In a forest garden, the goal when choosing different plants is to build guilds of beneficial plants which aid one another and us in a range of ways. If you are familiar with the idea of a forest garden, you will already know that they involve layered planting.
The top layer are the canopy trees. Below them are shrubs and smaller trees. Next come the herbaceous perennials – taller plants and low-lying ground cover plants. Roots and tubers delve into the soil, and vining plants and climbers ascend through the layers. Each plant should be chosen with reference to the interactions between it and the other plants in the system.
We need to think about:
- How each element affects the environmental conditions for those around it. (Casting shade, reducing moisture loss from the soil, etc..)
- The root structure and growth habits of each plant. (How these things affect other plants grown nearby, and how the interactions will change over time.)
- How particular plants (dynamic accumulators – nitrogen fixing plants etc..) will aid in natural cycles and maintain fertility in the system.
- Plant choices which can attract beneficial life, such as pollinators and predatory insects, and repel, confuse or distract common pests.
There are elements that are often overlooked when it comes to forest garden guilds. Taking a holistic view does not just involve thinking about plant life. It also involves thinking about how animal life contributes to the system. Forest garden guilds’ success often depends on the wildlife that moves through and utilises the environment. And it also depends on the fungal life that enables the entire system to thrive.
These other forms of life are also part of a forest garden guild. We must attract and value these elements too in order to build a holistic, functioning ecosystem. This involves not only thinking about choosing plants which attract wildlife and keep it around, but also about nurturing that life in every way we can.
For guilds to thrive, we need to allow some disorder to remain. Leaving dead wood lying, not being too zealous in tidying up leaves… We need to balance the need to impose some order and control with letting nature reign.
Some elements of a forest garden guild we create ourselves. Others arrive as the system begins to thrive.