Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Edible Pond and Bog Garden

The following list contains many plants, most of them either natives of Britain or naturalized here, that can be grown in ponds or boggy ground. They are all perennials and, unless stated otherwise, can be easily propagated by seed or by division in spring or autumn. The list shows that there is a tremendous potential for food production from ponds and boggy areas.

Many gardens already have ponds in them and, indeed, will probably contain several of the plants mentioned below. In other gardens ponds can be very easily set up (as long as you don't mind a bit of digging) by using plastic pond liners, pre-formed glass-fibre ponds, or concrete. Even a very small pond has great potential for food production and any pond adds significantly to the ability of a garden to support a wide range of wildlife. It is not intended to go into details of making ponds and establishing a water garden in this leaflet - contact us if you want details. However, most of the plants listed here are very easy to cultivate, indeed, with some of them the problem will be more one of trying to contain them as they are very vigorous, and you should find that your pond, once established, will require very little attention.
Just a couple of points that may be worth mentioning are:
  1. Ensure that your pond has at least one shallow side to enable creatures, especially amphibians, to get in and out easily;
  2. Ensure that it has several different levels (with at least one area more than two feet deep) to enable you to grow a variety of plants and to make sure that even in severe weather some of the water at the bottom of the pool is not frozen.
If your garden already contains an area of very wet soil that you've never been able to do much with then hopefully this leaflet will give you some ideas. It is fairly easy to create an area of boggy soil and perhaps the simplest methods are:
  1. If you have an old garden pond that keeps leaking then just fill it up with earth and use it as a bog garden.
  2. Excavate an area of soil to about one and a half feet, line it with plastic, puncture it in a few places and then replace the soil.
  3. Fill in the shallow edges of your pond with earth.
Acorus calamus - Sweet Flag: A native of Europe, naturalized in Britain, growing on the shallow edges of ponds and in most soils. The rhizomes, harvested in autumn or spring, are edible and can be used as a substitute for ginger, cinnamon or nutmeg - in the past the rhizomes were candied and used as a sweetmeat. The inner portion of young stems can be eaten raw and young leaves can be eaten cooked. Other virtues of this plant include its mature leaves, which are insect repellant, the lower stem and rhizome, which can be dried and used to scent clothes, cupboards etc, and an essential oil which can be extracted from the rhizome.

Aponogeton distachyos - Cape Pondweed: Native of South Africa, this plant is often grown in ornamental ponds and is occasionally found naturalized in Britain. It does best in water from six inches to two feet deep and prefers a rich soil. The tubers are edible, as are the flowering spikes which can be used as a spinach substitute.

Beckmannia eruciformis: Native of Europe and Asia, this grass grows in wet meadows, swamps, marshes and very shallow water. The seed is edible, ground and used as a flour.

Butomus umbellatus - Flowering Rush: Native of Britain, it grows in moist soil or water up to one foot deep. The tubers, which contain over 50% starch, are edible when cooked. The seed is also edible.

Chrysosplenium alternifolium and C. oppositifolium - Golden Saxifrages: Natives of Britain, they grow in wet meadows, swamps etc, and prefer a shady position. The leaves are edible raw or cooked.

Cornus canadensis - Creeping Dogwood: Native of North America, this is a low-growing creeping plant. It does well on the drier edges of the bog garden, but it strongly dislikes chalky soils. The fruit is edible - it is said to have a pleasant though not very strong flavour.

Cyperus longus - Galingale: Native of Britain, it grows in ditches and marshy soils. The root is edible and it can be used as a spice.

Glyceria fluitans - Float Grass: Native of Britain, it grows in shallow pond margins. The seed is sweet and is used in puddings or as a gruel.

Gunnera tinctoria: Native of Chile, this plant looks like an overgrown rhubarb and, in sheltered positions and moist soils, the stem can be five feet tall and the leaf a yard or more across. Although they don't look tremendously appetizing, the leaf stalks are said to be edible. Probably best when young.

Nasturtium officinale - Watercress: Native of Britain, this is the familiar salad plant for sale in greengrocers etc. It prefers growing in very shallow water (about two inches deep) but can also be found in marshy soils. It should be propagated by seed or by cuttings which will root easily and quickly in a container of water at any time of the growing season. As well as its leaves being edible, its seeds may be used as a mustard substitute.

Nuphar lutea - Yellow Water Lily: Native of Britain, it grows in water between one and two feet deep, preferring a sunny position. The roots are edible either raw or cooked, the leaf stalks may also be eaten, and a drink can be made from the flowers. Two allied species from North America, N. advena and N. polysepala, are often grown in ornamental ponds and they can be used in similar ways. In addition the seeds are edible, being ground up and used as thickeners in soups etc. This would suggest that the seeds of N. lutea could also be used in this way, but we have not found any references to this.

Nymphaea alba - White Water Lily: Native of Britain, it grows in the deeper parts of the pond - about four feet of water should suit it well. It prefers a sunny position and a rich soil. Rootstocks that are several years old may be eaten - they contain about 40% starch. Roasted seeds may be used as a coffee substitute. A related species from North America, N. odorata, can also be found in ornamental ponds. Its young leaves and flower buds can be eaten cooked and young flowers can be eaten raw.

Peltandra sagittifolia (Peltandra alba) and P. virginica - White Arrow Arum and Green Arrow Arum: Natives of North America, they grow in shallow water near the pond edges. Their rhizomes are edible but they must be well cooked, since they are both poisonous raw.

Phragmites australis (Phragmites communis) - Common Reed: Native of Britain, growing in shallow waters and wet soils, this member of the grass family can grow up to 12 feet tall so it's not really one for the smaller garden, particularly as it is very invasive. However, it more than makes up for its antisocial tendencies with its quite impressive list of uses. The roots, which contain 5% sugar, are edible and can be dried, ground coarsely and used as a porridge. The young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked and the seed is also edible. If the stem is wounded it exudes a sugary substance which hardens upon exposure to the air. This can be eaten raw or roasted - indeed, the dried and ground inner stem can be moistened and then roasted to make a marshmallow substitute. Other virtues of this plant include the stems for thatching, basket making etc, and a light green dye that can be obtained from the stems.

Pontederia cordata: Native of North America and occasionally naturalised in Britain, it grows in pond margins and marshy soils, though it is happiest in water about six inches to one foot deep. The seeds can be eaten raw or ground up and used as a flour substitute. Young leafstalks can be eaten raw or cooked.

Sagittaria sagittifolia - Arrow Head: Native of Britain, it grows in water up to one and a half feet deep. Its tuber can be cooked and eaten and is much cultivated in China for this purpose.

Samolus valerandi - Brookweed: Native of Britain, it grows in wet soil and shallow water. The young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.

Scirpus lacustris - Bulrush: Native of Britain, it grows in bogs or shallow pond margins. The roots are edible and can be eaten raw or dried, ground and used as a flour. The young shoots in spring are also edible. The leaves can be used in weaving for making mats, chair seats etc.

Sparganium erectum - Bur-Reed: Native of Britain, it grows in marshes, ditches and shallow edges of ponds, requiring a rich soil if it is to do well. The tuber is edible.

Trapa natans - Water Chestnut: Native of Asia and the Mediterranean, this plant is hardy in all but the coldest parts of Britain and it grows in water up to two feet deep. Its seed, which is about 50% starch, can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and ground into flour. It is often cultivated for its seed in Asia. Propagation is by seed only.

Typha angustifolia and T. latifolia - Small Reed Mace and Reed Mace: Natives of Britain, growing in pond margins, these plants are an absolute must for any self-respecting vegan 'self-sufficientist'. Make sure that you've got the room for them though because they are very invasive (especially T. latifolia) and will soon overrun most of your other plants if you don't keep an eye on them. Their catalogue of uses is most impressive and just why they are not used commercially is beyond us. Their rhizome is edible raw, cooked, or dried and ground into flour. Young shoots can be eaten raw or used as an asparagus substitute. The base of more mature stems can be eaten raw or cooked (but remove the outer covering). The seeds are edible and, when roasted, are said to have a pleasant, nutty flavour. An edible oil can be extracted from the seed. The pollen, which is a good source of protein, can be added to flour, and the young flowering spikes can be cooked and eaten. As if all that was not enough, the leaves can be used in weaving to make hats, mats etc, the hairs on the fruits can be used as a stuffing material for pillows etc, the stems are used in paper making and the dried flowers make a good insulating material. It's quite wonderful, isn't it?!

Vaccinium palustre - Small Cranberry: Native of Britain, this is a prostrate shrub that grows on acid, boggy soils and strongly dislikes chalky soils. Propagation is by seed or by layering the stems in spring. The fruit is edible and is held by some to be the most delicious of our native wild fruits. A tea can be made from the dried leaves, a red dye is obtained from the fruits, and the juice of the fruit is a very effective cleaner for your family silver. A closely related shrub, V. macrocarpon, is native of North America where it is widely cultivated for its fruit. It too can be grown in the bog garden.

Zizania latifolia: Native of East Asia, this plant is much grown in Britain on the shallow margins of lakes. It is often cultivated as a food plant in Asia, it has edible rhizomes, young shoots and stem bases. The seed is also edible but, unfortunately, although it is perfectly hardy in Britain, it does not flower here, spreading instead by vegetative means. A close relative of this plant, Zizania aquatica, is the wild rice plant whose horrendously expensive seeds can be seen for sale in health food shops. The plant is an annual, native of North America, and, although it should be perfectly hardy here, we know of no source of viable seed in this country (seed in the shops has been heat-treated and does not germinate). If you can get hold of some viable seed then (apart from letting us have some!) you could give it a try in the shallow pond margins. It dislikes stagnant water and does best in a very slow- moving current.

Edible Water Garden Design

Plants suitable for water gardens range from those that require moist soil to those that thrive in deep water. They are usually grouped into six categories although some plants will fall in to 2 or more categories. The categories are: oxygenators, deep-water plants, surface floaters, marginals, bog plants, and moisture loving plants. When buying plants be careful to check their requirements as some garden nurseries will group moisture-loving plants  (which cannot be in waterlogged soil) along with bog plants. For more information on water gardens view our page: The Edible Pond and Bog Garden, in the Habitat section.

The table below gives examples of plants falling into the different categories
Plant TypePlant examples
Deep emergentSagittaria latifolia   Sagittaria sagittifolia   Nelumbo lutea   Nelumbo nucifera  Orontium aquaticum   Typha latifolia
Shallow emergentIris versicolor   Pontederia cordata   Peltandra virginica   Saururus cernuus  Veronica beccabunga   Lysichiton camtschatcense  
Emergent floaterVallisneria americana Nasturtium officinale  Ipomoea aquatica
FloaterLemna gibba   Lemna minor   Wolffia arrhiza   Azolla filiculoides
Bog & moisture loving plantsAruncus dioicus   Astilbe chinensis  Chelone glabra   Filipendula ulmaria  Hosta longissima
SubmergedCeratophyllum demersum  Myriophyllum spicatum   Myriophyllum verticillatum  Potamogeton natans

Water Garden Plants
Oxygenators Fast-growing submerged plants that help to clean and oxygenate the water. e.g. Myriophyllum spicatum (Water Milfoil)  Myriophyllum verticillatum  (Myriad Leaf)   Elodea canadensis  (Canadian Pondweed)   Essential if fish are added to the pond.

Shallow Emergent (shallow marginals). Grow in shallow water usually about 8 -15 cm (3"-6"). Shallow marginals provide cover for wildlife and are a key ornamental element to a water garden design.

Deep Emergent (water depth 6" -12")   Nelumbo lutea  (American Water Lotus)   Nelumbo nucifera  (Sacred Water Lotus)  Typha latifolia  (Reedmace)  Also includes deep-water plants (water depth usually 30-90cm, 12"-36").e.g. Nymphaea alba (White Water Lily)   Aponogeton distachyos  (Water Hawthorn)   Water lilies (Nymphaea) form the largest group of deep-water plants that root in deep water. Leaves and flowers must be above water. Some water lilies for example,Nymphaea alba, can thrive in water up to 3m (10 feet). Plants may need to be grown in pots or divided regularly to reduce root growth and plant vigour.

Surface Floater   Trapa natans  (Water Chestnut)  Azolla filiculoides  (Azolla). Have a similar function to deep-water plants. Oxygenators need light so it is important that surface floaters do not cover too much of the water surface. Some floaters are vigorous and will need to be controlled (which can be a good thing as many floaters have useful properties).

Bog Plants Thrive in water-logged soil withstanding occasional flooding. e.g.    Lysichiton americanus  (Yellow Skunk Cabbage)  Caltha leptosepala (Western Marsh Marigold)  

Moisture-loving Plants Like soils that have extra moisture but are not waterlogged. Can include herbaceous perennials e.g. Astilbes (Astilbe chinensis) and Hostas (Hosta longissima)


Pigs that produce wool!!

Did you know there’s actually such a thing as a woolly pig? Well, there is, and it’s called Mangalitsa. And they are adorable!!

Seen from a distance, these pigs look like sheep, and it’s only when you spot their snouts and hear their growl, that you realize they’re actually pigs. Commonly referred to as “sheep-pigs” these strange breed is called Mangalitsa, and it’s on the brink of extinction. That’s right, even though their wool makes them very resistant, both in summer and winter time, it doesn’t do a damn thing against man’s appetite.

Mangalitsa pigs originated from Austria and Hungary, and they come in three color varieties: blond, brunette and redhead. Apart from their bizarre appearance, these pigs have another trait that made them even more popular: their meat, apparently, tastes delicious and is considered a delicacy.


Saturday, 24 November 2012

How PC can help your relationships!

Do you mulch your relationships? Kim Millar explains how Permaculture principles work just as much in the home, as they do in the garden

Most of us don't 'design' our relationships consciously, we're more likely to stumble and/or bumble along in the hopes that they'll grow in the right direction. They usually catch our attention only when things have gone wrong and we scramble around trying to stop things from unraveling.
But imagine if we put the same thought and attention into building a relationship as we do to creating a productive, efficient garden, increasing our vegetable yields and improving water harvesting?
Here are some parallels I drew whilst recently learning about Permaculture and its relevance to relationship.

1. Mulching

A relationship is a growing organism, create the right environment and it will thrive. Mulching offers several things including nourishment, protection and effective action with least effort. So how do you mulch a relationship? By paying attention and being more observant, learning to listen, understand & communicate more openly; simple gestures of care and affection can bring about amazing changes rapidly.

2. Greater productivity lies at the Edges

Relationships have their growing – and dying – 'edges'. Just before a relationship is about to move to the next phase there will be a great deal of productivity. Sometimes that can be arguments, disagreements, upsets and misunderstandings. It can also be feelings of deeper connection, greater love, more respect and trust.
Either way there will be an increase in emotional 'productivity'. Be curious about the emotions, about what changes are occurring, we can use this productivity wisely to build a strong and more resilient next phase.

3. Design for co-operation rather than competition

Make sure your companion planting takes everyone's needs into consideration! Just like a plant, we communicate our wellbeing by healthy productivity. It is really important to understand that some people compete to win and some to lose and those who compete to lose will do so in order to win later. Both styles of competition uses up nutrients in the relationship soil. A healthy relationship design is one where everyone thrives and feels valued.

4. Use the least effort to create the biggest effect

This translates simply as 'be authentic'. It is the small, genuine gestures that work the most effectively. The language of the heart is the communication that resonates most clearly, goes the deepest and lasts the longest.

5. The yield is only limited by the imagination of the designer

Every relationship is deserving of a Vision, what Vision do you have for your relationship? What do you believe is possible? What yield are you hoping for (closeness, co-operation, laughter, trust, forgiveness)? If the yield seems low, it may be time for you to study the relationship from a new perspective, to open up your imagination and get creative!

6. Appropriate technology is that which can be easily applied

If your relationships are hard work and feel like you're trying to push the river uphill, its a sign that you are going against the natural flow. Stop. Give yourself some breathing space and think about what is really being called for and what it is you are capable of giving, easily, authentically and wholeheartedly.

7. Start small and work out from well managed areas

It helps to assess what is working well and build on it. Trying to make big changes or address difficult challenges can seem frightening and overwhelming. Learning to chunk things down in to manageable pieces helps relieve the stress and creates a better focus.

8. Turn problems into solutions

Weeds and pests get into relationships too. They're made up of beliefs, thoughts and experiences we bring from the past and can take hold in a relationship, creating feelings of suffocation and heartbreak. 10% of pain in a relationship comes from the present, 90% is old childhood hurt being recycled. I often see relationships blossom when people discover that hiding beneath the pain is a new level of connection and friendship.

9. Mistakes are opportunities for learning

To embrace this principle we need to retrain our minds to see mistakes differently; not as a something deserving punishing but as behaviour that simply need correcting. It can be scary at first to open up and talk about mistakes and misunderstandings, it makes us feel vulnerable and defenceless.
The safest and most effective tool in relationship is empathy, it takes the charge out of situations and makes space for forgiveness. Forgiveness means being willing to 'yield' to 'give way'. But if we look at the productive concept of 'yield' you can see how forgiveness is a way to improve harvest!

10. Everything Gardens

To live a meaningful life it is important to give everything meaning. Everything that happens in our life, every event, every encounter is helping us to grow and evolve as individuals. We are all on a journey to fulfilling our potential; the events and lessons we are presented with are there to help us be more productive, if we have the eyes to see it.
Just like the Earth, relationships are a rich and precious resource. Once we view them as source of opportunities for growth and development, any emotion or experience becomes the organic matter to be composted and processed in order to promote growth, health and well-being. 
With a strong focus on transformational communication and personal development Kim says "Human beings are wired for connection and built for relationships. I believe much of our unhappiness comes from a loss of connection. If we lack effective tools to communicate and problem solve about it, the increased distance deepens misunderstandings and prevents hurt feelings from being resolved. Sometimes it takes a little courage to learn new skills and reverse this trend – but the rewards are infinite". 
Based in Hampshire, UK, Kim offers Relationship Training in innovative emotional intelligence skills.
To see many more inspiring articles, please visit  or email Kim at  You can also contact her on 07789 408378 or click here to to view her twitter page.
Interested in this approach to permaculture? You may also be interested in People and Permaculture - caring and designing for ourselves, each other and the planet by Looby Macnamara.

Help spread the permaculture word...

Mandala garden

Permaculture principles

About Edible Forest Gardening

Food Forest

Let's explore the edible forest gardening idea in some detail. The forest gardening vision leads us to explore forest ecology. Forest ecology is the basis for effective design and practice. This synopsis not only explains the fundamentals of forest gardening, but its structure parallels the contents of the two-volume book Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier.


Picture yourself in a forest where almost everything around you is food. Mature and maturing fruit and nut trees form an open canopy. If you look carefully, you can see fruits swelling on many branches—pears, apples, persimmons, pecans, and chestnuts. Shrubs fill the gaps in the canopy. They bear raspberries, blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, and other lesser-known fruits, flowers, and nuts at different times of the year. Assorted native wildflowers, wild edibles, herbs, and perennial vegetables thickly cover the ground. You use many of these plants for food or medicine. Some attract beneficial insects, birds, and butterflies. Others act as soil builders, or simply help keep out weeds. Here and there vines climb on trees, shrubs, or arbors with fruit hanging through the foliage—hardy kiwis, grapes, and passionflower fruits. In sunnier glades large stands of Jerusalem artichokes grow together with groundnut vines. These plants support one another as they store energy in their roots for later harvest and winter storage. Their bright yellow and deep violet flowers enjoy the radiant warmth from the sky. This is an edible forest garden.

What is Edible Forest Gardening?
Edible forest gardening is the art and science of putting plants together in woodlandlike patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. You can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, other useful plants, and animals in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. You can create a beautiful, diverse, high-yield garden. If designed with care and deep understanding of ecosystem function, you can also design a garden that is largely self-maintaining. In many of the world's temperate-climate regions, your garden would soon start reverting to forest if you were to stop managing it. We humans work hard to hold back succession—mowing, weeding, plowing, and spraying. If the successional process were the wind, we would be constantly motoring against it. Why not put up a sail and glide along with the land's natural tendency to grow trees? By mimicking the structure and function of forest ecosystems we can gain a number of benefits.

Why Grow an Edible Forest Garden?
While each forest gardener will have unique design goals, forest gardening in general has three primary practical intentions:
  • High yields of diverse products such as food, fuel, fiber, fodder, fertilizer, 'farmaceuticals' and fun;
  • A largely self-maintaining garden and;
  • A healthy ecosystem.
These three goals are mutually reinforcing. For example, diverse crops make it easier to design a healthy, self-maintaining ecosystem, and a healthy garden ecosystem should have reduced maintenance requirements. However, forest gardening also has higher aims.

As Masanobu Fukuoka once said, "The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." How we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world. Forest gardening gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the planet works and changing our self-perceptions. Forest gardening helps us take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature's work, rather than as separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world.

Where Can You Grow an Edible Forest Garden?
Anyone with a patch of land can grow a forest garden. They've been created in small urban yards and large parks, on suburban lots, and in small plots of rural farms. The smallest we have seen was a 30 by 50 foot (9 by 15 m) embankment behind an urban housing project, and smaller versions are definitely possible. The largest we have seen spanned 2 acres in a rural research garden. Forest gardeners are doing their thing at 7,000 feet (2,100 m) of elevation in the Rocky Mountains, on the coastal plain of the mid-Atlantic, and in chilly New Hampshire and Vermont. Forest gardening has a long history in the tropics, where there is evidence of the practice extending over 1,500 years. While you can grow a forest garden in almost any climate, it is easiest if you do it in a regions where the native vegetation is forest, especially deciduous forest.

Edible forest gardening is not necessarily gardening in the forest, it is gardening like the forest. You don't need to have an existing woodland if you want to forest garden, though you can certainly work with one. Forest gardeners use the forest as a design metaphor, a model of structure and function, while adapting the design to focus on meeting human needs in a small space. While you can forest garden if you have a shady site, it is best if your garden site has good sun if you want the highest yields of fruits, nuts, berries, and most other products. Edible forest gardening is about expanding the horizons of our food gardening across the full range of the successional sequence, from field to forest, and everything in between.


Edible forest gardens mimic the structure and function of forest ecosystems—this is how we create the high, diverse yields, self-maintenance, and healthy ecosystem we seek for our garden. It is therefore critical to understand forest ecology and its implications for design. Four aspects of forest ecology are key: community architecture, ecosystem social structure, the structures of the underground economy, and how the community changes through time, also known as succession. Brief discussions of each of these aspects and examples of their influence on garden design and management follow.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom on forest gardening, vegetation layers are only one of the architectural features important in forest garden design. Soil horizon structure, vegetation patterning, vegetation density, and community diversity are also critical. All five of these elements of community architecture influence yields, plant health, pest and disease dynamics, maintenance requirements, and overall community character. For example, scientific research indicates that structural diversity in forest vegetation, what we call "lumpy texture," appears to increase bird and insect population diversity and to balance insect pest populations—independent of plant species diversity. Learning how and why plants pattern themselves in nature and about the effects of the diverse kinds of diversity on ecosystem function can add great richness to the tool box of the forest gardener.

Social Structure
The unique inherent needs, yields, physical characteristics, behaviors, and adaptive strategies of an organism govern its interactions with its neighbors and its nonliving environment. They also determine the roles each organism plays within its community. The food web is one key community structure that arises from each species' characteristics. Organisms also form various kinds of "guilds" that partition resources to minimize competition or create networks of mutual support.

When we design a forest garden, we select plants and animals that will create a food web and guild structure, whether we know it or not. It behooves us to design these structures consciously so we can maximize our chances of creating a healthy, self-maintaining, high-yield garden. For example, the vast majority of solar energy captured by natural forest food webs ends up going to rot. We can capture some of this energy for our own use by growing edible and medicinal mushrooms, most of which prefer shady conditions. We can design resource-partitioning guilds by including plants with different light tolerances in different vegetation layers, for instance, or mixing taprooted trees such as pecans and other hickories with shallow-rooted species such as apples or pears. We can build mutual-support guilds by ensuring that pollinators and insect predators have nectar sources throughout the growing season. Insights into the guild structure of ecosystems provides clear direction for design as well as research into many aspects of agroecology.

The Underground Economy
The workings of nature's "underground economy" are a mystery, but the dynamics of this ecosystem are fundamental to the workings of all terrestrial communities. What is the anatomy of self-renewing soil fertility? How do plant roots interact with each other and their environment? What roles do microbes and other soil organisms play in our forest gardens, and how should we interact with them?

Plants are critical components of the structure that creates self-renewing fertility in natural ecosystems. They plug the primary nutrient leaks from the soil and energize a networked system of plants, soil organic matter, soil organisms, and soil particles that gathers, concentrates, and cycles nutrients conservatively. Maintaining perennial plant cover greatly aids this process. In addition "dynamic accumulator" plants like comfrey (Symphytum officinale) selectively accumulate mineral nutrients to high levels in their leaf tissues, adding them to the topsoil each fall. As we enter the post-oil age, our understanding of the anatomy of self-renewing fertility will become more and more critical to our success in temperate climates.

Understanding the dynamics of woody and herbaceous plant roots is critical to learning how to design and manage forest gardens. In what patterns do plant roots grow, why, and when? While the majority of tree roots grow in the top two to three feet of soil, it turns out that fruit trees that can get even a small percentage of their roots deep into the soil profile produce more fruit more consistently, resist pests and diseases more effectively, and live longer than those that have only shallow root systems. Good pre-planting site preparation is therefore a highly worthwhile endeavor. Root system understanding provides a solid foundation for plant species selection and polyculture design.

Soil organisms perform numerous critical functions in forest and garden ecosystems, and we can easily disrupt these allies and their work with unthinking actions. Luckily, basic forest gardening principles like using mulch and leaving the soil undisturbed provide just the kind of benign neglect our tiny friends need. However, good soil preparation can make all the difference, as well. For example, compacted or poorly drained soils can severely hamper the development of healthy soil food webs, and hence healthy forest gardens. Understanding the soil food web also provides insight into how to manage for healthy mycorrhizal fungi populations and how to ensure that nitrogen-fixing plants actually do their soil-building work.

Ecosystems are dynamic, and ever-changing. Plant succession used to be thought of as the directional change of a community over time from "immature" stages toward a "mature" "climax" community typical of a given region and environment, such as a field changing to shrubland and then to, say, oak-hickory forest. However, new models of succession have arisen in recent years that articulate the complex reality of plant community change over time without so blatantly projecting human cultural constructs upon natural phenomena. Plant succession is nonlinear and occurs patch by patch within the ecosystem, and rarely do ecosystems ever attain a climax or equilibrium state. Disturbances of various kinds are a natural part of every successional process—windstorms, fires, insect attacks, and human intervention. Nonetheless, linear succession to a "horizon" is a valid model to use when designing forest garden successions, as are various other permutations that mimic garden crop rotations or represent an ever-changing dance responding to the forces, needs, and whims of the moment.

While the practical applications of these new successional theories are of necessity somewhat vague, we do know that the most productive stages of succession are those in the middle—such as shrublands, oldfield mosaics, and woodlands—not necessarily full-fledged forests. In addition, most of our developed tree crops are species adapted to such midsuccession environments. Our highest yielding forest gardens are therefore most likely to contain, not the dense tree canopies of late succession forests, but lush mixtures of trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs all occupying the same space in patches of varying density and character. Succession theory also teaches us many different approaches to directing ecological succession in our gardens.


At its simplest, forest garden design involves choosing what plants to place in your garden in which locations, at which times. However, these seemingly simple acts must generate the forest-like structures and functions we seek, and they must also achieve your design goals. A forest garden design process, then, must be information intensive if it is to achieve even moderately complex objectives. Therefore, begin by articulating your goals and assessing your garden site. Then you can select and apply design patterns, ecological principles, and plants in such a way that you integrate your goals and the site into a coherent whole. The challenge is to array the available design elements to create a set of ecosystem dynamics that will in turn yield the desired conditions of high yields, maximal self-maintenance, and maximum ecological health as inherent by-products of the ecosystem. You can use design patterns drawn from natural ecosystem examples or invent your own patterns that solve specific problems your design faces to help you do this. Patterns also arise from the requirements of the goals themselves and from a deep understanding of the site's characteristics. The goals guide the site analysis and assessment, and the site assessment discovers the design.

We recommend designing on paper, at least initially, so you can make as many mistakes as possible there, and correct them before putting anything into the ground. On-site design techniques can also work well, especially for those who prefer to avoid the mapping process. Careful design of plant spacing is a critical piece of the puzzle, in any case. Planting too closely together is the most frequent mistake that forest gardeners around the world have made. We hope that a more robust and explicit design process will help us all avoid such common mistakes and make some newer mistakes that are more interesting so we can learn from the experience.


Good site preparation is a critical precursor to planting your forest garden. Your site analysis and assessment should help you understand your site's limitations so that you can decide whether or how to alter the site, or how to adapt to the conditions present. Soil compaction, for example, is exceedingly common in most urban, suburban, and even rural sites, and it can severely restrict root growth, water movement in the soil, and the health of soil organism communities. Double-digging, chisel plowing, radial trenching, and other techniques can help you deal with severe compaction, while the simple act of mulching the soil and planting deep-rooted perennials will eventually address slight compaction. Other common site preparation challenges include poor soil texture, shallow soil depth, road salt, and persistent weeds.

Proper stock selection, planting, and mulching techniques can also have major long-term effects on plant vigor and productivity. Many woody planting specimens have been transplanted multiple times, and these can have kinked, circling, or damaged roots that will result in plant stress and even an untimely death. Carefully examine your specimens before you buy to ensure a quality root system, or purchase bare root stock so you can see the whole root system before planting. In fine-textured soils, the edges of the planting hole often become smeared to a smooth, impenetrable surface as a natural part of the digging process. This can severely restrict root growth and cause water to pool in the planting hole. Breaking up the edges of the hole with a spading fork allows roots and water into the surrounding soil. This needs to become a common planting practice, as do proper planting depth, proper mulch depth, and effective sheet mulching techniques.

Once the garden is in the ground, the longest and most satisfying phase of forest gardening begins: management, harvest, and coevolution. Potentially the hardest part of this phase is learning to do less and let the system take care of itself, as well as knowing when to intervene and how. These questions are, however, part of the process of shifting from a paradigm of command and control to one of cocreative participation as part of a natural system. As we observe ourselves and our gardens through the dance of the seasons, we will learn the most effective ways of guiding the garden ecosystem's evolution, we will select and breed ever more delectable crops for all the niches of the garden ecosystem, and we will begin to realize the full potential of forest gardening as a tool for cultural and personal evolution, not to mention cultural and personal survival in a post oil world. Welcome to the adventure!

Good information on plant, animal, and mushroom species and their ecological characteristics is essential for good forest garden design. You'll need data on the plant's size, form, and habit, its rooting patterns, hardiness and other tolerances and preferences, as well as its native habitat, human uses and ecological functions. Information that helps you design habitat for beneficial wildlife such as insects, frogs, toads, salamanders, and birds is also crucial. Ideally, this information will come in a variety of formats and levels of detail that relate to different parts of the design process. The appendices of Edible Forest Gardens provides this kind of information on over 600 useful plant species and a plethora of beneficial wildlife for your designing and gardening pleasure.

Photo Credits

Figure 1: The E.F. Schumacher Forest Garden in Totnes, Devon, England courtesy of Martin Crawford, Agroforestry Research Trust (

Figure 2: American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) fruits. Photo by Eric Toensmeier courtesy of Tripple Brook Farm nursery (

Figure 3: The front yard at Charlie Headington and Deb Seabrook's home and forest garden, Greensboro, NC. Photo by Dave Jacke.

Figures 4, 6, and 7: Illustrations from Edible Forest Gardens, volume 1 by Elayne Sears.

Figure 5: Illustration from Edible Forest Gardens, volume 1 by Peter Holm, Sterling Hill Productions (

Figure 7: Photo by Dave Jacke.

Figure 8: Martin Crawford in front of littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata), from which he eats the leaves. Martin coppices these trees to keep the leaves handy and to maintain continuous fresh green growth. Photo by Dave Jacke.