I guess my gardening style is indolent, bordering on terminally lazy.
I don’t have much time to spare, but I love ‘growing my own’. And I’m really not even slightly keen on the weeding, digging and mowing.
Loading article content
Sounds like you too? Then there’s gardening technique that is both relatively new and as old as the hills that could be just the ticket – it’s called forest gardening.
Forest gardening is a great way to grow food and useful crops. Because you use all of nature’s tricks and let it do the hard work so you don’t have to. You end up with a garden which is fertile and productive without you needing to break a sweat. Now that’s my kind of gardening!
The technique goes back to prehistoric times and is the world’s oldest and most resilient way of growing food. Many people around the world still produce most of their domestic fruit and vegetables – and a whole lot more like firewood, herbal remedies and materials for basket making – thorough backyard forest gardening. And while they may have the advantage of a positively tropical climate, there’s nothing to stop you giving forest gardening a go on your own little patch of Alba. Don’t worry that you don’t have enough land – forest gardens can work on any scale – from a country estate to a wee corner of a pocket handkerchief-sized plot.
What’s excites me about forest gardening is its potential to provide food for the future without costing the earth. In fact, because once it’s established there is very little digging to do and no bare soil, it’s a great way to capture and lock away carbon and reduce your carbon footprint, making your gardening very Lo-Carb indeed.
Design is everything in forest gardening. It may look natural because it is based on the natural form of young native woodland, but every successful forest garden is in fact very carefully designed.
In any young, native woodland you’ll see growth at different levels - big and small trees; shrubs and bushes; lots of perennials and a few annuals; ground cover and climbers; bulbs, tubers and the occasional fungi. Forest gardening uses this idea of layers but instead of native plants you use lots of productive – mostly edible – plants at each of these levels. Fruit trees instead of oaks, for example; blackcurrants instead of rhododendrons or alpine strawberries instead of grass.
This has lots of advantages:
- Because it’s based on permanent planting it’s a lot less work than planting a whole new crop of fruits and veggies every year and you have the excitement of watching it grow up and mature. In no time the plants more or less look after themselves - more produce for almost no weeding – my idea of gardening heaven!
- You’re growing at ground level and upwards too – so you can grow masses of food in even the smallest space.
- Your garden feeds and waters itself – plant roots draw nutrients and moisture from deep underground, building a soil that gets richer and more fertile every year.
- One of the real strengths of forest gardening is in designing it to have multiple crops – so if your James Grieve doesn’t do too well one year, other trees and shrub fruits and veggies will step up to the mark. This is really important as we start to face up to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. All of that diversity also helps to improve plant health and create a haven for wildlife too.
If you fancy having a go yourself, there are a number of things you’ll need to think about.
As we said, the design is based on young, natural forest – the most important word there is ‘young’. Your trees will need to be planted far enough apart to let light down to the ground or nothing will grow. If you only have space for one tree, that’s fine – you can still have a forest garden in miniature! If you share a communal back-green garden or just have a bit of grass outside your flat that the Council owns, planting a forest garden is a perfect way of filling those spaces and getting to know the neighbours better at the same time. Obviously, you’ll need to get permission from the landowner first.
You’ll need to decide what plants will take the place of the forest layers. Your ‘canopy’ will usually be fruit trees like apples or plums. There’s a host of productive plants like blackberries, blueberries and gooseberries that can take the place of the shrub layers and you can include lots of useful groundcover plants like strawberries, wild garlic and creeping thymes. There are lots of books on forest gardening that can give full lists of useful plants for each of the layers.
You’ll be fed up with me saying this by now, but it’s important to keep the soil in your forest garden covered with plant growth (like ground cover) or plant matter (like mulches) – yes, it’s that cardboard and woodchip trick again! This keeps the soil healthy and stops weeds. It also locks away carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from soil cultivation.
It’s a design technique that we are trying here and we’re really excited about the potential to grow produce for our fruit and veg bag scheme.
There’s a burgeoning forest gardening movement in Scotland right now, so if you do get involved, you’ll be in at the beginning of an exciting (old and) new way of growing. Because of that (and because it takes quite a bit of expertise to design a forest garden so it works well), ask around for local experts in your area, or contact me for a list of people who can give advice.
Have fun with your growing this week!