Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Forest Farming, the dream

One of my earliest reasons for getting into edible landscaping was the exciting work of and book by Robert A. de J. Hart. He wrote Forest Farming back in 1975. It stimulated my interest with the idea of a mixed forest that could support grazing animals like cattle and pigs. From this “free” food source would fall a plethora of nuts and fruits to be “harvested” by the animals below. In his own words: "I developed by own '3-D' system, which I called OPS--Organic Perennial Subsistence farming. That involved 'cultivating' my hedgerows by encouraging the growth of plants that contained substances particularly nourishing for cattle, such as the elder, wild rose, and hazel, and sowing some perennial pasture herbs.”

As things evolved after the publication of that first book, he added people: "But my primary aim was self-sufficiency, so I extended my system beyond livestock farming to include trees and other plants--mainly perennial--which would contribute to the health and welfare of human beings. In time, I had adopted a vegan diet.” (Note, A vegan diet. One of most strict of diets that excludes any animal products at all, even leather shoes.)

In his words, he evolved to a layered forest-like “garden” that starts with: "An old orchard, unless the trees are severely diseased. My forest garden was planted in a twenty-five-year-old small orchard of apples and pears, some of which were in a pretty poor condition. But the abundant aromatic herbs that have been planted beneath them seem to have rejuvenated them; a decrepit- looking 'Red Ellison' apple was given a new lease of life when Garnet grafted three young 'King of the Pippins' shoots onto it-- a trick that was known to the ancient Romans. These old trees constitute the 'canopy' of the forest architecture. If one is starting a forest garden from scratch, the best way to form a canopy is by planting standard apples, plums, or pears at the recommended spacing; twenty feet each way. Then fruit or nut trees on dwarfing rootstocks can be planted halfway between the standards, to form the 'low-tree layer,' and fruit bushes between all the trees to form the 'shrub layer.' Herbs and perennial vegetables will constitute the 'herbaceous layer,' and horizontally spreading plants like dewberries and other Rubus species, as well as creeping herbs such a buckler-leaved sorrel (Rumex scutatus) and lady's mantle, will form the 'ground-cover layer.' For the root vegetables, mainly radishes and Hamburg parsley, occupying the 'rhizosphere,' a low mound can be raised, so that they will not be swamped by the herbs. As for the climbers that constitute the 'vertical layer': grapevines, nasturtiums, and runner beans can be trained up the trees, while raspberries and hybrid berries, such as boysenberries and tayberries, can be trained over a trellis fence, forming a boundary to the garden."

Notice, no traditional annual vegetables except radishes.

When I visited him in 1998 he was elderly (he died in 2000) and somewhat feeble. What remained of the forest was a thicket of actual perennial edibles. But mostly cane fruits and an enormous kiwi. How many kiwis can one person eat? The local Permaculturists had opened up a “meadow” in the forest and were reintroducing traditional annual vegetables.

He lived in a very humble single room. Perhaps the most impressive action of his life was that he took care of his elder brother who was too “mentally challenged” to care for himself, Robert cared for him for his entire life. In fact, his brother had a house bigger than Robert’s room.

I left him with a copy of my Edible Landscaping book.

At the gate as I left, a “Meals–on-Wheels” type group delivered his evening meal.

(As a brief follow-up. Patrick Whitehead, who has written some of the most popular books on forest farming, took me to see his edible forest. At 15 years, it was the oldest in the UK modeled after Robert’s work. On the way he said: “It’s really just a jam and jelly forest.” When I arrived, “meadows” of apple trees, other fruit trees, and conventional vegetables were being planted.)

Little did I know a book on the subject was in the works and was called: Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, and published in September, 1996.

Let me know what you think. (This from he UK: "Hello Robert

I believe that the main title came from Robert Hart himself, but I remember that the subtitle of the US edition was put on by Chelsea Green at the time, as they didn't like the rather flowery one that we had used for our edition ("Rediscovering nature and community in a post-industrial age"). As you say, Robert was a very humble man; rather Gandhian in nature, a real pioneer and very idealistic. This resulted in him handing over his house to the community he formed, and it was then taken from him by another member of the community - at least, that's what I've been told. He ended up living in rather sad circumstances, in a kind of lean-to on the side of the main house. It seems that his goodness and idealism was exploited by others.

Best wishes

John E."

Visit my web site to learn about my new book on drip irrigation and other gardening books.

NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

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