The concept of the forest garden needs to be adapted to the seasonality of cold northern climates.
Wikipedia defines a forest garden as
a low-maintenance sustainable plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to build a woodland habitat.
After Bill Mollison, cofounder of the permaculture design system, visited Hart in 1990, forest gardens became an integral part of permaculture design. Among the proponents of forest gardens today, one of the better known is Martin Crawford. In North America, David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier have co-authored the two volume Edible Forest Gardens.
Forest gardens have become increasingly popular with those new to permaculture. Certainly, the vision painted by Jacke and Toensmeier is an attractive one, even reminiscent of Eden:
Picture yourself in a forest where almost everything around you is food. Mature and maturing fruit and nut trees form an open canopy. If you look carefully, you can see fruits swelling on many branches—pears, apples, persimmons, pecans, and chestnuts. Shrubs fill the gaps in the canopy. They bear raspberries, blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, and other lesser-known fruits, flowers, and nuts at different times of the year. Assorted native wildflowers, wild edibles, herbs, and perennial vegetables thickly cover the ground. You use many of these plants for food or medicine. Some attract beneficial insects, birds, and butterflies. Others act as soil builders, or simply help keep out weeds. Here and there vines climb on trees, shrubs, or arbors with fruit hanging through the foliage—hardy kiwis, grapes, and passionflower fruits. In sunnier glades large stands of Jerusalem artichokes grow together with groundnut vines. These plants support one another as they store energy in their roots for later harvest and winter storage. Their bright yellow and deep violet flowers enjoy the radiant warmth from the sky. This is an edible forest garden.
Inherently, forest gardens are an excellent idea. They mimic nature to provide food, medicine and other products useful to humans. But there is a huge problem with food forests as they are currently defined. Parsing what I’ve written so far reveals the problem: tropical and temperate. In cold northern climates, depending on a food forest would result in starvation. Mollison acknowledged the problem in 1981 in Forests in Permaculture, page 7:
While he [Barry Slowgrove] tackled an extraordinarily wide range of environments, he didn’t tackle anything like New England or Canada. Quite obviously, you had people living here in heavily forested country and looking fit. That was also true of Canada. However, those people weren’t eating entirely from tree crops; they were eating a lot of meats, and the further north one goes, the less do you see people dependent on vegetation.
Yes, Sepp Holzer has done amazing things in the Austrian Alps but he’s done some pretty extreme terraforming with bulldozers and backhoes which seem to be at odds with one of the three core tenets of permaculture: Take care of the earth.
A word search of the 699 pages of Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden for calories, protein, and carbohydrates is revealing. Calories does not appear once. Protein shows up three times – once when he talks about social wasps and twice when he is talking about plant proteins. Carbohydrates, however, are mentioned:
Two categories of food plants that need special design features if they are to be included are low-growing carbohydrate foods and most conventional annual vegetables. Carbohydrates are high-energy foods and require a lot of sun energy to manufacture: you cannot grow them in much shade. Tree-based carbohydrates, e.g. sweet chestnut, are easily incorporated into forest gardens, but if you want to grow your own supply of potatoes, wheat, oats, etc. then you need to either allow for a sunny clearing within the forest garden, or grow them elsewhere. If you look at agriculture where forest gardens are popular, usually people will grow a carbohydrate staple crop on a field scale in addition to growing all the more interesting foods in a forest garden.
Deppe has worked out an extremely effective approach to growing not just greens and nutritious vegetables for herself, but also a significant portion of her calories and protein in a scalable manner. She’s experimented enough with different techniques and levels of water and fertilizer input that she could, given access to enough land, cope quite well with whatever disruptions come down the line. She’s saving enough of her own seed to continue gardening if commercial seed sources shut down. And she clearly relishes the results in every meal; her multitude of uses for each staple crop and her recipes convey a deep delight in the flavors and textures of her produce.
I hate that four of her five staple crops grow as labor intensive, soil and habitat disturbing annuals.
I haven’t come across perennial enthusiasts presenting anything nearly as comprehensive as Deppe’s system, at least not for intensively cultivated small to medium scale systems in modern private land ownership patterns. I doubt that her level of expertise exists for a system based on diverse perennial plant crops anywhere in the temperate world. (Though I’d love to hear examples of how I’m wrong!) Hence my deep frustration: I yearn to meld the sustainability and low labor of perennial polycultures, the nutritional health of the paleodiet, and Deppe’s level of experience growing resilient abundant staples into a truly permacultural blueprint for supporting ourselves and the rest of our landbase. But I don’t know how.
It seems to me that the solution to Farmer Scrub’s frustration is to combine Carol Deppe’s stored calories and protein with Martin Crawford’s allowing for a sunny clearing within the forest garden, or grow them elsewhere idea. Deppe grows squash, beans, corn, and potatoes. These all store through the winter very well and are high in calories and protein. To them I would add other root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and beets even though harvesting disturbs the soil. It seems to me to make sense to use Crawford’s sunny clearing approach. If we are mimicking Nature, then sunny clearings seem acceptable. Shading is a problem but the edges of the clearing could be planted with edibles and medicinals that are not as high or dense or with coppiced trees that are never allowed to grow tall or dense. Soil disturbance should be minimized. There is no reason why squash, beans and corn can’t be planted in the Three Sisters style.
Carrots, parsnips, and beets can be grown very intensively in raised beds. To maintain fertility, beds could be rotated between production and soil improving nitrogen fixing plants that are chopped and dropped rather than turned under. A no-till approach keeps the microbial structure of the soil intact. And if these plants are also insectaries such as buckwheat so much the better.
Potatoes could be grown using the no-till approach of Emilia Hazelip’s Synergistic Agriculture.
The idea should be to create a symbiotic relationship with Nature – we take only what we need, disturbing the least that we can while giving back and enriching as much as we can. The Japanese describe the place where people and nature harmoniously exist, where biodiversity flourishes, and where the human spirit and creativity thrives as Satoyama.
Satoyama consists of a mosaic of mixed forests, rice paddy fields, dry rice fields, grasslands, streams, ponds, and reservoirs for irrigation. In this system, each habitat is considered essential for the agricultural economy. Grasslands were maintained to feed horses and cattle, which were then used as sources of power in agricultural activities. Streams, ponds, and reservoirs were managed to adjust water levels in the paddy fields and to supply fish to eat. – (Tabata H. 1997. The Nature of Satoyama)
But Satoyama is a concept best described by images rather than words.