Forest Gardening


Forest gardens represent a farming technique radically different from Western (mono-)agricultural models and concepts. For many primary people around the world the cultivation and redesigning of patches of forest to create a reliable source of foodstuffs is elemental to their survival. For some Amazonian people (supposed hunter/gatherers) for instance it is calculated that 90% of their diet is produced in their gardens. The fact that many trained observers (like ethnobotanists) can completely miss a forest garden when they are right in front of it indicates that they are not just an accomplished and ecological sound cultural achievement, but that they inhibit a conceptual space beyond our immediate cultural perception.

Vegtable Gardening as Hunt Preparation

A large qoute from Darrell Addison Posey that indicates that forest gardens are well planned.

Another of the major misconceptions about slash-and-burn agriculture is that fields are abandoned to fallow after two or three years because the soil loses its fertility, and weeds and insects take over. Loss of fertility of the soil, however, is not the factor that determines that agriculture takes a shifting pattern. Soil analyses shows that the soils are not exhausted after two or even three years. Furthermore, soils are totally rejuvenated after 10-12 years of fallow. Yet no Kayapó field in Gorotire in replanted in less than 15-20 years. Kayapó Field plots in most cases are scattered three to four hours' journey away from the village, although suitable, adequately fallowed, old plots might be only 15-20 minutes away. The Kayapó ordinarily seek to minimize effort and work so that this seems to be a great inconsistency in their cultural pattern. The Kayapó recognize that the high forest is relatively sparse in animal life, while forest clearing furnish habitat for smaller leafy and bushy plants that attract wildlife. They know that leaving 'abandoned' fields to the natural reforestation sequence artificially creates domains that stimulate wildlife populations. They also know that the more widely their 'abandoned' fields are dispersed, the greater the area available to attract game - and the easier the hunting. Dispersed fields also naturally limit viral, fungal, and insect crop pests. This sensitivity to forest succession explains why the Kayapó are willing to let close-by old fields remain fallow. Although it might be easier to replant nearby fields more frequently, it would just mean having to go further away to hunt for game and for the essential gathered products from the secondary forest.

A Counter Example from the Amazon

Mark Plotkin in Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice gives a fascinating review of western agricultural techniques when applied to Amazonian soils from the perspective of Amazonian forest gardeners:

''Look at that garden,” Kamainja whispered. “I've seen better-looking agriculture inside a leafcutter ant's nest!” To my untrained eye, the peasant garden did not look at all different from Indian agriculture. Once Kamainja stopped laughing, I asked him to explain. “Look at that manioc! It is planted too far apart. You saw how we put ours together; the leaves form a canopy like the forest's, which keeps the sun and rain from directly hitting the soil. And they have only one kind, whereas in our garden we have more than twenty. That plantation is an invitation for the bugs to move in.” Kamainja was right. Since the manioc pants were all of one variety, insect that feed on that one variety might undergo a population explosion. I began to see what looked 'primitive' to the two Indians. “Look at the weeds!” Shafee chimed in. “I don't see any.” I said. “Exactly! In our gardens we always leave some behind it binds the soil in the rainy season. The peasant's garden is probably cleaner than his house!” “And another thing,” said Kamainja. “You look at the plantation and you know the man doesn't understand the forest. A well-planned garden should look like a hole in the forest opened up when a giant ku-mah-kah tree falls over. Small openings in the forest are filled in by fast growing weedy plants that attract game animals. When you cut down too much forest, the little plants can't seed in from the surrounding jungle and you don;t have any birds or peccaries coming in that you can hunt.

article on Amazon archaeology and anthrosols:

Origin of Forest Gardens

From 'The forest-garden farms of Kandy, Sri Lanka' ( full view) by Douglas John McConnell:

Forest gardens farms may be as old as the human race itself. They originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon lands. In the gradual process of a family or clan's improvement of its immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected, and improved while undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior foreign species were obtained and incorporated into the gardens.

To qoute Vandana Shiva:

from Monocultures of the Mind ( ):

In the `scientific’ system which splits forestry from agriculture and reduces forestry to timber and wood supply, food is no longer a category related to forestry. The cognitive space that relates forestry to food production, either directly, or through fertility links, is therefore erased with the split. Knowledge systems which have emerged from the food giving capacities of the forest are therefore eclipsed and finally destroyed, both through neglect and aggression. Most local knowledge systems have been based on the life-support capacities of tropical forests, not on their commercial timber value. These systems fall in the blind spot of a forestry perspective that is based exclusively on the commercial exploitation of forests. If some of the local uses can be commercialised, they are given the status of `minor products'; with timber and wood being treated as the `major products’ in forestry. The creation of fragmented categories thus blinkers out the entire spaces in which local knowledge exists, knowledge which is far closer to the life of the forest and more representative of its integrity and diversity.

What Else

Forest gardens with the rainforest instead of against it, gardens have high species diversity, with a few specimens of many species, to keep the bugs out. Special adjustments may be done to attract animals (from useful insects to tasty wildlife and also tasty insects).

A garden is never fully abandoned, after three years a garden may be completely overgrown with weeds and thorny bushes, and the people using it may migrate, they will come back often to harvest it. see Ecosystem_gardening

For forest people, gardening is a state of mind, a mode they are never out of. The entire Amazon is now believed to one huge man-made landscape kept intact by contant pruning and weeding as humans move through it, a practise partially covered by nomadic agriculture.

Further Local Discussion about the Anthropocentric Jungle

Gary Snyder and the EcoPoetic Imperative

Quoting Gary Snyder from The Real Work,

The communities of creatures in forests, ponds, oceans, or grasslands seem to tend toward a condition called climax, “virgin forest” - many species, old bones, lots of rotten leaves, complex energy pathways, woodpeckers living in snags, and conies harvesting tiny piles of grass. This condition has considerable stability and holds much energy in its web - energy that in simpler systems (a field of weeds just after a bulldozer) is lost back into the sky or down the drain. All of evolution may have been as much shaped by this pull toward climax as it has been by simple competition between individuals and species. If human being have any place in this scheme it may well have to do with their most striking characteristic - a large brain, and language. And a conciousness of a peculiarly self-concious order. Our human awareness and eager poking, probing, and studying is our beginning contribution to planet-system energy-conserving; another level of climax!

see EcoPoetics

In Europe

Douglas John McConnell writes in his 'The forest farms of Kandy: and other gardens of complete design' ( preview) that “Swidenning is now confined largely to the tropics but as recently as 1920 it was still common in North Europe and existed in remote places in Finland into the 1970ties.” There are no native forest gardeners in Europe at this time, but people are constructing them as an art. They do differ from swidden-operated forest gardens in their effort to be sustainable over longer periods of time. To be more precise, a forest garden in European style strive to create a closed system, while the (neo-)tropical variety creates a window of opportunity before the forest will invade again beyond reproach.

Moulsecoomb Forest Garden:

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