In June I was introduced to the concept of a food forest—a kind of permaculture that establishes a highly productive and unique garden environment. This description, clipped from Seattle's Beacon Food Forest website, gives a clear picture.
A Food Forest is a gardening technique or land management system that mimics a woodland ecosystem but substitutes in edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Fruit and nut trees are the upper level, while below are berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals. Companions or beneficial plants are included to attract insects for natural pest management while some plants are soil amenders providing nitrogen and mulch. Together they create relationships to form a forest garden ecosystem able to produce high yields of food with less maintenance.
This description packs a lot of information into a small space. Let me unpack it a bit.
Consider the idea of this kind of garden that "mimics" a woodland ecosystem. The emphasis here is on the human-designed garden; it is not a naturally occurring space in any way, but rather brings together observation, science, imagination, cultivation, and many other things to attempt to harness the productivity and health of a natural setting.
This isn't sustainability, it's recovery. Elevated beyond preserving an ecosystem, it reclaims land that might have been denuded of plants or otherwise ruined, made barren, or tilted out of balance. When I moved into my house with my young family in 1991, the large back yard was a pit of weeds and crabgrass, a rather nasty and neglected patch where no one would want to spend time. I saw a lot of potential there, and it has been one of the great pleasures of my life to do the work to restore this place.
To be certain, my 1000 square foot patch of suburban garden is not a food forest, in the true sense of the definition above. However, it has slowly evolved over 23 years and to stand at its center on an August morning as the sun hits the greenery is to feel like I'm in a forest. Tomato plants loom 7' high on trellises all around. Guatemalan Blue Banana Squash have spread out 25' in two directions and hang heavy on the fences, their 12-15 lb. fruit ripening to a remarkable blue-green color, encasing the bright orange flesh that is ridiculously delicious. So far I've used these squash in soups and stews, as well as grilling—to be sprinkled with a touch of brown sugar and a spritz of fresh lime juice. A half dozen lunkers are stacked on my basement shelves and another half dozen are on the way, assuring us that these winter squash will grace our table when the snow flies, and maybe even until it melts in spring.
And have I mentioned the tomatoes, the fruit so many people think of, first and foremost, when considering the home garden? I can tell you the harvest, a bit delayed this year, is finally rolling in. We have an amazing array of mouth-watering heirloom fruits at virtually every meal—on breakfast omelettes, lunch sandwiches, supper pasta dishes, and even for a snack, sun-warmed and right off the vine.
I can sit under the silver lace vine, now towering over the arbor and getting ready to burst into white blossoms as it does every September, and feel like I'm in a forest. Giant sunflowers mark the perimeters, always the first to catch the rising sun on their faces. Nestled down in this kind of greenery—everywhere I look there are vines, bushes, carpets of herbs, and flowering plants—I'm insulated from the noise of my neighborhood. It's a great writing space, though of course the forest aspect is ephemeral. Another 60 days and all will be blasted by frost. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. One of the pleasures of the August garden is just this—a wallowing in the abundance. So, why not wallow with me for a few moments?
Follow below, clockwise, from top left. Hop cones hang, almost ready to harvest, dry, and drop in a batch of homebrewed beer I'll be stirring together this Labor Day weekend. This time, I think I'll make a Wee Heavy (Scottish Ale). Next, Joe's Long Red Cayenne, a piquant pepper about 10" long and heavy on the plants. I'll dry most of these and then some time this winter will grind them to flakes for use in the coming year. Bottom right is a clutch of Garden Huckleberries—not a true huckleberry but a mock variety that will make a delicious pie I'm planning to serve this weekend when friends come for supper. Lastly, the amazing, the spectacular, Petit Gris de Rennes melon. How can I describe these beauties? They hang on particularly lovely vines that grew vigorously through the summer. The trick is to harvest them at exactly the right time, which is signaled by several things: a yellow blush that starts at the bottom and creeps up the grey-green lattice of the fruit; a softness that yields to a fingernail pressed into the juncture of stem and crown, and; a distinct sweet melon aroma rising from fruit.
Is this a food forest? Well, not quite. I have planted a peach tree, so at least that represents for the trees. I do have berries on shrubs, so I am at least catching that component. And of course, the bulk of the garden is filled with annual plants that produce a wide variety of food. Over time I've learned to plant the right number and variety of herbs and vegetables so that harvest begins in March with the chives and ends in October with the last tomatoes, peppers, and winter squash. Through it all teems a diverse population of beneficial insects—in this mature organic garden, I've had virtually no pest problems due to the right balance of critters among the leaves, stems, and soil.
Ultimately, this is the peak of it all—August is a time when I enjoy the distinct comfort of sitting in the garden, my pseudo-food forest, as early autumn works a bit of magic in the plants, urging reluctant fruits to ripen and deepen in flavor. I can put off my daily work a while longer, forget for a while the clamor of responsibilities, and just settle back to watch a hundred bees dip in and out of the flowering pennyroyal and mint, take time to appreciate the magenta morning glories and then witness the sun strike them, simultaneously illuminating their hues and slowly wilting their trumpets.Peace is hard enough to find, harder still to hold. Modern humans often go to the forest for recreation—re-creation—but I only have to step into my back yard to find it. And this is not to say I have it better than anyone else. In fact, nothing would make me happier than to think that this post, and this blog in general, is indeed food for thought. With some work, some imagination, some patience, some persistence, you can build a garden of your own. Do it—restore a little patch of earth to beauty and productivity—and you'll never regret it, nor will those who come after you and enjoy the space, the peace, and the flavors as well.