Paul Pivcevic

What can a forest garden teach us about change?

By Paul Pivcevic on 5 June 2015

Gardening is changing. Fact. And at so many levels. A few weekends ago I attended a ‘forest gardening’ course in Devon. Alongside me were a variety of gardeners: the curious, the passionate, the skilled and seasoned, the philanthropic landowners and the downright newbies including me. They came from dark pine forested Finland, from northern Italy, southern Portugal, from inherited acres in Shropshire, from Denmark, Holland, from the Cotswolds and from urban Warrington. There is a ‘forest gardening’ movement emerging. Previously unknown outside parts of Africa and Asia, there often innocuously known as ‘home gardens’, two thousand or so forest gardens have now sprung up in the UK, and Dartington is the centre of this European gardening convulsion.

Out with the annuals: our familiar leeks, carrots, cabbages, broccoli, a plant group whose evolutionary function is only to cover and protect soil after a soil disturbance, and in with the perennials, the plants that naturally take over from annuals, and come back year after year.  But why?  Mass farming of annual crops counts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions mostly because fertilisers are needed to keep them going in depleted soil, and fertiliser is made from oil, as are the pesticides and herbicides that keep away pests. And the bare soil between plants also vents CO2. And anyone who grows their own veg knows the effort that goes into weeding, and watering!

The edible forest garden I spent a weekend in has never seen a herbicide or chemical fertiliser, not even so much as a slug pellet. The tall Italian Alder trees fix nitrogen into the soil, comfreys fix potassium essential for fruit trees, lungwort and periwinkle attract bees, sweet sicily interplanted with New Zealand daisy bush distract the aphids that plague fruit trees and bushes with a strong scent of anis and attract hoverfly that eat them, a healthy ground cover attracts beetles that fight the slugs and a pond which sustains a frog population that finishes them off. No watering, and no digging and weeding only once a year means you don’t disturb the soil fungal network, the thinnest network of filaments that stretch right through the soil like the body’s circulatory system delivering and exchanging minerals and nutrients with plant roots. You can grow walnuts and hazel nuts for protein, tall French sweet chestnuts trees and bamboo for carbs and feast on cherry, kiwi, Nepalese and Korean raspberry, quince and medlar, and Babbington leek, Good King Henry, Solomon Seal, Turkish rocket, Ostrich ‘fiddlehead’ ferns as your greens. In all the maths say you get a 30 or 40 x return on energy invested in a forest garden as compared to 5 x or less with conventional agriculture. Of course if your garden design incorporates an open sunny area you can grow your favourite annuals too. Few really enjoy shade, while their perennial cousins are much hardier.

And the lessons for change? Martin Crawford, our teacher for the weekend and the UK’s foremost researcher in this area says there are three simple principles behind this:

·  create the right conditions, like shelter from wind and plan with the sun in mind;

·  embrace diversity – broaden your taste in order to create a self supporting system that works well together;

·  relax control! 

As if to underline the last, the author of a book that’s guiding my first steps, Anni Kelsey adds another: follow and celebrate nature.

“Nature”, she says, “is efficient, conserves energy and produces no waste…and promotes variety and diversity in unplanned but endlessly beautiful and productive ways”.  In other words, set the simple rules, step back and allow it all to emerge. Without going into a whole further treatise on ‘this is what the world needs now’ I thought I’d just share the elegant and thoughtful simplicity of this. It’s no wonder, at least to me, when you attempt change of this order that trust and connection seem so important. Just what we are discovering now with a major client as their leaders reach inside themselves to unlearn decades of mistrust, to free themselves of the impulse to drive themselves and others to ‘the perfect solution’, and to connect a-fresh and liberate those around them, perhaps also to listen closely where are they being called; where is their place in the garden?.

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