In his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, James Hilton describes a mystical place that exists in a mountain valley tucked deeply within the Kunlun Mountain chain in Northeast Asia. He called the magical place Shangri-La, a name which even today evokes an imagery of a far away, peaceful place, untouched by the tension and anxiety which characterize many of our day to day lives. It’s hard to say if such a place ever has or ever will exist, but it can surely be said that this image is far removed from our typical experience of suburban life. By observing our obsessively manicured grass, square cut hedges, white plastic fences, and thoughtfully placed, but underutilized, front porch rocking chair we can rightfully see that we are trying to create something, but what? Are we trying to create peace and tranquility in our lives or are we trying to create the image of peace and tranquility in our lives. Well, this is only for each of us to answer for ourselves, so I won’t answer it for you, but I would like to introduce the concept of something that feels a lot more genuine to me, and to me, more genuine feels more comfortable.
Natural food forest gardens are what I want to discuss. The name may be different, but food forest gardens have been around since before the initial cornerstones of civilization were set. If one were to stop mowing her lawn the results would be entirely predictable. First, the grass would grow to about 10 inches and then shoot up seed stalks just higher than the tops of the grass. After this, one would surely start to notice certain weeds popping up above the grass, two or maybe three feet tall. These weeds would dominate for a few months and then start crowding out the grass. Next would come more and more varieties of weeds, and if the neighbors didn’t complain too much then a few shrub type bushes would begin to shade out random parts of the yard. Now, at this point, one likely wouldn’t even begin to notice, but small trees are slowly setting their roots and growing toward the top of the weed and shrub line. Fast-forward three to five years and the trees will begin to take their rightful form as the overseers of the yard. At this point most of the grass is gone, the weeds have thinned, and in place of the lawn will exist a forest with all of its symbiotic parts. The floor will be covered with small bugs, rodents, sparse weeds and decaying matter. There will be pollinating insects such as butterflies, bees, and moths. Birds will be pecking for their meals, nesting in the trees, and singing their songs. And, on top of all this, the entire system’s daily input will amount to one day’s worth of sunlight, whatever rain the clouds provide, and the minerals and nutrients already stored within the soil.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and notice that the only man-power needed to build this system is man’s power to stop acting in resistance to its natural development. So, how then does one develop a lawn into a food forest, rather than the naturally developing forest? Well, with a little thought, the answer is so intuitive I hesitate even answering it for you. What would you do? Knowing the stages of maturity that a forest goes through as it develops, how would you ensure that it grows food specific to the needs of humans? Well, I will give you a hint – all plants are a mix between opportunistic and lucky. If there is a gap in the system that will support life, then some lucky piece of life will find it. In an over-simplified view, all a plant needs is a bit of sun, some soil, and some amount of water. The key to developing a human needs directed food forest is to fill all gaps in the system with beneficial plants during every phase of its development. This may sound difficult, but I assure you it is less difficult than it may seem. There are many edible plants of all shapes and varieties that grow very well in your area, and many people know about them. The key is just finding the right people. Go to meetup.com and find any group in your area that has to do with “Permaculture.” You will surely find local people that are not only the most friendly and genuine souls you have ever met but also have a passion and love for these blessed plants which will surely save our future.
Here is a little video I put together of a food forest garden installation some friends and myself installed at my parents’ property. Please excuse the big words and the complexity of some of the design implementations. This was the first forest garden I installed and I big time overthought it. Enjoy, and much love. Watch these two videos to see a how to, and then a follow-up of how the garden looks eight months later.
Eight month follow-up: