Historical Forest Gardens – Human-made improvements that stood the test of time

Indigenous forest gardens that have not been managed for over 150 years are still standing and thriving with life. These gardens have been resistant to the advances of the surrounding conifer forests and continued to provide a vibrant feeding ground for wildlife long after the indigenous people were forced from them in the 1800s.

With the findings located here, Chelsey Armstrong & Team1 have pointed out that the indigenous forests greatly improved the plant and functional trait diversity.

“We find that forest gardens have substantially greater plant and functional trait diversity than periphery forests even more than 150 years after management ceased. Forests managed by Indigenous peoples in the past now provide diverse resources and habitat for animals and other pollinators and are more rich than naturally forested ecosystems.”

1Armstrong, C., J. Miller, A. C. McAlvay, P. M. Ritchie, and D. Lepofsky. 2021. Historical Indigenous Land-Use Explains Plant Functional Trait Diversity. Ecology and Society 26(2):6.

Plant Functional Traits

Plant functional traits are plant core attributes closely related to plant colonization, survival, growth and mortality. These core attributes could significantly affect ecosystem functions and reflect the response of vegetation to environmental change.


The beginnings of these forest gardens date back centuries. The “tribal” knowledge and application of these farming methods if forgotten, would be a great loss to society.

In the mid 18th century the surrounding forest would have been teeming with life and vegetation and would have supported the expansion of the local tribes. By adding to the locally available plant life through propagation, the indigenous population understood the many benefits that were to be had. One way was by adding more fruit bearing bushes, doing so created a more abundant source of food in two ways. One as a nutritious berry for consumption, and two as a added attraction to wildlife it creates an ideal hunting ground.

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

The recent discovery of non-native fruit bearing trees to this region are what prompted the research team to dive deeper. Upon arriving they noted over 15 species of fruit and nut bearing plants that did not naturally occur there. The evidence points to early propagation of select plants that led to the longevity and survivability of these gardens.

Early Discovery

The explosion of the fur trade drove a lot of business and people to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s. Most notably of them to arrive by land, were the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Lewis and Clark’s expedition and writings were important and still are to this day. Find more information on Lewis and Clark at History.com.

Lewis and Clark’s Expedition Path

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans did know epidemic type disease. Therefore they did not have any immunity to the various diseases being brought into their society. Just as a tribe would recover from an outbreak, another would occur. This was happening just as non-Native American colonizers were eying the territory. While in this weakened state the local people had a diminished ability to resist colonization.

Find more on the information on the history of the Pacific Northwest at Washtington.edu. This lesson covers a wide variety of topics on the Native American Tribes in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s.

What makes a forest garden work?

In a forest there different levels of light and growing conditions based on where you are in the forest. The canopy or the tall trees that stretch far and wide are getting the full sun. The vining plants, which fall into a range between the other two, as they grow in the shade but up to the light. The third layer is the ground plants, these plants are adapted to growing in the shade provided by the canopy.

The right combination of plants can live together in a very symbiotic relationship while benefiting all creatures and humans a-like. Having a wide variety of herbaceous and fruit bearing plants will give bugs and predator’s ample places to hide and hunt.

How big can they be?

The size of a forest garden can range from ~50 sqft. to as big as you can picture a forest. The amount of potential located within this garden is tremendous. Being able to feed your family while feeding and enriching the surrounding lands, no matter the size that’s a huge difference. Plant that garden!

For a smaller size forest garden, it is recommended that you do not plant any larger trees as they will shade the entire area and not leave room for any other plants to grow. It is recommended to plant a dwarf variety or smaller spreading tree to allow everything a chance.

What makes them so resilient?

The resilience of forest gardens comes from the diverse nature of the plant life. If you have filled every role (climber, groundcover, and canopy) in your garden with a specific plant then other plants will have a difficult time getting a foothold. Minor weeds and other plant life may pop up from time to time but given a full forest garden arsenal they shouldn’t stand a chance.

How do they improve the biodiversity around them?

Wildlife is no stranger to a gardener, we have all seen an animal hopping over the fence with our prized radish(or something similar). Through planting a wide variety of plants you are increasing the available food sources not only for yourself but for the wildlife around you. The thought of planting a little extra will go a long ways in this garden as it will be a safe haven for critters and other life. Another added benefit is that with most of the plant roles filled in a specific area noxious weeds cannot grab hold and take over.

How to make your own

Designing and Planning

Planning and Designing a forest garden is going to take a little more thought into the future than a yearly vegetable garden. You have to use your imagination while planning this one out, how big will those trees get? how much room do I have? will this tree grow on a north facing hill?

All of these questions and many more need to be answered before you buy your first seed or tree. Without planning it out your garden may make it to year 2 or 3 before you realize “Oh! That tree is getting really big.”

As you visualize your garden I find it best to draw out your area. You will want to start by planning your bigger plants, aka your trees first.

Throughout this section I am using an example that is 36′ x 20′, 720sqft. Changing the dimensions of this project to 18′ x 20′ would come at the sacrifice of one of the canopy trees.

Downloadable Garden Grid Paper

Canopy Trees

Choosing the right trees for your canopy is just as crucial as picking the right plants for the rest of the garden. The choice of tree is going to need to be a full sun (6-8 hours a day), with a wide canopy opening. Some varieties that work great are walnut, chestnut, apple, and pear trees. Depending on your space the chestnut tree may grow too large and require trimming to ensure a straight growth. This would help ensure the plants at ground level receive enough light.

Mid-level trees and plants

At this level we have lower lying tree which could serve as your canopy if you are rocking a smaller forest garden. Some of the trees in the area of the forest would be mulberry, almond, apricot, and peach. All of those are fruit or nut bearing trees, planting with those harvests in mind can help make a meal go a long way. A few shrubs really shine in this territory as well. Blueberry, rose, hazelnut, and dozens of others will work well in this location.

Choosing your shrubs and fruiting trees is where the gardeners innovation and creativeness can come out. While in this stage you can mold and shape your garden to cater to a wide variety of food needs in the future. If you know you like using blueberries then plant a swathe of blueberry bushes. Or if you aim is to attract pollinators then plant a beautiful flower bush such as roses or a butterfly bush.

We are going to use a combination of curant or gooseberry, silverberries, and cranberries as our windrow and fruiting mid level perimeter. Adding a natural border to your garden such as this can make the whole garden feel larger, as though it is without an end in sight and you really are in the middle of a forest. With a height of around 5′ – 10′ and mostly thick brambles it will provide a great shelter for the ground cover plants.

This combination of shrub and berry plants provides you with a very versatile cooking list. Silverberry branches are thick which makes them great for basket weaving, and the birds love them too!

Herbs and your garden

Now for this section we have added 2 garden beds that should be large enough to hold any of the normal garden variety plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, or any full sun plants as they are next to the south facing opening.

Another option is to see how the sunlight is laying in your garden once the trees are fully grown. There may be other options for a garden bed that got overlooked. For a vegetable garden full sun is usually the go to. I recommend making sure of whatever you want to grow will survive where its planted.

Ground Cover!

Next up we get the filler. Ample ground cover will prevent weeds and other plants from invading your perfect little garden. Many ground cover plants can be beneficial as well. Clover, strawberries, nasturtiums, and creeping thyme all make great covers. Personally I would a 2 or 3 types to ensure all year coverage. Or segment it to create a pretty effect in a natural looking garden.

Limitless possibilities

The idea behind this example is to get some ideas going in your head. My garden is not perfect and has a lot of rooms for improvement. I am going to love planting my own forest garden in the near future. With added benefit of providing for wildlife, and having my own sanctuary to retreat to, I know planting one would be worth it.

It may take years to establish but the science has proven that your forest garden, if planted properly, will outlive you!

If you found the article interesting or helpful in anyway please share it to Facebook or any other social media outlet as it helps me out tremendously.

Keep mother nature alive and prospering, your own livelihood depends on it.

I am an affiliate and links located throughout the article will provide me with a commission on any purchases made.

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Myers Greens LLC

Myers Greens is a nursery located in southwest Iowa. With the main goal of providing top quality microgreens and fresh herbs. Follow the blog to keep up to date on what we are growing.

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