Mother Nature has been growing plants for 460 million years and trees for 370 million years. According to fossil records, humans appeared in Africa around 195 thousand years ago and thrived on nature’s bounty. Fast forward to the early 1900s, which saw the beginning of a new era of growing food crops, monoculture, or single crop farming.
Instead of rotating crops to restore nutrients to the soil it gets depleted. Modern man’s solution was to use chemicals and fertilizer, wiping out natural habitats in the process.
Nature was doing rather well and our ancestors followed her example before the single crop idea took hold and thankfully, many people have since realized that working with nature one can create forest gardens for food that are designed to mimic natural ecosystems and restore our soil.
Martin Crawford, a forest gardening pioneer, based in the UK, explains in a short film by Thomas Regnault, “What we think of as normal, in terms of food production is actually not normal at all. Annual plants are very rare in nature, yet most of our agricultural fields are filled with annual plants. It’s not normal. What’s normal is a more forested or semi-forested system.”
Forest gardens mimic natural ecosystems by using perennial plants and trees, which live for a long time and/or reseed themselves. The garden would have various vertical levels of growth such as tall canopy trees, shorter trees, shrubs and bushes, vines, consists of various vertical levels of growth, from canopy trees to shorter trees, to shrubs and bushes, vines, herbs, ground cover and roots. The levels work together, offering shade, wind protection, support and nutrition. Starting a forest garden from scratch will take time, work and money but once done, it will basically take care of itself for years with very little maintenance but plenty to harvest.
Crawford explains, “With such a diverse system, whatever happens with the weather, most of your crops will probably do fine. Some may fail, some may do better. That’s very important going into the future. Because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to our weather. So by having a diverse system, it gives you maximum resilience.”
Crawford began his food forest in 1994 – on a flat field, now transformed into a beautiful, thriving garden with more than 500 edible plants. Incredibly, it takes care of itself with just a few hours of maintenance a month. ‘’They are managed, but managed lightly,’’ Crawford says. ‘’They are more like being out in nature than being in a cultivated garden.”
Fortunately, pioneers like Crawford and other enthusiasts have done all the research and are willing and able to share their knowledge to help you create your own sustainable food forest garden.
“It can seem overwhelming, there are so many species,” Crawford says. “You shouldn’t let that stop you from starting a project, because you don’t have to know everything to begin with. Just start, plants some trees, and go from there.”
Watch the film here, and visit the The Agroforestry Research Trust, of which Crawford is the founder and director.