Forest Gardening – Urban Style
As a small scale urban gardener, I would often read about forest gardens & dream of one day having enough land where I could create the food forest of my dreams with a thriving ecosystem that would sing with the sounds of wildlife enjoying the space just as much, if not more, than I did. Ahh..one day when I win Lotto & can afford the land I dreamt. But so far it hasn’t happened.
And now im glad it hasn’t. With a bit of creative thought, I’ve turned my small front urban yard into my edible forest instead. Its abundant with food & its own form of ecosystem supporting a wide array of wild creatures that inhabit the space, and it’s all done on my small townie section that’s more than space for this working girl to manage in her weekends & spare time.
My love of forest gardening began in 2015 when I first read the best book I’ve ever owned: Gaia’s Garden – a guide to home-scale permaculture by Toby Hemenway. This book and its passion for ecological gardening spoke to my soul. It remains my most favourite book & still resides under my pillow where I often delve into it during the night when all is quiet but the brains still whirring. From Toby’s masterpiece I then lost myself immersed in the amazing two volume texts Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier. As I sat on the lawn under the shade of my one lone but large grapefruit tree reading these texts I began to picture the possibilities of what this small front yard could be.
In 2016 I embarked on my PDC with very clear intentions of using this course to nail down the elements, systems & connections that would support my small scale food forest yet to be. Over that year, I worked like a trogon overhauling my small space, never sure quite where the frantic energy kept coming from but I soon had the bones to my forest garden in place. The gardens are built following a spine & rib design with walkways between beds that create a nice ambling flow throughout. The rest of this article will focus on only one of those garden beds that form an island oasis between walkways and demonstrates how with a bit of adaption food forest design can successfully be scaled down to suit the small scale urban garden.
The total planting space of just this garden is only 4 square meters. Yes, just FOUR. It has a 1mx2m bed along the back with two 1m beds at the front corners leaving space for a water feature in between. Being on a clay base the beds were dug to a depth of only 30cm with a slightly deeper well in the middle where the fruit trees would go. The beds were then edged with wood to raise the height another 30cm & filled with the dug out clay mixed with compost, rotted straw & manures then topped with a locally brought garden mix with biochar, smothered in comfrey & worm juice then blanketed in old pea straw inoculated with goodness from the chook house & left to rest.
With thought to conserving water, channels were dug around the perimeter of the beds which the overflow from the chook house feeds into & these were backfilled with mulch to absorb & hold precious rain water. In dry spells the beds are watered from holding tanks also fed from the chook house roof. The paths surrounding the beds have been heavily tree mulched, free from a local arborist, to a depth of about 30cm. This serves to slow, sink & hold rainwater the gardens can draw from as well as providing habitat for my local skink population & gives the chooks, wild birds & resident hedgehogs endless hours of fun scratching it about searching for bugs.
Planning the plantings for this small forest patch took some thought & this is where in the small urban garden of only 4sqm, forest garden design got turned on its head. In place of high stretching canopy trees I plant just one plumcot tree in the centre which in time will grow to a max of 3 meters. I intend to keep this shorter for ease of harvest & this in time will form the main shade tree to the understory. Understory trees in this small space were also scaled down in size. These are 2 dwarf Nectarines and four space saving columnar apples at the edges.
Two additional columnar crab apples for jelly making will be added later this year. An un-intended but most welcome self-seeded addition to this layer is a swan plant providing food & habitat to a large number of monarch caterpillars & butterflies on the section which are just delightful to watch.
Having low growing canopy layers further challenged the planting of the shrubby and herbaceous layers but with a bit of thoughtful placement this layer has exceeded my expectations and become one of the busiest portals of wildlife interactions. In this layer, comfrey and sorrel nestle under the fruit trees drawing minerals up from the deep & are used as chop n drop mulch throughout. Red, White & Black currents, and a cape gooseberry bush were included for food production with silverbeet and spinach dotted throughout. The herbaceous / insectary plantings include Borage, Lavenders, Biden’s, Salvia, Poppies, Hollyhocks, Zinnias, Calendula and Alyssum. These draw honeybees, native bees, bumble bees, hoverflies and a host of insects from afar.
Protecting the soil layer from baking sun is the ground vining layer includes nasturtiums (a favourite in salads) and a lone pumpkin vine weaving its way thru every nook & cranny it can find with 8 pumpkins ripening at last count just from this one vine. The shade these create is welcomed by my cats who sneak under the pumpkin leaves for a cool place to snooze and is more appreciated by the Wetas and my new addition…a pair of garden frogs!
The one thing I haven’t yet added is the root layer- I’m still pondering this. I’m mindful in such a small compact space the harvesting of root vegetables could also result in damaging the fine roots of fruiting trees & shrubs & given they’ve only been planted less than a year, I would prefer to avoid that. So I’ve settled for a fast growing shallow root crop of radishes for now. Any other suggestions would be gratefully received. The entire plant selection for this space went through my usual criteria of needing to be non-toxic to the cats and chooks who ultimately spend many more hours in the garden than me.
The water feature in the middle started life as just a pretty feature with water lilies, but it wasn’t long before a pair of outdoor goldfish were added, then came the tadpoles some of whom have already morphed into frogs now living in the undergrowth. It wasn’t long before the water feature became an inclusive part of the ecosystem functioning in many ways that mimic a pond or stream in a true forest garden attracting and sustaining wildlife. Lilly pads provide safe landing for all manner of insects landing to drink & old bricks are placed within as safe footing should large critters such as hedgehogs fall in & need to crawl their way out. Watching the tadpoles go through their change is a magical element in the garden and I’m beginning to see for the first time dragonflies integrate themselves to the wildlife that keeps this small patch so abuzz with life.
While I still dream of winning Lotto & having a bigger patch play in one day, for now my small urban front yard turned food forest is keeping me busy enough. This is just one of the beds I offer as an example to other small urban gardeners of what can be achieved by taking forest gardening concepts & turning them a bit on their head. In only this 4qm space, 11 fruiting trees/shrubs plus vegetables & herbs happily grow & contribute sustaining the wildlife, chooks, cats and me. We don’t need to just dream with envy while looking at beautiful examples of large forest gardens and we don’t need to wait for ‘one day when we win lotto’ to create our own. If I can do this in only 4sqm of planting space, on my own, then you can too.