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Edible Forest Gardens: A Quick Review of a Very Beautiful and Useful Book


Edible Forest Gardens: A Quick Review of a Very Beautiful and Useful Book


By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Readers may recall that I’ve written about edible forests in the past (2012; 2013; 2013; 2014; 2015) and it might be thought that the topic would provide a welcome respite from Coronavirus news. Not necessarily:

So if you’re up for keeping your social distance for a few weeks or months, an edible forest — no matter the scale — might be just the project for you. What is an edible forest, you ask? I wrote:

What Is an Edible Forest?

I’m going to give this operational definition, sourced to Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, not because it’s the only possible definition, but because it creates a very clear picture in my mind of the possibilities (and, though I say it, the beauty):

The Seven – Layer Garden

An edible forest is a layered garden. The seven layers of a for est garden are tall trees, low trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, vines, and root crops. Here are these layers in more detail.

1. The tall-tree layer. The tall trees in an edible forest are mostly fruit and nut trees, such as apple, pear, plum, cherries, ch estnuts, and walnuts. There needs to be lots of space between the trees to let light in to the lower layers.

2. The low-tree layer. The next layer is made of smaller trees, such as apricot, peach, nectarine, almond, and mulberry. Dwarf varieties of bigger trees are also good choices for this layer. These trees can be pruned to have many openings to let lots of light through to the lower layers.

3. The shrub layer. This layer includes flowering, fruiting, and wildlife-attracting shrubs. Examples include blueberry, rose, hazelnut, and bamboo.

4. The herb layer. The “herbs” in an edible forest are plants with non-woody, soft stems. They can be vegetables, flowers, cover crops, cooking herbs, or mulch crops. They are mostly perennial, but sometimes gardeners choose to plant a few annuals .

5. The ground cover layer. These are very low plants that grow close to the ground, such as strawberries, nasturtiums, and thyme. They are very important because they make it difficult for weeds to grow.

6. The vine layer. In an edible forest , some plants, like grapes and kiwis, grow up the trunks of the trees.

7. The root layer. A forest garden grows both up and down. The last layer is plants that grow underground. These should be plants with shallow roots, like garlic and onions, which are easy to dig up without disturbing the other plants.

(In my own tiny practice, I have planned for #3, and not even thought about #6 (vines) or #5 (ground cover). #5 is especially important to me because weeding is work. I don’t like work.) And (as NC readers know) you don’t need a lot of land to start one

As I said, although this definition creates a very clear picture, it’s possible to derive the same result from a more principled and sophisticated approach, such as that provided by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, Volumes I and II, publshed by Chelsea Green Publishing (August 30, 2005). How could I not have known about this gorgeous book? (There are long-downloading PDFs online, from which I took the images that follow, but you really ought to buy this one.)

Since I’m pressed temporally — I have to finish up a coronavirus post, and some Water Cooler posts — I cannot do the book justice. Instead, I’ll make three points:

1. Edible Forest Gardens is indeed a beautiful book. I know we have soil fans on the blog; here is a lovely drawing of soil aggregates:

Edible Forest Gardens: A Quick Review of a Very Beautiful and Useful Book 2

2. Edible Forest Gardens uses the pattern language pattern language concept developed by Christopher Alexander (NC 2013; 2015). Here is an example of this powerful method:

Edible Forest Gardens: A Quick Review of a Very Beautiful and Useful Book 3

Pattern #1, “Productive Language Moasic,” is very, very far from the typical way gardens are organized into beds, with no thought of “balancing habitat and life-form diversity” (except, to be fair, as in the form of companino plants. Here is the complete list of patterns:

Edible Forest Gardens: A Quick Review of a Very Beautiful and Useful Book 4

#42, “Nectaries Always Flowering” is particularly evocative. More sophisticated and less mechanistic than the seven-layer approach (which could be decomposed into these patterns, I am sure; I leave that as an exercise for the reader).

* * *

So, readers, if any of you are still in the planning phase for your garden, or are looking for a good project in the yard or property, this is a beautiful and very thought provoking book.

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