If a person’s home is their castle, then the garden is their sanctuary. The rigours of modern life often leave us stressed and depleted by the time we return home, especially if you live in an urban area and are on a full-time work schedule. While many of us are now working from home, this is likely a temporary arrangement for most and when lockdown is lifted in June, we will be expected to return to the rat race.
Usually, our concern for getting the garden ready is so that we can make use of it for social affairs in the summer months. However, this neglects the very personal need for time spent in green spaces and having places divorced from regular, working life that allow you the chance to rejuvenate and recover. So often, we disregard the essential role of rest and recuperation in productivity and progress. As the bodybuilder must allow their muscles time to recover, so must our minds and souls be afforded the same opportunity.
When considering the design and layout of your garden, you can further supplement the escapist aspects of your personal greenspace by modelling its aesthetic off of wilder environments you might not otherwise find in the city.
Forest gardens are one such way to bring a small piece of wilderness to your back door and create a sanctuary that can exist alongside hectic city life.
Building in layers
Unlike most regular gardens, a true forest garden does not focus entirely on an aesthetic ideal, they are built on the principles of wild ecosystems and so require significantly more planning than you might expect.
In addition, it’s worth considering both the timeframe of your garden and what existing plants might complement a forest design. If you are renting or plan to leave the property relatively soon, a forest garden is unlikely to have time to reach its potential and for you to enjoy it. Conversely, if you already house established trees and large shrubs, plan the rest of the space according to their current location since it can be difficult to integrate new large specimens into a garden and you will need a few to create a true forest garden.
Now let’s talk layers, as the name suggests your first concern should be with establishing a canopy. Don’t worry though, we’re not talking about the Amazon Basin or the Redwoods of California here, you can create your own canopy using smaller and more manageable species like Acers or Crab Apple Trees.
The initial canopy performs a few different tasks, it provides shade for the lower canopy and floor-level plants, additional soil and water conservation, and it enriches the soil below with falling leaves, seeds, and pods. Moreover, these trees will provide the first areas of shelter, as well as potential food, for nesting wildlife. Remember we’re building an ecosystem as much as a garden here.
Next, use a combination of deciduous shrubs and bushes to fill out the mid-level canopy. This will provide all of the same benefits as your tree-level canopy with the added boon of introducing further colour to space and potentially new scents as well. Since we’re looking to create a self-sustaining forest here, try to make sure you’re only using edible plant species throughout its design. This will encourage local wildlife to set up shop whose presence, in the form of seed dispersal, nest building, and droppings will help to revitalise the soil and enrich surrounding flora.
Below the shrubs, you want a dense layer of perennial vegetables and fruits and a ground cover of ‘spreading’ plants that will cover any remaining bare soil.
Framing the forest
Although the visual borders of a forest are fairly obvious, as gardeners we know that much of our work happens out of sight. The golden rule is to keep finding ways to introduce new species to your forest and make the concentration of plants as dense as possible while keeping the space manageable.
So while you may have plants set up at all levels from the ground to the canopy, think about what species can interact with the ones you’ve already established. Climbing plants that are trained to grow around and up tree trunks can be used to great effect, turning your forest garden into a jungle with creeping vines and hanging blooms.
Next, look to space, and creatures, that lie under your feet. Planting Rhizomes and Bulbs will encourage burrowing creatures like moles and voles to take up residence, further diversifying the wilderness you are trying to create. With a varied subterranean array, you’ll soon have a fungal network springing up and working overtime to distribute nutrients throughout the soil, as well as breaking down the hardier plant matter to make it usable for smaller species.
It’s worth noting that the fruits of a forest garden are not only for its full-time residents, you can help displace a portion of your shopping bill and carbon footprint by choosing trees and shrubs whose yields you enjoy regularly anyway.
The key ingredients to a successful forest garden cannot be bought at a garden centre unfortunately, they are time and patience. The beauty is that, while a true forest garden might take several years to grow out, they lend us, their stewards, a newfound appreciation for the heritage and beauty of the natural world. After all, it takes two centuries to grow an oak tree but only ten minutes to fell it.