Your garden should be a multilayer food forest, says RHS horticulturist

Your garden should have many layers, like a rainforest, to perform for biodiversity and climate, a leading garden designer has said.

Tom Massey, an award-winning horticulturist, said most gardens only have a couple of layers, with a mown lawn, some bushes and perhaps a tree. But adding multiple layers, with intermingled planting, helps to mimic what one may find in a biodiverse forest, with each layer giving benefits for wildlife.

“There’s a school of thought, or a concept, called a forest garden or a food forest,” said Massey, “and essentially it’s mimicking a natural forest. So you’ve got the canopy layer of the trees, you’ve got the climbing plants that scramble up the trees and climb on fences. You’ve then got the shrub layer, ground cover layer, you have mushrooms, you have this swale feature which holds water, and then you’ve got roots.

“So it’s a kind of multilayer garden with high degrees of biodiversity, intermingled planting, so rather than just having a block of shrubs, it’s got lots of different species growing harmoniously together.”

Massey, who has displayed multiple times at Chelsea flower show, is launching a book with the Royal Horticultural Society about how to turn sterile, paved front gardens and heavily mown back gardens into havens for wildlife through planting forest gardens.

Forest gardens have plant types of varying heights and are a good use for small plots because you are gardening from high areas to low. They support more wildlife as there are varying habitats and the planting is dense.

An example front garden Massey suggests is a low-maintenance gravel garden with plants that are resistant to drought and wind, as front gardens are often more exposed to the elements, with lower-quality soil. Suggested plants include the small-flowered hesperaloe, a yucca-like perennial with pink flowers, and autumn sage, a bushy dwarf shrub with red, purple or yellow flowers. Both are drought-resistant, low-effort and attractive.

Related: RHS developing ‘wellbeing blueprint’ to enhance health benefits of gardens

For a rear garden, Massey includes swale planting, with ditches to store water, and raised areas where plants that need less water can be grown, making it appropriate forwet and dry weather as the climate becomes less hospitable.

While the average garden, he says, has about five plant species in it, his suggested back garden has 30, from poppies to grasses to trees to climbing plants, adding benefits for wildlife and making the gardens more likely to thrive in Britain’s changing climate.

“London, for example, is predicted to have a climate more similar to Barcelona within the next 20 to 30 years,” Massey said. “So now if you’re planting trees in London, maybe look to Barcelona [as] the kinds of trees thriving there now are going to be more suitable than what you might typically think of as a British street tree.”

Related: A growing revolution: new ways of using the land

Massey says “gardens in the UK equal roughly the size of Wales, so if you think about that as a landscape as a whole, that’s a huge area of green space that could be providing many services for biodiversity. So it’s really important to think about our gardens as part of a wider interconnected landscape.”

Unfortunately, there is a rise in people paving over their front gardens, he added: “It’s kind of driven by house prices and people say you need to have four parking spaces or two parking spaces or it knocks the value of your home, but I think we need to start thinking more about value for wildlife as well. And the benefit that that brings in [and] that if we don’t start to make changes, we are going to destroy the planet.”

  • RHS Resilient Garden is out on 6 April