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Volume Two Chapter Four - Design Processes 2: The Design Phase

Mother Tree
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4: Design Processes 2: The Design Phase

The Four Stages of the Design Phase

The Four Realms of the Forest Garden Design
Infrastructure: Garden Features, Functions, and Elements
Vegetation Architecture: Habitat Design
Vegetation Dynamics: Succession Design
Social Structure: Guild and Polyculture Design

Integrating the Four Realms and the Four Stages

Design Phase How-To
Basic Design Strategies and Questions
Design Concept: The Organizing Idea
Schematic Design: Roughing it
Detailed Design: Nitty Gritty
Patch Design: Final Integration

Feature Article 3: Ground-Cover Polycultures
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I give this chapter 10 out of 10 acorns

I really don't see how they could have made it much better.

This chapter brings all the previous material on ecology and design together into a coherent process for designing your forest garden. This is where it becomes clear that Volume 1 was essential grounding and the you really need to have read that too in order to understand the ecological theory underpinning the design process.

It takes the design concept of about three sentences, and uses it as a seed with the conceptual DNA that will grow the tree that is your garden.

Schematic design takes the design elements and puts them into a relational format: the ideal way of doing this is using bubble diagramming rather than a map. That comes later.

The detailed design stage begins to formulate how this will look in space and time, bearing ecological succession in mind.

There are four Realms of Design. If you are familiar with weaving you may wish to think of the Stages of the Design Process (in the previous chapter) and the Realms of Design as the warp and weft of creating a fabric: whatever works. I'm a very visual thinker, and this doesn't work well for me, but I know it does for some people.

The Four Realms are:

Infrastructure, for both humans and for beneficial wildlife, and which includes paths, arbors, trellises, sheds, rock piles, dead standing trees, water storage and so on. Each of these will have certain functions or several. A pond may be water storage, a place for growing desired aquatic plants and essential wildlife habitat. When considering infrastructure you need to think especially carefully about your goals. If the infrastructure to meet your goals isn't there it will, of course, make life much more difficult later. This book is weak on infrastructure design, but consciously so, since many books on garden design and permaculture give much more detail on this subject.

Vegetation architecture: this is your habitat design, and will include ponds where you might be growing useful plants in the water or on the margins as well as the more obvious aspects of the layers of your guilds. Volume 1 laid out the features of this, and you need a grasp of vegetation architecture before you even think about tackling this. Habitat design involves designing the architecture of the habitat, the pattern of patches that make up the habitat and the architecture of each patch, in that order. You are going to make mistakes: there is just too much that isn't known about these kinds of ecosystems, but you will learn over time. Vegetation architecture goes hand in hand with the next section, and the boundaries between the two and these and the aspects of social structure that are key to species selection are extremely blurred.

Vegetation dynamics: this is where you consider and plan ecological succession, including the changes in dominance in various plants over time. To me, this is both exciting and daunting. It is right at the edge of taking the science of ecology from description to prediction, and there is a lifetime of research here in even the smallest forest garden. To me, this has the potential for years and years of fun. Sections of both volumes talk about the management and guidance of succession, and you need to understand this to some degree before you design succession, which is where this book has incredible value.

The design takes place at the level of the patch (see Volume 1), and a large garden may have dozens, even hundreds of unique patches, and a long section of this chapter takes you through the design of the patch and how it will change over time. Patch design, which will be a long, complicated process at a homestead scale, lays out what species will go where in any given patch in the context of the detailed design. Do not underestimate this. With one hectare (2.5 acres) (about the limit of what two people can manage full time in the early stages), if we assume that each patch averages 10m sq (a big patch by some standards), that is 100 patches to work out a guild for. Some of these may be gaps, clearings or ponds, and you will need to work out how these will relate to each other in terms of energy and nutrient flows. I consider this among the most interesting parts of the process, bringing together, as it does, factors like ecosystem design (which is why you need a grasp of Volume 1) and pattern language. The unit for this aspect of design is the successional phase. Remember that each patch is connected to other patches, especially contiguous ones, but also through corridors.

The simplest way of doing this is linear succession to a horizon, which is what most people think of when they think about the (largely defunct) concept of a climax. Rotational mosaics allow more or less stable harvest profiles over the long term, and are worth implementing in larger forest gardens: the authors describe this as “large-scale …. hard-core … and experimental”, or what I call “fun”, or “a job for super-Aspie”! This is closer to what I want to be doing. There is decades of work for the brain here.

The above may (and I would think would probably have to) incorporate gap succession, which is key to the shifting-mosaic steady-state model of ecosystem dynamics, which is the model that continues to make most sense to me. It also opens up scope for experimentation, which the whole field of regenerative agriculture is in dire need of.

The chapter then goes on to discuss a succession design process. Appendix 2 has details on the useful lifespans of a number of woody plants: I advise that you use it. This book broke new ground on this subject, and it's one reason why it's so important.

Social Structure: Guild and polyculture design (which interrelates closely with Patch Design above). This section defines and revises the types and characteristics of guilds, taking it from a design perspective. It then goes on to discuss design strategies. The authors talk about six, concentrate on two, and acknowledge there are many more to be invented. These strategies can be combined, giving you even more to get your intellectual teeth into, with the fact that it will involve trial, error and observation meaning this will continue more or less indefinitely.

Of the two strategies the chapter focuses on, the process of “guild-build” uses what we know or suspect about plants and how they interact. It's relatively scientifically robust, but you may be combining plants that have never grown together before, so you run the risk of unintended failure through ignorance (ignorance you will, of course, be curing). It's hard work, and potentially risky, but probably worth the effort, especially in the present situation where we need to be learning more about these ecosystems.

Crop-only polycultures limit the number of possible species, making the process simpler, and may be more suited to patches within a wider ecosystem. I have considered using these for patches of annual crops in gaps and clearings.

I find the idea of random and semi-random mixtures interesting. While I concur with the authors that it increases the likelihood of failure, it also increases the likelihood of discovering something new. This is very much a strategy for the larger plot, perhaps where there is volunteer labour, where yields are a lower priority, or as part of a STUN system (see: http://permaculturenews.org/2014/11/08/permaculture-profit-stun-system-sheer-total-utter-neglect/ with a lot of note-taking. This may also be a good way of breeding strains and finding combinations resilient to adverse conditions (think climate change). There is fun to be had here!

Habitat mimicry is the second of the models that appeals to me personally, and one I would hope to implement in parts of my own garden. This would mimic local natural or semi-natural ecosystems. In theory this should maximise the chances of a low-competition, high-cooperation forest garden, but the theory is controversial. It's heavy on niche analysis, and might make a good experiment on a larger plot. I wouldn't want to try it on a smaller one.

Habitat invention is similar, but more fluid, taking traits of the semi-natural habitat and swapping out species as necessary. This should give higher yields, and is not incompatible with a guild-build model.

Finally you can co-opt an existing habitat, which has advantages over the smothered-earth policy of comprehensive sheet mulching, but you will face the problem of highly competitive existing species. I like this idea from the perspective of someone who wants to work with Nature, but I'm less keen on it from the perspective of pursuing a sustainable lifestyle. Yield losses are likely to be too high. Again, this might work well in a STUN environment, where you have more land than you can initially work with.

I estimate that to do all of these would require a couple of hectares and probably about 4 people, judging by time-area calculations conducted by Martin Crawford, but you could implement many of these with two of you on a hectare.

Now you need to integrate all this.

Sixty pages of this chapter is a detailed how-to. It's an attempt to lay out, in a linear fashion, a process that is inherently messy and nonlinear, a fact the authors acknowledge. This process is difficult to summarise, and you are definitely better off reading it and applying it, probably referring back to the text. It seems one of the most important keys to the process is working from the top down – from the level of the site to the patch, and from the overstory to the ground – at least most of the time.

It sounds complicated, and I suppose it is, but some features will not apply to all gardens: you may wish to prioritise productivity over social aspects, for instance. This would probably be the way I'd want to do it, but maybe with one patch where I and any other humans living in the habitat could get together somewhere shady, pick fruit off a tree, perhaps next to a pond, but that would have implications for surrounding patches, as would a similar patch next to the house.

There is a useful list of common mistakes, some of them unique to forest gardens. It is well worth being aware of these.

You need to work out your design concept first, and do this well, before moving on to putting a design down on paper. Inspiration can be taken from looking at the chapter on pattern language and comparing this with the site.

Then you can move on to a schematic design, probably very rough. Remember though that this is not a linear process, and the action of laying down a schematic design may lead you to insights on the design concept. This is important, because putting some features, such as a compost heap, in the wrong place, can lead to long walking distances over a lifetime in a habitat. Then you need to move on to defining the horizon habitat and selecting the habitat-defining species (the dominant species in ecologist vernacular), which also may be an iterative process. Even a small garden may have several distinct habitats, and a large one may have many. Then you can start work on integrating the layout.

You need to think about such matters as site preparation (covered in detail in the next chapter), succession, budgets and so on. Even with a small garden you could get through a lot of paper. Much of this may turn into compost after you move into the detailed design phase. At some point you are going to move from paper to garden, and this will depend on the individual designer and the size and nature of the garden, but each stage will involve refining the one that came before, down to patch level and, of course, guild design. There is a lot here on species selection, before moving on to polyculture design, including a useful article on ground-cover polycultures, and how to work out plant spacings and density (some advice, especially in temperate climates, is technically savannah, not woodland), although I do wish the stocking density table used civilised measurements – most readers will need a calculator to scale from feet to metres.

That said, this is an impressive piece of work, worthy of the most obsessed, focused Aspie (a compliment, coming from me). This is where all the prior reading in Volume 1 and earlier chapters of Volume 2 really proves useful. If you want to create a healthy, productive forest garden that will be a pleasure to live and work in for years to come you need to read and implement what is in this chapter.
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