When most people think about growing their own, they think first about growing annual crops. Most people think of food production, it involves growing a range of common fruits and vegetables in kitchen gardens, in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers.
But as those who are familiar with forest gardening will know, these are not the only options. It is possible to create a different sort of, predominantly perennial, food producing system.
One common question that crops up in my work is whether forest gardening or annual production is the best choice for a given situation. I tend to favour an approach for many gardens that integrates these two different sorts of gardening. I often recommend a combination of forest garden and polyculture annual beds. Though of course, when it comes to permaculture design, there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ approach.
When trying to decide whether forest gardening is the right choice for you, I think it can be helpful to look at both the pros and cons of this approach.
First of all, it is important to remember that planning diverse, layered planting schemes is a great choice. But I differentiate between the perennial layered planting of a forest garden, and the (mostly annual/ biennial) crops in a polyculture bed or growing area.
Forest gardens are lower maintenance. They sequester more carbon than annual production zones. They protect the soil, can catch, store and conserve water. They are a longer term proposition.
However, we must be honest that forest gardens can have their downsides too. One major deciding factor is that much of the food coming from a forest (or woodland) garden is not the food we are typically used to eating.
We have the familiar top fruits and berries, yes. But we also eat unfamiliar leafy greens and root crops, for example, that thrive in dappled shade – perennial vegetables, rather than the more familiar annual crops that can be grown in a sunnier spot in a polyculture bed.
The variety of produce that can come from a forest garden can be amazing and the efforts to create one rewarding. But for those new to growing their own, there can sometimes be a steeper learning curve, and more new concepts, ideas and plants to contend with. Polyculture growing can sometimes be an easier introduction to some of the ideas we espouse.
That said, I would highly recommend that even those with smaller gardens consider implementing some elements of forest garden design. Start with a single fruit tree and guild, for example, alongside polyculture kitchen garden beds, and work your way up from there.
If you need more help to work out if forest gardening is right for you and your garden, please do get in touch. I would be glad to help you work out how to integrate forest garden concepts without becoming overwhelmed.