All down the canal from our house, in each house we pass one by one, neighbours are planting potatoes, onions and carrots – the conventional crops here – and there’s nothing wrong with that. A few gardeners here and there might use facilities like Irish Seed Savers to experiment with the hundreds of varieties we never see – blue potatoes, purple carrots – some more suited for their clay hill, cold bog or some other microclimate. A few might plant still more adventurous crops that might do well in this climate but remain little-known; yacon, daikon, oca, and others.
Creative or lazy gardeners with a bit of extra land might decide to leave it, deciding they get more mileage from the nettles and dandelions than they would from lettuces. If you want to build a garden that truly looks to the future, though, you could plant a forest.
It might seem like that growing a forest contradicts the idea of growing a garden, that one means low, edible and annual plants in rows, while the other means a landscape of tall trees and few edible plants. When you plant a permaculture-style forest garden, though, you are combining the best of both worlds – perennial crops, vines, shrubs and trees that produce food every year but do not need to be re-sown every spring.
A forest garden also has a vertical dimension that many kitchen gardens do not; low trees and shrubs that bear fruit, berries and nuts; vines that bear similar fruit and berries, and ground-cover plants that can be harvested anew each year. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.
The various plants help each other, as different plants require different nutrients from the soil and so do not starve each other. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. In this way, plants in the wild help each other, and by planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.
To make a forest garden, you should first look at your landscape and see what could grow there –in the case of our land, a relatively dry patch of earth surrounded by bog. Then, according to permaculture theory, you plan a system that will yield the seven Fs: food, fuel, fibre, fodder, fertiliser, “farmaceuticals” and fun.
Take a compass and mark which direction is the south – or north if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere -- and considering putting have the highest plants on the north, to cut down on the colder winds, and the lowest in the south to catch the maximum sun. You also want to pay attention to the rising and sloping of the property, to make sure you know what plants are getting the most sunshine and water runoff.
Plan a forest garden in vertical layers, starting with the pieces that reach the highest and around which the rest of the garden will turn: the trees. Make sure you allow a circle of sufficient breadth for each tree to grow; until it grows out, and find out ahead of time how large they tend to grow. If you plan a certain circle of space for them, and they grow slightly beyond it, you can prune them, but you should let them have a certain minimum of space.
You could plant fruit and berry trees like apples, plums and cherries; nut trees like walnut, hazel and oak also would prove valuable over time. Such trees aren’t going to yield vast quantities of food right away, of course, but in the meantime you can plant food-producing vines to climb up the trees – blackberries and kiwifruit, for example – as well as shrubs under them, like blueberries and lingonberries.
Further down still – for a forest garden has food at every level – you can plant edible weeds like Good King Henry and Fat Hen, as well as herbs that return every year. You can even plant some regular crops like carrots and onions around your trees and shrubs, and gradually segue from a regular garden into a forest garden over a course of years.
It is true that a forest garden requires some patience, and if you buy small trees from the nursery rather than growing apple trees from seed, it could be several times more expensive than a conventional garden. With the right species, however, you only have to plant them once; you are investing in infrastructure like a house or fence, only a forest garden could last for centuries longer.