Sunday, May 9, 2010

On "Establishing a Food Forest"

A few days ago I watched a documentary/instructional video that I requested from the library called Establishing a Food Forest. It was so amazing that I watched it again the next day for a second time, this time with my significant other (who also thought it was amazing). I had heard of edible food forests, but didn’t really know what they were all about. This documentary is a really informative and fascinating introduction to food forests and how they work. (Here is the preview/promo/beginning of the film.)

Geoff Lawton, the Managing Director of The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, starts off by giving a quick classroom lecture on the basics of food forests and then later he walks the viewer through all the successive stages of developing a fully functional food forest. His enthusiasm and passion for what he does is totally infectious, and I found this idea of food forests to be one of the most inspiring and hopeful things I’ve encountered in recent months. The notion that one can create a lush and productive edible forest out of literally nothing but bare grassland is astonishing and fascinating. One of the things that struck me most was what little effort Lawton put into creating the forest, especially considering the unbelievably short duration of time it took for the forest to become rampantly productive soon after the seeds were sown.

There are some key principles used in growing a successful food forest. One key principle is the necessary layering of various types of plants (from the ground cover to the overstory). As Lawton points out in the film, the specific plants used are not important, but the concept of layering is essential (this allows for the method to be applied close to anywhere in the world using plants that are native to a particular region – so long as the plants are layered correctly it should work). Another really important key is providing biodiversity (and interactive diversity) – i.e., allowing many different types of plants to grow together in such a way that a natural cycle can flourish and allow the forest to sustain itself with a ridiculously minimal amount of human labor to maintain it. And one thing I couldn’t help but notice was that this process needn’t use any animals or animal products (fertilizers, etc.) in order to make this happen. At one point later in the film, Lawton offers a technique based on using chickens to fertilize the forest and control “pests” in the preliminary stages of forest production. However, the bulk of the film is devoted to a method that uses plant-based mulch to create healthy soil that certain leguminous/nitrogen-fixing plants help to create and that certain fruit trees feed off of (it’s a method called “chop and drop”). The end result is a beautiful lush forest that is completely self-sustained and replete with an abundance of food on which to subsist. With the lack of biodiversity on this planet having become a crucial issue that threatens all life, food forests seem to be at least one practical and sustainable answer to restoring some balance.

These newly created forests quickly become inhabited by animals. This makes me wonder what role food forests could play in creating (or rather recreating) new ecosystems for free-living animals who will need to migrate to more suitable destinations as the climate starts to warm up where they live. It is said that due to global warming the average temperature is moving at a speed of a quarter of a mile every year (in some locations it’s up to a kilometer a year). Could we rapidly design and create new sustainable and productive forests (in place of barren or unsuitable land) for animals who are bound to start moving northward in search of cooler climates? Could we anticipate climate change migration patterns and quickly establish forests that somewhat mirror animals’ original ecosystems, placing these forests where the animals are predicted to migrate? Could we relocate plants that are suffering from climate change to these newly established forests where they may thrive (and subsequently attract migrating animals who subsist on these plants)? I don’t know. It’s just some strange (and probably stupid) thoughts I just had…

Anyway…one of many insightful moments in the film for me was when Lawton speaks about the benefits of weeds. I have recently begun to see weeds from a totally different perspective (a number of plants considered “weeds” are not only edible, but have medicinal qualities). Lawton explains at one point in the documentary how weeds play a vital role in the ecological cycle of plant life. Their existence can be a sign or a symptom of deficiency in the soil. As weeds grow, their roots pull up nutrients and minerals (such as potassium) from deep down in the soil, and as the weed dies those nutrients and minerals in the plant become incorporated into the top layer of the soil where other plants can feed on them. So in a sense, they actually correct what is wrong in the soil. I think I already knew this, since the same concept applies to weeds that breakdown in compost and are later used to replenish soil. But I guess I never really thought about the direct relationship weeds have with the surrounding plants in the forest and the soil those plants feed off of.

I found the part on the no-dig kitchen garden to be really inspiring (and it is my favorite part in the film). In keeping with the idea of the importance of biodiversity, the kitchen garden at the Permaculture Institute has 400 different vegetables, herbs, and fruit - all planted together side by side. The lesson I took away from this is that the more diversity you plant in your garden, the less “pests” will take over. Instead of pushing out certain “unwanted” insects or animals, it is much more beneficial to create an environment that invites everyone in and provides a little something for everyone (by way of a multitude of diverse plants and various forms of habitats). It seems the more life (plants) you grow and the more life (animals) you invite in, the better your garden will be balanced and self-maintained. What a beautiful concept.

If you do decide to watch Establishing a Food Forest, make sure you don’t miss the special features, particularly the one on the 300-year-old forest (or you can just watch it on Youtube; though I think watching this clip after watching the documentary allows you to comprehend the significance of the garden). Incredibly, somewhere in Vietnam there is a food forest that has been family owned for 28 generations. (As an aside, there is a moment in the clip where Lawton describes animals being “used” as part of the “holistic” system of the food forest, including a deer whose horns are “harvested” for medicinal purposes. I wasn’t so happy about that and I probably could write a whole post just about that, but lately I just try to extract - and pass on - useful and inspiring information, and make an effort to leave behind the more frustrating or depressing stuff.)

Overall, I recommend watching this film, even if you never plan to grow a food forest. It’s not only highly informative (offering insight into permaculture techniques and the ecology of food forests and ecosystem production), but I also found it to be surprisingly inspiring, which was wholly unexpected – it created a little bit of hope in me where it has lately been conspicuously absent.