Forest Gardening Mini-Course: Brief History of Forest Gardening.
The history of forest gardening, which researchers across many fields are now calling "the oldest human land use," is a fascinating, enchanting topic that takes us across continents, back in time to pre-history, and to the very core of what it means to be human.
We're only just starting to understand how universal these systems have been. Almost everyplace where it's possible for trees to grow, we're finding these systems. In fact, it's begining to appear that "forest gardening" is just the definition of the natural way humans adapt to their environment. It is the quintessential human act, how we exist in nature, how we behave as positive elements, "keystone species" in our ecosystems. It's just the natural result when we put our human intelligence to work shaping our world to the benefit of the whole ecosystem. So, whenever I work in my garden, I feel connected to this most ancient way of human being, knowing that almost all of my human ancestors likely interacted with systems like this in meeting their needs.
Where early humans spread across tropical Africa and Asia, we find forest garden systems that have remained unchanged for thousands of years. These systems were so energy efficient and casual that Europeans failed to even recognize them as gardens until very recently, assuming that these cultivated systems were "wilderness," untouched nature, and that the "hunter/gatherers" who lived in them were simply lucky to be surrounded by such abundance!
These were the classic "food forest gardens" or "home gardens" that inspired Robert Hart to create his famous temperate forest garden in Shropshire, giving birth to the modern movement. In many places, such as Kerala, India, Nepal, or Sri Lanka, these gardens remain the most important basic economic unit that shapes their way of life. In such, "horticultural societies," these gardens allow people to meet all of their needs on just a few hours of work per week, freeing up time for cultures that are vibrant, rich and creative.
As humans spread to colder climates, we took this basic way of being with us, interacting and gradually improving the natural forest communities for more productivity and better quality fruits, nuts and vegetables. In cold regions such as Europe and Asia, this approach evolved into a variety of public and private systems based on "intensivity."
In England, for example, we evolved a complete system starting at the most "intensive" end of the spectrum with traditional cottage gardens, which were a mix of fruit trees, vegetables, useful "weeds," medicinal plants and herbs, all growing in a semi-wild, managed "polyculture" together. (Polyculture, one of the defining characteristics of Forest Gardening, is the practice of growing many plants together as opposed to monoculture, growing plants separately.) As this system moved away from settlements, it transformed into hedgerows, coppice lots for wood, panage lots for livestock and managed woodlands for hunting and foraging. Even today, these systems remain a vital part of the character of the land and culture.
So as we begin to create our own forest gardens, we begin to redicover what it means to be a human as part of nature, not something separate and opposed to it. We reclaim our place in the web of life, as stewards and participants in our ecosystems. And we reconnect with a gentle way of life our ancestors couldn't have imagined living without.
Below are two short videos that take you on an adventure into the history of forest gadening. The first is a truly ancient garden in Vietnam that's been in the same family for 300 years! The second gives a quick look at Robert Hart's garden as he discusses "layers." Here, we can really see the similarities between his vision and the gardens that inspired it.
Next week, we'll start to define Forest Gardening by looking at some basic concepts. Then, over the coming weeks, we'll look at several different strategies for getting started, so you can choose the approach that's best for your project. We'll also look at topics including how to pick trees, how densely to plant, what kind of understory plants to use, best varieties of perennial forest gardening vegetables, and how to integrate social uses into the garden to make it a great place to live and spend time.
So, stay tuned! And if you know anyone you think would enjoy this series, please do me a favor and forward it on.