A forest garden is an agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems. By including fruit and nut trees, shrubs, vines, and perennial vegetables, forest gardens offer low-maintenance, sustainable food production. Moreover, as these gardens include a wide variety of plants, there’s something that will work in any kind of conditions: wet, dry, shady, sunny and so on. So while you might make a forest garden your life’s work, you might just like to add a few edible plants here and there. Are you looking to add edible forest plants to your landscape? Then, read on for tips on getting started and what plants to use.
Seven Layers of a Forest Garden
In natural woodland settings, many different kinds of plants grow alongside each other. That is, rather than veggies in one spot, ornamentals in another and trees in another, they wall grow together in their own ‘layer’. This observation by Robert Hart, a pioneer of forest gardening, led to the idea of the 7 layers of the forest garden. These layers are key to planning a forest garden.
1. Canopy Layer
Firstly, the full-sized fruit and nut trees. These are spaced to allow in plenty of light. Avoid large shade trees such as our native hardwoods like American Beech and Sugar Maple. These create too much deep shade. However, good candidates include:
- Fruit trees such as standard-sized apple, pear, and plum
- Nut trees, such as disease-resistant chestnut pruned to allow in light
- Nitrogen-fixing trees such as Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
2. Low Tree Layer
Next is the low tree layer. Here you can grow many of the same fruit trees but on dwarf rootstocks. Likewise, smaller nut trees such as the American Hazelnut (Corylus americana). Also, more shade-tolerant fruit trees such as the American persimmon and Pawpaw.
3. Shrub Layer
Thirdly, is the shrub layer. This tier includes flowering, fruiting and wildlife-value plants. For example, blueberry, Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), Witch-hazel (Hamamelis sp.), Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), and Winterberry(Ilex verticillata). These are options that work well in Webster, NY and planting zone 6 more generally. Moreover, many are often available through the annual NYS DEC Seedling Sale. This is a great way to buy larger amounts of healthy shrub seedlings cheaper than retail.
4. Herbaceous Layer
The fourth layer includes hebaceous, ie perennial, plants. This includes vegetables, flowers, culinary herbs, ground cover and soil-building plants. Choose from a wide variety of perennial crops, choosing spots in your garden with the right light and soil requirements. For example, strawberries and asparagus can stand some flooding while ostrich ferns and nettles can thrive in shady conditions.
5. Soil Surface (Ground Cover) Layer
Next is the ground cover layer. Plants used here protect the soil, prevent erosion and create habitat. For example, nasturtium, strawberries, clover and American wild ginger (Asarum canadense). These plants are crucial to fighting back weeds and supporting the biodiversity of your forest garden.
6. Root Layer
First we covered the ground. Now, we grow under it. The root layer is where you’ll find shallow-rooted crops. For instance, garlic, onions, and Jerusalem artichokes. Avoid deep-rooted crops such as carrots which require too much digging and disruption to the soil.
7. Vertical Layer
Lastly, is the vertical or vine layer. This is where you’ll grow plants that climb your trees. Choose plants for food or wildlife benefit. For example, the Concord grape or honeysuckle. Be careful when choosing vines as some perennial creepers can be very aggressive spreaders or strangling. While a forest garden focuses on perennial crops, the vine layer can also accommodate annuals such as squash and melons.
Grow a Forest Garden in Webster NY
Want more help growing your forest garden? Let Arbor Tree Experts help. Established in Webster in 1985 we are a fully licensed and insured tree service in Webster. Our team includes ISA certified Webster arborists working to ANSI standards. We offer tree removal as well as stump grinding and pruning. Likewise, we can help you choose the best trees for your unique landscape. Contact us for a quote.