DesignGeneralHow to

Designing a Small Forest Garden

I really think that your small garden can be a forest garden, because to be a forest garden is more abut the principles than the size. To recap, the principles are:

  1. Productive
  2. Multi-layered
  3. Permanent ground cover
  4. Sustainable
  5. Low maintenance

I’m working on a fantastic project in Llandeilo, a small south-facing front garden, in collaboration with the can-do Permaculture Tywi. I’m creating the design and then a crack squad of community-minded permies will wreak beautiful acts of creation in just one day.

To start, I visited the site and talked at length with both the client and also June and Anne from the group. We then took photographs of the site, poked around and measured up.

Gravel front garden of semi-detached white house
View of the front garden from the pavement

A very useful tool in this process is to look at where the sun will be at different times of the year. There’s an excellent app called Sun Surveyor, which gives you an augmented reality view across the calendar.

My first step back home was to create a very rough sketch, in pen and £1 coloured pencils. This was to get some ideas across to the client before creating anything too polished, the “Make the big mistakes early” gambit. At this stage, you don’t have to be specific about plants, just a general sense about their size, habit and shape. Afterwards, you can pick specific plants and even cultivars to suit the spot.

Scribbly sketch of garden design
A loose sketch to communicate some ideas

I had some good feedback from the client, namely that they might not want to sit in the front garden, so we agreed that the seat would be a movable bench, and that they really like cherry trees! A local supplier recommended ‘Stella’, a self-fertile cultivar, and I recommended using Gisela 5 rootstock, which grows to around 2.5m and needs to be permanently staked.

After hearing Sarah Price talk at Botanic Garden Wales, I was compelled to unleash my rusty Photoshop skills and put together a photomontage of the garden. Her photomontages are a work of art, mine are more, er, Teletubby! It was a fun process though, and again, gives an idea of what can be achieved.

Photomontage of front garden photo, showing possible plants stuck on top
The photomontage, without the cherry tree, giving an idea of what plants could go where

Only at this stage did I move on to the CAD plan. I started with a screengrab from the Ground Stability website, which is a hi-res Ordnance Survey map, using it as a guide for the measurements that were taken. An alternative is to use a satellite photo; I found the best ones to be on Apple Maps and the mobile app Theodolite.

The software I use is QCAD, which is Open Source software with a limited free version available. Any CAD software is complicated and I wouldn’t recommend it for one-off, casual use (have a look at Inkscape for less exacting requirements). Having said that, it is brilliant. I’m just getting the hang of QCAD’s NURBS for drawing curvy lines and the hatch functionality for filling areas.

CAD plan of garden
The final CAD plan, showing the path, water feature, seating area and plant diameters

The key advantage to using CAD is that you can calculate the final diameters of plants. This is particularly important for a forest garden, as you want to leave a gap of about ¼-½ of the average tree diameters, so that enough light gets through to understorey plants. Another advantage is that it’s super easy to calculate areas and distances, which is useful when ordering materials.

White tree blossom
A prunus in blossom; this is an Early Prolific plum but you get the idea!

As you can see from the plan, the star of the show is the ‘Stella’ cherry, at the heart of the garden. This is underplanted with Alliums on one side and Lady’s Mantle and Bears Breeches on the more shaded side. There’ll be two paths re-using the gravel going around the tree to the corner, where there’ll be some sort of water feature (eg a small wildlife pond in an old Belfast sink) and a movable bench in the seating area.

Along the south facing wall will be day lillies rising above the clipped box hedge, fronted with mediterranean, sun-loving herbs. By the bench, there’s a lovely bunch of fennel, with mint behind for scent and for pollinators. The hedge with the neighbour is Atriplex halimus, which is relatively easy to manage and likes full sun.

The border along the pavement will have currants planted, to provide both fruit and a visual screen for the rest of the garden.

Screenshot of Simplenote published web page
Simplenote is a good way to publish and collaborate on simple notes

To wrap it up, I’m using Simplenote (and nvALT on the Mac) to publish the notes as a web page. Simplenote uses plain text to write notes, and with the magic of Markdown and remotely hosted images, you can have images in your notes as well!


This article was first published on


  1. Just questioning why a cherry? will get very big and doesn’t respond well to pruning in our cool temperate climate? Would something like an apple give more opportunities to opening up the canopy layer to let light in on occasional years? Lovely use of the tech though.

  2. It is a shame that growing a food forest is made to seem so difficult, with drawings, computer programs, spreadsheets, etc. that the vast majority of people are not even remotely familiar with. I’m a 72 year old female, 5 feet tall, my food forest is close to 12 years old. I started with all lawn, same as every lot around me. Made a list of what food shrub and trees I wanted, decided where was the best area for growing vegetable. And tried to follow the principles of permaculture that I learns by reading and a 3 days, no sleep marathon of a free online course by Geoff. I don’t sleep much. Then I started planting. Did I make some mistakes? Sure, but the number of bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife who moved in did not seem to care. They brought in seeds for plants and trees which I never planted and did their own thing. For people who think it is so overwhelming just get started. Most mistakes can be remedied, but the longer you focus of how difficult it is, the less you get done. Remember most old food forests planted themselves with the help of wild animals that don’t know anything about computers. (Hate recaptcha.)

    1. Thank you! I’m new to the concept, am online reading and getting overwhelmed.
      Your note is a breath of fresh air, more to my way of approaching everything!
      Much appreciated.

  3. I couldn’t agree more Carmeno a lot of what I see on the Permaculture site will go over the head of most especially those just showing an interest ,I think there needs to be a grass roots forum without all the tech stuff if the purpose is to expand the idea of permaculture to reach as many and to inspire as many as possible. Imagine a world where everyone grew at least a little of what they need , herbs ,greens and a few perpetual veggies it can be done anywhere we just need the mindset to change so that we know we can do it . It’s easy really you start small then with enthusiasm and enjoyment you expand , a tub , a trough , a patio, a fence line ah what the heck let’s dig up the whole back yard , it’s your choice but start somewhere simple and enjoy, nature will repay your input many many times over, what’s to lose , nothing and you may just inspire another and be able to share produce, nothing more gratifying cheers and please excuse my rant ,Ray

  4. Strange and inappropriate that three pro Monsanto weed killer adverts should accompany this article

    1. Thanks for highlighting this, some ads are brought in via google adsense, we will look in to how we can weed out any ads like that showing on up on our site in the future.

  5. @Gary Finch
    A cherry because the client loves cherries!! On the right rootstock (in this case Gisela 5), the tree will be constrained to about 2.5-3 metres height & diameter. I personally haven’t had a problem pruning cherries, maybe it’s a specific variety? Personally, if I was to have one tree, it would be an apple, really flexible and can have multiple varities grafted on to one tree.

  6. Hi @Carmeno
    This post is just how I design forest gardens, I come from a tech background so it’s second nature to me. Sketching, CAD, Photoshop, they are all just tools to _help_ with the process. All of this can be done on paper, or even marked out on the ground with some string and bits of bamboo. The really important bit is working out the tree diameters (and rootstock) so that your tree isn’t too big for your garden, and also that you have enough light coming in for your understorey plants. But absolutely yes, you definitely don’t need any fancy pants software to create a forest garden 🙂! (and yes, recaptchas are a pain in the butt, I had to complete 6 to post this comment!!!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button