Lessons from Nepalese Forest Gardens ("Home Gardens")

(From Home Gardens in Nepal)

I really enjoyed this great short video on a research/aid project focussing on the benefits of Nepal’s traditional forest garden system. I feel like I’ve learned a great deal from reading about these traditional evolved systems, so it’s great to see actual footage of the Nepalese version.

Over the centuries, the people of Nepal have developed and maintained an incredible traditional forest gardening technology, or “Home Gardens” that are finally being recognized and acknowledged for their significant contributions to economic well-being, health and happiness. These gardens have long been associated with the well-off and wealthy members of Nepalese society, and now aid workers and researchers are documenting the powerful benefits of expanding these important life-support systems to historically marginalized groups

For those doing aid work, this research provides vital lessons about effective and culturally-relevant action. 
But for those of us doing homesteading, farming, or simply living a life that more in tune with nature, there are lessons to be learned here as well. To me, this work is proving the universal value of forest garden systems, especially to farmers. 
While the raw “gross yield” of a single marketable crop/acre of a forest garden will never match chemical agriculture, these home gardens boast a broader range of important yields that a corn field could never compete with. 
Reseachers in Nepal have emphasized benefits including:
-A healthier, more diverse ecosystem to live in (which provides many economic benefits itself)
-A heathier, more diverse diet,
-Improved sense of well-being,
-More beautiful, diverse and natural landscapes and communities,
-Beautified home living spaces (“beauty” is a prime feature of home gardens to the Nepalese.)
-Enchanced social function (Nepalese forest gardens integrate social uses into productive space)
-More social status (Associated with the beauty of home gardens)
But to me, the most important lesson for us Westerners is that these gardens provide a much higher “Return on Investment” than conventional gardening or farming. This is a key lesson that can be adopted by American farmers and homesteaders. While American farming focusses on producing the “highest gross yield,” home garden systems focus on net value by providing an optimal output for a minimal input. For me, the idea of this “input/output ratio” has become a guiding principle of our gardening. While an American vegetable farm may produce far more, the profits get eaten up by increased labor, chemicals and time inputs. In several recent studies of farm economics, I’ve noticed that the biggest impediment to farmers achieving a living hourly wage is high costs, time commitments and expenses. Meanwhile, a forest garden can produce an ample yield with minimal time, no additional labor and no chemical or fertilizer inputs. 
Nepalese farmers, like many others around the world, put this high ROI quality to work to balance out the costs of their other agricultural endeavors, providing increased profitability, better financial security, nutrition and ecological resilience to their lifestyles. 
In my opinion, for us American farmers, homesteaders or home-owners, there’s a lot that we could learn by working to integrate some of these traditional Nepalese homestead patterns in their projects. 
If you would like to look more into the patterns and research on Nepal’s Home Gardens, this study is a good place to start:
If you’d like to learn a basic approach to getting started with forest gardening on a budget, you can see the first email in our free mini-series here.

And if you’re starting a forest garden and would like support, design help and a large starter collection of forest gardening plants in pre-designed guilds, check out our forest gardening CSA. 


2018 Lillie House Perennial Guild Plants Collection

(UPDATED for 2018!)

For 2018, our full members will receive their choice of two recommended forest garden trees to start their project (we particularly recommend Asian pears, chestnuts, and paw paws) as well as a selection of fruiting shrubs (including varieties of blackberries, black raspberries, currants, gooseberries, honeyberries, cherries, goumi, elderberries, hazel, cornelian cherry, American holly, roses selected for their high quality large fruit, etc!)

In addition to their trees and bushes, our members get priority access to our large collection of perennial forest garden plants at a discount “members only” price. Since developing a high-value understory of perennial vegetables and useful plants is probably the most important task of forest gardening, each member will receive a customized “starter kit” of live potted plants for the first year of establishment that will make it easy to get their forest garden project going strong. You get the plants at the right time for your project, when you’re ready to plant them.
“Starter kits” come with a selection of our most valuable, useful plants, proven to work in Michigan, customized to your site conditions and project goals. Many are rare in the trade, expensive, difficult to find and not available from any single source.

Better yet, our full memberships come with 3-years of access to our entire plant collection of over 300 varieities for plant material (seeds, scionwood, cuttings, and in some cases, plants.) So you can start by learning a manageable collection, then expand your garden when you – and it – are ready. That 3-year-access means you’ll have the greatest opportunity to get your project established.

Starter kits may include:
Perennial Alliums (the onion and garlic family):

  • Egyptian Walking Onions
  • Allium Unifolium
  • Chives
  • Garlic Chives
  • Welsh Onion
  • Welsh Red Onion
  • Perennial Garlic
  • Ramps
  • Perenial Leek


  • Star Herb Minutina
  • Sea Kale
  • Perennial Kales
  • Sorrel
  • Blood-veined Sorrel
  • Peach-leaved Bellflower
  • Perennial Endive
  • Salad Burnet
  • Marshmallow (a perennial cooked “spinach”)

Perennial Vegetables:

  • Asparagus
  • Scorzonera
  • Skirret
  • Perennial Bulbing Fennel
  • Lovage
  • Turkish Rocket (perennial broccoli!)
  • Jerusalem Artichoke
  • Ground Nut (Apios Americana)
  • Air Potato (Chinese yam)
  • Fairy Spuds (Claytonia Virginica)
  • Camas bulbs
  • Fiddle-Head Ferns
  • Crosnes (Mint Root)


  • Oregano
  • A large collection of Thymes and Creeping Thymes
  • Yarrow
  • Valerian
  • A large collection of Mints
  • Comfrey
  • Anise Hyssop

How We Save the Savannas

Utterly miraculous – that’s what it must have been for the first European settlers who delved into the heartland. Can you even imagine it? We’re only now begining to understand how densly populated by humans with rich cultures the Americas actually were, when these visitors dubbed what they found “a virgin continent,” an “untouched wilderness.”

A vast land with the beauty of the greatest old-country parks and gardens, a naturally growing cacophony of flowers in a broad, open understory where a wagon train could be easily driven straight through. Above, tall chestnuts, oaks, and maples built a cathedral as elegant and glorious as any engineered by the architects of Rome. A menagerie of deer, small mammals, and squab were abundant, strangely friendly, and easily hunted, and even the rivers were described as boiling with fish, lined with a thick carpet of clams. Food was abundant, and must have put the most productive yields of modern industrial agriculture to shame. 
Understand, I’ve chosen my metaphors deliberately here, to share a tapestry of descriptions I’ve read in the awe-stricken accounts of primary sources:

 “Nothing can equal the surpassing beauty of the rounded swells and the sunny hollows. The brilliant green of the grass, the numberless varieties and splendid hues of multitudes of flowers, I gazed in admiration too strong for words.” 

~Ellen Bigelow, 1833 

And most magnificent of all were the savannas that were once common across the region where the Eastern Woodland receded into western prairie. Just as we call the prairies “grasslands,” these savannas were “flowerlands,” glorious with a great bounty of broadleaf plants that provide medicine, food and forage. These special ecosystems are the preferred environment of many species, the only place where some can thrive. No doubt it was also home to undiscovered, lost soil communities that we had not yet begun to understand when we brought with us a vast, yet tiny army of invisible conquistadors to colonize the kingdom under foot. 
Within ten years of “settlement” by Europeans, these ecosystems were transformed. The open woodlands filled in to thick forest, prairies and savannas turned to cane thickets and old field, and eventually forest. This once open, park-like continent transformed to just another dense European thicket, and the North American miracle was never to be seen again. 
If it pains you to know what we’ve forsaken, take heart. If we can understand and appreciate what we’ve lost, there is the possibility that we can find it once again. 
And now, a growing community has gone looking to save and restore some of these lost wonders, including the savannas. 
Last week I went to a talk by Mitch Lettow of the Land Conservancy of S.W. Michigan on “conservation” approaches to studying and restoring savanna. Mitch has been working with MSU and the Land Conservancy on restoring some small vestiges of old, pre-colonial Michigan. What’s interesting to me is the approach, they’re essentially trying to turn back time. They’re looking at how these open savannas quickly filled in with saplings and brush, removing this growth and revealing the savanna hidden beneath. 
Researchers like Mitch are starting to research is examining the soil seed bed. What they’ve found is that at least in some cases, the native seed stock is still there. The ghosts of the old savannas still haunt the soil, tend their future generations, and when we make room, the old ecologies can return. The DNA of the past is still there in the soil, waiting for us….
This research supplies an important element in reclaiming Savannas. 
Another key to hope lies in the emerging partnership between researchers and Permaculturists applying that research to reclaim “agricultural land.” 
But rather than merely reclaim the past, these farmers, such as Permaculture teacher and author Mark Shepard, have been working to create a place for savannas in the future. Under a paradigm called “regenerative agriculture,” they’re modeling productive farmland off of native savannas, and returning the promise of their lost abundant bounty to the land. 
Permaculture brings two key insights to this work conserving the savannas. The first is that it was the “invisible hand” of economics that swept the savannas off the table. We need to make humans value this ecosystem if we’re going to preserve it, and the best way to do that is to figure out how to make them profitable. We can get that invisible hand to do some good in the world for a change.
But the second, more important insight is an application and understanding of deep ecology to this landscape. To say that a savanna is “20-40% canopy cover with some forbes,” for example, is like saying a human is “a few square feet of epidermis draped over some other junk.” Each savanna is its own self-organizing system, its own distinct quality emergent from the complex interaction of all the beings it holds within. But among that broad ecological community of equals, there are some pillars of the savanna ecotype which most give it soul: the large herbivores, the passenger pigeon and mankind. 
(Passenger pigeons over the savannas of Louisiana, 1870)  
Each of these species were a special, central part of the savanna ecosystem. The passenger pigeon once numbered in the billions. Clouds of them would blacken the sky for hours or even days as they passed. It would be arrogant in the extreme to suspect that we could ever tease out all the complex interactions they would bring as they stopped to perch at a stand of oaks. Some have suggested their droppings could alter the soil ecology, its acidity, and certainly its microbial community. Others have posited that the fermenting of their scat would contribute a natural fuel to the fires that formed gave the savannas their open understory. But the unthinkable did indeed happen and the passenger pigeon went extinct. 

Next is the American Bison, which once made it’s home across the savannas. Again, these beasts roamed in large numbers, fertilizing and enriching the soil, and browsing away young tree seedlings before they had the chance to fill in to a thicket. Like the other large megafauna before them, the mammoths and ground sloths, etc. their role in shaping and maintaining savannas must have been profound. 
(Wonders roamed the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago as the savannas took shape.)
Then there was man. Our patterns of hunting, gathering alone must have been profound. But then came the fire. As we commonly understand now, Native Americans made extensive use of fire to shape and preserve the savannas, this most important ecosystem for meeting their needs. It was this one act, the fire, more than anything else, that was the heart of the savanna ecosystem. 

If we want to maintain the soul of the savannas, and not just some semblance of their external aesthetic, we must replace these key interactions. In the past, our approach has been to replace them with 4 new “keystone species:”
– The chainsaw
– The backhoe
– Herbicides
– And the flamethrower (or, less poetically, incendiary devices.) 
But now, Permaculture is providing a better way, creating models that restore the natural relationships that form and maintain savannas as self-organizing systems. Permaculture is returning the soul. In the Permaculture model, the keystones become:
– Large herbivores: These systems create high quality land for grazing cattle, fattening hogs and hunting wild herbivores like deer. 
– Chestnuts: Hybrid chestnuts and emerging disease-resistant chestnuts are often featured keystones of these Permaculture ecologies. 
– Ground birds: Many of these systems feature a wide variety of fowl, including ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys, etc. These begin to replace some amount of the lost interactions of the passenger pigeon. 
– Humans. Finally, we reclaim our place in nature, as kind stewards enriching the environment for all, instead of destructively harvesting it for our short-term gain. 
– A light touch. Perhaps the key component in the emergence of a new, self-sustaining savanna system is for humans to step back in our management. Intensive intervention will only create man-made systems shaped by oil energy. 
And each of us can play our part, joining in becoming our highest selves and demonstrating the true purpose of mankind in the natural world. 
Well first of all, we can support the farmers who are leading this work, such as Josh Schultz of Cedar Creek Permaculture and Clay Smith of Earthsmith Farm here in S.W. Michigan. 
Start growing more food at home. As we embrace the “grow your own” movement, we’ll make more room for the savannas and for farmers who want to act as stewards to preserve them.

And support the work of organizations like the South West Michigan Land Conservancy

Just as those ghosts of the past, the seeds of the soil, remain in waiting for us to simply make room for them to return, I believe there is something waiting in our souls, wild, kind, and free, that will return when we make room in our hearts for the savannas.

Starting to Apply Permaculture in Our Lives

In a sense, “Permaculture” is a critique of the “sustainability” paradigm, which asks: “How can we change the destructive systems we use to meet our needs, so that we can sustain them into the future?”

Instead, Permaculture asks: “how can we design new systems to meet our needs that actually benefit the earth, our ecologies and our communities, so that we actually grow heathier, wealthier and wiser over time?” 

It asks us to look at our own needs and how we’re meeting them, and imagine new, better ways. 

For most of us, that path starts in the garden, which is an excellent place to begin. After all, our food system is arguably the most unsustainable aspect of our society, being the biggest destroyer of soil, the largest consumer of fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to carbon and methane pollution, the number one cause of deforestation, habitat loss and ecosystem decline, as well as one of the largest measures of social inequality. So changing the way we get our food can have a massive positive impact. 

Perhaps even more importantly, gardening can be the gateway to better understanding of nature. For most gardeners, growing food puts us in conflict with nature as we fight against the microbial diseases, pests, and weeds that are natural parts of our ecosystem to grow plants from distant climates poorly suited to our local conditions. By asking us to change our attitute to cooperate with nature, Permaculture gardening begins to change this most basic attitude of war with nature that characterizes almost every aspect of our society, medicine, clothing, housing, work, and so on. 

So, here are some articles on Permaculture ways we can bring mother nature back into the garden, make her a welcome guest, and even put her to work on our side! 

What is Permaculture? 

The #1 Most Shocking Reason for Weeds in Native Gardens:

(These are the shocking “pest” that cause problems in native gardens. Recognize them?)

Last Spring, I went out to visit a large local “native prairie” planting around town and found landscapers there getting ready to till a large part of the garden. Just a few years eariler, this plot of land had been prepared for this native planting with a thorough regimen of multiple tillings and sprayings of herbicides to eliminate exotic weed pressures. Unfortunately, as is often the case, it wasn’t enough. A few non-natives still managed to survive and take hold. While the natives were slow to establish, these speedy weeds took over. Now, MAN had to re-exert his influence by beating back the “invaders.”
For those of us who love native plants and have tried to create “native gardens,” this is a familar story.
In fact, complaining about “invasive weeds” is probably the favorite pass time of native gardeners, and it’s certainly the #1 question I hear from environmentally-minded landscapers. We weed, water, and pamper them non-stop, but our native plants just don’t seem to do their part. It has become commonplace for native plant landscapers to use more tilling, chemical intervensions, and other non-natural techniques in native gardens than even the most intensive vegetable gardening operations. Even in their native environment, our “native plants” seem frail and poorly adapted to survive in competition with weeds that evolved in very different conditions in Eurasia and elsewhere.
No wonder we “nature lovers” turn into raging nature-cidal maniacs at the sight of “invasive plants.” It seems impossible to keep these brutes from man-handling (plant-handling?) our beloved home-team heroes.
So, what “in earth” is going on here? We hear all the time that our native plants should be “care free” and “adapted” to our growing conditions, so why do these exotic “weeds” so easily kick the good guys’ butts? 
Here’s the shocking answer: We may have “native plants,” but we’re not planting them in the “native conditions” they evolved to thrive in. 
Here are three ways we do our natives wrong, including the #1 most shocking reason that blew my mind when I learned about it. 
Problem 1: Non-Native Plant Communities. 
For most of us home owners gardening on the small scale, our goal is simply to convert some of our flower gardens into habitat for native plants. This especially seems like a good idea since they’re supposed to require less maintenance than the exotics we’re used to. But, it turns out that “native flower gardens,” filled with species (selected for their beauty to human observers) just aren’t a naturally occurring ecosystem. Anywhere. Ever. 
Go figure. 
For example, in the Great Lakes region, like most of the Eastern Woodland East of the Mississippi, there weren’t even any large, stable areas of “native prairie,” the kind of ecosystem most imitated by Michigan’s native plant gardeners.  


See that? No large swaths of “native flower gardens.” The dominant ecologies of “pre-settlement” Michigan were almost entirely treed landscapes, with small bits of temporary prairie.
Now, don’t get me wrong! I LOVE the “native prairie” gardens that are lovingly maintained around the city. They’re beautiful, artistic assemblages of native plants that aren’t easy to find or see growing naturally in the wild. But, where prairie systems occurred in the Great Lakes region, they were ephemeral, “disturbance ecologies” resulting from forest fires, storms or other openings in the forest ecologies. Which means, they were never meant to last.
That “native prairie” planting I started the article with? It’s trying its darndest to become a REAL native ecology: a forest. And the only thing that will ever stop it is more tilling, weeding, spraying, burning or other human intervention.
Problem 2: You Are Your Native Garden (Except, You Don’t Know It.) 
When the first European settlers moved through the Eastern Woodland Region they described a startling landscape filled with a profusion of native wild flowers. It was common for these ecosystems to be compared to the most lovely flower gardens of old Europe. 
So, maybe “native flower garden” really was a naturally occurring ecosystem of pre-settlement North America, after all?  
Well, within a single decade of settlement observers began to note the complete disappearance of these wildflower ecosystems, replaced by a mosaic of tended grasslands, farms, and dense jungle thickets. That’s all it took, 10-15 years, and they were gone.
Even then, it was clear to many period writers and naturalists what had happened: we removed the “native gardeners” who used to tend these native flower gardens. For the most part, it was the interactions of native peoples that maintained these “anthropogenic” (man-made) systems by the wide-spread practice of burning. As a horticultural practice, this was an extremely low-energy way of maintaining the high food-quality of large parcels of land. 
What it means is that those “native flower gardens” and “native prairie gardens” have always depended on human intervention (at least since the mass extinction of North American Megafauna, but that’s a story for another time….) Humans have always been the “keystone species” of these ecosystems, meaning we two-legged critters are fundamentally responsible for shaping and maintaining them.  Since it’s now impossible for us to carry out large-scale burning to maintain these gardens with low-energy systems, we must necessarily use more environmentally destructive, more energy-intensive means such as mowing, hand-weeding, tilling, spraying poisons and managed burns – if we’re indeed dead set on maintaining these “pure” native plantings. 
But, even this is harder to do these days then in pre-settlement times, because of….
Problem 3: Our Soil Isn’t Native Anymore. 


Exotic plants aren’t the only “invasives” in our native gardens. We also have to deal with exotic soil ecologies and the exotic soil organisms that make them up, for example, in the Great Lakes region, earth worms. 
That’s right, in the Great Lakes region, north of Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, ALL earth worms are an “invasive species.” 
Mic. Drop.
All earthworm species in our region were driven out by glaciation in the last ice age, just as St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Well, except for they were worms instead of snakes. And St. Patrick was massive sheet of ice.
If you’re having trouble believing this, you’re not alone. I’ve had folks with advanced degrees in life  sciences argue fiercely that this couldn’t possibly be true, and that earth worms were GOOD for plants, which means they must be good for native plant gardens, too.
So, before we go any further:
The Wikipedia article on Earthworms as an Invasive Species:
From the Smithonian:
And NPR:
And a quick Google Search will reveal many organizations dedicated specifically to stopping the spread of these invasive species that we so gleefully invite into our gardens.
By the way, if you guessed that the picture at the top of this article was earth worm cocoons, then you guessed right. Gold star for you.
You see, this “invader” status is exactly what makes worms so useful in our vegetable gardens: we’re trying to grow vegetable plants that evolved in ecologies with earth worms and the diverse bacterial soil community worms encourage.
Earth worms don’t just live in the soil, they make it. They are the primary soil architects in their ecosystems. Another “keystone species.” They fundamentally change the soil ecology, enriching it with a great diversity of non-native bacteria from their gut flora. Where you have worms, bacteria dominate the soil microflora, instead of the fungi that dominate non-wormy native soils. 
These wormy soils rapidly convert decaying matter into a nitrogen-rich super-food for our vegetables (and weeds.) But our native plants evolved in soils without worms. Without worms, the soil surface builds up a thick “fungal duff” that lasts for a much longer time, freeing up nitrogen at a slower rate and releasing it in different forms. So, our native plant communities evolved to be able to compete well in this slower environment, steadily converting that slow nitrogen release into long-term perennial growth. 
This means that natives, with their slower metabolisms, just can’t metabolize that “junk food,” so they can’t compete with “weeds” that evolved to turn that super-fuel into rapid growth. It’s a “tortoise vs. hare” thing, but in wormy soils, the odds are stacked against the “native” tortoise.
The Moral to the Story:
“What’s it all mean?”
Simply put, we have so many problems with “invasive weeds” because we’re trying to grow “native” plants in non-native plant communities, in non-native ecologies, without their most important keystone species (native Americans) on non-native soils dominated by non-native soil life. The natives just didn’t evolve for that challenge. 
Well, what on earth do we do about this?!”
Hey, I’m not the boss of you. If you love your garden of pure native flowers, fantastic! Keep on keepin’ on! If I happen to pass by it, you’ll make my day, and if I get a chance I’ll thank you for it! 
But if you’re stressed out about “invasive weeds” there isn’t a thing I can give you – not even a well-functioning time machine – that can eliminate weeding and maintenance problems in these non-native “native gardens.” That’s just part of the deal, and it always has been, even before the “invasive weeds” came along. 
On the other hand, if you’d like to put this new ecological knowledge to work for you, to make your environmentally friendly “native garden” even more beneficial while simultaneously reducing your maintenance work, here are four great Permaculture tips for making your native garden even better:
 1. Try to Plant in Native Ecologies. Remember that map up yonder? In the Great Lakes region, that means that your young disturbance ecology wants to become some kind of forest. This is called “natural succession.” You’ve got two choices. Either, you can go to eternal war with the process of natural succession to keep this natural process from happening, or you can let it happen, work with it and gently guide it along. Plant complete ecosystems including woody perennials and appropriately sized trees. 
2. Fight worms with “natural succession.” So, those invasive earth worms that are tag-teaming with the invasive plants? There’s only one way we know of to fight them back, and luckily, it doesn’t take a bunch of poisons from Monsanto or a bunch of imported oil from the Middle East. It’s the energy of forests. Soils dominated by woody perennial plants and the acidic “tannins” in their tissues are resistant to earth worms. So, if you plant complete ecosystems that mature into forest, over time, you can actually transform non-native, wormy soils into the native forest soils with a deep fungal duff that your native plants can finally thrive in! Once it gets to this point, it will be the exotics that get their butts kicked around the garden. 
3. Be patient, don’t be a purist. But until that time that your native ecology can transform your soils, there will be weeds. So, be patient and accept it. It’s probably more environmentally friendly to tolerate the presence of a few “invaders” than to waste energy, cause carbon pollution and spray poisons to “EXTERMINATE!” them. In fact, tilling, spraying, and disturbing the soil all destroy the growing soil diversity that will help soils move towards being more like native forest soils, so not only are you wasting resources to fight nature, you’re actually fighting against yourself. 
Better yet, why not work with those “invaders?” Many observers have noted long-term stable ecologies that include rare or endangered native plants along side “invasive” species. Permaculturists like Toby Hemenway  call these “recombinant ecologies.” So, if you keep endlessly weeding out the same species again and again, why not see if it can naturalize with your natives? Alone, your non-native plant community of native flowers will never be able to form a stable, self-regulating community on non-native soils. But with the inclusion of a few well-chosen “invaders” it’s possible that your garden can “click” and form an ecology that will be more stable and easy to maintain. 
4. Have your natives and eat them, too. If native flowers evolved in ecologies maintained by human agricultural activities, why not try to truly recreate this native ecosystem type by eating out of your garden? Your plants need your intervention as a “keystone species,” so why not reclaim your proper place in nature as a beneficial member of the ecosystem? And if your native garden requires energy input anyway, why not use that energy input to reduce your overall energy and environmental footprint by growing some of your own food? There are many native plants that make excellent fruits and vegetables. Not only are the delicious, but these “wild” plants are usually especially nutritious. 
Best of all, these native fruits and vegetables can be grown in a stable, low-maintenance and beautiful “food forest garden.”