The unchallenged perception we have all grown up with is to see nature on one ‘side’ and people on the other ‘side’; meaning that the ‘natural world’ is that remnant which is not under the jurisdiction or control of people. However there is a growing recognition that we need the natural world and conversely (and maybe seemingly paradoxically) that the natural world actually needs us.
Gardens are places where the natural world and people meet and interact, but there are degrees of meeting and of interaction. At one end there is strict control – I am thinking of the superb but very regimented floral displays in our local park. They have their own beauty, but they are completely artificial and can only be maintained by keeping strict control and lots of hard work. The opposite is what many people would regard as a ‘neglected’ garden where ‘weeds’ ‘run riot’, where brambles proliferate, dandelions bloom freely and the nettles grow tall. Yet nettles, brambles and dandelions are all valuable food plants for insects and play a vital role in keeping our wild ecosystems intact.
In between these extremes, less formal gardening styles, and the new-ish trend of leaving some space at the margins or edges for wildlings is not enough. We need to move to a place where we value and welcome the wild in all its aspects as our vital co-creator.
“So where is the wild?”
“The wild is away from here, far away, or so we think. We may think that we rarely encounter the wild, and certainly I have never seen a wild tiger or elephant or shark or polar bear or any other exotic wild animal in their natural habitat. But I have seen a worm.”
“There are no tame worms. There are no tame spiders or blackbirds, or frogs, beetles and hedgehogs. Although some of their cousins are caged animals in zoos and parks and also laboratories of course. The wild is everywhere… in the soil, in the air, the wind, the rain, in the water, in every being in the garden. The wild is in weather, in the cold frosty, freezing blizzards of winter, in the torrents of rain turning the ground to a mud bath and flooding homes and businesses, in the gales blowing trees over. This weather we can easily recognise as wild, but equally wild is the mild warmth of spring, the full-bodied hug of summer and in the clear and mellow autumn days. It may be more apparent sometimes than others but the weather is always wild and is always determining our welfare.”
“We cannot survive without everything the wild is and does.”
the garden of equal delights p147-148
To effect beneficial changes on a sufficiently large scale in our gardens and the landscapes beyond we need radically changed hearts and minds. Given that for centuries, or even millennia we have seen nature as an adversary and that this relationship is deeply imprinted within our psyches there is often huge resistance to change.
So how can we come to an integration or a meeting point between gardens that are subject to human control and domination and the those we consider to be neglected? Given that many of us find gardening immensely pleasurable and rewarding how can we find a way to use our own pleasure in participating with the landscape to bring about greater benefit to both us and the wider world?
One way is to plant a forest garden.
“A forest garden is both a planned landscape and a functioning ecosystem that takes its composition, form and structure from a natural woodland. It is a naturalistic landscape, but not an entirely natural or wild one. Humans are an integral part of a forest garden but they must accept and learn their own place within the ecosystem.”
The prime attribute of a forest garden is that it is (intended to be) an ecosystem; and simply put that means that nature is largely in charge. Which in turn means that the gardener is not. The forest gardener is asked to integrate themselves within the ecosystem, rather than to maintain their distance from the apex of a self imagined place of control and importance. We humans are not separate, we are an integral part of our ecosystems and we need to find out what that means and how to live accordingly. This means that a forest garden is asking the forest gardener to be a very different gardener who gardens differently to anything they have ever done in the past.
A forest garden is not a natural assembly of plants, rather it is a contrived selection of plants chosen to play a range of different functions (fill a number of ecological niches) in the garden. Once planted the garden ecosystem is open to whatever influences and visitors come by – new plant and animal members of the fledgling ecosystem bring additional biodiversity, fill more ecological niches, and thereby start to increase the health, fertility, and resilience of the garden. New plants that just arrive will be largely wild natives (known to many as ‘weeds’), but which are often far more valuable to the garden ecosystem than many that were initially chosen. It is now time to see that a healthy and functioning ecology cannot be sustained amongst isolated fortress gardens, we need to let go and let nature in. In time natural processes come to predominate and the forest gardener becomes used to their new role as nature’s true partner and not her manager.
The old gardening tasks of composting, ‘weeding’, dead heading and more become unnecessary. ‘Pest’ control is a thing of the past, protecting crops is not necessary. This all adds up to a very different experience for the gardener. It is challenging, vital and in many ways extra-ordinary (outside of the ordinary). It is not the wild, but it has significant elements of the wild, it is not controlled, but it has human participation that is gentle, wise, and appropriate. It is a place of coming together, of healing and of hope.
This will, I know, not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. We are all different, we have our own views and hopes, but for people who want to find a wilder and more natural side to their own self and to experience the exhilaration of letting go of control this path offers a unique opportunity to do just that. This is not about redrawing the line between us and nature – it is about rubbing it out entirely. We are nature and nature is us. We are life and we need to support all of life.
Learning these things takes time – it is a journey. I call it the polyculture path to the heart of the garden, and you can read much more about it in my book ‘the garden of equal delights‘.
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