Forest garden or edible garden: a quick and practical guide to the concept

— Anh NGUYEN

It’s that time of the year again. Every Spring, you’ll see this if you wander in the countryside. 

How to plough to bury your blackgrass or how to irreversibly ruin the soil’s texture and micronism
How to plough to bury your blackgrass, as explained in this guide, or how to irreversibly ruin the soil’s texture and micronism. Photo source.

This is the agriculture of our times, where modern-day farmers are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, machinery and multinationals to “drive performance”, as stated by Cargill, the American agriculture giant, who was named “the worst company in the world” by the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth in 2019. 

Cannot blame the farmers. If you are taught to do the same things all your life – it is hard to take a step back and ask if there is something wrong with it. And one can only think of an alternative if one finds a problem. 

But agriculture as we know today was invented recently in the scale of human history. It was not always the case.

Agriculture in the Middle Ages and the divorce between agriculture and forestry

In the Middle Ages in Europe, agriculture and forestry were inseparable. Farmers “domesticate” the forest and make use of its products, either for heating & objects-making (firewood, timber, wood to make wooden pieces, wicker to make baskets), or for food (edible bulbs & young shoots, edible flowers & leaves, honey, mushrooms, fruits & nuts for oil, chestnuts & beechnuts flour, forages of chestnuts & acorns & beechnuts…)

Pigs feeding on acorns - farms and forests were next to each other in the Middle Age
Pigs feeding on acorns – farms and forests were next to each other. To read more on the use of acorn – from emergency food to a delicacy, please read this article here.

Forests had been giving food & materials for their homes for centuries. None of that required any energy to maintain – forests do not need watering and their seeds do not need sowing. Energy is put only into gathering & transforming the forests’ yield into food or objects. 

I am not trying to romanticize the Middle Ages – the life of farmers during this period was extremely hard. Yet as there were so many constraints, people got creative and optimized what their surrounding environment offered to them. Some of these inventive initiatives are worth discussing and probably, applying in our times. 

Food of peasants in the Middle Age
“Peasant food was mainly vegetables, plus anything that could be found – nuts, berries, nettles. The usual drink was weak, home-brewed beer. Honey provided with a sweetener.” Source.

This close-knit relationship between agriculture and forestry was maintained until noblemen wanted to reserve forests only for hunting. In France, the 1669 Order by King Louis XIV states that “the disorder which had crept into the Waters and Forests of our kingdom was so universal and so inveterate that the remedy seemed almost impossible”. 

This Order has changed the forest and agriculture landscape in France completely: access to wood is now highly regulated and put under surveillance; hunting & fishing is prohibited for those who do not hold noble property, and each year a clearcut is carried out according to development plans.

Clearcutting, or how to destroy the forest ecosystem and animal’s habitat
Clearcutting, or how to destroy the forest ecosystem and animal’s habitat. Photo source.

Forests, ever since, are managed by foresters to produce wood and to provide hunting spots, the fields are managed by farmers, and meadows by breeders. The three systems are completely independent. This model, worst off, was transmitted by the colonial administration and became the standard in other parts of the world. 

A clear distinction between meadows, fields and forests nowadays
Now we have this distinction between meadows, fields and forests. Photo source.

Why should we introduce forests back to our agricultural system?

Anyone who starts gardening will know the annual rituals. Every year, one has to prepare their seeds, and sow them into little pots, wait until there are some little seedlings, then put them into the soil, starting from January and February. One also has to prepare the soil, meaning clearing off weeds and turning it upside down. 

As for fruit trees, one must trim and prune either in late Fall or in early Winter to prepare for the next harvest season in Summer or in Fall.

Green potted annual plants on black plastic pots
Green potted plants on blue plastic pots – the rituals we know so well. Photo source.

Not to mention the effort to stock the water and to water the plant on a weekly basis, as well as a potential amount of pesticides or chemical products to protect the harvest. 

Man in face mask and gloves spraying insecticide on tomato plants in garden
Tasty tomatoes, sprayed by some pest control products. Photo source.

That’s a lot of work and energy, and even worse, they are recurring on an annual and weekly basis. On a small scale of a private garden, this might not seem to be a big deal. But this is the way we have been cultivating and planting, and on a global scale, this wasteful way of creating food does create a lot of negative environmental impact. 

One of our major sources for GHG emissions is found in the sectors of Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use - whose activities include the usage of fossil fuels to produce fertilizers and electricity to run machines
One of our major sources for GHG emissions is found in the sectors of Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use – whose activities include the usage of fossil fuels to produce fertilizers and electricity to run machines. Source.

We can no longer afford this way of cultivating due to climate emergency, and must look for better, less-energy demanding, less carbon-dense way to grow our food. And as usual, one can either look for answers in Nature or the ways our forefathers had done things in the past – these two proven sources of knowledge that have stood the test of time. 

In nature, there are only closed systems, self-sufficient on their own and self-nurturing from perpetual cycles of rainfall, sunlight and change of seasons – there is no need for the external energy outside of that system.

A forest is one of those systems. As mentioned before, no one has to water a forest, nor so the seeds nor prepare the soil for the herbs, trees and mushrooms. Yet every year, a forest gives us its yields in abundance.

Demonstration of a closed natural forest ecosystem
Demonstration of a closed natural forest ecosystem. Photo source.

The challenge now is to mimic this type of closed and self-sustaining system, in order to collect directly beneficial yields to humans, while minimizing the maintenance effort & energy and maximizing biodiversity.

Forest garden: mimic existing & high-efficiency models

Below is a graph showing different “installations” to produce food. We are very much on the right side of this graph, favoring a model of low biodiversity, low resilience with lots of maintenance.

The more we move to the left end, the advantages are multiple-fold: a more intensive system where biomass is produced on different layers, high biodiversity, high resilience and stability, less energy to put in the maintenance of the system, a more diverse production, better management of water and soil erosion and also, the creation of micro-climate. 

Different models of plantation and their features, including natural forest, forest-garden, orchard, meadow and intensive farming field
Different models of plantation and their features

One thing worth noting is that a forest garden is not a natural forest. Our aim is still to produce food, and we do that by creating a productive, edible, layered garden that imitates the structure and biodiversity of young natural afforestation or a forest edge.

These zones are where both light and biodiversity are guaranteed – rather than a dense forest where only big trees can thrive due to lack of sunlight, or the conventional orchard & fields as we know today with very low biodiversity degree.

A forest edge - a transition zone (ecotone) from an area of forest to open spaces
A forest edge – a transition zone (ecotone) from an area of forest to open spaces. Many species of animal prefer this part rather than the heart of the forest, “because they have both protection and light”. Photo source.

Therefore, a forest garden requires a significant amount of design effort, to intensify the positive interactions between different layers in a limited space: there are large & small fruit trees, mixed with shrubs, herbaceous perennials, aromatics, annuals, root vegetables, mushrooms and lianas.

5 layers of a forest garden, imitating those of a natural forest
5 layers of a forest garden, imitating those of a natural forest. This can go up to 7 layers, according to different sources. Photo source.

Another major problem with our current planting & gardening model is that we are pretty much obsessed with annual plants – cereals such as corns, wheat, barley, oat, rice, etc., or plants such as peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, radishes. This only naturally means that each year one will have to sow their seeds all over again. 

Therefore, to build a forest garden – a self-sustaining & low maintenance system, we should put our preference towards perennial plants and herbs. And there are just too many of them. 

On the ground level, we have strawberries, cranberry, lady’s mantle, wild garlic, tree onion, marsh-mallow,Norwegian angelica, mint, goosefoot, campanula, lovage, Malva, fennel, lemon balm, sorrel, oregano, burnet, nettle, horseradish, cardon, artichoke, Jerusalem artichoke, St. John’s Wort, tansy, comfrey, clover

On the liana side, we have vines, kiwi, kiwaï, chocolate vine, berry with 5 flavors, tuberous nasturtium, climbing spinach, hops, passionflora… And this is just two layers out of the five. 

On the shrub level, the palette seems to explode in choices – both for food and for other works. There are redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries, mulberries, raspberries, blueberries, saskatoon berries, goumi, Goji, Nanjing cherries, lime trees, Chinese cedar, laurels, arroche, mother purslane, myrica (royal pepper), Sichuan pepper. For nuts we have Cephalotaxus, Castanea Pumila, bladdernuts, Xanthoceras. As for other purposes rather than food, we have lavender, sage, rosemary as herbs, bamboos hazelnuts, cordyline, New Zealand flax, willow for wickerwork, alder, false indigo, gorse as nitrogen fixation, sea buckthorn, hawthorn, black elderberry, boxwood as mineral accumulators…

Moving to the highest layer in a forest garden, we have fruit trees (apples, pearls, cherries, figs, prunes, peaches…), paw-paw, blue beans, sorb, Halesia. For nuts, we have pecan, walnuts, Araucaria, chestnut, hazelnut, Gingko, pine, oak. For sap we have maples & birches. For firewood, we have alders, ash trees, black locust…Not to mention ones with indirect yield, serving as nitrogen fixers or mineral accumulators.

We can still, indeed, have tomatoes and cucumbers – things we have grown to love, yet they should not be a major part of a forest garden as these plants are not perennials. Switching towards a true forest garden means, therefore, changing one’s food choices. This could be difficult and at first, will demand some research time to know what one can eat or cannot.

A forest garden in Burgundy, France
A very successful forest garden in Burgundy, France. It looks like a real young forest, except that almost every plant here is edible. Photo source.

Besides layering & favoring perennial plants, there are other principles worth nothing, such as: 

  • Occupy all layers (canopy, shrubs, perennials, annuals, roots, lianas) to create a maximum amount of biomass: the more layers you can fill up,  the more edible plants – i.g food – and biomass & biodiversity you can create in a given size of land.
  • Choose plants with direct or indirect interests: some plants are not edible, yet play an important part in the ecosystem or serve other purposes rather than food (nitrate fixation, materials for woodwork or wickerwork…)
  • Control pests with other plants or animals: as we are trying to create a self-sustaining and closed system, without the introduction of external energy or synthetic elements such as chemical pesticides, biological pest control techniques are often recommended. 

– – –

Forest garden is probably a new name to describe a long-lost practice, which was mainly practiced mostly in tropical and sub-tropical areas, without any term addressed to it. If you are interested in installing a forest garden in a temperate climate, here are some resources that might be useful:

  1. A quite complete wiki page on the history of forest-gardening and how the practice arrived in a temperate climate in our modern times.
  2. The long-lost forest-garden of Europe”, an article written by Max Paschall, on a wooded farm in eastern Pennsylvania, U.S.
  3. The book “One-straw revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka – illustrates the futility and even counterproductivity of soil laboring and hence, the need to move forward with a more permacultural way to farm.

It is also recommended that you look for a forest garden in your region/city via the Internet search or on social media as well – in order to visit and discuss the enormous potential of this agricultural practice, and to see that edible gardens or forests are not some utopian crazy dream, but totally feasible with an adequate amount of design & execution effort.


If you want to read further on this topic:

The absurdity of gardening

Micro-farming: how it works in Vietnam’s urban area

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