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Volume Two Chapter One - Issues and Strategies in Forest Garden Design and Management

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1: Issues and Strategies in Forest Garden Design and Management

Design Elements
-Existing Site Conditions
-Desired Ecosystem Components
-Ecosystem Patterning
-Management Activities

Ecosystem Dynamics
-Healthy Plants
-Self-Renewing Fertility
-Sustainable Water Demand
-Minimal Herbivory
Feature article 1:Beneficial Wildlife Habitat Principles
-Minimal Competition
-Directed Succession
-Overyielding Polycultures

Desired Conditions
-High, Diverse Yields
-Maximum Self-Maintenance, Minimum Cost
-Maximum Ecological Health
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Phew. I did it. Reading this is hard enough. Summarising it takes a while.

I give this ten out of ten acorns!

So, here goes (long read, but not as long as the chapter itself).

Issues and Strategies in Forest Garden Design and Management.

This chapter is about how our design solutions influence our management issues, and how good design makes management easier. Maintaining a forest garden is always going to involve a certain amount of hard work, and anyone scared of this should not be trying it. The application of intelligence can leave more time for watching the birds.

So, what are the ecosystem dynamics that create high, diverse yield in a healthy self-maintaining forest garden habitat?

I disagree with part of their analysis here. The authors regard “overyielding polycultures” as one of these, while I regard it as an emergent property, in part synonymous with the above objective. The remaining six make sense to me:

Decisions about what to plant where will be influenced by these factors.

Design Elements are based in existing site conditions, which need analysis. I spent wayyyy too long studying habitat surveying, to the point where I can profile a habitat fairly quickly, even now.

Desired Ecosystem Components – this is about maximising diversity in the habitat, in terms of families, genera, species and even varieties. This fills more niches and makes like more difficult for pests and diseases. You also need to consider nonliving components such as nutrients and infrastructure, which will vary from patch to patch, but this needs to be planned, preferably carefully, not random.

Ecosystem Patterning: ecosystems are not random, and display structural diversity. To do this, we design patches into the system, but these will change through time, either naturally or through a directed process. In order to do this, lay out the proposed disturbance patterns, then design patches and succession scenarios, and select species and build guilds and polycultures around this.

Then you need to consider management activities. Treating this as an object allows you to think about tools and techniques. This also involves a lot of detail-oriented monitoring, something I seem to be really good at, and then responding to it. I've seen this done really badly (but will not name names).

Ecosystem dynamics is another strong point. This section is about how to embody natural or semi-natural forest ecology in designed gardens. This is where you need to think about animals, because the plants need to resist herbivory, and this section discusses how to manage and encourage these processes.

There is some very important material about making healthy soil. Some of this is more ecologically oriented than you'd expect to find in a conventional gardening book, and it's worth having a good read. In particular, advice on fertilising from the top down, rather than doing excessive digging, is worth a read. There is also excellent detail on nitrogen fixation that goes well beyond the usual, including nitrogen demand ratios, showing the coverage of nitrogen fixers required for different trees and shrubs.

It's also obvious there is not enough known about dynamic accumulator plants, and this looks like it provides scope for research. When I finally obtain my own place, I'm excited by the possibility of doing this kind of thing, and am looking at the kind of scale that Martin Crawford has been working on in his research plot in England.

The question of water is also covered here in some detail. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the use of ponds to both store water and obtain a yield that doesn't mean killing a lot of fish. This chapter has a table of plants that work well as marginals while providing such a yield, and mentions others that can be grown in water. Its main weak point from my perspective is that when it talks about “natives” they mean native to the Nearctic, not my end of the Western Palearctic but, since my thoughts are moving towards ecological function rather than the use of “natives” (with its racist connotations) this shouldn't be a major problem.

I've rarely had to deal with herbivores larger than a Large White butterfly (Pieris brassicae), living as I have in grossly impoverished habitats. At one point I was engaged in discussions that implied keeping human thieves out, and looked at solutions from the traditional (http://www.hedgelaying.org.uk/) to the downright nasty (http://elephantsandbees.com/beehive-fence/), but I'm interested in the use of the chicken moat. I suspect it may be too expensive to run (by my calculations the chicken wire alone to double-enclose one hectare would come to around GB£1,000), but it should be possible to get multiple yields out of it. You are then talking about so many hens that you'd need a sales permit for eggs. At some point, however, it turns from a habitat into a fortress (get through the thorn hedge, avoid the bees, climb the fence, climb the next fence while fighting off the cockerel...*), and has implications not only for herbivores but for other forms of pest control, and end up using several per cent of your available land. It's also in direct contradiction to the notion of creating wildlife corridors. There are, however, many methods of minimising herbivory, and it may be worth applying most or all of them creatively.

There is a really useful box on creating beneficial wildlife habitat. My interest has always been in providing wildlife habitat per se, but it's more complicated when forest gardening. It sounds like a very interesting challenge. This is where they go into detail on the animal component, which I feel is missing from much of the rest of the book (there is some good material in the appendices).

The minimisation of competition is something I've only ever seen done badly. It should be possible to have no unwanted species at all, but it would take planning and forethought. This section should help with this. It's a complicated process, involving not just the absence of undesired plants but of minimising competition for water, nutrients, light and so on among the species you do want.

Directed Succession is a new art, and a new science, providing scope for research in patch dynamics. What is here provides some useful guidelines, but with a lot of scope for creativity. It's quite lengthy, and difficult to summarise, but would be well worth the effort to consider carefully when designing your polycultures. It's something I'm really keen to engage in research into.

The objective in all this is to produce additive or overyielding polycultures, an emergent property from the above. Obviously, this takes planning, but is the holy grail for the forest gardener.

This leads us to our desired conditions for our habitat. This is about more than maximising production, however. My initial inclination was to simply have as many species as possible, but this has the risk of creating gluts. Twenty varieties each of apple, pear and cherry (for example) might produce a fruit glut during the summer, but by scaling back on the pears and cherries and scaling up apple production lowers the massive effort during the summer while allowing you to eat fresh fruit for much more of the year. Similarly good planning would provide good yields through the spring hungry gap.

Eventually most of the system should mostly look after itself. Geoff Lawton has provided some interesting examples of mature polycultures requiring minimal intervention, resulting in some downright lazy permies. It's always going to need some work (picking and selling), but the 60-hour weeks will, with thought and planning, be over at some point. Choices may have to be made between maximising yields or maximising self-maintenance and minimising costs. Designing on paper, especially in a large system, may well be key to getting this right. This section gives important advice on getting this right, and much of it hadn't occurred to me. There are also important warnings on the use of dispersive (“invasive”) plant species.

Finally, the chapter talks about maximising ecological health – the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Initially, this is going to be hard work, but a side benefit of self-renewal is that it eventually cuts down on the amount of work, and there are of course many things you can do, from avoiding the use of too many toxic chemicals, to being cautious around opportunistic plants, to creating an ark for threatened species and varieties (something else I'm particularly keen to do).

As with the rest of these two volumes, the chapter is incredibly information dense. It should certainly be kept open while doing your design to ensure you are covering all the bases.

* I suppose it would provide some extra fertiliser. (Visions of some pustule-marked ned, bleeding from the waist down, trying to haul himself out of the chicken moat...)

Next up: supergeekaspie's favourite chapter – pattern language in forest gardens!! Ohhhh my Gods!

Burra Maluca
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That was an awesome summary Neil!

I'm just going to post a load of quotes and some random thoughts that come to mind after reading the chapter, probably in a fairly disorganised and patchy way, and hopefully a few other people will join in and share their thoughts too.

This chapter is very much a bridge between the ecological stuff in volume one and the design and implementation stuff in volume two. Having said that, I think that even if you haven't read the first volume, then this chapter will get you up to speed on what you need to know before you get on with the design. Obviously you won't have the depth of background knowledge and understanding if you choose to do it that way round, but it will still be possible. And you can always go back and read volume one afterwards. From the book

this chapter ... summarizes the design and management ideas arising from the ecological analysis of volume 1 in a pattern more directly appropriate to the needs of garden designers and managers.

I think what I'm trying to say is that if you haven't read volume one yet, don't panic, just join in here!

The very first sentence struck me.

Many things we currently think of as 'maintenance' issues are actually system design issues.'

And for me that's important - I'm looking for a way to have a very long lasting forest garden that needs less and less maintenance as grow old with it. So if I design it well and put the work in now, then we can age gracefully together. That's kinda the dream, anyway...

I liked this way of looking at weeds.

weeds also come into play in managing succession, but the intention is different. Rather than setting succession back as an unconscious result of weeding, we look at the question of how we direct the succession where we want it to go, and what roles weeds play in that process

I'm looking forward to learning a lot more about this as we go through the book.

In the section on design elements, this struck a chord.

The existing vegetation holds many clues to help us design effective polycultures, so we need in-depth understanding of it as well. ... clearly articulating our specific goals is a necessary first step.

I do tend to be inclined to rush in and just plant stuff, and this is really encouraging us to stop, take our time, see what the book of nature has to tell us about where we are starting from, and look deep into ourselves to see where we want to go. I should think on this a lot more...

And then we were introduced to the concept of coevolution.

Coevolution with your forest garden is a long-term process. It includes our learning from and refining our forest gardens, as well as breeding and selecting new varieties. It is possible to design this coevolutionary process to some degree. Plant breeding and selection benefit from conscious design, as do personal and group learning.

All of that really resonated with me. I used to think that designs were final, a bit like a child might imagine that a wedding means a happy ending. These days I see them as starting points for a long and meaningful relationship, with a bit of tweaking here and there as we go along to make things run smoother, but always changing and always developing and always supporting each other. OK, I'm waxing lyrical now. I'd better stop...

The next section was about ecosystem dynamics.

Everything we do in the forest garden is designed to create healthy plants.

There's a good discussion on self-renewing fertility.

The forest-gardening approach to fertility emphasizes strategies employed in the design phase that should reduce the need for work and expensive inputs later on down the line.

That sounds perfect to me, especially as I can imagine both my ability to work and to buy expensive inputs is going to diminish as the years pass. There is a brief discussion on nitrogen-fixing and dynamic accumulator plants, and of minimising compaction, adding organic matter, minimising tillage, using perennial plants and mychorrhizas, and of mimicking natural fertilising processes, especially by using a 'top-down' approach with mulches and compost.

I found this bit especially interesting.

If the soil is in rough shape, yearly additions of compost might make sense until the plants get well established and serious nutrient cycling and conservation get going in the ecosystem. ... It can take five to seven years, or more, for forest gardens to firmly establish their own nutrient cycles However, with good design using fertility-building plants, the garden will get there eventually, making is own compost every year with no effort on your part.

It also talks about 'mulch gardens', sited maybe downhill of a compost pile, so that we can work towards producing our own in-house fertility during the first five or so years which the nutrient cycling is getting established.

OK, this post is probably long enough. I'll come back in a day or two and share some more thoughts on the rest of the chapter.

What did anyone else find interesting while they read through?

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To be frank, I didn't like this chapter. It was so abstract, conceptual and amorphous. I wish there were more diagrams, examples and cartoons. I would have eaten this up twenty years ago, but now, older, I want to be spoonfed things in my current learning style. Boy, I'm lazy. Looking forward to next chapter.
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