Tuesday, June 22, 2010

[Article] Forest Gardening; With or without the forest!

Note: The links within this entry lead to other entries of mine within this site, or on another site belonging to me. My sources are linked at the end, after the entry.

"The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." - Masanobu Fukuoka

What is Forest Gardening?

Forest gardening is a food production and land management system based on replicating woodland ecosystems. By substituting standard trees with fruit and/or nut trees as well as other trees with edible leaves or needles; bushes, shrubs, herbs and vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Forest gardening makes heavy use of companion planting. Unlike 'mono-crop farms' things are grown packed tightly together for the maximum efficiency of space and to replicate a natural ecosystem.


Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you're in your garden or on your balcony or porch. If you don't have any yard, balcony or porch, imagine you're in a greenhouse within your own home or at a friends' house who has one of these things. Imagine for a moment how it is now. What does it offer currently?

Now imagine that there is a pair of peach trees that are cross pollinating each other, covered in lovely pink flowers which let you know they'll be bearing fruit soon. Imagine growing under these peach trees is a mass of raspberry bushes, and around that alternating plots of herbs and edible flowers. Parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme, alternated between lilies, marigolds and dandelions.

Turn and look to your right and you see more fruit trees; apples, pears, persimmons, pecans, and chestnuts. Shrubs bearing blueberries and currants. Turn again to your right and see shrubs bearing hazelnuts surrounded by an array of wild flowers. Garlic chives fill in several tiny spaces between shrubs.

Ladybugs fill your garden and eat up harmful bugs such as aphids. Particular flowers you have selected scare off other harmful bugs with their scent. Worms turn your soil. Perennial plants come back year after year to bear fruit, and their dying leaves fertilize the soil. Roots find minerals from years of decomposed bugs and plants and build new leaves and fruits. All of it serving you without your constant attention.

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.

At your feet are tall heirloom tomato plants bearing tomatoes in bright yellow, dark red, and green. Yellow flowers show all the places where new tomatoes will be growing soon. Orange, yellow and red flowers; marigolds; surround the tomatoes to scare off bugs that would otherwise eat the tomatoes. The flowers and the fruit is edible. And the tomato leaves may be added to tomato sauce. (The tomato leaf raw is quite unpleasant. It is not poisonous however in any reasonable quantity as is commonly believed.)

Have you closed your eyes and imagined this yet? If not, do so now. Take a deep breath and smell the fresh flowers and fruits growing all around you. This is an edible forest garden.

Companion Gardening

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. 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 grow trees?

Wasteful Actions

When we mow and rake the grass, we're depleting the soil of the chance to re-fertilize itself with dead martial. When we 'weed' the ground we're often tearing out valuable edible plants that serve as medicine and food. When we plow the earth we often kill and destroy the natural and wonderful processes already going on to enrich and empower the earth. When we spray the plants with chemicals we throw off the balance of the ecosystem and make the structure of our farm or garden completely dependent on us and our money.

This behavior is wasteful.


You can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, other useful plants, and animals in a way that mimics natural ecosystems, and thereby is self-sustaining and good for the environment. You can create a beautiful, diverse, high-yield garden.

  • Yields will naturally be high if the surrounding plants are truly 'companion plants.'
  • Yields will be diverse; medicine, food, fuel, fertilizer, and fiber.
  • After a few years of design and upkeep the garden will mostly maintain itself.
  • Less upkeep, money and effort than a convention garden.
  • A healthy ecosystem which will benefit you and the planet.
These benefits are mutually reinforcing. Diverse crops make it easier to design a healthy, self-maintaining ecosystem, and a healthy garden ecosystem will have reduced maintenance requirements.

How large of a space is required?

A garden pot with soil in it? It's ideal that you have a plot of land. It can be done in an urban yard quite comfortably. However, I firmly believe that it can be done with potted plants on a porch or balcony, and even to some degree indoors. The key there is to use large pots and have a diverse array of plants that benefit each other within the pots.

It can be done virtually anywhere; Forest gardeners are doing their thing at 7,000 feet (2,100 m) of elevation in the Rocky Mountains, on the coastal plain of the mid-Atlantic, and in chilly New Hampshire and Vermont.

Forest gardening has a long history in the tropics, where there is evidence of the practice extending over 1,500 years. While you can grow a forest garden in almost any climate, it is easiest if you do it in a regions where the native vegetation is forest, especially deciduous forest.

Existing Woodlands

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. While you can forest garden if you have a shady site, it is best if your garden site has good sun if you want the highest yields of fruits, nuts, berries, and most other plants.

If you're attempting this indoors, you will need at least one plant light, if not several. Or, a very large window facing the east with nothing obstructing the sun. A good window with sunlight and a plant light is likely to be ideal.


Understanding ecology is essential to build a forest garden. Four aspects of forest ecology are key: architectural design, a balanced food web, renewable soil fertility, and how the ecosystem changes through time; also known as 'succession'.

Design & 'Architecture'

Vegetation layers are only one of the architectural features important in forest garden design. Soil horizon structure, vegetation patterning, vegetation density, and community diversity are also critical. All five of these elements of community design influence yields, plant health, pest and disease dynamics, maintenance requirements, and overall community character.

For example, scientific research indicates that structural diversity in forest vegetation, what we call "lumpy texture," appears to increase bird and insect population diversity and to balance insect pest populations—independent of plant species diversity. Learning how and why plants pattern themselves in nature and about the effects of the diverse kinds of diversity on ecosystem function can add great richness to the tool box of the forest gardener.

The Food Web

Understanding the food chain is important to having a successful forest garden. When we design a forest garden, we select plants and animals that will create a food web and guild structure, whether we know it or not. It behooves us to design these structures consciously so we can maximize our chances of creating a healthy, self-maintaining, high-yield garden.
  • The Sun: Provides energy for everything on the planet.
  • Producers: Green plants. These are also known as autotrophs, since they make their own food. Producers are able to harness the energy of the sun to make food. Ultimately, every (aerobic) organism is dependent on plants for oxygen (which is the waste product from photosynthesis) and food (which is produced in the form of glucose through photosynthesis). They make up the bulk of the food chain or web. These producers are what we are dependent upon. Embracing this concept is a key to feeling fulfilled as a raw foodist.
  • Consumers: In short, consumers are every organism that eats something else. They include herbivores (animals that eat plants), carnivores (animals that eat other animals), parasites (animals that live off of other organisms by harming it), and scavengers (animals that eat dead animal carcasses). Primary consumers are the herbivores, and are the second largest biomass in an ecosystem. The animals that eat the herbivores (carnivores) make up the third largest biomass, and are also known as secondary consumers. This continues with tertiary consumers, etc.
  • Decomposers: These are mainly bacteria and fungi that convert dead matter into gases such as carbon and nitrogen to be released back into the air, soil, or water. Fungi, and other organisms that break down dead organic matter are known as saprophytes. Even though some of us hate those mushrooms or molds, they actually play a very important role. Without decomposers, the earth would be covered in trash. Decomposers are necessary since they recycle the nutrients to be used again by producers.
The unique inherent needs, yields, physical characteristics, behaviors, and adaptive strategies of an organism govern its interactions with its neighbors and its nonliving environment. They also determine the roles each organism plays within its community.

The vast majority of solar energy captured by natural forest food webs ends up going to rot. We can capture some of this energy for our own use by growing edible and medicinal mushrooms, most of which prefer shady conditions.

We can design resource-partitioning guilds by including plants with different light tolerances in different vegetation layers, for instance, or mixing taprooted trees such as pecans and other hickories with shallow-rooted species such as apples or pears. We can build mutual-support guilds by ensuring that pollinators and insect predators have nectar sources throughout the growing season. Insights into the "guild structure" of ecosystems provides clear direction for design as well as research into many aspects of agroecology.

What's Agroecology?

The term agroecology can be used in multiple ways, as a science, as a movement and as a practice. Broadly stated, it is the study of the role of agriculture in the world. Agroecology provides an interdisciplinary framework with which to study the activity of agriculture. In this framework, agriculture does not exist as an isolated entity, but as part of an ecology of contexts. Agroecology draws upon basic ecological principles for its conceptual framework.

Soil Fertility

Asking the right questions...

When most people think of fertile soil, they likely think of bags of compost sold at gardening specialty stores. When they ask questions about soil, they ask, "What's the difference between top soil and 'organic compost mix' anyway?" The questions you'll be asking as a forest gardener are; "What is the anatomy of self-renewing soil fertility?" and "How do plant roots interact with each other and their environment?"

I happen to think of the video game Pharaoh when I think of fertile soil (no kidding), because a large aspect of the game has to do with building farms on the flood plains and paying attention to the predictions of the flood and pleasing Osiris so that you may be blessed with perfect floods to bring new rich silt to the farm land. Unfortunately, most of us don't have a convenient nearby Nile that floods every year to bring new silt.

Bringing us back to important questions like, "What roles do microbes and other soil organisms play in our forest gardens, and how should we interact with them?"

Self-Renewing Plant Guilds...

Plants are critical components of the structure that creates self-renewing fertility in natural ecosystems. They plug the primary nutrient leaks and energize your 'plant guilds.'

The basics of maintaining fertile soil are perennial plants, and accumulator plants. Most everything you find in a grocery store is an annual plant that has to be replanted after the winter, or a bi-annual that will need to be replanted after two years. These plants deplete the soil, which goes a long way towards explaining why farm lands become more and more infertile.

Perennial Plants...

Perennial plants give to the soil instead. Also, you don't have to buy new seeds. They save time, money, and effort, and give to your soil all at once. When you learn about perennials and annuals for the first time in detail... it's one of those 'no duh' moments where you have to sit back on your heels at wonder at the world's insanity.

Accumulator Plants...

Dynamic accumulator plants such as comfrey (symphytum officinale) selectively accumulate mineral nutrients to high levels in their leaf tissues. When they shed these leaves in fall, they're fertilizing the top soil.

As we enter the post-oil age, our understanding of the anatomy of self-renewing fertility will become more and more critical to our success in temperate climates.

"In what patterns do plant roots grow, why, and when?"

While the majority of tree roots grow in the top two to three feet of soil, it turns out that fruit trees that can get even a small percentage of their roots deep into the soil profile produce more fruit more consistently, resist pests and diseases more effectively, and live longer than those that have only shallow root systems. Good pre-planting site preparation is therefore a highly worthwhile endeavor. Root system understanding provides a solid foundation for plant species selection and polyculture design.

Soil Organisms...

Soil organisms perform numerous critical functions in forest and garden ecosystems, and we can easily disrupt these allies with unthinking actions. Basic forest gardening principles, however, will provide exactly what our tiny friends need. For example, using mulch and leaving the soil undisturbed goes a long way.

On the other hand, good soil preparation can make all the difference. Compacted or poorly drained soils can severely hamper the development of healthy soil food webs, and hence healthy forest gardens. Understanding the soil food web also provides insight into how to manage for healthy mycorrhizal fungi populations and how to ensure that nitrogen-fixing plants actually do their soil-building work.


Ecosystems are ever-changing. Plant succession used to be thought of as the directional change of a community over time from "immature" stages toward a "mature" stage, such as a field changing to shrub-land and then to a forest.

However, new models of succession have arisen in recent years that articulate the complex reality of plant community change over time without so blatantly projecting human cultural constructs upon natural phenomena.

Plant succession is nonlinear and occurs patch by patch within the ecosystem, and rarely do ecosystems ever attain a "climax" or "equilibrium" state. Disturbances of various kinds are a natural part of every successional process — windstorms, fires, insect attacks, and human intervention.

The most productive stage in the succession of an ecology is somewhere in the middle; the shurb-land stage. In nature, this stage can often be found on the edges of a forest between a meadow and a forest.

Most of our developed 'tree crops' are species adapted to this shrub-land or wood-land stage. Therefore, our highest yielding forest gardens will contain a lush mixture of trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs, not the towering canopy of an actual heavily wooded forest.

Forest Gardening with Robert Hart

World View

It used to be that everyone was a "farmer" or "gardener." Everyone needed food, and only the rich who provided a profitable service aside from food exclusively bought food instead of growing it themselves.

Now that grocery stores are a standard, and not a luxury in modern world, people as a whole have lost their connection with nature. Children believe that food comes from stores, and people overall believe that the plants that spring up in their yard are unwanted weeds. Few even stop to consider if these 'weeds' serve a purpose.

How we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation of a natural perspective. When you get back in tune with nature, you begin to feel that the rhythm of life is much slower and more peaceful than you've been led to believe. You begin to laugh more, sing more, and relax more. Growing, eating and being with live plants brings harmony to yourself and to the world.

Forest gardening gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the planet works and changing our self-perceptions. It helps us take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature's work, rather than as separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world.


Wikipedia, Thinkquest, Edible Forest Gardens, Future Friendly,

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