‘Urban’ and ‘forest’ are two words (and realities) that don’t generally go together, so when we talk about having urban edible forest gardens (aka known as food forests), people scratch their heads and ask how? Which is why I’m sharing our experience in establishing our own forest garden in urban Hobart and how it saved us money, stabilised our soils and will eventually provide a permanent food system.
But first, lets touch on what they are and why you’d want to have one. There are so many answers to this questions, but overall they are one of the more quintessential examples of permaculture in action. Mimicking a forest’s structure and patterns to form a functional, edible, resilient and perennial food system. Developed by Robert Hart in the UK, a forest garden has seven layers of functional plants, maximising space by ‘stacking’ crops (above and below the ground) which do not compete for the same space or resources (minerals and nutrients).
For our own place, the forest garden was a MAJOR design solution to a significant problem. As we’re on a steep block we had to do some drastic terracing to create growing spaces, slow and catch water/nutrients and enable us to be able to casually walk across the site without feeling like we might fall off. Originally we thought that we’d shape our terraces with hard wood sleepers, however we quickly dropped this plan when we did the sums and went well over $20,000 for materials.
While mulling over options, I casually flicked through the Permaculture Designer’s Manual for inspiration and looked more closely at the earthworks section. Here I revisited how farmers in the tropics grow on mountain sides using terraces with sloping banks in between each flat level. Bulls-eye. It’s true when Bill Mollison says “the solutions remain embarrassingly simple” – so, so true.
So this is what we did – we made banks, one in particular. In Tasmania you can legally make a bank at 60 degrees, any steeper (and over one metre) and you need an engineer, infrastructure and a big bank balance. We worked closely with the excavator driver to shape our bank to be 2.5m high and exactly 60 degrees.
You can see me here reflecting on the very raw earth works and staring at ‘the bank’ soon to be a forest garden.
But before we planted our forest garden, we quickly smothered all our steep banks with jute mesh and planted mixed green manure seeds everywhere to help get roots in the ground quick smart so we could stabilise the slope and prevent it from sliding away through weather exposure and gravity.
While you’re waiting for seeds to grow it can help to do some rough sketches of what will be – like this one below. This helped us clarify the planting patterns and to also feel better about the very naked soil scape in our back yard.
We then scrounged as much hardwood timber as possible and pegged them into the bank to form shelves on contour which were back-filled with soil, mulched and planted out with fruit trees, herbs and more mixed green manure seeds. These shelves have been critical in catching and holding water and nutrients on the slope.
The very early stages of the young forest garden, not overly impressive but having roots IN the ground and baby green leaves GROWING helped us sleep better at nights. That funny looking stick-tree in the foreground is a tamarillo our neighbour gave us – it dropped all its’ leaves in fright of being moved, but is coming good, just looks funny.
These days (around one year later), our young forest garden looks like this. It’s already paying off and providing some food, fodder and medicinal plants for us and our animals, not to mention completely stablising our slope.
Another key design feature is that we planted most crops on contour strips to help them function as vegetational shelving to catch and store water/nutrient as it naturally flows down the slope. In particular we planted comfrey very thickly (each plant around 10-20cm apart) towards the top of the slope to do this role. Once grown, this will form a continuous hedge, currently it’s being covered in pumpkin vines and yarrow, but the yellow line below shows it’s pattern.
But what plants did we choose to put in our forest garden, I hear you ask? Ones that could handle a tough love situation, i.e. a hot, dry slope – above is a snapshot them. In there are a few volunteers – dandelion, plantain and dock, all of which indicate having compacted soils, totally spot on in this place. These valuable ‘weeds’ are doing a great job in helping to fix this with their long tap roots, they’re also doing the ‘mineral mining’ role of drawing up minerals through their roots from deeper layers of soil and making them more available to surrounding plants. So useful, so clever.
You might notice that we have a pumpkin in there – an annual and ‘technically’ not allowed in a forest garden. Alas, a young forest garden has an enormous amount of sun and space at this stage of its’ life, a perfect time to make the most of this by planting crops which like these two things – annuals. Even in established forest gardens, annual crops can have a place, usually on the edge of pathways or boundaries so they can access sunlight.
Margaret in her wild and free forest garden
And then there’s Margaret’s, 25 year old, wild and free forest garden in urban West Hobart. This garden is untamed and relatively unplanned in how it’s turned out. Over the years Margaret has had to remove some fruit trees as she’s realised she planted them too closely or because she simply can’t walk through her garden easily enough. But crikey is it productive. As you walk around you can eat berries, apples, stone fruit and hazelnuts, not to mention the flourishing greens, herbs and rogue tomato plants popping up around the edges of the pathways.
Dandelion, tomatoes and berries all living in harmony side by side
Some incredibly scrumptious boysenberries from Margaret’s forest garden
It’s refreshing and heartening to be able to visit established forest gardens and be reminded that one day, you too, will be feasting and enjoying the fruits of your labour. When I look at our own forest garden, it’s small and incredibly unassuming, however it’s also one of my favourite bits on our property as it really encapsulates good design thinking in action (that and some of our water harvesting methods). Turning a problem (for us this was working with a steep slope) into an opportunity is deeply satisfying and really affirms that having a strong design approach produces robust results appropriate for the site you’re working with.
In summary, I love permaculture and all who helped inform it.
Some fab resources for you to explore
- Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke
- Forest Gardening, Robert A De J Hart
- Agroforestry Research Trust
- Designing and maintaining your edible landscape – naturally, Robert Kourik
- Sub-tropical food forests with Geoff Lawton
- The complete book of fruit growing in Australia, Louis Glowinski.
- Deep Green Permaculture