Forest Gardening – Urban Style

As a small scale urban gardener, I would often read about forest gardens & dream of one day having enough land where I could create the food forest of my dreams with a thriving ecosystem that would sing with the sounds of wildlife enjoying the space just as much, if not more, than I did. day when I win Lotto & can afford the land I dreamt. But so far it hasn’t happened.

And now im glad it hasn’t. With a bit of creative thought, I’ve turned my small front urban yard into my edible forest instead. Its abundant with food & its own form of ecosystem supporting a wide array of wild creatures that inhabit the space, and it’s all done on my small townie section that’s more than space for this working girl to manage in her weekends & spare time.

Forest Gardening - Urban Style 01

My love of forest gardening began in 2015 when I first read the best book I’ve ever owned: Gaia’s Garden – a guide to home-scale permaculture by Toby Hemenway. This book and its passion for ecological gardening spoke to my soul. It remains my most favourite book & still resides under my pillow where I often delve into it during the night when all is quiet but the brains still whirring. From Toby’s masterpiece I then lost myself immersed in the amazing two volume texts Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier. As I sat on the lawn under the shade of my one lone but large grapefruit tree reading these texts I began to picture the possibilities of what this small front yard could be.

In 2016 I embarked on my PDC with very clear intentions of using this course to nail down the elements, systems & connections that would support my small scale food forest yet to be. Over that year, I worked like a trogon overhauling my small space, never sure quite where the frantic energy kept coming from but I soon had the bones to my forest garden in place. The gardens are built following a spine & rib design with walkways between beds that create a nice ambling flow throughout. The rest of this article will focus on only one of those garden beds that form an island oasis between walkways and demonstrates how with a bit of adaption food forest design can successfully be scaled down to suit the small scale urban garden.

The total planting space of just this garden is only 4 square meters. Yes, just FOUR. It has a 1mx2m bed along the back with two 1m beds at the front corners leaving space for a water feature in between. Being on a clay base the beds were dug to a depth of only 30cm with a slightly deeper well in the middle where the fruit trees would go. The beds were then edged with wood to raise the height another 30cm & filled with the dug out clay mixed with compost, rotted straw & manures then topped with a locally brought garden mix with biochar, smothered in comfrey & worm juice then blanketed in old pea straw inoculated with goodness from the chook house & left to rest.

With thought to conserving water, channels were dug around the perimeter of the beds which the overflow from the chook house feeds into & these were backfilled with mulch to absorb & hold precious rain water. In dry spells the beds are watered from holding tanks also fed from the chook house roof. The paths surrounding the beds have been heavily tree mulched, free from a local arborist, to a depth of about 30cm. This serves to slow, sink & hold rainwater the gardens can draw from as well as providing habitat for my local skink population & gives the chooks, wild birds & resident hedgehogs endless hours of fun scratching it about searching for bugs.

Forest Gardening - Urban Style 02

Planning the plantings for this small forest patch took some thought & this is where in the small urban garden of only 4sqm, forest garden design got turned on its head. In place of high stretching canopy trees I plant just one plumcot tree in the centre which in time will grow to a max of 3 meters. I intend to keep this shorter for ease of harvest & this in time will form the main shade tree to the understory. Understory trees in this small space were also scaled down in size. These are 2 dwarf Nectarines and four space saving columnar apples at the edges.

Two additional columnar crab apples for jelly making will be added later this year. An un-intended but most welcome self-seeded addition to this layer is a swan plant providing food & habitat to a large number of monarch caterpillars & butterflies on the section which are just delightful to watch.

Having low growing canopy layers further challenged the planting of the shrubby and herbaceous layers but with a bit of thoughtful placement this layer has exceeded my expectations and become one of the busiest portals of wildlife interactions. In this layer, comfrey and sorrel nestle under the fruit trees drawing minerals up from the deep & are used as chop n drop mulch throughout. Red, White & Black currents, and a cape gooseberry bush were included for food production with silverbeet and spinach dotted throughout. The herbaceous / insectary plantings include Borage, Lavenders, Biden’s, Salvia, Poppies, Hollyhocks, Zinnias, Calendula and Alyssum. These draw honeybees, native bees, bumble bees, hoverflies and a host of insects from afar.

Protecting the soil layer from baking sun is the ground vining layer includes nasturtiums (a favourite in salads) and a lone pumpkin vine weaving its way thru every nook & cranny it can find with 8 pumpkins ripening at last count just from this one vine. The shade these create is welcomed by my cats who sneak under the pumpkin leaves for a cool place to snooze and is more appreciated by the Wetas and my new addition…a pair of garden frogs!

Forest Gardening - Urban Style 03

The one thing I haven’t yet added is the root layer- I’m still pondering this. I’m mindful in such a small compact space the harvesting of root vegetables could also result in damaging the fine roots of fruiting trees & shrubs & given they’ve only been planted less than a year, I would prefer to avoid that. So I’ve settled for a fast growing shallow root crop of radishes for now. Any other suggestions would be gratefully received. The entire plant selection for this space went through my usual criteria of needing to be non-toxic to the cats and chooks who ultimately spend many more hours in the garden than me.

The water feature in the middle started life as just a pretty feature with water lilies, but it wasn’t long before a pair of outdoor goldfish were added, then came the tadpoles some of whom have already morphed into frogs now living in the undergrowth. It wasn’t long before the water feature became an inclusive part of the ecosystem functioning in many ways that mimic a pond or stream in a true forest garden attracting and sustaining wildlife. Lilly pads provide safe landing for all manner of insects landing to drink & old bricks are placed within as safe footing should large critters such as hedgehogs fall in & need to crawl their way out. Watching the tadpoles go through their change is a magical element in the garden and I’m beginning to see for the first time dragonflies integrate themselves to the wildlife that keeps this small patch so abuzz with life.

While I still dream of winning Lotto & having a bigger patch play in one day, for now my small urban front yard turned food forest is keeping me busy enough. This is just one of the beds I offer as an example to other small urban gardeners of what can be achieved by taking forest gardening concepts & turning them a bit on their head. In only this 4qm space, 11 fruiting trees/shrubs plus vegetables & herbs happily grow & contribute sustaining the wildlife, chooks, cats and me. We don’t need to just dream with envy while looking at beautiful examples of large forest gardens and we don’t need to wait for ‘one day when we win lotto’ to create our own. If I can do this in only 4sqm of planting space, on my own, then you can too.

Happy Growing.


  1. Great to see more people building forest style urban gardens! We urban permaculturists all wish for the huge ‘blank canvas’ property with a few acres to play with, but it’s amazing what can be done with a small space and a big dose of creativity.

    It’s good to see gardeners like yourself making the most of the space they have right now, rather than holding back and missing out on the opportunity for real hand-on education, well done!

    1. Thanks Angelo – youve been a hero of mine for a few years now – your encouragements worth gold & your own patch continues to inspire me. THANK YOU :)

  2. Love to see articles on urban food forests as that’s what I’m creating too! I’m in a suburb, gradually been getting rid of all the lawn and coping with the challenge of our hot, dry summers. It’s amazing how many things you can actually fit into a yard and each new season is exciting as I see how much more has grown. I’ve the critters increase tremendously, especially now that I put in a bird bath and have lots of flowering perennials. And my cats love watching the activities from the deck and the windows of the house which look onto the yards.

  3. For root layer (Zone 9b) in my Urban Food forest Horseradish, self-seeding Daikon, and Sweet potato have been quite successful under the fruit trees. The hardest thing has been keeping the voles and ground squirrels from harvesting the root crops for me. Good luck and good article!

  4. Remember that the root layer is not just about roots you eat: plants with deeply penetrating roots such as artichoke, lucerne and comfrey bring nutrients up from the subsoil to give you a havets of edibles and organic matter without soil disturbance.

    1. Great point Scott. Theres already comfrey & sorrel in there for those reasons. Funnily enough i ordered Artichoke plants last night – flowers for the bees & biomass for the garden :) Brilliant suggestion.

  5. Love your article. I’m looking to turn my small yard into something similar.
    If you like onions and are looking for a root crop that won’t hurt the trees look at Egyptian Walking Onions aka Tree Top Onions. They are a self seeding annual where the bulb grows on the top in place of a flower. The top set bulb is shallot size and the whole plant is editable. There is an in ground bulb too, which can be eaten, but once pulled another one will need to be planned. Like most plants the new bulb takes 2 years to mature for fruit/topsets. They are hardy and will survive frost and snow, but I don’t think you have a problem with that where you are.
    Happy Growing!

    1. Thanks Tori – now that looks like just the thing! Spring onions + bulbs for pickled onions + self seeding tops! Sounds perfect. Thanks so much for your feedback – im definitely on the look out for these now :)

  6. I would recommend canna edulis as a root crop since it doesnt spread. Manica also doesnt spread, but it might need protection over the winter.

    1. Now that looks interesting! Possibly grows a bit tall for this particular bed but i’ll definitely consider this for elsewhere. Thanks so much for your suggestion.

  7. Thank you for this article :) Moving to a small block and am excited to see what i can create in the space. Thank you for the inspiration.
    Perhaps peanuts for an underground layer? or parsley humberg root (Carrot type bottom and parsley on top).

    1. Thanks Tash – Peanuts are an interesting idea!! Ive just ordered a load of Egyptian walking onions & looking forward to those, but will make room for some peanuts now too! Exciting!

  8. Nice Kirsty! Thanks for sharing this with me. May your heart and your gardens grow with grace and beauty! Maybe someday I’ll get to NZ and visit!


    Dave J.

  9. Jackpot! I am so happy to have fallen upon this article. Thank you for taking the time to share this experience with us. I am planning to purchase land in 5 years where I’ll build my new sustainable and resilient home (hemp, cedar, wood frame, passive solar and adjacent greenhouse, rain water collection and waste water treatment) but for now, we have a home in the city of Montréal with a good patch of land that I finally decided to develop into a scaled down food forest after many months of diving into the world of permaculture.

    The thing is, my yard is surrounded by long established, tall, cedar hedges. I was thinking of planting white cloves and comfrey near them in order to balance the soil’s PH and also see if anything grows…Will that be enough before starting planting the food forest?

  10. With horseradish I use a narrow shovel to make a downward cut right alongside the root and gently put leverage on the handle until the root snaps. Then just pull the root out leaving enough root to form another plant. Harvesting every other year freshens the root and minimizing damage to tree roots.

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