seven story garden

What is a Seven Story Garden?

We named our business after it, so it must be important – but what is a Seven Story Garden? In this article we will discuss the history and methodology of this useful forest gardening framework.

seven story garden

What is a Seven Story Garden?

Seven Story Garden Basics

A major advantage of any forest garden is that it makes efficient use of space. All the space. Horizontal and vertical. Robert Hart, an English horticulturist and early pioneer of the forest gardening concept, described the vertical structure of the forest in seven layers or stories – tall canopy trees, short trees, shrubs, herbaceous bushes, root vegetables, groundcover, and vines.

Seven Story Garden
Diagram of the seven layers of a seven story garden. Source: Quercusrobur

This vertical structure is what sets forests and forest gardens apart from most of our garden ecosystems. We can leverage that difference with a simple mindset shift. By considering and integrating each of these layers into garden designs, we can enhance biodiversity, create mutualistic relationships between our plants, create habitats, and yield more food in our garden spaces. We can build seven story gardens. Lets take a look at each of these layers – what they are, what they do, and what plants we can grow in them.

The Seven Stories

1. Tall Canopy Trees

Canopy Tree Story Black Walnut
North America’s largest black walnut tree. Source: Gobywalnut

The Tall Canopy Tree story is the cornerstone of a forest garden ecosystem. The plants in this layer are the largest and require the most resources. They are also the most productive, yielding fruit and nut crops, leaf and branch litter that builds soil, and habitat for wildlife. The deep roots of canopy trees bring nutrients to the surface and the tall branches capture additional moisture from the atmosphere, all of which benefit the understories of the forest garden. The arrangement of canopy trees will determine the patterns of light and shade throughout the garden. Pruning and selecting varieties with naturally open branch structures can facilitate more light reaching the lower stories.

Useful Canopy Tree Species Include:

  • Acacia
  • Chestnut
  • Honey Locust
  • Pecan
  • Walnut
  • Apple, Pear, and Stone Fruits (on standard rootstock)

2. Short Trees

Small Tree Story Pawpaw
A row of pawpaw trees under a sugar maple. Source: cbarlow

The Short Tree story contains many of the same species as the Canopy story, but, well…shorter! One way to accomplish this is by planting fruit or nut varieties, like apples and pears, grown on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock. You can also plant tree species that are naturally shorter, like apricots and mulberries! While your canopy layer should be open enough to allow shorter trees to grow, this story also benefits from shade tolerant species, such as pawpaws and persimmons.

Useful Short Tree Species Include:

  • Fig
  • Hazelnut
  • Mulberry
  • Pawpaw
  • Persimmon
  • Pomegranate
  • Quince
  • Apples, Pears, and Stone Fruits (on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock)

3. Woody Shrubs

Woody Shrub Story Elderberry
Rows of elderberry shrubs. Source: Anna Regelsberger

Sun-loving varieties of shrubs can fill in the gaps between groups of trees, while shade-tolerant varieties can thrive under the canopy species. A wide variety of perennial shrub species can be planted to suit any need – food, crafting, animal habitat, nitrogen fixation, and beyond! These species also tend to grow faster and bear fruit sooner than the larger tree species, creating yields at the early stages of your seven story garden journey!

Useful Woody Shrub Species Include:

  • Aronia (chokeberry)
  • Blackberry
  • Currant
  • Elderberry
  • Gooseberry
  • Juneberry
  • Raspberry
  • Sea Buckthorn

4. Herbaceous Bushes

Herbaceous Story Comfrey
Comfrey. Source: Finchj

Herbaceous species don’t produce woody stalks, like shrubs, and are typically shorter, but can be grown more densely. Many of the annual species associated with a typical vegetable garden fall into this category, and can be planted at the sunny edges of a forest garden. Additionally, a vast number of perennial species flourish in this niche. Planting this layer densely and diversely can help to produce mulch, attract pollinators, cultivate edible and medicinal herbs, and more!

Useful Herbaceous Species Include:

  • Anise Hyssop
  • Asparagus
  • Basil
  • Borage
  • Comfrey
  • Mint
  • Nettle
  • Oregano
  • Sorrel
  • Yarrow

5. Root Vegetables

Root Story Groundnut Tuber
A groundnut tuber. Source: James St. John

Don’t forget to look underground for delicious and useful elements of your garden! Obviously, all of these plants also have above ground vegetation, but they are characterized primarily by tuberous or bulbous roots with great edible or medicinal value.

Useful Root Species Include:

  • Garlic
  • Ginseng
  • Groundnut
  • Hardy Ginger
  • Horseradish
  • Jerusalem Artichoke
  • Potato
  • Ramps

6. Ground Cover

Groundcover Story Clover
Field of clover and grass. Source: Pirehelokan

The ground cover story is characterized by species which grow close to the ground. This means they can crowd out weed species while serving as green mulch, fixing nitrogen, or attracting pollinators. This layer is also home to some delicious berry species!

Useful Ground Cover Species Include:

  • Bearberry
  • Clover
  • Creeping Thyme
  • Lingonberry
  • Phlox
  • Strawberry
  • Sweet Violet
  • Verbena

7. Vines

Vine Story Hops
Fully grown hops vines. Source: A. Balet

The final layer of a seven story garden is the one which grows between the layers. Vines can grow along the ground, trellis on trees and shrubs, or grow along man-made trellises. Although you have to be careful not to let vines choke off plants that they grow on, they can occupy spaces that no other plants can reach, further maximizing the biomass per square foot of your forest garden.

Useful Vine Species Include:

  • Beans
  • Grape
  • Hardy Kiwi
  • Honeysuckle
  • Hops
  • Melon
  • Peas
  • Squash

8. Bonus Story! – Fungi

Fungi Story Lion's Mane
Lion’s Mane mushroom growing on a tree. Source: Jim Champion

While Robert Hart’s original seven story garden concept did not include our friend, the majestic mushroom, we thought it was important to point out this added story between the stories. While they don’t fit neatly into any one layer of the forest ecosystem, fungi and mushrooms play a vital role – breaking down dead plant matter, making nutrients available to all the other species, and connecting the root systems of various species to transmit water and nutrients. Obviously, they can also be a delectable addition to any forest garden as well!

Useful Fungi Species Include:

  • Chicken of the Woods Mushroom
  • King Stropharia Mushroom
  • Lion’s Mane Mushroom
  • Oyster Mushroom
  • Shiitake Mushroom

Why You Should Grow a Seven Story Garden

Now that you know how a seven story garden is structured, you may be thinking: “That sounds great! But also complicated! What’s in it for me?” While the benefits of forest gardens are so extensive that we’ll be dedicating many future articles to extolling their virtues, there are two major reasons that you – the human in your ecosystem – should want to grow one: less work, and bigger yields. It’s the dream scenario, exactly what we all want in life, to get more by doing less?! Incredible! So exactly does that happen?

Less Work

There’s a saying in permaculture: “Everything gardens.” Every tree, shrub, bush, and bird is doing something to cultivate its perfect habitat. Planting a seven story garden is like inviting dozens or even hundreds of new workers to help you maintain your space, 24/7/365.

Perennial and self-sowing annuals don’t need to be re-planted every year – there’s one item off the to do list. Tree crops create mulch and shade that will suppress weeds over time – another item gone. All that leaf litter returns nutrients to the soil and improves the soil structure, while nitrogen fixing plants extract nutrients from the air! No more fertilizing! And with all the habitat you are creating for birds and bugs, the food web will work to remove pests that would otherwise be eating your tasty crops. No more pesticide application!

By taking advantage of the niches that each of the seven stories offers, you build functional interconnections into your garden ecosystem. Unlike a traditional garden, where every species is planted to grow, get harvested, and get removed, the many species of a forest garden serve numerous functions, all supporting each other and taking work off of the gardener’s plate – and then, putting more food on that gardener’s plate!

Bigger Yields

At the beginning of this article, I said that forest gardens are great for maximizing use of space, and what could be more important than maximizing the amount of food we get out of that space?! By taking advantage of all the niches available in our garden ecosystem we can create a greater abundance and greater variety of food. All of the traditional annual crops can still exist on the sunny edges of the forest garden, while an exciting assortment of fruits, nuts, berries, herbs, and fungi proliferate under the shady canopy. Over time, you can generate a grocery store in your back yard, full of produce that is fresher, tastier, and (best of all) free-er than anything you could buy in a store!


Forests are among most productive ecosystems on earth. By planting seven story gardens, we can start gardening like a forest. And by gardening like a forest, we can take advantage of that productive power for the benefit of our family, friends, neighbors (human and non-human!), and ourselves!

If you are as excited about growing seven story gardens as we are, you can keep exploring our blog. Or, if you would like to jump start your own seven story garden, you can reach out to schedule a consultation!

Happy gardening!

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