Recently I’ve noticed a bumper crop of talks promoting something I’d never heard of before – forest gardening and the “food forests” or “edible forest gardens” that result from it. Turns out my initial assumption – that a forest garden is a shady woodland garden of ornamental plants – is totally wrong; this is all about producing food.
And this is big-picture stuff. Edible Forest Gardens tells us:
We can consciously apply the principles of ecology to the design of home scale gardens that mimic forest ecosystem structure and function, but grow food, fuel, fiber, fodder, fertilizer, “farmaceuticals,” and fun.
And they explain that this isn’t about gardening IN forests at all:
Edible forest gardening is not necessarily gardening in the forest, it is gardening like the forest.Anyone with a patch of land can grow a forest garden. They’ve been created in small urban yards and large parks, on suburban lots, and in small plots of rural farms.
I attended a talk by Lincoln Smith, a teacher of forest gardening, (photo above) and learned a bit more – that unlike most edible plants, the ones in forest gardens last at least two seasons and usually many more. Plants are in layers – at varying heights, like fruit trees underplanted with herbs. But importantly, the plant mix is diverse, nothing like the monocultures of conventional agriculture. And if you mix the plants correctly, as a group they feed themselves and share space efficiently – both underground and aboveground. That’s a lot to ask but it’s how it happens in nature, so it can be done.
Plants that need lots of nitrogen, like apples, can get what they need from “Nitrogen-fixing” plants growing near them. Prime Nitrogen-fixers (plants that turn nitrogen in the air into nitrogen in the soil that plants can use) are clover, sweet fern, groundnut, false indigo, New Jersey tea, American wisteria, and vetch…. Larger plants that produce their own Nitrogen include black locust, alder and bayberry.
Lincoln showed data from a California researcher showing that as much flour can be made from acorns as from the same space devoted to wheat. Here’s the link (it’s a Word document) or you can Google: “Bainbridge Use of Acorns for Food in California.” Wow. Makes you totally rethink our assumptions about food production and understand a bit how people sustained themselves centuries ago in forested regions like ours. Sure enough, check out this website about cooking with acorns, and this nursery in Michigan is growing oaks for food production.
But Here’s my Question: Really?
I don’t know why, but this all brings out the doubter in me. I’ve asked around and found other doubters among experienced gardeners, which makes me feel a bit better. Maybe I just need to see some results.
So readers, what’s YOUR reaction to this radical notion? Has anyone tried this? Please help! I want to support forest gardening but like the permaculture movement that spawned it, my honest reaction to it is: Huh?