Introduction: An Invitation to Adventure
Come among the unsown grasses bearing richly, the oaks heavy with acorns, the sweet roots in unplowed earth . . .
—Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home1
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 F’s 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 (see Figure 0.1).
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 successional 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 or 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 is the native vegetation, especially deciduous forest. This means a climate with ample rainfall during the growing season, and relatively mild winters. This book focus on the lands now and formerly covered by the eastern deciduous forest between USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 and 7, with some overlap into zones 3 and 8 (see figure 0.2). However, the information presented applies to all of Earth’s moist temperate habitats, and beyond. Eric researched plants from similar climates the world over for inclusion in the Top 100 Species (see appendix 1) and the Plant Species Matrix (in Volume II’s appendices). The principles of ecology still apply in other locales. Those of you in drier climates, such as the prairies and the Desert Southwest, 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. Those of you in the north, say, plant hardiness zone 3 and colder, have more limited species options, but you can still play the game.
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 a little 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 rainforest, 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 comprise 15 to 50 percent of village croplands.2 Obviously, forest gardens work in tropical climates, and have for a long time. Similar systems existed in cooler climates hundreds of years ago. We’ll discuss the forest-management practices of North American Indians in chapter 1, but Western culture also has an agroforestry heritage.
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 (figure 0.3). In medieval Europe, coppice plots produced logs, poles, saplings, and brush for use in craft, industry, and building construction. Cut on nine- 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 500 to 800 years old, two to three times a tree’s normal life span.3 Talk about sustainability! 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,4 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 home-scale with his inspirational 1991 book Forest Gardening.5 Hart’s insights arose from his tropical agroforestry work,6 his Gandhian beliefs, and his experiments on a tiny smallholding in Shropshire, England, where he started his garden in 1981 (see figures 0.4 and 0.5). That makes it the oldest known temperate climate forest garden in the world (see our case study on page XXX). 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,7 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.
Forest gardens have spread more slowly in North America. Fewer people have heard of the idea, so examples are farther between—but they do exist. Forest gardeners have achieved at least moderate success in maritime Washington State, at 7,000 feet (2,100 m) in the cold, dry Colorado Rockies (figure 0.4), in the hot, humid city of Greensboro, North Carolina, and in chilly southern New Hampshire.
An Invitation to Adventure
We have yet to work out many practical considerations for this “new idea” of forest gardening, especially in North America. British forest-garden plants and experiences may not translate well to this continent. Many of our native plants have good forest gardening potential, but we have tested few of them. Strong evidence supports the forest garden idea, yet this information lies scattered across many different references on farming, gardening, agroforestry, and ecology. We have seen good on-the-ground examples on two continents. We have also created enough of these gardens and grown enough of the species to know they can work. Still, we believe it can work better than anyone has yet achieved. Successful forest gardens stand within reach of many people throughout the temperate world—as long as they can find clear thinking, accurate knowledge, and solid information on the ecology of useful plants. But there is still much to learn, and this is where you come in.
You hold in your hands the first manual spelling out key concepts of forest ecology and how to apply them to a North American forest garden. Our intent is to provide you with a comprehensive guide to forest garden theory and practice; give a significant push to the state of the art; and get as many people as possible involved in experimenting with this idea. The purpose of Edible Forest Gardens is to offer you the inspiration, information, and tools you need to successfully grow your own forest garden.
The book comes in two volumes, covering the vision, ecological theory, design, and practice of forest gardening. Volume I has two parts, and part 1, “Vision,” includes two chapters. Chapter 1 looks at the ecological and cultural context for forest gardening, focusing on eastern North America. Chapter 2 lays out a vision of forest gardening’s potential for reintegrating ourselves into the natural world, and goals for edible forest garden design arising from that vision. Four chapters in part 2, “Ecology,” explore the ecology of the forest and the forest garden. They build solid theoretical foundations from which to derive guidelines for forest garden design and management. When we create edible forest gardens, we consciously create both visible and invisible structures to fulfill the goals discussed in the vision. Throughout these first two parts of the book, you will find Boxes and Feature Articles that go into greater depth on particular topics of interest. In addition, three case studies scattered through the text provide concrete examples of forest gardens we visited in our research travels.
Volume I concludes with three appendices. The first describes forest gardening’s “Top 100 Species” to whet your appetite for the nitty gritty and give you a sense of forest gardening’s food-production potential. Plant hardiness zone maps for North America and Europe follow this, as well as a list of publications and organizations that can help you learn more about forest ecology and forest gardening. The glossary, bibliography, and indices should also assist you in using Edible Forest Gardens effectively. Glossary terms are shown in bold the first time they appear in the text.
Volume II is essentially a “forest gardener’s tool kit,” and constitutes part 3 of this work. It contains seven chapters explaining how to design, plant, and manage your forest garden. These chapters place all the implications of the ecological analysis in Part Two into a gardening and garden-design context. The second volume also includes five appendices that offer detailed information and resources to help you map your site, select and find plants, and create beneficial animal habitat. This first volume sometimes refers to various parts of Volume II because we want you to understand how the theory explored here guides the practical aspects of forest gardening discussed there. To ensure clarity, we will use a Roman numeral prefix (“II”) to designate a chapter or appendix located in Volume II when making such references (such as “Chapter II-3,” or “Appendix II-1”).
Please note that though this work comes in two volumes, we have tried to make each volume able to stand alone. However, for optimal understanding and application of the ideas and practices presented, we strongly recommend that you read both volumes. Like the elements that compose an ecosystem, these two volumes are separate but interrelated, and function most effectively when used in tandem.
So we invite you to join in a lifetime of quiet adventure. Ecological systems at their essence operate on simple principles yet have endlessly fascinating intricacies. Many tasty and useful plants stand ready for use in forest gardens. Many more exist with great potential for selection and development. We know much about the basics of edible forest-garden design and management, but there is still much more to learn. It seems we have many lifetimes worth of creative interest and fulfilling enjoyment ahead.
We seek to learn—from our own fields, thickets, forests, and wetlands—the ways in which living things have adapted to our climate and land. We want to mimic these habitats with productive garden ecosystems. The goal is to create mutually beneficial communities of multipurpose plants for our own sustenance, and thereby to include ourselves in the natural world. We seek to recreate the Garden of Eden, and, as Bill Mollison says, “Why not?”
1. Le Guin, 1985, page 80.
2. Reijntjes, et al, 1992, page 38.
3. Rackham, 1993.
4. Permaculture One (Mollison and Holmgren, 1978) and Permaculture Two (Mollison, 1979), the first books on permaculture, are no longer in print, but have been succeeded by Introduction to Permaculture (Mollison and Sley, 1991) and Permaculture: A Designers Manual (Mollison, 1988, now with several newer editions), both from Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, NSW, Australia.
5. Hart, 1991.
6. Douglas and Hart, 1984.
7. Whitefield, 1996.