for all of life

I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago shortly before the coronavirus outbreak took such a tight grip.

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Forest gardens are not solely for their ‘owners’ and gardeners, really they are not even primarily for people – forest gardens are for life.

We are living in a time of environmental collapse and ecological disaster – brought about by human activity over centuries, but rapidly accelerated in our own lifetimes.

If we want our forest gardens to be solely or primarily for ourselves and we therefore set out to take as much from them as possible, with scant regard for the rest of the living ecosystem that is needed to support that taking – we will not actually be able to get what we want, because forest gardens – like the larger ecosystems in which they are embedded – require cyclical, reciprocal processes that support and enhance life, not linear extractive ones.

As a species we habitually behave as though we have no need to consider and co-operate with other living beings – rather we take for granted that we can have and take what we want, failing to see that we are fundamentally and totally interdependent with the rest of the living world.  (If only out of self interest) we need to start living and behaving very differently – though I would sincerely hope that we can muster much more appropriate intentions than that.

I think that there may be two very different (unhelpful) misconceptions about forest gardens and forest gardening around:
* firstly that you can plant a forest garden, step back and do absolutely nothing and then reap abundant harvests;
* or secondly that you can plant a forest garden and then garden it the same way as you would any other garden.

These misconceptions are both utterly off course – because their motivation and management rests on the human wants and behaviours that are at the root of the environmental and ecological trouble our planet is in.

Forest gardens are a co-creative venture with life in all the fulness that can be manifest in that place.  When they plan and plant the garden the forest gardener makes the first move – and from then on what happens is largely, but not entirely down to nature.  The difference between this and just letting things be is that the forest gardener seeks to integrate themselves into the forest garden ecosystem and to then see what is happening systemically and with regard for all of life.  This changes their understanding, their perspective and their activity.

It is a very different way of gardening – a way that I have been discovering for over ten years.  It is both subtle and powerful, inspiring and humbling.  A lifetime is nowhere near sufficient to learn what can potentially be learned.  Over those years I have taken everything in, watching and learning, gradually gathering understanding and insight.  All that I can express of this precious journey is in my forthcoming book which due to unforesteen circumstances is now due for publication in May – although given the current coronavirus crisis I guess there are no certainties at the moment.

Life – as we are being shown – is fragile and precious and we need to treat the rest of life with appropriate care and love.

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It is less than two weeks since I wrote this and our lives have already changed for ever.  May this be a time in which we can all take heed and take heart and learn to find our own niche in our gardens and in the wider world and society – a place where we are supported and from which we can give our love and support for all of life.

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Life as the measure — Forest Garden Wales Blog

As Jake says in his post we need – we must have – an ecological frame of reference, one that puts life first.  And because forest gardens embody and embed the natural world within them they invite us on a journey towards a different frame of reference, different ways of being, seeing and doing.  A forest garden is a place to meet life extending itself to us and inviting us to collaborate and co-create beautiful places:

 

Gross Domestic Product is a pretty useless measure of a country’s prosperity, it’s time to factor in the true cost of economic activity by using life as the measure Trees on the boundary of the forest garden, very much aliveDon’t know much about ecology, don’t know much economics either but what I do know is…

via Life as the measure — Forest Garden Wales Blog

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letting go of control

It is absolutely vital for a forest gardener to learn to let go – which is in effect to give up control.  Control is what we have historically and habitually used to mistreat the natural world (and each other) but it has no place in a forest garden.  There is activity, but it is always a co-creative, inter-activity with the garden.  My forthcoming book – the garden of equal delightsexplains this in detail, so in anticipation here are a few related explanatory excerpts.

“This is a testing ground for our intention to act on the understanding of everything that we have learned to this point. In other words that this is a co-creative venture with the natural world and requires only that we relax and have the integrity to let nature make its moves without vetoing them, without placing sanctions on what it does and without arbitrary, ill-considered and vain judgments. This will be difficult, but for now the new forest gardener can take refuge in their knowledge of ecosystems, biodiversity, soil fertility and the multiple abilities of plants. This knowledge is at least a buffer against the uncertainty and inevitable anxiety engendered by not being in control.”

“The fundamental functions planned for in a forest garden are but the bare bones (or maybe the bare branches) upon which nature can hang ever-greater complexity brought into the garden from beyond its boundary. Whilst the forest gardener can have a basic grasp of what is needed, what we are actually aiming to replicate is complex far beyond our understanding. And, precisely because of this complexity, much of it can be left directly to nature. The forest gardener cannot manage this alone; we must never think we can.”

“As a result, the forest gardener is released from the responsibility that they may be tempted to feel, of having to ensure that the forest garden works.”

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a forest garden is gardened differently

Part 2 of  my forthcoming book – the garden of equal delights – is about how a forest garden is gardened differently.  Here are a few quotes from the first chapter of that section to introduce the topic.

Principle 2:  First stop; don’t do anything until you need to and, in that prolonged pause let go

“Starting out by stopping may sound like the strangest bit of gardening advice you have ever heard.  However it is not just important, it is vital.  It is the heart of the matter.  To be a forest gardener is to embrace a freedom unknown in horticulture.  First in theory, and then in practice.  It means giving freedom away – passing it on freely, directly, happily, willingly, with trust and in time with love, to the forest garden.  To do this the gardener stops what they previously knew as gardening.”

The injunction to stop is in effect introducing a prolonged pause into the forest gardener’s life.  This is a powerful principle, which I took on experimentally in my initial eagerness to find out how little I could get away with doing.  But I learned much more than simply finding ways to avoid work: I learned that the garden was much better able to become the garden I was hoping for if I let nature get on with what it does day in and day out.”

Choosing to do less is crucial because it allows complexity to evolve.  The forest gardener and the forest garden evolve together, so loosen up, lighten up, give your garden some space, some freedom, some independence, some respect, some credit.”

polyfloral complexity evolving in the triangle bed

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a forest garden is a different garden

A forest garden is nothing like a conventional horticultural garden.

But what are the real and distinctive differences – the fundamentals?  After all a conventional garden may well have all the layers of a forest garden from tall trees down to ground covers, root crops and also including climbers.  A forest garden will however, almost certainly contain far more edible plants and it will also focus on ensuring that the trees and plants have a range of functions.  But a forest garden is so much more than the sum of these parts.  It is the ecosystem that is supported and facilitated by the structure and composition of the planting that changes everything.  And it is the ecosystemic aspect of a forest garden that is the absolutely crucial difference because this ecosystem includes the forest gardener.

A forest garden asks of the gardener their wholehearted participation to learn a new and very different way of relating to it.  It asks for a participation which will present the gardener with both profound challenges and deep and enduring rewards.  This is a participation that is simultaneously both delightfully simple and mind-blowingly complex.

It was to describe and explain the journey of becoming an integrated part of the forest garden ecosystem that I wrote my forthcoming book the garden of equal delights’ – a book which I hope will open doors to a different way of gardening that many of us never even knew were there before.

“In her deeply engaging book, she introduces you to the practice of forest gardening as a way that maximises the productivity and regenerative capacity of the whole person-garden relationship.” Dr Andrea Berardi, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Information Systems The Open University, UK

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filling in the gaps

I have just been reading through my old posts and realise there are some gaps to fill in – about filling in the gaps!

When I first planted fruit trees in the garden I had planned for them to be small, but not tiny.  I changed to a pruning system that kept them very small in 2016 and a couple of later I realised that doing this had opened up gaps in between – gaps where I could plant some more!  I only realised that at the very end of winter two years ago (2018) and excitedly ordered eight more fruit trees to add to the existing five!

  • two apples – Bramley’s Seedling (cooker) and Newton Wonder (dessert and cooker)
  • two plums – Marjorie’s Seedling and Victoria
  • one medlar
  • two gages – Deniston’s Superb and Cambridge
  • one cherry – Stella

They arrived at the end of March when it was still snowy, frosty and very cold.  Pat and I planted them as best we could in the hard ground in very unpleasant conditions and kept our fingers crossed that they would be okay.  We put one gage in the Long Border close to where a mirabelle I was experimenting with had died but all the other trees were planted in gaps between existing trees.

There wasn’t much to see at the time of planting:

Victoria plum in April 2018 a few weeks after planting

And there isn’t a lot to show now either, with it being winter.  Despite the close planting all the new trees have been growing well and the plums flowered and bore a couple of fruit each last summer.  Marjorie’s Seedling is even better than Victoria – and I have always loved Victoria plums.  I have my fingers crossed for a few more this year and maybe one or two gages but  I don’t expect the apples or medlars to fruit this year.

Last winter I couldn’t find a way to fit in any more trees, but instead – in order to satisfy my cravings for more plants – Pat and I created a curved border across the lawn and planted several viburnum lantana (wayfaring tree) and viburnum opulus (guelder rose) along it.  These viburnums were included specifically for their wildlife value – flowers for insects and berries for birds – and for being beautiful plants with lovely autumn colours. Several other viburnums also squeezed into the polyculture bed and the edge bed by the perimeter fence and yet more were planted in our wood with some other native species.

Last week Pat and I were out in the garden – in the cold again – planting even more trees!  Two more pear trees this time – Conference (which although it is common is in fact a heritage tree) and Packhams Triumph a local heritage variety.  The conference pear is planted close to where there was a damson died several years ago having not liked its radical pruning.  I had left the stump in for birds to perch on, but pulling it out made an easy hole in the frozen ground to pop the new one into.  The Packham’s pear is planted in a new extension to the long border also carved out in the very cold, but beautiful, weather of last week.

I fell in love with crab apple trees last autumn when I saw some amazing colours at Chirk Castle and accordingly have also planted an ornamental crab apple in the border with the viburnums.

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three forest garden essentials

The three forest gardening essentials are biodiversity, biomass and perenniality – because:

  • biodiversity strongly supports a healthy and resilient ecosystem
  • biomass strongly supports soil fertility
  • perennial trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants support the living food web in the soil
  • together these three fundamental facets of forest gardens encourage all kinds of abundance for people and other living creatures[i]

However of the three carefully chosen biodiversity can encompass both biomass and perenniality.

A forest garden can be likened to a stage that is being designed and constructed for a play – the forest gardener is akin to the theatre designer and the stage manager – getting the right scenery and props assembled in the right place at the right time to facilitate the best possible performance.  However although they may be seen scurrying around in the darkness behind a curtain shifting scenery their role is not to actually appear in the play – that is for the cast of actors.  And in this analogy the cast is all the members of the natural world who can find some food, make a home or just spend a bit of time hanging around in the forest garden before becoming dinner for someone else.

This is not an exact parallel, but I hope it sets the scene (as it were) for the understanding that nature is far more important than the gardener for everything that happens in the forest garden and that including as much diversity as possible gives nature the greatest scope to bring on the real stars of the show, that enliven and invigorate everything about the fledgling ecosystem.

Now – as the days begin to lengthen, as the first bulbs are peeking above ground and the snowdrops will soon be out – this is the time for planning and for starting some of the planting.  It is the ideal time to consider how much and what kind of biodiversity to incorporate into a forest garden design or to add to an existing garden.

There is diversity of size and shape – both above and below ground, of purpose and of function, of plant family and variety and of growth and flowering and harvesting time – and thinking about all these things can start to make your head spin.  But it doesn’t necessarily have to be all done at once and making a gentle start with incremental additions to a forest garden is just as valid as trying to get everything going all at once.  I think it is a matter of personal style and preference (and it can also be a financial consideration as plants are not cheap).

Right now, whilst they are dormant, this is the time to choose and plant bare root fruit trees and bushes.  I already have quite a lot of fruit trees but every year I seem to find out that there is room for more!  I haven’t decided on everything I am going  to plant yet and I would really like to try some unusual fruits that I have been yearning for.  I always find that browsing website provides plenty of food for thought and opportunities to consider plants and trees I may not have been aware of and here are a few I have been looking at lately:

[i] For further details / explanation of how and why see Jacke and Toensmeier volume 1, my book Edible Perennial Gardening or my forthcoming book the garden of equal delights.

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