18 October 2021

Forest Gardening

Written by Published in Environment

As we enter Autumn, we begin to welcome cooler weather, trading our summer outfits for winter coats. Hues of orange and yellow replace our once green and floral spaces, and typical gardens filled with spring and summer flowers slowly begin to disappear.

At Ewhurst, our ancient woodland flashes with autumn colour, we’re harvesting our autumn crops, and our animals prepare for their first winter on the estate. Additionally, we are maintaining our forest garden which thrives year-round!

As explained in my International Business Times piece, Agroforestry: The Future of UK Sustainable Farming, which was published earlier this week, forest gardening, or forest farming, is a form of agroforestry. Agroforestry is a land management practice that combines all aspects of nature (crops, animals, plants) rather than separating them. Further, agroforestry promotes natural solutions to farming issues such as flooding, erosion, and pests over artificial solutions.

Mimicking the structure of a natural forest, forest gardens consist of a variety of trees, shrubs, crops, and plants. These range from large fruit and nut trees to medicinal roots or soil-level plants that naturally repel insects and pests, such as lavender and basil.

This combination improves the forest garden’s crop diversity, creating rich nutritious soil, and providing habitats for local wildlife.

Healthy, high-quality soil is the key ingredient to any successful garden! Absorbing large amounts of CO2, nutrient-rich soil decreases the number of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. This helps mitigate the ongoing effects of the global climate crisis.

Further, the more nutritious the soil, the healthier each of the crops is. This leads to a lasting ecosystem that can endure potential natural threats such as erosion or water run-off. Further, it prevents the land from becoming barren or infertile in the future. This is promising for local wildlife, such as hedgehogs, mice, birds, and small mammals, which will inhabit these forest gardens, contributing to the area’s biodiversity.

Whether one plants their forest garden around existing trees or plants or starts their garden from scratch, taking the time to plan and design your forest garden is crucial to its success! Not only does it ensure that the crops are compatible with one another, but it further confirms that the forest garden is self-sustainable in the long run.

To achieve a diverse, sustainable system, the proper layers must be established in your forest garden.

There are five layers in any forest garden, consisting of a layer of rooting plants, a shrub layer, a ground layer of edible herbs, a mid-canopy layer of trees, and finally a high-canopy layer of trees. Found in natural forests, these layers ensure that each plant is receiving the proper shelter, light, moisture, and pollination they need to thrive.

Profiting from the natural benefits of each of these layers, the forest garden becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem. Thus, it requires little maintenance in the future!

For over a year, we have been developing our forest garden at Ewhurst Park. What started as a couple of sketches on paper has turned into a diverse and thriving ecosystem. The rooting plants, shrubs, and layer of edible herbs we planted a year ago have taken well to the surrounding environment, growing more and more every day! Additionally, the wildlife community in our forest garden has grown, with frequent visits from multiple squirrels and birds.

 caspian dahlstromPhoto by Caspian Dahlstrom

Other farms throughout the UK have taken up forest gardening. This is thanks to the help of individuals and organisations that are educating others on forest gardening. The Agroforestry Research Trust, a UK non-profit that researches and educates others on agroforestry practices, has a forest garden that individuals can visit physically or online. Beyond directly helping the environment, this forest garden has helped visual learners, functioning as an example forest garden. Other courses, such as the one I did with Martin Crawford, are available in person or online as well and give useful tips on how to grow and maintain your forest garden.

Additionally, community projects, such as the Forest Farm Peace Garden (FFPG), expose the local community to sustainable farming habits. Focused on education and health, FFPG allows individuals to come to their farm and assist with their forest garden, food growing, composting, and beekeeping.

While it is quite a commitment to start a forest garden, especially if you are planting the trees from samplings, forest gardening is rewarding work. Whether on a small plot of land, a community garden (like FFPG), or a large estate, these methods can help our local and global environment. Further, as seen in my forest garden, once established, little maintenance is needed!

I hope others are encouraged to partake in year-long gardening initiatives like forest gardening. As we enter the next phase of development at Ewhurst Park, I invite you all to come and explore the vast grounds and our various projects like our forest garden.

Read more of Mandy's articles in Sublime Magazine

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