a brief history of forest gardening

A brief history of forest gardening

Robert Hart

The forest garden story in the UK begins with the visionary Robert Hart who saw the potential for adapting growing techniques practised in tropical areas to the cool, temperate climate of his home in Shropshire.  Here he put his ideas into practice and coined the term ‘forest garden’.  For those that met him and visited his garden he was a pivotal figure that inspired them to follow his dream and interpret it into a reality in their own lives and gardens.  Robert Hart died in 2000 but his book “Forest Gardening – rediscovering nature and community in a post industrial age” continues to transmit his enthusiasm for forest gardens through to the present day.


Patrick Whitefield

Patrick Whitefield was an author and well respected permaculture teacher who wrote the first practical book on forest gardening – ‘How to make a forest garden’ in 1996.  This first guide to planting a temperate forest garden was a key resource for people who planted the earliest forest gardens.


Ken Fern

In late summer of 1996 Ken and Addy Fern and friends visited Robert Hart’s forest garden in Shropshire, which at the time was generally considered to be the only mature working example of a forest garden in Britain.  The Ferns were deeply impressed, describing it as ‘a very special place with an atmosphere of peace that we have never felt in any other garden’.  Following their visit they wrote this piece entitled ‘The Garden of Love’.

The Garden of Love

‘We arrived at the garden rather late in the afternoon, thanks to getting lost on the way. The summer had been a difficult one, it had been rather dry, and there had been a lot of damaging winds. However, the garden looked in excellent condition.

Whilst the surrounding fields looked dry and barren, the garden was green and lush and, as we soon found out, it was literally dripping with fruit.
We walked around in a dream. This is indeed a very special garden that really shows forest gardening in practice. Narrow pathways lead you amongst fruit and nut trees, growing into them you will find climbing plants such as grapes and kiwi fruits. Growing under them are various fruiting shrubs such as blackcurrants and gooseberries and also many herbs and salad plants that will succeed in the woodland shade. On the sunnier edges of the garden a number of more conventional vegetables are grown.”

 The Garden of Love

Over the years he has experimented with, and compiled information on, a huge number of useful, unusual plants.  In the early 1990s he moved to Cornwall to establish the pioneering charity, Plants For A Future.  With the help of Ken’s vast experience and encyclopaedic knowledge, Plants For A Future have now been trialling over 2,000 unusual species which are edible or have other uses, with a further 7,000 compiled on their database.  This is exciting and pioneering work has important implications to the way in which we look at producing food, both in our gardens and agriculturally.

He also wrote the book ‘Plants for a Future – edible and useful plants for a healthier world’ website.  Both book and website have been invaluable resources for forest gardeners.


Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier

Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier are from the United States and are joint authors of “Edible Forest Gardens, volumes one and two”.  They too visited Robert Hart’s garden and describe the impact on them in their own words:

When I passed through the gate of Robert’s garden, I cried.  It was beautiful.  Something hit me deep in my gut and opened my heart.  After years of reading about these things …… here I was.  These things were real.  It looked just like a forest, but we could find so many food plants in it.  Amazing.  …..Here was a man, an idealist and dreamer at heart, who had an insight that made sense … and it worked. 

Their two volume work is an extensive exploration of the ecological and theoretical underpinnings of forest gardening and they have gone on to plant their own forest gardens – Dave Jacke at Wellesley Botanic Garden at Boston, Massachussetts and Eric Toensmeier at Holyoake, also in Massachussetts.  They have both written further books on perennial vegetables, carbon farming etc and are influential leaders of the forest gardening movement in the United States who also have an impact here in the UK because of the similarities in climate.

Dave Jacke

Eric Toensmeier


Martin Crawford

Martin Crawford was another of those early visitors to Robert Hart’s garden who subsequently founded the Agro-forestry Research Trust in Dartington, Devon of which he is Director.  Here he has planted an experimental forest garden that is the foremost teaching forest garden in the UK.

About Agroforestry

The trust is an educational and research organisation established as a registered charity to educate and conduct research into all aspects of agroforestry.  Various academic and practical research projects have been undertaken since its formation, and results of research published by the Trust in a number of publications and in its own quarterly journal, Agroforestry News.   Martin has also written a series of highly acclaimed and information packed books on forest gardening:

  • Creating a Forest Garden
  • Food from your Forest Garden
  • How to Grow Perennial Vegetables
  • How to Grow Your Own Nuts
  • Trees for Gardens, Orchards and Permaculture

The Future

The work of these earliest pioneers of forest gardening have in turn inspired many more people to grow their own forest gardens.  At this point in the story the NFGS wants to help bring many, many more of these, beautiful, beneficial and abundant gardens into being for all of us to enjoy.