The world is currently experiencing rampant population growth, land deterioration, and food shortages around the planet. All of these issues can be solved by incorporating forest gardens into society. Forest gardens will allow you to grow all of your own food, save money, gain food independence, improve the land, and feed the world.
What is A Forest Garden?
Wikipedia tells us that:
Forest gardening is a low-maintenance sustainable plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to build a woodland habitat.
Forest gardening is a prehistoric method of securing food in tropical areas. In the 1980s, Robert Hart coined the term “forest gardening” after adapting the principles and applying them to temperate climates.
Robert Hart used companion planting and intercropping to develop a seven layer system to maximize the benefits of the plants and minimize work for the care taker. The seven layers work together to create a closed ecosystem that takes care of itself, with no need for weeding, fertilizing or tilling the land. The care takers are left to harvest and enjoy their crops!
Related Article: WWOOF and HelpX: Seeing the World One Farm at a Time
To hear Robert Hart himself talk about why he made his forest garden and some of his main inspirations watch his portion in the documentary “Permaculture Trio” (he’s the first portion). Since the development of the seven layer system there have been advances in the technique to include two more layers, but to skip to the meat (fruit?) of the issue here are the original seven layers:
‘Canopy layer’ consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
‘Ground cover layer’ of edible plants that spread horizontally.
‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers.
The two new layers which can be incorporated to a forest gardening system (from Temperate Climate Permaculture) are
‘Aquatic wetland layer’
‘Mycelial fungal layer’
For a full description of all the layers and to learn a whole lot more about permaculture make sure to read Temperate Climate Permaculture’s article on the Nine Layers of the Edible Forest Garden. If the walk with Robert Hart through his forest garden didn’t satisfy your desire to see one of these for yourself, there’s always more on Youtube. I also highly suggest this one with Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust of England.
Why Forest Garden?
A forest garden creates a closed ecosystem. This is a system where there are no waste products. Everything which is created is used in another part of the system. There is no need to bring in anything to help the system because it produces everything it needs, and there is no need to remove any “waste” because everything produced is used. This promotes healthy environments since nothing is added to the system to unbalance it.
Related Article: Edible Landscapes
Forest gardening is a perfect example of a closed ecosystem. According to a paper written by Professor Miguel A. Altieri from the University of California, Berkeley, a closed ecosystem is in direct opposition to the way that mainstream agriculture has been developing over the past four decades. In his paper he discusses modern agriculture’s open ecosystem of monoculture and the effects that such an open system creates for the world it is used in. Altieri points out the many immediate disadvantages of single crop agriculture. Disadvantages include sacrificed pest resistance for increased productivity, and previous resources (such as cow manure) turning into liabilities as the single crop farms grow so large it becomes economically unrealistic to transport the manure.
He moves on to talk about the environmental effects produced by single crop farms because of their disadvantages. For instance, because the crops being grown are less pest resistant, farmers must use more chemicals and fertilizers. Fertilizers have been linked to destruction of all animal life in water systems. Modern farms strive not to have the most efficient system for producing the most food sustainably, but instead to make the most money off of one large single crop.
Through Professor Altieri’s paper it becomes evident why monoculture is so detrimental to the planet. It is easy to see the need for a closed system that is self sufficient. In permaculture, if a crop is susceptible to a pest, a species is planted near it that is host to that pest’s predator. If a plant needs more nitrogen in the soil to remain healthy a nitrogen fixing plant is placed near it so that one’s waste is another food. If a certain weed is known to grow near a plant, then an alternate, helpful and desirable plant (that requires the same nutrients as the weed) is placed near the first plant to deprive the weed of the nutrients and space.
The Benefit to Gardeners
The environment isn’t the only thing to benefit from the forest garden. The gardener also has benefits. In the forest garden model “chop and drop” plants are used to maximize ground nutrients. These plants have deep tap roots that reach where other roots do not and retrieve valuable nutrients from deep within the soil. The nutrients are brought to the plant’s leaves, and after the plants have grown too large for their environment they are cut and left on the ground as fertilizer and mulch. This mulch smothers the ground preventing any weeds from arising. In permaculture and forest gardens, turning the soil is looked down upon because this destroys the ecosystem already present and the life that has currently taken up residence there. The forest garden system reduces time spent in the garden because there is no need to fertilize, no need to weed and no need to dig up the soil.
Related Article: Permaculture Connection
While the time saving, and food attaining benefits alone might convince one that this is the way to go, there’s still more. In addition to having your own homegrown organic food there is also the added benefit of a clearer mind. In a piece titled Easing Brain Fatigue With a Walk in the Park from the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds states,
studies have found that people who live near trees and parks have lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their saliva than those who live primarily amid concrete, and that children with attention deficits tend to concentrate and perform better on cognitive tests after walking through parks or arboretums. More directly, scientists have brought volunteers into a lab, attached electrodes to their heads and shown them photographs of natural or urban scenes, and found that the brain wave readouts show that the volunteers are more calm and meditative when they view the natural scenes.
is likely to have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery.
So what could possibly be better than having a park-like space in your backyard that helps the environment, provides you with food, and aids in stress recovery? I sure can’t think of anything better, short of wild unicorns popping up inside my forest garden.
Tips on Starting your Own
For anyone interested in incorporating this into their life I highly suggest taking a look at Edible Forest Garden‘s website. Continue reading for more advice, dependent upon your living environment.
If you live in the suburbs like I do, it may not really be possible to have your own forest garden. There are many different types of living accommodations and not all of them have space for a forest garden. So here I’ll list some resources on how to be more oriented toward a forest gardening lifestyle for whatever your living situation is.
- If you live in a small apartment, you can still have edible house plants.
- If you are a busy person with little time for house plants, there is the Mother-in-law’s Tongue, perfect for the first time plant owner, and it requires little attention while cleaning your air.
- You can also have a worm farm to turn old food scraps into soil for new house plants. These will help you get closer to a closed system in your own life.
Related Article: The Natural, Three-Plant Air Purifying System
If you have a small yard, but it’s not big enough for a full forest garden, you can still apply several of the techniques used in forest gardening. In the documentary Permaculture Trio, the third section focuses on urban permaculture and different techniques a British couple used to turn their backyard into a food producing garden. One of the best tips is to use companion planting to make fewer plants more productive. For further information head over to Urban Permaculture Guild‘s site to see what else is out there.
If you happen to have enough space for a full blown forest garden and are interested in starting one, I would recommend starting with watching Permaculture Trio, and then moving on to the Edible Forest Garden site. There are many websites dedicated to discussion and learning so go forth and enjoy!
Crawford, Martin (2010). Creating a Forest Garden. Green Books. p. 18.