Self-pick woodland gardening

I can’t remember where I heard about it, but there is this idea that you can grow all you need in a Forest. Agriculture as we know it – huge areas of monoculture using a lot of fossil fuel – could be mostly replaced by people just going into the forest and getting what they needed. This is what they used to do, before agriculture was invented.

Not everything, though, if I remember correctly, some things like root vegetables and cereals fared best on open land because of the amount of sun needed.

The other thing I liked about the idea was where the forest was rather like a supermarket. So instead of doing the food shopping you would go and harvest what you needed for the next day or two. That sounds more natural. There are a lot of benefits to this that I’ll discuss later. Let me take you through my imagestream first.

Framing the assignment

I wanted to explore a place that had housing close to a woodland garden where residents went and picked their food. I want to find out the techniques of implementing this in a climate like the place where I live. I wanted to know everything, like how to implement such a system, the techniques, how you plant the growing, take care of it, harvest etc.

The stream

I was shown around this world by an earlier “friend” – the facilitator – who took me to a center of relocalization. This is a place I had encountered earlier, designed to be a center of learning and excellence, to help communities and individuals relocalize.

He took me to a garden where small seedlings were growing close to the residence. These are seedlings that are propagated, raised and taken care of to be planted out in the forest later.

He then took me to an area where people were cutting trees down and putting them into a wood chipper. The chips are left on the forest floor, to make soil.

I gathered that the trees in the forest are thinned to 20 feet (6 metres) between them. Between them they were planting berry bushes in triangles. I had a lot of difficulty with the idea of planting things in triangles in the forest, but they explained that the triangle planting confuses animals and keeps them off what is inside the triangles – vegetables.

The vegetables are grown in circle inside the triangles. They dig a small circular pit into which they throw organic material. They cover it then with earth, so it makes a mound on which to grow vegetables.


This makes up the three layers of the woodland garden: trees, bushes and vegetables and herbs.

I saw it as “cells” about 12 meters wide, made up of triangles of 6 meters. See the illustration below.

woodland garden pattern

woodland garden pattern

I must say at this point I wasn’t really sure I had kind of “got it”. I asked to see more, and they showed me an area that had been fenced off, it was a garden where you could go and sit. They were growing herbs in it. Further down the slope (this was the south side) they were growing fruit trees and nut trees and even further down, they had terraces where they were growing crops on raised beds.

The area was designed so you could walk around it, and pick what you needed. It dawned on me that I was being shown a demonstration area.

I must say I thought it all looked rather ugly, but conceded that I had never asked for anything pleasing to the eye – only functional.

I asked to see the planning and they took me back to the office. They make a plan of the forest, ensuring that which is needed most frequently and is heaviest is closest to the houses. The north side of a hill is just or growing timber for houses etc.

Path design: deer are kept away by the triangular bush layout. The heart of the garden has to be simply fenced off. They make “cells” from seven trees each, and fence off from the animals that they need to protect from.

For dimensioning, they grow what they can in these low-maintenance areas, but need to complement with other kinds of gardening.

To summarize what I learned:

Self-pick woodland gardening serves a number of houses, something like 50 for a 10 hectare woodland. The south side is thinned into “cells” for various uses, the North side is managed for timber for building (the North side grows slower and denser).

To make a woodland garden you use rather brutal methods to get started, like chipping all felled trees.

Harvesting is one of the most labour intensive parts of agriculture. By having people do their own harvesting, food production is made more efficient. Plus there seems to be something eminently human about gathering.

Questions the stream raises

  • What about fairness? How do you make sure people do not take more than they need, or “hog” the best bits?
  • What kind of “cells” can you have in a temperate climate? I would like more details.
  • Watering: do they use any methods to ensure the cells get water?
  • Patterns: Was it hexagonal or was it pentagonal or did I miss this?
  • Seeds: where do they get these? Do they let things go to seed so they self seed – perennials?
  • Protein: where do people get protein?
  • Storage: do they need root cellars or freezers or do they preserve?

Our own experiments

One triangular sub-cell with fruit bushes and vegetable mound

One triangular sub-cell with fruit bushes and vegetable mound

Our Eco-unit is just planting a fruit forest. We have not created a sort of a triangle of berry bushes between the trees (just about visible in this picture). The dimensions given in the imagestream seem to work out, as the central mound is less than 1,5 meters in diameter, meaning you can reach from all sides without having to step on the soil.

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