It has been suggested that this article be merged with Silvopasture, Dehesa, Forest farming, Syntropic agriculture, Inga alley cropping, Farmer-managed natural regeneration and Kuojtakiloyan to Agroforestry. (Discuss) Proposed since May 2024.
Robert Hart's forest garden in Shropshire

Forest gardening is a low-maintenance, sustainable,[1] plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers to build a woodland habitat. Forest gardening is a prehistoric method of securing food in tropical areas. In the 1980s, Robert Hart coined the term "forest gardening" after adapting the principles and applying them to temperate climates.[2]


Since prehistoric times, hunter-gatherers might have influenced forests, for instance in Europe by Mesolithic people bringing favored plants like hazel with them.[3] Forest gardens are probably the world's oldest form of land use and most resilient agroecosystem.[4]: 124 [5] First Nation villages in Alaska with forest gardens filled with nuts, stone fruit, berries, and herbs, were noted by an archeologist from the Smithsonian in the 1930s.[6]

Forest gardens are still common in the tropics and known as Kandyan forest gardens in Sri Lanka;[7] huertos familiares, family orchards in Mexico;[8] agroforests; or shrub gardens. They have been shown to be a significant source of income and food security for local populations.[9]

Robert Hart adapted forest gardening for the United Kingdom's temperate climate during the 1980s.[2]

In temperate climates

Robert Hart, forest gardening pioneer

Hart began farming at Wenlock Edge in Shropshire to provide a healthy and therapeutic environment for himself and his brother Lacon. Starting as relatively conventional smallholders, Hart soon discovered that maintaining large annual vegetable beds, rearing livestock and taking care of an orchard were tasks beyond their strength. However, a small bed of perennial vegetables and herbs he planted was looking after itself with little intervention.[10]

Following Hart's adoption of a raw vegan diet for health and personal reasons, he replaced his farm animals with plants. The three main products from a forest garden are fruit, nuts and green leafy vegetables.[11] He created a model forest garden from a 0.12 acre (500 m2) orchard on his farm and intended naming his gardening method ecological horticulture or ecocultivation.[4]: 45  Hart later dropped these terms once he became aware that agroforestry and forest gardens were already being used to describe similar systems in other parts of the world.[4]: 28, 43  He was inspired by the forest farming methods of Toyohiko Kagawa and James Sholto Douglas, and the productivity of the Keralan home gardens; as Hart explained, "From the agroforestry point of view, perhaps the world's most advanced country is the Indian state of Kerala, which boasts no fewer than three and a half million forest gardens ... As an example of the extraordinary intensity of cultivation of some forest gardens, one plot of only 0.12 hectares (0.30 acres) was found by a study group to have twenty-three young coconut palms, twelve cloves, fifty-six bananas, and forty-nine pineapples, with thirty pepper vines trained up its trees. In addition, the smallholder grew fodder for his house-cow."[4]: 4–5 

Seven-layer system

The seven layers of the forest garden

Robert Hart pioneered a system based on the observation that the natural forest can be divided into distinct levels. He used intercropping to develop an existing small orchard of apples and pears into an edible polyculture landscape consisting of the following layers:[citation needed]

  1. 'Canopy layer' consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
  2. 'Low-tree layer' of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing rootstocks.
  3. 'Shrub layer' of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
  4. 'Herbaceous layer' of perennial vegetables and herbs.
  5. 'Rhizosphere' or 'underground' dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
  6. 'Ground cover layer' of edible plants that spread horizontally.
  7. 'Vertical layer' of vines and climbers.

A key component of the seven-layer system was the plants he selected. Most of the traditional vegetable crops grown today, such as carrots, are sun-loving plants not well selected for the more shady forest garden system. Hart favored shade-tolerant perennial vegetables.[citation needed]

Further development

The Agroforestry Research Trust, managed by Martin Crawford, runs experimental forest gardening projects on a number of plots in Devon, United Kingdom.[12] Crawford describes a forest garden as a low-maintenance way of sustainably producing food and other household products.[13]

Ken Fern had the idea that for a successful temperate forest garden a wider range of edible shade tolerant plants would need to be used. To this end, Fern created the organisation Plants for a Future which compiled a plant database suitable for such a system. Fern used the term woodland gardening, rather than forest gardening, in his book Plants for a Future.[14][15]

Kathleen Jannaway, the cofounder of Movement for Compassionate Living (MCL) with her husband Jack,[16] wrote a book outlining a sustainable vegan future called Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree in 1991. The MCL promotes forest gardening and other types of vegan organic gardening. In 2009 it provided a grant of £1,000 to the Bangor Forest Garden project in Gwynedd, North West Wales.[17]

Kevin Bradley in the US called his property and nursery "Edible Forest" in 1985, which combined trees and field crops. Today, his business and the 2005 book Edible Forest Gardens have spawned little "edible forests" all over the world.[citation needed]


Bill Mollison, who coined the term permaculture, visited Hart at his forest garden in October 1990.[4]: 149  Hart's seven-layer system has since been adopted as a common permaculture design element.

Numerous permaculturalists are proponents of forest gardens, or food forests, such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton.[18] Bell started building his forest garden in 1991 and wrote the book The Permaculture Garden in 1995, Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two volume book set Edible Forest Gardens in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.[19][20][21]

Geographical distribution

Forest gardens, or home gardens, are common in the tropics, using intercropping to cultivate trees, crops, and livestock on the same land. In Kerala in south India as well as in northeastern India, the home garden is the most common form of land use and is also found in Indonesia. One example combines coconut, black pepper, cocoa and pineapple. These gardens exemplify polyculture, and conserve much crop genetic diversity and heirloom plants that are not found in monocultures. Forest gardens have been loosely compared to the religious concept of the Garden of Eden.[22]


The Amazon rainforest, rather than being a pristine wilderness, has been shaped by humans for at least 11,000 years through practices such as forest gardening and terra preta.[23] Since the 1970s, numerous geoglyphs have been discovered on deforested land in the Amazon rainforest, furthering the evidence of pre-Columbian civilizations.[24][25]

On the Yucatán Peninsula, much of the Maya food supply was grown in "orchard gardens", known as pet kot.[26] The system takes its name from the low wall of stones (pet meaning 'circular' and kot, 'wall of loose stones') that characteristically surrounds the gardens.[27]

The environmental historian William Cronon argued in his 1983 book Changes in the Land that indigenous North Americans used controlled burning to form ideal habitat for wild game. The natural environment of New England was sculpted into a mosaic of habitats. When indigenous Americans hunted, they were "harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating".[28] Most English settlers, however, assumed that the wealth of food provided by the forest was a result of natural forces, and that indigenous people lived off "the unplanted bounties of nature."[29] Animal populations declined after settlement, while fields of strawberries and raspberries found by the earliest settlers became overgrown and disappeared for want of maintenance.[30]


In African countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Tanzania, gardens are widespread in rural, periurban, and urban areas and they play an essential role in establishing food security. Best-known are the Chaga or Chagga gardens on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. These are agroforestry systems. Women are usually the main actors in home gardening, and food is mainly produced for subsistence. In North Africa, oasis-layered gardening with palm trees, fruit trees, and vegetables is a traditional type of forest garden.[citation needed]


Some plants, such as wild yam, work as both a root plant and as a vine. Ground covers are low-growing edible forest garden plants that help keep weeds in control and provide a way to utilize areas that would otherwise be unused.[31]


El Pilar on the BelizeGuatemala border features a forest garden to demonstrate traditional Maya agricultural practices.[32][33] A further one acre model forest garden, called Känan K'aax (meaning 'well-tended garden' in Mayan), is funded by the National Geographic Society and developed at Santa Familia Primary School in Cayo.[34]

In the United States, the largest known food forest on public land is believed to be the seven acre Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Washington.[35] Other forest garden projects include those at the central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Colorado, and Montview Neighborhood farm in Northampton, Massachusetts.[36][37] The Boston Food Forest Coalition promotes local forest gardens.[38][39][40][41]

In Canada Richard Walker has been developing and maintaining food forests in British Columbia for over 30 years. He developed a three-acre food forest that at maturity provided raw materials for a plant nursery and herbal business as well as food for his family.[42] The Living Centre has developed various forest garden projects in Ontario.[43]

In the United Kingdom, other than those run by the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART), projects include the Bangor Forest Garden in Gwynedd, northwest Wales.[44] Martin Crawford from ART administers the Forest Garden Network, an informal network of people and organisations who are cultivating forest gardens.[45][46]

Since 2014, Gisela Mir and Mark Biffen have been developing a small-scale edible forest garden in Cardedeu near Barcelona, Spain, for experimentation and demonstration.[47]

See also



  1. ^ Klaus von Gadow; Juan Gabriel Álvarez González; Chunyu Zhang; Timo Pukkala; Xiuhai Zhao (2021). Sustaining Forest Ecosystems. Springer Nature. p. 13. ISBN 978-3-030-58714-7.
  2. ^ a b Crawford, Martin (2010). Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops. Green Books. p. 18. ISBN 978-1900322621. OL 24327991M.
  3. ^ Paschall, Max (2020-07-22). "The Lost Forest Gardens of Europe". Shelterwood Forest Farm. Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  4. ^ a b c d e Hart, Robert (1996). Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape (2nd ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green. ISBN 9781603580502.
  5. ^ McConnell, Douglas John (2 March 2017). The forest farms of Kandy : and other gardens of complete design. ISBN 978-1-351-88963-6. OCLC 976441721. Forest gardens are probably the world's oldest form of land use and most resilient agroecosystem. They originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. ... Robert Hart adapted forest gardening for the United Kingdom's temperate climate during the 1980s.
  6. ^ Coan, K.E.D. (2021-05-18). "Indigenous forest gardens remain productive and diverse for over a century". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2021-05-19.
  7. ^ Jacob, V. J.; Alles, W. S. (1987). "Kandyan gardens of Sri Lanka". Agroforestry Systems. 5 (2): 123. doi:10.1007/BF00047517. S2CID 40793796.
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  9. ^ McConnell, Douglas John (1973). The economic structure of Kandyan forest-garden farms.
  10. ^ Burnett, Graham. "Seven Storeys of Abundance; A visit to Robert Hart's Forest Garden". Archived from the original on 2011-11-17.
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  16. ^ "Vegan Views 96 - Kathleen Jannaway 1915-2003: A Life Well Lived". Retrieved 2021-10-28.
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  25. ^ Pärssinen, Martti; Schaan, Denise; Ranzi, Alceu (2009). "Pre-Columbian geometric earthworks in the upper Purús: a complex society in western Amazonia". Antiquity. 83 (322): 1084–1095. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00099373. S2CID 55741813.
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  27. ^ Lentz, David L., ed. (2000). Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas. Columbia University Press. p. 212. ISBN 9780231111577.
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