What we now call food forests have been cultivated all over the world for centuries. Many indigenous cultures manage their forest resources to provide themselves with a continuous supply of foods, fiber, medicines, and craft materials. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed permaculture, a combination of the words permanent and agriculture, as an alternative to large-scale monoculture of annual crops. The concept of “forest gardening” was developed by British horticulturist Robert A. de J. Hart more than 30 years ago. He observed that it was much easier to maintain mulched beds of trees, shrubs, and perennials than it was to plant and maintain annual vegetables year after year. He wrote the seminal book on the subject, Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, in 1996.
The edge where a forest meets a field or open space is a highly productive space with a large diversity of species of plants and animals. Forest gardening seeks to emulate and capitalize on this. Hart identified seven layers in a forest garden:
1. The first layer is the canopy of large trees that provide nuts, leaves for mulch, and wood for fuel and building materials.
2. The next layer is the understory where smaller trees produce fruits. Apples, pears, plums, and cherries are part of this layer.
3. Below the understory live the woody shrubs, such as blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, and others.
4. Next are the herbaceous perennials that grow from the ground, flower, produce seeds, and die back to the ground each year. In this group are many of our herbs and medicinal plants. Rosemary, bee balm, lavender, yarrow, and echinacea are a few examples.
5. Groundcovers make up the next layer in the food forest. Wild strawberries, thyme, and perennial clovers are useful groundcovers.
6. The rhizosphere, or root zone, is where some plants produce their parts. Sunchokes, various alliums like garlic and leeks, ginseng, yellowroot, and others provide us with food and medicines.
7. Hart’s final layer is the vertical layer, the vines that climb up into the trees. Grapes and kiwis give us fruit. Honeysuckle and even kudzu provide craft materials. There is a group of immigrants from Bhutan living in our area who weave beautiful and functional baskets from kudzu vines.
Before we began to design our garden here at the Funny Farm, we did what permaculturists call a zone and sector analysis of the property. We mapped where the sun was throughout the day and throughout the year. We took into account the physical structures, our house and the neighboring houses, the driveway, the street, the neighbors’ trees, and other plantings. Since we live in a well-manicured suburban neighborhood, we were sensitive to the possibility that all our neighbors might not approve of our turning our former lawn into a food garden.
Our first design decision was to create a buffer along the street. We planted fig trees 12 feet from the curb and filled the space between them and the curb with perennial and self-sowing annual flowers and herbs, including several large clumps of tall-growing sunchokes. Then we planned and started work on the rest of the perimeter. Our neighbors to the west have some mature oak trees, and the afternoon shade they cast determined how far toward our driveway our vegetable garden could go. Along the drive, we planted two persimmon trees, a nanking cherry, and, this past fall, a plum. On the other side of the drive, there is a 4-foot strip between it and our neighbor’s property line, just enough room for a row of blueberries. There is a nice stand of mature dogwoods, my favorite tree, and a beautiful Japanese maple near the house with a small sunny space in between. In that space, we added another plum, more sunchokes, and perennial welsh onions.
So what we have is a vegetable garden in the center of the front yard surround by a food forest. Our neighbor’s oaks form the canopy layer. Plums, figs, persimmons, and a cherry fill the understory. Blueberries occupy the shrub layer. Two falls ago, we divided and transplanted herbaceous perennials from our bugscaping bed (more about that in a future post) into our food forest. Bee balm, yarrow, and goldenrod provide food and shelter for many beneficial insects, both pollinators and predators. We added sunchokes and welsh onions into the rhizosphere. Wild strawberries and clover cover the ground. The strawberries keep the chipmunks occupied, and the clover provides a home for rhizobium bacteria that capture nitrogen from the air and make it available to the adjacent plants. Our next addition will be an arbor with a grapevine to define the entrance into the garden.
Each plant was chosen because it contributes something to the garden as a whole. Permaculturists call these purposeful groupings of plants guilds. The more functions a plant can contribute to the guild, the more valuable it is. The clover produces edible leaves and flowers. The flowers attract many different beneficial insects. The roots anchor the soil and provide a home for the beneficial rhizobium bacteria. Lady beetles overwinter at the base of yarrow. Its flowers attract many beneficial insects and also look good in flower arrangements. Yarrow is also a medicinal plant. It is an astringent. It can be used to stop bleeding and is said to improve digestion and reduce fevers.
This spring, we harvested 10 pounds of cherries from our nanking cherry tree. The persimmons are covered with flowers now. The figs have many tiny fruits forming on the branches. Our 2-year-old blueberries will produce a modest crop this year. With each passing year, we will harvest more and more from what would be considered by many gardeners to be marginal space. We tuck food-producing plants wherever we can find a space. If you have room for flowering trees and perennials, why not have them do something for you besides look pretty? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could obtain a yield from your garden beds? You have to maintain them anyway. Why not turn your garden into an edible one? Our next-door neighbor who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years told my wife not long ago he thinks of our garden as the Garden of Eden. You can create your own Garden of Eden. Try it—it’s easy.
“Reenergizing the spirit of the landscape” is how Lindsey Mann describes the role of geomancy at Sugar Creek Garden, the community garden in Decatur, Georgia, she founded last year. Her quest to establish a garden on the property owned by the city started 4 years ago when she began meeting with city officials to explain her vision and seek approval to establish a demonstration urban food garden along the concrete banks of Sugar Creek. I asked her what she thought was the key to finally getting the powers that be to give her permission to move forward. She said that Mayor Bill Floyd went to a conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he took a tour of Will Allen’s Growing Power project. She said he came back and told his staff that Decatur needed something like Growing Power. She laughed and said that he was told that there was a crazy lady who had been pestering them for 3 years to do just that. The city went on to draft guidelines for community gardens on city property and started to inventory potential spaces where they could go.
Last April, she and a group of 15 volunteers double-dug 16 beds to get them ready for planting. The garden is organized a little differently from most community gardens. It is planted and tended collectively, and the harvest is shared among all of the participants. Lindsey and a revolving group of 5 to 10 volunteers work in the garden 2 days a week, planting, weeding, and maintaining the garden spaces.
When I visited the garden on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon to meet with Lindsey and get a tour, Alan, Sarah, and Katrina were busy pulling weeds and applying bone meal to the strawberries growing in straw bales along the bank of the creek. Later, we went to the location of the Deva Garden and they began to prepare it for planting with medicinal herbs. Lindsey was very excited to see this garden move forward. She explained that it is designed in the form of a cosmogram, which will serve to make the cosmic forces more present in the garden. She said she would be working with a stone carver to cut the cosmogram shape into a piece of granite that will serve as the focus of the Deva Garden.
A mashup of different esoteric techniques are being employed at Sugar Creek Garden to allow the Deva, or soul, of the garden to reveal itself. Lindsey uses ideas and techniques from biodynamics, geomancy, and the teachings of Machaelle Wright. Biodynamics is an agricultural method and philosophy developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. Steiner espoused the use of various techniques to capture the energies of the cosmos. Planting in the Sugar Creek Garden is guided by the phases of the moon: Root crops are planted around the new moon when the moon’s pull is weak, and leafy crops around the full moon when the pull is strong. The gardeners use biodynamic preps as homeopathic stimulants. The main prep, known as Prep. #500, is cow manure packed in a cow horn and buried in the ground for 6 months so it is basically a form of compost. It is then made into a tea by stirring for an hour to create a vortex. The vortex is said to simulate how water acts in a stream, becoming highly oxygenated and full of energy that stimulates the microorganisms in the compost. The tea is then sprayed on the garden, where it activates the soil food web to break down organic matter, releasing nutrients to the plants.
Geomancy is an ancient form of earth divination connecting human consciousness to the spirit of place. Geomancers study the earth’s energies—such as ley lines, which are thought to be lines of energy passing through the earth. Migratory animals are believed to follow them as they move across the land. Lindsey and her geomancy teacher placed stones in four locations around the garden that she claims create energetic support for the garden.
Lindsey uses a balancing mixture based on the work of Machaelle Wright to “improve and increase the life vitality” (from Wright’s website) within the soil. It is composed of several rock dusts that are commonly used as sources of soil nutrients by organic gardeners. Bone meal, cottonseed meal, dolomite, rock phosphate, and other materials make up the mix.
The lush lettuce and ferny carrots suggest that these techniques are working. Sugar Creek Garden produces more food than the current group can consume, and they are looking for a suitable organization to which they can donate the abundance of fresh, health-promoting food they grow.
Without an abundance of passion, patience, and persistence, Lindsey Mann’s vision would never have gotten off her drawing board. Those qualities will serve her well as she moves forward to make Sugar Creek Garden into, in her words, “a space for learning and growing. The aim is self-sufficiency—to learn in the city how to produce our own food and medicine, care for basic needs.”