If you google “forest garden” the first things you will see are about ranges of products stocked by nationwide chainstores and invitations to visit city parks and botanical gardens. Ignore them all until you come to the Agroforestry Research Trust, where you will find this definition:
A Forest Garden is a designed agronomic system based on trees, shrubs and perennial plants. These are mixed in such a way as to mimic the structure of a natural forest – the most stable and sustainable type of ecosystem in this climate.
That might sound a bit complicated, but the key word is “natural”. Forest gardening is all about trying to imitate nature. And why would we want to do that? Maybe you can think of some reasons yourself, but we will come back to that question. Again and again.
In the meantime, let me tell you why I am writing this blog. I’ve been part of the group that created Tayport Community Garden since before we were even called PLANT. I had dreams of community gardening and permaculture long before that. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how successful the garden is, and now we are planning to extend it just a wee bit further to incorporate a forest garden.
Forest gardening is strongly associated with permaculture, and permaculture has 12 principles, one for every month of the year. According to my permaculture calendar, the principle for August is ‘Obtain a yield’. If you look around the community garden, you can see this principle at work. At this productive time of the year, almost every part of it contains plants that are ready to eat or will be quite soon. But if you think of it, food for us to eat is only part of the yield. Here are some of the others that come to my mind:
- Fresh air for all those who work in the garden or visit it;
- Exercise for the same;
- Social connections – a lot of friendships have been formed at the garden;
- Exchange of knowledge – people learn from others and try new things in their own gardens;
- Education for the kids at the primary school;
- Therapy for our volunteers with special needs – and everyone else too;
- Local produce, to reduce those carbon-heavy food miles;
- Local produce also for resilience when panic-buying or extreme weather empties the shops;
- Hibernation space for insects (have you seen our bug hotel?);
- Pollen for the bees who are working on somebody’s honey production.
Well, I got to double figures so I think I can stop. Now try the same exercise with a farmer’s field full of carrots. Or oil seed rape.
A community garden is at the place where people meet food-growing, the edge of both fields, and like other edges, that is a very productive place to be. Community gardens can thrive without anybody involved knowing anything about permaculture, but whether they know it or not, permaculture is what they are practising. It is permaculture that gives the insight to see all those yields listed above. And permaculture is a tool that helps us to design growing spaces that will produce a wide variety of yields. Notice that the emphasis is on the variety of yields, not on the sheer quantity of any one of them.
That is the goal that we are pursuing with our new forest garden. And because none of us has ever planted a forest garden before, there is at least one more yield we can add to our list: research. We want to know how forest gardening can work best in our own small patch of ground.
If you would like to join us in this new adventure please get in touch with Ali Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.