Defining Forest Gardening
CLICK THIS IMAGE FOR OUR VIDEO: Food Forest Basics: Defining a Forest Garden. In this brief video we introduce the basic features of food forests, including their architectural features, forms and uses. 

Forest Garden Basics: Defining a Forest Garden.

Today, we're going to introduce the basic features that define a forest garden.

Since, we'll be covering a lot of material, I've included a video version (CLICK ON THE IMAGE ABOVE) that tells you everything you need to know, while showing some examples from our gardens at Lillie House. This is my first attempt at a video, so go easy on me! I'm certainly no Steven Spielberg, but it gets the lesson across and has some nice shots of our garden. 

Next time, we'll start thinking about a simple approach anyone can use to get started.


The forest garden, "food forest," or "home garden" is a beautiful and practical gardening tradition that likely goes back to our earliest human ancestors. They're found in many forms, in many climates and across cultures, all around the world. It's a way of growing food, fuel, medicine and materials by working very gently WITH nature instead of against it. It's a link to our past, and it could be the key to a truly just and sustainable future. More recently, this kind of garden has been re-popularized by visionaries who were inspired by traditional systems, like Masanobu Fukuoka, who created "Natural Farming," Robert Hart, who started the modern "forest gardening" movement, and by Permaculture founder Bill Mollison. 

In the Permaculture community, food forests are usually defined by their basic architecture.

1. Multi-layer.

Most obviously, unlike conventional farming or gardening that takes place on just one layer, forest gardens are multi-layer, starting with a canopy of tree crops overhead, like fruits or nuts, and continuing down to an understory of bushes, herbs and vegetables. Different authors recommend different numbers of layers, from as few as 5 to as many as 16 or more. In my opinion, I think simpler systems of 5 to 7 layers are better for beginners, while more layers provide tools for more advanced, diverse and productive systems. 

(Fantastic image by PJ Chmiel)

2. Polyculture.

And if you're going to grow crops on many layers, that implies a second key feature of forest gardens: they're "polycultures" of many different kinds of plants, instead of "monocultures" of one plant. When it comes to forest gardening, the most common form of polyculture is the "guild," or a team of companion plants that work together to mimic a natural ecosystem. Later in this series, we'll go into more detail on guilds. 

3. Climate-design.

A third architectural feature of forest gardens is that they are optimized to the climate conditions. For example, in the tropics, where shade helps cool and shelter crops, food forests have a dense, protective over-story of tree crops. Whereas, in temperate and cool climates, where the sun light is less intense, forest gardens generally have a more open, sunny form like a savanna or light woodland. Taller trees generally are placed to the north, to create a "sun trap" where each "layer" can get the sun it needs. In temperate climates, I strongly recommend emulating this "sun trap" design. 

4. Heterogenous Texture.

A fourth architectural feature is that unlike an orchard of evenly spaced "homogenous" rows, food forests are "heterogeneous" in texture, with uneven spacings, somewhat randomized groupings and generally lack rows. 

5. Natural Succession.

And a final, important architectural aspect that defines forest gardens is that they are designed for "natural succession." Natural succession is how ecosystems evolve over time from bare soil to grassland, and eventually to mature forest, as trees grow and the canopy closes. Well-designed forest gardens take advantage of the same process, following an arch of succession as they mature. 

Part 2: Cultural Features

From the broadest perspective, I like to follow the academic custom of defining modern forest gardens by the uses and characteristics of the traditional systems they emulate. Across most of these systems, we see some fundamental important patterns:

1. High Diversity.

Forest gardens are very high diversity. These diverse systems provide a backstop against habitat and ecosystem loss that preserves species, ecosystem services and habitat in the face of industrial monoculture agriculture. More importantly, high diversity has been found to confer increased resilience to disease and pest problems to each member in the ecosystem. This is one of they features that make forest gardens the easiest way to grow food. Many modern experts recommend starting with at least 30 species. For example, we've put together a "starter collection" of high value plants available at Lillie House.

2. Multi-Use

They're Multi-use (food, medicine, craft and building materials, fuel.) It's also common to see domestic animals or wildlife in forest gardens. For example, we go out of our way to allow for wildlife habitat in our forest garden, even though it's our main food garden. 

3. Integrated social functions.

Traditional forest gardens are more than simple food production plots. They are vital living spaces, "pleasure gardens," important places for family and community life. They are often inseparable from culture, religions traditions and rights of passage. In my opinion, the best modern forest gardens emulate this most important feature, so we'll go into quite a lot of detail about how we can make the best social use of our beautiful food forests. 

4. Beauty/Aesthetic Value. 

Finally, forest gardens are beautiful, by definition. Around the world, one of the defining characteristics of these systems. As researchers of these systems have documented, one of the reasons why people love and value them is that they contribute to a rich, beautiful living environment and community. 

So, now that we have a better idea about the basic elements that make a successful forest garden, next time we'll talk about how to get started. We'll look at several different approaches to beginning a project, based on the traditional and modern patterns. And I'll help you identify some of the opportunities you might be able to use to jump-start your own food forest. 

As always, feel free to email me with any questions or comments. I read every email. 



Community Supported Forest Gardening Program

Ready to "scale up" your home garden? This is the "CSA" that doesn't just feed  you for a year, but for a lifetime!
Lillie House Perenial Guild Plants Collection

Check out the starter collection of forest garening plants that comes with our Community Supported Forest Gardening program. 
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