What is a Forest Garden and why should you consider one for your landscape project?

15th February 2024

“A forest garden is a place where nature and people meet halfway, between the canopy of trees and the soil underfoot. It doesn’t have to look like a forest – what’s important is that natural processes are allowed to unfold, to the benefit of plants, people and other creatures. The result is an edible ecosystem.” – Tomas Remiarz, ‘Forest Gardening in Practice’

Landscape Architecture is an incredibly versatile industry, which takes inspiration from various fields to inform the way that design is approached; one of these can be Forest Gardening.  Forest Gardening is a multi-layered food production system that favours replicating woodland ecosystems in place of traditional agricultural methods. This approach aims to achieve the most stable and future-proof systems that work with nature, not against it. But is there a place for Forest Gardens in the urban realm?

There is a number of social and ecological aspects that we are faced with daily, which can be supported by creating a Forest Garden or by following Forest Gardening principles.  This blog will explore some of these aspects.

Food production

Established as the alternative to traditional food production methods, Forest Gardening aims to join functionality with beauty and can help play a crucial role in enhancing food security and self-sufficiency of local communities. It can provide individuals with new skill sets, physical activity and resources and can encourage the exploration of new fields of interest in sustainability and urban food production. The vast majority of people living in towns and cities are deprived of workable green space and the ability to grow their own produce. The introduction of Forest Gardens create that opportunity whilst remaining low-maintenance by design, this can encourage long-term public engagement whilst reducing costs at maintained sites.  As Landscape Architects, we have the unique opportunity to supply communities with spaces where they can get their hands dirty and to champion the idea of accessibility to fresh produce. Including Forest Gardens in our designs, particularly in underserved communities, can help to reduce reliance on store-bought food, increase availability of healthier products at lower cost and decreasing the strain that traditional agricultural methods put on the environment.

Community engagement

Creating a Forest garden is the perfect way to involve your local community in a joint cause. Planning and maintenance of the spaces that will be used by the public should strive to gain its support and engage everybody in the process. At Outerspace we always try to design places that empower communities, create a sense of ownership and reflect the needs and values of the people that they serve. With this in mind Forest Gardens have the potential to be the recreational spaces where their communities choose to gather and socialise. They can also provide the background and create opportunities for various events and celebrations, contributing to the overall well-being of the residents and character of the neighbourhood.

Education

Forest gardening creates plenty of opportunities for furthering community education about food, ecosystems, and the importance of biodiversity. Landscape Architects are able to integrate educational elements within projects and programming, spread environmental awareness and promote a deeper understanding of the natural world. Working on a Forest Garden is also a great chance to meet like-minded people and exchange knowledge about food growing. This is a place where anyone can learn about sustainable gardening practices nature. This knowledge-sharing aspect enhances community’s understanding of their own local environment and each other.

Climate resilience

One of the reasons why Forest gardening is so relevant today, is its resilience to challenges posed by climate change. Landscape Architects are tasked with the responsibility of addressing the threats imposed by climate change and we should do everything in our power to implement solutions necessary to mitigate the risks. Establishing a Forest Garden means creating an extremely resilient system that is adaptable and resistant to extreme weather events. It also captures and stores carbon from the atmosphere much more effectively than annual vegetables. Forest Gardening gives us ways of developing designs that are tailored to provide protection from wind, sun, frost and the wide range of edible species ensures harvest despite one or a number of crops failing. It might not have the power to stop climate change, but it can surely help us build a safer future and be part of the bigger answer to its challenges.

Biodiversity

At the heart of forest gardening lies the promotion of cultivating a wide variety of plant species in a specific structure. Providing communities with spaces that serve the natural environment and support a great range of wildlife species aligns with the contemporary goals of Landscape Architecture. We are trusted to deliver schemes with resilient ecosystems, which invite wildlife into our gardens and public spaces. Unlike traditional food production methods, Forest Gardening is not aimed at eliminating invertebrates, birds, mammals and reptiles from our land, but recognises the role that every living organism plays in our environment. Forest Gardens depend on the interactions between fungi, bacteria and animals to ensure a balanced system is created. Whether it is fungi breaking down dead matter, earthworms building ventilation and drainage systems in soil, pollinators enabling plant reproduction or pest predators supporting the health of the planting, these are all elements of the natural environment that Forest Gardening recognises and uses to its advantage. Furthermore the introduction of Forest Gardening can go a long way into helping to meet the 10%  Biodiversity Net Gain target on new developments.

Holistic Design

Forest Gardening is much more than just a collection of edible plants. It is not a patch of cabbage thrown into scheme to tick the ‘food growing’ box or an apple tree planted in the park. It is not only a complex system requiring professional expertise, but also a holistic design philosophy. At its core, Forest Gardening is a self-sufficient, sustainable land management system. Minimal soil disturbance, elimination of chemicals and fertilisers, using mycorrhizal fungi, water management practices such as mulching and water retention are just a few of the fundamental principles that make Forest Gardening so comprehensive. Implementing these rules to the planting schemes we provide has the potential to positively impact the health, usefulness and longevity of the vegetation.

Summary

Forest Gardening embraces the principles of biodiversity, sustainability, and community engagement; such principles that should be the core values of all the landscapes that we create. It provides an opportunity to create spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also contribute to community self-sufficiency and food security. As Landscape Architects, we have the chance to redefine the role of urban spaces and highlight the importance of food production in our everyday lives. Forest Gardening might not be the perfect system that will answer all of our needs, but it definitely can be the example of a harmonious and regenerative relationship between humans and nature that we should strive to achieve. Ultimately, it is time for Landscape Architects to lead the way towards a greener, more sustainable and safer future.

Written by Aleks Slubowska, Landscape Architect.