Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Forest Gardening and the Five F's

Learning all about forest gardening with Martin Crawford

In the last post I mentioned that I had been busy putting up a lot of wire mesh fencing to keep rabbits out of a portion of Fox Wood. The reason for doing so was because I have set aside about half an acre to create a forest garden. My enthusiasm for undertaking such a project was being driven by the fact that I had just returned from a three-day course on forest gardening, run by the renowned Martin Crawford (author of Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to grow Edible Crops) at the Darlington Estate, an hour and a half's drive from here near Totnes, Devon. The course was really worth the money and I got to meet lots of people from all over the world who were keen on growing their own forest gardens (FGs), as well as getting the chance to test Martin Crawford's patience with a relentless flow of questions, not all of them stupid.

And so, I returned (after two nights spent sleeping in an AirBnB shed in someone's garden) full of plans for creating a forest garden at Fox Wood. I had planned to splurge out the details of it on this blog in one go but when I actually sat down to write about it I saw that instead of just diving into the mossy green waters of forest gardening it was going to have to be split into three parts. The first part - this one - will be a survey of what a forest garden is, why we would want to grow such a thing and what benefits it offers. The second part will set out the design process and the various factors, system boundaries and unknowns I had to consider when planning the Fox Wood Forest Garden. In the third part I'll take you on a tour of what I have planted so far and show you lots of nice pictures.

So, backing up a bit, what is a forest garden? Well, before we go any further, and just to get some terminology out of the way, in America forest gardens are sometimes called food forests. This should give you a pretty good idea of what they are. They are forests where you grow food. But food forests or forest gardens still sounds a bit too namby pamby for some (especially those already involved in agriculture or those who are seeking grants) and so a further term 'agroforestry project' has been introduced. Agroforestry sounds a bit more like something you could make money from and so this is the term that most officials are happy with if one ever has to explain what one is doing to someone with a clipboard.

For the purposes of this blog, however, I'll be calling them forest gardens. Everyone likes forests, don't they, and everyone likes gardens, so put the two together and you've got something that makes people go a little bit gooey at the mere mention of it.

Anyway, forest gardens go back a long way. Before the dawn of agriculture we humans had been gathering and hunting in forests and relying on this type of ecosystem for our sustenance. Everything we needed was right there in the forests, ranging from food (obviously), to materials, tools and even spiritual sustenance. Many forest-dwelling indigenous tribes still in existence do exactly the same thing and for them the forest is the mother that sustains them; without it they would die. Clearly though, for those of us who have signed up for the great roller coaster ride we call 'civilisation', living in a forest and thinking of it as our mother is not something we would readily subscribe to. Most of the land on which we live has been given over to agriculture and infrastructure. Some of the unproductive bits have been left as nature reserves, but not many people live in them.

And yet, if we (in the temperate zones) were to abandon a field or a village or even a car park, it would turn into a forest relatively quickly. Becoming a forest is what the land wants to do, because that is its natural state. But if we look around we will see that most of the land isn't in this state because we keep it developed in a way we consider beneficial to us. To use an example close to home, Fox Wood is surrounded by fields that belong to agricultural companies. In these fields are grown annual crops - cabbages, cauliflowers, daffodils, potatoes - and all other plants are excluded to allow these crops to grow. It is common to see large pieces of agricultural machinery lumbering across these fields, harvesting and sowing, spraying herbicides and pesticides, or ploughing the soil. All in all it takes a massive amount of effort and energy to keep the land in this state of arrested development and suitable for the growing of annual crops.

Forest gardening turns this entire concept on its head because it is a method of working with the land rather than against it. In a way there exists a kind of symbiosis between the land and the forest gardener. The deal is that the land is allowed to turn itself into a forest, but only on the condition that we are allowed to design some aspects of it. We get to decide which trees, bushes, vines and perennials grow there - to a large extent - making it an unnatural system, but not as unnatural as a field of wheat or a plantation of soya. It's a method of cooperation that works very well and we can expect a forest garden to produce for us the 'Five F's' in the form of a range of food (fruits and nuts, leaves and berries, mushrooms and meat and perennial vegetables), as well as fibres, fuel, fulfilment and farmacy. Yes, I know pharmacy doesn't begin with an 'f' but it's a bit of artistic license. It will do all of this with minimum inputs of time and energy, if the design is done well enough. Proof of this is in the picture below:

Robert Adrian de Jauralde Hart (1 April 1913 – 7 March 2000) was the pioneer of forest gardening in temperate zones.
Robert Hart was considered the original pioneer of forest gardening in the UK. Having studied forest gardening techniques in the Far East (where the concept never really went away) he developed his own FG in Shropshire and managed it using simple tools amounting to no more than a saw, some pruning shears, a spade and some secateurs. No heavy machinery, chemicals or petroleum were needed to adequately grown enough food and fuel for himself and his brother from his small plot of land.

Robert Hart may have been the first to plant a FG in the UK, but nowadays there are some 2,000 in existence across the country, ranging from tiny plots of land in back yards, to field-sized woodland packed with productive species. It's amazing how the concept of forest gardening has risen up in this time.

Aside from the basic principle of allowing the land to return to a semi-wild and bounteous state (and then piggy-backing on its productivity) another key concept to take on board is that of recognising and using the different layers contained therein. Within a FG there are several layers which, taken from the top going down, comprise the canopy formed by large trees, vines,  smaller trees (including fruit trees), bushes, perennial vegetables, herbs and (below ground) the fungal layer. Each layer, apart from the fungal, is able to effectively harvest light due to way the garden is designed, with larger trees in the middle or to the north (in the northern hemisphere), and smaller plants staged beneath to maximise exposure. It's a very effective 3D way of using sunlight to the max and a mature FG should require very little maintenance. Contrast this once again with the annual crop system - which only has one layer - and the latter starts to look less and less efficient, which begs the question ...

If forest gardens are a more efficient way of producing food then why do scientists, governments and corporations pour so much money and resources into producing monocultures of staples?

That question can be answered with one word: complexity.

Forest gardens are semi-wild ecosystems, and like any ecosystem it is going to be tremendously complex. There are likely to be many variations in how plants grow in a FG depending on, amongst other things, altitude, wind exposure, geographical location, proximate plantings, mycorrhizal interaction (the local fungal network) ... and a host of other factors. Scientists don't like complexity. They like things that can be measured and held constant while one or two variables are adjusted. They don't like having thousands or even millions of variables because it hinders their ability to test hypotheses and that is not in the nature of reductive science. It is far easier (while abundant fossil energy supplies last) to eliminate as many variables as possible by reducing biodiversity and then measure the results of using different sprays and gene sequences or whatever. But it's also the least sustainable way of doing things and the way that damages the biosphere the most.

An illustration of the different productive layers in a forest garden (not showing the underground fungal layer)

Complexity aside, there's another reason why forest gardening attracts virtually no scientific interest compared to - say - genetically modified rice, and that's money. Imagine if the UK had not 2,000 forest gardens, but 20 million. Imagine if most people, instead of driving to Tesco in their cars, went into their own back yards and cooked up dishes such as organic nut-reared free-range squirrel wrapped in banana leaves and stewed in home grown red wine with shiitake mushrooms with herbs. Not only would people be a lot more healthy but biodiversity levels would rebound, carbon emissions would be slashed, unemployment would disappear and everyone's happiness levels would increase. This, of course, would be disastrous for the economy and GDP would crash through the floor. Where's the money in that? People will say such a food production scenario is unrealistic, but then so is modern farming, which is burning up natural capital faster than it can be replaced. Forest gardening cannot 'feed the world' overnight, but it can certainly feed a lot more people than petroleum based agriculture - and in the long term it may be our only option.

Anyway, I digress.

So, forest gardens (FGs) are a way of working with nature that provides ample food and other products for local people and communities. They are necessarily small scale in nature because of the relatively high level of manual labour involved, at least in the early years, and the limited amount of land available to families and communities. They can be seen as complex ecosystems that make use of the available resources and are endlessly regenerative. They build soil, thus sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, and reduce reliance on long supply chains in the process. Is there anything they are no good at? Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. FGs are not particularly good environments in which to grow crops that are high in carbohydrates. Light-loving crops such as potatoes will not do well in a FG unless a space is set aside for them where they can soak up the rays without interference from overhanging boughs or shade tolerant perennials. That's not to say that it is impossible to come by carbohydrates as there are some excellent alternatives - such as sweet chestnuts - but generally speaking annual carb crops don't grow very well in a forest environment. Which may be why we have evolved to not eat too many carbs in the first place.

There is another important factor to consider with forest gardens and that is they are resilient with a capital R. The weather and the future will no doubt be throwing plenty of spanners into the works of the world's food supply. Global weirding is already giving us extremes and we can all expect this to get worse as weather systems become more disrupted and unstable over time. In this light, relying on delicate monocultures for our food is likely to be disastrous. Pests, for example, just love the way their favourite foods are laid out mile after mile in neat rows. Hurricanes can flatten crops in minutes and floods will wash over-ploughed topsoil away just as easily. Forest gardens, by contrast, utilise maximum diversity for security. By growing a couple of hundred different types of food intensively in a compact setting, the forest gardener can afford to relax a little when contemplating heatwaves, floods, pest epidemics, big freezes and hurricanes. Of course, they're not immune to meteor strikes, nuclear war or invading aliens - but what is? But whatever the weather flings at the forest gardener's hyper-diverse little patch of paradise it will likely only affect a portion of her production, and even then only temporarily until the damage heals. By contrast, the farmer next door with his three fields of wheat may well spend the wee hours worrying about the future. If forest gardening were to have a slogan it might be: Resilience in Diversity.

A monoculture devastated by drought

Which gets me back to the reason for wanting to plant a FG at Fox Wood. By zoning off a portion of the coppice woodland and fencing it for protection against 'pests' (in my case rabbits) I'm aiming to create a system that will produce the Five F's long into the future (there's another important F). Mine will be a little unusual in that there's already a forest in place. Most FGs start with a patch of bare grass or a back garden, but I'm aiming to integrate coppice woodland management into the Fox Wood FG. This, so far, seems to be a good idea. By cutting the maidens (uncoppiced young trees) I have instantly created a space that has very few ground perennials or annuals growing on it, thus giving me a head start to place my own favoured species. The coppiced trees will be kept on a short cycle of cutting - say every three years - to prevent the regrowth from shading out the perennials. And here they are - a few of my pioneer species arriving in a cardboard box from a nursery in Wales.

In the next post I'll talk a bit about the design process and the factors I have had to consider when creating a forest garden at Fox Wood.