Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Garden of Eden was not Raked

Creating sustainable low maintenance food producing Ecosystems with Forest Gardening

There is so much to say about Forest Gardening, about creating a sumptuous retreat outside the back porch, a meditative aesthetic sanctuary that would lure one’s attention as often as possible, a natural forest glen of birds, color, scents, roses, that required little attention.

But perhaps the best, or nowadays most immediate attraction would be that this dripping alchemical paradise can deal with our most basic of needs; feed us. And not only that, but provide us with our medicines, fibers, fuel, and building materials all within our own backyards. And not only for one season, ---but for years to come, for generations even. And not only this, but by participating in creating this type of garden the potential for aiding in the rebalancing and reconstituting of Nature on a planetary level and so positively effecting global health, is limitless.

For forest Gardening is about ecosystems. Creating and steering micro eco systems to better serve humans. Instead of the back breaking labor intense tradition conventional gardening has required from us, the year after year retilling, replanting, weeding, spraying, fertilizing, pruning, daily fawning over precious seedlings, and the great tug of war between wildlife and preserving bounty for human consumption, forest gardening lets go of all the work and lets nature do it for us—as our natural ecosystems effortlessly and gladly do all around us.

Not that there is no work left in this model, there is some, but it is cut down considerably when we relinquish our tasks back to their rightful owner. Walking in the forest, the meadows, along streams, we cannot but notice harmony, balance. But who waters? Who weeds? Who sprays? Who plants, defends, protects, feeds, nurtures?

Of course the complex unique systems nature has developed in every area and locale are endless, but if we take the time to observe some of what is working here that enables such auto pilot success—we can take this information and bring it into our own gardens recreating some of this success.

It is the patterns we are after. The intricate patterns of behavior, relationship wise that we look to understand and replicate in forest gardening. In copying these we can build micro ecosystems which have the possibility of developing into interconnected networks on the microcosmic level that can handle the garden jobs we have taken upon ourselves as part of unnecessary workload.

For example; we are used to planting rows and rows of one kind of vegetable surrounded by bare earth. Now any particular bug predisposed to that particular squash say, is having no trouble locating his next meal, and in inviting all his cousins and girlfriends over for the party which, will last until the buffet is vanquished.

Back out in the woods what happens? Earl Predatorbug scouts out no vast orgy in the waiting but only a berry or greens here and there if he looks hard enough---and he better look out because due to the complex nature of the place with so many differing plants and hence differing bugs—he has to work awfully hard to score that meal and not get eaten himself.

What’s the pattern here we can use?

Diversity. The more differing species we plant the tighter--more complex ecosystem we create, able to fend for herself, attracting differing bugs to protect herself, fending off any infestations. (There are a host of other benefits here, but for now we’ll stick to just these). This is one of the ways we can allow the bugs to do own jobs for us.

The second issue of the squash scenario is the lonely bare earth issue.

Wherever do we see plants growing in this way in nature-- alone, in rows, with nothing but scrapped earth covering their roots? Nowhere. Unless in some arid human ruined wasteland where a straggly weed has had the courage and fortitude to bear his head. (and is this a prime example we want to emulate in our gardens?)

In contrast we see in nature bundles of plants all over each other hugging and climbing, happy and intertwined with every species, on top of each other, next to, using every available space, and all dug into a natural sheaf of humusy organic leaf litter.

What does this accomplish?

How often do you have to water your garden in a week? I water my own forest garden during a temperate week once every 10 days, during a hot one, once a week------at an altitude of 3900 ft in High desert. How do I do this? Because I mulch. Heavily. By copying these patterns and using straw mulch this acts as a humus blanket insulating the soil and root systems from summer heat, from winter cold, and as fertilizer as it breaks down feeding the soil, just as her woodland cousins.

How the pattern of the manicured garden, eternally antiseptically raked and wrenched over, a water guzzling playground for weeds, disease and endless work got cemented into our culture as a thing to be desired, is unfathomable to me. Leaves and all that organic matter are what feed, nourish, protect, insulate, build, keep and maintain a vibrant healthy soil structure. Strip it away and disease, struggle, endless weeds, and an extreme climate have their way abusing the system costing you all your weekends. A truly similar analogy would be the silliness of walking about unprotected in a winter’s snowy 15 degree day in a scanty bathing suit. How would you thrive? Our gardens should look like our forests. Littered. With a nice insulating jacket of leaves. This, is healthy. This will allow your plants to flourish effortlessly, and you free time which might be nice.

Moving along, the most obvious woodland pattern we can observe of course is the layers. Every forest has layers of trees, plants, in tiers all growing together, in and through each other. There is no such thing as a natural bare orchard. Every tree has his network of family and friends. Trees of every size, shrubs, smaller shrubs, vines, groundcovers sprawling all over in all the leftover spaces. So much in one space.

--What if all of these guys were edible?

And so we have the basic forest garden idea--- a seven layered pattern borrowed from nature. But we have interjected a canopy of standard fruit and nut trees, a second story of dwarfing versions, a third of edible berries and shrubs, a fourth of perennial vegetables (yes, there are lots of perennial vegetables—get my newsletter for more on this), a fifth groundcover of herbs, mints, a sixth of edible vines growing up those trees—and a seventh of root crops growing at the sunny edges.

Voila. You have a forest-----of food.

With regard to wildlife, if we are now intent on repeating natural patterns within our gardens, how appropriate is it to be playing tug of war with them who are so hungry and displaced and from human civilized habitations? As a part of the circle of life so energizing natural eco systems, the very issues that threaten our planet, isn’t it imperative to support them too? And energetically, this is a whole conversation of precisely what we give out recycling right back into own lives in spades—the energy of restriction and lack—or the energy of abundance and prosperity. When we give back to nature, she gives back to us three fold. This expansive energy empowers the garden, the eco system, her denizens, plant and otherwise, and brings prosperity into our lives. The question is how, along with accomplishing our own goals of production. This is actually a relatively easy issue when we turn around our perspective.

Forest gardening invites wildlife and appreciates the partnership they offer in pollination, bug and rodent regulation, fertilization and weeding. By embracing their presence and viewing them as partners we strengthen our created eco systems, aid in badly needed habitat and invite prosperous energy into our lives. This can be done by planting forage plants—human and animal edibles native or well adapted to your area. Some good examples are the autumn olive, crabapple, elderberry, bearberry, Juneberry. Blackberries or raspberries can be used for fencing or planted outside of fencing—protecting the garden at the same time feeding our wild neighbors. Additionally habitat can be created by allowing for a corner of your garden to be left wild, left alone with brush piled up, logs, which make great homes for these garden helpers.

As you can see this seven layered, nature patterned method is a complete 180 from what all of us have grown up with, but the benefits are so sweet, even the greatest diehard traditionalist has to sit up and take notice. A garden that when mature can be an ongoing food source season after season, alleviate a good portion of the workload, and aid our animal life and ecosystems and hence planetary health all at the same time? What’s not to love?

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And check out my book;
Jardin d’Or ; a Treatise on Forest Gardening
Available at;,


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