In my writing, I’ve alluded to that fact that I am cultivating an “edible forest garden,” though I haven’t fully explained what I mean when I use the phrase. The answer is complicated. Edible forest gardening is one of the earliest modes of cultivation, but it would be difficult to demarcate the point in human history where we started shaping our environment by intention and not by simply living in it. At some point, we stopped just planting trees by accident when we threw out the pits of fruit we ate and started planting them on purpose to intentionally make our environments richer.
In most tropical biomes, the traces of forest gardening can be seen that are contemporaneous to the neolithic agricultural revolution of the Near East. Archaeological studies of pollen in the Amazon, for example, show that the forest, far from being untouched or pristine virgin lands, has been shaped by human intention and cultivation for at least 11,000 years. Forest gardening is at least as old as the domesticated cereal crops that we now depend on.
The concept took until the 1980s to reach the temperate zones, with Englishman Robert Hart pioneering the cooler-climate edible forest garden. It was not an unnatural leap to make: After all, small farmers have long combined fruit- and nut-tree cultivation and vegetable gardening. On a larger scale, agroforestry concepts like alley cropping, silvoarable and silvopasture systems began to approach the same principles.
Simply put, an edible forest garden works on a principle of biomimicry. That is, mimicking the way plants work together in nature in order to stack layers of productive cultivation on top of one another.
In an edible forest, plants are arranged in “guilds,” taking in to account factors like light, soil needs, moisture, growth habit, size and root structure. At a more complex level, this thinking integrates concepts like nitrogen fixation, a symbiosis whereby mycorrhizal bacteria living in nodules on a plant’s roots fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil; allelopathy, a plant’s chemical defense mechanisms that deter competitors; insectary qualities, attracting pollinators and beneficial insects to key areas; and nutrient cycling, where so-called “fountain plants” with deeper roots cycle deeply buried soil nutrition to the top layer of soil via yearly leaf litter.
Water needs are met through naturalistic designs, like swales and berms, which direct the flow of water and store it in the landscape passively. Water resources are protected using heavy mulch and leaf fall, which keeps the soil cool and shaded, preventing evaporation. Nutrition is provided via the decomposing plant biomass and the addition of food and animal waste. Ideally, a productive guild—and by extension, a productive edible forest garden—would require no chemical fertilizers and very little (if any) irrigation. Human energy is preserved by focussing on longer-term productive crops, like fruit and nut trees, perennial vegetables and self-seeding annuals.
The resulting systems, if well-designed, create their own inputs just as a natural forest does. The key difference, however, is that the edible forest garden is designed with plants that are directly beneficial to humans, producing fruits, nuts, tubers, vegetables, nectar, dyes, spices, herbs or timber. Basically, everything in the edible forest garden should serve a purpose and fit an ecological niche.
Planning an edible forest garden is no small feat. There are zoning laws and architectural controls that make this kind of project more difficult for the urban or suburban gardener. I make a number of compromises in terms of beautifying my otherwise naturalistic style of cultivation in order to meet those expectations. For example, I integrate a fair number of ornamentals into my young forest garden, which provide a welcome lushness while the trees and shrubs are becoming established.
Further, there is no way around the amount of reading that this style of cultivation requires: I always have my nose in some article or another, learning the ins-and-outs of a plant’s biochemistry and ecological niche. Edible forest gardening requires a passion for learning about plants and a holistic view of how they are integrated into their larger biome.
However, as I get better at planning and the system gets more mature, the amount of labor I put into it is greatly reduced. Working with nature rather than against it allows for a bit more time to sit back and contemplate the garden, rather than micromanaging it.
About the Author: Lynsey Grosfield is the founder of BiodiverSeed, a global seed swap network devoted to the exchange of self-harvested, organic and heirloom seeds with the goal of preserving maximum genetic diversity. Follow BiodiverSeed on Twitter.