Principles of Forest Gardening

Principles of Forest Gardening

For public and community spaces

“A forest garden is modelled on the structure of a young natural woodland, utilising plants of direct and indirect benefit to people – often edible plants.”

Martin Crawford, Creating a Forest Garden

“A forest garden is a place where nature and people meet halfway, between the canopy of trees and the soil underfoot. It doesn’t have to look like a forest – what’s important is that natural processes are allowed to unfold, to the benefit of plants, people and other creatures. The result is an edible ecosystem.”

Tomas Remiarz, Forest Gardening in Practice

What is a forest garden?

Forest gardening is the art and science of putting plants together in woodland like patterns to forge mutually beneficial relationships. Forest gardens combine trees, shrubs, herbs, flowers and vegetables into a productive landscape. They are designed to fit in with the local climate, land profile, water and soil. They are living communities of plants, animals and fungi. People are central to forest gardens and the best examples are successful because they fulfill the needs of their users.

In this document we suggest a set of principles that will help to guide future efforts of forest gardening in public and community spaces. In each case they relate to the choice and layout of plants as much as to the relationship to people.

These suggestions draw on the work of forest gardeners across the UK and beyond. They don’t form a definite must-do checklist, rather they are ‘handrails’ to distinguish this form of gardening from more conventional approaches. Every garden can be seen as an experiment as each piece of land is unique, every person or group starting to engage with it has to find their own way to a harmonious and fruitful relationship with it.

  1. Think ‘diversity’
  2. Observe and interact
  3. Use minimum effort
  4. Use resources responsibly & efficiently
  5. Decide your group structure together
  6. Look beyond the edge
  7. Learn and celebrate!

1. Think ‘diversity’

If there is a central ecological theme to forest gardens, it is diversity. In the forest garden, we humans are one species among many. In our role as designers we recognize first and foremost that through our design and management choices we have a large impact on the life of many other species. This gives us a responsibility to be mindful of the consequences of our actions. But there are further ways in which this theme of diversity is helpful to making forest gardens work:

> Biodiversity

While the focus in forest gardens is on choosing plant species and varieties from many different families, they depend on their interactions with a myriad of bacteria, fungi and animals in order to thrive. Soil bacteria, fungi and earthworms break down dead matter and make it available to plant roots. Insects, spiders and other invertebrates are vital pollinators and pest predators. Amphibians, birds and small mammals also concentrate and move nutrients. All of them contribute to the balance and stability of the whole garden.  Together they form a local web of life that is intricately linked into the surrounding ecology up to the global level. Careful garden design and management can encourage them to thrive. Forest gardening is about creating a self-generating system that sustains and improves itself.

Web of life (Jed Picksley)

> Structural diversity

Vertical – Forest gardens often copy the structure of natural forest edge or young woodland. Robert Hart, the UK’s forest garden pioneer who first introduced forest gardens here 40 years ago identified up to 7 layers. However, it’s not necessary or even possible  to use all of them in a small space

Horizontal – patches can mimic different habitats like forest, scrubland, heath, meadow. This results in a diversity of spaces that can be both attractive and functional.

> Functional diversity

Most species or other elements introduced into a forest garden have multiple uses. For example, a plant might produce fertility, bee forage and attractive flowers or leaves as well as providing food or medicinal products at some point of the year. A garden bench could also be used as a trellis for plants to climb on and have built-in storage underneath the seat.

In return, every important function within the garden should be supported by more than one element, to reduce the risk of that function failing. Water could be provided in ponds, water butts and mains connection, and preserved by a layer of mulch throughout the garden.

Functional diversity also relates to the functions and yields the garden is supposed to provide to its users. This can include provision of a range of products, social functions, learning and the appreciation of nature. The more responsive the garden design is to the needs and preferences of its users the better it will be used.

> Diversity of location

A Forest Garden works with the land’s light and water, vegetation, natural slopes and tendency towards woodland. Forest gardens can be:

  • converted from a community orchard or patch of semi-natural woodland;
  • planted directly in an allotment or park,  or city farm;
  • created in the grounds of schools, colleges or universities, housing providers or places of worship or community centres, workplaces, or…
  • on wasteland, edges of fields, forested land, water courses or transport routes.

>Diversity in design

The best gardens are those that make space for people. For people to feel welcome in a forest garden it is good to provide enough open space that they can spend time together. But the amount of open space depends on the main functions of the garden, and on how many people are meant to use it comfortably. Planted areas can be used as a backdrop for social activities.

And the design of paths, entry points and access to beds needs to be suitable for the garden’s users and visitors. Seating, shelter and views are other important people-friendly elements.

We also ensure we design in plants that people know what to do with, that are culturally relevant, as well as offering information about less well known ones.

2. Observe and interact

If in doubt wait a year do nothing but positively interact and record as much as possible about the site, patterns of light and shade, weather; in short, all life. Small reversible experiments can yield valuable information about what is possible on the site and could include annual vegetable patches, herb and tree nursery beds. However, don’t do anything in the first year that cannot be easily undone or moved later on.

3. Use minimum effort

Forest gardens tend to use perennial and self-seeding plants which need only occasional tending, and allow wilding. In the food forest everything “gardens”;  various organisms alter their habitats and participate in soil creation, and our role is it to support them in their activities. You need to dig only to plant trees, harvest roots, propagate or to share.

4. Use resources responsibly and efficiently

Respecting natural resources while optimising their use can lead us to:

  • Garden without artificial fertilisers, pesticides and weed killers,
  • Improve soil health and keep the ground covered using mulch or green manures,
  • Recycle nutrients via nitrogen-fixing plants,
  • Allow worms and other invertebrates to live in the soil and retain its health,
  • Produce no waste; keep energy in the system; keep fallen leaves, mowings, prunings and wood(chip) as mulch or habitat piles,
  • Capture & store energy from sun, rain and water flow, and create shelter using banking/mounds and hardy plants.

5. Decide your group structure together

How these principles will come to life in your garden will be a discussion between you. The right group structure and appropriate forms of communication that meet the different needs of your group are vital ingredients, just as much as the right plants in the right combination. This could mean having a group with a circle of reliable volunteers, as well as people joining in occasionally, and people coming in and out. As in natural systems, people can sometimes work at cross-purposes, so attention needs to go to integrating diverging needs and outlooks in order to prevent groups fracturing, losing people or becoming “closed shops”.

Finally, in order to thrive, forest garden depend on a diversity of people in terms of roles and personalities. Practical, social and project management skills are all vital, and rarely present in one person. By noting the need for diverse skills we can see the value in people’s different contributions!

6. Look beyond the edge

Public spaces and community gardens are not closed systems isolated from the world. If located in a public park, local residents and passers by will be affected by a forest garden and will interact with it in sometimes unpredictable ways. Involving these groups in designing, creating and maintaining the forest garden can generate sense of ownership that will help protect the space from threats such as vandalism, theft and development. Throughout the lifetime of the garden it is important to welcome and generate feedback from users of the area, and to respond with changes to the garden as a result of these interactions.

Florence Park work party

7. Learn and celebrate!

Each forest garden offers great learning opportunities to develop skills for working with plants as well as with people. These skills can be shared through work parties, workshops, training days and courses, reflecting different learning styles and levels of interest.

The annual cycle of growth and necessary maintenance can be used creatively to bring people together for work parties and celebrations. Seasonal events like group plantings, harvest festivals and wassailing (traditional tree blessings in midwinter) are already common. You may find plenty more reasons of your own to celebrate in addition.


Agroecology Land Trust

Agroforestry Research Trust

Permaculture Association

Plants for a Future

T Remiarz, 2017, ‘Forest gardening in Practice: A practical illustrated guide for homes, communities and enterprises’ Permanent Publications

M Crawford, Creating a Forest Garden; Green Books

R A d J Hart 1996, Forest gardening, Green Books

Jacke &Toensmeier 2005, Edible Forest Gardens Volume 1 & 2, Chelsea Green Publishing

P Whitefield 1996, ‘How to Make a Forest Garden’, Permanent Publications

C Bukowski, J Munsell 2018, ‘The Community food forest handbook. How to plan, organize and nurture edible gathering places’ Chelsea Green Publishing

Yorkley Court Community Farm in the Forest of Dean

A Wezel, S Bellon, T Doré, C Francis, D Vallod & C David, 2009, ‘Agroecology as a science, a movement and a practice. A review’ in Agronomy for Sustainable Development, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 503–515