And I will repeat it with emphasis – forest gardens are amazing but they are not a panacea.
I could not be a bigger fan of forest gardens and forest gardening and it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that forest gardening has profoundly changed my life. Forest gardens are beautiful, vibrant, healthy and abundant places bearing all kinds of edible plants and I will return to wax lyrical about their benefits in a future post. Perhaps it is this deep love for and delight in forest gardens that raises my concerns when I read online or hear people advocating forest gardening as a near universal panacea by asserting that it is a better and potentially more productive means of growing food than conventional means. (Here I am speaking only of forest gardening and not of the related, but different, techniques of agro-forestry.) I have read / heard the same people also advocating that forest gardening is either totally maintenance free or paradoxically requires intensive management.
I will return to how much maintenance or management or attention or loving care a forest garden may need in another forthcoming post; but for now want to say a bit about forest gardens and productivity –which is to say that I now see that focussing on productivity is actually missing the point. Making such statements may be a triumph of enthusiasm over experience and my current understanding is not where I started out either. When I first heard about forest gardens it was their potential for productivity that attracted me – and certainly it is an attractive proposition. However I have learned that once you become fully involved in a forest garden your primary focus changes completely from what you thought it would be at the beginning.
A forest garden is conceived as an ecosystem – that the forest gardener first planned and then planted. From that point on the forest gardener is not a controller at the apex of a hierarchy of domination. Rather they become but one member among an ever increasing many in this fledgling ecosystem. One member – with their own niche or role within that system – to tend the garden for the benefit of everything growing there and everything else that visits it or that may visit it. This altered role has many, many facets – there is a huge amount to learn.
On the subject of productivity one crucial thing is to learn that the forest gardener needs to ‘harvest only enough’. No matter how productive the garden is or may become the human requirement for food is only one consideration among the many other beings who could and should equally dine there. Sometimes this entails what we have previously called ‘competition’ – for example when the cabbage white butterfly caterpillars start eating the kale and the slugs and snails nibble other greenery. I have learned that these occurrences may well be positive for the garden and they are certainly not to be outright condemned as negative.
First and foremost the forest gardener must learn to know their garden. There is food to be had – and not just for them. There are many decisions to be made and they are all a matter of judgement – a judgement that requires the overall interests of all of life are included. This involves a very different mindset to our conventional cultural expectation that all the world’s resources are just for us.
There is so much more I could say right now, but this post is just a taster. The intricacies of tending a forest garden are the subject of my forthcoming book ‘the garden of equal delights’ which is due for publication sometime in the new year. It is the culmination of years of being with and in my forest gardens past and present, and is written with the aim of opening up sensitivity to what is going on right before our eyes and learning to apply that sensitivity in every action and activity the forest gardener undertakes.