Real Life Polycultures - How plants and people interact in the forest garden

Polycultures are seen as a key aspect of permaculture theory and practice. They are also often advocated as an agroecological practice, yet there is very little published research about polyculture practice comprising more than three species, especially in temperate climates.

Temperate forest gardens as multi-layer, multi-species polycultures are increasingly popular among practitioners, but have been almost completely absent from systematic and comparative research. Forest garden literature to date has describe the ideal process of developing a site, but little has been written about challenges and solutions in practice. My study of actually existing forest gardens is part of a wider effort to define a baseline for more in-depth research into polyculture systems.

Using examples drawn form over 40 case studies of  temperate forest gardens I will show patterns in forest garden practice and highlight common lessons and challenges that practitioners come across. Challenges include goal setting, site establishment and maintenance, harvesting and sharing of produce, knowledge and decision making power. In response to these challenges, a number of innovative solutions have been developed by practitioners.

From these observations forest gardens emerge as complex, knowledge-intensive socio-ecological systems that pose a number of challenges to our understanding of how land management practice and social structures influence each other. I will suggest  that we are only at the beginning of understanding the complexity and the potentials of perennial polycultures, and that the questions arising form observing forest garden practice demand to be solved by collaboration among and between practitioners and researchers.


After receiving the Permaculture Diploma in 1997, I spent 6 years as project manager for a bioregional reforestation group and travelled for several years advising and supporting permaculture and other projects.

Since 2007 I have been instrumental in developing the Permaculture Association's research strategy and advisory board.

Research projects include:
Mixed vegetable polycultures, 2011*,
10-year Forest garden field trial, since 2011*,
Temperate forest garden baseline survey, 2013*,
Forest garden case studies, since 2013.

*with the Permaculture Association

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