Cyprus Mail

A forest you can eat

By Annette Chrysostomou

On a practical level, forest gardening is a form of sustainable, self-sufficient permaculture designed to produce food in the form of fruits, vegetables and herbs.

But it’s also a worldview, and a beneficial one. As a Japanese farmer and philosopher celebrated for his natural farming once said, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

A seminar led by forest garden specialist Rakesh Rootsman Rak last weekend in Xylophagou opened up new ways of thinking about the subject. I left the seminar convinced that to plan and create a forest garden is a great way to leave a legacy.

Forest gardening conveys the very tangible message that we as humans care about nature and are not merely about to destroy the environment, but can also bring some harmony back to it, including to our own lives. And, of course, the result is an abundant variety of food.

Rakesh Rootsman Rak
Rakesh Rootsman Rak

But there are many lessons learned along the way. One of them is about the space we need to grow, another about the complex relationships between different living things. To give just one example, in a garden, micro-organisms and insects interact with the soil and the plants, without which the whole system wouldn’t work at all. Instead of valuing their contribution, they are often casually destroyed by humans who too often don’t understand their importance. In short, the whole system is about cooperation, beauty and harmony, and who doesn’t want to achieve that!

Where is natural life at its richest? At the edge of forests, Rakesh explained. In such spaces there is a natural balance of tall trees with shrubs, herbs, vines and other plants.

And this is how, he said, we should imagine our garden. One should not envision it as a deep forest, where little sunshine gets in and consequently trees have to compete for sparse light. In this environment the majority of plants are very tall trees. Neither is it a meadow, which is mainly composed of grassland. Rather, we should aim for the edge. As Rakesh put it, “that’s where all the richness is.”

In more ambitious words, a forest garden is an ecosystem which is more than the sum of its parts. It is beautiful, diverse, largely self-maintaining and forges mutually beneficial relationships among animals, plants and people. It is about aiding nature to do its work instead of dominating and stressing the natural world.

feature annette 1

How does one set up this beautiful garden? The keyword is design. In the words of author Patrick Whitefield, “The aim of forest garden design is to make the relationships as co-operative as possible.”

“All the trees and plants have to have multiple functions,” Rakesh said, “once you have set it up nature does most of the work for you. If you take care of the soil, it will take care of the plants.”

The planning also requires a lot of knowledge. One needs to know which plants are beneficial for each other, how the nutrients in the soil can be maintained, which plants will thrive in a particular spot and much more. As each scenario is different, with different climates, layouts, and soil no two gardens can be the same. Some experimentation is also definitely called for over time.

While choosing the trees, one also needs to know how tall and wide they will grow, to avoid having to do stressful pruning later on or worse, having to chop trees down. So planning should start with the vegetation layers, from the biggest trees down to fungi.

Though saying ‘starting’ is perhaps misleading, as there is no step-to-step guide due to the complexity. Tall trees should also be practical. For example, nut trees are a good choice because the nuts, when falling from a great height, still land intact on the ground. There is the consideration of which birds they might attract, which will in return leave some nutrients behind. Which nutrients do the trees need and where will they get them from? One of the answers: from other plants. Which plants can be used as windbreakers and where do they need to be planted to effectively protect against wind?

feature annette

Other ingredients are microorganisms and insects. Plants can be bought, insects have to be lured. Thus, the design had better include ‘insect hotels’, which can be something like a pile of leaves.

Then there is the issue of water, which can be obtained partly by the plants themselves. Plants produce water through transpiration, meaning water evaporates from the leaves and then drops back on the ground. Certain plants are more likely to transpire big amounts of water, and one definitely needs to choose some of those in Cyprus.

The complexity, of which it is only possible to hint in one article, maybe the reason why most people don’t attempt forest gardening but it is also the reason why it is so rewarding. Can you see yourself walking around in your garden, which doesn’t ever need pruning, weeding and spraying, picking a herb here and a fruit there. Well, eventually, if you get it right.

As a start, you might want to watch out for Rakesh’s next seminar.

For more info

The forest garden expert
Rakesh Rootsman Rak is an experienced permaculture designer/teacher and forest garden specialist, yoga teacher and homeopath. He has been growing food for 40 years, and has been designing and teaching edible landscaping, permaculture and forest gardening. Rakesh has designed and implemented forest gardens from small-scale private gardens and schools, to farms, community gardens, communal nature gardens, as well as designing a forest garden on part of a 30-hectare ecovillage in Croatia that he co-owns.

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