The following excerpt is Dani Baker’s new book Home-Scale Forest Garden: How to Plan, Plant, and Tend a Resilient Edible Landscape (Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2022) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Starting a Forest Garden Adventure
What is a forest garden, and why would you consider developing one instead of planting a traditional vegetable garden, a row of berry bushes, or an orchard? How does a forest garden differ from these other forms of gardening? The simplest explanation is that a forest garden is modeled after nature. In nature, no one weeds, waters, adds nutrients, sprays for pests and disease, or applies mulch. Nature takes care of all of these plant needs with no human intervention. How does she do it?
First, in nature, the ground is completely covered naturally with some form of organic matter. Think of a mountain meadow replete with wildflowers or the cushy floor of a dense woods blanketed with a deep layer of fallen leaves or pine needles. In both of these environments, unless there is a disturbance like a fire or a storm that uproots a tree, there are no patches of exposed soil.
When there is a disturbance that bares the ground, nature provides a series of healing remedies, a natural succession of plants that, with time, prepare the soil for more permanent plants to become established. The succession begins with annual “weeds.” Then deep-rooted broad-leaved plants sprout and grow, and their long roots pull up essential nutrients from the subsoil. As these first plants die back in the colder months, nutrient-rich organic matter is built up on and in the soil. In addition, plants that have a special relationship with the bacteria that transform or fix atmospheric nitrogen into natural forms of nitrogen fertilizer move in, and they make this important nutrient available to all the surrounding plants. Once the soil conditions are suitable, a variety of woody shrubs and then taller trees also take up residence in their preferred niches. Beneficial insects, birds, and animals find homes in the leaf litter on the ground, in piles of fallen branches, and amid the leafy canopy. These creatures provide natural pest control for the plants as well as additional fertilizer.
Since the ground is covered with a thick layer of plants or natural mulch, it stays cool and moisture is preserved. When it rains, the water readily sinks into the mulch and soil beneath. As the overhead canopy of tree and shrub foliage expands, more dew is collected on cool nights, both absorbed by the leaves and filtered to the ground. The increasing shade also contributes to keeping the ground cooler and conserving moisture. Each year as autumn leaves fall, the natural mulch is replenished and nutrients are recycled.
Thus, in a forest garden, nature serves all the roles or functions filled by humans in a conventional system of agriculture. Why wouldn’t you want the same attributes in your garden, especially since nature is doing most of the work? Plus, most of the plants in a forest garden are perennial, meaning they are planted once and live for many years. The annual labor that growing vegetables entails—planting seeds or sets, cultivating, mulching, watering—is vastly reduced.
Important, too, is the fact that a forest garden can serve as a storehouse of carbon. Thus, in a small way it acts as a buffer to global warming caused by the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As the years go by and the ground in a forest garden remains undisturbed while the canopy matures, more and more carbon is sequestered in the trunks, branches, roots, and leaves of the growing plants as well as in the earth in the form of organic matter that has been transformed into humus, a stable form of soil carbon. The ability of humus to attract and hold moisture and nutrients increases the resiliency of the garden in the face of extreme and extended weather events such as torrential rains and more frequent and sustained droughts. The diversity of edible plants in a forest garden, from berry bushes and vines to nut trees to herbs, edible flowers, and perennial vegetables, also provides a hedge against the vagaries of weather. Even when some plants have meager yields due to unfavorable conditions, others may well produce bumper crops.
A forest garden does more than just maintain positive ecological conditions—over time, it improves them. As more carbon is sequestered and more humus is created, the garden becomes regenerative, bettering its ecological state rather than merely sustaining it.
The process I’ve described does not unfold in a single year or even a few years. Once planted, a forest garden evolves with time in ever-changing and often unpredictable ways. But you don’t have to wait an eternity to reap results. You will begin to harvest some herbs, perennial vegetables, and berries from the first year. Three to five years after an initial planting, a forest garden begins to pop, taking on a life of its own and increasingly meeting its own needs while providing an increasing abundance of food for the gardener.
Moreover, something fantastical happens when you create a planting that emulates nature. Imagine the way you feel wandering a woodland path—an ethereal ambience pervades this kind of landscape. Visitors to my garden at Cross Island Farms often spontaneously describe it as “magical,” and more often than not they don’t want to leave. I often lose track of time myself as I wander in my forest garden, returning to my house to find two hours have gone by! You, too, will experience this phenomenon when you embark on your own forest garden adventure.
Your forest garden needn’t be a huge undertaking. You can start with a limited area, such as a foundation bed along one side of your house where you install edible bushes and ground covers instead of plants that are merely ornamental. Plant one fruit tree surrounded with other edible plants in your front or backyard; or develop an edible hedge to screen your house from your neighbor’s. The options are limited only by your imagination.