• David Buckton

Part 1: Introduction, from the Series Based on the Talk "What is Forest Gardening? "

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

This article is the first in a series of reviews articles, titled “What is Forest Gardening?” by David Buckton. He wrote this article series on his talk on January 15th, 2019 at the Wellandport Branch of the West Lincoln Library at 7 pm

Click this link, and the companion slide presentation will open in a separate window: SLIDESHOW


A series of books will be discussed, (that accompany a slide presentation posted online) and other highlighted author references are within the text here. The discussion this week was a fantastic opportunity to speak and honor libraries, authors, and discuss their work. This event was all within a library setting. Thanks to everyone at the Wellandport library for hosting this event.


(see slide visualization of emergent network geometries diagram)

To begin, we will look at patterns that make up networks on a diagram. This computer-generated model named 'visualization of emergent networked geometries...' on the slide (uploaded by Ginestra Bianconi) is about network theory. From this model, we can see what appears quite chaotic. The chaos of these networks is where we begin in our discussion. This model is a helpful visual example of several connections in network systems that we may not be able otherwise to see in a natural forest garden setting.

This model image has texture, shape, and has the diversity of the color spectrum, which is divided radially around a nonspecific center. This image is an excellent example of how it might be possible to model complex ecosystems.

Forest gardening, and other forms of sustainable agriculture or agroforestry practices, use models of natural networks to understand, mimic and vary the patterns in nature (as meteorology uses complex models for weather predictions). When combined, these patterns can be used to improve the growing conditions. The word permaculture has several meanings depending on the context of use of the term.

Patterns that mimic nature can add to existing structures in the landscape. Alternatively, we can influence the specific patterns in particular ways so that will work with the new landscape design. These newly built small changes to habitat can then open things up to more functional space for plants to grow. Structures in the natural setting helped to determine the future locations for new settlements (like Turaida) in history. The area of the old ruins and other pre-existing structures were a priority value (we will discuss the origins of Turaida's history in later articles). The materials and design at Turaida changed as the technology and knowledge base for construction changed over time. In this way, new places are rebuilt or added to fit new inhabitants. As the expression goes, “build it, and they will come.” This applies to living structures and the natives

Ecologists explain that adding more diversity in the ecosystem means better long term sustainability since diverse systems have more cycles and patterns of interactions (ecology) between different species. The variety of structure is often used to explain the edge effect in ecology. We can see diversity in vibrant city cores as well as lush country gardens.

In some ways we'll explore later, planning a space that humans can use, and sustainable vertically designed gardening has a lot do to with one another. Humans can engineer a vertical growing space more efficiently and increase the variety of life in the forest. By using vertical layers over the same square footage of land, it is possible to attain high yields of a mixed variety of plant foods. Specific species at different levels makes sense because the unique physical and structural adaptations allow them to grow together as a forest. This structure-function, lock-and-key kind of relationship is the goal of the 'physiological' method for designing living edible forests. People need to access the forest garden in a way that is safe and easy so that the focus can be on everything else.

For example, the natural upright posture of our bodies encourages us to design working spaces and tools (such as the ergonomically designed standing tables) that fit the function of the task and our bodies together. Avoid repeated bending to the ground, and crawling types of postures, for the simple reason that our bodies are designed to be upright. Even the height of our bodies (and our easy reach) constrains the ease of picking low lying fruit versus those higher up on large trees.

The complexity of forest gardening can be modeled using up to date methods and concepts. The model of living forest cities from the city in Malaysia we'll discuss next is one of those new angles. Our information world of excess data now requires us to rely on supercomputer technology and the rise of information sciences for models like these to understand our world. Computer technology has allowed for other new emerging fields of study related to 'chaos theory' (see Introducing Chaos: A Graphic Guide, Fourth Edition by Ziauddin Sardar and Iwona Abrams (2004)). As they describe in this part of a series wonderfully illustrated introduction books, network and chaos theory can also be used to study the movement of insect populations, weather patterns, cellular brain activity, as well as bird and other migrating populations (see Introducing Chaos, p 7). Forest ecosystems in many ways operate on the edge of chaos by taking advantage of the benefits of network design and operating, existing networks they represent.

THE FOREST CITY (Sept 2018) (see the slide of the model of Forest City Malaysia)

Many large scale projects are looking at ways to rethink the concept of city life and our balance with nature. This slide of a physical model of a Forest City in Malaysia is a testament of the current heights of creative ingenuity, where the modellers are designing an entire living green city (see the slide of Forest City ( Sept 2018) model in Malaysia). Looking into the future is hard. Some even foresee cloud cities, but all this is surreal.

Mega-city urban designers (like Richard Florida at U of T) are looking at ways to make a city life to avoid the headaches of working on a large scale by using smart design. Large scale projects face other challenges that can't exist with a limited small scale budget. The horrors of gross over-expenditures, lengthy delays, stalled, half-finished projects, and different levels of corruption are shadows of ghosts that haunt some developers going forward. Despite these past challenges, the ingenuity is astounding to see in the model shown. Let's now look at smaller scale models in edible gardens and forested yards.

ABOUT US (and a city gardening past)

(see the following slide Oshawa Urban Garden 2013)

Our gardening experience began by developing smaller gardens in backyards in the late 2000s and early 2010s. We started traveling around on bike paths and jogging trails, exploring green spaces in cities and their surroundings. Biking to school, the library, or work in the city became a way to explore the forests and gardens that make up a mosaic of lush forested parks, open schoolyards, and some beautiful neighborhood gardens.

Many different city garden projects while we studied and worked, such as those across the GTA and the rest of Ontario inspired us. There are many beautiful garden spaces and parks across urban Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge and Guelph. Sustainable, simple solutions are often practical. After seeing simple solutions in other community gardens in urban areas, we transformed the grass lawns into a no-till herb and vegetable gardens in our former yards.

Back then, we were backyard gardeners growing favourite seasonal vegetables and herbs. Some of the yards had nicely sheltered fruit trees and shrubs on deep city lots or double lots.

My wife and I met as health science classmates who as entrepreneurs later became business partners in health care. The beauty and quiet natural setting of the area inspired us to settle in Niagara seven years later. We lived in a few different places in Ontario while exploring graduate research, training and course work, writing, and gardening in various fields.

These were the days when it seemed the new urban living was taking off. Our signed copy of Richard Florida's book Who's Your City? Canadian Edition 2009 (see the cover on the following slide) had a significant impact on our views that were being reinforced by rising property prices back then. At the time, there didn't appear to be many alternatives for us living a non-urban life outside the city in our twenties and thirties without a lengthy commute. So we stayed in the city. But there's lots of opportunities to make value added goods.

We were fortunate to have had the time to develop and grow wonderfully sheltered microclimates inside city neighborhoods across Ontario. Together, these small city yards helped us to build the confidence necessary to pursue our project in the country. Each garden had a different layout, soil, size, in different cities, climates, and yards. Our first experiments with greenhouses started then, using simple backyard sized kits and hoops. We grew fruits and vegetables based on what was available. Back then we began seed collection.

By the end of our last summer in the city, we started to keep track of bike routes to forage fruit trying to find the best wild fruit trees. Looking at flowers in the Spring during bike rides helped us with this. When we moved, we eventually passed along the best forage tree locations to a neighbour who was also a fruit forager. We had some fruit forest experience in Oshawa before we moved to the country.

Since our backyard garden lacked fruit trees, we discovered fruit falling off trees across the area. These old abandoned fields were open spaces where perhaps whole orchards once grew. Two huge old Anjou pear trees about a kilometer off the shoreline of Lake Ontario had the best fruit.

Walking on sidewalks through forested neighborhoods and observing the differences in the plants living as part of the cityscapes allowed us to reconnect with nature. Pioneering forest gardener Robert Hart and others emphasize this reconnect. As discussed in the About the Writer and Forest Gardener article, our own reconnect began with an appreciation for the value of diversity. Simply put, having choices is having freedom. That said, we need to set limits on choice since structures and functions go together.

From our personal experience, microclimates and space help, especially to those of us who are looking to season extend as far north as our Canadian climate. However, forest gardening shouldn't be limited to country life, and it doesn't need to be in Southern locales. There are many examples of urban forested projects. We need to be sensitive to the infrastructure in the urban landscape when we plan to put in trees.


As we've discussed, smaller rural plots of land along major roads and less central areas should not be ignored. Those vast areas making up suburbia are also spaces where forests gardens and other sustainable growing can add dense, lush, useful living areas as well.

The edge effect makes many neglected borderlands a potentially useful space for growing important food and other plant crops. Some small acreages typically can stand as grass cut lawns may be zoned agriculture or otherwise but still allow the potential of growing diversity on a small scale. The products and value-added goods and services contribute to a diversified, dynamic and healthy economy. The small scale potential allows for many opportunities since it offers more freedom of maneuver.

In many areas of the world, different groups of peoples, especially in the small island climates (such and the UK and Japan) of Western and non-Western countries traditionally used various forms of agroforestry and sustainable agriculture. Where land is scarce, efficient systems become not so much a choice than a necessity. These forms of self-reliance relate to sustainable kinds of systems. People sometimes appreciate things more when they are a limited commodity of value.

In fact, “...the best-known forest gardens are found on the sites of ancient civilizations, Maya and Zapotecs in Mexico and Central America, the Benin of West Africa, the Buddhist Kingdom of Sri Lanka, and the Hindu Kingdom of Java.” (Robert Hart, Forest Gardening, p 2)Please see slide photo of Robert Hart and his book Forest Gardening.

Robert Hart coined the term “forest garden” to describe a sustainable form of low maintenance, long-lived agroforestry system he was developing in the West Midlands of England. Forest gardening and permaculture appear in some ways as a 20th Century response to the problems of modern industrialization and urbanization. However, it has roots that extend far beyond just the last Century as we'll discuss later.


In his book Forest Gardening: Rediscovering Nature and Community in a Post-Industrial Age (1996), Robert Hart explains his grand view of the forest gardening project. He goes on to describe forest gardening to a “total work of art” comparable to a work of classical opera (see his discussion Forest Gardening on pg 128).

In Who's Your City? How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of your Life (2008), urban designer Richard Florida writes about the importance of location, and the effects that 'place' has on our lives. While he's not writing about gardening, this still holds whether one is in a city or a forest garden.

Richard Florida's work helps us to understand the changing nature of work in a post-industrial age. Publication of his book was happening when places like tech hubs began booming, and urban hipsters (a new urban identity, as once were the Yuppies) were moving into re-purposed industrial buildings and condo towers in the city core.

Robert Hart points out how designing for the city, and the country life wasn't so different. In a prologue of his book Forest Gardening (1996, pgs 1-4) he named The Mini-Forest, Hart describes a visual mosaic of backyard gardens making up a City Forest in London, England. He explains the importance of organizing carefully by making efficient use of vertical and horizontal space.

Robert developed his system on a relatively small scale in Shropshire. His ideas came from his experience of forest gardening, and his extensive learned knowledge of tropical forested gardens as he describes throughout the book. He explains how “though I worked out the system for myself, I have since discovered that peasants have been creating structures for thousands of years in many parts of the world, especially in tropical areas where space is limited by population pressure.” (from Forest Gardening, p 2)

There are similarities between the creative economy of the cities and all the new creative economies in the country space. The so-called post-industrial age of the creative cities of Richard Florida we also see in the rural places of Robert Hart's Forest Garden. Both relate to food, whether for those living around global cities or for those living within them.

TURAIDA (see the castle with riverbank slide)

Turaida Forest Garden is a small acreage lowland permaculture site that we have been developing over several years. The project name originates from the beautiful gothic red brick Turaida location in Europe. It is mentioned here for inclusion, as part of this introduction.

We are using forest gardening techniques and design, plants, and its models. We grow many native plants and less common varieties. We are using eclectic, or slowly developed method; a handmade process that adds 'new to us' plants, materials, designs, and techniques. Our forest garden is being developed using mounds and small scale simple, passive, surface water conserving methods including the preexisting pond area. We have planned and continue to work at making a useful, creative, and livable forest garden. We'll go into the design for forest gardens, including our design for Turaida in more detail later.


It only makes sense to include a definition here. A forest garden is a term coined by Robert Hart in the 1980s. He described it as a sustainable, low-maintenance food growing system, based on permaculture and the natural patterns found in forests. It is an agroforestry system that usually includes a selection of different large and small fruits, herbs, nuts, and perennial vegetables. Forest gardener Douglas McConnell points out, forest gardening is “probably one of the worlds oldest land uses and most resilient agroecosystems” (2003) (The Forest gardens of Kandy; and other gardens of Complete Design, p 1). While the term 'forest gardening' is relatively new (approx forty years old), the practices are ancient.

While many forests certainly have some good growth for eating when lost and under starvation, we can understand that forest gardens differ from a typical forest. They are designed with humans and nature, structured around housing lots of diversity in a comparatively small space. Forest gardens are intended to be used by humans, holistically modeled on and working with nature, in a shared lived ecology that protects them both. This model is part of the permaculture worldview.

More generally, forest gardening is part of permaculture - a term that was coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. Permaculture means “permanent agriculture,” and the word amalgamated with “permanent culture” (from Larry Korn's book One Straw Revolutionary, p161) as a means of inclusion. In Permaculture 2, Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture (p1-3), Bill Mollison explains the underlying philosophy roots back and relates to Masanobu Fukuoka, where he discusses th efficiency of the system.

Robert Hart explains “Diversity is the keynote of the forest garden concept...”( see Forest Gardening, p 3). However, we aren't just talking about plant diversity. While species diversity is an important aspect, so are the structures, and materials when designing and building a forest garden. Often, a collection of unique, warm, well-drained, sheltered locations are desirable for small tender plants. How to increase ecological diversity, and structural diversity will be discussed in more detail in many of the books referenced.

In summary, forest gardening is a low maintenance sustainable model for growth. It is part of a collection of sustainable models like permaculture, are designed to grow food while preserving natural systems. Sustainable models work to cycle nutrients and energy while holding inherent stability by design. Forest gardens make use of edge effects for biodiversity, and yield. They use unique plants in the plan adapted to living in a particular part of the forest habitat. We require complex models to organize and develop a living system. With nature's help, we can direct the future growth of a forest garden.

Now that we introduced some of the key figures, definitions, concepts, and the importance of space in design, we'll go on to discuss the other slides from the talk in later posts. Designing a forest garden will be the subject of the next article that we'll cover in this series on “What is Forest Gardening?”.


Florida, Richard. Who's Your City? How The Creative Economy is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of your Life. Vintage Canada (2009)

Hart, Robert. Forest Gardening, Rediscovering Nature and Community in A Post-Industrial Age. Green Age Books. (1996)

Korn, Larry. One Straw Revolutionary. The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka Chelsea Green (2015)

Mollison, Bill. Permaculture 2, Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture.(1979,reprint 2010) Tagari Publications.

McConnell, Douglas. The Forest Gardens of Kandy: And Other Gardens of Complete Design. Routledge Studies in Environmental Policy and Practice. 552 pgs (2003)

Sardar, Ziauddin, and Abrams, I. Chaos: A Graphic Guide. The Introducing Series. Icon Books. (2008) (p 7)


Bianconi, Ginestra. Color Diagram, Visualization of Emergent Network Geometries Generated by the Non-Equilibrium Model Presented in Ref (35). Interdisciplinary and Physics Challenges to Network Theory. ( Sept 2015) Online at ResearchGate. https://www.google.com/search?q=online+visualization+emergent+network+geometries&client=firefox-b-ab&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjE88KhoPrfAhUJoYMKHQhhBcwQ_AUIDigB&biw=1280&bih=547#imgrc=T-6DbtF0DMsQPM:

De Waard, Fransje. Photo of Robert Hart (in Foreword pg xiii). From Patrick Whitefield's Book How to Make A Food Forest. Permanent Publications (1996)

Fang, Joyce. Model Image. Proposed Malaysian Forest City Project. September 2018. The Straits Times. From: www.straitstimes.com

Another noteworthy point of reference here is that David Holmgren and Bill Mollison are considered the co-founders of permaculture.

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