Letter to the Tree Crops

September 3, 2014

Letter to the editor, Tree Crops Association

It is very healthy for permaculture ‘trends’ to get some solid questioning, thanks. It would be great to hear your opinion of what aspects of food forest concepts that you think are valid based on your own experience of tree cropping. I wonder what useful strategy advice you would give to the likes of the Christchurch Food Forest group.

Jason Ross DesignI have just planted an orchard to trial new varieties at Habitate farm that I am careful to say is not a food forest, but it is trialing the integration of food forest goals and design strategies. Like many useful design patterns or models, the region, site and user specifics should result in a unique and appropriate expression of the idea. It is difficult to talk of food forests generally as they have so many expressions applied to so many different climates and needs.

I have seen many examples in my short time of fascination with the idea, I planted my first food forest 14 years ago. I find “thinking like a forest” can provide many insights, inspiration and also inject a nice element of co-creation with nature. This element of ‘letting things go’ can yield some surprising and valuable results that you will never experience by maintaining ‘control’ at all times.

Food forest gardening can provide insights and experience of ecological systems.There is usually deliberate engagement there, far from what you describe as “fossicking without contributing – or even comprehending it”, in your editorial in issue 79.

I agree that with food foresters initial enthusiasm comes many misguided claims that the system will be self perpetuating or minimal maintenance, and high yielding. Or perhaps they are so much fun we don’t notice the ‘work’ involved. In the least maintained examples of food forests that I have seen, there is usually either a high diversity of crops but reduced yield or certain crops do well at the expense of diversity.

Robyn and Robert Guytons in their Forest Garden 1642 × 1226The food forests that I have seen that maintain good yield and diversity are the small scale food forests (less than 1000m2) where a high degree of care, use and intimacy is maintained.

In these food forests very good use of small spaces is achieved as shade tolerant crops such as miners lettuce and other self seeding salad plants, rhubarb, sorrel, perennial leeks, sweet cicely, lovage, lemon balm, dandylion, ugni berry and more, are placed under trees instead of wasting valuable sunny areas. (www.georgestreetorchard.com and www.foodforest.co.nz/the-guytons-riverton-food-forest-nz)

Larger scale ‘Permaculture Orchards’ that utilise food forest concepts and systems thinking, tend to be more structured in layout and simplified in their layering and chosen crops. They often integrate animals to contribute to maintenance and fertility. See Mark Sheppard (www.newforestfarm.net) for an example.

Beyond Organic NZ Tour PosterWe are lucky to have Stefan Sobkowiak coming in March next year for a month long nationwide tour (www.beyondorganicnztour.com) to give workshops on permaculture orchards based on his U-Pick Permaculture Orchard in Quebec, Canada.

Growing food in public spaces does need careful thought and consultation (www.transitiontowns.org.nz/node/427 and www.beaconfoodforest.org), or quiet direct action! I would presume that, to be successful, large scale public food forest projects would come with interpretive signage and community education. Giving an apple and at the same time, inspire and teach how to grow that apple.

If kept realistic the food forest concept is a valuable way for people to get enthused about growing food and learning about ecological concepts. The influence of holistic food forest design is also essential, I believe, to ecologically sustainable commercial food production. To advance, it does need the sharing of case studies and reference to real examples.

Jason Ross – habitate.co.nz

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