Forest garden design is one of the most exciting options for those who do not necessarily have the largest of gardens. This eco-friendly and sustainable concept allows us to grow a large quantity of food, even in a very confined area.
What Is Forest Gardening?
If you are not familiar with the concept of forest gardening then one key thing to understand is that a forest garden does not necessarily much resemble a forest.
In many cases, a forest garden is more like a woodland in temperate regions like ours, with a more open feel and more sunlight reaching the ground. But in small spaces, it may not even include full sized trees.
The idea of forest gardening is not to replicate natural forest or woodland systems but rather to mimic the way in which the plants form functioning communities or ecosystems, with layers of plants that work with one another and with wildlife in the area.
But unlike when we are trying to plant a native woodland area in our gardens, when we are forest gardening, we replace some of the species in a native tree ecosystem with different species, that are useful to us, aiming to derive yields of food and many other natural ‘gifts’.
Can You Start A Forest Garden In A Small Outdoor Space?
A forest garden or a food forest is a concept that can be applied on a wide range of scales. As long as you have a little space (however small) for in-ground growing, you can adopt this idea in your garden.
A food forest can even be created in a polytunnel, if irrigation is considered and the plants carefully chosen, which is interesting because a polytunnel greenhouse may allow you to grow plants that you might not otherwise be able to consider where you live.
What Are The Benefits of Forest Gardening?
Forest gardening is beneficial in a huge range of ways, both broadly, for planet and people, and for individual gardeners and growers. As tree-based, perennial food producing systems, forest gardens:
- Sequester more carbon, helping to fight climate change.
- Allow for water-wise food production, potentially reducing water use and allowing us to manage water more wisely.
- Help us withdraw our support for damaging agricultural systems and find a new, more sustainable path to feeding ourselves and meeting our other needs.
- Allow for organic growing, creating resilient, closed-loop systems that can largely maintain themselves over time.
- Boost biodiversity and provide myriad benefits for local wildlife.
Forest gardens can become functioning ecosystems like natural woodlands or forests, but the trees, shrubs and other plants they contain can also provide us with abundant yields. Food forests can feed us, and provide other yields to meet many of our basic needs.
Tips on Planning A Forest Garden Design In A Small Space
If you would like to start creating a forest garden design in a small space, there are certain things to think about in order to achieve the best results. Here are some tips for forest gardening in small spaces.
Understand The Conditions of Your Garden
First and foremost, whenever we are working on any garden, including when working on forest gardens of any size, it is vital to understand the site.
In order to direct our efforts we need to create designs to work from in the creation of the forest garden design, and in order to create designs we need to observe, and take the time to analyse the conditions in the space we are working with.
This of course means looking at the climate and microclimate, sunlight and shade, wind, water and soil. Without at least a basic understanding of the site, we cannot hope to make the right design decisions nor choose the right plants for the right places.
Determine What You Want From Your Forest Garden
As well as looking closely at and analysing the site for the forest garden design, we also need to think carefully about our goals. We need to know what we want from a forest garden before we can begin to determine the best layout, strategies and plants.
Often, a primary goal of a forest garden is food production. But you might also have other priorities, such as visual appeal, and welcome for wildlife as well. You might also wish to obtain other specific yields other than food, such as medicinal ingredients, for example, plant fibres, plant dyes or materials for specific crafting projects…
Think too about how you will use the space and about how you might tailor the design to meet other intangible needs. A forest garden is not purely functional. It can also, when well designed, provide places for relaxation and play.
Plan The Journey Through Your Forest Garden Design
Access is an important thing to think about when creating a food forest design and making your plans. You should of course be able to access the entirety of the space to harvest and where necessary tend your garden.
Pathways that take you on a journey through the space can also help a garden to feel larger than it really is, and make sure that you actually use every inch of the space to the fullest.
Remember, however, that paths do not have to be paved, and a small forest garden could be the perfect spot for stepping stones with plants between them, or for a living path with plants that you can walk on once in a while.
Layering Plants in a Forest Garden Design
Plants for pathways might be an example of groundcover plants, the lowest vegetative tier of a food forest. Creating good groundcover is key to the success of a design, since so much of a healthy ecosystem comes back to the soil and groundcover plants help to protect the precious soil system below. The rhizosphere is the lowest layer of the system.
Above these groundcover plants, forest gardens will typically include a wide range of herbaceous perennials, and, above these shrubs, and trees, perhaps with climbers ascending through the system.
When creating a forest garden design for a small garden, there might not be space for many trees. And where we do include trees, these will typically be grown on dwarfing rootstock. They might also be pruned dramatically to allow them to be grown in a confined space.
But when it comes to layering plants in a full sized or mini forest garden, there are not really hard and fast rules. In a very small space, shrubs might actually form the highest tier of some or all of the system. We can still mimic a natural ecosystem and layer plants below these in just the same way.
Welcoming Wildlife into your Forest Garden
It is important to remember that a forest or woodland is not just made up of the plants it contains. It is also comprised of the wildlife – animals, fungi and other micro-organisms that call it home. To be a truly functioning ecosystem, a forest garden needs to be filled with wildlife too – a biodiverse space where many creatures will live and find a welcome.
In smaller city gardens, thinking about how a forest garden can provide for local wildlife is especially important.
We should think not only about catering to wildlife but also how certain creatures (like hedgehogs for example) can come and go from our space into those of our neighbours.
We should team up with neighbours to create broader habitats, and make gaps in fences or replace them with mixed native hedgerows to let wildlife pass through.
Starting Small: Fruit Trees & Guilds
If you only have a very small space, or are uncertain about giving over all of your space to a food forest right away, then you can start small with a single fruit tree with a guild of beneficial, layered companion plants around it.
This fruit tree can guild could still provide a fair amount of food, and bring many other benefits into the bargain. And later, if space and time allow, you might expand this into a bigger and more biodiverse forest garden.
Multifunctionality in a Forest Garden for Small Spaces
When space is limited, it is especially important at the design stage for the project to think about how every element should have multiple functions, and how, ideally, each function should have multiple elements to meet it.
Think about which plants and other elements you might include that will fulfil as many different roles within the system and do as much for you as possible. And for each thing that you want your garden to do or to provide, try to build in redundancy and not put all your eggs in one basket.
Managing Shade in a Small Forest Garden
One final thing that it can be important to think about when working on a small space forest garden is how shade can be managed. In forest gardening, you will discover a range of more shade-tolerant edibles and other useful plants that can cope with and even like shade below trees or shrubs.
But in a temperate climate, there are even more plants that love the sunny fringes of a woodland or forest, so creating sunny glades and sunny edges to the system can be important. In small spaces, this can mean taking additional steps such as judicious pruning to let the right amount of sunlight shine through.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.