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Forest Gardening

Cultivating an Edible Landscape

by Robert Hart

234 pages, paperback, Chelsea Green, 1996

Blending history, philosophy, anthropology, and seasoned gardening wisdom, the essays Forest Gardening describe the benefits of agroforestry and explain how to create a forest garden.

Quotes from Forest Gardening

"For me the idea of a system of land use capable of supplying all basic human needs, consisting mainly of trees and other perennial plants with no livestock component, was a case of gradual evolution. While I was writing my first book, The Inviolable Hills, Eve Balfour, one of the pioneers of the organic movement and founder of the Soil Association, who wrote the preface, sent me an article that I found more exciting than any detective story. The author, James Sholto Douglas, described a new system of land use that he was operating in the Limpopo Valley of southern Africa, which I felt had worldwide implications. Called Three-Dimensional Forestry or Forest Farming, it was pioneered by a Japanese, Toyohiko Kagawa, who will surely come to be acknowledged as a universal genius on a par with Leonardo da Vinci. Christian evangelist, scientist, novelist, poet, linguist, political reformer, and one of the founders of the Japanese trade union movement, Kagawa's concern with the total human condition was comparable with Gandhi's. In the 1930s the focus of his concern switched to the plight of Japan's mountain farmers, who were finding their livelihoods threatened by soil erosion caused by deforestation--a problem that has since spread to many other parts of the world. While studying at Princeton, Kagawa had come across J. Russell Smith's classic Tree Crops--A Permanent Agriculture, which emphasizes the value of the tree as a multipurpose organism, providing not only food and a host of other useful products, but also protection for soils and water supplies. Inspired by this book, Kagawa managed to persuade many of his country's upland farmers that the solution to their erosion problem lay in widespread tree-planting, and that they could gain a bonus from this if they planted fodder-bearing trees, such as quick- maturing walnuts, which they could feed to their pigs. Thus the three 'dimensions' of his 3-D system were the trees as conservers of the soil and suppliers of food and the livestock which benefited from them.

"Impressed by the vast potentialities of '3-D' Sholto Douglas, after meeting Kagawa in Tokyo, carried out a number of experiments in various parts of southern and central Africa, in conjunction with UNESCO, to test the applicability of the system to different soils and climatic conditions. Among trees that he found particularly useful were several leguminous bean-bearing trees, especially the carob and mesquite, which fertilize the soil for the benefit of grass and other plants by the injection of nitrogen, as well as providing food for people and animals.

"While collaborating with Sholto Douglas in the preparation of the book Forest Farming, which has been widely read around the world, I gave much thought to the possibilities of extending the system to temperate countries such as Britain. Observing the habits of my own cattle, it occurred to me that the traditional multispecies English hedgerow, which I saw being browsed throughout the year, even in the depths of winter, fulfilled some of the functions of Kagawa's and Douglas's fodder- bearing trees. Moreover, after reading Fertility Pastures by Newman Turner and Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable by Juliette de Bairacli-Levy, I realized the value of hedgerow and pasture herbs, not only as adding agents for the prevention and cure of disease. Some traditional English farmers believed, I am sure correctly, that if a cow felt she was sickening for some disease, she would seek out the requisite healing herb.

"On the basis of these findings, I developed by own '3-D' system, which I called OPS--Organic Perennial Subsistence farming. That involved 'cultivating' my hedgerows by encouraging the growth of plants that contained substances particularly nourishing for cattle, such as the elder, wild rose, and hazel, and sowing some of the many perennial pasture herbs recommended by Newman Turner, such as chicory, ribwort, yarrow, and sheep's parsley.

"But my primary aim was self-sufficiency, so I extended my system beyond livestock farming to include trees and other plants--mainly perennial--which would contribute to the health and welfare of human beings. In time, after I had adopted a vegan diet and for other personal reasons, the plant component completely replaced the animal one, and, after making a study of companion planting, I renamed my system 'Ecological Horticulture' or Ecocultivation.' I then discovered that other people were working along similar lines in other parts of the world and that the generally accepted generic term for all such systems was 'Agroforestry.' So I adopted that term for my own."

. . .

"From the agroforestry point of view, perhaps the world's most advanced country is the Indian state of Kerala, which boasts no fewer than three and a half million forest gardens. The state, a long, narrow strip of land between the Western Ghat mountains and the Arabian Sea, stretches down to India's southern tip. Though it is the most densely populated state in India, much of the land is infertile, acidic, and badly drained. Large parts of the coastline are marshy or comprise mangrove swamps, which are subject to periodic flooding and tidal waves. But the energetic, cheerful people, with a strong instinct for survival, have found constructive answers to most of their problems. And the leading, comprehensive answer is, in many cases, the tiny family forest garden with a wide diversity of plants and livestock and connections with local industry.

"Forest-garden-related industries include rubber-tapping, matchmaking, cashew-nut-processing, pineapple canning, the making of furniture, the building of bullock-carts and catamarans, the manufacture of pandamus mats, oil distillation, basket-making, and the processing of cocoa and of coir-fibers from coconuts. Many families are even self-sufficient in energy, running their own biogas plants, which are fed from human, animal, vegetable, and household wastes. The slurry from these plants, combined with crop residues and the use of nitrifying leguminous crops, eliminates the need for bought fertilizers. As an example of the extraordinary intensivity of cultivation of some forest gardens, one plot of only 0.12 hectare (0.3 acre) was found by a study group to have twenty- three young coconut palms, twelve cloves, fifty-six bananas, and forty-nine pineapples, with thirty pepper vines trained up its trees. In addition, the small holder grew fodder for his house- cow. Most gardens throughout the state have canopies of coconuts, towering over a multilayered structure of different economic plants. The name Kerala, in fact, means 'Coconutland.' "

"Because of these family forest gardens, most people in Kerala are to some extent self-sufficient in the basic necessities, above all food. Therefore, poor as they are, they are far better nourished than most other Indians. They can enjoy the two basic essentials of a nourishing diet: fruit and green leaves. Most Indians never see their national fruit, the mango, vast quantities of which are exported, fresh or in the form of chutney. But the Keralese grow their own mangoes n their own forest gardens, together with some sixty other nourishing food and fodder plants, medicinal herbs, and spices.

"The Keralese forest gardens are very intensively planted, on several levels, like the natural forest, so that their cultivation, the processing of their products, and looking after livestock provide full-time healthy occupations for most members of the families involved, which average six to eight people."

. . .
"There is a staggering neglect, not only of useful plants but of areas where useful plants can be grown, as indigenous peoples know. Areas such as the rain forests, with their vast diversity of plants whose uses are known or remain to be explored, are ruthlessly destroyed, to be replaced by pastures designed to provide a single food product--beef--in infinitesimal quantities compared to the productivity of the natural forest. The wastefulness of 'orthodox' agriculture and horticulture is unspeakable. Because it 'pays' best to specialize in only one product at a time, all other plants are neglected or destroyed. In exploiting a tropical forest for the sake of a single timber, such as mahogany or teak, all other plants, and even up to eighty percent of the timber trees themselves, are abandoned. Modern plant-breeding techniques have evolved the possibility of still further increasing the range of useful plants available, but many 'improved' hybrids can only flourish if heavily dosed with chemical fertilizers and sprays and copious irrigation, which puts them beyond the reach of all but the richest farmers and landowners. Hence the failure of the much-heralded 'Green Revolution' to solve the heartbreaking problems of food shortages in the Third World."
. . .

"In his landmark book, The One-Straw Revolution, Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka argues in favor of a 'do- nothing' agriculture, one that focuses only on those tasks that are absolutely necessary to ensure natural order and balance. 'When you get right down to it,' he writes, 'there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary.' "

. . .

"A forest garden requires thoughtful planning at its inception, and lots of work to get it planted and well established. Yet as the garden's trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials mature, less and less effort is needed to maintain what has become, in effect, a largely self-regulating system. Rather than having to do all of the tilling, raking, seeding, transplanting, and other tasks required in an annual garden, a forest gardener need only perform regular maintenance--simple tasks that soon become an enjoyable extension of ordinary walks and daily observation of plants in the garden. Judicious pruning or weeding keeps plants in balance with one other. Mulching deeply with organic materials enriches the living soil, conserves moisture, and suppresses weeds. Harvesting is probably the most time-consuming task in the forest garden--and picking fresh, delicious food for the table on a daily basis is the one chore that almost no one finds onerous or tiresome."

. . .

"An old orchard makes a very good nucleus for a forest garden, unless the trees are severely diseased. My forest garden was planted in a twenty-five-year-old small orchard of apples and pears, some of which were in a pretty poor condition. But the abundant aromatic herbs that have been planted beneath them seem to have rejuvenated them; a decrepit- looking 'Red Ellison' apple was given a new lease of life when Garnet grafted three young 'King of the Pippins' shoots onto it-- a trick that was known to the ancient Romans. These old trees constitute the 'canopy' of the forest architecture. If one is starting a forest garden from scratch, the best way to form a canopy is by planting standard apples, plums, or pears at the recommended spacing; twenty feet each way. Then fruit or nut trees on dwarfing rootstocks can be planted halfway between the standards, to form the 'low-tree layer,' and fruit bushes between all the trees to form the 'shrub layer.' Herbs and perennial vegetables will constitute the 'herbaceous layer,' and horizontally spreading plants like dewberries and other Rubus species, as well as creeping herbs such a buckler-leaved sorrel (Rumex scutatus) and lady's mantle, will form the 'ground-cover layer.' For the root vegetables, mainly radishes and Hamburg parsley, occupying the 'rhizosphere,' a low mound can be raised, so that they will not be swamped by the herbs. As for the climbers that constitute the 'vertical layer': grapevines, nasturtiums, and runner beans can be trained up the trees, while raspberries and hybrid berries, such as boysenberries and tayberries, can be trained over a trellis fence, forming a boundary to the garden."

Table of Contents of Forest Gardening

  1. Towards a Forest Economy
  2. Unity and Diversity
  3. Health and Wholeness
  4. Personal Pilgrimage
  5. The Wenlock Edge Project
  6. Plant Life: Its Infinite Potentialities
  7. Design and Maintenance
  8. Water and No Water
  9. Stored Up Sunshine: Energy Yesterday and Tomorrow
  10. The Thinking Hand: Skills of the Craftsman
  11. Agroforestry Against World Want
  12. Green is Real
  13. Where Do We Go From Here?

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