Food forests mimic nature's gardening methods

AKRON, Ohio — Few of us associate forests with farming.

But some proponents of sustainable agriculture say we can grow food more successfully and with less environmental harm by copying nature's methods for growing plants in the woods.

They're advocates of food forests, gardens that are patterned after a natural forest ecosystem. Like a woodland, a food forest contains plants of different heights, genetic makeups and growth habits, creating a mutually beneficial arrangement that results in better soil, reduced pest pressure, and less need for human intervention.

A group of community activists used some aspects of the food forest concept when they created the Glendale Community Garden in West Akron, Ohio, this spring. They kept the mulberry trees and the raspberry and blackberry bushes that were growing on what used to be a vacant lot on South Walnut Street, and they hope to expand by planting more edible landscaping, said Jan Green, one of the garden's organizers and a longtime farmer who now lives on the street.

Those trees and shrubs ramble in a naturalized area along the back of the lot, while the rest of the area is divided into plots tended by families, individuals and groups including students from nearby St. Vincent Elementary School, a group of Nepalese refugees and firefighters from Fire Station No. 3 just behind the garden. Some of the plots are growing food that will be donated to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, and a berry patch planted by St. Vincent's Girl Scout troop is intended for neighbors to share.

Along the nearby Glendale Steps leading down from the end of Walnut Street, the group has planted blackberries, raspberries and grapevines in the same vicinity as the chives, mint and other foods that were already growing there.

The organizers don't try to control what's grown in the garden plots, but the gardeners' different preferences have resulted in the diversity of crops that's one of the central tenets of forest farming.

That diversity is called polyculture, which means growing multiple crops in the same space. The variety in the plants' heights, genetics, and flowering and fruiting times, creates a more stable ecosystem that's less susceptible to problems such as diseases, insect damage and weeds. It's also better able to bounce back when problems do occur.

The aim of a food forest is to create an arrangement that's as close as possible to a self-maintaining ecosystem, said Dave Jacke, a Massachusetts landscape designer and environmentalist who designs food forests and co-wrote the two-volume book "Edible Forest Gardens."

Like a natural forest, the "lumpy" landscape of a food forest provides habitat for species that help keep pests in check and makes it harder for insects and disease to spread. Plants in a food forest perform multiple functions — producing food, improving the soil, providing a continuous source of natural fertilizer, and perhaps providing shade and beauty, Jacke explained.

Food forests comprise both gardens that resemble forests, as well as gardens created in forests that already exist.

The latter is often called forest farming, and it's a way to improve forests and create income from them, said Ken Mudge, an associate professor in the horticulture department of Cornell University who will help lead a workshop on the topic next weekend at Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio.

The foods and other crops that can be grown in an existing forest are limited, but they include fruits such as berries and pawpaws, and nuts such as walnuts and hickory, Mudge said. Two particularly lucrative crops that can be grown in that setting are shiitake mushrooms, which can bring in $12 to $16 a pound, and American ginseng, which is more difficult to grow but can command $200 to $300 a pound in cultivated form.

Growing in a forest requires thinning trees to let in light, but "managing shade is part of the game," Mudge said. It's also a benefit, because thinning a forest that's overcrowded with young trees helps the remaining plants stay healthier.

Most people, however, don't have a mature forest in their backyards, which is where the forest gardening that Jacke advocates comes in.

A forest garden is designed to resemble a natural forest, which in its mature state would have a variety of layers — tall and short trees, shrubs, shorter plants, vines and low-growing ground covers.

However, Jacke said, a forest garden could be patterned on a forest at any stage of its evolution, not just its mature state. He said a more practical food forest for many people would be one that mimics a younger forest, with medium-height trees spaced widely to let in more light, along with shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Annual plants such as broccoli, tomatoes and peas could be mixed in, too, as long as they're positioned where they'll get plenty of sunlight.

Jacke recommended growing plants that are naturally resistant to insects and diseases. For example, he'd avoid apples, which are notoriously prone to diseases in most areas of the country, and instead grow other fruits such as persimmons, elderberries and goji berries.

Planning an effective food forest takes some work and research, including clarifying the gardener's goals and understanding the site and the plants that might be grown there, Jacke said. But he said that knowledge also give the gardener a great deal of freedom to play with the design. It's a little like being a jazz musician, he said. You need to hone your skills before you can improvise well.

A food forest also represents more of a commitment than a typical food garden, because it involves planting trees and shrubs that can't be changed as easily as annual plants. "So you've really got to think these things through," he said. "It can be very involved," said Jacke, who lays out the design process in his books and said he's heard some complaints about setting "a pretty high bar."

But a gardener doesn't have to follow his process completely, he said. It's possible to just plant a mix of species "and see what happens."

What he's ultimately trying to accomplish, he said, is helping people see that they're connected to nature instead of viewing themselves as separate from it.

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