Forest Gardens for a Cold Climate

The concept of the forest garden needs to be adapted to the seasonality of cold northern climates.

Wikipedia defines a forest garden as

 a low-maintenance sustainable plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut treesshrubsherbsvines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to build a woodland habitat.

Forest gardening is a prehistoric method of securing food in tropical areas. In the 1960s, Robert Hart adapted the principles and applied them to temperate climates.

After Bill Mollison, cofounder of  the permaculture design system,  visited Hart in 1990, forest gardens became an integral part of permaculture design.  Among the  proponents of forest gardens today, one of the better known is Martin Crawford. In North America, David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier have co-authored the two volume Edible Forest Gardens.

Forest gardens have become increasingly popular with those new to permaculture.  Certainly, the vision painted by Jacke and Toensmeier is an attractive one, even reminiscent of Eden:

Picture yourself in a forest where almost everything around you is food. Mature and maturing fruit and nut trees form an open canopy. If you look carefully, you can see fruits swelling on many branches—pears, apples, persimmons, pecans, and chestnuts. Shrubs fill the gaps in the canopy. They bear raspberries, blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, and other lesser-known fruits, flowers, and nuts at different times of the year. Assorted native wildflowers, wild edibles, herbs, and perennial vegetables thickly cover the ground. You use many of these plants for food or medicine. Some attract beneficial insects, birds, and butterflies. Others act as soil builders, or simply help keep out weeds. Here and there vines climb on trees, shrubs, or arbors with fruit hanging through the foliage—hardy kiwis, grapes, and passionflower fruits. In sunnier glades large stands of Jerusalem artichokes grow together with groundnut vines. These plants support one another as they store energy in their roots for later harvest and winter storage. Their bright yellow and deep violet flowers enjoy the radiant warmth from the sky. This is an edible forest garden.

Inherently, forest gardens are an excellent idea.  They mimic nature to provide food, medicine and other products useful to humans.  But there is a huge problem with food forests as they are currently defined.  Parsing what I’ve written so far reveals the problem:  tropical and temperate.  In cold northern climates,  depending on a food forest would result in starvation.  Mollison acknowledged the problem in 1981 in Forests in Permaculture, page 7:

While he [Barry Slowgrove] tackled an extraordinarily wide range of environments, he didn’t tackle anything like New England or Canada. Quite obviously, you had people living here in heavily forested country and looking fit. That was also true of Canada. However, those people weren’t eating entirely from tree crops; they were eating a lot of meats, and the further north one goes, the less do you see people dependent on vegetation.

Yes, Sepp Holzer has done amazing things in the Austrian Alps but he’s done some pretty extreme terraforming with bulldozers and backhoes which seem to be at odds with one of the three core tenets of permaculture: Take care of the earth.

A word search of the 699 pages of  Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden  for calories, protein, and carbohydrates is revealing.  Calories does not appear once. Protein shows up three times – once when he talks about social wasps and twice when he is talking about plant proteins. Carbohydrates, however, are mentioned:

Two categories of food plants that need special design features if they are to be included are low-growing carbohydrate foods and most conventional annual vegetables. Carbohydrates are high-energy foods and require a lot of sun energy to manufacture: you cannot grow them in much shade. Tree-based carbohydrates, e.g. sweet chestnut, are easily incorporated into forest gardens, but if you want to grow your own supply of potatoes, wheat, oats, etc. then you need to either allow for a sunny clearing within the forest garden, or grow them elsewhere. If you look at agriculture where forest gardens are popular, usually people will grow a carbohydrate staple crop on a field scale in addition to growing all the more interesting foods in a forest garden.

A permaculturalist in Portland, Oregon in reviewing Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener outlines the problems of forest gardens as used by permaculturalists.

Deppe has worked out an extremely effective approach to growing not just greens and nutritious vegetables for herself, but also a significant portion of her calories and protein in a scalable manner. She’s experimented enough with different techniques and levels of water and fertilizer input that she could, given access to enough land, cope quite well with whatever disruptions come down the line. She’s saving enough of her own seed to continue gardening if commercial seed sources shut down. And she clearly relishes the results in every meal; her multitude of uses for each staple crop and her recipes convey a deep delight in the flavors and textures of her produce.

I hate that four of her five staple crops grow as labor intensive, soil and habitat disturbing annuals.

I haven’t come across perennial enthusiasts presenting anything nearly as comprehensive as Deppe’s system, at least not for intensively cultivated small to medium scale systems in modern private land ownership patterns. I doubt that her level of expertise exists for a system based on diverse perennial plant crops anywhere in the temperate world. (Though I’d love to hear examples of how I’m wrong!) Hence my deep frustration: I yearn to meld the sustainability and low labor of perennial polycultures, the nutritional health of the paleodiet, and Deppe’s level of experience growing resilient abundant staples into a truly permacultural blueprint for supporting ourselves and the rest of our landbase. But I don’t know how.

It seems to me that the solution to Farmer Scrub’s frustration is to combine Carol Deppe’s  stored calories and protein with Martin Crawford’s allowing for a sunny clearing within the forest garden, or grow them elsewhere idea.  Deppe grows squash, beans, corn, and potatoes.   These all store through the winter very well and are high in calories and protein.  To them I would add other root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and beets even though harvesting disturbs the soil.   It seems to me to make sense to use Crawford’s sunny clearing approach.  If we are mimicking Nature, then sunny clearings seem acceptable.  Shading is a problem but the edges of the clearing could be planted with edibles and medicinals that are not as high or dense or with coppiced trees that are never allowed to grow tall or dense.  Soil disturbance should be minimized.  There is no reason why squash, beans and corn can’t be planted in the Three Sisters style.

3sistersCarrots, parsnips, and beets can be grown very intensively in raised beds.   To maintain fertility, beds could be rotated between production and soil improving nitrogen fixing plants that are chopped and dropped rather than turned under.  A no-till approach keeps the microbial structure of the soil intact. And if these plants are also insectaries such as buckwheat so much the better.

Potatoes could be grown using the no-till approach of Emilia Hazelip’s Synergistic Agriculture.

The idea should be to create a symbiotic relationship with Nature – we take only what we need, disturbing the least that we can while giving back and enriching as much as we can.  The Japanese describe the place where people and nature harmoniously exist, where biodiversity flourishes, and where the human spirit and creativity thrives as Satoyama.

Satoyama consists of a mosaic of mixed forests, rice paddy fields, dry rice fields, grasslands, streams, ponds, and reservoirs for irrigation. In this system, each habitat is considered essential for the agricultural economy. Grasslands were maintained to feed horses and cattle, which were then used as sources of power in agricultural activities. Streams, ponds, and reservoirs were managed to adjust water levels in the paddy fields and to supply fish to eat. – (Tabata H. 1997. The Nature of Satoyama)

But Satoyama is a concept best described by images rather than words.

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19 Responses to Forest Gardens for a Cold Climate

  1. Heiko says:

    I agree with you Mike. Much has been written about a British point of view and not so much with other climates in mind. In fact having just read Martin Crawford’s book, he says it is much more difficult to create a food forest in warmer, more Mediterranean climates, which would rule my place out in Italy. Also he says very little about very steep sites, which is my main challenge. Each location has it’s own challenges and much more needs to be done to research what works best in which climate and environment. In the meantime we just need to observe our native landscapes and try and imitate them as best as possible.

    • MikeH says:

      In A Farm for the Future, there is a section where Hoskings is talking with Martin Crawford. At 41:15, she asks the question, How much food does it produce?. Crawford answers If you design it for maximum yield, it can be very high. This forest garden isn’t design for maximum yield because I’m experimenting a lot and I have a lot of unusual crops I’m trying and so on. So in terms of one designed for maximum yield, you’d probably be able to feed 10 people an acre on a maximum yield forest garden.

      This tells me that Crawford’s forest garden does not sustain him. It’s often held up as The Model by others, perhaps even Crawford himself, I don’t know – but it’s not, at least not yet. Mimicking nature makes a great deal of sense as the direction to follow but Crawford’s garden is very incomplete. As with much of current permaculture practice, it’s more about teaching and demonstrating natural relationships than it is about production. In my experience, theory is fine until you start to implement. Then the changes begin and you usually end up with something that is quite a bit different from your theoretical starting point. I wonder what Crawford’s garden would look like if he were growing for x calorie units, y proteins units, and z vitamins units à la One Circle. Some permies are beginning to look at the nutritional aspect –

      The entire subject of nutrition is missing in forest garden design and in permaculture design in general. Kay Baxter of the Koanga Institute in New Zealand says As a life long gardener and permaculture garden designer, I have never seen a design for a food garden that actually takes into account the fats, minerals and vitamins human beings need for optimum health, according to science and history. The comments are telling themselves – some back and forth on Weston Price but absolutely no response to her opening statement.

      When you say we just need to observe our native landscapes and try and imitate them as best as possible, I think that you are spot on. A food forest in the tropics will be much, much different from a food forest in a region that gets snow from November to April. Where you have a large number of growing days, nutrition can be harvested. Where you have 120 growing days as we do, nutrition must also be stored. Most permaculture edibles don’t store well. The vegetables that do store well – potatoes, root vegetables, grains, squashes, beans – are not on the permaculture approved list. They are annuals and disturb the soil. I must admit that the soil disturbing bit leaves me a bit confused. A carrot is not OK but scorzonera and skirret are although all three require you to disturb the soil when harvesting.

      The challenge is to incorporate nutrition storers in such a way that fertility and biodiversity is systematically increased. Emilia Hazelip talks about a healing rotation that allows the soil to regenerate itself from one crop to the next. She also talks about planting into a permanent cover crop. That might work for transplants but not for direct seeding but these are ideas worth developing for cold climate food forests.

      • Nicolas says:

        Martin Crawford experiments a lot with nut production (wallnuts, chestnut, etc) in the UK context.

        There are crops with good protein content (black and white walnuts are 25% protein, apios americana up to 16%, mulberry and goji 15%). And so for energy content (figs, jujubes, persimmon). For vitamin it is too easy 🙂
        Forest garden are perhaps not the best for production per surface, but it is sure that is is efficient by time expanded on maintenance.

        Root crops are among permaculturists favorites, and i and other are fond of sunchokes, groundnuts, etc. Maybe you looked at primitivist/primal diet permaculturists ?
        The pb with carrots vs skiret or scorzonera as a leaf crop is not so the disturbance induced but the annual vs perennial aspect of the plant (note that scorzonera as a root crop is quite like carrot in this view)

        But i think that in a cold climate like your’s you have to rely more on annuals and root crops that can be stored. But forest garden historically come from tropics, and the new trend comes from UK (zone 8)

      • MikeH says:

        Hello Nicolas,

        As Crawford himself says, his first objective is to test plants. Growing protein and vitamins is easy compared to calories. Yes, permaculturalists seem to have a problem with annual vegetables. From a work point of view – calories expended, it seems to me that there is little difference between the two in most cases. From a soil depletion point of view, perennial and annual roots require soil fertility to be replenished. It’s probably also a good idea to grow as many different species as you can to protect against erratic climate conditions.


  2. Nicollas says:

    Hi Mark,

    Carole Deppe makes a deep case for sustainability and resilience for annuals, i think a really strong resilient system is based on trees, roots, annuals and grass/animals.

  3. Nicolas says:


    here are some links from the time i was interested by the paleo diet :

    “Researchers at Newcastle University in England, led by Dr. Georg Lietz, found 47 percent of volunteer group of 62 women carried a genetic variation that prevented their bodies from effectively converting beta-carotene into vitamin A.”


    “We confirmed the highly variable extent to which ß-carotene provides vitamin A, even in identical diets. Some could achieve adequate vitamin A nutritional status from ß-carotene alone, but 45% would not.”

    about omega3 conversion rate :

    Ok thats hard core/reductionist science, but if one takes a more holistic look, it seems to say to us that including animals is a safe way to achieve a better nutritional diet (unless one gets tested for some conversion rates), let alone opportunities to design a more resilient system.

    Sterile Miscanthus is a great plant, i plan to put 20 of it this spring to catch poultry or compost fertility leaks, and grow some mulch for the garden and poultry.


  4. omar chohan says:
    Very informative collection byan expert about sustainability and symbiotic relationship with nature in various climatic conditions around the globe.
    Not exactly permaculture, but very prtinent and worth reading for an open-minded person, highlighting the aspect of adaptability and suitability to local conditions and ecosystems.

  5. annisveggies says:

    Hello and thank you for raising what I think is an absolutely fundamental question that I have been puzzling over for a couple of years now, but you are the first other person I have found who raises it. I have been testing lots of perennial vegetables in small scale polycultures in my home garden. This experimenting has been based on forest gardening, but concentrating on the lower layers.

    Some years ago I trained as a nutritional therapist and so was in a position to notice and think about the balance of nutrients coming out of the garden, or potentially coming out of the garden. I have therefore been moving on in my thinking about how to grow high carbohydrate plants and also oils. I have only been experimenting on a very, very small scale so far with quinoa, buckwheat, flax, sunflower. These have been incorporated into polycultures along with perennial vegetables, but also including annuals.

    I am very focussed on growing perennial vegetables as I think they are very easy and labour saving as a rule, but am also including annuals when my conditions are favourable and they work. A few years ago my partner wanted carrots so we sowed some. We didn’t harvest them all but left some to flower and this year is the second year of flowering. I scattered copious amounts of last year’s home saved carrot seed onto a newly created polyculture fruit, vegetable and flower bed this spring and have enjoyed watching them grow amongst lathyrus tuberosus, fennel, calendula, rosemary, nigella, flax, buckwheat and other things. This is just one tiny part of my experiments which are aimed at working out (if I can) how to grow all the nutrients I need in the right balance. Then, depending on how close I get to that aim, the next question will be to see how much land is needed / what proportion of the total annual amount I can grow on my patch.

    Best wishes

    Anni Kelsey

    • MikeH says:

      Hi Anni,

      It doesn’t seem that many gardeners think about nutrition. They understand that the fertility of the soil will be depleted over time if they don’t replenish it but so will the minerals in the soil. Over time your vegetables will provide less and less of the minerals necessary to good health. Cindy Connor – writes about growing protein, calcium, and calories. Steve Solomon writes about replacing the minerals that we take out of the soil –


      • Nicollas says:

        It should be interesting to see how much proteins mushroom coud provide in a permaculture system. As far as i know, mushrom (dried a few hours in full sun, drills up) are the only serious homestead source of vitamin D for the several monthes one could not manufacture it from the sun (i can repast numbers from Stamet Book). They are a trendemous untapped resource, and i love the idea to feed on entropy 🙂

        Fruit & Nut trees + “free” range poultry + mushrooms + perennial vegetables could provide a lot of what is needed and it fits with forest gardening. But for small spaces or resilience, annualized root crops or squash should be in everyone gardens.

  6. Nicollas says:

    I reply to myself on mushroom protein, Stamet give a 25-30% protein for most common cultivated mushrooms like Shitake on a dry base (so 2-3% on wet mushrooms).

    Stamet states “A 20 g (dry) or approximately 200 g (wet) serving of fresh maitake provides approximately 75 calories and 5 g of protein. This serving has 0.8 g of fat, made up of about 70 percent linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 fatty acid, and up to 15 percent ergosterol. Such a serving provides the following percentages of your reference daily intakes (RDIs): 17 percent selenium, at least 30 percent vitamin D, 8 percent pantothenic acid, 87 percent niacin, 4 percent thiamine, and 464 percent potassium. This 2-handful serving provides 10 percent of the protein needed by a 140-pound person or 8 percent needed by a 180-pound person.”

  7. Bina says:

    I have started a large urban garden. I live in Central Alberta Canada in the heart of climate denial country. I have very odd heroes, people like Ron Finney, Jamie Oliver, Heather Flores, the people of Tormorden. So while I don’t ever think that my garden will supply my total needs I do think that a raspberry hedge that makes a wicked jam, wine or pie and supplies my needs, the kids on the streets appetites and that I think is enough for now. I catch rain water because climate change for me is predicted to be drought and so I put in several rain barrels on every down spout must get the small solar pumps attached to them to get real pressure but there is enough for now.
    There is a little more added every year and every the apples, the pears, the cherries, the raspberries, the kiwis the grapes, the gooseberries, the herbs, the flowers, the rhubarb and the self seeding lettuce and peas and spinach it comes back every year with the spring thaw. There are reasons I grow milkweed besides the medicine it provides, it is the prime plant in the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. I may never supply it all but then again I save my seeds, I compost and follow permaculture principles and for the most part every year my garden gets a little cheaper and supplies a bit more. I also try to buy more food from local suppliers, and build that part of my garden if I know where the best fishing hole for perch and can catch 30 in a weekend for the freezer because of the overstocked lake all the better and another part of my garden….I get wood from the pallet dump, and stone for some of my projects from a granite counter top builder, again a part of my garden…the whole idea and I teach this and demonstrate this is you may never do it all I don’t know if one person could without help but you can do a chunk. Save a little money, connect a little with nature, have a picnic lunch at a you pick farm or farmers market….cook and can and freeze things there is something that is most reassuring about a well stocked pantry with jars of pickles jams preserves etc lined up gleaming in a row.

  8. Joshua M says:

    Thanks for this discussion, I appreciate the focus on feeding people nutrition.

    Some things to add to it:
    * Chestnuts have a lot of calories and carbs–Mark Shepard is successfully growing in Wisconsin. processing is the challenge, but bicycle-powered nut processors are a thing. A practical thing? maybe, I hope so, at least think they can be
    * low-labor perennials, like sunchokes, or even potatoes, are easier than high-labor ones, like wheat. storage is easier in the cold climate–it’s cold.
    * there are perennial strains of wheat too now, and have been for a number of years, though I don’t know much about them.
    * many animals are pretty happy eating mast, not just grass

    • MikeH says:

      Thanks for you comments.

      The perennial strains of wheat are either monopolized – Kernza® or not quite there. I say not quite there because we could not get Tim Peters‘ perennial wheat to make it through the first winter. I suspect that the problem lies in insufficient root mass. It can be difficult to get tough, drought-tolerant native perennials such as Indian grass, echinacea, coreopsis, etc through the first winter unless they have substantial root mass such as those that you’d see in a one gallon pot. So maybe the secret is to not direct seed perennial wheat but rather to grow it in pots, potting up to ever larger pots, protecting as you go until you have sufficient root mass to over winter

      Sunchokes are great for hedging your food bet but I’d put my money on potatoes first. The yields are better, storage is better and the calories are 8-10% higher. We grow them both but put our emphasis on potatoes.

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