Robert Hart’s forest garden

Diagram by Graham Burnett

Most forest gardeners are familiar with Robert Hart and his garden either through his book “Forest Gardening” or the short documentary about the garden on Youtube, both of them teaching the idea of a seven layered forest garden, and the beautiful, productive systems that follow when applied.

I have several times wondered what happened to his garden after his death in March of 2000. Such a horror, and at the same time, joy, when I found this picture collection on Flickr by London Permaculture of Robert’s now abandoned forest garden; the first of the northern forest gardens, an anchor of history, left to dissipate into weeds.

A glimpse of the now abandoned forest garden. Photo by London Permaculture.

I read the note by London Permaculture:

Robert Hart’s original forest garden in Shropshire continues to hold a fascination for a wide number of people. Hart’s description of the garden in his books and confusion over what happened to the garden following his death in March 2000 have both created an aura of mystery which haunts references to the place.

Highwood Hill is currently a private residence with no public access to the site. The forest garden which Hart created appears to have been partly cleared. The remaining elements have been untended and without human intervention have proceeded on a path of natural succession. The shade of the tree cover has led to a diminution in the under storey, although a few fruit bushes are still visible.

Robert Hart’s garden survives in his books and in the gardens that others have started around the world under his inspiration – it is not here.

Agast at “Partly cleared”, I rack my brain for how this haven could be saved. I think  ‘Why hasn’t someone bought the site and payed it off, offering tours, propagating plants? Anything?’.

Comfrey still plugging along. Picture by London Permaculture.

I must relent. It is nature’s way, and I don’t think this scenario could be any better. What could a forest gardener want more than for their organism they’ve tended and partnered with for years to thrive on its own, then taking its natural course back to the nature that it came from? Just seeing the trees are still there, especially that the Comfrey’s plugging along, really shows how independent the forest is.

Mortal Tree –and any other food forest, I sincerely hope stay productive for centuries after the forces that brought them together are gone. It will be the ultimate test for our designs. Robert’s garden I think is exceptional though. It has inspired and hence given life to so many forest gardens, including my own. Letting it disperse and rise to the realm of ideas is how it will best spark independent, unique ideas that are best adapted to our sites.

I have the same idea for Mortal Tree. It is a remnant of the garden I’ve heard once grew in my yard –a long time ago. As it decays I see it as physical nutrients for the garden, but also as an idea, a memory, of a place where the earth isn’t dead, but living, healed, and healing everything that comes into its embrace. The old form has to taste complete death before it can take new form though. Such is the meaning of decay, an end becoming a beginning to bring new life in a new form.

Thoughts like this really make me want to get back out into the food forest. Join me?


  1. Interesting article. Thank you. Shouldn’t a forest garden be full-proofed against the ravished of time and nature? Or at least primarily so? It does seem that the faster more ‘greedy’ plants take over and animal life eat the majority of what is above average nutritional-wise. Also, it is my view, a forest garden should be profitable, otherwise humans will always alter it in the future such that it reaps the greatest income.


    1. I agree completely, Robin. There needs to be some sort of natural capital from a forest garden or it’s not much of garden, and or an underutilized forest at best. I deal with clients that have varied definitions though: some just want beauty, some want food and personal sustenance, some do indeed want harvests that are viable for markets off-site. The aim makes an enormous difference in design. Across the board, my clients all want low maintenance, and permanence. Again, I think this fits well into your definition of profitable, since labor is of course a loss to the profitability of a site. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  2. I was poking around the Internet (Googling diligently) trying to find if Robert Hart’s woodland garden could be visited, and to know how it is doing. I was very glad to find this page and the link to London Permaculture’s photos! Thank you!

    I’m sad to read “The shade of the tree cover has led to a diminution in the understorey, although a few fruit bushes are still visible.” Isn’t there a way to design a forest garden so that it endures even after we die?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to shed some light on the subject for you.

      An interesting question: How do we design food forests to endure in our long abscence?

      The main development in Hart’s garden was upper storey trees shading out lower storey herbaceous plants. I have seen some naturally occuring patches of forest where vines grew up, shaded and killed off branches of tall upper storey trees. Some new branches would spurt out before a vine would wrap around. Because the upper storey was kept in check there was a very active lower storey, with some activity from the higher storeys.

      Not the perfect system, but one option to consider.

      Liked by 1 person

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