Here, four steps to get started on this organic way to garden—also called wild gardening, permaculture, companion planting, or agroforestry.
What is Wild Gardening?
Wild gardening is a way of gardening that attempts to mimic the balance of nature, in which each species of plant supports the success of the other species.
The concept of wild gardening isn’t new. You may have heard it calledforest gardening, agroforestry, and a type of permaculture. Anthropologists give credit for this style of growing crops to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who may have intentionally cultivated beneficial wild species close to their encampments.
Forest or wild gardening naturally employs a multitude of forest survival strategies that have been evolving for almost a billion years. One of those is what scientists call hormesis, which is the concept that the naturally occurring chemical stress response of one plant can communicate with and benefit another plant species in the wild.
Mushroom Mycelium Networks to the Rescue
A wild garden is based on the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Based in part on the work of Suzanne Simard, PhD, at the University of British Columbia, we know that trees warn each other of a threat by sending electrical and chemical messages through an underground fungal network called mycelium, or what she calls the wood-wide web. These fungal forest networks span large swaths of land and act as one organism. The largest known one mycelium mat is in Eastern Oregon and spans 2,200 acres. It’s important to note that this type of natural communication network does not exist in manmade farms.
As Peter Wohlleben shares in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, this underground information network helps larger trees support the growth of smaller trees struggling to find enough light through an already crowded forest canopy. What is also unique about a forest is that the threat of one species is regarded as a threat to the whole. Plants who are under attack by a predator will send warning signals to members of their own species.
Companion Planting Basics
In a forest, companion plants that support each other’s success naturally occur because each plant creates an environment for certain species to thrive. Based on the availability of light, water, soil, climate, and the canopy, unique ecosystems are created in nature that attract and support the success of companion plants.
In wild gardening, knowing which plants support each other is a great place to start. The Farmers Almanac has a great list of companion plants to get your wild garden started. One of the most well-established companion plantings is the three sisters, which originated with many Native American tribes, including the Hopi, Oneida, Iroquois, and Navajo. The three sisters are corn, climbing beans, and squash and are always grown together. The tall corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb, while the beans replenished the soil with nitrogen. The big leafy squash acts as a ground cover to prevent moisture loss, weeds, and pests.
Four Rules for Planting a Wild Garden
A wild garden should look pretty wild much like the ground cover of a forest. Neat rows of kale, broccoli, corn, and tomatoes that may look beautiful and organized often lacks some of the key components of a wild garden, including companion planting and mycelium mats, often resulting in the need for fertilizers, irrigation, weed killers, and insecticides.
To get started on your wild garden, follow these fours rules:
- No plowing, tilling, or turning the soil. The earth aerates itself through deep roots, earthworms, beneficial bacteria, and other micro-organisms.
- No Weeding: Weeds play and important part of fertilizing the soil and attracting companion plants. Many weeds are extremely nutritious or provide support to other plants. Learn about your weeds instead of pulling them out with my favorite Plant Finding App called, PlantNet. If the weeds get out of hand, cut them back, but leave them alive.
- No Chemical Fertilizers: Kitchen and animal waste, as well as rotting leaves and plants, will naturally fertilize your soil, making it similar to the top soil on a forest floor.
- No Harmful Chemicals At All: Chemical insecticides, growing agents, and weed killers weaken plants over time. In the context of xenohormesis, plants that struggle produce nutrients that support the immunity and longevity of the plant as well as those who consume it. Insects will always be there as they are in nature, but you rarely see massive insect damage in a healthy forest.
The First Western Forest Garden
Robert Hart, based in England, brought forest gardening back into Western gardening conversations again in the 1980s (Agroforestry is a common practice among many other cultures.) In his book Forest Gardening: Cultivating and Edible Landscape, he describes how maintaining his traditional garden and livestock became an overwhelming task so he started planting perennial vegetables and herbs and realized they pretty much took care of themselves. Over the years, he has developed his own rules for a forest garden based on observing natural, layered forest habitat, which gives room for all to survive and thrive.
Here are Hart’s guidelines for how a forest garden should be structured:
- The Canopy: a layer consisting of the original mature fruit trees
- Low Tree Layer: a layer of smaller fruit and nut trees
- Shrub Layer: a bushy layer of berries and fruit bushes
- Herbaceous Layer: a layer of perennial vegetables and herbs
- Ground Cover: a low laying ground cover of edible plants
- Rhizosphere: an underground layer of root vegetables and the wood-wide web
- Vines: a vertical layer of climber like beans and peas