A Way Through the Woods: Designing the Paths in our Forest Garden

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So we’re creating a forest garden – a lush, shady place, dripping with fruit and springing with herbs, flowers and tubers. But when you think of a forest garden, do you think of paths, their construction, and their capabilities? Or do you just figure you’ll wind your way through the green herbage as you see fit?

The paths make the garden. And by consciously designing them before you begin, you can bring many benefits to the forest garden space that are difficult to retro-fit later on. So here’s how we designed the Milkwood forest garden paths…

Path design for the upper Milkwood Food Forest

The paths in our forest garden need to do a couple of things really well: define different spaces within the garden, create weed barriers, increase fertility, protect the rest of the garden from compaction and provide easy access for farm residents, classes and maintenance.

Harris therefore designed the main paths on contour, with spur paths branching off in various directions. These main paths serve a couple of functions:

By being on contour, the main paths provide energy efficient access the different levels of the garden, without having to push wheelbarrows etc either up or down hill for lengths of time.

The main contour paths were surveyed and then dug out (by hand – thanks Trev Bamford!) as small swales, about 60cm across. These trenches were then filled with woodchip. This feature will allow the main paths to:

  • Catch and store rainfall, releasing it slowly and gently downslope, through the topsoil.
  • Allow the woodchips to decompose over time, creating fungally dominated compost which can then be dug out onto the forest garden

We’re finding that, unlike all the other larger swales here at Milkwood, these small ones are working brilliantly to catch, store and release moisture through the garden. I think it’s because they’re the right size and in context with the system surrounding them.

Harris surveying the paths in July 2011, with Adam Kennedy doing the flagging
On-contour paths dug out and ready for woodchip – August 2011
Main paths woodchipped and ready for Spring – September 2011
Main paths in the full swing of Spring – November 2011

The spur paths coming off these main paths are always on an angle (never straight downhill) for reasons of both ease of access and so as not to create a surge of water down the path in a heavy rainfall event.

The spur paths also define the ‘patches’ of the garden, which allows us to manage the garden’s development without getting ahead of ourselves. We’re taking a nucleus planting approach with this garden – stacking one small space heavily and then creeping out to the next one.

Harris has also defined where the meeting spaces, or nodes, will be in this garden. You know – the space where you park the wheelbarrow, sit and have a drink, dump all your tools and cuttings so everyone’s not tripping over them constantly on the path… that sort of thing.

The node aspect of this garden is important for us to have sorted from the start, rather than allowing all the nodes to naturally evolve.

We’re creating this garden as a team of residents, seasonal crew, interns, wwoofers, and students. There’s lots of people in this forest garden on a planting day, and the space needs to work for us all in it’s development phase, not only in it’s final finished form.

That said, in 5 years time I imagine there will be favorite sitting or working nooks that we have not yet foreseen. But that’s the fun of creating living space, isn’t it?

It’s now finally high spring here at Milkwood (spring comes very late here) and the finished paths are 2 months old. The green manure (vetch, broad bean, oats, quinoa, amaranth) broadcast on the downhill mound along the swale paths are flowering madly.

The paths make all aspects of the forest garden (both planted and not yet planted) a pleasure to access, and gives us all a real sense of establishing something that will develop for decades to come, feeding many happy folks as well as being a space of general gorgeousness.

Currants, Russian Olives, green manures and herbs, all springing madly
A happy, green and growing world, on a dry and rocky hillside…

Many thanks to Dan Harris Pascal for his ongoing assistance with the Milkwood Forest Garden design + implementation

Want to come learn? Next two Forest Garden Workshops:

Forest Garden resources:

Intern Adam and Dan Harris Pascal installing dripline in the Forest Garden, September 2011. Thanks, Harris!

Definitely related posts at Milkwood.net:

See the comments

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18 responses to “A Way Through the Woods: Designing the Paths in our Forest Garden

    1. yes in retrospect our large swales were completely the wrong choice for this landscape – they bisect the topsoil of the slope, creating large scars of subsoil thru the property, they need a very large rain event to ‘run’ (ie fill the dams) and are generally inappropriate for our site, our climate and our soils – a result of not-so-great advice and our own inexperience (they were built in late 2007 – we’ve learned a lot since then about landscape hydrology!). I’ll assemble an article about them once we’ve figured out a retrofitting solution – we’re in discussion about several options…

  1. That looks a good job done. I’m just wondering is this area fenced off from wildlife? Is it a problem at milkwood.
    I’ve had wildlife take a liking to some of my plants and seriously damaging a lot of them.
    My latest nemesis is a bush turkey getting a taste for my lemons and mulberry’s. It’d be ok if he just ate them but he breaks branches because of his weight.
    And probably the same culprit unless it’s bandicoots digging in the mulch around my trees constantly.
    And I’m pretty sure the wallabies have ringbarked and killed an avocado and foliage on other trees.

  2. Ha-ha, the things you learn! We too have learned that big direct paths and big swales (big for us anyway) are not always sympathetic to the landscape. But you come with the eyes you have, not the eyes you’ll see in future.

    I put it down to good old hard lessons. If we didn’t make the mistakes, we wouldn’t have learned the value in the lesson, LOL.

    Your forest garden is looking lovely. 🙂

  3. Right on topic for me, i have just been designing paths in my garden, i mostly considered where i’ll be mowing and where i want to access fruit trees and other existing plants. Also sunshine was a concern for me. I have one long path following contour along the fence line. I’m interested in learning more about your swales and concerns.

  4. I’ve just visited the Milkwood site for the first time recently and I’ve gotta say that the Forest Garden is coming along very nicely. Harris has skilfully taken the reins on this part of the property and with the support of a great crew and the courageous co-captains at Milkwood I really look forward to seeing the site as a whole progress, innovate and inspire over the years. Good things deserve to come your way

  5. with a 3.5 acre youth project, the sheer size can be scary. Your article, however, has just cut it into path shaped chunks. Thanks – a very simple tip but one that has helped brilliantly.

  6. This is looking wonderful! I have an orchard planted out with 40 trees 3 years ago & this year it’s time to start planting guilds. Now I’m going to put pathways in first! I did assume they’d just appear with use. I have a heap of kikuyu & couch grass though, and have been running lots of chooks on it, but it’s still there. Any tips for managing that on a large scale?

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