About Forest Gardens

Agroforestry Research Trust in Dartington UK

A view through Martin Crawford's forest garden in Devon - check out those layers! As part of our research into Forest Garden systems we were very lucky to have exclusive access to explore this wonderful site in 2010.

A forest garden is sometimes known as an edible forest garden or a food forest. It is, however, much more than a simple food growing system. It can also be designed to produce fuel, fibre, fertiliser, fodder, pharmaceuticals and timber – all this while being low maintenance and working with nature rather than against it. It is a very old type of land use that still continues in many parts of the world today (see the wikipedia forest garden page).

Forest gardening was revived in the UK by Robert Hart in Shropshire in the 1960′s and Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust has extended the knowledge of tree, shrub and perennial crops for the UK climate tremendously since 1992. Martin’s world famous 2.1 acre forest garden at the Dartington Estate in South Devon is an absolute delight to visit.

A diverse ecosystem

A forest garden is often said to consist of seven different layers. We would argue that it is in fact more like nine! That aside, the layers reflect those observed in a natural forest or woodland, with different plants taking a different space both within the height of the land and over time (known as “succession” in ecological terms).

The diversity of the ecosystem means that crop diseases and pests are not spread as easily compared with a monoculture growing system, which in turn means that less (read no – especially in a mature system) herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, chemical seed treatments or chemical fertilisers need to be used. Indeed, the forest garden design should include crops that have multiple uses including attracting beneficial insects (like bees and ladybirds) and other unpaid workers like frogs, earthworms and hedgehogs.

Agroforestry

Martin Wolfe and Craig at Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk

Martin Wolfe is a master of organic farming and agro-forestry systems - Craig couldn't make notes fast enough when Martin kindly showed us around his research site in 2011.

Agricultural-forestry, shortened to Agroforestry (not angry woodsmen!) can be seen as a half-way option between fields of monocultures and a full forest garden system – forest gardening on a commercial scale. It still incorporates a diverse range of crops, but in a more orderly fashion that can be easily tended and harvested.

Martin Wolfe at Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk describes his organic alley-cropping system in 23 acres as “eco-agroforestry”.

Organic gardeners and farmers will recognise Martin’s rotation system that grow between the permanent “production hedges” of hazel, willow or mixed trees. In one alley in the first year he might grow potatoes, the next year replenish the soil with a clover cover crop, the next a cereal crop, then clover again, then back to potatoes. The other alleys have crops at a different stage of the same rotation.

The year before we visited Martin he said he had outcompeted his next door “conventional” farmer on wheat yields. Okay so it was a bad year for his neighbour – but what with droughts getting earlier in the UK, erratic climate issues and the cost of petroleum based chemicals going up, as Martin says his neighbour’s wheat “needs 20 oil-based chemicals applied every year and the land produces nothing else. At Wakelyns, we use no inputs at all (except for tractor diesel) and the land also produces tree growth and a wide range of biodiversity; indeed, here, there is a considerable net gain in terms of carbon capture and storage. In our view, this is the way to permanent agriculture.”

More than growing crops

There is a growing world-wide movement of courageous people learning about forest gardens and a different way of farming. I found this paragraph by David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in the USA that reflects on why:

“As Masanobu Fukuoka once said, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” How we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world. Forest gardening gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the planet works and changing our self-perceptions. Forest gardening helps us take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature’s work, rather than as separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world.”

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