Forest gardening is a permaculture technique for creating a self-sustaining, multi-leveled, perennial polyculture. In a forest garden, A fruit or nitrogen-fixing tree or shrub generally is the centerpiece of a surrounding “guild” of plants, which are either self-seeding or perennial. Plants in these guilds are well-adapted to the local climate, and in addition to producing edible yields, often have other benefits to the ecosystem as a whole. Some add fertility to the soil by fixing nitrogen or drawing deep nutrient sources that other roots can’t reach. Some attract pollinators and predatory insects, and some have medicinal or aesthetic value as well. Once the plants in a forest garden are established, the only work to be done is watering (which can be done through a drip and timer system) and applying new layers of mulch every couple of weeks. The majority of the mulch comes from plants within the forest garden, and we just use what we cut back or dies to mulch with.
This past Sunday, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic group of gardeners joined Adam, Kenzie, and I for the installation of Denver’s very first Forest Garden at Ekar Farm, a five-acre urban farm enjoying its first season of growth. The workshop was meant to not only teach the principles and practice of Forest Gardening, but to install one as well.
We began as most garden projects do – by pulling weeds. We then began digging out sunken beds – a key permaculture technique in a dry climate like Denver’s, where we need to use every technique possible to slow, spread, and sink water that enters the garden site. We dug down about 6 inches and piled the excavated dirt onto the pathways to build them up. With the whole group of 25 or so participants working, we were able to dig out the beds and build up the paths within an hour or so.
The next step was digging little holes for our larger woody shrubs, which we wanted to secure in the ground before mulching. The lesson learned in this step was that holes do not need to be very deep if digging into an already sunken bed. Most of us had to refill our holes quite a bit to secure that the top of the root-ball would only be equal to the top layer of mulch. Some shrubs planted included: nanking cherry, western sand cherry, lead plant, rocky mountain bee plant, sea buckthorn, serviceberry, and siberian pea shrub.
With shrubs secure, it was time to begin the mulching process. As with any sheet mulching, we sourced what we had on site: cardboard, compost, and straw. We laid our weed barrier (cardboard) down first, then did three alternate layers of compost and straw with a final layer of topsoil. Kenzie watered the mulch consistently as it was constructed and while remaining plants were planted. The day was finished once the final layer of straw was placed and the drip line wound through the Garden.
Time and time again I am amazed at the power of community. The rapidity to which we weeded, dug, planted, watered, mulched, planted, and mulched was rather mind boggling and completely owed to the willingness and strength of our twenty workshop students. Beyond being a day of learning and accomplishment it was also clearly a day of laughter, joking, and play. The premise of the workshop was to combine lecture with hands on work and I believe there is no better way to learn. We alternated between feasting on the many yummy snacks provided by participants and Ekar farm under the shade and working under the hot sun. Lectures consisted of principles behind permaculture, proper planting techniques, sheet mulching techniques, and plant and species selections. A handout detailing the design process was distributed to participants and the facilitator’s receipted feedback. Permaculture does not happen without community, that is why gatherings such as this past Gardening like Nature workshop are essential to the cultivation of greater local independence. It was a true gift to be able to work with so many motivated people and to help people remember such a natural and beautiful was of farming.