What’s wrong with the food forest concept?

Organic gardener Julian Blackhirst questions the ‘bare foot, lazy gardener’ idea

Permaculture’s food forest idea
The concept of a food forest has become a popular, almost mythical, approach to growing food. Rooted in permaculture, the idea is to emulate the natural structure of a forest. Taller fruit, nut or timber species provide the canopy layer of the ‘forest’.
In the understory section, smaller fruiting plants like berries, currants and dwarf fruit trees are grown. Vegetables and herbs grow on ground level. Priority is given to perennial crops which remain in place year after year.

Images spring to mind of the lazy gardener (possibly bare foot) wandering whimsically through the forest garden, foraging the bounty that nature has provided without having to lift a spade or replant crops with each season.
As time went on however the limitations of the “forest garden” became all too apparent. Taller plants like the hazelnuts and larger fruit came to dominate.
Once the taller plants became established the competition for light and root space made growing useful food crops underneath them near impossible. None of our vegetable or smaller fruit species are happy growing in the shade of established trees or competing with their root zone.
When you look at the origins of most of our food crops,
it is hard to find any which are at home growing as an understory plant in a forest environment.
Most of our common vegetables have been developed by gardeners over millennia to enjoy rich, deep, garden soil in full sun. The plants which we chose to develop as our staple food crops were usually taken from river delta areas or fertile, mixed pastures; again with rich, deep soil and plenty of sunlight.

Limited range of perennial crops
The focus on perennial crops was another problem. In our temperate climate there is a very limited range of perennial food crops.
After establishing a good-sized patch of rhubarb and asparagus, gardeners find themselves planting increasingly obscure and unpalatable species. Although technically edible, they are no match for the flavour and sophistication of our beautiful heirloom vegetables grown in our mini-plot.
The question of the gardener’s role in nature also comes into play. In a food forest planted with perennial crops, human involvement in the garden is limited at every point other than design. The gardener is not an integral part
of the garden any more; it runs and perpetuates without human involvement and the gardener’s relationship to the garden he or she has designed is more that of a ‘hunter gatherer’ in the wilderness.
For passionate gardeners and beginners alike, the idea of minimising the gardener’s role in the garden is undesirable.
I want to be gardening, growing, cultivating and getting my hands dirty. Gardens, like the vegetables and fruit we grow in them, are human creations.
The role of the gardener as creator, cultivator and curator of their creations shows how humans can exist with and contribute to nature in a positive and harmonious way.
Our food forest is now making way for additions to our fruit orchard, vegetable gardens and herbs. The diversity and soil health which comes from planting under the orchard has not been lost. Comfrey, Russian garlic and a wide selection of herbs provide great companions to
our fruit trees; attract beneficial insects, help control pests and continuously improve the soil.
Our adjacent vegetable gardens will still benefit from being in a diverse garden full of flowers, herbs, native birds and insects, but will be dedicated, manicured, vegetable plots with gardeners nurturing them every day.

Editor’s note: We would love to hear your views about this idea and your experiences with other permaculture garden concepts. Please email editor@diggers.com.au

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