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. 

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Nepalese Forest Gardens ("Home Gardens")

  1. Cool stuff! I've often heard about tropical home gardens but it's nice to see and read in more detail. The video showed more annual vegetables than I would've imagined in a typical system, but that could be for a number of reasons: 1) That's what more people are used to thinking of as “food” or “gardening” and therefore thought to be of more interest to an audience; 2) The system(s) featured were younger in establishment and woody perennials weren't yet up to size or were on the margins; 3) The folks featured are leaning more heavily on annuals than perennials for whatever reason, maybe a pressing need to produce as much food as possible as quickly as possible. I did like seeing a bit of the hedgerows and fruit trees, and woody plants brought as fodder for livestock.I love the fact that it highlights how people's social lives and economic livelihoods are enriched by these systems, beyond their utility and beauty. Seems like such an obvious win-win, and also reminds me of John Liu's documentary on the Loess Plateau in China.

    . Would be interesting to see a comparison between tropical home gardens and cold-climate Russian “dacha gardens”, the species are different but the scale, intensity of maintenance and productivity seem similar.

  2. Thanks PJ, I think the key difference between the gardens in this video and the perennial diversity you read about in descriptions of Nepalese “home gardens” is that these are young, a-traditional home gardens, copies of the originals being taught to under-privileged members of society. “Dacha gardens” are weird things, since they were a result of bizarre governmental policies, rather than an evolved land-use. They were created by Tzars as a means of rewarding political allies, and later confiscated by the soviets, but then used for identical purposes. Really, they're very similar to the British “Allotment” system, caused by very similar political issues (lack of land access for homesteads) and resulting in remarkably similar outcomes. In a way, the dachas are a “worst case scenario” of a people forced to garden away from home, and it's incredible that under such inefficient circumstances dacha gardens reportedly produce 40% of Russias food. In my opinion, the real Russian land-use of interest for Permaculturists is the Kulak farms of the past. These were an evolved traditional homestead landuse pattern in Tzarist Russia, similar to those seen elsewhere in East Europe. They were a system of living that evolved in regions with little centralized government authority and oversight. Eventually seen as a caste or class, the Kulaks, though financially poor, were seen as being wealthy, since they owned small-holdings, limited livestock and diverse gardens, had beautiful healthy lives and plentiful food. In the failing days of the Monarchy, the Tzar looked to ally himself with the Kulaks, and spread their way of life as a form of decentralized revolution, giving peasants a proven path to prosperity. When the revolution came, the Kulaks, though they had no money or political power, were seen as capitalist enemies of the people and heaviliy persecuted. During the starvation of WWII, the Kulaks came to be hated, because they remained well-fed and healthy while everyone else grew thin. Their land was seized and given to cooperatives, and their growing techniques “modernized.” Kulak farmers, moved to the cities could only hope to acquire a dacha, where they could recreate some small part of their family's cultural traditions….Sad and fascinating story. I often think history missed out on a Kulak economic revolution that would have looked much like the one we Permaculturists have in mind.

  3. And, for those unfamiliar with Dachas (Russian vacation cottages) and Kulaks (a prosperous class of pre-soviet farmers) the wikipedia articles are decent places to start, though they lack a good Permaculture analysis:Dachas: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/DachaKulaks: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/KulakStolypin Reform, the Tzarist policy intended to spread the Kulak way of prosperity, which in many ways mirrors Permaculture's approach to “funding the revolution.” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/stolypin_reformThis would make fertile ground for a Permaculture research project, and it's also a fascinating story.

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