Overstory #216 - Introduction to temperate edible forest gardens
This edition marks the eleventh anniversary of The Overstory. Our first edition was published on March 2, 1998 to a list of 200 addresses. This 216th edition is being sent to over 8,400 addresses in 184 countries, attesting to the growth in interest in the role of trees in agriculture, resource and habitat conservation, health of people and ecosystems, and human culture and economy. Thank you for your work to support sustainable stewardship of our planet and communities.
I am proud to continue publishing impressive new work from around the world. This edition excerpts a two-volume book entitled Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, which covers theory and practice for temperate environments. I am always looking for new and exciting material related to trees such as the source material for this edition of The Overstory. If you have something in mind for us to publish, please see our unique selection criteria at http://www.agroforestry.net/overstory/ovsubm.html.
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Aloha and thank you,
Picture yourself in a forest where almost everything around you is food. Mature and maturing fruit and nut trees form an open canopy. If you look carefully, you can see fruits swelling on many branches-pears, apples, persimmons, pecans, and chestnuts. Shrubs fill the gaps in the canopy. They bear raspberries, blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, and other lesser-known fruits, flowers, and nuts at different times of the year. Assorted native wildflowers, wild edibles, herbs, and perennial vegetables thickly cover the ground. You use many of these plants for food or medicine. Some attract beneficial insects, birds, and butterflies. Others act as soil builders or simply help keep out weeds. Here and there vines climb on trees, shrubs, or arbors with fruit hanging through the foliage-hardy kiwis, grapes, and passionflower fruits. In sunnier glades large stands of Jerusalem artichokes grow together with groundnut vines. These plants support one another as they store energy in their roots for later harvest and winter storage. Their bright yellow and deep violet flowers enjoy the radiant warmth from the sky.
What is an edible forest garden?
An edible forest garden is a perennial polyculture of multipurpose plants. Most plants regrow every year without replanting: perennials. Many species grow together: a polyculture. Each plant contributes to the success of the whole by fulfilling many functions: multipurpose. In other words, a forest garden is an edible ecosystem, a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production. Edible forest gardens provide more than just a variety of foods. The seven Fs apply here: food, fuel, fiber, fodder, fertilizer, and "farmaceuticals," as well as fun. A beautiful, lush environment can be a conscious focus of your garden design, or a side benefit you enjoy.
Forest gardens mimic forest ecosystems, those natural perennial polycultures once found throughout the world's humid climates. In much of North America, your garden would soon start reverting to forest if you were to stop tilling and weeding it. Annual and perennial weeds would first colonize the bare soil. Shrubs would soon shade out the weeds. Then, sun-loving pioneer trees would move in and a forest would be born. Eventually, even these pioneers would succumb to longer-lived, more shade-tolerant species. It can take many decades for this process, called succession, to result in a mature forest.
We humans work hard to hold back succession: mowing, weeding, plowing, and spraying. If the succession process were the wind, we would be constantly motoring against it. Why not put up a sail and glide along with the land's natural tendency to become forest? Edible forest gardening is about expanding the horizons of our food gardening across the full range of the successional sequence, from field to forest, and everything in between.
Besides the food and other products, you should design your forest garden for self-renewing, self-fertilizing self-maintenance. For a self-renewing garden, plant mainly perennials and self-sowing annuals. Allow a healthy soil community to develop by mulching and leaving the soil undisturbed. Build soil fertility with plants that fix nitrogen, amass soil minerals, act as mulch sources, or a blend of these. Reduce or eliminate your pest control work by providing food and shelter for insectivorous birds and predatory and parasitic insects. Fragrant plants, such as onions, may confuse insect pests and slow their march toward your crops. In fact, you can reduce pest and disease problems simply by mixing things up, rather than planting in blocks of the same species! All these things, and more, reduce the amount of maintenance your garden needs and increase its yields. When we mimic how nature works and design well, we can reduce the work of sustaining ourselves to mulching, some pruning, occasional weeding, and minimal pest and disease management (depending on the crops you grow). Oh, and then there's the harvesting!
Essentially, edible forest gardening is the art and science of putting plants together in woodland-like patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. You can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, other useful plants, and animals in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. You can create a beautiful, diverse, high-yield garden that is largely self-maintained.
Gardening like the forest vs. gardening in the forest
Edible forest gardening is not necessarily gardening in the forest. It is gardening like the forest. You don't need to have an existing woodland if you want to forest garden, though you can certainly work with one. Forest gardeners use the forest as a design metaphor, a model of structure and function, while adapting the design to focus on meeting human needs in a small space. We learn how forests work and then participate in the creation of an ecosystem in our backyards that can teach us things about ecology and ourselves while we eat our way through it. Gardening like a forest is what this book is all about.
Gardening in the forest is different. We can transform an existing piece of woodland into an edible forest garden, and this book will explain how, but there are many other ways to garden in the forest. These include the restoration of natural woodlands, ecological forestry, and the creation of primarily aesthetic woodland gardens. The latter forms of gardening in the forest are not what this book is about. If you want to garden in the forest in any of those ways, see the resources listed in the appendix. If you want to grow food in a garden like a forest, read on.
Where can you grow a forest garden?
Forest gardens are viable in small urban yards and large parks, on suburban lots, or in a corner of a rural farm. We have seen examples ranging from a 2-acre (0.8 ha) rural research garden, to a jungle of food plants on a quarter-acre lot, to a heavily planted 30-by-50 foot (9 by 15 m) embankment behind an urban housing project. Smaller versions are definitely possible; the same principles and ideas still apply, though it might stretch the word forest rather far. Despite the name forest garden, it is best if your site has good sun. Of course, if your land is shady and wooded, this book has plenty of ideas and information you can use.
You can most easily grow forest gardens where forest, especially deciduous forest, is the native vegetation. This means a climate with ample rainfall during the growing season and relatively mild winters. The principles of ecology still apply in other locales. Those of you in drier climates, such as the prairies and desert, can grow forest gardens too, if you provide irrigation and wind protection. You should, however, look to your native habitats as models for sustainable agriculture.
The Garden of Eden: it sounds great, but is it practical?
We like to think of edible forest gardening as recreating the Garden of Eden. The introduction's first paragraph makes it sound like it is. Is such an abundant, low-maintenance food garden really possible? Let's take a few lessons from history.
The notion of edible forest gardening is ancient in many ways but relatively new to modern Western culture, especially in North America. The peoples of tropical Africa, Asia, and Latin America have a long tradition of multistoried agriculture. Their farms and gardens often integrate trees, shrubs, livestock, and herbaceous crops in various ways-a set of strategies called agroforestry. Fodder trees in pastures provide windbreaks, livestock forage, and shade. Some of these trees also improve the soil by fixing nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil. Alley cropping systems combine rows of nitrogen-fixing and food-producing trees with strips of annual crops like corn and potatoes. Multistoried "food forest" systems used in many tropical regions mimic the rain forest, growing crops such as coconut, oil palms, bananas, coffee, pineapples, and ginger. The Javanese have grown village- and home-scale forest gardens since at least the tenth century. These compose 15 to 50 percent of village croplands. Obviously, forest gardens work in tropical climates, and have for a long time. Similar systems existed in cooler climates hundreds of years ago.
An intensive land-use system called coppice forestry was used throughout Britain and continental Europe beginning at least in the Middle Ages. Many trees can sprout from the stump and regrow vigorously after being cut down. These stump sprouts, called coppice, can provide fuel, fiber, fodder, or mulch, depending on the species. In medieval Europe, coppice plots produced logs, poles, saplings, and brush for use in crafts, industry, and building construction. Cut on seven- to twenty-five-year rotations, they offered excellent habitat for wild game, as well as for wild edible and medicinal plants essential to the medieval diet. Coppicing dramatically prolongs a tree's life, so coppice stumps can produce material for generations. British researchers have proven that several continuously coppiced stumps, known as stools, are five hundred to eight hundred years old, two to three times a tree's normal life span. Talk about sustain ability! Unfortunately, coppice forestry systems almost disappeared during the Industrial Revolution, but they are experiencing a budding revival, at least in Britain.
The record certainly shows that forest-gardenlike systems have been viable and practical in temperate climates. Isn't it possible for us to do far better now if we put our hearts and minds to it? A small but growing number of people in the cold climates of the world have been developing these ideas for the current era.
J. Russell Smith's seminal 1950 work Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture first sparked renewed interest in the potential of agroforestry throughout the world. However, tropical countries and large-scale tree-crop systems received most of the resulting research attention. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren also studied tropical and subtropical ecosystems, along with arid lands. As cofounders of the permaculture concept in late 1970s Australia, they gathered ideas for designing "permanent agricultures" using ecological principles and dispersed them to virtually every continent. Tree crops and agroforestry systems were a large part of permaculture's initial toolbox. Permaculture practices now extend beyond agriculture into all aspects of human culture and range from regional to household scales. Unfortunately, permaculture's subtropical origins and the overwhelming need for these ideas in lower latitudes has led most permaculture literature to focus outside of temperate climates, at least until recently.
Robert Hart pioneered temperate agroforestry at a home scale with his inspirational 1991 book Forest Gardening. Hart's insights arose from his tropical agroforestry works his Gandhi an beliefs, and his experiments on a tiny smallholding in Shropshire, England, where he started his garden in 1981. That makes it the oldest known temperate-climate forest garden in the world. His forest garden was a beautiful testament to his vision. Unfortunately, last we knew it was in legal limbo after his death in March 2000. Permaculture designer and teacher Patrick Whitefield followed Hart's book with his more practical How to Make a Forest Garden, a solid book with a British focus. These two books, combined with numerous works on permaculture, sparked widespread planting of forest gardens in Britain. These gardens and books all demonstrate the potential of edible forest gardens, if not the actual benefits.
How we garden reflects our worldview. When we see the world as a collection of independent and isolated elements, it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to grasp the interconnectedness of natural systems. How could we then garden ecologically, or live and act responsibly in an interdependent world?
Western culture, for all its benefits, has created immense problems for the forests, for the people living in the lands once occupied by them, and for anyone who wants healthy food to eat in the twenty-first century. We can solve these problems only with significantly different ways of thinking. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is hot only the growing of crops, but also the cultivation and perfection of new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world.
Douglas, J. Sholto, and Robert A. de J. Hart. 1984. Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK.
Hart, Robert A. de J. 1991. Forest Gardening. Green Books, Totnes, Devon, UK.
Mollison, Bill. 1988. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia.
Mollison, Bill with Reny Mia Slay. 1991. Introduction to Permaculture, 2nd Ed. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia.
Whitefield, Patrick. 1996. How to Make a Forest Garden. Permanent Publications, Clanfield, Hampshire, UK.
This article was excerpted with the kind permission of the publisher and authors from:
Jacke, Dave, with Eric Toensmeier. 2005. Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Jct., Vermont. 396 pp.
Chelsea Green Publishing, 85 North Main Street, Suite 120, White River Jct., Vermont 05001, USA; Orders: 800.639.4099; Offices: 802.295.6300; Fax: 802.295.6444
Website: Edible Forest Gardens
About the Authors
Primary author Dave Jacke has been a student of ecology and design since the 1970s, and has run his own ecological design firm-Dynamics Ecological Design-since 1984 (click here for a PDF of Dave's resume). Dave is an engaging and passionate teacher of ecological design and permaculture, and a meticulous designer. He has consulted on, designed, built, and planted landscapes, homes, farms, and communities in the many parts of the United States, as well as overseas, but mainly in the Northeast. A cofounder of Land Trust at Gap Mountain in Jaffrey, NH, he homesteaded there for a number of years. He holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Simon's Rock College (1980) and a M.A. in Landscape Design from the Conway School of Landscape Design (1984). You may reach Dave by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Toensmeier has studied and practiced permaculture since 1990. He has spent much of his adult life exploring edible and useful plants of the world and their use in perennial agroecosystems. He is the author of Perennial Vegetables and co-author of Edible Forest Gardens with Dave Jacke. Both books have received multiple awards. Eric manages an urban farm project for Nuestras Raices Inc., which provides immigrants and refugees with access to plots and start-up support on a 30-acre farm. He gives courses and presentations in English, Spanish, and Botanical Latin.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #166--NWFP from Temperate Broad-Leaved Trees
- The Overstory #140--Nitrogen-Fixing Plants (Temperate)
- The Overstory #135--Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in Agroforestry
- The Overstory #128--Wild Foods
- The Overstory #117--Between Wildcrafting and Monocultures
- The Overstory #106--The Hidden Bounty of the Urban Forest
- The Overstory #71--Nontimber Forest Products (temperate)
- The Overstory #47--Coppice-with-Standards