We farm in the forest. Correction: the farm is an ongoing reforestation project. Correction: the farm is the forest. What this means, on a personal practical level, is that I don’t need to wear sunscreen, and the heat is not nearly as bad as it would be if we were farming in a field in the mid-day Nicaraguan sun. This also means that we actively participate in the production, evolution, and maintenance of an ecosystem. The forest is a cultural phenomenon.
Permaculturalists have a term for these types of systems: edible forest gardens. What exactly does that mean? Dave Jacke defines edible forest gardens as, “perennial polycultures of multipurpose plants” (Jacke, 2005). Most plants in an edible forest garden regrow every year without replanting: perennial. Many species grow together in beneficial relationships: a polyculture. And each plant contributes to the success of the whole by fulfilling many functions: Multipurpose. In other words, “a forest garden is an edible ecosystem, a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production” (Jacke, 2005).
Edible forest gardens provide more than just food. There are plants that provide fibres for construction and building materials, plants that provide natural fertilizers to continuously build up the soil, fodder plants to feed the animals, plants for natural dyes and colouring, and medicinal plants for everything from headaches to cuts and bruises.
A forest garden is designed, to the greatest extent possible, for self-renewal, self-fertilization, and self-maintenance (Jacke, 2005). For self-renewing forest gardens, perennial plants and self-sowing annuals are often featured as the main cast. For self-fertilization, plants that fix nitrogen and amass soil minerals, or act as mulches, are often selected. For self-maintenance, food and shelter are provided for insectivorous birds and predatory and parasitic insects. In addition, pest and disease problems are reduced by planting in mixed plant communities, rather than in homogenous blocks.
Forest gardens are designed so that plants are stacked in multiple layers: from plants in the soil, to edible ground covers, to herbs and shrubs, to small trees, to a food bearing canopy overhead. The distribution of plants across horizontal and vertical space disrupts competition for root space and minerals, and aims to create beneficial relationships instead. The distribution of diverse harvests across time ensures that food and materials are available throughout the year, rather than all at once.
Essentially, edible forest gardening is “the art and science of putting plants together in woodlandlike patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystems that is more than the sum of its parts” (Jacke, 2005).
What amazes me, and inspires me, is the opportunity that forest gardening presents to human beings on this planet. We have an opportunity to reintegrate ourselves as conscious participants in the co-creation and co-evolution of life systems on this planet. This isn’t hubris. Our actions and inactions already determine ecosystem health and evolution across the planet. We are like gods. We might as well start learning how to be responsible gods.