Everyone loves the IDEA of a garden, but once you get to the nitty gritty, things get more complicated. The truth is, most people don't keep up their gardens, and instead of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, they end up harvesting weeds, frustration and guilt! Most community gardens fail in just a few years, and instead of fostering community and cooperation, they often lead to arguments, crime and fist fights!
Forest Gardens are no different.
The truth is, while forest gardening CAN be the easiest, most productive and most beautiful form of gardening, most forest garden and Permaculture projects I've seen come to the same bad end. In fact, poorly designed forest gardens can perform worse than regular gardens! For example, the paper A Critical Review of Permaculture documents how a dozen such projects were started in the Urbana Illinois area between 2001 and 2003, and after a decade, none of them remained in their original form!
Here in my city, Kalamazoo, there have already been a few high-profile forest garden projects that have failed and been completely removed. In one case, a forest garden that cost over $10k and used over 50 volunteers was tilled and removed in just a few years after planting! In another, an unhappy forest gardener has been looking for someone to take over the project, because it's just "too much work!"
In my talks with forest gardeners and participation in forest gardening communities, there are a number of reoccurring major complaints that keep coming up over and over again. (By the way, most of these are actual quotes:)
"There aren't enough volunteers to do all the work!"
"The weeds completely took over everywhere!"
"Everyone hates it and thinks it looks like a mess, especially the neighbors!"
"I spent thousands of dollars and 5 years later all I have is a bunch of bug-filled, rotten fruit!"
"All my apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches, etc. are filled with bugs! I don't even pick them!"
"My yard is filled with angry ground wasps from all the buggy fruit laying around!"
"The paths are impossible to maintain so the whole thing looks like a weedy mess!"
"It's too much work!"
"Most of my trees and bushes get destroyed by wildlife!"
Broadly speaking, all of these complaints boil down to the same mistake: poor planning! In Permaculture, these are called "TYPE 1" errors, which is where a project is literally designed to fail.
Being more specific, all of these complaints boil down to 4 big errors:
1. Poor species slection - planted the wrong species for the project's needs and goals.
2. Planned for too much work, when not enough work was available.
3. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Nobody thought of aesthetics and now the neighbors and city staff hate you.
4. Poor (or negative) Return on Investment, the food forest is just too expensive, usually because nobody did the math during planning.
So remember, the best way to start a forest garden is to do your research nd thorough planning up front! Talk to people who know what they're doing and have experience forest gardening in your area.
And if you're looking to start forest gardening in the Great Lakes region, check out our Community Supported Forest Gardening memberships. We're sure it's the easiest way to get started, and the cheapest way to start a collection of high-value forest gardening plants. You get a complete set of forest gardening plants, a site consultation with one of our Permaculture Designers, and a complete course that takes you through an entire season of installation and maintaining a forest garden.