Digging Deeper Vol. 11

If you’ve been gardening as long as I have, then you know how much careful and timely observation and how much manual labor can be involved in the care and maintenance of even a small landscape.  Now that I am a “retired” horticulturist, I recently discovered an up-and-coming return to an ancient gardening method that drastically reduces my workload, officially known as “edible forest gardens.”  After completing planning and installation time during the first few years, nature takes over more and more of the gardening chores as the garden matures, and at that point in time, my main task will be to harvest and consume the produce.

The main thrust of this method is to “mimic” the natural forest gardens of eastern North America that thrived and were largely self-maintaining before the Europeans came and began the 400-year transformation of the forest cover into an “urban and suburban landscape.”  No matter what the size or situation of our landscape, many of these sustainable practices can be applied to reduce our labor and production costs like irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.  Once initiated, we will reap not only the food for our efforts, but we will enjoy interacting with our new habitat, while restoring soil health, wildlife and beneficial insects and reducing pollution.

By deciding which edible perennials we wish to grow and then carefully planning where and when we need to plant them in our ecosystem, we can readily establish our own forest garden on whatever scale it needs to be.  With careful attention in regards to each plant’s needs, such as height, growth habit, sun or shade, special nutrients, etc., we can complete our design plan while making sure our neighboring plants provide for one another’s needs, so that we don’t have to do the work ourselves.  Our workload continues to be reduced as the plantings mature, and the resulting ecosystem becomes self-sustaining.

I’ve always enjoyed having actual books in my possession to read and utilize for reference when needed, so I ordered the two-volume set entitled “Edible Forest Gardens” from Amazon, even though with a hefty discount, the cost was almost $100.  This massive undertaking required seven years to complete, carefully researched and edited by primary author Dave Jacke, who has owned and operated Dynamics Ecological Design since 1984 (www.edibleforestgardens.com) in Massachusetts, and coauthor Eric Toensmeier, who has studied and grown useful plants and perennial agroecosystems since 1990.

I’m not suggesting that investing in the books is for everyone, but the basics of the cultural information and other related links are also available at the above website, and if all us just adopt some of these practices in our home gardens, it will go a long way toward helping nature get back much of its lost self-sustainability.  And after almost 65 years of adding to the “human transformation,” I figure it’s time for me to invest some time and effort to help nature get back in control, and if I can eliminate labor and costs at the same time, that has to be a win-win situation.

According to the authors, “The purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements or components in such a way that each serves the needs, and accepts the products of other elements.  Wild ecosystems contain webs of cooperation and interdependence that help generate the emergent system properties of stability, resilience and harmony.  Such healthy systems create no waste and generate no pollution because the inherent by-products of every living thing become food for some other living thing.  They take no outside work to maintain because the networked system of elements regulates fluctuations in the ecosystem and its populations.

Their goal in designing forest gardens is to generate such self-maintaining, networked ecosystems.  If the members of the garden ecosystem meet one another’s needs and use one another’s products, then we don’t have to meet those needs or deal with those products, unless we want to.  This is how we reduce our workload and place the maintenance and regulation of the system back into the system’s own hands.

“In contrast, when the elements in our garden do not meet one another’s needs, we must meet those needs ourselves, creating extra work for us.  When these elements aren’t using one another’s products, those unused products become waste or pollution.  Applying the principle of functional interconnection shifts these burdens back to the garden, turns the burdens into benefits, and takes us out of the role of intervener.”

By Guest Author Randy Peele

As has always been the case with my garden writings, I would like very much for all of you to interact with me in “Digging Deeper.”  Recommended topics, critiques, opinions, questions, etc. all are encouraged and welcomed, and I look forward to hearing from you by e-mail at email@headleenursery.com