"Mindfulness takes many forms and always leads toward more skillful action." This one sentence from the second of a two volume set of books entitled Edible Forest Gardens, took my breath away, and also sums up my gardening actions and thoughts since reading these two texts by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.
We have just crossed the sun's path at the solstice in this year of 2012, and I am still planting my gardens for the summer. As I weed and sow, I find myself being more mindful in the way I sow and with the plants that I cull as "weeds". The emphasis of these volumes is on promoting healthy polycultures in which more than one species is planted together, hopefully complementing or even helping one another. Although they are focused on perennials and woodland plants, Edible Forest Gardens has inspired me to plant as much diversity as possible within each of my annual vegetable beds in order to better cultivate "plant communities" in each area. For example, in one bed where I have grown tomatoes for too many years in a row, I planted corn, peas and lettuce. The peas will help to feed depleted nitrogen back into the soil when I leave them to decompose after they are spent. The corn will not only provide us with juicy ears to eat fresh or cut off the cob and frozen, their height will help to shade the lettuce which is sensitive to excessive light and heat. The spent corn stalks will either get composted for next year's vegetable garden, or cut up into mulch for the forest.
Dave and Eric (I have fondly come to feel that I am on a first name basis with them through their writing!) pack these pages full of valuable information as basic as how to properly plant a tree and why. They also tell you amazing facts like that there are up to 14 different species per square yard in old growth forests. I guess sometimes it is hard to see the forest for (or among) the trees! There is so much information, I had to keep stopping to assimilate it all, and it was such a good read, I couldn't wait to get back to it.
Even though this set is crammed with information, Dave and Eric seed in stories of mishaps and successes, photos, diagrams, philosophy, ethics, and ecology among the tightly grown canopy of facts. Books like this, full of research figures and technical detailed “how to” instructions can often be so boring that readers just want to jump to the parts that they deem relevant to their very narrow immediate needs. Honestly, I did do that. I didn't skip around out of boredom though, I did it out of enthusiasm. Although both volumes can be read individually, each makes reference to the other in a way that connects them, like roots of different trees that grow together and graft naturally underground, sustaining one another with an ongoing dialogue (you can read about that phenomenon in volume 1). As I came across each cross reference, I was like a dog with a bone and grabbed for it, sometimes finding myself reading a few chapters before, at last, returning to the other. This is not a criticism of the way the volumes are constructed, rather it is a compliment to the seamless way one can swing from one branch of the tree book to another without losing any of the depth or intricacy. The only problem with this compelling urge to follow these cross references is that I wanted to carry both hefty volumes at the same time, which made my burden heavy, but also worked as training for the carrying and other work I am doing as I ready our own edible forest.
Their idealized vision of living in a culture where edible forest gardens are the norm and where is bounty enough for all, resonates with my own belief that we are all connected and that each of us can do good in the world, if even on a small scale.
Their Edenesque vision also reminded me of the idea posited by John Hick, in which the garden of Eden is in a future to look forward to, to strive toward creating, rather than as a lost Utopia. Also, Dave and Eric’s level headed approach to native species vs non-native vs invasive, reminds me of the conversation I once had with an autumn olive, an invasive species of bush with yummy berries that can be found all over Michigan.
Eric and Dave provide facts for all kinds of things having to do with edible forest gardens, including site preparation, root system structures, the role of fungi, the importance of bugs, and what can grow under a black walnut tree. Yet, they make no claims at all that this is everything there is to know about forests or gardens or dirt or mushrooms or… In fact, right from the get go, they acknowledge that there is not enough research or resources to instantly know how to build the perfect forest garden. Even if such a formula was possible with variations in soil, nutrients, microclimates and existing flora, I would guess that if anyone claimed to know such a formula, that the adventure and natural magic of growing and discovering how to create such a masterpiece would disappear for them. Much of the allure is, yes, in becoming more food independent and locally focused, but the allure is also in the mystery of not knowing exactly what comes next, or how the garden will grow.
They talk a lot about observation. Observing your own forest garden, old growth forests, and groupings of plants, to see what works and what doesn’t. Observing which plants attract the beneficial insects and animal partners you want, which plants like one another, and which ones appear at war. With this observation, naturally, comes questioning. Toward the end of the second volume, they extend this to mean even more than questioning the roles of the ecological niches within our forest garden, but an even deeper mystery-that of our own inner landscape. “What does what you observe in the forest garden tell you about yourself?”
SOME CHANGES I'VE MADE SINCE READING EDIBLE FOREST GARDENS:
I have left some “weeds” in my raised beds,
like violets and catnip to confuse pests
and attract beneficial insects.
I took all of the pine mulch out of my blueberry beds,
added worm poop,
and planted tomatoes and peppers with the blueberries.
I now know that dandelions and other deep-rooted "weeds"
are "dynamic accumulators"
which will add lots of extra nutrients to my compost.
Thanks to my sister Mig's generosity, we have gotten and begun to spread our first ten yards of mulch to begin our own forest garden!