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Tuesday August 27, 2013 MYT 6:00:00 AM
Tuesday August 27, 2013 MYT 2:20:48 PM
by mary beth breckenridge
Crop diversity: Tom Crane is one of the organisers of the Glendale Community Garden in Akron, Ohio, and an advocate of food forests. Patterned after a natural forest ecosystem, the garden has a variety of layers – tall and short trees, shrubs, shorter plants, vines and low-growing ground covers. – MCT Photos
Nature’s ways of improving backyard gardening.
FEW of us associate forests with farming. But some proponents of sustainable agriculture say we can grow food more successfully and with less environmental harm by copying nature’s methods for growing plants in the woods.
They’re advocates of food forests –
gardens that are patterned after a natural forest ecosystem. Like a woodland, a food forest contains plants of different heights, genetic make-ups and growth habits, creating a mutually beneficial arrangement that results in better soil, reduced pest pressure and less need for human intervention.
A group of community activists used some aspects of the food forest concept when they created the Glendale Community Garden in West Akron, Ohio. They kept the mulberry trees and the raspberry and blackberry bushes that were growing on what used to be a vacant lot on South Walnut Street, and they hope to expand by planting more edible landscaping, said Jan Green, one of the garden’s organisers and a long-time farmer who now lives on the street.
Those trees and shrubs ramble in a naturalised area along the back of the lot, while the rest of the area is divided into plots tended by families, individuals and groups. Some of the plots are growing food that will be donated to a foodbank, and a berry patch planted by a scout troop is intended for neighbours to share. The group has also planted blackberries, raspberries and grapevines in the same vicinity as the chives, mint and other foods that were already growing there.
The organisers don’t try to control what’s grown in the garden plots, but the gardeners’ different preferences have resulted in the diversity of crops that’s one of the central tenets of forest farming. That diversity is called polyculture, which means growing multiple crops in the same space. The variety in the plants’ heights, genetics and flowering and fruiting times creates a more stable ecosystem that’s less susceptible to problems such as diseases, insect damage and weeds, and
is better able to bounce back when problems do occur.
The aim of a food forest is to create an arrangement that’s as close as possible to a self-maintaining ecosystem, said Dave Jacke, a Massachusetts landscape designer and environmentalist who designs food forests and co-wrote the two-volume book Edible Forest Gardens. Like a natural forest, the “lumpy” landscape of a food forest provides habitat for species that help keep pests in check and makes it harder for insects and disease to spread. Plants in a food forest perform multiple functions – producing food, improving the soil, providing a continuous source of natural fertiliser and perhaps provide shade and beauty, Jacke explained.
Food forests comprise both gardens that resemble forests as well as gardens created in forests that already exist. The latter is often called forest farming, and it’s a way to both improve forests and create income from them, said Ken Mudge, an associate professor in the horticulture department of Cornell University.
The foods and other crops that can be grown in an existing forest are limited, but they include fruits such as berries and pawpaws, and nuts such as walnuts and hickory, Mudge said. Two particularly lucrative crops that can be grown in that setting are shiitake mushrooms and American ginseng, which is more difficult to grow.
Managing light and shade
Growing in a forest requires thinning trees to let in light, but “managing shade is part of the game,” Mudge said. It’s also a benefit, because thinning a forest that’s over-crowded with young trees helps the remaining plants stay healthier.
Most people, however, don’t have a mature forest in their backyards, which is where the forest gardening that Jacke advocates comes in. A forest garden is designed to resemble a natural forest, which in its mature state would have a variety of layers – tall and short trees, shrubs, shorter plants, vines and low-growing ground covers.
However, Jacke said, a forest garden could be patterned on a forest at any stage of its evolution, not just its mature state. He said a more practical food forest for many people would be one that mimics a younger forest, with medium-height trees spaced widely to let in more light, along with shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Annual plants such as broccoli, tomatoes and peas could be mixed in, too, as long as they’re positioned where they’ll get plenty of sunlight. Jacke recommended growing plants that are naturally resistant to insects and diseases.
Planning an effective food forest takes some work and research, including clarifying the gardener’s goals and understanding the site and the plants that might be grown there, Jacke said. But he said that knowledge also gives the gardener a great deal of freedom to play with the design.
A food forest also represents more of a commitment than a typical food garden, because it involves planting trees and shrubs that can’t be changed as easily as annual plants. “So you’ve really got to think these things through,” he said.
“It can be very involved,” said Jacke, who lays out the design process in his books and said he’s heard some complaints about setting “a pretty high bar”.
But a gardener doesn’t have to follow his process completely, he said. It’s possible to just plant a mix of species “and see what happens”. What he’s ultimately trying to accomplish, he said, is help people see that they’re connected to nature instead of viewing themselves as separate from it.
The organisers of the Glendale Community Garden share that goal. Eventually, they’d like to see fruit trees and other edible plants lining streets in the neighbourhood, inviting people to graze on the fruits as they pass by and encouraging young people to develop more healthful eating habits. And in the process, they hope to build a sense of community in the neighbourhood. – Akron Beacon Journal/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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Environment, Environment, Ecowatch, sustainable farming, food, forests
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