Permaculture and the Edible Forest Garden: a Critical Analysis

I’ve been interested in the edible forest garden idea for over twenty years and have planted and designed several myself in Ireland in that time, and visited several others. But they have never lived up to my expectations and were largely unproductive, despite sourcing as many perennial vegetables and other interesting edible plants as I could. Here I review the claims made for them and what evidence there is to support the idea- and conclude that, as Permaculture founder Bill Mollison said in the first place, in temperate regions you are far better growing your fruit trees and vegetables separately.

Temperate permaculture– is this a passing fad, an idealist’s hobby or is there a case for wider promotion of the practice?

  • Introduction- Design By Nature: Permaculture and the Forest Garden Concept

 “Permaculture” – derived from permanent agriculture – is a concept of sustainable land use and design coined and developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974. Mollison defined the concept as:

The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems

 (Mollison 1988).

 Since then, permaculture has grown into a worldwide movement of activists and designers applying permaculture principles to the whole of society (Holmgren 2002). Permaculture is more an approach or philosophy than any specific technology, but where it has come under academic scrutiny, many of the kinds of practices frequently advocated have been found lacking in supporting evidence (Chalker-Scott 2010).

In this essay we shall focus on one of the best-known expressions of permaculture design, the edible forest garden or food forest for temperate regions, which are designed with the intention of mimicking the structure and functions of natural woodlands. Successful integration of trees with agriculture for multiple environmental and crop protection functions, nitrogen fixation and fodder is well established in traditional systems in many parts of Europe (Rigueiro-Rodriguez et al 2009), and is gaining renewed interest today as an essential part of agricultural sustainability. It is worth examining why, then, while forest gardens continue to be popular amongst the permaculture fraternity and the sustainable food movement, they have attracted little academic research, and very little uptake by farmers, orchardists or market gardeners. As we shall see, evidence to support the claims that forest gardens achieve both low inputs and high yields is lacking, and there are good theoretical reasons why the concept is unlikely to succeed in temperate zones.

  1. Definitions, Origins and extent of current practice

 Edible forest gardensalso known as forest gardens, woodland gardens, food forests or analog forests have been defined as “a perennial polyculture of multi-purpose plants” (Jacke 2005) and are comparable to the multistory agroforestry systems common across the tropics known as homegardens (Kumar and Nairn 2006). Robert de J. Hart is generally credited with being the first to bring the concept to Europe in the 1980s when he started the UK’s first forest garden in Shropshire (Hart 1996). He cites as his influences Smith (1950), Yeoman (1971) and Sholto Douglas (1985), and his work in turn went on to influence Patrick Whitefield (1996) and Martin Crawford (2014) in the UK and Jacke and Toensmeier (2005) in the US.

Based on the definitions used by the authors cited above, for this essay we will define edible forest gardens as:

Gardens which are primarily or entirely perennial polycultures, containing at least three identifiable vertical layers of food-bearing plants including trees, shrubs and perennial herbaceous understory.

 This definition differentiates them from both annual vegetable gardens as well as other well-established agroforestry systems such as broad-scale silvoarable systems, which generally include only one or two annual crops in between rows of trees (Rigueiro-Rodriguez et al 2009).

Crawford (2014) estimates there are some 800 hectares of forest gardens in the UK and lists approximately 160 forest gardens in his Forest Garden Network, including 9 in Ireland, 30 in Europe and a handful in the US. They range in size from small gardens of as little as 50 square meters to smallholdings of up to about 5 hectares, with the smallest area for a “fully functional” forest garden estimated at around 1000 square meters.

Perhaps ironically given their continued popularity in permaculture, Mollison did not himself advocate perennial edible forest gardens for temperate regions. He was well aware that temperate gardening was characterized by annual or biennial seed crops and tubers and by the need to store root vegetables over the winter, and that tree crops are more likely to be for fruit than for staples (Mollison 1988). The academic literature also indicates that temperate gardens have traditionally tended to be based on annual vegetables, often arranged in relatively formal beds and generally requiring full sunshine (Ninez 1987; Vogl and Vogl-Lukasser 2003).


Despite this, Jacke and Toensmeier (2005) cite the ancient practice of coppicing of woodlots for firewood and poles as an example of traditional forest garden practice. However, coppice woodlands are not primarily food gardens, and generally only involve one or two layers, the coppiced hazel and sometimes a standard timber crop. In the UK, orchard trees were commonly grown with an intercrop of soft fruit—blackcurrants or gooseberries—prior to 1955; less commonly some (mainly annual) vegetable crops were included, and there are examples of intercropping between trees with annual vegetables (Kumar and Nairn 2006). One of the few examples that do meet the definition of a three-layered system included asparagus as a perennial vegetable (Newman 1986, citing Fekete 1958), but apart from these cases it seems unlikely there was any widespread traditional practice of genuine three-story perennial edible homegardens in Europe or the US.

In a recent effort to correct the dearth of research on edible forest gardens, the UK Permaculture Association began a 10-year forest garden trial in 2009, publishing a baseline survey of 117 forest gardens in the Europe and the US in 2013 (Remiarz 2013, 2014). The oldest sites were started in the 1980s, with the majority starting since 2000. Nearly half reported that “food self-reliance” was their main objective, with the majority saying this has been largely achieved, though what proportion of each gardener’s food requirements was met is not quantified. In fact, the species lists suggest that in reality the crops grown in most of these forest gardens differ little from the fruit and green vegetables typically grown in traditional home gardens from the 1950s (Ninez 1987).

This apparent mismatch between aspirations and practice requires some explanation: why are forest gardens still believed in and promoted—at least within the permaculture fraternity—if the practice falls so far short of expectations? To answer this we now consider the philosophy of copying nature underpinning the forest garden concept.

  1. Philosophy: Return to the Garden?

 Along with other more recent influential permaculture writers (Crawford 2005, Jacke 2010), Hart (1996) saw planting forest gardens as not only a practical way of growing food but also about ushering in new ways of living and seeing the world:

My mini-forest is the culmination of many years’ study and practice of the system that has come to be known as Agroforestry or Permaculture, and which many people, including myself, believe has a major role to play in the evolution of an ‘alternative’, holistic world order. A Green World. The World of Gaia.

– Robert Hart (1996)


The belief underpinning permaculture that “nature knows best” and agricultural systems are best shaped in the image of the natural world stems from the “organismal metaphor” proposed in the early 20th Century (Clements 1916), seeing ecosystems as behaving like a “super-organism,” and on Odum’s cybernetics, seeing ecosystems as analogous to machines (Odum 1981, cf. Holmgren 2001). Conservationists such as John Muir then popularized these ideas of an ideal state of “natural balance” for both nature and man (Marris 2011), but while still a dominant idea in both popular culture and much environmental policy (Botkin 2012), most ecologists today see natural systems as being characterized by continual change and adaptation rather than any ideal state of stability, and some suggest that the ecosystem concept itself may have outlived its usefulness (O’Neill 2001).

Permaculture and other alternative approaches to farming are rooted in the post-1960s counter-culture’s beliefs about the need to prepare for an inevitable collapse of industrial society and a consequent return to subsistence farming (Gold and Hanover 1987). Botkin (2012) traces this idea of a “Fall” and “Return to Eden” back to the roots of Judeo-Christianity, a powerful metaphor that also helped shape early ecology and environmentalism. Perhaps these deeply held cultural beliefs help explain the ongoing interest in close-to-nature approaches to farming such as forest gardens, which are seen as a way of restoring a presumed ideal state of natural balance that humans have disrupted by clearing the forests and tilling the land.

  1. Design Principles: Diversity, Complexity and Balance

There is a common-sense appeal to the permaculture concept of mimicking nature. Unlike a conventional annual vegetable garden with its ongoing needs of digging, weeding and applications of fertilisers, forest gardens are intended to be self-maintaining, with minimum inputs or labour, and to function with the diversity, complexity and the perceived “balance” of a natural woodland while conveying the following advantages (Hart, 1996; Jacke 2005; Crawford 2010):

  • the trees make use of vertical space which in principle would allow more food to be grown in the same area;
  • perennial plants don’t require annual tilling of the soil and planting of new seeds;
  • the diversity of polycultures should reduce problems with species-specific pathogens;
  • mulches and nitrogen fixing plants, common to other agroforestry practices obviate or reduce the need for fertilizer applications;
  • diverse systems are more resilient due to greater complexity;
  • forest gardens have multiple functions and yields including therapeutic and environmental benefits.

Taking each in turn we can establish theoretical explanations for why these principles in themselves are insufficient to make forest gardens viable as alternative food production systems.

Vertical space

 Yields from tree crops are limited by a trade-off between yield produced and the energy used by the tree itself in maintaining its woody structure. In addition, while yields increase over time as the trees grow larger, they will also produce more shade and roots (which will extend at least as far as the leaves), both of which are likely to reduce the yield of understory plants via competition for light, water, and nutrients. Crawford recommends up to 50% wider spacing than in conventional orchards to allow enough light through to the lower layers, and so most of the advantages of the vertical space are lost. We will compare figures for yields of tree crops and arable crops below.

 Annuals vs Perennials

 Perennials have the advantage of not requiring annual cultivation and planting, and often emerge earlier in the spring than their annual counterparts, but have the disadvantage of being static and not easily changed in response to changing conditions. By contrast, annual crops can reach optimal yields within just one or two seasons, and an annual system is much more flexible in that a different variety or crop can easily be switched to in the event of disease, climate change or even nutrient depletion. Annual grains were the first plants to be domesticated for the very reason that, in setting seed each year, they have lent themselves to dramatic improvements for yield and other traits through plant breeding (Kingsbury 2009).

Monocultures vs polycultures: Diversity and Intercropping

 Diversity is one of the “principles of permaculture” (Holmgren 2002) providing the notional underpinning for forest gardens, yet this diversity may compromise yields. The competition between species has already been noted. Also, polycultures lend themselves less to mechanization of cultivation and harvest, and nuts that fall from trees are likely to be lost in any groundcover vegetation. However, some researchers have pointed to the work already done on intercropping—traditionally practiced around the world—as a basis for promoting more complex polycultures such as forest gardens (Gowland 1996; Watson 1998). Resource partitioning (soil and light), the ability of combinations of crops to access more soil nutrients than monocrops, and modification of the microclimate, have been shown to increase yields compared to the individual crops grown alone. (Vandermeer 1989, Innis 1996).

While intercropping has also been shown to increase yields in relatively simple silvoarable systems such as vegetables between fruit trees (Newman 1986), Vandemeer also found cases where yields were lower if inappropriate crops were chosen. Whitefield (2013) was also aware of this, pointing out that the largest gain from intercropping is gained from the first crop addition and is likely to decline with the addition of each subsequent crop. In a review, Denison (2012) found that achieving optimum spacing in intercropped systems was difficult, and that while intercropping increased yields compared to the average of the two crops, they were often still less than the best crop grown as a monocrop. Thus, for many farmers the pragmatic choice was to grow the single best yielding crop alone.

The apparent lack of variety in the crops we eat is also cited as a reason to prefer forest gardens over conventional agriculture, but there are good reasons why only some crops have been adopted apart from ease of improvement breeding mentioned above. Being readily storable and transportable, corn, rice and wheat alone account for nearly half of humankind’s calorific intake. Another reason is pollination- a crop suitable for agriculture requires reliable methods of pollination to produce good yields, and so these grains tend to be either self-fertile, pollinated by many different insects, or wind pollinated, in contrast to many other plants that have co-evolved with specialist pollinators (Warren 2015).

Efficiency: inputs and outputs

Along with Jacke, Crawford (2014) argues that it is the efficiency of the system that acts of a measure of sustainability, not the total yield. He claims that modern agriculture often achieves an energy return of 5:1, and sometimes less than 1, with more energy going into the system than coming out, while forest gardens can achieve as much as 40:1. Even if this were true in terms of absolute physical energy- it is not explained how these figures are arrived at- fertilizer accounts for only about 2% of global energy consumption and farming without it would be far more labour-intensive and require up to four times the land to grow the same amount of food (Smil 2011). Thus, while low-input systems may be less dependent on fossil fuels overall, this advantage is vastly outweighed by the land-sparing benefits of continued increases in production from modern agriculture.

Systems, resilience and complexity

 Permaculture advocates the importance of the number of connections between elements in a design, arguing that such diversity of interactions leads to greater resilience: if one synergistic relationship breaks down, plenty of others are there to pick up the slack and prevent system failure. Natural systems are presumed to be in a natural “balance” which can easily be disrupted, with a change to one part unbalancing the whole system

Yet according to Denison (2012), an evolutionary perspective applied to agriculture reveals that natural systems have evolved more by chance than by any design (Gleason 1926) and that the defining unit in terms of function, adaptability and resilience is the individual species and not the system as a whole. Plant assemblies in nature may be as malleable as in a designed garden, readily incorporating newcomers in the form of aliens, invasive or naturalized plants and often continuing to function well even after the loss of many native species (Wilkinson 2004).

Multiple functions- habitat and therapy

Other kinds of “yields”, such as the aesthetic and therapeutic value of gardening and working close to nature, are often cited as highly valued reasons for promoting forest gardens (Hart 1996; Jacke 2005). There is no question that these are important aspects of gardening, but may be served as well if not better in other ways. Urban gardens, though not primarily for food, already provide habitat for a wealth of biodiversity (Goddard et al 2010). Equally, there is good evidence that gardening and gardens have great therapeutic value (Haith 2015) but again, there is no reason to suppose edible forest gardens will significantly add value to this.

  1. Yields- Land Sharing or Land Sparing?


 Despite absence of data, claims for high yields produced in such temperate permaculture systems can be extravagant (Sustainability Centre 2015). Hart (1996) for example states that “the forest garden is the most productive of all forms of land use”, supporting some of the most densely populated countries on earth. This might be plausible in tropical climates, at least in terms of total biomass production if not food yields, but the limitations of light and the relatively narrow range of productive tree crops available in temperate zones make this an unlikely scenario for the UK.

Comparative yields of staple crops

In the UK, most food produced in forest gardens is fruit or leafy green vegetables. Yet for forest gardens to prove their worth in production terms, they need to compete with other staple crops with high value of protein and carbohydrates. The main option for tree crops here is nuts.

Cobnuts (hazelnuts) can achieve yields of 3.5-4 tonnes/hectare 8-10 years after planting (CALU 2006), walnuts potentially 1tonne/hectare and sweet chestnuts up to 4.75 t/ha (Crawford and Newman 2006). This is still a long way from typical UK yields for barley and oats of 5-6 t/ha or wheat over 8 t/ha (DEFRA 2014). Potatoes can yield over 40 t/ha  (FAOSTAT 2013) -assuming 80% water content, this would equate to 8 t/ha in dry weight.  These best-case values for nut trees in the UK are not found in forest gardens with a complex understory, but generally in monocultures. Additionally, nut yields in the UK vary from year to year and are vulnerable to poor weather during pollination or early wind-fall (Crossland 2013) and hence are unlikely to grow much beyond their current niche market.

Discussion of yields is important because the driving rationale of the forest garden is that modern agriculture is unsustainable, laying the blame at the feet of monocultural systems based on annual grains and pulses. However, despite often well-founded fears of soil erosion and nutrient depletion, global yields of these crops continue to increase through improved varieties and technology (Ausubel et al 2012; Grau et al 2013). Indeed, total land used for agriculture may have already peaked (Our World in Data 2015) as a result of ongoing improvements in efficiency, and substantial area of land has been “spared” for nature as a result (Stevenson et al 2010). This dramatic and sustained increase in agricultural productivity over the past century has resulted in only 2% of the population in the U.S. being required to farm (AFBF 2015). In these respects then, modern farming is arguably more resilient because of its continual innovation and adaptability.

 6. Conclusions

 The three—or more—layered perennial edible food forest we have examined here is an attempt to improve agriculture and food production by mimicking nature. What works well in the tropics however does not seem to work well in cooler climes. While interest and research into sourcing promising novel crops and new cultivars from around the world continues, most temperate forest gardens seem little different from the fruit gardens and orchards commonly found in Britain prior to the 1950s.

Temperate forest gardens do offer great potential for further research on plant interactions within multi-strata perennial systems, and there is great scope for improvements in cultivars of many tree crops. A warming climate may offer a greater range of possibilities for novel crops to be grown in the UK, as is being tried, for example, by Otter Farm in Devon where they are now growing olives and almonds, but it is as yet unclear whether multi-tiered systems will provide any significant advantage.

Despite the lack of promise forest gardens show in becoming a viable alternative to industrial farming, the ongoing interest in permaculture philosophy together with public concern about sustainability will ensure that they continue to be experimented with by enthusiasts. The myth of the need to return to a “balance with nature” remains a powerful influence in many areas of public policy well beyond the permaculture movement and will continue to shape ideas about food, farming and conservation for a long time to come.


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15 thoughts on “Permaculture and the Edible Forest Garden: a Critical Analysis

  1. Etienne

    interesting analysis, and one which is well researched.
    However, among else, I do not understand your conclusion to

    “…that while intercropping increased yields compared to the average of the two crops, they were often still less than the best crop grown as a monocrop…”

    Why would it be pragmatic to produce less food on the same area? Wouldn’t the pragmatic answer be to research in machinery that can harvest polycultures? And wouldn’t it be pragmatic to breed varieties even more adapted to these systems?


    1. Why would it be pragmatic to produce less food on the same area?

      Ask a farmer 🙂 Inputs and outputs: more food on the same area can always be achieved, if you put in more inputs, mainly of time and work; increasing complexity has a trade-off, which is usually ignored by advocates. Intercropping is however a successful technique used throughout the world, as I clearly state in the post; but the bigger the scale, the greater the risk- it tends to favour the small farmer who has labour but little else. Modern industrial ag is so productive anyway that the gains would be marginal.

      Wouldn’t the pragmatic answer be to research in machinery that can harvest polycultures? And wouldn’t it be pragmatic to breed varieties even more adapted to these systems?

      You are talking about increasing the complexity of such machinery by orders of magnitude- but if it can be done efficiently, it probably will be eventually. Again, the gains will be marginal, for huge costs of developing the machinery. In any case, as I explain in the essay, the gains are only real for adding just one crop- and not for complex polycultures like forest gardens. Same for plant breeding- as I explain in the essay, there are good rational reasons why plant breeding has focused on annual grains- the potential gains for success are far higher than the marginal gains for high inputs required to develop plants for complex systems- for example, which traits would you try to develop? Plant breeding has always been uncertain and expensive; modern techniques may make this easier, but again, the gains will generally be much higher in monocultures.


      1. Etienne

        “…the gains are only real for adding just one crop- and not for complex polycultures like forest gardens.”

        The highest gain in yields maybe. But what about the utilisation of the soil, and the long term build up of the organic matter?

        I was researching in tropical and subtropical homegardens/forestgardes, but never had the opportunity to see a functioning temperate forest garden. Maybe the definition of “forest” is what causes the trouble? Some consider savannas with 10% tree cover as forests. Then we are again in the orchard category you wrote about.

        I found in the database of wocat ( the desctiption of an ancient agroforestry technique used in Tajikistan (The ancient agroforestry and agricultural biodiversity of crops on the basis of irrigated walnut orchards) which has, roughly estimated from the picture provided, 30 % of tree cover. Would this be called a forest garden?

        “Intercropping is however a successful technique used throughout the world, as I clearly state in the post; but the bigger the scale, the greater the risk- it tends to favour the small farmer who has labour but little else. Modern industrial ag is so productive anyway that the gains would be marginal.”
        In the original post you also wrote
        „only 2% of the population in the U.S. being required to farm (AFBF 2015)“
        I don’t think useless work should be done, but if more people were working in agriculture while producing more food on less space it would be an improvement in my opinion. And anyway most countries have high unemployment rates…
        “being required to farm” is a feeling many people have. In south-east Asia people I met would rather work in factories than on their land, even if they could make more money from farming (and not even with expensive inputs).

        “You are talking about increasing the complexity of such machinery by orders of magnitude- but if it can be done efficiently, it probably will be eventually”
        I do not know, as the varieties are not developed. How do you start a circle, if there is no machinery you cannot develop the varieties, and if there are no varieties you cannot develop the machinery.
        Some German breeders are researching bean varieties to grow with corn.

        “…for example, which traits would you try to develop? ”

        As an example I researched about the bean and corn interplanting/companion planting. Some varieties of beans are more adapted to semi-shaded areas than others, especially older varieties as the selection process of the new cultivars was done in open fields. The adapted varieties were growing taller leaves in the shade of the corn. What would be needed is traits like this, as well as “teams” of plants which can be harvested at the same time.

        I found Mark Shepard’s book “Restauration Agriculture” quite interesting to read, although it was lacking numbers. He speaks about some nuts based agroforestry systems, breeding and so on.


      2. I think that is very interesting, the more shade tolerant beans- I wonder how that would affect their N-fixation? -this generally requires good sun to actually fix Nitrogen. I am sure there could be some promise in it though. As I say, intercropping is indeed practiced, where farmers see it works for them, but there are also downsides, trade-offs with everything. Farmers are very practical and rational people- i think it is a great mistake to assume otherwise, that there is a simple alternative they could easily be doing instead. Modern farming yields are still going up, and farming becoming more efficient in use of resources. eg most corn and soy are Roundup-Ready, which allows no-till- one of the aims of permaculture I believe! So there is far less soil erosion than there used to be. Organic matter is indeed for the most part returned to the soil. This way of farming is not inherently unsustainable, though there are many who ardently believe it is, but there is no reason to think so. Technology and efficiency is improving all the time, this is what farmers are driving for also.


  2. Etienne

    ” eg most corn and soy are Roundup-Ready, which allows no-till- one of the aims of permaculture I believe! So there is far less soil erosion than there used to be”
    One of the problem with Roundup ist the residues, which can have effects on the organisms eating it (finally us). As you said, “there are also downsides, trade-offs with everything.”

    eg. Cuhra et al., 2015. Glyphosate-Residues in Roundup-Ready Soybean Impair Daphnia magna Life-Cycle.
    Or the report of the Institute of Science in Society, 2014 Changing from GMO to Non-GMO Natural Soy, Experiences from Denmark


    1. Not wanting to get into as big discussion on this right now but, just to say- the vast majority of scientists do not agree that residues from Roundup pose any particular problem, and that Roundup is far safer than many other treatments (including some pesticides used under Organic standards); and that ISIS is not a scientific organisation, but a cultish quasi-mystical group, part of a much broader alignment of groups funded by Big Organic and the alternative health industry.


      1. Etienne

        I couldn’t help but reply to this sentence:
        “the vast majority of scientists do not agree”

        Which majority?
        The founding bias is likely to play in the toxicological studies, according to Krimski (2012. “Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research? An Inquiry into the ”Funding Effect” Hypothesis”).

        As the regulations require the companies selling pesticides to perform toxicology testings, more studies are performed by the ones having interests in selling them.

        But we are drifting away from forest gardens, maybe someone knows about some that work in temperate climate?


  3. Richard webb

    Graham has produced a very interesting and well researched critique of ‘forest gardens’, with which I entirely agree, having planted one of the oldest such gardens in Ireland in Bray from 1995. it is on the small side at 230 m2 and is partly in the shade as neighbours planted a Leylandii hedge on the south side but this has now been cut back. There are about 50 potentially productive species and varieties in 4 layers. Yields are negligible apart from the gooseberries and two of the apple varieties. Insufficient sunlight is the main problem with forest gardens in Ireland at least. Maintenance is also a major issue. One cannot mulch without covering up the ground cover plants, pidgeons smash down the currents and strip them while green, any that do ripen the blackbirds have them as they do the cherries. Squirrels strip the hazels while they are green. Grey squirrels make nut production in Ireland and the UK a waste of time. It is difficult to net individual bushes without trapping birds. Having productive plants around and under fruit trees makes pruning difficult to avoid treading on the plants. Any windfalls also get lost in the groundcover and add to the disease risk. Many suggested species can be either rampant or invasive, such as ostrich fern, nepalese raspberry, sweet cicely, lemon balm, ramsons, three cornered garlic and mints. Japanese wineberry is also on the list of invasive species. Many species don’t fruit in Ireland or do so sparingly and if one is lucky only provide a tasty snack for the gardener. The amount of land needed for a FG largely precludes their use for many people although they can be simplified. As a plant ecologist and a landscape designer/gardener for 30 years I conclude that many permies don’t know how plants behave or how to use them – it seems like bung them in and hope for the best. We don’t have enough research evidence to design a productive forest garden and we certainly don’t know enough about root competition and nitrogen exchange. Advocates recommend adding nitrogen fixing trees such as alder – a massive forest tree unless coppiced. Most agricultural soils have sufficient nitrogen in them. established orchard trees dont need N2 as it discourages flowering which is why orchards are grassed down traditionally. One has to ask, given the necessity of our forebears for food production, if forest gardens were so productive, why did they not come up with the idea centuries ago? the nearest that we have come to it, on a small scale, is the classic English Cottage Garden which of necessity mixed fruit trees and bushes with some perennials, herbs and annual veg. It works, a lot is known about it and it has its own aesthetic. The complexity of forest gardens makes them uneconomic for commercial production without simplifying them to ‘normal’ agroforestry. Having said that, there is a farm in Wexford making use of the foraged produce from their hedges to make award winning foods. Having seen the astonishing fecundity of hedgerows at Gilwell during IPCUK , this is the way to go. It would also be interesting to design food forests using native edible species in periurban situations. One does get the feeling that FGs may be planted so that my garden is more’ permaculture’ than yours but at the end of the day we are trying to produce food for our families. There may also be a temptation for those who aspire to permaculture to throw together several techniques rather than to go back to the basics of PC design to come up with a solution to their needs. Anyway, enough of a rant. I would not plant a forest garden again and I would caution others not to do so unless for experiment purposes.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thelma

    Thanks for doing the research and thoughtfully writing what I have experienced to be true. Many permaculture concepts proove to be “bunk” here in the temperate world. Although Permaculture has given us gardners lots of new ways to bend the rules of traditional gardening. But to truely get good production and abundance I return to the seasonal gardening of my forbearers, rows and all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well said, and a great account from the FG veteran above.
    Forest Garden is the buzz word in permaculture and can’t be criticised according to permies.
    Permaculture drowns in ideology, and relates little to the practical world, where benefits are theorised and practical labour or any negatives are completely ignored.
    Permaculture looks better on a piece of paper than in the real world. The forest garden is a perfect example of this.
    Most people who support and crow about permaculture in general, have little practical experience or they run schools on it to make some money – theory and talk.
    I like many things about permaculture, and am from that side of the fence, it has good intentions. But the movement is owned by the hippy hangover generation who have loud mouths and some amount of brains, but delusional ones. They have taken good basic ideas and hot dipped them in nonsense.
    The movement has reached its plateau and will go no further.


  6. Pingback: Permakulturkritik und das genughaben-Lebensstilkonzept für finanzielle Unabhängigkeit | genughaben

  7. Nutrient Dense Farm

    Thanks for researching all this. Check out Ernst Gotsch in Brazil, he uses a lot of pruning and building soil to get a high yield of food production.


  8. Pingback: A Critical Analysis of Forest Gardens | MargaForma

  9. drfunguy

    Interesting analysis but shouldn’t yields be adjusted to some standard food value unit, Kcal, or grams protein, oil and other carbohydrate (ideally per energy input or GHG footprint). I think that you will find that hazelnut or walnut exceeds barley per ac in terms of protein and oil for example.


    1. absolutely correct- see my follow-up post Feedback on the Forest Garden where I compare calories/ha for different crops. Hazelnuts do indeed compare favourably with most arable crops, but I would suggest these yields are far more variable from season to season than wheat for example;
      in any case, these are maximum yields for hazelnuts grown in intensive monocultures, not as part of multi-story forest gardens.


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