North Island forest gardens: back to the future

Bees Knees columnists look to forest gardens on the North Island.

(Ed. note: This is the second of a two-part column. The first part ran in the Nov. 14, 2013 edition of the Gazette)

Touring the multi-level, artistically fenced, forest garden at Earth Embassy was one of the delights of last summer’s Yukusam journey.

Forest gardening is enjoying a revival in the temperate world, often under the monikers of edible forest, food forest, agroforestry, or permaculture.

As with the Yukusam cedar groves, edible forest gardening was practised in North America for centuries.

Yet little is widely known about its long history, partly because arriving European settlers did not or could not see existing forest gardens as agriculture.

Eventually the practice largely disappeared on this continent, though it remained commonplace in the tropics.

The term “forest garden” comes from using the forest as a metaphor and model; most forest gardens are not a forest at all. They are backyards, front yards, small holdings and farms predominantly planted in perennials.

Here we might grow sour cherries, saskatoons and hazelnut trees as the canopy or overstory, shade-tolerant huckleberries and herbs as an understory, shiitake mushrooms, salal, wasabi and forest strawberries as a ground cover or layer.

Vines may be vertically intertwined amongst the over and under stories, with annual vegetables — tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce — gracing the sunny forest edge or clearing.

Goals of forest gardening include producing an abundant diversity of tasty, nutritious food and other useful products in a stable, resilient garden ecosystem, driven by solar energy. A garden that largely maintains and renews itself, bouncing back in yield and ecosystem functioning if it’s stressed, just as the forest strives to bounce back after it is cleared, logged or bulldozed.

The resulting landscape is imbued with beauty, elegance and spirit. Forest gardens are most appropriate in regions like ours, where forests grow naturally.

Elsewhere these edible woodlands are created by converting farms and yards back to a forest-like habitat.

We can do that here, but it may also be to our advantage that we are still surrounded by regenerated natural woodland (realizing that it is not the original condition of the land).

From this we can add, subtract, and re-arrange plants and fungi, all the while adapting based on observation and study.

Decimating populations of native pollinators, worms, and other beneficial insects is not necessary. (90 per cent of insects are beneficial insects, from a human point of view.)

This type of cultivation is economically appealing as it requires few if any inputs that cannot be obtained locally.

Reliance on fossil fuel based products is avoided. Yes, fertilizers, pesticides, greenhouses, plastic mulches, row covers, high and low polytunnels are fossil fuel based.

Students play a game Grassroots Learning Centre called “Who works at the garden?”

Worms improve the soil, garter snakes eat slugs, insects pollinate plants.

Nature works even harder in an established forest garden: ground covers and canopies lessen nutrient leaching; alders, comfrey and bracken ferns enrich the soil; roots and fungi link the plants in a mutual underground support network. Humans work less.

How productive can these gardens be? The answer is just emerging.

In North America farms have been converted to profitable “forests”, individuals have created self-sufficient small holdings, and a number of commercial projects are well underway in British Columbia.

A regional answer will depend on the creation of more private and public spaces as beautiful, diverse and productive as the one we visited on Yukusam.

Dawn Moorhead and David Lang are longtime practitioners of organic agriculture. They welcome your comments or questions at organic9@telus.net