FOREST OR PRAIRIE? Most gardeners are Prairie gardeners, in a sense. Because we like flowers, we tend to like sun. That in turn leads us to prefer gardens that are open and treeless, mimicking the conditions in the wide open Prairies of the Midwestern provinces and states. Many of the most popular garden plants--purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan to name just two--came to the garden from the Midwestern Prairies.
I grow Prairie plants myself, because in addition to being beautiful and hardy, they also attract pollinators. However, for the last 14 years of my gardening life (since leaving Illinois in 1993), I have lived outside of the Prairie States. First in the Seattle area and now in Nova Scotia, I have lived in areas that are naturally forested. And it has always seemed "just natural" to me that my gardens in these areas should be forested too. When the existing tree cover wasn't adequate, I've planted fast-growing trees and planted large shrubs in order to try to get a woodland effect, as I described in a post called "A Walk on the Shady Side".
I have come to prefer this style of gardening to the open style. You don't get as many brilliant flowers in shade, but woodland gardens are cool, quiet, and serene; they are great habitat for birds, and they are relatively easy to maintain. I've also come to appreciate the aesthetics of a shady garden: Because you can't lean on flashy flowers for effect, you have to pay a lot more attention to foliage, structure, and other subtle ways of creating beauty.
Until today, I never gave a lot of thought to where woodland gardening came from, however. So I was very pleased to read an article in today's Guardian that provided some background on this topic. Jill Tunstall writes in the British newspaper that this style of gardening "goes back to the Aztecs but was reinterpreted by the late Robert Hart, a visionary gardener who brought the idea to Britain in the 1960s and named it 'forest gardening'."
She says that Hart, who lived on the border between Shropshire and Wales, realized that forest gardens "were both productive and self-maintaining. He set about rearranging his own garden on forest principles with edible layers of self-sustaining perennials that would provide food, fuel and medicines, as well as support wildlife. His philosophy was recorded in two books, The Forest Garden and Beyond the Forest Garden (Green Books), both published shortly before he died in 2000."
Tunstall insterviews garden designer Jennifer Laurol, who emphasizes, quite correctly, that the key structural element of a woodland garden is layering--that is, the use of vegetation on mutiple levels. Books on natural design typically describe three layers, which roughly correspond to trees (top level), shrubs (intermediate level), and groundcovers (ground level). But apparently Robert Hart listed seven layers, from roots all the way up to the high canopy.
There does seem to be a key difference between the British forest garden and what designers here in North America are more likely to call a woodland garden. (See for example Rick Darke's book The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest, published in 2002.) Designers here tend to want to imitate the ecosystem that would occur naturally on a site, which requires using native plants or at least trying to. In contrast, British designers seem to be more interested in growing food than in imitating the local ecosystem. Hart seems to have emphasized that a forest garden is a more wildlife-friendly, low-maintenance way of growing food plants. I was quite surprised to learn that woodland gardens can be used to grow food plants, as a matter of fact. Although I remain committed to working with native plants, now I'm wondering whether a portion of the food garden couldn't be a lot shadier than I had previously planned.
One thing is certain: Even if you're not a native plant enthusiast, as I am, if you live in a naturally forested area the woodland or forest approach to design is more appropriate, better for wildlife, and easier to maintain.
Many thanks to the member of the Native Gardening group on Yahoo! Groups who tipped me off to the article in the Guardian.