Forest Gardening in the City

Naturewise is an urban permaculture initiative focussed on raising environmental awareness and enabling people to move towards more sustainable lifestyles. The project was founded in 1990 when a group of community activists and gardeners came together in Islington, north London with a shared belief that even in the inner city, with all of its problems such as unemployment and high crime rates, it is still possible to connect with nature and harvest a yield. Co-originator Marek Lubelsky explains; “We wanted to show that local people could take control of inner city land, and we believed that we should have informed choices about how to use it.”

The following year, funded by a series of small grants, and inspired by Robert Hart’s vision of ‘new city forests’, Naturewise set up the first urban community forest garden in the UK. Situated on a steeply banked, south facing, one fifth of an acre of Council owned land in Crouch Hill, the initial designs for the site emerged from two Permaculture Introductory Weekends as well as a full Design Course led by Andy Langford. It wasn’t a site without problems – surrounded on three sides by blocks of flats, and on the north side by a tarmacked football pitch where local youth congregate, it was highly exposed to the ‘wild energy sector’ of ‘human predation’ (ie, vandalism) as well as having a sub-soil consisting largely of rubble and waste. Large whitebeam and sycamore trees shaded and took fertility from much of the site, and there was no available mains water supply. Putting into practice the principle of seeing solutions instead of problems, guilds were created whereby fragile fruit trees were protected from marauders by tough, thorny bushes such as worcesterberries and gooseberries whilst comfrey was planted to draw up nutrients from deep underground. The larger trees were used to shelter new stock, and swales were built into the design in order to trap and channel any rainwater falling onto the site. But it was the ‘people issues’ that were perhaps more difficult to address. Original project co-ordinator Alpay Torgut remembers that with up to 30 people on site, decision making was often chaotic; “We were a very mixed group of people on a new project, but Andy’s experience of people management and conflict resolution was invaluable, introducing designs for consensus and leadership structures based on consultation and opinion sharing”. These valuable lessons have continued to inform the content of the regular permaculture courses that Naturewise have run every year since then, focussing as much on the arts of successful community building and the ‘invisible structures’ of Peoplecare as those of sustainable gardening or eco-building skills.

Forest garden design

In 1995 work began on a second forest garden, this time in the grounds of nearby Margaret MacMillan Day Nursery, a kindergarten providing pre-school care to over 200 small children from a very wide social, cultural and ethnic mix. This partnership has many benefits for the education of London’s future citizens, including opportunities to learn experientially about natural ecosystems and sustainable design in practice, as well as being taught core curriculum subjects in a stimulating outdoor classroom environment. I first visited the site shortly after it had been initially planted up, and spent alot of time there during the full Permaculture Design Course I attended over seven weekends in 1997. All the trees were very small at this stage, and it was still possible to grow lots of annual sun loving crops such as tomatoes, beans, Mediterranean herbs and so on in the large unfilled spaces in the heavily mulched beds. I’ve made many more visits over the intervening years and its been fascinating to watch the evolution towards an edible woodland landscape as the shrubs and bushes have spread, the trees have matured and their canopy has gradually closed. Alpay too sums up his delight at seeing the project come to its fruition;

The fruiting season starts in June with big juicy loganberries, which are growing up through an apple tree. This is followed by strawberries, blackcurrants, red, white and buffalo ones too, gooseberries and worcesterberries. The feast continues in August, figs started coming through… To stand in the depths of a major capital city like London, with all it’s negative outputs of pollution and crime and be able to pick and eat ripe juicy sweet organic figs is wonderful.

There are still grapes, apples and pears to come. I could go on with this list of goodies. One very satisfying experience is to see all the excited laughing faces of children and adults harvesting and caring for the Forest Garden.

What has touched me deeply in my work with Forest Gardens is much more than the fruits. It’s all the children, women and men who have carried out this pioneering work over the years, and made forest gardening a reality in this capital city. They arrived in all shapes sizes and colours they came from all over the place, locally, nationally and internationally.”

Marnie weaving hazel

However, the original forest garden has perhaps not fared so well over the years. Left largely to fend for itself against the ravages of stray dogs and footballs, as well as youths who prefer to use unripe apples as missiles, the site has developed in a wilder, untamed direction – more urban forest than forest garden – still a valuable green space with all sorts of benefits for people and wildlife, but no longer the productive edible landscape originally envisaged (that said, I did pick several pounds of quinces from there last autumn…). Reflecting on this, Naturewise feel that valuable lessons have been learned about the need for boundaries and some degree of clarity about ‘ownership’ of space. Its also a demonstration of what can happen when a mindful human presence is largely removed from the design. A forest garden is a far more resilient food producing system than a cropping regime based on annual vegetables and grains, but nonetheless will still in time revert to ‘Zone 5’ wilderness if not given due care and attention.

In recent years the integrity of the Margaret Macmillan site has also been through a stage of uncertainty. Its success was due in no small part to the commitment and tenacity of Alpay and his close working relationship with the school Head Mary Hart. When he decided to move away to Wales it was sad to see the forest garden slide into a period of neglect. I visited when teaching a design course during the summer of 2005 and have to say it was beginning to look rather dilapidated, with bindweed getting the upper hand, unpruned apple branches beginning to tangle and several of the more rampant bushes such as worcesterberry in severe need of what Robert Hart termed ‘editing’ in order to prevent their domination over other plants. But as Alpay withdrew from direct involvement with the project, a new energy arrived in the form of several fresh as well as re-invigorated past volunteers, more than ably co-ordinated by the efforts of course graduate Claire White. Re-instigating regular weekend workdays, they have quickly restored the garden to an optimum condition, an abundant balance between wild nature, cultivated edible landscape and children’s playground.

Making a hazel fence

Claire feels that the energies of the forest garden and the humans who use it define this unique space; “over time the forest garden has become a metaphor for our interaction with the space and each other, the human beneficial relationships are reflected in the actual space in the guilds of the forest garden. The main users are the children at the school who use the space on a daily basis, the teachers use it as an educational resource, the weekend volunteers come to mulch, observe and learn from each other and visitors come to see an example of a forest garden before planting their own.”

She is reluctant to claim credit for her own organising skills, instead preferring to see a wider picture; “without the support from Mary Hart and twelve years of volunteering this project would never have happened. Many forest gardens are started but it is the people around the site who gently sustain the forest garden story. This particular project is unusual as the two groups that interact the most with the space never meet, but experience the space in a similar way. Issues of ownership hardly arise and people, plants and wild life are thriving.”

Of course, the forest gardens and regular program of permaculture courses are only parts of the Naturewise agenda of creating green city abundance. David Holmgren observed that “Successful gardens do not keep expanding. Instead, they provide a surplus of plant stock and knowledge that help to establish new gardens”. In the same way, many other projects have directly arisen from or been inspired by Naturewise, including eco-building projects, the North London Local Exchange Trading System (LETS), urban growing initiatives such as Plot 21 and Food Up Front, sustainable business enterprises such as Wholewoods (green woodworking and bushcraft education) and my own Spiralseed publishing and design services, not to mention the beneficial connections with other permaculture/food activist projects such as OrganicLea, Growing Communities and Hackney Tree Nursery, and the hundreds of individuals who have been touched and motivated to change their lives in ways small and big.

A nice pair of pears

Occasionally people have asked how they can ‘join’ Naturewise – the short answer is that you can’t. Not by filling in a form and paying a fee anyway. Amazingly, the project has survived and thrived for almost 19 years without any formal structure or membership. Instead the group operates as a loose collective based on mutual trust. Decision making on issues such as running courses or deciding teachers wages continues to happen on a consensus basis, and the ‘policy’, for want of a better word, is that anybody who supports the Naturewise ethos and has something positive to offer can consider themselves a part of what they do. Nicole Freris, who has been involved with the group for about 5 years, explains why it continues to work; “the network of individuals who are Naturewise simply gather and organise themselves for the functions of setting up courses, workdays and other events. Free from unnecessary bureaucracy and its corruptions, our collective common sense thus has a greater chance to prevail in our discussions and decisions! This approach has helped Naturewise remain grounded in action, responsive to change and inclusive to all who take part.”

Graham Burnett Graham is the author of ‘Permaculture – A Beginners Guide’ and teaches as part of the Naturewise Collective. This article originally appeared in Permaculture Activist Magazine.

Naturewise continue to run regular forest garden volunteer days, permaculture courses and woodland weekends. Co-founder Alpay Torgut has now set up West Wales Naturewise, who have created yet another forest garden, as well as forging links with the burgeoning Transition Towns movement. For more information see For photos from Naturewise (and other London based Permaculture projects), see

Appendix: What is Forest Gardening?


The concept was pioneered by Robert Hart, who examined the interactions and relationships that take place between plants in natural systems, particularly in woodland, the climax eco-system of a cool temperate region such as the British Isles, as well as the abundant food producing ‘home gardens’ of Kerala. This led him to evolve the concept of the ‘Forest Garden’: Based on the observation that the natural forest can be divided into distinct layers or ‘storeys’, he developed an existing small orchard of apples and pears into an edible landscape consisting of seven dimensions;

I)A ‘canopy’ layer consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
2)A ‘low-tree’ layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
3)A ‘shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
4)A ‘herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
5)A ‘ground cover’ layer of edible plants that spread horizontally.
6)A ‘rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
7)A vertical ‘layer’ of vines and climbers.

forest garden abundance

Stepping into the Forest Garden is like entering another world. All around is lushness and abundance, a sharp contrast to the dust bowl aridity of the surrounding prairie farmed fields and farmlands. At first the sheer profusion of growth is bewildering, like entering a wild wood. We’re not used to productive landscapes appearing so disorderly. But it doesn’t take long for the true harmony of nature’s systems to reveal themselves, and the realisation sinks in that in fact it is the Agribiz monocultures, with their heavy machinery, genetic manipulation, erosion, high water inputs, pesticides and fertilisers which are in a total state of maintained chaos. Whereas hectares of land may produce bushel after bushel of but one crop, genetically degraded and totally vulnerable to ever more virulent strains of pest and disease without the dubious protection of massive chemical inputs, just an eighth of an acre of a garden such as Robert’s can output a tremendous variety of yields.

Inspired by Robert’s example, forest gardening has become an international movement, and projects been planted in community spaces, private gardens and school grounds. They have the potential to contribute enormously to the social, physical, spiritual,economic and environmental well being of communities.

”Obviously, few of us are in a position to restore the forests.. But tens of millions of us have gardens, or access to open spaces such as industrial wastelands, where trees can be planted. and if full advantage can be taken of the potentialities that are available even in heavily built up areas, new ‘city forests’ can arise…” (Robert J.Hart)

What we planted at Margaret Macmillan school

Apples: Reverend w. wilks, James grieves, Crab.
Pears: Warden.
Plums: Cherry plum, Shropshire damson, and Victoria.
Nuts: Almond, Hazel, Pine nut,
Berry’s: Worcesterberries, Tayberry, Gooseberry.
Currants: Red, Black, White, & Buffalo.
Strawberry grapevine.
Herbs: Alecost. Alexander’s. Chinese & Jerusalem Artitichokes, Barberry, Bergamots: Wild, Common, and Lemon. Burdock, Chives: Giant, Garlic, Common. Comfreys: Dwarf, Common and Bocking 14. Creeping borage. Curry plant. Fennel. Garlic’s: Wild, and Common. Good king Henry. Hops. Horseradish. Lavenders: French, Hidcote, Seal, Grappenhall, Lodden pink, Imperial gem, Large white, Royal purple, Lemon Balms: All gold, Common, Variegated, Lovages: Scots, and Common. Mints: Apple, Curly, Spear, Basil, Lemon, Orange, Bowls, Mitcham, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Black pepper, Red raripila, Moroccan, Eau de cologne, White pepper, Pineapple, Ginger, Korean. Pot marjoram.
Onions: Welsh, Common, and Everlasting. Red valerian.
Rosemarie’s: Lilies blue, Common, Heavenly blue, Benenden blue, Seven sea, Sudbury blue, Sisinghurst blue, Mrs Jessup’s upright. Sages: Broad-leaved, Narrow-leaved, Common, Purple, Golden, Pineapple, Salad burnet. Southernwood. Tansy. This is not a complete list of plants in the entire garden.