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Volume Two Chapter Seven - Management, Maintenance, and Coevolution

Mother Tree
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7: Management, Maintenance, and Coevolution
Tools of the Trade
Grunt Labor and Its Fruits: Maintenance and Harvesting
Coevolution: The Future of Forest Gardening
Burra Maluca
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I give this chapter 10 out of 10 acorns.

The intention of this chapter is to enable you to manage the ecological processes of the habitat you have created over the long (as defined by the lifetime of a forest) term. Management, Maintenance and Co-Evolution are not mutually exclusive categories,

The authors talk about cultural evolution – changes in human belief systems, economic and social structures, technologies and resource choices. While I think this is a misuse of the word “evolution”, the pressures of the failures of capitalism to measure up to its false promises while triggering the worst extinction event in 65 million years (and all that comes with it) will have effects on your forest garden and hopefully have effects on your thinking on how to address the crisis. You may, like me, be partly driven by the awareness that radical action needs to be taken, moving into a Dark Green philosophy.

The chapter first talks about Tools of the Trade. The authors make the point that, while the story that Robert Hart made do with 5 tools is an urban myth, the actual list of tools you actually need is quite a short one, and certainly less than what most of us think we need. In a forest garden habitat you need to act as the keystone herbivore. The corollary of this is that you need to control your own depredations in the absence of a predator.

The first tools you need are your brain, your heart and your senses: the ability to observe, analyse and follow your heart, which was one reason for Robert Hart's success. His biggest failures emerge from his lack of horticultural knowledge and a poor grasp of ecology, mistakes not made by Martin Crawford and which these volumes are intended, among other things, to rectify. Many humans simply see a resource to be exploited: the forest gardener sees a habitat to live in – perhaps to guide, but not to strip, and certainly not the opencast soil mining of mainstream agriculture.

It's something that I think would particularly suit me, in that an Aspie like me, able to see the complex interconnections in a habitat like this, but with minimal human interaction, is going to be far more at home in a savannah habitat than in a city. This is a subject we've discussed here: https://permies.com/t/32991/permaculture/Permaculture-Autism-Autism-Spectrum-Disorder

You also need to care for your body: to a point a maturing forest garden requires minimal physical work, but the establishment phase requires hard physical effort. Learning the proper ergonomic use of tools is vital.

Management is essentially an ongoing design process, which begins with monitoring. This differs somewhat from the formal processes I've been trained in, and begins with simple observation. The root of this is simple walk-throughs of your habitat on a daily basis, which should not be a chore or you are doing the wrong thing with your life. What is going on with your polyculture? Plants grow differently in polycultures than they do in monocultures.

Weather records can be automated, and phenology is not a complicated subject. At a more directed level, anybody can learn the basics of population ecology to the point of being able to make population estimates. Once in a while, examine closely, especially on the subject of plant health and productivity, and prod things with a stick. Watch what happens with populations of birds, amphibians and reptiles. Always stop to look at the shit. What dropped it? Can you work out what it ate before it dropped it? All this is fun: it's an excuse to act as a big kid while calling it work. Crucially, monitor the condition of your soil. What little data we have suggests that organic matter increases and soil becomes more friable after only a few years of vegetative cover. What is less clear is the extent to which this is a function of the decomposition of mulch, much of which will be bein brought in from offsite, and may not be sustainable on a large scale. For example, Stamets discusses the use of waste from dairy cattle for mushroom production, which can then be used as a soil amendment, but dairy production is not sustainable. Most mushroom production, indeed most mulch, uses "waste" products, but most "wastes" are not endlessly renewable. If you are removing 2000 kilos of food per hectare, which is well within the realms of possibility, what consequences does this have for long-term soil health? More needs to be done here.

You also need to manage ecological succession. The instinctive reaction of some people is to see a weed and pull it, but this is more complicated in a forest garden. There is a successional process to consider. Your “weed” fills an ecological niche. Before you pull it up, ask what niche it fills. Is it beneficial in your habitat? Can you fill the same niche with something that more closely meets your own needs in the context of the habitat? How can you best establish a new plant? Do you wish to slow or stop succession and, if so, what is the best way of doing this? Stamets, for example, argues that fungi are an important aspect of this, and I would increasingly agree, but this is something these authors do not discuss in detail (I recommend Mycelium Running as a good companion volume).

Succession management, by definition, involves disturbance. This is not inherently negative: disturbance would happen in natural habitats even in the absence of humans. The four main disturbances involve mulching, trimming, weeding and clearing, and these are all discussed, with their pros and cons.

You can also direct plant performance through resource management. Plants need water, light and nutrients, and all of these can be controlled to one degree or another by irrigation, pruning, and the application of composts and chop-and-drop accumulator plants.

Proactive planting probably takes a minor role, but some relay planting, the replacement of dead specimens and so on will be necessary. The same applies to management of the soil food web.

Remember that forest gardens do not manage themselves, and it's crucial to manage, not maintain. Some work is going to be necessary. The problem, especially while we are still learning about these forms of polycultures, is going to be walking the line between intervening to nudge the system into self-maintenance and ongoing disturbance to maintain an artificial balance. This is complicated by the fact that productivity will be at its highest in mid-succession environments. Still, if one species requires a lot of management, you are probably doing something wrong.

When you design a forest garden, you plan to a horizon. That said, when you walk, the horizon moves. Equally, the horizon in your forest garden will also shift. Planning a succession is relatively straightforward, and certain species will dominate for a time before being shaded or the space taken over by others. With the right mycorrhizal fungi, shaded trees may produce more heavily, possibly at the expense of canopy species. Nature rarely works to our plans, and that horizon will shift: this may mean rethinking the horizon habitat. Equally, you need to work out what you will do as the canopy in your garden closes.

The chapter then moves on to Grunt Labour and its Fruits: Maintenance and Harvesting. If your planning and early planting stages went well, the amount of grunt labour should decline. Likewise as wild animals begin to colonise your habitat they should do at least some of the work of pest control. This is actually one reason I'm reluctant to include domesticated nonhumans in the mix. Not only do they disrupt the theoretical predator-pest balance, but they take looking after and a certain amount of feed. Much of the time the inclusion of domestic nonhumans seems like little more than an excuse to be able to eat them. Proper planning, including the maintenance of gaps and clearings, should enable you to grow some protein-rich foods and hopefully trade for the rest.

Crucial to this is about learning to do less. The authors have a list of maintenance tools, all of which can fit in a small shed. Wisdom comes from knowing when to use the items at the top of the list, and when to use the one at the bottom: the hammock. Much of the work is seasonal, and there is a long table listing what jobs need to be done and when. With good planning harvesting will be staggered through the year. There is, however, detailed advice on watering, as well as support for beneficial organisms and the control of pests and diseases.

The authors admit, however, that it cannot be detailed enough simply because of the sheer range of the things. In theory a healthy ecosystem will have a low pest and disease load, but there is a difference between low and non-existence. Many general strategies are discussed elsewhere in the book, and this can be one area where the integration of some rescued nonhumans can be an asset. The abandonment of the notion of a tidy garden, a holdover from the gardening crazes of the nineteenth century, is also a good idea.

The obliteration of a pest is not always a good idea, because this disrupts the life cycles of those species that prey upon them, as anyone who has experimented with certain forms of slug control will attest. Then again, there is a lag time between peak pest and peak predator, and some species, such as aphids, can grow in population very quickly. Certain diseases, such as fireblight, need to be tackled immediately.

To most of us the harvest is the main reason we plant a forest garden in the first place, as is the sheer diversity of crops we can obtain from it. Even I have a list of crops I might not immediately recognise if put in front of me, and it's important to learn which part of which plants are edible at any point in their life cycle. Martin Crawford has written extensively on this, and his work is certainly complementary to this. Some plants that are similar to edible ones will make you very sick, or even kill. There is a long section on what to harvest and when. Good planning should prevent too many gluts in production. A table shows yield estimates for some woody forest garden fruits, berries and nuts.

The sheer diversity of new foods can lead to problems. We have become accustomed to a very limited range of foods in our diets, so new foods should be tried one at a time, and preparation and storage are subjects to be considered.

Harvesting can also be a designed disturbance. This will depend on species and, to a point, habit. Picking apples creates minimal disturbance: digging Jerusalem artichoke is another matter, and these things need to be considered. Actual prediction of the effects of these things is tricky at the best of times.

The final section discusses coevolution – how we, our societies and the plants we grow will change in response to changes in each of those factors in our environment. Our selective breeding programmes will change the plants that we grow, but out experience of living in a forest garden will change us, and will change how we relate to each other. Social change will feed back into the demands that we make, reasonable and (hopefully to a lesser degree) unreasonable on each other and our gardens, perhaps with a drive towards diversity. To do that, we need to spend time understanding our gardens: observe, document and test.

It is absolutely vital, to my mind, not just to react to questions about what has worked and what has not in our gardens, but to proactively write about it. The authors mention that, with more and more of us with forest gardens, the amount of work should decline as we learn more about them, but the information is of little use if kept to ourselves.

I'm very enthusiastic about creating an ark of threatened varieties, not just because some of these varieties are tasty in their own right, but because the genetic material they contain may protect against future disruption in the environment.

This section has a couple of pages on the subject of the selective breeding of other perennials. This is something I'm keen to engage in, potentially in a big way with enough land. In some cases such as wheat, this is a process that has already been started, but it has been thousands of years since humans last bred a new staple crop (the most recent is probably the sunflower, three thousand years ago). We have become lazy and complacent, relying instead on a relatively small number of existing staples, leaving entire human populations dependent on one crop, often with declining genetic diversity, with some even trapped in the cycle of requiring the maintenance of the genetic modification industry, itself linked to artificial pesticides and fertilisers (and it is no accident that the same companies make both).

There is a clear role for the use of gaps and clearings, mimicking the effects of the depredations of species like boar and other rooters. Perennial breeding is, simply because of the length of the lifespan, more difficult with perennials (and they even have a suggestion for how to speed this process up) than with annuals, but there is work to be done on both fronts.

An important point these authors make is that forest gardens have particular needs, in terms of plants that partition the soil, need less light, and so on. There is no way these will be bred by conventional breeders. Once you give it some thought, it's clear that most plants in a forest garden could be part of a selective breeding programme.

The authors discuss how the forest garden idea can be propagated through our own social networks, and I have ideas for at least two books to write on those long winter evenings. As temperate agroforestry develops it will be hoped that it changes the ways we relate to each other and to the rest of Nature, and this needs to be expressed. I'm particularly pleased to find the authors discussing this subject. I have written elsewhere on this site about how biodiversity and neurodiversity mirror each other, and this has implications for how we order our societies and our relationships.

In true Jacke and Toensmeier style, there then follows nearly 160 pages of appendices.

Appendix 1 is a list of 626 species and varieties, arranged by scientific name, with their hardiness zone, tolerances for sunshine, shade, moisture and pH, along with their forms, habits and root patterns, mature heights and widths and their growth rates, natural habitats, uses, other functions and possible drawbacks, all of which should help in creating effective guilds.

Appendix 2 is a series of Species By Use tables. The authors give a long set of cautions when it comes to trying new plants. There are guidelines for this. Plants can be misidentified or mislabelled, and somebody, somewhere will react badly to just about everything (and there is a poisonous plants table in Appendix 4). As with Appendix 1, these tables contain plants that most gardeners would probably not consider growing, and might not even have heard of, but will liven up any diet. These do seem to be dominated by North American species, and it would certainly be worth further investigating to what extent more European and Asian species could be added to the mix, especially in terms of breeding new varieties from more borderline-edible ones. The exception to this is a list of British coppice species (most British tree species will coppice, probably as an adaptation to beaver and large herbivore browsing, but these are the best ones). I did particularly appreciate the list of edible mushrooms and their substrates, and the growth of medicinals and superfoods may provide a valuable income from the garden. The Estimated Life Spans table will be of great help in planning patch succession.

Appendix 3 gives a series of Species By Function tables, including nitrogen fixers and their inoculants, dynamic accumulator plants (of which much more needs to be learned), food and shelter plants for beneficials, followed by a nectary calendar. This is actually incomplete, as some invertebrates require a nectar source throughout the year, especially in warmer climates: even in Scotland I have seen foraging taking place in December and January on ivy (Hedera helix) (also a useful shelter plant). There is then a long list of ground cover plants, many of them edible, and pest confusers. If you wish to grow black walnut, the list of species that is sensitive to, and the list of species resistant to juglone will be useful.

Appendix 4 gives a worryingly long list, at least on the surface, of plants of which parts are poisonous, followed by a watch list of opportunist, expansive, dispersive, persistent and highly poisonous species, along with those that may be disease vectors and look-alikes. Note that those listed as “exotic” are exotic in North America. For example, while I would be wary of tolerating coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) in the US I would consider it a useful plant for binding certain soils here.

Appendix 5, Niche Habitats for Beneficial Animals, including mammals, birds and arthropods, will be of only patchy use outside temperate North America, and I suggest further reading on this for anyone outside this area. That said, if you provide a mix of habitats you should be able to support a good range of beneficial animals.

Appendix 6 provides Plant Hardiness Zone Maps for Europe and North America, although with climate disruption a growing problem these are increasingly dated, and a competent designer may be able to create microclimates one zone each side of the stated one. It's important to remember that while warm extremes are becoming more common, global weirding may well result in some nasty cold snaps that may kill vulnerable species, and unusually warm winters will affect fruit tree flowering, and will have cascade effects on the survival of pests and diseases, and thus on populations of larger fauna.

Appendix 7 is a list of Resources – publications, organisations, suppliers and so on, but some of it is dated, others have emerged since the book was published, and much of it is again focused on North America, but it's worth a read through for the material that may be of use elsewhere.

Finally there is a Glossary for anyone who has been dipping in and out (which I suggest is not a good idea), a fairly extensive Bibliography, with some overlap into the Resources section above, an Index of Latin Synonyms, where these have changed in recent years (although this will also date to some degree) and a long list of Common and Scientific Names.

Some Concluding Thoughts:
I found this book utterly inspirational. The information and ideas contained within it are vital for creating a healthy forest garden. It has made me think about other ideas that are not contained within this book, or indeed others on Permaculture that I have read. In particular, I'm thinking about managed meadowlands as part of a mosaic.

Probably more importantly, forest gardening enables us to think ecocentrically, rather than anthropocentrically. It may enable us to develop a way of thinking that will enable us to escape from the conceptual traps that “the environment” is there for our use, and redirect our way of living into one that will enable us to live more harmoniously with the rest of Nature – a value shift from “me”, or at best “us” to everything. It may enable us, as Aldo Leopold advocated, to stop seeing land or other living things as “property” but as something worthy of moral consideration: a land ethic that “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." These are ideas this book touches on but does not fully elaborate: this is not a failure, but merely a difference in focus.

Even if this doesn't work out, the implementation of these ideas will provide and element of resiliency for those of us practicing these techniques. At present rates, the last of the world's agricultural soils will have been depleted in about 60 years. That's not when people begin to starve: that's when the one-percent start to starve. There is going to be a lot of starvation, suffering, conflict and mass migration between now and then, and those with their own reasonably reliable food supply are going to be in a less vulnerable position than most.

I think that there is more to be thought about in terms of climate resilience, and I think the designer would be wise to be ready for the extreme weather events projected to become more common with the inevitably worsening situation with the planet's disrupted climate. The use of shelterbelts, even berms, and the science of breaking up wind tunnels and other problems associated with storm winds needs to be thought about. It may not be a matter of protecting from the prevailing wind, but protecting from any storm wind while enabling proper air flow. How can we manage flood waters not only to supply a forest garden but protect areas downstream? A forest garden will hold more water than an area trampled, and lose fewer nutrients when it does.

I liked the authors' refusal to get bogged down in the question of domesticated nonhuman animals, which is often a focus of other texts. Whether or not you subscribe to the views of Frans Vera, large grazing mammals would have been a natural feature of our forests but, besides the fact that raising livestock is a grossly inefficient means of producing protein, none of these herbivores are going to graze selectively in a forest garden. They would also, in the absence of large predators, behave completely differently, as wolf reintroductions have shown, My view is that they should be kept out, with you taking the place of large herbivores. Whether they should be excluded from the food system entirely is another discussion I'm not going to get into here. In some circumstances there might be a place for ducks and/or (less likely) chickens, and research is needed here to compare yields and damage under two different systems. I suspect trampling damage from ducks, for example, and their non-selective foraging, might result in greater losses than those from any gastropods they might otherwise eat: encouraging hedgehogs and thrushes might be more beneficial, and would not require costly supplementary feeding. Then there is the question of beekeeping. To what extent do honeybees compete with wild bees, and is it worth treating them as pollinators and not as a honey source, especially when the species is already under so much stress?

I've had some more thoughts that emerge from the discussion in this books and elsewhere about language, and the way we talk and think about our forest gardens, and these are very much in the early-considerations stages, but they have been influenced by this work. I think this is very much the kind of thing that I expect will develop once I get my own garden under way.

I also have more questions about the role of fungi, and I've just reviewed Stamets' work on fungi. https://permies.com/t/44228/books/Mycelium-Running-Paul-Stamets#431534. Jacke and Toensmeier discuss the mycosphere, but not in sufficient detail. As Stamets points out, it's difficult to define any forest without reference to its fungi, and this is something that was distinctly lacking in my training in habitat surveying. The National Vegetation Classification system used here defines habitats purely in terms of flora, not their codependent species in other kingdoms, and I'm currently thinking about subclassifications of these habitats in terms of their mycology. I'm also thinking about how we could define forest garden habitats in a similar fashion.

All in all, this is an excellent pair of volumes, which should be read carefully, and their recommendations implemented.

His name is Paddy. Paddy O'Furniture. He's in the backyard with a tiny ad.
Green University by Thomas Elpel
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