Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape

When you first hear about forest gardening, many have the impression that this is a garden established within a forest. It is actually a garden design rooted in the observation of a forest, and it incorporates a combination of low-maintenance perennial and annuals to create a food production system. It is based on the seven-layer concept of a woodland ecosystem. Making use of companion planting and by attracting the right insects, the forest garden is a productive blend of vegetable garden, orchard, and woodland all rolled up into one. It contains fruit, vegetables, nut trees, herbs, and vines, and it uses practices to regenerate the soil naturally.

Once planted, the forest garden will eventually turn into an edible forest. The drawback is that the garden takes between 5 to 10-years to mature, so it’s not for those who love instant gratification. It is, however, a garden that will last more than one season, and can be depended upon well into the future. 

Why grow a forest garden?
This type of garden is being viewed as the wave of the future, and it is presently being placed in many backyard spaces. Since natural defenses are built into this forest ecosystem, there is less need for chemicals, large farm equipment, or supplies. In addition, there is a trend to grow food locally, so that the transportation of grown food decreases, which leads to the conservation of time, money, and oil. Now do you see why this is being seriously considered by influential environmentalists? 

Is forest gardening new?
Forest gardening is a relatively new field for gardeners in North America, although this style of gardening is probably the oldest form of land use. This and other types of organic gardening are being promoted to meet society’s needs for sustainable food and natural resources. 

Most gardeners are accustomed to a fair amount of soil disturbance in their gardens, from tillage to crop rotation. Modern gardening techniques of separating different types of plants into separate garden beds is quite different from what forest gardeners are doing. As forest gardeners, they work to build connections between the needs of their garden plants (minerals, mulch, pest and disease suppression, pollination) with their products (nitrogen-fixation, mineral accumulation, mulch, beneficial insect attraction, etc), so that in time, the garden becomes largely self-maintaining.

To be more specific, by using nitrogen fixing plants (like legumes) near leafy plants that require a lot of nitrogen, there is no need for artificial fertilizers. Then, by using plants that repel pest insects (like tansy, garlic, nasturtium, marigold, and onion) around plants that are susceptible to pests (like brassicas and squash), there is no need for pesticides. Many plants grow well together, so we need to learn what these partnerships are. While doing further study, research "plant guilds" and find out which plants are good for your area. The Native Americans planted corn, beans, and squash together with much success.

Is this a field of study?
Forest gardening is a subcategory of agroforestry. Scientific research in the field of agroforestry has established that polycultures, where several crops are grown together in the same space at the same time, can also produce greater yield than similar areas of monoculture, where the cultivation of a single crop is grown in a given area. It is also scientifically proven that agroforestry and forest garden systems can improve soil fertility, soil structure, drainage etc.

Since forest gardening uses ecological design, it is also considered a part of permaculture. This is a garden design method that seeks to create a healthy, sustainable agriculture. The word comes from a mix of two words: "permanent" and "agriculture." The most important part of the permaculture garden design is the seven layers of the woodland ecosystem.

The Woodland Ecosystem

A forest is layered, and so is the permaculture food forest design. Each layer correlates with the food that will be planted:
  • Canopy (large fruit and nut trees)
  • Low tree layer (dwarf fruit trees)
  • Shrub layer (berries and bushes) 
  • Herbaceous (low growing vegetables that are annual or perennial)
  • Rhizosphere (root vegetables)
  • Soil surface (ground covers, creeping plants)
  • Vertical layer (climbers, vines)
Tips to get you started
  1. Make or buy a rain water collection system. You get free water with every rainfall, which will help you water during times of drought.
  2. Start a compost pile, preferably 4’x4’. This will help to create the heat needed to break down your organic matter. Kitchen scraps and yard waste are valuable fertilizer that will strengthen the garden floor. 
  3. Since the forest floor is mulched, you should mulch. It conserves soil moisture and improves soils structure and fertility. 
  4. Say no to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Forest gardens are organic. Only use chemicals in case of an emergency.
  5. Favor perennials over annuals. They require less work, and the make permaculture truly permanent.
  6. Don't forget your gardening basics by doing a soil test before you plant. Know what type of soil your fruit trees and bushes like. You may even consider planning and preparing your soil the season before you decide to plant.
Word of Caution
Permaculture is an interesting and diverse field that offers hope to those who desire to live off of their land. Since this field of study suggests how people can refine the way we live sustainably off of the land, gardeners should be aware that there is a political agenda behind the push toward this type of agriculture called communitarianism. Many of the books written on permaculture are also written with a spiritual slant. The communitarian’s desire is to live sustainably, which involves the power of a community’s capacity to correct its mistakes and change the future. It isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. It is what this future holds that we should be careful about. I urge you to be careful of the information that is incorporated in the package.

Some who research permaculture for the first time may think that in order to be a permaculturist, you must subscribe to that political and New Age/occult belief system. It caused some to walk away from it, even though its a legitimate way to garden. The methods and science are proven. Our focus is to garden - not the unrelated garble that is below the surface.

The forest gardener can enhance the well-being of a garden site and its surroundings to create an abundant site that is economically viable and ecologically sound. The key to doing so is to have a good understanding of the design process and be able to apply the principles of design. 

If you would like to start a forest garden, read Gaia's Garden : A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. Also, there are workshops being formed to teach the concepts that surround forest gardening. This is a growing field and it’s likely that we are all going to learn more about the natural cycles for growing healthier soil and vegetables. 

Added August 2014

Back to Eden films and website offer a sustainable way to garden that works hand-in-hand with permaculture, however uses biblical principles. To learn more about this method of organic gardening, watch their movie and read about how to start using their method of gardening.