While food forests—edible gardens or farms designed to model natural woodland—have been feeding people around the world for thousands of years, in Europe, Australia and (non-native American) North American cultures, the concept really only took off some 30 years ago.
That means we are only just beginning to see the first gardens start to mature. A fascinating new book aims to learn from these early examples, and to present both the successes and challenges of early pioneers.
Written by Tomas Remiarz, Forest Gardening in Practice is really a beautiful example of what a gardening book can and should be in an age when so much raw information is available to us at the touch of a button. Taking us through the inspirations behind temperate climate forest gardening—which include the "home gardens" of Kerala, India, as well as traditional English cottage gardening—Remiarz walks us through how the concept was developing in parallel in several different parts of the world. From the forest gardening of Robert Hart in the UK, to the development of permaculture by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia, it seems that many people had stumbled on similar solutions to the shortcomings of traditional agriculture and horticulture.
I should note at this point that I know Tomas. Having met him some 15 years ago as he worked to strategically reforest hillsides above the Calder Valley in Yorkshire to defend against the coming onslaught of climate change, I know him to be both a deep thinker and a practical doer. So it's no surprise that Forest Gardening in Practice is less concerned with defining terms or establishing standard practice, than it is about recording and analyzing the lessons that have been learned in the 30 years since the modern forest gardening (food forests/permaculture) movement was established.
In addition to the profiles of forest gardeners and gardens—which range from tiny gardens outside a cottage kitchen to large-scale educational and commercial plantings—Tomas also offers a useful guide to the ecological principles behind forest gardening, as well as practical design, implementation and management guidance. This even includes suggestions for how to make a go of it commercially. Key to the success of the book is that Tomas keeps the needs and desires of the gardener and their surroundings firmly in mind. And that means defining success by how well a garden enhances the lifestyles of those who live in it—including its non-human inhabitants.
I also appreciate the candid stories of failures or challenges. As a discipline that requires continuity and dedication to truly fulfill its potential, its undeniable that many forest gardens have fallen short of their founders' big ambitions. From getting overwhelmed by the unexpectedly high maintenance demands, to struggles with land ownership and original gardeners moving on, I remember visiting many less-than-perfect project that jarred with the sky-high, utopian promises of forest garden evangelists.
In that sense, Tomas' achievement here is a remarkable one: He manages to present an inspiring, aspirational picture of what forest gardens can be, and yet he also manages to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He offers real world example of how gardeners have overreached, or under managed, or otherwise struggled, and then he gets their perspective on how they solved or adapted to the challenges thrown their way.
Multi-strata agroforestry, including home-scale gardens, is a key potential tool in the fight against climate change. So the more of us who start practicing it, the better off we'll all be. Forest Gardening in Practice is about as good an introduction to the subject as I can imagine.