Agroforestry and the Forest Garden

No. 1 in an occasional series of articles covering agroforestry-related topics in greater depth

You may have seen in the subtitle to my site the words ‘Small-Scale Agroforestry’. The Forest Garden comes under the broader umbrella of Agroforestry, so it’s perhaps a good idea to begin this occasional series of slightly more technical articles with an explanation of what this is.

In essence, agroforestry is growing crops or husbanding livestock, or both, in among trees, and although today scientists classify it in several forms such as silvo-arable, silvo-pastoral, agro-silvo-pastoral and so on, the principle predates and includes everything we know today (including the nomenclature) by several thousand years, especially in the form of the forest garden, in tropical and temperate areas throughout the world.

Silvo-arable agroforestry is increasingly practised in Europe, the USA and in areas where the severe effects of industrial agriculture are beginning to be acknowledged. It often involves rows of trees in large acreages of arable crops, and farmers are now understanding that, contrary to what was thought only three or four decades ago, the trees have a beneficial effect on soil health and thus the crops, and of course provide an extra crop at the same time. It is a kind of ‘halfway house’, but at least it is a step in the right direction, and there are many other similar initiatives in ‘western’ agroforestry which recognise the need to get away from land degradation and pollution, the decline in yields and in the nutritional value of our food.

Silvo-pastoral agroforestry is where there is pasture land for livestock among random plantations of trees and the classic example of this is the dehesa in south-west Spain and Portugal, where several species of oak (and often other trees) are grown on otherwise ‘unsuitable’ agricultural land and animals are grazed beneath, giving the double benefit of the trees (e.g. cork, acorns, timber, fodder, shade etc) and the livestock (meat and meat products, wool, leather etc). Famously, the Iberian Black Pig (see photo), known for the quality of its meat, is often seen in the dehesa.

There are variations on this theme, large and small, all over the world.

Agro-silvo-pastoral agroforestry is, as the name suggests, a combination of both the above systems, and is the next stage up in reaping the benefits from the land, the trees and the animals, while at the same time beginning to work with Nature, not against it.

The Forest Garden is a small-scale version of all these systems in microcosm, sometimes dubbed ‘hobby farming’, but it is, ironically, the most efficient in terms of yield per hectare, where sometimes hundreds of species are grown together, the sole source of livelihood and food security for millions of people, and the most environmentally and ecologically friendly of the whole lot. It is not only a garden producing food, but also an ecological reserve, where Nature is allowed to show the way, with abundant flora and fauna, where every plant, insect, small and not-so-small vertebrate has a purpose, and where the soil is rendered to optimal fertility without any ‘help’ from us!

The beauty of the forest garden is that it is a multi-layered, vertical system with canopy trees, sub-canopy trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground cover plants, climbing plants and underground plants. The idea that everything has to be set out in neat rows and conveniently spaced and weeded is foreign to the forest garden concept, where everything grows quite happily on top of everything else, providing not only a wide variety of food, but also timber, medicines, fibres, fodder, fences, erosion control, shade, calm and more.

It is ideally suited to the poorer farmer who has only a small area of land and of course, ideal in tropical situations where growth is lush and rapid with an abundance of sunlight. In temperate areas, the forest garden has also existed since antiquity, but in a slightly less prolific form. The First Peoples of North America and Canada still practise it today, for example. With less heat, humidity and light everything grows more slowly, with the result that, in the context of a forest garden, climax vegetation is rare (and in any case closed canopy cover with less light available is not desirable) and mid-succession canopy levels are more the norm (Forest Succession will be the subject of a future article).

All of which has led me to the raison d’être behind the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. The aim of the project is to observe and to mimic natural processes and lend a sympathetic helping hand to speed things up a little, and to help trees and plants help each other, when necessary. For instance, one of the first actions here was to introduce some ‘pioneer’ species of trees (something that happens spontaneously as the first stage of a forest re-establishing itself), which were also nitrogen-fixing species to help with the fertility of the soil, and which in some cases, will provide a windbreak as well.

Agroforestry in all its forms is the sustainable future for nutrition-sensitive agriculture, unless you want to go down the road of Lab Food, and the Sombrun Forest Garden Project is the way I have chosen. I hope you’ll take the journey with me – you’ll just need to be patient!

Further reading: There is a lot of literature available on the subject of forest gardens, which I will be mentioning from time to time. I am intentionally avoiding the denser scientific paper, but here are three useful and interesting books to begin with:

Ford, A., and Nigh, R. (2015). The Maya Forest Garden, Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation in the Tropical Woodlands. Left Coast Press, California, USA.

Crawford, M. (2010). Creating a Forest Garden. Green Books, Dartington, UK.

Jacke, D., and Toensmeier, E. (2005). Edible Forest Gardens. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont, USA.

In addition, I have always found the publications of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), extremely well-researched and written, and well-presented too. They are freely available online at www.fao.org/publications. A good example is The State of the World’s Forests 2020, just published and a mine of information!

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