Forest Farming vs. Forest Gardening: What’s the Difference?

Steve Gabriel

In our pursuit of discovering forest farmers for the writing of our book, we’ve received a lot of responses from folks around developing forest gardens. This post describes the difference between the two practices. We are absolutely supportive and encouraging of forest gardens and see the two practices as companions.  The topic of forest gardening has been well articulated in Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s 2005 book, Edible Forest Gardens Vol 1 & 2. (EFG)

  sgabriel forestry talk


With many agricultural and horticultural practices out in the world, there are many lines that one can draw in the sand; some useful and some less so. When writing a book it is useful to contain your content a bit as you can quickly see the book getting bigger while watering down key concepts. So, for the sake of discussion and comprehension it is good to distinguish one thing from another. In practice, especially in permaculture design, the lines between forest gardening and forest farming blur together. 

Ken and I define the two practices as follows:

Forest Gardening: mimicking the structure and function of forests in the way we garden, or using the forest as a model for the way we garden.

Dave Jacke and others advocate that in Forest Gardening we want to mimic mid-succession forests and woodlands with a 40 – 50% canopy cover. It is here that many shrubs and herbaceous plants can thrive and many of our multi-functional species are adapted to this phase of growth.

As Dave Jacke says, this is

“…gardening LIKE the forest, but not necessarily IN the forest. One can obviously garden in the forest using the principles EFG talks about.  I tend to focus people on converting lawn however, since there is so much of that to convert, and try to steer people away from messing with existing forests which we have done so much damage to already.”

Forest Farming: the intentional cultivation of non-timber forest crops underneath the established canopy of an existing forest.

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This is gardening/farming IN the forest. Since we are working with later succession ecosystems, our palette of species is quite a bit more limited. Species need to be considerably more shade tolerant. We tend to focus more on things like mushrooms, and shade loving perennials that are already found in woodlands (ginseng, leeks, goldenseal, etc). And, in contrast to Dave’s strategy described above, Ken and I are actually advocating that forest landowners get into their woodlots and actively manage their forests for long-term health. We are convinced this activity is not only possible, but necessary, as so many forests have been degraded from poor and limited decision making in the past. Non-timber forest crops, like those covered in the practice of forest farming, are 
a potential incentive to support good forestry practices.

Further Distinctions

Based on the above definitions, one basic distinction between Forest Farming and Forest Gardening might be the type of ecosystem we are starting with.  Are we going from open field or semi-brushy field and thinking about taking this “blank slate” toward a forested system, or are we working with expanding the diversity and functionality of an existing forest? Our context provides a direction to employ the tools. In Permaculture we want to work with the system, rather than against it’s natural succession. Therefore it’s inappropriate to think about cutting down a forest, with its accumulated ecosystem wealth, in order to plant a garden (or field crops). Yet this happens all the time. When a culture values it’s forests for timber and firewood only, it’s somehow easy to justify clearing woods for food production.

Another distinction between the two systems is scale. As Jacke notes,

[…with Forest Gardening] I am mostly talking about small-scale intensive systems of high diversity, primarily for home use.”

In Forest Farming systems we are often looking for farm scale, production systems. Forest Farming is very appropriate for hobby growers, but that our focus is often on systems that work in managed forests, with the implication that we are working in spaces larger than one’s own backyard.

We can use the Permaculture principle of Zone planning to further our thinking of these systems not as dichotomous, but as companions. In Zone Planning, we arrange invisible boundaries on a site to facilitate system design in relation to how intensive the managed system is – that is, how often we need to visit to harvest, maintain, and so forth. The classic zones model for a landbase would be:

zonesZone 0: Home or center of human activity (like a barn)
Zone 1: Intensively managed gardens
Zone 2: Small animals and broadacre crops (like corn, beans, etc)
Zone 3: Orchard and larger pasture systems
Zone 4: Forested systems managed for multiple yields
Zone 5:  The “wild” zone, not managed or manipulated

This is a rough guideline, as the specific context of a site ultimately determines the actual layout of zones. The borders between on and the next are not ridged, either. Some grazing animals may move between multiple zones, for example.

Taking the zones principles in the context of our discussion, we might see that Forest Gardens, which tend to mix many different species in patches, might best be thought of as a Zone 1/Zone 2 tool. Zone 4, with it’s forest as the base ecosystem, implies the practice of Forest Farming. Zone 3, depending again on the context, is perhaps where the two practices meet. But then again, it can easily get a bit more complex.


Other Agroforestry Practices

The USDA Agroforestry Center says that the practice “intentionally combines agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land-use systems. Agroforestry takes advantage of the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock.”

They further distinguish several types of agroforestry:

• Forest Farming (as discussed above)
• Silvopasture: grazing animals under a forest canopy of about 50% cover, so that grasses can persist)
• Riparian Buffers: tree crop systems in waterways like steams, rivers, wetlands, etc.
• Windbreaks: tree crop systems to buffer effects of wind
• Alley Cropping: rows of trees in between conventional crops, like Black Walnuts in-between rows of corn or soybeans

There are some excellent videos put out by the University of Missouri Agroforestry Center that detail these practices. We’ve embedded the Forest Farming edition:

Ken and I have added Forest Gardening (developing patches of multiple species and layers, mimicking forest structure and function) to this list, though some agroforestry “experts” are not prepared to accept forest gardening as one of the basic agroforestry practices. In our upcoming book, we plan to continue the discussion on this topic, as each practice mentioned above tends to act as complement to the others.

Does it really matter?

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, drawing distinctions between all these practices is tricky business. For example, when we regard silvopasture as “three-story agriculture”, as it is often called, we are limiting the potential to the management of trees, grasses, and grazing animals. Often, the forest needs to be thinned (or planted) at a wide spacing to allow adequate light to grow grasses. If this is the case, then were do foraging animals like ducks or goats fit in? If we are not growing grasses for foraging, are we still doing silvopasture?

As Ken notes, “by my general nature I tend to be a lumper, not a splitter.” I agree. We are interested in this dialogue, but not g to contain a practice in any one category. In fact, we seek just the opposite. Like a carpenter needs more than a hammer… we see these different agroforestry practices (forest gardening included) to be analogous to a well stocked toolbox of saws, pliers, hammers, etc.


As I work on the farm design with my partner Liz, we have actually discovered that we will likely employ many of the above agroforestry practices, on just 7 acres of land:

We have one acre of existing Sugar Maple that we are managing for maple syrup, mushrooms, ginseng, and wild leek (hopefully) production. (Forest Farming) Our ridgetop site is very windy, and we have plans for a multi-functional windbreak of short-term trees (willow, red alder, locust), mid-term shrubs (seaberry, hazelnut) and long term conifers (Korean Nut Pine). Several patches next to hedgerows and in sheltered parts of the farm will be allocated to Forest Gardens, with more intensive management layering trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants for our own enjoyment and consumption The lower portion of our land is wet and alongside a seasonal stream, already hosting a number of butternut trees. We plan to support a productive riparian buffer zone of walnuts, paw paw, berries, and pasture. Silvopasture will be accomplished throughout the farm, as we move our ducks and eventual sheep through ALL of the previously mentioned systems (except for sheep in the Maple woods.)

All these practices will combine to reforest our farm, while meeting our personal goals for hobby and commercial production. Whether managing existing forests, or building new ones, engaging the diverse array of agroforestry practices has helped our thinking and planning. Forest Farming, at least in the temperate climate, is perhaps the least articulated of all these practices, yet holds great potential. We see our book as a companion to Edible Forest Gardens, as well as publications like “Silvopasturing in the Northeast” by Brett Chedzoy and Peter Smallidge and others.

As for the case studies we are fundraising for, we ARE specifically looking for current farmers and hobby woodlot owners who are cultivating crops under the canopy of an existing woods while engaging in forest management. This doesn’t mean we won’t visit a few other agroforestry examples, such as the Alley Cropping/Silvopasture practices of Mark Shephard’s New Forest Farm. While Mark didn’t start with an existing woodlot, we have much to learn from his trials and tribulations with tree crops. Our main interest is to further the understanding of tree-based agriculture, by whatever name. If Farming the Woods can strengthen that conversation, we will have done our job.