A refreshingly different approach to food forests

I’ve just been reading a post by Tom at Sustainable Veg with the intriguing title: A Forest Garden Without the Forest.

It first caught my eye because of my scepticism about permaculture “food forests” as an efficient use of land for producing our daily meals.  I’m not talking about the food forests that surround hamlets and households in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.  I’ve had a lot of contact with these, and in general these food forests are fruit, leaf and herb production areas, often with some poultry, and which also provide shade to cool the area around the house.  Their production supplements the range of day-to-day basic foods from more distant wet or dry rice areas or upland gardens.

My scepticism relates to the tendency of many permaculture followers to focus the majority of their production efforts on food forests dominated by fruit trees of one type or another.  And there seems to be a common belief that if it doesn’t have a food forest, then it isn’t permaculture.  Permies coming into a new garden will frequently ask “where’s your food forest?”.  Of course, many people with food forests also have “kitchen gardens”, but even so, there is often a serious over-allocation of area and effort to the food forest, out of all proportion to the negligible volume of “staples” produced there and the generally low productivity per unit area.

As Tom says in another post: “Billions of people need feeding … (w)e can be an alternative, organic movement but we need to produce carbohydrate, protein and vitamin dense food, in large amounts…” (I’m not suggesting here that Tom shares my views on food forests – to be honest, I don’t know).

A view of part of Tom’s garden – click on the image to go to a gallery of photos of the garden

Tom’s describes his back garden (he also has an allotment) as “a productive, organic, kitchen garden with substantial amounts of perennial vegetables, some annual vegetables and five dwarfing fruit trees”.  But he also calls it a forest garden, and refers to his techniques as forest gardening, and for good reason.

His reason for classifying his approach as forest gardening is that he is concerned with the ecology of the garden and of the soil, and therefore uses many of the techniques of forest gardening, while stopping short of trying to create either a closed tree canopy or a climax forest situation – not least because he doesn’t have the space to grow more trees without shading out his vegetables.  Nevertheless he has adopted an impressive array of permaculture / food forest techniques –

I’ll don’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading his post for yourself, but in summary these are the forest gardening techniques he uses:

  • Vertical stacking, with three diverse layers of plants, in association with individual fruit trees.
  • The use of support plants, with half the area of his garden devoted to these, but with the difference that he composts the prunings from the support plants before putting it around the food plants.  In this way he can focus on the needs of the support plants in one area and those of the food plants in another.  I also suspect, from what he writes and from the photos in his gallery (including the one above), that many of the things growing in his food production area are supporting each other.
  • Growing a wide range of perennial vegetables.
  • Adopting a “closed loop fertility” approach whereby he grows all of the ingredients for the compost on his own land.  You can see a separate post on it here.  I find this an admirable but daunting prospect.  I certainly wish I could imagine getting to that stage on our stony dry ridge.  At the moment the bulk of our compost ingredients come from off-site (but within 10km).

Please do yourself a favour and read Tom’s article for yourself.  What Tom has done is to apply the key food forest approaches without having his productive area dominated by forest.  I’m in awe of what he’s doing and the strong ethical approach he takes, and I’ll be adopting some of his approaches as I develop and expand our food production area.

As I finished writing this I noticed that Tom has added a post about compost which gives more insights into his approaches.  Enjoy.

2 thoughts on “A refreshingly different approach to food forests

  1. What lovely things you say about my blog. I have had more setbacks than would be allowable in a mature gardening style, so take what I have written as a record of my experimentation and not as a blueprint. I think it is entirely possible to achieve sustainable urban vegetable gardens in our back gardens but I have realised that vegetables demand much, much more fertility than I realised before, at least to achieve good yields. If I was creating a herbaceous perennial flower garden I would have reached my goal by now but vegetables are much more demanding.

    It is also not entirely closed loop as I use the compostable waste material from the house (except for human no2’s the composting of which we are just not ready for as a culture). All the fertility though is recycled waste (and I’m honest, I don’t go collecting waste to compost, this is normal waste that a normal couple would use) and biomass grown in the garden. I do use urine on the compost heap but this is an accepted practice, acknowledged even by the BBC.

    Thanks for the really nice review.

    • Nice to get your response Tom. I think that the value of your blog lies partly in the honest and open way you report on your approaches and the extent to which they succeed. That way the learning is shared.

      I’m continually thinking about “closed loops”- partly because that’s what I aspire to (though I realise that I’ll probably never achieve it at the vege garden level), but also because I wonder what scale we should be aiming for. Is it the garden level, the household level, the neighbourhood level, or what? I learned most of what I know about closed production systems from an amazing guy of Chinese descent called George Chan (google his name and “closed agricultural systems” and zeri). He worked at all scales, from small market gardens to massive Chinese farms producing tens or hundreds of tons of a variety of products. My impression was that the closed loops really become feasible when one can integrate a variety of production processes (e.g. ducks, fishponds, pigs), so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we can’t “close the loop” at the backyard vege garden level. It’s all a matter of intent and degree.

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