Forest Fruits – The Easy Way To Get Free Food From An Urban Garden?
What Is Forest Gardening?
I first came across the idea of Forest Gardening a few years ago when I read this article about Lia Leendertz’s back garden. The idea comes from agriculture, but not agriculture as we usually know it – vast, mono-cultured fields in neat rows divided by bare earth. No, a forest garden is based on those diagrams of the rainforest I remember drawing back in S2 Geography. On one patch of earth you will find a canopy of tall, spreading plants, with shorter trees beneath them, and shrubs beneath those. Under the shrubs will be low-growers, and crawling up through them all will be the climbers.
Forest gardening aims to recreate that way of using a patch of soil but with every plant producing a crop of one kind or another – so the canopy might be fruit trees, the shrubs might be currant bushes, underplanted with herbs and perennial vegetables like rhubarb. Under the herbs could be alpine strawberries keeping the ground covered densely enough that annual weeds can’t settle there. And climbing up through them all would be beans, peas and squashes.
Traditional gardening is about patrolling boundaries – the right plants in the right beds, bare earth for easy weeding between the plants, plants in neat rows so you can run a hoe quickly between them, insects and pernicious weeds sprayed firmly away… Forest gardening is about directing growth and otherwise letting plants do their thing naturally. There is no digging (breaks down the soil structure), no weeding (your ground-cover plants deal with that), and no pesticides because the micro-system you create keeps itself in balance. Uh-huh – and if you believe that….
An Accidental Forest Garden
I kind of do believe that, and here’s why – my ornamental garden in my old house accidentally became a forest garden. Not because I understood the theory but because I am really greedy. Every time I went near a garden centre I brought more plants home and had to squeeze them in under the existing shrubs and trees with which I had already (over) planted the garden. I did weed a lot, because the ground cover plants didn’t so much catch my eye and I never planted them. Big mistake. But I never removed pests because the birds and beneficial insects did that for me. And I mulched it once a year and did no digging or fertilising or other feeding. It was a pleasure to be in – a slightly wild little clearing all to ourselves. So, yes, I think it might be possible to have a garden that more or less takes care of itself. Maybe. Is it possible for it to also look presentable? Well, presentable is quite a subjective word…
Can I Turn An Urban Yard Into A Productive Forest Garden?
That garden is history and I am now working with this. Not such a paradise, huh? Our new ‘garden’ consisted of a rectangular bed mulched with pebbles and surrounded by old cement paving slabs. In our first year we dug up the slabs that made up most of the ‘garden’, and the layer of shale below them, and the closely packed bricks below that. We used the bricks to edge beds and a tiny lawn, and the pebbles to make a path. The shale we mostly dumped. The soil beneath was dead so we added a lot of topsoil and compost. The two thirsty conifers we chopped down to make way for a path.
I say ‘we’ like I am CEO of Tartan Horticultural Enterprises, with a team of diggers on board. I actually mean me. I did all the digging myself. I hauled buckets of shale and smashed up big cement slabs. And then I ran out of enthusiasm… For two years. But I am back up to full steam again and ready to finish planting my garden. I want the Tartan Weans to have somewhere fun to play without worrying about stepping on the plants. I want an outside space that looks lovely so we can enjoy sitting in it. I want my neighbours to enjoy walking past it on their way in and out the building. But I also want it to save us some money by growing produce. Is that too much to ask of a concrete box 7 by 3 metres?
Well, I think Forest Gardening could be the perfect solution for tiny urban gardens like mine, (grown by greedy, erratic, lazy gardeners like me). Granted, it won’t provide the same high yields as if I filled it with raised beds and used them to grow neat rows of carrots and cabbages. But it might give me the kind of child-friendly, pretty garden I want with the additional benefit of some food we would otherwise have to pay for – without becoming a chore I resent. Watch this space…
Want to explore the idea yourself? Here are some good starting points.
Want something more hardcore than the Forest-Lite approach to urban gardens I am dabbling with? One couple’s journey from empty field to productive forest garden is described here. Or read about how one family turned their average urban backyard into a forest garden in a year here.
I have no trouble understanding the idea of permanent plantings for fruit and herbs – an apple tree, some raspberry canes, rhubarb, sage and rosemary, and so on – but the idea of veg that doesn’t need to be sown each year is more unfamiliar to me. An introduction to Anni Kelsey’s perennial veg garden is available here or you can delve into Anni’s own blog about her garden at Anni’s Veggies. Backyard Larder has a good list of perennial vegetables to get you thinking. Or you could splash out on this book, as I am (unthriftily) considering doing…
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