Walk through a woodland and notice the diversity of plants. Trees, shrubs, and other perennials grow together like a solid family unit. You can have that same kind of synergy in an edible garden.
Dave Jacke has written books about the ecology and design of home-scale food forests. He says the idea is still in its infancy, but a paradigm for agriculture that focuses on multi-purpose plants in small-scale settings. Basically, it’s gardening LIKE the forest, not necessarily IN the forest, so anyone with a patch of land can do this.
"We’re using trees, we’re using shrubs, we’re using perennial herbs. You can also use annual vegetables in most ecosystems. Annual vegetables are a small proportion of the area, but we’re really trying to push toward a perennial ecosystem," says Jacke. "We call them perennial polycultures of multi-purpose plants."
Planning a forest garden takes into account the architecture, how species relate to each other, the process of self-renewing fertility, and the process of succession. However the design of the garden is totally up to you and your goals.
"Mostly we’re going for widely-spaced fruit trees with shrubs in-between, pathways kind of meandering through," he says. "The forest gardens that I’ve seen that people are designing are not in linear rows or squares, they’re more free-form, more naturalistic environments with trees and shrubs mixed together with herbaceous perennials thrown around underneath. So they’re fairly rich environments with high species diversity."
Jacke says planting too closely together is the most frequent mistake that forest gardeners make. The hardest part is allowing yourself do less by letting the system take care of itself, as well as knowing when to intervene and how.