By Kip Bellairs. Kip (on the left in the photo) runs Victoria Farm in Florida, the first farm in North America to become Certified Stockfree Organic.

The dominant agricultural land use in our part of central Florida, USA, is pasture for cattle. There are some orchards, although most citrus operations have moved south over the years due to destructive freezes. We have a couple of conventional (chemical) market gardens in the area but organic ones are few and far between. Many people around us keep chickens and some have a few goats or cows but sadly there is little gardening.

Challenging conditions

Some of the reasons why our neighbours choose not to grow, or choose animal over plant-based agriculture, might include our many challenges to growing. We have nutrient-poor sandy soils, and hot and dry spring and fall weather with wet, humid summers. Tomatoes and lettuce crops for example cannot be grown in late spring through fall; summer is a typical fallow period in Florida. Winters are short with too few chilling hours for many fruit varieties but they still have numerous frosts and hard freezes which kill or severely stress tropical plants. Native grasses and weeds are very competitive and in the summer can reach 6 feet or higher. Nematodes have been a problem for some; hungry wild deer have been a challenge for those in rural areas.

In our case, because we rely on outside employment to pay for our small acreage and home, we were struggling to meet these challenges in the field. Our desire to have an abundance of fresh, organic, cruelty-free food had not changed, but our workload was not sustainable. In a way, our personal situation was a microcosm of the problems of agriculture worldwide: limited resources, adverse conditions, and with the addition of a new child to the family, increasing demand. We needed more efficiency and chose a forest garden system as the principal direction for our farm, with a traditional space reserved for our favourite annual vegetables.

Calculating productivity and efficiency

Forest gardens are highly productive and efficient for several reasons. For purposes of discussion, productivity refers to the amount of food energy produced per area of land and/or per person doing the work. Efficiency refers to the ratio of food energy (output) from a farm in crops to the work energy (input) used to produce those crops.

Input energy is typically thought of in terms of ploughing, preparing seed beds, planting, cultivating, harvest and so forth. Also included in the equation are the not-so-obvious entries such as mining, processing, transportation and application of soil amendments; pumping water for purposes of irrigation; manufacture, distribution and application of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides; harvest, storage, processing, transportation and sale of farm produce and even manufacture, transportation and maintenance of equipment used on the farm.

Chemical agriculture, while not sustainable or efficient, has become very productive over the past half century. Powerful, sophisticated machinery and heavy use of chemicals, irrigation and improved seed have allowed only a few workers to manage thousands of acres of cereal grain and other crops. Yields per unit of land area have been inflated due to hybrid and genetically modified seed varieties, high levels of applied nitrogen and other macronutrients as well as ample irrigation. The problems of what is now known as conventional farming are well known, and many concerned farmers and consumers have responded with action.

Large organic operations using big machines and brought in fertility are much less destructive to the earth, but whether they are truly sustainable is open to debate. Smaller organic operations relying less on off-farm fertility and expensive machinery and more on human beings and hand tools are far more efficient and sustainable. They may not be as productive as chemical agriculture on a per worker basis, but can be very productive per unit of land area.

Animals and annuals

Many organic farms that grow demanding annual vegetables use animal manures: blood, bone or feather meal and fish emulsion for their fertility programmes. Animals, on or off the farm, need to eat, drink, sleep and eliminate waste just like we do. They must be protected from predators and sheltered from harsh environmental conditions; they need fencing or other methods to keep them from roaming off the property or into the crops, as well as nutritious food, clean water, daily attention, bedding material and occasional veterinary care.

Land must be diverted from direct human use to provide living space, food and bedding for animals. Energy is required for structures, fencing and care of the animals as well. Off the farm, animals or brought-in animal products have high transport and/or processing energy requirements in addition. Removing animals and animal products from the farm will increase the efficiency further.

Growing annual crops requires more energy than perennials just as tilling the soil requires more energy than no-till methods. Consider a fruit or nut orchard. Once the trees are planted, they will produce crops every year with only the ongoing needs of fertility, pest and disease management and weed control. Efficiency is increased with perennials and no-till techniques and can be further improved by avoiding monoculture crops and their associated pest and disease issues.

Permanent productivity

Forest gardens or other innovative perennial-based, no-till, polyculture systems require the least amount of energy of any deliberate agriculture. Forest gardens add perennial nitrogen fixing and other nutrient accumulators to the system as well as beneficial insect habitat and nectar plants in an ecologically redundant manner. A forest garden is designed to have a large number of different species and variety within species to function as a long term, productive, stable system for growing food or other useful crops for human beings. Forest gardens provide wildlife habitat and are exceptional carbon sinks. They can be established on hillsides, odd shaped pieces of land, vacant lots and many other places.

Martin Crawford’s forest garden in Devon, England is approximately two acres and contains over 35,000 perennial or self-seeding annual plants, many with multiple ecological functions. It produces fruits, nuts, edible leaves, spices, fungi and medicinal plants, as well as floral, essential oil and sap products plus basketry materials, fibres, bamboo and coppice wood.

Human management of a forest garden once established takes very little time. Tree ‘weeds’ will need to be removed, paths maintained and some occasional pruning done. Uneaten fruit, nuts, fallen leaves and pruned branches are left on the ground to re-enter the nutrient cycle. Some of the more ambitious ground covers can simply be walked on to keep them from overtaking their neighbours. Martin Crawford claims that he needs only 10 to 20 days per year to maintain his forest garden. He uses hand tools almost exclusively, making his land use and worker productivity as well as energy efficiency higher than any system I am aware of, with the possible exception of foraging through an existing lush tropical rain forest.

Design and planning

Between young trees and shrubs native pasture grasses are sown with southern pea and buckwheat for fertility building, insect habitat/nectar, seed saving and edible uses. Photo: Kip Bellairs

Forest gardens are typically planned using seven different vertical groupings, or layers, organised by differing needs for light, shelter, pollination, fertility, pest and wind protection, moisture, harvest time and other variables. Bear in mind that a forest garden is not a climax stage, closed canopy forest but resembles more a woodland, with gaps for light to enter and filter down through the different levels. The layers are as follows:

1) The canopy level or tallest trees: typically fruit, nut, nitrogen fixing, sap or wind breaks. Trees that require full sun.

2) Smaller trees, large shrubs or bamboo are found on this layer as are areas for coppice and/or pollard for poles, basket material, edible leaves, etc.

3) Smaller shrubs layer: frequently producing berries, spices and fibre products.

4) Herbaceous perennial (and self-seeding annual) layer usually for edible leaf, fertility, mineral accumulation, medicinal, beneficial insect habitat or aromatic pest repelling purposes.

5) Ground cover / living mulch layer: often comprise herbaceous perennials and self-seeding annuals as well as low growing berries.

6) The vine layer, which ranges from the root zone up to the canopy.

7) The root zone which can produce edible fungi, medicinal and edible roots as well as dye and other products.

The very high performance of a forest garden system does not come without some initial dues to be paid, however; and these are in the establishment process. Due to the large number of plants involved, forest gardens are often implemented in phases, with on-site propagation a big help. Several years are required for a mature system to evolve, but many things can also be done in the forest garden during this time. As an example, during the establishment of our forest garden we sowed a mixture of southern peas and buckwheat into our native grasses at various times of the year to build soil fertility while our dedicated shrubs were still small and there were wide spaces between our canopy trees. Some of these crops were cut after flowering, some were saved for the next planting and some of the peas were eaten.

A full-featured forest garden is not required in order to benefit from the synergies of no-till polycultures of perennial plants. Nitrogen fixers, nutrient accumulators and beneficial insect plants can be found in all shapes and sizes. Many have multiple ecosystem or crop functions. Use of dwarfing rootstocks, coppice and pollard techniques can help to increase the utility of almost any site. The creative possibilities are endless and well worth a try. Even annual plants can be planned in vertical layers and organised by needs and harvest times for greater efficiency.

For a more in-depth look at our own forest garden project in Florida, visit the Veganic Agriculture Network site: www.goveganic.net/spip.php?rubrique97 and www.goveganic.net/article157.html

The premier example of a mature temperate forest garden can be found at the Agroforestry Research Trust site: www.agroforestry.co.uk

For the tropics, have a look at Permanent Agriculture Resources: groforestry.net and Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) at www.echonet.org.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 28 (Winter 2011/12), p22.