I started this website because I wanted more people to find out about forest gardening and its potential. Robert Hart's vision when he created his pioneering forest garden was the creation of 100,000 small forest
gardens, creating a massive forest across a city. multiplied across the world. He demonstrated a way to create a productive, diverse, self-sustaining and low-maintenance garden modelled on natural forests in a temperate climate that could meet many human needs. It offered the hope of a new way of overcoming many of the modern world's problems - industrialised agriculture and its fossil fuel dependence, food security, reducing biodiversity, water shortage, water runoff and flooding, waste and environmental pollution, isolation from nature ...
His book "Forest Gardening" was published in 1991 and since then his vision has inspired a great deal of work aimed at making it a reality. There are now a lot more resources available for people starting out. But it
seems that, although there are people growing forest gardens around the country and the world, the idea doesn't seem to be spreading as fast as it should. To me the advantages seem so obvious that it got me thinking about the reasons why everyone isn't planting forest gardens and maybe some ways to overcome those obstacles.
1. The idea is still new. The challenge: We have some fixed ideas about what it means to grow food. There is a big interest in growing your own food at the moment, but to most people this means growing annual vegetables in their garden or on an allotment. Whilst agroforestry is a traditional concept in tropical climates, edible forest gardens in temperate climates are a new concept and the ideas are still spreading. Solution: There is more and more information becoming available now and more and more gardens maturing. People are interested in new ways of dealing with environmental problems and re-engaging with nature and are increasingly interested in these ideas.
2. Skills. The challenge: The thought of planning, planting, pruning and maintaining a forest garden seems too difficult. Solution: There are now training courses available to teach these skills. As more people follow the forest gardening approach these skills will be spread more widely and will become more available, as well valued more.
3. Proven yields. The challenge: Because the idea is still new, there aren't very many mature gardens and well documented yields from these type of gardens. The theory says that a forest ecosystem has a higher net
primary production than a traditional agricultural monoculture, but it's another thing to say that that yield is useful. Solution: There are an increasing number of forest gardens that are becoming more mature and with time I believe we will see just how productive they can be. The diversity of yields is one of the unique aspects and advantages of this approach. As forest gardening becomes more popular we will learn how to make these systems even better and productive through more careful design and the availability of a wider range of plants.
3. Timescales. The challenge: The trees that make up the canopy of the forest garden can take many years to mature. People move house quite regularly, because they change job or because their family gets bigger and
they need a larger house. Investing the time to develop a forest garden that I might have to abandon is probably the reason it took me so long to take the plunge and I'm sure that it applies to many people. Solution: Whilst the larger trees may take a long time to mature they start to produce yields within 2-3 years and this is quicker for smaller trees. Plants in the lower layers also start to produce more quickly; soft fruit bearing the following year and the herb layer becoming productive straight away. Watching the garden develop is also fascinating in the early stages. As forest gardens become more popular and awareness spreads a forest garden may well be a selling point when people do need to move house. Keeping good records of what is in the garden, its intention and the yields it provides might also help convince a new owner to keep it going rather than rip it all up.
4. Work required. The challenge: The effort required to start a forest garden has been described as significant and this may be seen as too big a hurdle to overcome. Solution: Planting a modest sized back garden is easily achievable over a few weekends. The trees can easily be planted in one or two days and the shrub and herb layers can be done periodically. Compared to the time taken to cut a lawn, trim hedges and weed a traditional garden the effort is small to establish a small forest garden. Most of the time is spent in planning. As the garden develops the amount of effort reduces considerably. This is one of the greatest advantages of this approach. The garden is modelled on a natural ecosystem with many diverse interacting parts in balance. This means less need to intervene and through careful design it can produce a myriad of food and other useful products. It is something that can be easily done in spare time at weekends and in summer evenings. It is something that many people can do straight away and blend into their lives, whilst still making a hugely positive impact.
5. Economics. The challenge: The cost of establishing the garden may seem high when compared against yields in early years. Solution: The cost is mainly in the purchase of trees and other plants. Fruit trees in the UK cost something like £15 (for an apple maiden) from a nursery. Some of the more unusual trees are a little more. I spent about £250-300 on trees and soft fruit in the first year setting up my garden. Buying entirely maiden trees would have reduced the cost a little more. That cost is pretty low compared to replacing fencing or paying for hard landscaping. As edible forest gardens become more common it will get easier to get plants by propogating them and swapping with friends and neighbours. As our skills develop more people will be comfortable grafting fruit trees and so the modest initial cost will come down further. Conversely, the cost of buying food produced by industrialised farming methods and transported by road, rail and shipping will increase as energy costs rise. This will make us appreciate the food we produce ourselves even more. We need to look into the future to anticipate these trends so that we can make that transition much gentler.
6. Scale. The challenge: When I describe what I am trying to do in my garden many people assume that it must be a huge space - a forest is a lot trees isn't it? Solution: This is really just a question of providing more information. Edible forest gardening isn't about creating a forest in your garden, it's about creating a system that is productive, self-sustaining and low-maintenance using natural forests as a model, part of a Permaculture approach. The size can vary enormously, from a system based around a single tree in a small space to something with ten's or hundred's of trees. Many of the benefits are related to the diversity of the system and this can be achieved in a small space. The other key element is the gardener, and in a smaller space more attention can be payed to the garden and the gardener can have a greater influence. In addition, gardens don't exist in isolation. As forest gardens become more widespread a forest garden may neighbour other similar gardens that provide larger ecosystems that attract a greater range of wildlife. We come back to Robert Hart's vision of a network of forest gardens encompassing a city and beyond.
7. Food tastes. The challenge: Our tastes in food have adapted to the foods that are cheaply available, including highly processed foods and cheap meat and dairy products. We have also got used to being able to obtain any fruit and vegetables at any time of the year. The products from a forest garden can be diverse and whilst they include fruits that we are familiar with they also favour the production of perennial foods that
we aren't as familiar with. The solution: Much of the food we rely on now is the result of cheap energy and may become increasingly expensive as energy prices rise. This will encourage us to be more adventurous and to
alter our tastes. A diverse diet can also provide a wider range of nutrients and a greater interest. Adapting to seasonal produce brings us closer to nature and adds interest too. Forest gardens do not have to entirely
replace farming in providing all of our food, rather they can play a role in providing a wide range of foods that can reduce our impact on energy dependent systems as well as providing food security. As forest gardening matures we are likely to see the breeding of new varieties of plants and shrubs that can provide even greater diversity and a wider range of production times for a range of climates.
8. The "all or nothing" effect. The challenge: As people adapt their lifestyles and begin to take responsibility for the production of food and other needs on a local scale there is often a real desire to
become completely self-sufficient. From my perspective this is great, but it isn't for everyone and in some ways is too narrow. Solution: In fact, we all live in communities that operate at many different scales. The beauty of forest gardening is that it provides a model by which we can have a massive impact on our environment and meet many of our needs, with a small amount of effort. It is part of the Permaculture philosophy of working with nature to meet our needs and developing a system that is truly sustainable. Because it can be achieved and maintained with such little effort we are free to remain as part of our wider communities, working and adding value in a diverse range of occupations and contributing to human progress. At the same time we can build a much more resilient future, restore the balance between consumption and production and knit ourselves back into the fabric of life.
(I have copied this post to its own page today as it captures many key ideas about forest gardening and its potential - 17 Jan 2010)