Written by Case Wyse,
We then project that sense of separation onto every other living and nonliving thing with which we interact.” - Edible Forest Gardens Vol. 1, Dave Jacke
“I’ve always wondered why people call plants “wild.” We don’t think of them that way. They just comeup wherever they are, and like us, they are at home in that place.”
Clara Jones Sargosa, Chuckchansi Elder - Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson
Most gardeners are familiar with the concept of companion planting in which certain plants, like modern tomatoes, benefit from the natural pest protection provided by a nearby plant, such as the familiar herb basil. Basil not only provides pest protection, but also attracts pollinators and has a fairly compatible growth habit. This idea is familiar enough for any gardener to dig in their trowel.
Imagine now that we had plants capable of fertilizing each other and the plants we ate propagated themselves. Let’s make a leap and step back from the raised bed. What if we as gardeners, botanists, foresters and horticulturalists were to attempt to make a garden in which maintenance occurred virtually on its own? How could we even begin to dream of gardening without the mulching, the planting, and the watering? After all, what is gardening without these tasks, and how could we respect ourselves as gardeners if our most difficult task was to select which crops to harvest when? Theoretically, the Edible Forest Garden aims to hone in on and use the natural systems present at any location in combination with the proper placement of plants and preparation of the soil to accomplish these very feats.
Forest Gardening, or Permaculture, accounts for the disparity in modern agricultural logic by touching base with the reality of the ecological processes that developed from over 100 million years of co-evolution. Your average tomato plant, at some point in its ancestry, existed under conditions that predated agriculture. In these conditions the tomato’s ancestor out-competed other plants for sunlight and, most likely, developed an attractive fruit that ensured adequate seed dispersal. These features not only ensured propagation, but also allowed this plant to coexist in an environment with other plants exhibiting compatibly competitive characteristics. To expect this behavior from the modern tomato is simply foolhardy. From years of selection and a codependence upon farming techniques such as even watering and fertilizing, the tomato now suffers from diseases such as blossom-end rot.
Appreciating the Edible Forest Garden requires that the consumer expand their idea of what delicious produce looks and tastes like. With cornerstone species such as Sunchokes, a deliciously nutty perennial tuber known for its over-abundance, and Goumi, a shrubby berry-bearing nitrogen fixer, the edible forest garden relies heavily on the fact that both of these plants have the tendency to enrich the soil in which they are grown and proliferate.
Permaculture, the concept coined by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the 1970’s, attempts to utilize these competitive growth habits in combination with each plant’s preferred environmental conditions to construct a diverse multi-stored food forest which in turn requires minimal labor inputs but tends towards overproduction. Etymologically reducing to permanent agriculture, permaculture, like the forest, requires that any garden plan incorporate the dynamism and perpetual change inherent to forest succession.
Anyone who has forgotten about their comfrey for too long knows exactly what I mean when I talk about planning for change. The tough rhizome quickly spreads in fertile garden soil, can grow from a root segment the size of your thumb-nail, and has no problem shading out late bloomers. Most gardeners would be foolish to plant comfrey directly into their garden bed. Conversely, the edible forest gardener would be foolish to exclude this plant. Not only does it provide habitat to beneficial insects or generate quickly renewable vitamin-rich mulch, but it can also be used as a potently medicinal topical wound remedy.
Clearly, Forest Gardens represent several unique challenges and to say that there is no work involved would be a complete lie. The dirty truth lies in the fact that the planning stage requires diligence and painstakingly close attention to detail to successfully create the maintenance-free garden. In healthy natural biological communities, such as a forest, there are no unused resources and to simulate what nature has spent millions of years perfecting represents a monumental task. With that said, permaculture design courses are popping up across the nation. In New York alone, there is the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, Upstate New York Permaculture Network and The New York Permaculture Meetup.
Recently a new project in Seattle, Washington emerged from the efforts of a City of
Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Small and Simple Neighborhood Matching Fund (NMF) grant. Labeled the Beacon Food Forest and hardly even a year old, the project proposes a five year plan to cover 7.1 acres of land near Jefferson Park with various fruit tree guilds assembled into symbiotic poly-cultures. Overseen by two certified Permaculture planners, the project’s goals are targeted to improve public health,
reduce climate impact, and improve the security of our food supply. With the rising tide of ecological awareness and its relationship to a growing threat of food insecurity, projects like the Beacon Food Forest may just be the cure. After all, Mother Nature must have gotten it right.
Case Wyse is currently serving a year-long term as an Americorps VISTA with PathStone Community Improvement of Newburgh. His position responsibilities include coordinating the efforts within the community gardens, planning workshops and general support of the First-time Homebuyers Education program. Working closely with other non-profits in and around the city, Case continued the research ofprevious Americorps in developing an urban food security plan. Case received his Bachelor of Sciencefrom The Evergreen State College in 2011 where he studied Forestry, Botany, and Ecology.
In January of 2013, Orange Environment began an 11-month Permaculture Design Certification Course. To receive information about signing up for next year’s course email Peter Lai at firstname.lastname@example.org.