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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford - a Book Review

First of all I hope that you all made it over the festive season and into the new year fine and wishing you all the best for 2013.

It is winter now, outside the wind is howling and the rain is lashing against the window, the perfect time to curl up with a book and plan the garden for the next season.  This one is one of my latter acquisitions, very relevant to my creating a food forest on our land at the time and I've been after this book for a while.

After Robin Hart, the father of the food forest in a temperate climate, Martin Crawford is considered the authority on the subject.  This book is a large, beautifully presented book that deals with a hugely complex subject.  Like any book on gardening I have ever laid my hands on it has its shortcomings and you never quite find your exact situation described or find all the answers to your questions.  It shows that much research still needs to be conducted on this particular subject as well.

But to its contents first.  Part one deals with how a forest garden works.  A long chapter goes on to argue about climate change, something which in my view does not need to be discussed in such detail in this place.  Crawford first quotes evidence of climate change and then goes on to argue that, as a forest garden is a long term project, the effects of global warming need to be taken into consideration when choosing cultivars and species.  I don't think that anyone in their right mind argues that climate change isn't happening, but in my opinion the consequences are far from predictable and simply assuming that it's going to get warmer soon is too simplistic a view.  Individual micro-climates and local trends need to be taken into consideration and climate variation within a specific site.  Looking at where we are for example, in just the 9 years that we have been here we have observed an ever increasing amount of extreme events, in particular catastrophic rain and more frequent frosts.  If I'd be thinking I'll soon live in a semi-tropical climate my banana trees (had I planted any like one of my neighbours) would have died of frost bite one of these winters.

In this part Crawford also engages in the native versus exotics debate and he argues that exotics should be introduced for a healthy and divers system.  I am very much in agreement with that.  Without 'exotics' we wouldn't be eating potatoes, tomatoes, corn, rice etc.  The list is endless.  We should take whatever is useful to ourselves and our systems as long as they don't push natives from the scene completely.  Plants have always followed migration routes of animals and humans.

Part 2 deals with how to design your forest garden.  As any book on permaculture will tell you, this also tells you to start with making an accurate map of your plot, including existing trees and shrubs, structures etc.  Now I have learned how to make a map at the Permaculture Design Course and have practised this skill in the meantime.  What yet no one has been able to tell me, how can I make an accurate 3D map of my property, because this is the only way I can think of presenting the 18 odd terraces that make up my land.  Officially I have just under 2000m2 of land, but that only talks about the horizontal parts.  In addition I have some 700m2 of vertical land.  And this vertical land is by no means useless.  Some of my trees grow out of the verticals including a couple of apple trees, an olive and most of my cherry trees.  In addition there are numerous useful herbs growing on those parts.  But how do I represent that on a 2-dimensional piece of paper?  Contour lines don't really show that.  So what I'm basically doing in my case is virtually skipping the whole design step, just concentrating on local plant guilds and hoping for the best that it will eventually grow into a whole.  However for those with less challenging conditions, there are many useful tips on optimising the various levels (canopy, shrub, ground cover, climbers) for ideal light conditions, wind protection, companion planting etc.

As first design steps he talks about finding land.  In another part of the book he already mentions that the books is primarily written with the British climate in mind.  He goes on to say in this part that, whilst land in southern Europe is cheaper to buy then in the overpopulated UK he says, quote:

"the further you get into regions with hot Mediterranean summers, the more difficult it is to grow a fully layered forest garden of the type this book is concerned with: the dry summer soil conditions cannot support the lush growth of perennials that you expect in the UK unless you irrigate."

I disagree strongly with him on that point.  My plot of land in Italy within sight of the Med has an all-year-round green ground cover.  We have greater average rainfall than some parts of the UK, even if it is greater in winter and tends to come in big outbursts rather than in the continuous  drizzle you tend get in western Europe.  He also describes what the ideal plot of land to plant a food forest would be, but doesn't take into consideration that you might already have a plot of land with little option but to plant a forest to prevent soil erosion on a massive scale.  Arable land is becoming more and more scarce, so we have to make do with whatever is available and design around that.  I feel this book is not giving me the tools for that.

Saying all that this part also has an extensive list of useful plants with their uses and needs neatly described and separate sections on how to design the various layers in the forest garden.  Many of the plants I hadn't heard of before and shall try to get my hands on.  There are some tips on how to design slopes, although nothing as steep as mine, a lot on mulching propagating plants, part 3 has chapters on the role of fungi and mushroom cultivation, about harvesting and preserving your food.

In conclusion: I'm glad Crawford didn't call the book "The Complete Guide to..." as complete it isn't in my view, but it has much really useful info in it and I shall refer to it many more times.  It is too UK-centric for my liking, but maybe once my experiments have come to full fruition I'll write a book on food forests in the Mediterranean climate... :)