Forest Gardening

Since the beginning of our history as a species, humans have been fed by the forest. We originated in the forest and are well adapted to life there. People have probably been managing the plants in the forest to increase food production for more than 50,000 years. In tropical regions of the world today, families still depend upon forest gardens for fresh fruits and vegetables, and many other materials.

Research in ecology has shown that woodland habitats are some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. Plants in a woodland ecosystem function as an effective community, cycling nutrients back and forth, sheltering one another and conserving moisture. Together, they build up healthy soils where there may have been little soil before and produce huge amounts of biomass. All of this occurs naturally, with no input from humans. Interestingly, though, with a little understanding and direction, the productivity of the woodland forest can be stacked to produce many fruits, vegetables and other products that are directly useful to the humans living nearby. Traditional home gardens, or forest gardens, around the world have been doing this for thousands of years.

About 11500 years ago, a new style of food production began in the fertile river deltas of Mesopotamia. What Jared Diamond calls an "accident of geography" led to a system of row-cropping a single species planted on barren soil after the annual floods had deposited thick layers of mud, rich with organic material  - and this system was incredibly successful. The production of a surplus of grain foods, mostly wheat and barley - rich in carbohydrates, containing quality proteins, easily harvested and stored - allowed the nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples to settle down in one place for the first time in history. The new communities created afforded some people the luxury of specializing in technologies such as basket-making, pottery and metal work. Grain production through farming eventually powered vast civilizations.

As those civilizations grew and moved into the forested highlands, however, they continued to use the growing technique that they had learned in the rich river deltas. In what we now know as "modern" farming, people cut down the trees, burned everything that remained to try to sterilize the soil, and then planted a single species or a few species of annual crops on the newly bared ground. The process continues, little changed to this day. Instead of learning about the complex interactions among species that occur in the forest ecosystem, the modern farmer attempts to reduce the equation to its simplest terms: growing medium + plant + water = harvest. This works well in the short term, producing bountiful harvests, as long as the crop can take advantage of nutritious soil built up over thousands of years by the once-standing forest.

Within a few years, however, soil health declines as nutrients are used up and leached out, and unprocessed minerals build up, "salting" the soil, until the farmer is forced to move along and "open up" a new piece of land that was once covered by a rich forest ecosystem. It took the farmers of the Fertile Cresent about 1000 years to ruin the soil that they tilled. Many civilizations have grown up in new lands only to "mysteriously" decline when the last of their native forests were converted to farm land. Given the advantage of the mechanical tractor, farmers in the American midwest were able to destroy that deep, rich soil in less than 50 years, resulting in the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

When the world was big and human populations were small, it must have seemed that new stands of virgin forest would be limitless. But today, we can see that row-crop agriculture is unsustainable. But, we don't see the alternatives. How else would we produce the vast quantities of carbohydrate-rich foods that our societies have come to depend on? How would you get that food to the people who need it? Corporate agribusiness is so wrapped up in annual revenues that there is little incentive for them to reevaluate what they are doing.

We believe that the forest holds the answers. By observation of the cycles of nature in our own small space, and then networking with each other, we can begin to learn about the interactions that work together to build a vibrant and abundant forest ecosystem from simple raw materials. And, rather that seek to learn what we can extract from the forest, we can begin to learn how to reintegrate ourselves into the flow of nature that we stepped out of, not so long ago - not only because it is our primal desire, but because we are smarter, now, and ready to take responsibility for our actions upon the Earth.