Forest Gardens: alternative forms of food production

Emma S. Pilgrim, Exeter University

I’m an ecological Research Fellow in Exeter University’s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP). I’m interested in integrating nature with food production. Consequently, I’m looking at alternative small-scale systems as the global contribution of own-growers’ to feeding the planet is over-looked.

Recently I explored a relatively new temperate, own-growing, agroforestry method: The Forest Garden. This technique, inspired by ancient tropical multi-layered Homegardens, integrates nature and food production. Forest gardens are made up of seven special layers: the tall-tree layer, the low-tree layer, the shrub layer, the herb layer, the ground-cover layer, the vine layer and the root layer. Rather than the annual hard graft of sowing seeds in a traditional veg patch, forest gardens consist of low maintenance perennials that create a harmonious ecosystem, working with nature. Within the community of different plants, some provide nutrients for others, whilst the rest accommodate wildlife and essential pollinators.

Originating in the UK, Forest Gardens have spread globally despite being little researched.

I sub-sampled 51 British Forest Gardens described as: Mature (more than 15 years old), Young (less than 10 years old) or Mixed (experienced Forest Garden manager though Forest Garden is Young) and showed that Forest Gardens are:  

  • small systems less than 0.8 ha;
  • on sloping, land of low agricultural value;
  • provide a diverse diet;
  • provide health benefits, particularly improved well-being
  • managed by well-educated people (with an average age of 56), motivated by environmental protection.

Potentially Forest Gardens, like Homegardens, can deliver social, economic and environmental benefits as well as food. However, our understanding of Forest Gardens and their alternative crops will be enhanced by combing a holistic academic approach with Homegardens and Forest Gardens practitioner knowledge.

This work was completed as a Daphne Jackson Fellowship funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC), with the support of Professor Michael Winter OBE and Professor Juliet Osborne. In 2016, this work was exhibited in Einstein’s Garden during the Greenman Festival.




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