The road led eventually south, bypassing our home turf and moving down into Devon where we came to stay with old friends Adam and Jess living in their beautiful yurt outside Totnes.
We went off to the beach to enjoy the early spring sun and Grace had a lovely sand sandwich and danced and ran and squealed at the waters edge.
Following a lovely meal and an evening relaxing we headed off to the Dartington estate to meet up with Martin Crawford who runs the Agroforestry Research Trust
Martin is a renowned expert on forest garden systems and has written perhaps the most accessible and practical and comprehensive guide to establishing forest gardens in cool temperate climates. At this time of year the garden looks sparse, but having seen the garden a couple of summers ago it was interesting to be able to “see through” the space and get a different sense of the layout. In a couple of months it will be a veritable jungle of productive and varied species. Martin is growing some 500 species, and over the last 20 years this space has been transformed from a grass field over stood on three corners by conifers to become a highly designed and carefully established demonstration of Martins work.
“Forest garden” is perhaps a more appropriate description than “food forest” as forest gardens include the harvest of lumber, fibers, medicines and the array of other yields this agriculture offers. A forest in mid succession, ie, still developing and showing all the layers in the schematic below as opposed to the eventual mature predominantly dense canopy structure where low light levels reach the forest floor, yields crops on many distinct layers, maximizing the use of 3D space in a way monocultures simply cannot compete with.
I like to explain the illusion of productivity of monocultures to students by explaining that biologically speaking, productivity implies biomass in a system factored against diversity. The result is that the ultimate expressions of regeneration, the true rainforests of this planet, tally up very differently to swathes of single crop annuals who may have apparently high biomass but singular diversity. It is this illusion that leads people to rest assured that conventional Ag is somewhat stable and consistent, which is quite desperately far from the truth.
Forest gardens mimic the “climax” communities in land based ecologies, our true forests. Climax community is a somewhat reductionist view of ecosystemic principles, where actually a dynamic equilibrium is reached that ensures populations of every species from early in succession (annual “weeds” then perennial “weeds”) all the way through (getting more complex and diverse alongside soil food webs as succession rolls on) to ensure repair mechanisms remain intact. The more we study ecology the more we see nature has incredibly fine tuned feedback loops that ensure balance and harmony in the apparent chaos. Really the universe seems to be chaordic, a dynamic and complexing relationship between chaos and order, and forest clearly demonstrate this. For ecologists forests are incredibly important teachers.
By understanding the patterns of change in the biological community over time (succession), and understanding the pattern language of a forest structure we can begin to replicate these systems to create incredibly beautiful and functional growing systems that get more productive, more rich, more stable and resilient year upon year whilst our maintenance and disturbance regimes become reduced. You do not need to be an expert in biology or botany to implement successful systems of this nature, just develop observation and interact in a timely and effective manner. By studying and designing in early to late fruiters, insectary and nectary sources, etc, throughout the year, as well as obviously carefully designing spacing’s and natural N sources and other functional interconnections between plants we can actually speed up natures processes and improve upon them to meet our needs whilst restoring degraded landscapes. By placing elements in succession together in their correct place and context we can work with this natural order in nature rather than against it which is the great limitation of annual cultivation.
With Martin CrawfordThe trouble with this ancient art is that tilling soil and caring for the inbred sappy plants that nearly all our vegetables are actually causes nearly all the problems we then spend incredible effort fighting against. Most plant pathogens are aerobic nd are usually dormant due to oxygen levels and the ethylene cycle in healthy soils. Forcing the site into an oxidized state by ploughing or digging wakes them up (their normal function is recycling nutrients in plant soluble form on or near the soil surface, eg, when a tree ages and dies, and completing the loop between fertility and decay). Also, tillage selects for bacterial domination in the soil, the annual veg are therefore competing against grasses and “weeds” (earth REPAIR mechanisms!) constantly, hmmm, clear who the winners usually are! Forest soils are far more complex and fungi dominated. Indeed our apple trees grow optimally in soils with 100:1 fungi:bacteria ratio, which cannot easily be sustained in traditional grass floored monoculture situations! Forest soils take a long time to form, and forest grow on dead forests. Fungi are slower to take hold and establish, and soil development is the fundamental key underlying forest gardening, well all food production to be fair. Its one thing we humans, as primary stewards of this planet do very badly at this time on earth. 24 Billion tons a year are washed downstream, 4 tons per person on the planet per year! And, if like us, you understand even the basics of soil formation, that figure sends a little shock down the spine. The implications for aquatic, and later down the line marine systems, are obvious. Fortunately soil can be built and developed rapidly, unfortunately there are few farmers left on this planet that practice these techniques.
If you are interested in design and consultancy for your Forest Garden get in contact or check out www.integralpermanence.org
Also look out for updates applying these principles to broadacre agriculture, including Silvoarable and Silvopasture developments around the world.
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