Forest Garden With 500 Edible Plants Takes a Few Hours of Work a Month

CC BY 2.0. mako

Working with nature instead of against it, forest gardens promise abundance, as well as the kind of resilience a changing climate demands.

When you think about it, monoculture is just weird. We cover enormous swaths of earth with single crops that deplete the soil, require all kinds of chemicals, wipe out natural habitats and carbon-capturing trees, and whose lack of diversity makes them vulnerable to disease and weather events.

And then there's the forest garden.

Rather than completely working against nature, forest gardens are designed to mimic natural ecosystems – and guess what? Nature knows how to do things pretty well.

As UK-based forest gardening pioneer Martin Crawford 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 wit annual plants. It's not normal. What's normal is a more forested or semi-forested system."

We've written about Crawford before, but Regnault's film offers an epiphany-inspiring illustration of just how much sense agroforestry makes. Especially when facing a future that promises extreme weather – a future that may already be here, in fact. This spring, flooding proved disastrous for midwestern farmers; meanwhile, Europe is scorching.

midwest flood
© Floodwater surrounds a farm on March 22, 2019 near Craig, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rather than flat fields or gardens, food forests in a temperate climate tend to have around seven layers: High trees, smaller trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcover layers, root crops, and climbers.

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 – what was once a flat field is now a thriving system with more than 500 edible plants and get this: It takes just a few hours of maintenance a month. Basically, it takes care of itself. And food forests are beautiful. They are managed, but managed lightly – as Crawford says, they are "more like being out in nature than being in a cultivated garden."

While creating a wonderland as abundant as Crawford's may seem daunting, do not fret. "It can seem overwhelming, there are so many species," he 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."