Forest gardens are an exciting trend that has many advantages. We explain what is meant by a forest garden and how you can create a forest garden yourself.
More and more people are longing for nature and a lifestyle that is as close to nature as possible. So it’s no wonder that forest gardens are becoming increasingly popular. With its unique structure and lush charm, the idyllic garden design creates a place of calm and serenity. At the same time, you support your environment with a forest garden: Numerous beneficial insects such as bumblebees and butterflies, but also forest animals and wild plants find a suitable shelter here. In addition, like any permaculture, the forest garden is particularly easy to care for. We’ll tell you here how you can create a forest garden and which plants are suitable for it.
What is a forest garden?
In a forest garden, the gardener tries to imitate or maintain the structure of a natural forest area in a kitchen garden. The specialty is the special structure of the forest garden: This is not, as usual, divided into different beds, but mainly relies on different heights of growth. A forest garden typically always consists of an herb, a shrub, and a tree layer that coexist in a small space. The increased integration of trees and shrubs in the kitchen garden results in a higher number of species per area than is the case, for example, in a conventional garden.
The individual crops benefit from each other in that the shading of the trees, for example, contributes to less evaporation in the area of the soil or the ground cover prevents soil erosion. This type of garden design ideally preserves the natural nutrient cycle of the property, making the forest garden particularly easy to care for and sustainable.
In the forest garden, the natural structure of a forest is imitated.
What are the advantages of a forest garden?
Forest gardens are becoming more and more popular – but does this type of garden design have advantages or is it a short-lived trend? Creating a forest garden is not only aesthetic and beautiful, but it also has other advantages. Forest gardens are a real gift, especially for wild animals, because although the naturally prevailing vegetation in the USA would mainly consist of forests, today there are only a few natural forests in numerous localities. Gardens and urban areas are only moderately suitable as a habitat for many wild animals – a forest garden, on the other hand, is a place of retreat that beneficial organisms such as bees and bumblebees, but also birds and squirrels happily accept.
In addition to the animals, many plants also appreciate the forest garden. Thanks to the tier-like arrangement due to the differences in height of the various plants, a significantly higher number of different species can thrive in a small space. At the same time, native plants, including numerous wild plants, benefit from this type of garden design. Especially in the shady areas of the forest garden, they find a suitable location, which they are denied in many other gardens. In this way, you can use your natural garden to help preserve biodiversity.
Beneficial insects feel particularly comfortable in a forest garden.
Another advantage of the forest garden is that it belongs to the so-called permacultures. This means that the forest garden ideally forms a permanent ecosystem that hardly needs to be influenced by humans. As a result, forest gardens are considered to be extremely easy to care for, as, for example, the annual sowing of new plants is saved due to the large selection of perennial or recurring species. In addition, the permanent vegetation prevents the soil from being weakened by wind and water erosion. This means that less fertilizer has to be used in the garden, which is why this form of garden design is particularly cheap.
Tip: Since regular harvesting removes nutrients from the soil, you also have to fertilize in the forest garden from time to time. Ideally, the nutrients are returned to the soil through the use of self-made compost or green manure. However, it is also possible to use organic fertilizers, such as Gardender organic fertilizers. Mineral fertilizers, on the other hand, should not be used, as they intervene in the natural cycles of nutrient supply in the soil and thus inhibit healthy, natural soil life.
Create and design a forest garden
The forest garden is very diverse if you look closely at the different levels. The soil, the nutrient supply, or the relationship between light and shadow can be just as diverse so that numerous small climatic areas arise. The selection of plants for the forest garden is correspondingly complex: Many plants are generally suitable for the forest garden, but you have to pay close attention to the individual location requirements when planting. If these are not met, the new plants will not be able to last – and you want to save yourself the work of replanting. In the following we will go into the important elements of the forest garden:
Soil: Before you can start planting, the soil of the forest garden should be examined carefully: ideally, it should be humic and be able to store moisture and nutrients well. While a former forest plot can already meet these requirements well, other soils, on the other hand, must first be prepared for their new task. Green manure with clover ( Trifolium ) or Phacelia ( Phacelia ) can loosen compacted soils and at the same time add new nutrients to the soil. Alternatively, you can enrich the soil with compost or bark humus, but an organic fertilizer, such as Gardender organic fertilizer, is also an option.
Tip: So that the soil does not dry out, it makes sense to always cover bark mulch such as our Gardender organic pine bark – this keeps the moisture in the soil and creates a soil quality that is similar to that of a forest floor. As the plants grow and spread, they will cover the unplanted areas and there is no longer any need for mulch. Since after mulching the plant nutrient nitrogen can be fixed for a short time, compensatory fertilization is always necessary directly before mulching. Our organic universal fertilizer has proven itself in this context.
Trees: Particular attention should be paid to the selection and placement of trees when designing a forest garden. These form the basic framework of the garden and are not only particularly visually present but also change the location conditions for smaller plants in their vicinity by casting shadows. It is therefore worthwhile to make a precise plan for the trees that already exist in the garden and then consider which locations are best for replanting more trees. Sufficient distance should be maintained between the individual trees so as not to hinder growth in the following years. Fruit trees are particularly popular in the forest garden because they are not only visually appealing but also promise a tasty harvest. Local fruit varieties such as apples ( Malus Domestica ) or cherries ( Prunus cerasus, Prunus avium ) can be easily integrated into the forest garden.
The trees form the basic structure of the forest garden.
Shrubs: As soon as you have finished planning the tree structure in the garden, you can start choosing the other plants. Ideally, one also starts here with the selection of large shrubs and hedges that should move into the garden. Here, too, useful plants such as the hazel bush or raspberry can be easily integrated into the forest garden.
Perennials and ground cover: Once you have found a suitable location for the shrubs, you can choose suitable perennials and then ground cover and ferns and assign them a place. In doing so, attention must always be paid to the individual location requirements of the individual plants: First and foremost, the relationship between light and shadow, but also the soil condition and the moisture in the soil can vary greatly depending on the location in the forest garden, so that not every plant is suitable for every location. Edible ground covers are, for example, wild blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus ) and, of course, wild herbs such as plate herb ( Claytonia perfoliata ).
Plants for the forest garden
There is hardly any other garden with such a diversity of species as in a forest garden. The range of plants that are suitable for a forest garden is correspondingly wide: both tiny ground cover such as the small periwinkle ( Vinca minor ) and large trees such as the oak ( Quercus ) can easily find their place here. Naturally native plants and shrubs are best suited for the forest garden, as these correspond best to the flora in a naturally occurring forest. For the ground, however, shade-loving ground covers are particularly suitable, as they also thrive under trees and bushes.
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Plants that bloom in early spring also like to join in forest gardens. Climbing plants are also very welcome in forest gardens because they use the existing trees as climbing aids and give the garden an almost fairytale flair. Vegetables such as Swiss chard ( Beta vulgaris subsp. Vulgaris ), onions ( Allium cepa ), or kale ( Brassica oleracea var. Sabellica ) also fit perfectly into the forest garden. Since regular harvesting removes nutrients from the soil, attention should be paid to additional fertilization with compost or another organic fertilizer, especially in these areas.
Suitable trees for the forest garden:
- Different fruit trees like apple ( Malus ) or cherry ( Prunus ): edible fruits
- Nut trees such as walnut ( Juglans regia ) or hazelnut ( Corylus avellana ): edible fruits
- Chestnut ( Castanea ): the fruits of the sweet chestnuts are edible
- Beech ( Fagus ): foliage good for humus formation
- Birch ( Betula ): foliage well suited for compost
- Spruce ( Picea ): needles with medicinal properties
Suitable shrubs and perennials for the forest garden:
- Various berry bushes such as blueberry ( Vaccinium myrtillus ) or raspberry ( Rubus idaeus ): edible berries
- Wild roses ( pink ): edible rose hips
- Lupine ( Lupinus ): Green manure
- Foxglove ( Digitalis purpurea ): ornament and bee pasture; Warning: extremely toxic!
Suitable plants for the herb layer in the forest garden
- Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa ): poisonous
- Snowdrop ( Galanthus nivalis ): slightly poisonous
- Crocuses ( Crocus tommasinianus ): slightly poisonous
- Nettle ( Urtica ): edible
- Sorrel ( Rumex acetosa ): edible
- Plate herb ( Claytonia perfoliata ): edible
- Strawberries ( Fragaria x ananassa or Fragaria vesca ): edible
- Cranberry ( Vaccinium macrocarpon ): edible
- Woodruff ( Gallium odoratum ): edible
- Dandelion ( Taraxacum sect. Ruderalia ): edible
- … and many useful plants!
Suitable climbing plants for the forest garden:
- Ivy ( Hedera helix ): poisonous
- Wild roses ( pink ): edible
- Wood pea ( Lathyrus silvestris ): not edible
- Forest honeysuckle ( Lonicera henryi / caprifolium / periclymenum /… ): slightly poisonous
- Hops ( Humulus lupulus ): usable
- Common clematis ( Clematis vitalba ): poisonous
- Kiwi ( Actinidia deliciosa ): edible
The 5 best plants for the forest garden
The selection of plants for the forest garden is so large that it is easy to lose track of things. With this in mind, we’ve put together the top five plants that you should definitely know if you want to create a forest garden:
1. Sweet chestnut
The sweet or sweet chestnut ( Castanea sativa ) is perfect as a tree for the forest garden with an average height of 20 to 25 meters. With its sweeping crown, pretty flowers in spring, and golden yellow foliage in autumn, the sweet chestnut is particularly decorative. Chestnuts need a sunny place, in colder regions they should also be a little protected, as particularly young trees can be sensitive to frost. In the forest garden, however, its fruits above all bring great joy: The dark brown nuts of the sweet chestnut not only taste good to squirrels but can also be collected and eaten by us humans.
The sweet chestnut donates its delicious fruits to the forest garden.
Blackberries ( Rubus sect. Rubus ) should not be missing in any forest garden. The prickly plant is not only perfect for populating the shrub layer but with its juicy fruits also provides a vitamin-rich snack for in-between meals. Since the blackberry is mainly found in forest areas in the wild and it prefers the slightly acidic forest soil, it can easily be planted in a sunny to partially shaded place in the forest garden. Since blackberries are particularly comfortable in the forest garden, they can quickly spread out of control. If you want to prevent this, you should think of a root barrier when planting the blackberry.
The blackberry belongs in every forest garden.
3. Forest forget-me-nots
Pretty flowers can also be found in a shade garden. The best proof of this is the forest forget-me-nots ( Myosotis sylvatica ): The chalice-shaped individual flowers with their beautiful blue shade are a real feast for the eyes and are an eye-catcher in the forest garden from April to June. Beneficial organisms are also very fond of small plants because they are a popular supplier of nectar. In partially shaded places, the plant feels right at home in the forest garden and hardly needs any maintenance. The entire plant is edible.
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The apple ( Malus ) is one of the best-known and most important types of fruit – that is why it should not be missing in a forest garden. The humus, nutrient-rich soil of the forest garden is perfect as a location for the apple tree. However, since the apple tree is “only” 10 meters high, you should make sure when creating the forest garden that it is not shaded too much by larger trees in a few years. In addition to its beautiful flowers and delicious fruits, another advantage of the apple tree is that it has a deep taproot. This means that small, shade-friendly plants can be planted as a shrub layer directly under the apple tree.
The apple tree can be easily integrated into the forest garden.
The hazelnut ( Corylus avellana ) is one of the oldest fruits used in Europe – and should also find its way into the forest garden. The shrub, which is up to 7 meters high, grows naturally mainly on the edges of the forest and in hedges, but can also be grown in the forest garden without any problems. Here it tolerates a shady place, but it develops most of the flowers and fruits in a sunny place. The hazelnut is particularly popular because of its small, nutty fruits that can be collected in autumn and that taste wonderful both fresh and in baked goods.
The hazelnut is a must for every forest garden.
Tip: Of course, you are free to add elements in the forest garden that would be rather untypical for the forest. In classic permaculture, for example, the raised bed is an important element. Filled with fertile soil such as Plantura organic tomato and vegetable soil and your own compost, as well as mulched with the leaves of your forest trees, it produces healthy fruit that you can easily harvest.
Do you want to get started right away and are you now looking for the right trees for your forest garden? Then take a look to see if there is something suitable for you in our article on bee-friendly trees.