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Edible Forests

David Foley is a partner in Holland and Foley Architecture, LLC, an environmental architecture firm in Maine.

garden.jpg"Wenn ich wusste, dass die Welt morgen untergeht, würde ich dennoch heute einen Apfelbaum pflanzen"
(Translation: "Even if I should learn that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant this apple tree today.")
-- Martin Luther

If we’re to win the the Great Wager , we’ll need an elegant economy of effort. Our most daunting problems are linked and planetary, but many of the solutions will be crafted, piecemeal and patiently, in our households, neighborhoods, watersheds and bioregions.

Alex summed up our predicament well:

...We each get 1.9 hectares, and we're already using 2.3. Where's the extra half a hectare coming from? It's coming from nature's capital... (Yet) just as a fair and sustainable footprint is a receding goal (shrinking as we use up more and more nature), so too is the idea of prosperity...

We’re in ecological overshoot, but to have any hope of solving that problem, we must ensure a sufficient, decent and secure life to everyone.

What a great design problem!

Here’s one piece of the puzzle, something almost anyone can do: plant trees which provide food. For better or worse, we all have to learn tend the Earth like a garden now. “Food Forests ” are one important way to do that.

The idea is simple in theory, rich and complex in practice: mimic a successional forest, using trees, shrubs, ground covers, herbs, fungi and roots that reinforce one another, enhance ecological health, and yield food, fiber, fuel, medicine and habitat for people.

Crops now cover an area about the size of South America . We’re becoming increasingly aware of the damage our agriculture causes, and the benefits of more enlightened practices. Although we’ve obtained food from trees for millennia, our main practice has been to farm surfaces - now we need to farm in three dimensions, stacking crops in layers, from canopy to root zone.

Forest gardens and forest farms can be made at many scales, from urban backyard to whole countries, and in many climates, from tropical to arid to temperate.

Forest gardens can be a vital part of Bright Green Cities, renewing the health and vigor of their scattered patches of vacant land. Forest gardens can shorten the journey from farm to table, help cool urban heat islands (where the effects of climate change are often worst), and even help decontaminate polluted soils through “mycoremediation”.

Where people are desperate, tree crops bring hope. We’re learning how to plant forests that are worth more to people standing than cut down. Examples are everywhere: many are aware of the Green Belt Movement founded by Wangari Maathai, but similar efforts are everywhere, often below the radar screens of media. One of my favorites is the work done by my friend Carol Kinsey through her organization Seed Tree.

Forest farms and gardens can serve the planet, but are necessarily place-based. Sources for edible trees, shrubs, herbs and even mushrooms are fitted to particular biomes. Every region has its heritage of edible tree crops. Like people, every cultivar has its own personality and needs.

Cultivating trees teaches patience. It’s a work spanning years, decades and centuries, whether developing management plans, learning coppice rotations, or breeding disease-resistant varieties, such as the American Chestnut. Trees teach humility too. Losing an annual crop is difficult; losing an orchard is heartbreaking. Knowing that trees absorb carbon is heartening; realizing that trees alone can't halt climate change keeps us honest.

In short, Edible Forests are a “Great Hope and Many Little Hopes.” The quote is from J. Russell Smith, whose book, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, first published in 1929, is perhaps the classic text on this subject.

Instruction abounds. There are many books, including recent, comprehensive instruction manuals, and even online courses. But the best way to learn is to do: happy planting!

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I am not a fan of the capital metaphor. Obsession with capital is what is ruining nature to begin with.

Posted by: Ben Wendt on 20 Apr 06

Ben, I understand what you mean. In this context, Alex and I are distinguishing between stocks and flows. (No, "stock" isn't a metaphor for capitalism either.) We're consuming more than the flow of ecosystem services the planet can provide sustainably, by running down stocks of timber, soil, species diversity, and so on. What to do about that? Well, this essay is about one tiny piece of the puzzle. It's about working in partnership with nature to replenish ecological stocks in systems that also provide many useful flows to people.

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Apr 06

Reading Mike Pollan's Botany of Desire you get
the sense that the orgins of the grains, fruits and vegetables we've come to depend upon are currently under threat. Do we really need to have GMO crops encroaching on the highlands of Mexico, or push indigenous potato farmers off the alta plano in Peru, or lose acres of apple orchards in Central Asia to real estate development. In respectng the biodiversity of plants and animals, maybe we also need to start looking at the places our food orginated from. In order to preserve the diversity of the germplasm.

Posted by: Enrique on 21 Apr 06


might be interesting in this area


Posted by: andreas buechel on 22 Apr 06

Nice article! I'd love to see more like this.

Posted by: A.L. on 22 Apr 06

Andreas, thanks for the mention of "no-till" agriculture. Low-till and no-till practices will be vital if we're to resotre organic matter to soils - another practice, like edible forests, vital to sustainability.

Posted by: David Foley on 23 Apr 06



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