As described in a previous article the forest garden is not intended to replace the traditional garden but in most cases to complement it because of its more maintenance free and diverse plant community.
For those who want the best of both approaches the single layer traditional garden would be located on the south edge of the forest garden.
There are lots of articles and videos available but for this article I am mainly using information from the Farming and Homestead-planning, Gardening article entitled “Designing a Forest Garden the Seven-layer Garden.”
Food forests and edible forest gardens are some other names for permaculture. These gardens are complex systems that provide food for people, habitat for wildlife, carbon sequestering, biodiversity, natural soil building, beauty and tranquility and a host of other benefits.
A simple forest garden contains at least three layers: trees, shrubs, and ground plants but a deluxe forest garden can contain as many as seven tiers including tall trees, low trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, vines, and root crops. The upper layer is not as tall as a coniferous forest and would contain fruit and nut trees like apple, pear, plum and cherry along with chestnut and walnuts to name a few.
The lower tree layer could include dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks to keep them low growing and could include plants like naturally small trees such as apricot, peach, nectarine, almond, medlar, and mulberry.
The shrub Layer is next and could include: blueberry, rose, hazelnut, butterfly bush, bamboo, serviceberry, the nitrogen-fixing Elaeagnus (Silver berry) species and Siberian pea shrub.
Next is the herb layer which in broad botanical terms is the nonwoody vegetation normally found in most gardens with an emphasis on perennials or self seeding annuals.
Remember, this is a low maintenance garden so if you want more sun loving species these beds can be located on the south side of the forest plants in full sunlight.
The ground cover layer comes next and would occupy the open spaces between the shrubs and herbs and could include such things as strawberries, nasturtium, clover, creeping thyme and ajuga. This would also be the place to add your favourite flowers which provide habitat for the insects and play a critical role in weed prevention, occupying ground that would otherwise succumb to invaders.
The vine layer can also be found in traditional gardens when you think of peas, squash, cucumbers and melons or other climbing plants but the trees provide a much taller layer for some more exotic plants like kiwifruit, grapes, hops, passionflower, and vining berries; and those for wildlife, such as honeysuckle and trumpet-flower. Some of the perennial vines can be invasive or strangling so they should be used sparingly and cautiously.
Some articles describe the soil as the seventh layer but I like to think of it as the base layer that is critical for the growth and maintenance of all previous layers.
In the forest garden the emphasis is on minimal soil disturbance using perennials which means lots of compost and mulching is needed to establish the plants and minimize watering especially in drought years.
All of the sources that I have read emphasize that there are many approaches to establishing and maintaining a forest garden and it depends on your location and what your favourite plants are. So use your imagination, have fun and enjoy the fruits of your labour.
Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.