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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... :)


Ed said...

Hi Heiko,

Instead of trying to represent everything in one 2-d map you could use more than one. For example, in the architectural industry in which I work we have "plans" which are what you describe but we also have "elevations" which describe the facades of buildings and "sections" which represent slices through the building. Some projects have tens of pages of drawings to highlight different details. Might be worth adding a page or two to your map to achieve the detail you desire.

Kirti said...

Hi Heiko - I'm so happy to find your blog! I have a bit of reading to do it seems! I get a bit glassy eyed and dreamy at the thought of hillside farms in Italy....one of our favourite books is "A Silent Joy; dairy of a Hill Top Farm" by Etain Addey. My partner has the great fortune to visit her and her family many years ago. It is our dream, and whilst we are limited to the city suburbs we are doing what we can! Happy New Year.

Heiko said...

Ed, thanks for the tip. I should maybe google how to make a better 3-d map, because, even with more tha one sheet of paper I find it difficult to imagine how best to do it. The other idea is a scaled down paper maché mdeol...

Kirti, welcome to my blog. I had a brief link at yours and looking at your weather you must be in Australia!

Anonymous said...

Hi Heiko,

Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but why don't you use Google's SketchUp (http://www.sketchup.com) for your 3D map. For me it was quite useful some years ago when I played with 3D plans of my garden and house. The important thing is to get hold of the good quality topographical data and cadastral data. The most accurate 3D data can be ordered from a surveying service, unfortunately this should be quite expensive. Much cheaper but still useful enough are data from the public topographical (at scale 1:5000 at least) and cadastral databases. You can also measure the cardinal points yourself, e.g. with a (borrowed) differential GPS (note that cheap GPS will not do because you want sub-meter accuracy).


Mike Morris said...

Thanks for this very useful (to me) review. Without it I would probably not have hesitated to buy the book, but, also being in a Mediterranean climate - though possibly a bit hotter and drier than yours - I will probably look a bit wider before committing.

MikeH said...

Hi Mike,

I agree with Heiko that it's a British based book but that's not surprising if you look at where post-Robert Hart forest gardens started - Mollison/Holmgren's tropics-based permaculture. Crawford starts out by saying In 1992, in the middle of my Permaculture Design course, about twelve of us hopped on a bus for a day trip to Robert Hart’s forest garden, at Wenlock Edge in Shropshire. So you have the two main models of food forests based in the tropics and England. For climates like mine where we get 120 frost free days a year, food forest as they are currently conceived will lead to starvation - http://portageperennials.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/forest-gardens-for-a-cold-climate/ . Additionally, there is absolutely no thought given to calories and nutrition. Calories are particularly important to me because I have to store them to take me through the winter. That means vegetables that are mostly annuals - root crops, squash, beans, corn. In fact, the last three were the heart of pre-contact peoples's North American agriculture. The Three Sisters took them through the winter because they were storable calories.

Having said that, I think that it's a good book to read as long as you continuously think about your particular growing conditions. For example, his discussion of wind breaks is excellent but I need to apply it to my conditions. Wind where I live is only a problem in the winter if it's blowing out of the North because it creates a wind chill factor which drops the air temperature greatly. His list of wind break species is mostly useless to me. Either they won't grow here or they are deciduous and provide no winter wind break. The heart of my windbreak has to be cedars planted very thickly. Edibles are not part of a windbreak for me.

I think as a start point that have to build a list of plants that either grow in your area or could grow in your area. You then list the features that you consider valuable, eg, nitrogen fixing, coppiceable, medicinal, edible for humans, edible for animals/birds/insects, natural fencing because of the thorns, tools, windbreak, moves the soul. Then you determine growth characteristics, eg, allelopathic or not, slow/fast growing, suckering, etc.

Then you figure out how you want to assemble them.

On balance, despite its UK orientation, I think it's a worthwhile read if you keep thinking of what your conditions and needs are.

If you believe elves cause rain ...then every time it rains you'll see
proof of elves.

Heiko said...

MikeH, you are of course right. This review came out sounding a little more negative then intended as I highlighted its shortcomings. I didn't mention windbreaks as they are not a problem on my location. And as for annuals and root crops,I don't see a problem incorporating these into a forest system. After all you may say you have a no-till system, but try telling your local wild boar population that as they rummage for tasty roots. I planni9ng to plant a fair bit of burdock this year for example.

MikeH said...

I was thinking about your water problem a bit when I was muttering to myself about our local municipal road crews who slash the roadside with ditches to try and stop washouts on the gravel roads when it rains. It rarely works because water finds its own path which usually isn't the one that man lays for it.

Having said that, I wonder if you can create drainage ditches on each of your terraces that divert the water off to the sides of your property. You'd have to figure out a way to stop the accumulated water on the sides from creating massive erosion. Using gabion baskets or blankets might be the way to manage that problem. Hopefully, you don't have property owners below you for whom your focused torrents would be a problem.

PS. My comments weren't focused so much on your review as on my own blog post. I came off sounding negative when I was trying to develop a way forward, to build on what has been done already.

Julia Harrington said...

Hello Heiko,
I found your blog by accident when I was searching 'permaculture duck pond'. I live in central Tuscany (chianti) and I have just spent the morning staring at blank pieces of paper trying to figure out how to map my terraces and landslides and what have you. Haven't a clue what to do, but as it is about 10º outside and it is raining (as usual) I'd rather be here in the local library than observing the margins out in the fields. I'll be following your blog closely from now on. Thank you!