“Few of us are in a position to restore the forests… But tens of millions of us have gardens, or access to open spaces such as industrial wastelands, where trees can be planted… and if full advantage can be taken of the potentialities that are available even in heavily built up areas, new ‘city forests’ can arise.”

~Robert A. de J.Hart

Why forestscapes

Imagine forests in every neighbourhood! Illustration by Jeffery Mathison, Neighborly Natural Landscaping in Residential Areas

Forestscaping converts monoculture lawns into edible forests and woodlands that:

  • work with the land rather than against it
  • are easy to manage
  • can yield a wide variety of nuts, fruits, vegetables, berries and medicine
  • are climate resilient and biologically sustainable
  • regenerate soil and feed themselves (worms, nematodes, fungi and bacteria turn plant debris into plant food in place)
  • channel and store water (especially if you build hugelkultur mounds or swales)
  • offer many ecosystem benefits (reduce atmospheric carbon, prevent erosion, offer shelter, clean the air, block wind, cool the air)
  • are beautiful and calming
  • valuable wildlife habitat
  • attract birds by offering food, shelter and nesting sites
  • increase biodiversity
  • filter air pollution
  • store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (unlike lawns which contribute to emissions through use of mowers, blowers, trimmers, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers)

Types of forestscapes

As ecosystems, forests provide a wide variety of services, all of which are essential in maintaining the quality of life on earth. They improve both air and water quality, and they provide some of the greatest biodiversity in the biosphere, comprising an impressive number of life forms and species. Indeed, forests are far more than just trees. Even plants as diminutive as those of the herbaceous layer—what one sees when looking down while walking in the forest—can play a role well beyond their apparent size. Despite its small physical stature, the herb layer comprises up to 90% of the plant diversity of the forest. I often refer to these plants collectively as “the forest between the trees.”

Frank Gilliam

Edible forestscape

Edible forestscapes can even be planted along streets

In permaculture, edible forestscapes are known as forest gardens or food forests. Tomas Remiarz, author of Forest Gardening in Practice, defines a forest garden as “a place where nature and people meet halfway, between the canopy of trees and the soil underfoot. It doesn’t have to look like a forest – what’s important is that natural processes are allowed to unfold, to the benefit of plants, people and other creatures. The result is an edible ecosystem.” Because it’s an edible ecosystem, the layers of an edible forestscape often include:

  • Canopy or tree layer: nut or fruit trees such as walnut, hickory, apple, pear, asian pear, plum, persimmon, pawpaw, sour cherry 
  • Understory or shrub layer: black currant, red currant, jostaberry, raspberry, gooseberry, haskap, goji berry, dwarf sour cherry, saskatoon, aronia, bayberry, goumi, false indigo, leadplant
  • Ground cover layer: every tree is associated with diverse variety of herbs, flowers, bulbs and vegetables designed to harbour pest predators and provide nutrients to the trees
  • Habitat for orchard allies: nest boxes for birds, frog pond, rock piles for snakes, bat boxes

Native forestscape

The most important thing to do right now is to build native forests which survive thousands of years until the next glacial age arrives… I hope all of the Japanese people plant small saplings with their own hands in order to protect their own lives and those of their loved ones, and to preserve the lush verdure of Japan. I wish to spread the know-how and the results of this ecological reforestation to the whole world.

Akira Miyawaki

Do you have 100 square metres? Are you interested in growing a forest really really fast that helps combat our climate emergency and ensure the well being of future generations? Consider planting a tiny forest using the Miyawaki method. Benefits include:

  • Tiny forests grow 10 times faster and 30 times denser due to a careful selection of plant species and multi-layer planting
  • Forest is 100 times more biodiverse than traditional forest replanting methods

Miyawaki method:

  • Soil analysis identifies which species will grow best
  • Rapid growth is stimulated with soil amendments of up to 1m of locally sourced biomass (such as straw or leaves)
  • Saplings (of up to 80cm) are densely planted (3-5 saplings per square metre)
  • After about eight months, the forest is so dense sunlight no longer reaches the ground
  • Water and weed for 1-3 years to help the forest establish, then disturb as little as possible to allow its ecosystem to flourish
  • Once established it becomes self-sustaining (every drop of rain conserved, every leaf that falls converted into compost)

Native forestscapes are naturally layered and are composed of plant communities that support each other. Options in our region for each layer include:

  • Canopy layer: shellbark hickory, black walnut, white pine, red pine
  • Tree layer: chestnut, persimmon, black cherry, red oak, bur oak, black willow, sugar maple, kentucky coffee tree, basswood, hackberry, shagbark hickory
  • Understory layer: serviceberry, hawthorne, redbud, blackgum, mulberry
  • Shrub layer: hazelnut, viburnum, huckleberry, winterberry, aronia, witch hazel, possumhaw, elderberry, spicebush, pussy willow, cranberry, ninebark, golden currant

Designing forestscapes

Edible forest palette with Juglans nigra (black walnut) as the canopy. In addition to contributing to the health of the plant community by supplying nitrogen, controlling pests, attracting beneficial insects or acting as a living mulch, each of these plants also offers food or medicinal value.

When designing a forestscape, if you’re new to gardening start small. Start with one plant community. Once it’s established, add a second. Then a third. Eventually, weave them together by filling spaces between with plants. This slidedeck steps you through the process of designing a plant community for a forestscape.

Or you can choose from one of these examples of edible forestscape plant communities (guilds), including black walnut, hackberry, hickory, pecan, apple, peach, plum, fruit tree, white oak or hazelnut. And yes, the same design process applies whether you’re designing an edible forestscape or one for birds, pollinators or other wildlife.

Fruit, wet meadow, bee, oak, service tree and walnut tree guids, Midwest Permaculture

If you want to design your own edible forestscape from scratch, here’s a list of the most valuable plants for urban and suburban edible forest gardens.

Thirty most valuable plants for urban and suburban edible forest gardens, The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience, Toby Hemenway

How to care for forestscapes

Trees in a whole system, Permaculture Designer’s Manual

If you plant that way [polyculture], it becomes so much easier… so much more interesting and, overall, less work…. Take a step toward nature and nature will always take ten steps towards you.

Stefan Sobkowiak

Your garden wants to express itself, which means creating forestscapes is a playful dance. You dream of possibilities. Nature lets you know she has other ideas. So think editing, not maintenance. Think conversation, not control. Try things. Become an observer of how plants interact within your forestscape. Based on your observations, decide on which plants should stay and which plants should go. Edit. Repeat.

  • Mulch for the first year or two (wood chips make the best mulch). As plants mature, a living greeen mulch will eventually replace the wood chips.
  • Water and weed for the first two or three years, at which point the forest largely takes care of itself
  • Rethink your definition of weed. Dandelions, for example, offer wonderful salad greens, improve the soil and are a great source of pollen for early pollinators.
  • If you’re having problems with pests, introduce more insectary plants or look at the overall composition of your community.
  • During spring clean up or pruning, chop and drop clippings as mulch that feeds the soil life.
  • If a plant dies, that’s ok. Your goal is to preserve the integrity of your forestscape, not to pamper a particular specimen.


Permaculture Primer, Midwest Permaculture