Forest Gardening - does it really work?

Bryn Thomas
Wednesday, 29th June 2016

Bryn Thomas explains how a forest garden works and adds a fascinating piece of information about an apple tree, first discovered in the 1770s!

Co-originator of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, was once asked if permaculture [growing] really worked, to which he replied "do plants grow?". Of course this answer was meant to be slightly facetious because we all know that plants sometimes don't grow, or at least not the ones we want! So our challenge is to chose the right ones, put them in the right place and get them to grow well.

Take a look at a patch of woodland and you will see just how productive nature can be. Forest gardening is about creating a garden based on the same principles as a woodland, often a young open woodland, but with species that are productive for us.

Picture what we want in a forest garden and most of us immediately start thinking about fruit and maybe nut trees, which is a good start. But we can also think about a shrub layer, often with soft fruit. The ground layer of herbs, perennial edible plants and fertility building plants needs most consideration though as it is this layer which has the highest cost to plant and takes most maintenance.

Whatever we want to plant we need to think carefully about the niche a plant enjoys. Figs can be planted where they get the sun but wild garlic needs deciduous shade. So we also need to consider how a garden will develop over time and revise our plans when it behaves differently from how we imagined.

I have planted and worked over a number of forest gardens over the last 22 years and it has always been fascinating to watch them develop, learn from them and work out how to interact with/manage them. The smallest I have planted is just 2m2 and the largest 500m2, but there are some in the UK extending to a few hectares.

For more information and to book a place on Brighton Permaculture's forest gardening course click here.

How does your fruit tree grow?

Fruit trees cannot be grown as the same variety from seed so they are propagated by grafting the fruit variety onto a young tree called a rootstock.

'Chip-budding' is a commonly used technique which fits a section of young wood containing a bud onto a rootstock. While the chip bud grows to form the new tree, the rootstock supplies water and nutrients to the growing shoot. The grafted tree is then genetically identical to the fruit variety the graftwood was taken from, and by careful selection of rootstock, trees of different height and vigour can be grown.

Different methods of grafting have enabled growers to maintain varieties over hundreds of years. The Sussex apple variety “Mannington’s Pearmain” for instance, is genetically identical to the original tree found growing from a pip in discarded apple pulp near Uckfield in the 1770s’.

If you would like to learn how to do this Brighton Permaculture'are running a course on Saturday 6th August. The tutor Peter May has a background in commercial horticulture, community orchard projects, and grows Sussex apple varieties on his fruit tree nursery near Cooksbridge. For more information about the course and to book a place click here.

Brighton Permaculture Trust

BPT is a charity that promotes greener lifestyles and sustainable development through design. They run courses and events and apply permaculture principles to our projects. They also offer all sorts of volunteering opportunities. To find out more click here.

Further Forest Garden Information

Watch the BBC's visit to a 'stunning' forest garden

Take a tour of the central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Instititue's forest garden

Visit Martin Crawford's forest garden

Read Trees for Gardens, Orchards and Permaculture

How to Make a Forest Garden