Society of St Columba’s Forest Garden
What Is It?
A forest garden is “a garden modelled on the structure of young natural woodland, utilising plants of direct and indirect benefit to people” . This semi-enclosed system creates a space where all varieties of plant life and animals that are established benefit and resource one another. It is a dynamic place, using careful initial planning, intercropping and natural processes to create a highly productive site. For the case of the Society of St Columba, this will be where the community grows its perennial plants, with the community market garden being where the annual/biannual crops are grown.
Although some might argue that the primary focus of a forest garden is to produce food, for the Society of St Columba it will be so much more. For us, there is no sole purpose, but rather it is a multifunctional space for the community, of which food is only one key benefit.
The desired impact for the Society of St Columba’s forest garden is to:
- produce enough fruit, berries, currents, nuts, legumes, herbs, leaves and other perennial produce to feed the community with surplus to sell/give away
- be a haven for many pollinators, insects, birds, reptiles, and other animals thus creating a rich area of biodiversity
- be a conservation effort for target species
- educate everyone on food production, flora and fauna, conservation, and community living
- enrich the community as a space to pray, dwell, retreat, play, work, and be creative
- be an aesthetically beautiful site all year round
Although there are technically three layers in designing a forest garden, these layers are very interconnected. All provide benefit to the others and are essential to the overall health of the forest garden’s ecosystem. Together the layers create a microclimate that will benefit food production and home many flora and fauna.
The canopy layer is where large trees dwell such as the oak, sycamore, and beech. This layer is important for nitrogen fixing through the planting of alder trees, autumn olive and black locust. However, all trees are important for nutrient supply as their leaves in autumn will spread across the forest garden, mulching down and releasing nutrients. Nut trees are included in the canopy, such as hazel and sweet chestnut. All the trees create their own niche that encourage their own fauna.
The shrub layer is where most of the food production happens. This layer includes fruit trees and current and berry bushes, as well as hedgerows. This layer is very nutrient hungry and relies on the canopy and ground layers to provide the nutrients required for a successful crop. These fruiting plants become a haven for pollinators when they produce flowers, and then become a great food bank for birds when they fruit (not forgetting humans, of course!). Due to the design process, fruit trees of the same variety, e.g. plum, will not be close together to prevent any disease reaching the rest of the crop. Hedgerows prevent harsh winds entering the forest garden, benefitting the ground layer most as moisture will not be whipped away from the new growth. Hedgerows will also provide excellent habitat for nesting birds and many invertebrates.
The ground layer’s primary function is to maintain a permanent cover of plants throughout the year. This maintains soil moisture and composition and prevents weeds from growing. It is also a productive layer where many edible plants can grow, like herbs and salad leaves, and will be planted carefully with the fruit trees to aid growth through pest deterrents and mineral accumulation. The ground layer will naturally attract its own unique fauna thus adding biodiversity in the forest garden. Other uses for the ground layer are nitrogen fixation, to grow plants for natural dyes, to grow medicinal plants and other creative means.
All three layers improve soil quality through maintaining soil covering, encouraging detritivores, and maintaining nutrient balance. The variety of root structures penetrating the soil prevent soil erosion. The whole forest garden is a carbon sink. Its complexity and dynamism in design increases its resilience to climate change and genetic diversity is encouraged in the plants as the forest garden will contain multiple varieties of the same species; the garden’s complexity and genetic diversity helps prevent diseases and pests.
The Society of St Columba’s forest garden will be a spiritual outworking of the community, namely an active investment into creating, nurturing, and sustaining the natural world in all its diversity. God is present in nature, and since we cannot rewild our site, the forest garden is the closest we will come to creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. God calls us to be stewards of creation, and a forest garden is one of the best ways to look after all aspects of creation, from the insignificant woodlouse to the mighty oak to the humans that plant it.
The community will have to maintain the forest garden. Although, by design, it can sustain itself, crops must be harvested, weeds pulled up (though not often), paths maintained, coppicing done to allow light to certain areas, and more work that I can’t think of right now! This project will be one that everybody can take pride in because of the work needed, but also because of the beauty it will bring to the site. Many community days can revolve around the forest garden, from planting to weeding, jam making to basket weaving, school trips, prayers, harvesting, tie dye, bonfires etc.
A forest garden will be a fantastic asset to the Society of St Columba. It encompasses all that our community stands for – self sufficiency, community, conservation, education, and retreat. The benefits of a forest garden vastly outnumber any drawbacks and, in my opinion, our land is crying out for one.