While “Food Forests” or “Forest Gardens” have become something of a gardening fad these days, there’s really nothing new about them at all. In fact, some academic sources have begun calling them “the world’s oldest land use.”
In my opinion, we modern “Forest Gardeners” have a lot to learn from the traditional, slowly-evolved gardens that were once the backbone of cultures around the world. Researchers across many disciplines from Agronomy and economics to ecology and anthropology have delved deeply into the well-known, ancient food forests across the Asian and African tropics (as well as the Amazon, which some researchers have begun to charactarize as the world’s largest food forest!) with some of the most famous being the “Home Gardens” of Kerala, India, that inspired the modern Food Forest trend. And as we come to understand how those systems function, both socially and ecologically, we’re recognizing their universality, seeing well-developed and culturally appropriate Forest Garden systems in the pre-columbian Americas, and even in the temperate and cold regions of North Asia, Northern Scandinavia, Russia, the “black forest” of Germany, the Mediterranean, and the British Islands.
Looking at all these long-lasting, highly successful systems, it’s amazing how much they have in common, and to me, that implies that there are a few patterns for us to learn from and emulate if we want our Forest Gardens to have similar staying power.
One of these universal patterns is a recognition of proximity: people have different sorts of forest gardens depending on how far they are from home. Permaculture Designers honor this traditional wisdom with the concept of different “zones” the further away you are from home.
Based on this wisdom, many of these traditional forest gardening cultures developed two different systems, one for home and a second system for the public commons further from home.
There are now some nice studies of how these distinct home and public garden systems work in traditional cultures, such as this one:
In these systems, home Forest Gardens provide families with luxurious high-value fruits and vegetables, a wide variety of spices and herbs, the majority of their food and some excess for trade and income, and of course, beautiful living space. These crops require daily care and attention to thrive but are well worth the effort, if placed close to the home where that attention happens naturally without special effort.
Meanwhile, the public systems rely heavily on nature and succession to do the work, since they’re far from home and travel amplifies the “costs” of human labor and energy inputs. These systems are typically harvested collectively for commuity income, fibre, building materials, low-maintenance calorie crops, and a variety of low-maintenance fruit, vegetables, and spices for the market that can be grown extensively working with sucession.
Many of these lots are visited just once a year–or less–because harvest and nature provides almost all the management. These are the famous “swidden” systems of the old world that start with clearing old food forest for lumber, planting new trees along with a ground cover of anual crops, and provide a cascade of different crops as the forest matures, until it’s time to clear it again in 15 or 20 years.
Beyond the tropics, the traditional temperate garden systems of Europe also evolved public and private versions that might make appropraite models for us in the Great Lakes Region. Up until the “green revolution” driven by fossil fuels, Medieval Great Britain, for example, evolved a complex system where the famous “cottage garden” was the centerpiece of home health and nutrition, as a home Forest Garden of high value fruit trees that require pampering, mingle with perennial and anual vegetables, flowers, and medicines growing together in an ecological assemblage that today would look “wild” to the modern gardener.
Next, there were community “allotments” inside the settlement and close to the living quarters, where low-labor cultivated fruit trees and perennials and self-sown vegetables kept maintenance low.
Beyond that in an outer zone from the community was the cultivated farmland where grains were grown communally, integrated with a Forest Garden system of Multi-purpose “hedgerows” of wild (or semi-wild) fruit, medicinal plants, building materials, fuel, vegetables, mushrooms and wild game.
Wood for fuel, construction and crafts was grown in managed Forest Garden systems called copses, where shade-loving vegetables and medicines, chestnuts and hazelnuts, a wide variety of mushrooms and game were also harvested. This system of common hedgerows and coppice lots was also freely used by families and farmers to graze and fatten their livestock. This system changed and evolved along with the culture, but remained in some vestigal form right up until oil came to dominate our lives.
A very similar system evolved in France, with its famous hedgerows, communal woodlands, and semi-managed (by grazing) common hillsides where villagers would collect medicinal and culinary herbs, such as the famous “Herb du Provence.”
Meanwhile, the “Jardin de Cure,” or Parishiner’s Garden, may have been the original multi-purpose, ecological “Permaculture Community Garden” and “Edible Landscaping!”
These gardens, usually centrally located at the village church, were created by village volunteers for their busy Curate, the leader of their church. They had to be multi-functional, beautiful, and work with nature to be low-maintenance. They needed to provide the Curate and his Parish a beautiful spiritual place for contemplation and comfort in times of crisis. And they also had to grow high quailty fruits and vegetables for the Curate as well as special church celebrations, cut flowers for weddings, funerals and holidays, and also medicinal herbs–as the Curate, often the most learned man in the village, would also function as a healer. And the system of formal beds with semi-wild informal polyculture plantings allowed village volunteers to take care of it in their spare time.
Up to now, most modern public and community Forest Gardens in the US have been designed to be demonstrations of what could be done at home. I’ve visited a few that even included demonstration “zone 1” garden areas, modeling what should be done right outside of someone’s front door, even though the nearest front door was at least a mile away.
These are great gardens that filled a necessary educational role, and provided design opportunities for new designers. But now that home forest gardens (actually at people’s homes!) are becoming common across America, I would encourage the next generation of projects to aim to reflect the traditional common sense of proximity, and to research and demonstrate the value that Forest Gardens can bring to the real public commons.
To think about it in Permaculture terms, almost all public and community Forest Gardens are going to be in zone 4! So, rather than demonstrate “zone 1 and 2” on those sites, we should figure out how to demonstrate the concept of zones by designing great zone 4 gardens that really make sense!
Examining these traditional home and public systems, here are some patterns we can begin to learn from:
Home Forest Gardens:
–Extremely high diversity–people like to collect plants!
–More intensive: high-input items like cultivated fruits, fruits that REQUIRE harvest, more anual vegetables, salad crops, etc. This is where you’ll find difficult fruits like dessert apples and plums.
–Emphasis on low-processing, high nutrition food crops to be used fresh.
–Multi-purose landscape that integrates food production into PRIVATE yard functions such as home parties, contemplation, outdoor cooking, relaxation…
–Uses human labor to plant and maintain select plant specimens such as grafted trees.
–Provide families with fresh fruit and vegetables, medicines, a beautiful home environment, excess production can be “scaled up” for income, recreation (gardening)
Public Agriforest Systems:
–Lower diversity, only aggressive plants that will fend for themselves if neglected.
–Plants appropriate for the stage of succession, ie. pioneer species in young gardens.
–Very extensive, plants that rely on nature and succession to tend them, such as wild edibles, “weeds,” berries, wild fruits, etc.
–Emphasis on low-maintenance: high-calorie food crops like corn, squash and grains, durable foods like spices, animal fodder (animals don’t typically require pampered and perfect fruits and vegetables,) and non-food crops like building and crafting materials.
–Multi-purpose landscape that integrates food production into PUBLIC functions such as farming, hunting, travel (road-sides) community meeting space, religious worship, etc.
–Largely relies on natural systems and succession. For a temperate example, look at the “dead hedging” and “tapestry hedge” systems of Britain and France, where a rudimentary fence was made of wood and stone, understanding that birds would perch there and other animals would then inhabit the “hedge,” and their droppings would plant high-value edible plants. Meanwhile, these systems were guided by throwing down seeds and selecting for the most desirable species as the “hedge” filled in.
–Provides a community with the VALUE of fuel, building materials, jobs, foraged “wild” fruits and vegetables, wildlife habitat–and MOST IMPORTANTLY, they do this without creating a burden for the community that has to be maintained with “volunteer” labor, fossil fuels and ongoing inputs.
To me, the most important thing we can learn from these dual traditional systems is that if we’re asking “who will maintain it and how will it be maintained?” then we’re asking the wrong question. Either, it’s private and that answer is obvious, or it’s public, and it would traditionally be designed so that use, harvest and natural succession provide most of the maintenance required.
All of America’s new public and community Forest Gardens represent an inspiring view of what we can accomplish when we work together. And it’s even more inspiring for me to think of what the future could bring, as these systems evolve to better serve the American landscape and bring value to American communities. More importantly, as a Permaculturist and community member, I look forward to public projects that compliment the forest garden I have at home in the way they do in traditional cultures.