Forest Gardening: No digging, mowing or weeding required

Forest Gardening

No digging, mowing or weeding required

Forest Gardening:
No digging, mowing or weeding required

By Joanna Chin, Doctoral Student, York University-Environmental Studies

Forest Gardening also referred to as food forests, can grow a cornucopia of food, including mushrooms, herbs, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and even medicinal plants. They require minimal human intervention as they are designed to be regenerative and self-sustaining. No digging, mowing, or weeding required! From small urban environments and suburban backyards to large acreages or farms, forests gardens can thrive in many different contexts and scales.

While forest gardens are not ‘natural’ ecosystems, they mimic woodland ecosystems. As multi-layered, self-sustaining ecosystems, each component of the system enters a mutually beneficial relationship that is more than the sum of its parts. As high intensity, low maintenance systems, they are structured around biodiverse plants and animal communities, making them incredibly productive.

However, forest gardens are not intended to replace natural forests. They are designed to provide for humans while offering a range of ecosystem services including “carbon sequestration, habitat, soil building, microclimate creation and water retention,” according to The Urban Farmer.

Vision Behind Forest Gardening

Robert Hart, a pioneer of forest gardening in the UK, had a vision of forest gardening:

“Obviously, few of us are in a position to restore the forests. But tens of millions of us have gardens or access to open spaces such as industrial wasteland, where trees can be planted and if full advantage can be taken of the potentialities that are available in heavily built up areas, new ‘city forests’ can arise.”

— Robert Hart

After observing the complex relationships and interactions in his woodland forest garden, he developed a 7-layered model:

1. A canopy layer that consists of tall fruit and nut trees.
2. A lower tree layer of dwarf fruit and nut trees.
3. A shrub layer of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
4. An herbaceous layer of culinary and medicinal herbs, companion plants, bee- and poultry- loving plants.
5. A ground cover of edible plants that function as a living mulch.
6. A rhizosphere layer that consists of root crops.
7. A vertical layer of vines and climbers.

7 Layers of a Food Forest

Forest Garden Diagram by Diagram by Graham Burnet. Image via Wikimedia Commons licensed under GNU Free Documentation License

History of Forest Gardens

Forest gardens are actually one of the oldest forms of land use. They existed in prehistoric times and in diverse climates in many countries around the world. The pet kot or orchard gardens on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Chagga gardens built on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or the polyculture gardens in Kerala of South India are just some examples of thriving Food Forests.

Bill Mollison, who many consider the founding father of permaculture (ecological and environmental design that reconciles food production systems and human settlements with nature), visited Hart at his forest garden in Wenlock Edge. Following his visit, forest gardens became a key concept in permaculture as they integrate and draw from the disciplines of permaculture, agriculture, ecology, biology and other natural living sciences. Together, these disciplines create a living set of tools and practices that can help us engage in regenerative garden design at multiple scales.

The concept of biophilia, developed by Stephen Kellert, suggests that humanity’s inherent connection to nature transcends our physical and material reliance on the natural world. Forest gardens can regenerate urban spaces through sustainable food production. And at a deeper individual level, the practice of food forestry can help us cultivate ourselves, and transform the ways in which we see and live in the world.

Green bears on tree with green leaves

Image by Dan Gold on Unsplash


Joanna Chin is a scholar-educator-activist who has worked on urban agricultural projects in the community from policy-making to building forests. She is motivated by her daughter and the future generations of children that will inhabit this planet. In 2017, she received a community grant to install a food forests at a preschool institution, the first of its kind in London, Ontario. Joanna is currently completing her doctorate at York University in the Environmental Studies Faculty. Her research focus is on relationality to the more-than-human world in non-formal environmental education contexts.