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The Oldest Forest Garden

The first and most fundamental ways of meeting human needs are the provision of clean drinking water and adequate food. In the northerly climate where I live in Scotland, heat and light also become important, especially through the long winter months.

Graham Bell and family.
Graham Bell and family.

Those who understand the power of forests to cleanse and make our environments sustainable are also passionate about the wider applications of forestry to provide for human needs. In Scotland, 80% of our population, industry, business, education and that principal recreation, shopping, is focused on the urban dominated central belt. This clearly leaves the countryside with much room for homesteads, gardens, productive forests, and for the right to live freely. The biggest challenge here is currently planning laws and access to the land in the first place.

Throughout the world we continue to see populations congregating in the city zones (which puts pressure on the available land where population density is highest). The countryside becomes depopulated and less well cared for (in human terms).

In 1988, Nancy and I headed north from London seeking a safe and pleasant place to live with our baby daughter, Ruby. For the record, she is now 27 and has her own child, and our son Sandy, born at home in Coldstream, is now 25. Both of them grew up in our garden and loved it. During that time we have done up buildings, run businesses, taught permaculture on four continents and (perhaps most significantly of all) created a forest garden which is now 25 years old. The garden is constantly changing and after 25 years we still learn from our experience. (Permaculture principle: Observe & Interact). What started as a framework of trees has become over time a tightly knit but flexible space – a green living room if you like.

Almost every space both horizontally and vertically is used productively.
Almost every space both horizontally and vertically is used productively.


Last year our garden, which measures one fifth of an acre (0.08 hectares), produced one tonne of food by early October. Winter crops continue reliably to the year end but produce less bulk (see the details of what we have cropped on our website). Suffice to say that we crop throughout the year from a range of dozens of different food plants. For example, in the spring we estimated there were 60 species of plant at that time which yield salad crops.

Call ducks foraging for slugs.
Call ducks foraging for slugs.

Additional yields from the garden are 50% of our household energy usage, a plant nursery that sells thousands of plants a year using harvested rainwater for irrigation, and an educational resource shared with over a thousand people last year, whilst remaining a secure and welcoming place for family and friends to meet and stay.

Perennial crops dominate the overall weight of the harvest. There are at least 150 trees in this garden. Apples, pears, plums, and cherries – but also quinces and medlars at the exotic end of the scale – are the principal fruiting species. In between is a range of nut trees, including hazel, black walnut, Persian walnut, butternut, Japanese heartnut and sweet chestnuts. In between these are sacrificial trees: birches, alders, willows, rowan, whitebeam, holly, juniper, elder, magnolia, Russian olive, laburnum, chokeberries and a few other ornamentals. What these trees offer between them is habitat for birds and invertebrates, and firewood when coppiced or pollarded. Some of them are nitrogen fixing, all of them offer a value for creating compost, and their flowers attract insects. Some of them have useful berries.


The Oldest Forest Garden pic05

What you see then is that there is a massive, really diverse range of plants in a very small space. In between these larger perennials there is a space for a shrub layer. This comprises red, white and black currants, gooseberries, Worcester berries (a North American Rubus), jostaberries (one of a wealth of hybrid berries, here gooseberry x blackcurrant), and raspberries (both summer and autumn), all of which have a high yield for no more work than a winter pruning and picking the fruit. Alongside these are broom, gorse, Spiraea, Mahonia, Kerria, dogwood, alder, buckthorn, and a few other variations on the theme. These add to soil fertility, attract insects, and in some cases produce fruit or materials for basketry if you are that way inclined.

Even in this most productive of gardens there is still room for a pond and some lawn.
Even in this most productive of gardens there is still room for a pond and some lawn.

Within the framework of the perennials there is space for annual plants, and we grow a wide range of root crops, leaves, peas, beans, brassicas, hardy salads, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Below this layer is the ground cover which includes alpine and the more popular commercial varieties of strawberry and more flowering plants, such as periwinkle and clovers. Amongst these is a fantastic place to grow wonderful courgettes and pumpkins or more exotic squashes. Below the soil, a large range of biota are at work – from earthworms through to many species of fungi whose mycelium are vital to soil fertility.

Once the framework was created we started to grow things that grew up from soil level to the treetops, including roses, honeysuckle, blackberries, loganberries and Japanese dewberry, all of which have an edible yield.

Despite being only one fifth of an acre (0.08 hectares), the forest garden produces over a tonne of food annually.
Despite being only one fifth of an acre (0.08 hectares), the forest garden produces over a tonne of food annually.

There is a range of complex intrusions (garden walls, sheds, housing, ponds, ground based solar panels) which in themselves provide three-dimensional opportunities for yield with seasonal variation and additional integrated outputs.


Some days we can feel worn out just harvesting the stuff. The reality is that the bulk of the harvest comes between June and October or, in a year like 2013 with a late spring, nothing much until July. As a result, the remaining eight months are relatively low yielding. So it becomes very important to get good at preserving food, and there are lots of ways of doing this. Again you can see a detailed mind map of how to do this on our website.

It is useful to consider some examples. We have one chest freezer full of soft fruit by July and in the freezer room we dry apple rings and store marrows and pumpkins, which keep till May. Jams, jellies and chutneys, pickles and fruit cheeses go into jars. We dry fruit leather in the slow oven of our Rayburn. Plums and pears may go into Kilner jars. Our sun-dried tomatoes (okay sunshine from a million years ago via the Rayburn) also get bottled. There are lots of wild things in the garden that provide us with, for example, wild garlic pesto, rosehip syrup, elderflower champagne and salads every month of the year when it isn’t snowing.

Of course, when you grow more than a tonne of food and there are only two of you in the house, you also share some of this food with family and friends. We feed visitors on open days and have provided for permaculture events, feeding up to 100 people a day, half a dozen times this year. I am also investigating passing on surplus to food banks, which I am sorry to say are an increasingly important source of survival for people at the bottom of the pile in our society in the UK.

No bare soil here, but a ground cover layer of alpine and commercial strawberries.
No bare soil here, but a ground cover layer of alpine and commercial strawberries.


The solution is simple. If you took all the people and all the sheep out of Scotland, what would you end up with? Forest. We have demonstrated that a forest can be created in less than half a lifetime. It can also be massively abundant in all sorts of ways. Establishing forest in most of the places people actually live, is probably the most important step we can make to human survival.

Our garden harbours 35 species of nesting bird, another 35 species come for their lunch and 20 come for their holidays. The joy of looking out of my window and seeing a woodpecker cracking hazelnuts in its holes in the black walnut tree, or watching a collared dove in the rain pottering about on the roof below, or hearing the tawny owl call on its flight beneath our bedroom window in the dawn – these are all things that make me feel glad to be alive.

Just one of the 150 varieties of useful trees.
Just one of the 150 varieties of useful trees.

But critically, they are also the things that keep our food production system healthy. Most gardening books will tell you that aphids are a problem. Actually you have a problem if you don’t have aphids – what will the blue tits eat? All creation has a right to be in our garden and by approaching it as creating habitat we are simply trying to keep it in balance, so it looks after itself.

We are reminded daily that it is not the number of species that make the garden as successful as it is, but the web of complex relationships between all the elements in the system. From all this we are constantly learning.

This tonne of food takes less than two days a week to produce. We import as little as we can: some straw, some spent mushroom compost and a little farmyard manure. We buy in some seed but save as much of our own seed as we can. I should point out that apart from the food, we also produce all our own firewood and run a plant nursery selling hundreds of trees and plants every year.

If you want to check this out and see how you could do the same, join us on one of our courses or open days all of which are available to book on our website. Can I commend you to make every garden and woodland you find as productive as this. These will become our food banks of the future. Together we are strong.

Gooseberry bush standards in the shrub layer.
Gooseberry bush standards in the shrub layer.

Graham Bell and his wife, Nancy Woodhead, welcome visitors to their forest garden by appointment. You can book on courses and open days, or make contact for other engagements via the website.

Sign up to the Red Shed Nursery on Facebook and @redshednursery on twitter to stay in touch.

You can see a short film of the garden here:

Graham Bell is the author of two books: The Permaculture Garden and The Permaculture Way, both available from:

Graham is teaching a Permaculture Design Course at Zaytuna Fram, home of the Permaculture Research Institute Australia from October 17 – 28 2016. Visit the course listing page here for more details and to book.


Graham Bell

I live and work in the Scottish Borders. My wife Nancy and I have created a Forest Garden which is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary and provides a great deal of food, fuel and company (wildlife). Our children Ruby and Sandy (now in their twenties) have also been great contributors to developing our house and garden as an energy efficient home place. I have written two books on Permaculture, the Permaculture Way and the Permaculture Garden which thousands of people have enjoyed as easy introductions to what Permaculture means in a Northern temperate climate and the society that goes with it. I have taught Permaculture on four continents. After many years engaging with business and politicians in my work to get these essential principles understood and used by people who govern and direct the world's economies I have returned (2012)to teaching courses and restarted a North Hardy Plant Nursery specifically designed to support Forest Gardeners. We welcome invitations to teach elsewhere, and visitors here by arrangement. Full details can be found on my website.

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