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Food From Forests

This article was was written by the Worldchanging Team in April 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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, w├╝rde 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 Steffen 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!

Edible Forests is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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