How to Design a Backyard Forest Garden

Learn how to design a lush forest garden right in your backyard with seven layers of vegetation including tall trees, low trees, shrubs, herbs, ground cover, vines, and root crops.

By Toby Hemenway

Illustration by Elayne Sears


Bosco Verticale, Designed by Architect Stefano Boeri (2013)

The most exciting new tower in the world is under construction in Milan. At 27 storeys high, Bosco Verticale is a splinter beside the Shard, the 87-storey skyscraper under construction in London. What sets the Milan tower apart is that it will be the world’s first vertical forest, with each apartment having a balcony planted with trees. In summer, oaks and amelanchiers will shade the windows and filter the city’s dust; in winter, sunlight will shrine through the bare branches.

Bosco Verticale is the vision of Stefano Boeri, architect, academic and former editor of design and architecture magazine Domus: he begins his presentation with Ovid’s fantasy of the nymph Daphne being turned into a tree. But, he adds, such a metamorphosis adds only 5 per cent to construction costs. And, he argues, it is a necessary response to the sprawl of the modern city. If the units were individual houses, it would require 50,000 sq m of land, and 10,000 sq m of woodland. Bosco Verticale is the first element in his proposed BioMilano, in which a green belt is created around the city and 60 abandoned farms on the outskirts are restored to community use.

We live in a time when boundaries between indoors and outdoors, architecture and nature are dissolving, as the naturalist John Muir wrote: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”


London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia), Tasker & Juniper

I see this tree all the time and it amazes me. It’s scarred and gnarled, the roots had to chisel space for themselves between slabs of sidewalk and the street, the branches are tangled in telephone wires and power lines. And yet, this girl is huge and thriving. 

Although I have so much respect for trees like this, a planetree was clearly not the right choice for this space. Someday, she will likely be labeled a hazard tree and removed, and a smaller, more appropriate tree will be planted in her place. Until then, let’s celebrate her will to live. 

Cool Roofs Might Be Enough to Save Cities from Climate Overheating

New research suggests that planting gardens atop roofs or painting them white could offset both the local urban heat island effect and global warming, although one roof type does not cover all situations

Dear followers, I strongly believe in this and will post every single article or media piece about this that I ever come across. I will always reblog too. I suggest you do too. It’s so fucking cheap and simple. Help raise awareness.

Philadelphia featured in the USDA’s publication, Urban Forest Case Studies: Challenges, Potential and Success in a Dozen Cities

Urban Forests Case Studies
This publication represents extensive research, interviews and examinations into 12 cities that have begun — or are continuing — to make an investment in their urban forests in order to reap future gains.

“An analysis of trees in Philadelphia reveals that this city has about 2.1 million trees with canopies that cover 15.7 percent of the area. The most common tree species are black cherry, crabapple, and tree of heaven. The urban forest currently stores about 530,000 tons of carbon valued at $9.8 million. In addition, these trees remove about 16,100 tons of carbon per year ($297,000 per year) and about 802 tons of air pollution per year ($3.9 million per year). The structural, or compensatory, value is estimated at $1.8 billion. Information on the structure and functions of the urban forest can be used to improve and augment support for urban forest management programs and to integrate urban forests within plans to improve environmental quality in the Philadelphia area.”

Doing some research for my capstone today, and I came across this report on Philadelphia’s urban forest by David Nowak, Robert Hoehn, Daniel Crane, Jack Stevens, and Jeffrey Walton. The report was published in 2007 by the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. (Photo by Phillip Rodbell.) 


FOREST MAN - Documentary Short Film

Since the 1970’s Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island in India. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC. His forest has transformed what was once a barren wasteland, into a lush oasis. Humble yet passionate and philosophical about his work. Payeng takes us on a journey into his incredible forest

Urban Forestry Part 2.5: Lack of Awareness

So it’s been about a month now of looking very closely at trees. Learning about the different species and what they look like as the season carries on has been kind of like scratching away a lottery ticket with a coin, but more informative and not disappointing at the end. Being able to understand the world around me in greater detail is awesome.

While experiencing this sense of wonder most of the time, I have also been saddened at seeing what must have been the most majestic Ash trees only during/after the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) invasion. It shocks me that a person can have a 37 metre (+110 foot) tall tree in his or her back yard and be oblivious to its decline until it is completely dead. 

The owners of this property are going to have a tricky time getting this giant out of their yard!

There actually is a preventative treatment for trees that are at risk of infestation. I saw some Ash trees being treated with TreeAzin (a systemic pesticide made from the Neem tree) a few weeks ago:

I deduced that the flat metal tag higher up marks it as an Ash tree, and the green dot marks it as one that is going to be treated, so it wasn’t much of a mystery when these started popping up:


If you didn’t guess, it’s the mark of the reaper. 

If you notice that a tree in your lawn, park or boulevard seems to be doing poorly (losing leaves, sending shoots or looking weak-leaved in general), click here to find out if you have an EAB-infested Ash tree. The general consensus is that after this summer it will be too out of hand to protect any of the Ash trees that we have left.   


On the bright side, this inventory that we are doing will help urban forest managers to respond more quickly and proactively to future threats!