• David Buckton

Part 2: 'The Elements of Design, Section 1' of “What is Forest Gardening?”

Updated: Mar 23, 2019

The Elements of Design, Section 1 is the second article in a series by David Buckton based on his talk “What is Forest Gardening?” on January 15th, 2019 at the Wellandport Library. Click this link for the slide show of the presentation that has images to accompany this article.

Please see the accompanying slide presentation beginning at the tenth slide of the presentation following the introduction (slide #10 is a photo of David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier's comprehensive two-volume work Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision and Theory and Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture).

To begin, let's briefly summarize the first article of this series where we defined and explained forest gardening and introduced permaculture. We included a discussion of the complicated, chaotic nature of forest gardens and how models of complex networks are used to describe and design them. We introduced Robert Hart and some other key figures in forest gardening and permaculture. We discussed how city cores, suburban areas, and the country places are all living (and growing) spaces. From our past urban gardening experiences, we found that functional growing spaces can be accommodated using small scale design solutions. Plants and other species diversity connect to the physical material, spatial and structural forms of diversity. Specific adaptations in specific species are selected naturally (or designed depending on context) to particular habits. In this first section of the second article, we now turn to develop forest gardens.

Like most other things in life, there are differing views on what is the best approach to designing a forest garden. In section one of the Elements of Design, we are looking at design considerations. Whole books, some of whom we are discussing, are devoted to aspects of how to design forest gardens. For example, Patrick Whitefield's book How to Make A Forest Garden is straightforward and to the point. This article intends to explore design considerations and how the individual plants connect to the specific location in the forest garden and concerning the larger whole of the forest garden.

We will examine surface structures such as berms, fish scale swales, hugelmounds, sun traps, pits and mounds that imitate the formation of an old growth forest, and herb spiral mounds in the following articles on garden landscape structures and design.

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


First, a few words of advice that were passed along to us from others. Seek out and consult with others, and become engaged and informed before going ahead with any critical kind of landscaping project or nursery stock order. As a speaker once explained to new students at the start of a sustainable agriculture course, it is important to take ownership or responsibility of the project or goal. Be responsible, recognize limitations and try to stay informed and know when you've made a decision.

Second, have patience with yourself, mother nature, and those around you. A slow growing, perennial garden often can be years in the making. Certain very slow growing plants can take a decade or more to reach maturity. Inevitably there will be shortcomings with forest garden projects, such as plants that didn't adjust to the site-specific growing conditions for any number of reasons.

Third, source knowledge by reading materials, speaking with people and accessing all the online sources of design for inspiration throughout the project, not just the beginning. Like people, try and keep up with your plants by learning from them as they change.

Observe and sample first. Test, and trial watch and see, and remember or write down what is valuable. Use small, light footsteps, to avoid both under-doing it or over-doing it. Producing knowledge and sharing knowledge are part of permaculture principles (see Gaia's Garden, pgs 6-7 ).

Different trials and test plots are best at the beginning when breaking new ground, using modern methods, materials or tools. As a lecturer in health sciences once explained, we don't want to be the last one to prescribe an old form of treatment or the first to specify a new one. The same would probably equally hold for the person receiving care. We need to be aware of the risks and benefits of what we're trying to do.

Ultimately the responsibility should (and does) rest with the individual, taking into account the contingencies. Leading by example in some cases is possible. However, avoid seeking a perfect design or method, since the ideal solutions don't often happen (except for those who convince themselves otherwise). How and when would it be possible to know it was perfect?

There are many very helpful forest gardeners, growers, farmers, landscapers, horticulturalists, certified permaculture designers and others who would enjoy collaborating on different projects. Seek out those who are receptive to having a discussion and those who are wanting to share their experiences and views. There is a never-ending source of new materials, even offline.

Plants, rocks, trellises, vegetable bed spaces, walkways, soils, water reservoirs, and other structures are all necessary. Be choosy bringing structures into the landscape. Create a cautious but opportunistic design plan. The plan ought to be flexible but rigid enough to build off, like a moveable backbone. The presence of all these tools and resources needs to balance with open space. The proportions of area and size of the forest garden should reflect the landscape.

Sourcing materials, including purchasing and storing them at the right time (especially with plants) are significant concerns. Gardening materials are like ingredients in a kitchen, especially in the height of Spring since making things always creates a mess. As a landscaper who repurposed interlocking stone to make beautifully designed paths once pointed out, projects would not get off the ground without the materials to make it happen. Further still, all those ingredients must be added together at the right time. Consider leaving space for piles of elements like soil amendments, or landscaping materials.

Like studying a course, practicing with all its growing pains, seems to be what makes all the difference with forest gardening. Naturally, beginning with the more straightforward projects first before going onto the difficult ones. Develop a sense of your abilities until a certain comfort level develops.

In worst case scenarios, either by your hand or mother nature's, there is always the following season. However, as discussed in movie Traffic (2000), we need to know the difference between a reason and an excuse.

A working design plan must be flexible enough that it will change over time, as a forest garden develops. Like making dough for baking bread, it must have enough stability, structure, and air to remain workable that it can bake.


In a thin primer named Permaculture in a Nutshell, author Patrick Whitefield gives us a short introductory read for those just starting. The language is every day and concise. As he points out, the forest garden "makes the most use of sunlight available to it because the different layers come into leaf at different times of the year: the herb layer first, followed by the shrubs, and lastly the trees." (p33) Whitefield summarizes the whole subject of permaculture into a short easy read with glossy pages from an English press. As mentioned earlier, his other book How to Make A Forest Garden is another helpful reference. For those who already have a knowledge base, these are still great books to review.

In their two-volume work (see the tenth slide) Edible Forest Gardens Volume 1: Ecological Vision and Theory, and Volume 2: Ecological Design and Practice, authors David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier offer a relatively recent, comprehensive guide to an otherwise sprawling and expansive subject of temperate climate forest gardening. These textbook style hardcovers filled with a collection of invaluable diagrams which are illuminating and presented in a conceptually accessible format. While they are a bit bulky to manage to hold (volume two is over 600 pages), the works are easy to read as a reference, with language that is also detailed, relevant and full of helpful ideas. The second volume is the larger of the two and is more practical in its orientation than Volume One. However, both are excellent.

Another exceptional design and reference guide, also from Chelsea Green publishing is Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition by the late permaculturalist Toby Hemenway (see slide #12 with cover and photo of author ). Like the Edible Forest Gardens series, Toby Hemenway's bestselling works remain popular. His legacy has influenced so many emerging permaculturalists, now roughly a decade since the second edition release of Gaia's Garden.

The work of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren interconnects with these writers.


We find timeless, natural shapes and forms such as waves, branches, trees, spirals, hills, leaves, roots, curved walkways and surfaces, shells(slide #23), fish scales (slide # 22), and a variety of other organic features in forest garden designs. Contours and patterns over the surface of the land make up ridges and valleys. By structuring the forest garden design with landforms in mind, we can then make small adjustments to favor our intended use. Ultimately it's nature's design. We are limited by in our sense of how we perceive the problems of design. Put another way, as one of the permaculture principles based on attitudes, explains: “the biggest limit to abundance is creativity" (see Gaia's Garden, p7).

What about the edge effect? Another permaculture principle (discussed at the beginning of the first article) centers around optimizing the edge effect. We can "...Optimize the edge. The edge - the intersection of two environments - is the most diverse place in a system and is where energy and materials accumulate or are translated." (Gaia's Garden, p 7)

The edges act as an essential element of the design plan. For example, the arrangement of the large trees that make up borders and the adjacent spaces, like the canopy layer of the forest garden, act like scaffolds of the framework.

Often people use the intersection of a forest and a field as the typical example of the edge effect, but there are many other kinds of edges in nature. Wetlands have abundant edges, where "the most productive ecosystems on Earth are on the edges of water.. ...The plants have the advantages of both mediums: the water means they never suffer from drought stress, and the soil gives them a place to root that is close to the air."( from Permaculture in a Nutshell, p 50).


We can think of edges on the surface of the land as a way of connecting and directing flow and organizing space.

One way to look at edges on the surface is to observe and follow the flow of existing boundaries, depending on what's there. Using existing built and natural boundaries as the focus in new areas, we can choose to limit the initial challenge of making further additions and breaking new ground to when we are better prepared. Observations allow steady inputs of knowledge, by collecting information about the weather, drainage, wind exposure, sun exposure, and growing conditions. Pathways should be an early consideration for accessibility.

Sometimes, temporary roughed in pathways, for important early wheelbarrow access on wet sites out to the periphery can be altered later in the development of the design. In most cases, the natural edges created by existing structures, large trees, buildings, shelterbelts, ponds, creeks or spillways are already there. Simply put, we can start by looking at what edges are already there and build off them.

Freshwater ponds and rivers form boundaries between the ground and the atmosphere. In biology, limnology is the study of the freshwater ecology and the interaction of all of these combined at a large scale. On a smaller size, scattered pockets of changing microclimates in a forest garden allow for much more creative license. At this scale, wheelbarrows and hand tools can be used to build in a forest garden (see slide photo of Robert Hart with his wheelbarrow with hand tools inside that he used to develop his forest garden at the beginning of the slide presentation slide #6).

For example, leaf-shaped walkways with veins as pathways offer a different way to approach bed space in the garden (see Gaia's Garden, pgs. 42-43). By designing them to resemble leaves, the walkways change shape as they widen and thin, conserving precious bed space while creating flow and direction. Another way to see the process is as an act of dividing the bed spaces. We used this pattern with a comfortable pea gravel walkway (for barefoot, as well as a child and pet-friendly walking surface) in our Oshawa backyard garden (see earlier slide).

The landscaping materials needed will depend upon the availability, preferences, intended use and costs associated. Stone has clear advantages in wet or poorly drained locales. The appeal of rock is in its permanence, with solar energy exchange and heat storage properties, drainage qualities, and affordability, which offsets its heavy weight, its extreme hardness, and its potential sharpness. Appropriately designed, gravel walkways will help divert water away from the walking areas and improve the safe accessibility of a forest garden. The added heat and water on the surface provided from the gravel helps feed the roots. Together with the light and air ( the subject title the later fourth article )from the opening, the walkway gives the adjacent plants a space to breathe above ground to help make a comfortable growing environment.

Keyhole beds (slide #18 of presentation, of repeated series of the keyhole and round mandala garden beds from Gaia's Garden ), and other designs make use of ergonomically designed space that people can use safely. In some ways, they resemble a series of cul-de-sacs like those in residential neighborhoods. These linear kinds of keyhole beds are said to resemble cellular membrane linings of the lungs or in our intestinal walls (see the discussion on the page of Edible Forest Gardens, Vol 2, p105.)

Topographical wave patterns on the land appear like ripple effects in water, creating niches on the ground by adding important surface area. Like lung linings for breathing, the air-surface interface is a critical one. The shape, size, material compositions and the direction of these waves also matters. Edible Forest Gardens Vol. 2 explains in patterns and structure on the land far more detail in an original Chapter titled "A Forest Garden Pattern Language" (62-140).

All the mounding designs act to increase surface area and improve drainage, so the soil warms up faster in Spring. At the end of the season, this effect will give a season extension of individual plants in Fall. The language (mound, berm, raised bed, and swale, ditch, gully, pond, reservoir, spillway, etc.) can complicate what an otherwise straightforward concept it is. Part of the reason why mounds work to extend the growing season has to do with thermal mass (more details will be included on this later).

Narrower, deeper wave troughs are a recommendation for clay soils (see details in Edible Forest Gardens, Vol 2 p343). In the case of the thicker sections of the water catchment, Patrick Whitefield suggests a shelved shoreline rather than a quick drop from land to deep parts ( from Permaculture in a Nutshell, p 50).


In section 1 of this article, we began by highlighting some advice to approaching the subject of design. The edge is optimized or enhanced to improve the functionality and flow to the structure. Waterways create productive edges and can add to bed space because of the unique growing spaces on the riverbanks. Surface edges, such as contour and walkways along different areas connect and divide spaces in the forest garden. In Section 2 of the Elements of Design, we will discuss structures in design in more detail.


Hemenway, Toby. Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition. Chelsea Green Publishing. White River Junction, VT(2009) p6-7,

Jacke, David and Toensmeier, Eric. Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision and Theory, Ecological Design and Practice. p243. Chelsea Green Publishing. White River Junction, VT(July 2005)

Whitefield, Patrick. Permaculture in a Nutshell. Permanent Publications.(1993). p33,50


Traffic (2000)(film).Directed by Soderbergh, Steven. Produced by Zwick, E & , Herskov, M. Bedford Falls Production,Laura Bickford Production, BeInitial Entertainment Production. USA Films.

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