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REVIEW: Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford

Food Forestry For All – Permaculture Activist

By Peter Bane – August 2010

When Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier brought out Edible Forest Gardens in two volumes five years ago, I thought we had seen the last word on the subject for a decade if not a generation; at eight years in the writing and with over 1,000 pages, their work seemed encyclopedic. Dave, who was the senior writer and penned most of the text (while Eric compiled much of the tabular material on plants), is brilliant, and witty, and a spectacularly good teacher. The intellectual vistas EFG opened up were breathtaking.

Without vaulting over their accomplishment, Martin Crawford has managed quietly to walk up to the head of the line and stand abreast of his American colleagues with quite a different but utterly impressive book. If Dave and Eric had erected a magnificent pavilion on top of the hill with sweeping views of the ecological terrain of forest gardening, Martin has taken in those views appreciatively, and walked out the back door and down what will likely be the main garden path toward success and satisfaction for most people. If you follow in his steps, he’ll tell you every plant along the way, which ones are productive, which are fiddly, how to get them to grow, in what order to plant them, how much it will cost you, how much time it will take to establish, where to get the seed, what parts to eat, when to harvest, where you have choices, and how you will know that you’re over the hump.

Martin Crawford, working almost completely alone on a two-acre plot at Dartington Manor in southwest England and an eight-acre field site across the valley, has steadily, and with remarkable thoroughness for the past 20 years researched, planted, tended, harvested, and documented the temperate world’s foremost forest garden. Agroforestry News, which Martin has published quarterly since 1992 is just this summer completing its 18th volume (subscriptions available in North America from Permaculture Activist). He has carved out an indispensable and distinctive niche in the tiny field of permanent agriculture.

Creating a Forest Garden is long on detailed information (two-thirds of the book is plant profiles and commentary), thrifty in its use of text, pointedly practical in its recommendations. It is, for all of its four-pound heft and fill-your-lap spread, highly accessible.  You can open it up, find what you need, read the essentials, and have a pretty good summary understanding of almost any aspect of forest gardening in a very short time. You are left with the impression that forest gardening is as easy as Martin makes it look. Don’t be fooled, however. The gardening itself may be easy, but the work that went into making it successful, and making this book the valuable reference that it is, required long hours of research, reading, and testing ideas from the literature.

Martin, now in his 40s, came to horticulture from software engineering, and despite the seeming incongruity has been well-suited to the job he took on: he’s steady, patient, thorough, and oriented to results. He’s combed the literature on perennial plants from around the globe to identify and secure seed or stock of all those that might plausibly flourish in his zone 9 garden in a section of southern Britain swept by salty winds. Then he planted them and reported the results. The moderate climate there has been favorable to a huge number of species. And because many of them have only been available as seed, he’s learned to propagate them by running his own nursery.  The nursery and a seed catalog, along with workshops in recent years, plus the journal have provided his income. A small number of visionary patrons, plus the support of the Dartington Trust, which steward the thousand- year-old manor where he works, have made his job easier than it might have been, and we are in their debt as well as his.

The book is a pleasure to behold and to work with. It’s printed in large format with hard covers and color plates and color printing throughout The photos and the findings were all take a in Martin’s garden in Devon, which is the most astonishing aspect of the whole thing. You could say this is a digest of a 20-year research project into a holistic system of perennial food production, carried out by a working scientist and written for the lay gardener by a regular bloke himself. The order of subjects follows the order of establishment and understanding of the forest garden. There is a very short introduction to the theory of forest gardens as symbiotic ecosystems designed for maximum human benefit; and then a quite sober and practical examination of climate change and its likely trajectory (vineyards in England, drier summers). Then there’s a good discussion of the forest environment and soils, followed by a chapter on fertility. I loved the systematic and flexible listing of nitrogen sources: moderate croppers like juneberries, hawthorns, and elder need each year (per square meter of canopy) 0.2 square meter of companion nitrogen-fixing plant nearby (in full light), twice as much of that if the nitrogen-fixer is in half-light, four cut plants of comfrey applied as mulch, a kilo of fresh seaweed, three-tenths kilo of manure, four-tenths kilo of compost, or half a human bladder full of pee.  Any of those will do just fine. You see that kind of thinking throughout the book: fresh and friendly methods described with scientific care and precision-what we have long sought and what permaculture has needed to defend itself against unwarranted methodological attacks by reductionist science.

Creating a Forest Garden validates permaculture theory right and left; it has immense utility for and shows enormous influence from permaculture design training and practice, but Martin is very clear to state respectfully that what he does is not permaculture, but simply forest gardening. And it is true that he’s not attempting to integrate animals (other than wildlife and soil fauna) into his garden-no chickens or sheep foraging under the shrubs, no community currency although he certainly has access to the Totnes Pound), no passive solar homes, nor bicycle- powered seed grinders. Just plants, thank you…oh, and of course birds, bees, butterflies, and worms. It’s quite enough to have done that. Measuring even more complex systems adequately may be a task for which science is not yet prepared.

Chapter 7 describes methods for establishing a forest garden, including how to achieve good results without letting weeds take over the ground while you take several years to get going. Plant the canopy species first (the taller trees that will form the backbone of the forest garden), then mulch out grasses and weeds, and get your groundcovers in place. Then fill in shrubs, then perennial and biennial herbs. Work out from a controlled front; don’t bite off more than you can chew.  You can work with 4000 square feet (50’x 80′) or five acres. The scale of your plantings will change; small gardens will have more intensive understory usage while larger gardens may devote expansive areas of ground to plants that are not harvested like mint and other herbs for ecosystem support.

Much of the body of the text consists of page after page of plant profiles organized by size and ecosystem niche. Each gives a color photo, a brief description, and information about growth habit, climate tolerance, sun and shade preferences, performance, fertility requirements, size, soil conditions, uses, harvest and storage, cooking and processing, propagation, and maintenance. Each of the several main layers of the forest garden from canopy to ground cover is introduced before the plants which would occupy it. How and when do you establish the shrubs, what will they need, etc. Around the edges of this main material we get chapters on design, soil preparation, windbreaks, fungi (a kind of layer in themselves), clearings. pathways, maintenance, harvest and preservation. how  to do further work, and propagation. complete  with tables. The appendices are rich and offer tables of edible yields by month, bee forage plants, and lists of suppliers, publications, and useful organizations.

 Martin Crawford has produced a spectacularly useful guide to new horticultural and ecological terrain of great importance: tested theory and personal experience, practically organized, and attractively packaged. With a little care, the book might last as long as it takes you to see all the layers of your forest garden feeding you, say a decade or three. There should be no more excuses. Get it, and get going.

Creating a Forest Garden is available in our bookstore.

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