you live. Most new gardeners focus on making new vegetable plots, or areas of annual production. However, whether you are starting from scratch, or improving an established forest garden, it is a great idea to consider perennial plants. You can obtain far more food with less effort, and maximise yield over time if you mimic the most successful ecosystem on earth.
For the sake of this article, I am assuming that you are already familiar with the basic concept of a food forest, so, I want to share with you some advice from my own experience in my established forest garden, as well as some lessons I have learned from other projects with which I have been involved.
The Design Process
I began work on my own forest garden project a little over five years ago. I am delighted by the progress, and the yields I have already achieved. It has indeed, as it has become more established, involved far, far less work than my annual polyculture beds. But it isn’t “finished”. Forest gardening is an endless process of design, observation, achievement, amendment, and redesign.
Another key tip that is absolutely crucial as you begin this journey is to design for your site, and for yourself.
There is no real one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to forest gardening. If you are gardening in a zone 5 garden, following the same approach as someone gardening in zone 10 obviously won’t yield the same results. Even small micro-climate and soil differences can alter how things should best be achieved.
Where I live, on a cold-climate homestead, I follow a very different approach to forest gardening to those in the tropics or warmer temperate zones. One example is that I do not aim for so close a canopy. Temperate climate forest gardening involves creating sunny, open glades in addition to more shaded areas.
There are a number of different approaches that you can take when getting started with a forest garden. One of the most common queries involves how to prepare the area and how to suppress unwanted weed and grass growth around the new trees and shrubs you plant.
I always recommend keeping tilling and digging to a minimum. Of course, in certain cases (such as when terracing a slope) earthworks will commonly be required. You may also wish to create tree-lines in a forest garden on berms along on-contour swales, which help keep water in a landscape. It is crucial to think about protecting soil and managing water efficiently, as well as plant choices.
On many sites, I would suggest that it is better to create the new growing areas of the forest garden by sheet mulching rather than removing turf or disrupting the soil. This involves making holes only for the trees, then layering cardboard topped with layers of green and brown organic matter on top of this to create fertile zones into which guild planting for each tree can be placed (just make sure you do not pile mulch around the trunks of your trees, as this can cause rot). It can be helpful to sow rings of spring ephemerals (like daffodils for example) around the drip lines of new trees to limit grass from encroaching into these zones.
Adapting to Change
A natural forest property is not a static thing that develops then stays the same. It evolves all the time. And a forest garden does, too.
You might opt to employ a permaculture designer to design your food forest initially, or undertake the initial design process yourself. Either way, it is important to remember that this will just be a jumping-off point. The design process, though less complex, will be ongoing, as you hone, refine, and adapt to change in your forest garden.
Adapting to change might mean adding different plants, or even removing old ones, as trees and shrubs grow and shade cover increases.
As a forest garden evolves, it is important to remember that the plants are not alone in the system. Thriving ecosystems involve animal, fungal, and plant life; wildlife of many kinds will have key roles to play. Livestock can also play a role, but it is important to be careful about how and when livestock is introduced.
Chickens, for example, can be great for pest control and fertility in a forest garden. But I learnt the hard way that they can also quickly destroy plants! I introduced my rescue chickens and lost a lot of ground cover crops and several entire young comfrey plants to their voracious appetites in a single day. Now, I have certain areas of the forest garden where our flock free ranges, and other areas that are fenced off. The areas where they forage are sowed with a mixed forage ground cover crop and plants that won’t mind some “pruning” or which are not appetising to the hens.
Changing the Approach to Harvesting an Established Forest Garden
Another key lesson I have learned in my forest garden is that, as a forest gardener, you need to change your approach to harvesting. If you are more used to traditional fruit and vegetable growing, you likely expect to harvest crops in their entirety at certain times. But in an established forest garden, harvesting is often more like foraging. Outside of the main fruit- or nut-tree harvests, you will harvest little and often, throughout the entire year, as things are needed.
The key takeaways are: the design process of a forest garden takes you to a start point, not a destination. Getting started is primarily about soil and water, as well as plant choices. Change is a constant, and we should use, value, and adapt to it over time. Thriving ecosystems involve animals and fungi, as well as plants—but we need to be careful how and when livestock is introduced. And finally, embrace foraging to make the most of your established forest garden.