Layers of a Forest Garden

How many layers in a Forest Garden? It depends on what you count!

Layers? What are you talking about? By layers we mean the different growing heights/spaces of the plants in the Forest Garden. Note height can also mean depth particularly when referring to root crops. How many layers will also depend on the size of your growing space, how old your garden is and what kind of plants you’d like to grow.

The seven (nine) layers of Forest Gardens

Most commonly seven layers of a Forest Garden are referred to. We reckon there are nine. Many of the layers will be multipurpose for example fixing nitrogen, good for bees along with providing a food harvest.

The layers also may or may not exactly fit within their height layers for example plants classed as “shrubs” are sometimes taller than small trees, root vegetables have leaves higher than herbaceous plants etc.

I’ve been designing a new logo and wanted to include all the main layers of our Forest Garden enterprise. What do you think?

Our new logo showing the nine layers of a Forest Garden.

Our new logo showing the nine layers of a Forest Garden.

#1 Canopy: The largest of all the trees. They could be large fruit or nut trees, trees for timber or windbreaks.

#2 Low trees: These are usually fruit or nut trees on dwarfing root stock, or coppiced/pollarded to keep the canopy low.

#3 Shrubs: Multi-stemmed fruit bushes, nitrogen fixing plants or indeed herbs that do not die back at the end of the growing season (like rosemary or lavender).

#4 Herbaceous plants: Herbs. Usually perennial vegetables and herbs or self-seeding biennial or annuals. The leaves and stems all die down at the end of the season with no persistent woody stem above ground during winter.

#5 Rhizosphere: Plants primarily grown for their roots and tubers.

#6 Ground cover: Plants that grow horizontally and therefore protect otherwise exposed soil.

#7 Climbers: Plants like vines that grow vertically often up the low tree or canopy layers.

#8 Fungi: Mushrooms either on inoculated logs, tree stumps or specific mushroom “beds”.

#9 Wildlife/Animals: Habitats for your unpaid workers are an essential consideration of forest gardening too – especially if you intend to eat some of their wares like honey.

For those of you wondering which layer is which, I’ve numbered the layers in the image below (not a popup sorry Wen). Hopefully that will help take some of the guesswork out of it for newbie Forest Gardeners.

For those of you guessing which Forest Garden layer is which this guide will help (can you spot the mistake?).

For those of you guessing which Forest Garden layer is which this guide will help (can you spot the mistake?).

If you are fortunate enough to have a pond, lake or other watery area in your forest garden you open up a whole new load of growing possibilities. The layers though will be similar to the ones described above.

Do I have to have all of the layers in my Forest Garden for it to be a Forest Garden? No. Forest Gardening is the concept of using different heights to your advantage and following nature’s lead. You may not have space for a canopy layer (or the neighbours hedge is effectively doing that job), or you only have space for one small fruiting apple so miss out the shrub layer, or your root layer is in containers and your herbs are growing in a vertical garden. It’s about maximising space and yield with the natural forest as your guide.

Read more about Forest Gardens …

How to build an insect hotel

Also called a bug house, insect house or wildlife stack. The insect hotel is a man made structure that anyone can make that creates “homes” for pollinating insects and other wildlife that may not have nook or cranny to live in the rest of your tidy garden.

We’ve seen insect hotels in all different shapes and sizes. Some are made from stacks of pallets, others small “designer” affairs to be attached to walls more like a piece of art. What they all have in common is that they are filled with a range of materials with varying sized holes for insects, reptiles and solitary bees to crawl into at night or to hibernate in over winter.

I’ve been wanting to create one for absolutely ages but had never gotten round to it. A mixture of not working out where best to place it and not having materials to hand to stuff the crevices. Then a few days ago it was International Day for Biodiversity and I was reminded again of my quest to create a Bug Hotel. This time I WILL do it. Okay so it’s the weekend after and we’ve started. At least though it’s a start.

Where to locate an insect house

Pallet insect house in the gardens at Llanerchaeron House (National Trust).

Pallet insect house in the gardens at Llanerchaeron House (National Trust).

Where you put your insect house will of course depend on the size of the finished hotel and the space you have available. In general terms you want some where that will be warm but not too hot and reasonably sheltered from rain and prevailing winds.

If your completed bug home is going to be large – like a stack of pallets or in our case hollow concrete blocks – you’ll need to find a solid and preferably level bit of ground to put it on as the completed insect hotel will be pretty heavy.

We chose a south facing side of an out building that is reasonably protected from the hottest sun by a beautiful Japanese acer and is close enough to a hedge to the south that it will be protected from the worst of the wind and rain. It’s a pretty sheltered spot close to where we cook, eat and relax on nice days. Which will mean that we will hopefully be able to see our buggy friends come and go from their new houses in a few months time. Who needs TV!

Materials you need to make an insect hotel

It’s best to use things that you already have or can find nearby. We’ve seen other people use man-made materials like plastics in their insect houses along with natural fillers. For us that isn’t an option as we don’t like the way plastics photodegrade (breakdown into smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight) and therefore would be a nightmare of small brittle pieces if we need to move our insect house in the future.

Our Insect Hotel. Made from old hollow concrete blocks and found natural materials.

Made from old hollow concrete blocks and found natural materials.

You’ll need some kind of frame. You can make this out of planks of wood (old shelving for example), pallets or hollow concrete blocks. We had plenty of old hollow concrete blocks around the place so we decide to use them.

You’ll also need a range of materials to arrange in the compartments. We used:

  • broken old bamboo canes,
  • stones and rubble (placed at ground level for toads),
  • dead wood with different sized holes drilled into the end,
  • dried hollow parnsip flower stalks,
  • dried hollow rosebay willow herb stalks,
  • dried hollow cow parsley stalks, and
  • weathered old plywood where they ply was coming apart.
  • As you can see we have a lot of spaces left to fill. We’ll also keep our eyes out for;

  • pine cones
  • other hollow stalks
  • Loose bark
  • broken clay pots
  • corrugated cardboard (and something waterproof to put it in)
  • We’ve also seen straw, hay, sand, wool, leaves and soil put into insect hotels but we don’t have any way to keep those kinds of things in place and out of the reach of nest making birds so we probably won’t include them in this design.

    We topped off the concrete “steps” with butterfly lavender and chives so that the bees are alerted to their possible new homes.