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the forest garden

January 12, 2008

zora naki

Forest gardening is a great concept for the urban gardener with limited space. In the early 1960s, a British gardener named Robert Hart explored the positive relationship that exists between plants in natural woodland systems – from below the ground to the top of the tree canopy. By copying this structure , his concept of the “forest garden” made productive use of limited space and gardening energy to maximize food output in a natural and ecologically sound manner. I’ve translated it to urban jungle terminology for the benefit of us city-dwellers:

  1. the urban jungle skyscraper: mature fruit trees
  2. lowrise: dwarf-stock fruit and smaller nut-trees
  3. street-front: berry bushes
  4. hydrant level: herbaceous plants
  5. pavement: groundcover
  6. subway: underground roots and tubers
  7. hydro (poles and wires): climbing vines

By planting and growing in layers, especially with native perennial plants, we have a glimpse of the gardener’s nirvana – a perpetually producing, low-maintenance source of sustenance. Our forest garden/urban jungle becomes a place of respite and sanctuary.

Quote from The Forest Garden by Robert Hart:

If one is starting a forest garden from scratch, the best way to form a canopy is by planting standard apples, plums, or pears at the recommended spacing; twenty feet each way. Then fruit or nut trees on dwarfing rootstocks can be planted halfway between the standards, to form the ‘low-tree layer,’ and fruit bushes between all the trees to form the ‘shrub layer.’ Herbs and perennial vegetables will constitute the ‘herbaceous layer,’ and horizontally spreading plants like dewberries and other Rubus species, as well as creeping herbs such a buckler-leaved sorrel (Rumex scutatus) and lady’s mantle, will form the ‘ground-cover layer.’ For the root vegetables, mainly radishes and Hamburg parsley, occupying the ‘rhizosphere,’ a low mound can be raised, so that they will not be swamped by the herbs. As for the climbers that constitute the ‘vertical layer’: grapevines, nasturtiums, and runner beans can be trained up the trees, while raspberries and hybrid berries, such as boysenberries and tayberries, can be trained over a trellis fence, forming a boundary to the garden.

I think that these are lovely ideas, and I can only imagine how beautiful his British forest garden was (Robert Hart died in 2000). Now the question for me is, how do I translate these lofty goals to a very small plot of land in an urban setting? I don’t have a pre-existing orchard to work with and I only have room for about two fruit trees. Does that qualify as a forest? I think that the idea of layering in biodiversity vertically as well as horizontally is essential. The Path to Freedom Project seems to be exploring this in depth – I think I’ll head over to their website to check it out.

More info on Robert Hart:

Spiral Seed: Tribute to Robert Hart
The Garden of Love: Article on Robert Hart’s Forest Garden
Wikipedia: Robert Hart

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