Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Forest Garden

Neighbour Camille holding a sapling upright during planting
Although it encompasses much more, when asked to explain what permaculture is, I turn to the concept of a forest garden, which seems (for me) to epitomise it. 

Consider a field of cereal growing next to a woodland and compare the inputs and outputs.  The arable field gets spread with muck or chemical fertiliser, ploughed, harrowed, sown, sprayed, sprayed again and harvested and then all that over again, impoverishing the soil.  The forest, on the other hand, is untouched by human hand, soaking up sun from above and water and nutrients from below and producing way more biomass per year than the adjacent field.

Spreadsheet showing chosen trees
So far, so panacea, but the important thing (for us) is that we humans can eat a large percentage of the biomass created by the field of cereals, way more than we could from the woodland.  The permaculture lightbulb (Gestalt effect!) moment is that we could design a woodland using edible plants, vastly increasing the proportion of biomass we can use.  That’s the idea of a forest garden.

However, in his new book Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops, Martin Crawford disagrees:

Is it permaculture?  No.  It’s sometimes one element of permaculture and people sometimes mistakenly call it permaculture … To avoid confusion, I don’t call my forest garden ‘permaculture’; I just stick to ‘forest garden’.”  

So what do I know?  Whatever nomenclature he prefers, I can thoroughly recommend his book which is a very clear ‘how to’ manual of temperate climate forest gardening.

Volunteer Patricia cutting out trees
Our own has been on the ‘list of things to get around to’ (i.e., it hasn’t even featured on the ever-daunting ‘list of things to do’) for a long time and Martin’s recently published book has proved a helpful incentive.  A few weeks ago, our friend Kristen jumped on an overnight train and travelled all the way from the Aveyron to come and spend a few days with us.  He’s just finished translating Patrick Whitefield’s How to Make a Forest Garden into French: Creér un Jardin-Forêt: Une Forêt Comestible de Fruits et de Légumes au Jardin.   

A bit of a whizz on the ’pooter, he created a spreadsheet of our chosen trees (see above) with columns showing the names in English, Latin and French (remember, I’m reading an English book but ordering trees from a French pépiniériste) and other important things to take into account, such as fertility needs, shade tolerance and pollination requirements.  He also played around with Google Sketch Up, creating a 3D-effect image with shadows that moved with the time of day.  A great idea needing a lot of work but it would be a powerful tool for placing and spacing trees and shrubs during the design stage so that they get the sun they need throughout the growing season.

With no time to waste, we reverted to cutting out circles of coloured paper and ‘Blu-Tacking’ them onto a scale map of our field.  Designing a forest garden is not a process to be rushed, so we left the plan to stew and took it out, from time to time, discussing it and moving the paper trees about.  Our forest garden finally coalesced to the point we could order trees and start planting.  Using triangulation, a 30 metre tape and some garden canes, Gabrielle and I converted the details on the scale plan into planting positions on the field.

Triangulating planting positions
The field is currently pasture and we will plant up trees (with sheep-proof guards) over this and the following winter, then start on the shrub layer a winter or two later.  We’ll eventually remove the sheep when we find it impossible to protect our plantings, although we do plan to have chickens and ducks free-ranging, a rabbit tractor and have designed in a space for pigs, which will be overhung by fruit trees.