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Question(s) for Dave Jacke - from Europe

Posts: 12
Location: Gent, Belgium
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I have not had the pleasure of reading Edible Forest Gardens, although I have heard only good things about it, it certainly seems to be as complete and thorough as can be!
I am wondering how applicable it is to European conditions, as much in terms of (native) species, climate data (no hardiness zones here..), not to mention measurement units

I am part of a collective garden group within a broader newly set up social-ecological allotment scheme (i.e. making gardening and growing food without chemicals accessible to a wide range of people, irrespective of origin or income) in the very progressive but permaculture-poor town of Gent in Belgium. We have designated ourselves a permaculture garden and intuitively seem to be moving towards a fruit-dense garden with as many perennials and interesting/uncommon edibles we can fit without them shading each other out (latitude is 51 degrees here and the sky is mostly grey and moist..). None of us have yet found the time and/or money to follow a PDC, although I've had the honour of participating in a few in France to teach some stuff about soil only (I'm a soil scientist).

Although land is scarce and expensive here (as in really), I believe permaculture has tremendous potential here as a catalyst for positive change in food systems, housing systems, and all the ways we are linked to each other in this thing we call society. Unfortunately permaculture if often misunderstood here as a very hippie type of gardening with a lot of spirals and mandalas and not much order or productivity, and it's never an easy concept to explain in a nutshell. Our garden lies surrounded by walking paths where people pass by all the time, so it is in fact a great opportunity to demonstrate what a space designed according to the principles of permaculture can look like and what it can actually produce and offer.

As the member with most previous practical experience of permaculture (to a modest extent) and gardening in general, I tend to take initiative when it comes to planning and design.
We found many useful plants growing here already: a large walnut tree, an even larger ash tree, two tall pear trees, hazel, oak (young), various semi-wild Prunus trees (haven't given fruit yet), and as much willow, alder, reeds, nettle and comfrey we care to let grow back along the water edge where we are situated. However we also inherited a less fun legacy of giant hogweed (of which there seems te be a huge reserve of viable seeds in the ground) and many well-established bramble bushes. I respect the tenacity of these plants but really they take up more than their fair share!
Our soil is a a very moist heavy clay and the ground water level is not much more than a foot deep in most places - notice the use of US/imperial units for your reading pleasure In addition the soil is littered with stone, brick, glass, metal and various plastics and industrial fibres from some demolished dwellings or structures several decades ago. But I would still deem it as being a potentially very fertile soil.

We have agreed on many plants we wish to include in our garden (and have planted many already - mainly fruit bushes, but also various peruvian tubers for example), and allocated sunny spots for annual vegetable beds, nested as is most convenient between existing trees and mounds of litter-infested and bramble covered soil. We have the vision of what the system could evolve to be (paradise), and have some idea of what individual elements this could consist of, but we have trouble seeing how exactly we can combine individual plants of different sizes/ages in terms of spatial placement so we can reach this sort of harmonious continuity that the concept of (super?)guilds and food forests evokes.

So the question is: how do we best go about deciding where to put what? How can we best fill the spaces between the pear trees, the walnut tree and the various berries we have already planted, and what sort of things can we wedge into those spaces that are rapidly covered by giant hogweed? What design process do we adopt to set us on the right track towards a 'complete', integrated and efficient use of space (200-250 square meters - sorry staying metric here :-b ). What should we think of as the climax food forest x years down the road?

Of course the Edible Forest Gardens books would no doubt be an immense help in this respect (hint hint...), but any tips or suggestions would be most welcome too - from anyone on this great community for that matter!

I look forward to any replies, and to many years of delightful harvests!


Posts: 26
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Thanks for the post. There's a lot there. I am short on time, so probably cannot answer in much detail, but . . .

The EFG books are designed to answer the very questions you pose. Your questions are very large scale . . .

Clarify your goals. The goals guide the site analysis and assessment, and the site A & A discovers the design. Get the goals clear so you have a rudder and a rudder that everyone involved agrees i what you are steering for--it will help group process to have a written document to review and discuss. If people are not on the same page, then your project will be more likely to go down in flames than we would like it to be.

Once you are clear on goals, look at the written statement and for each bullet point ask: given this is what we want, what do we need to know about the site? Brainstorm a list of site A&A questions in this way. This helps the goals guide the SAA. Then organize the SAA questions into categories: I use the scale of permanence form yeomans of keyline fame, modified: climate, landform, water, legal issues, access and circulation, vegetation and wildlife, microclimates, buildings and infrastructure, zones of use, soil fertility and management, and aesthetics. Put your site questions into those categories plus whatever other categories you might need to invent, and then you have an agenda for your observation and research. Go about answering all or as many of those questions as you can, in writing and on drawings/maps of the site.

THEN begin brainstorming design ideas in rough fashion, fast with a fat marker or pencil--don't invest a lot of time in each sketch, just throw out patterns and bubbles. Brainstorm many of them, then evaluate them all using your goals statement. Note what works and what doesn't in each scheme, then make a whole new set of schemes. Do this iterative process several times until you have a scheme or two that feel good and right. Then you can draw up the scheme in more detail using a finer pencil or pen with accurate scale. Then select all yoru species. then design each patch at a time in whatever fashion works for you. then order or acquire the plants, then plant like crazy.

That's the very basic robust drawing intensive process I usually teach, in a nutshell with many details missing. You can back off from that process as much as suits you and design on stie with stakes and hoses and such if you want, too. Whatever works. But with a group to design and implement and manage with, you are probably better off in the long run designing on paper so you can debate and get agreement before moving ahead or you could generate heat and not much light. This is a social system design process, too, remember.

It sounds like you have already done various pieces of this, but may have missed a few stages or steps, too. Without a detailed conversation and sense of the actual project its hard to give you a lot of specific help. Key points are : design from patterns to details. make sure you design the physical architecture of the system using all five elements of the architecture: vegetation layers, soil horizons, and vegetation density, patterning and diversity. Design patch by patch, too--the patches taken together create habitats, each habitat contains a set of patches with varying architecture. You get to decide what the "climax" is (though actually the concept of climax is not a scientifically valid concept anymore; I talk about the habitat at the successional horizon that one might design towards . . .), no one can really tell you that from outside very easily, IMHO. Your design schemes obviously MUST include heavy emphasis on yoru stie preparation strategies to deal with the hogweed etc. or it won't work.

In a project I am involved in we invented a great new technique for hard to kill species. We sheet mulch with cardboard, very dense cardboard coverage, really careful overlaps and covering ALL holes. We pin the cardboard down with metal earth staples. Then we lay either jute mesh or coconut fiber mesh over the cardboard and pin that down. Then we leave it for at least two years! The mesh holds the cardboard down, makes it look decent from a distance, and ALLOWS THE CARDBOARD TO DRY OUT. By doing this the cardboard can cover the ground completely for two or more years without decomposing, and shade out all our problem species. Then we can plant through the cardboard, sheet mulch with wood chips or whatever over it, and the whole thing turns to soil. It has worked well so far with our problem species, crown vetch. It may work for you.

OK, I spent much more time on this than I intended. I hope that was helpful.

peace and good luck.

David Buchan
Posts: 12
Location: Gent, Belgium
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Hi Dave,

Many thanks for the quick reply and useful advice, I really appreciate you took the time to share your experience and insight.

I'll take the necessary time to think it through and strive to let it become and enjoyable group process!

Your proposal for undermining the mighty hogweed seems sound and thorough, I think that will be put into action very soon! but not in all places because we still want some place left to actually be able to plant; maybe we could use it on selected patches which now represent the most work. We actually tried something similar but not good enough last year: we mulched with cardboard, but not with enough overlap or layers. We then covered that with a 10 cm (yeah, sorry..) layer of freshly made mulch material we prepared by shredding all the brambles, willow, alder and other relatively young green stuff we had cleared. This rich material decomposed rather quickly, as did the cardboard underneath, which made for a nice topsoil, but did not deter the underlying hogweed in any way. so at least we learnt it wasn't enough!

I'll do my best to post some visual form of update as the garden grows

many thanks,


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