Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Era of Edible Forest Gardening has Arrived

(Edible Forest Garden at Lillie House, filled with food, flowers and medicinal and culinary herbs.)

Nature is calling us home, and people all over the world feel it, the urge to reconnect with their landscapes in a more meaningful way than the endless struggle against lawn and weeds. And the forest garden - a designed ecosystem filled with ripe fruits, lush vegetables, craft materials and medicine that integrates native plants and wildlife habitat - is the ideal representation of our rightful human relationship with the world, cultivating the wild, working with ecosystems to meet our needs instead of reaping them for profit or spraying them with poisons: nurturing all the beings around us while rewarding ourselves and our families.

Building on the improvements of the "native plants movement," the "wild" landscaping, and then post-wild landscaping paradigms, permaculture-designed forest gardening not only preserves and increases biodiversity, but it also maximizes the potential to create habitat for pressured wildlife, catches, cleans  and infiltrates water, dramatically reduces (if not eliminates) our dependence on finite petrochemicals, and sequesters more carbon! Most importantly, it reduces our negative ecological, climate and social impact by helping us grow some of our own food, in the easiest way possible. Moreover, scientists tell us we need to maximize forests if we want to reduce the impacts of climate change. And so the "food forest" has arrived as the new model for the ideal eco-friendly, conscientious landscape design.

(London Glades forest garden, which won top honors for future-friendly gardening at the prestigious Hampton Court Flower Show.)

Forest gardening is now widely being called "the oldest human landuse" by academics across many disciplines, with traditional systems across Europe being recognized as important elements of national culture and heritage. But while the western world had largely forgotten these systems, Indigenous communities around the world, especially in the tropics, have kept these systems alive as vital lifelines and important resources. In fact, modern researchers are documenting how these systems allow human societies to harvest the energy of "ecosystem services" in ways that decrease poverty, lessen oppression, mitigate the human impact on wildlife and biodiversity, provide community resilience and autonomy, reduce work hours, and enhance public health (McConnel, Goutum, United Nations, etc.). It was these systems that inspired the first modern Western forest gardens, especially that of Robert Hart. 

Slowly at first, starting with the earliest visitors to Robert Hart's forest garden in Shropshire, this most modern/most ancient form of landscape captured people's imaginations: to live surrounded by a landscape of bountiful food, regulated by natural ecosystem services. And then they began to spread like wildfire, with models springing up in cities throughout the western world. 

(The famous Pensioner's Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, top honors, modelled after a traditional English form of forest garden.)

Their influence began to be felt in the world of high landscape design as post-wild, naturalistic landscapers began including more edibles into their work, creating little edible ecosystems that were - in a sense - already forest gardens. 

(Food, medicine, comfort, nature...) 

Quickly, the idiom became a dominant force in aesthetic garden design with the famous Pensioner's garden at the Chelsea flower show. This now-famous garden, modelled after the traditional "cottage garden" cultural icon - recognized as a form of forest garden integrating food, flowers, teas, medicines together in a half-wild natruralistic planting - stoked the fires of the public imagination world wide.

 (Kate Frey, ornamental agro-ecology with fruits like polarded grapes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.)

The forest gardens kept coming as designers like Kate Frey also took top honors the Chelsea Flower Show, perhaps the world's most prestigious garden competition, with a naturalistic ecosystem of edible plants, wild medicines, and wildlife habitat in a low-maintenance assembly that has been described as an unofficial forest garden. The edible ecological gardens she's gone on to design have been excellent models for what post-wild edible landscaping could achieve in terms of beauty and comfort. 

(London Glades, photo via the Telegraph)

And now, the London Glades, an official forest garden, designed with the Permaculture system, has won a gold medal at the Hampton Court Palace flower show, another of the world's most prestigous competitions! And, at first glance, they nailed it! This is a beautiful example of the form. Of course, there's more to a forest garden than beauty, and I would need to look over goals, production objectives, required inputs, desired uses, plant selections and so on, to really know if this is a great forest garden. But, since forest gardens are really about meeting specific needs, and I beleive the primary objective  here was beauty, then I think this is a wonderful example. To find out more, view plans and see some mock-ups, visit:

(London Glades, Telegraph.)

The time of forest gardens as an aesthetic medium has come, for any community-minded, conscientous people who want to reconnect with nature while doing one of the single most important things they can do to reduce their negative climate, ecological and social impact. In a world where political solutions seem hard-won and often ephemeral, this is a source of hope, a form of direct cultural transformation we can take action on right outside our door, at our place of work, at an empty lot or bike-trail near our homes....

(Aesthetic home forest garden at Lillie House.)

And  finally, a small community of aesthetic-minded gardeners have been working to refine the aesthetics, functionality and comfort of these gardens to move them beyond mere low-maintenance food gardens, but to make models for truly attractive, viable gardens for the home, business or public landscape. Indeed, at Lillie House, we take pride in matching forest garden designs to the architecture, community character and "genii loci" of each place, such as our front yard Jardin de Cure  modelled after a historically-acurate style of garden that was popular when our house was built!   

(Jardin de Cure, another traditional European forest garden with ancient origins.)

If you would like to visit us here and experience a few different models for what a home forest garden can be like, feel free to send us an email at or connect with us on Facebook. We have an Introduction to Forest Gardening class coming up on Sunday, August 20th, and may schedule another session for a weeknight around that time. 

(Lillie House.)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Permaculture for Sanity Retention (and Landscape Management)

Kneeling on the lawn, dirty gloves to your face, you see the writing on the garden wall: you now understand the "gardener's trap" you find yourself in - and you find yourself praying to that great tiller in the sky, to just come end it all. Now. Your garden (literally) looks like the heat death of the universe. A manifestation of pure chaos. The apocalypse, but with weeds. 

And grass. 


I know this is a very geeky metaphor for a gardening blog, but it might seem clever in a moment if you bare with me.

Two years ago, you started your first garden bed. And while the work filled up much of your freetime, it was sooooo worth it: Beauty, cut flowers, fresh food - you were hooked. 

You wanted more. You came up with a plan to convert your whole yard into gardens. Maybe annual flowers. Maybe an annual vegetable patch. Perhaps an English border garden. "Lawn be gone!" you proclaimed. 

But in the second year, as you started working on your new beds, last year's beds still demanded your attention. "That's ok," you thought," this is my hobby." And your expanded gardens expanded into your life, taking up the rest of your freetime. You still had dreams of conquering that lawn, but realized in your heart that you'll never get there. Unless you can coax someone else into helping you. 

I talk to many gardeners who've run up against this wall of time constraints. So many with big plans, but not enough time to implement them - and still keep up the gardens we already have. 

But at least it works. You have enough time to maintain the gardens you've created. You and your garden are a "stable system." 

Until there's a problem. (And there's always a problem.) A particular "weed," or even a beloved plant gets out of control. Ants start farming aphids on your favorite tree. A family of rabbits moves into your vegetable garden. Powdery mildew. Or even just a few weeks of extra rain and cool weather causing the lawn to need more mowing can tip you into the trap. 

And because these problems require additional time to solve, and because you've already run yourself up against your personal time limit, you're now in:

The Gardener's Entropy Trap: Where your gardens takes increasing time and energy to maintain, but you're all out of time and energy. And if your problem gets out of control, there's a real chance it will enter into what's called a "phase shift," like the melting of an ice cube, a move towards chaos that takes a LOT of energy to get it back to the original state of organization (being a garden.)

So there's no time to lose! You need energy!

Seeing the desperate look in your eye, neighborhood children run as you approach. Friends, family and even the significant other are all suddenly VERY busy with work/knitting/darning socks.  

Now, the only viable solution is to dig up all the perennial weeds, till the garden under and start all over again. You give up. Fall down face first into the tangle, and let the minty darkness of the weeds envolope you.... 

You now understand one of the fundamental ideas in Permaculture. Blown up onto the societal level, you can recognize the same "entropy trap" or "complexity trap" in the problems of Urban decay, ever-growing taxes, our declining infrastructure, failing schools, our unstable financial system, a floundering industrial food system....  

Whether you're a ornamental gardener, market gardener, farmer, or homesteader, as we put energy into our landscapes, we all run up against this complexity trap sooner or later. The Energy Law of Gardens: A garden in motion will always  expand to fill your life. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. The primary idea of Permaculture is that there is one force, one source of energy that was available to us all along, and it WANTS to help us, if only we'd have chosen to make a place for it. That force is nature. And the energy it can provide is through what's called "ecosystem services." 

(This naturally-occuring food forest filled with garlic, mustards, medicinal herbs and fruits requires 0 maintenance.)

Here's the Permaculture strategy, in contrast to the complexity trap: When we start a garden, we design a "self-organizing" or self-maintaining system where nature does most of the work. We try to design systems that aren't just low-maintenance, but that can actually free up more time and energy for us! We replace needy lawn with ecosystems! We get that done and stable. THEN we move onto the next project. 

In this way, we can finally conquer the lawn, and transform our yards the way we always wanted to. 

Now, I can't reduce all of Permaculture to one article. But I want to give you the single most important concept to understand HOW we can recruit mother nature (and her services) into our landscapes, farms and gardens. 

The Intensity Spectrum

In Permaculture, systems that require a lot of energy and time from us humans are called "intensive." This includes things like flower beds, veggie patches, produce fields and native gardens. Those where we let nature do the heavy lifting are called "extensive." These include: naturally occuring ecosystems, stable agriforest systems, mature forest gardens and well-designed guilds. 

Somewhere inbetween these two, there is a spectrum of relatively intensive systems, like edible meadows, intensive forest gardens and guids, hedgerows, slashmulch gardens, annual polycultures, etc. 

The whole point of Permaculture is to balance intensive/extensive systems in a landscape (or city, or business, or organization) so that they better fit our available resources and our goals, minimize maintenance (by relying heavily on extensive, self-organizing systems) and maximize usefulness (by using JUST ENOUGH well-chosen intensive systems.) Period. 

Permaculture Zones

Zones are the most important tool for helping us achieve a good energy balance in the landscape. 

Choose your battles. 

Whether your goal is profit, beauty, or food sovereignty, keep intensive systems small and focussed.

(Clean edges where it counts at Lillie House)

Clean Edges 

Again, one of the most important concepts in Permaculture. We expect clean lines in the garden, even in the market farm. But these take a LOT of energy to maintain. So choose the places where clean edges will have the biggest impact on aesthetics and productivity. 

(Edible border garden with "clean edge".)

Soft Edges. 

Elsewhere, we can use "soft edges" with fortress plantings and pioneer plant communities to maintain the edges for us. 

(Soft edges at Lillie House.)

Post Wild Aesthetics

Even in the ornamental landscape, we can blend Intensive and Extensive. Having tidy Intensive gardens where it counts to make a visual statement, and using "Wild" aesthetics to lower our maintenance elsewhere. This ain't a Permaculture idea though, this was once a  major concept in horticulture, now mostly forgotten. 

(The "wild" potager at Cambo is famous as an ornamental food garden.) 

(A "Post Wild" landscape design.) 

(An edible cottage garden associated with the PFAF project.)

Defeating Entropy

Armed with Permaculture, and with nature as an ally, you're ready to take on the lawn, once and for all. Working with nature, a little at a time, creating stable communities and plantings as we go, we shall garden the world.

The Beginner's Permaculture Garden Bed Make-over
Fortress Plants