How to Start a Forest Garden Bed

Forest gardening can sound complicated and off-putting, especially if you think you need a forest to do it properly! In fact, any garden bed can be planted using forest garden principles and become a productive area. This is the way we do it.

First, plant the canopy layer – that’s the tallest trees. In a bed or small garden, these will probably be fruit trees such as apple, plum or pear. If you have space you could use something taller like a Rowan (for jelly and wine) or Ash (for seeds and firewood). There may be only one or two canopy trees!

Mulch the rest of the bed to exclude weeds. You may want to plant the shrub layer first depending what mulch you use. We use flattened cardboard boxes and leave them in place for up to a year before trying to plant perennials through them. Some people use black plastic and plant immediately, but the plastic can be tricky to plant through and you might not want it there forever as it restricts the natural development of the ground layer. Cover the mulch with composted woodchip and/or leaf mould, quite deeply. As the bed develops, more leaf litter will accumulate to feed the soil and suppress weeds naturally.

When planting the shrub layer, allow access for fruit picking, and space for each bush to develop. We use currants, gooseberries, autumn raspberries and wineberries usually – but you can make an acid-loving bed with blueberries, bilberries and saskatoons under Rowan or Birch (for wine), with wild cranberry, crowberry and strawberry as the ground layer.

Wild strawberries make effective cover in any ground layer, being shade tolerant. But first plant some taller perennials – eg. rhubarb, tree onions, sweet cicely, sorrel or lovage. Then the low creepers – we like sweet woodruff, three-cornered and wild garlic, but anything goes, so long as it is useful, fairly shade tolerant and can hold its own in what will become a changing ecosystem.

Maintenance? You’ll need to take out a few undesirables to start with. The rest is monitoring, adapting and going with the bed that develops from your starting point. (And eating lots of delicious perennial vegetables and fruit!)