Part of my EVS project will be dedicated to building an edible forest garden. I'm currently staying on a newly renovated farm in a small village one-hour far from Berlin, and the project coordinators' idea is to put into practice the permaculture principles. We aim to demonstrate that alternatives to traditional agriculture and farming are feasible, citizens in their way, can set an example, and contribute in facing modern environmental challenges. It is not a commercially run farm. Farming and gardening are hobbies integrated into the family routine which do not bring any monetary revenue but still provide several benefits.
Forest gardening is part of the permaculture concept. It's a design science, a set of ethics and principles drawn from observed natural patterns to emulate the natural world and work with it.
The main principle behind forest gardening is to work with land instead of against it. Annually cultivated grounds require constant maintenance while a forest garden looks after itself as it happens in natural woodland. That's what you're aiming to, emulating the conditions of natural forest in your garden in terms of shade, humidity, temperature, soil, and biodiversity.
A forest garden serves multiple purposes: it provides a wide range of products with high nutritional value, it's environmentally beneficial indeed, it can be employed to restore damaged soil, increase biodiversity and resilience, and represents a valuable response to extreme climate conditions impacting traditional agriculture. The high biodiversity that characterizes a forest garden is crucial in determining its high resilience to pests/parasites, soil deterioration, and the extreme weather conditions we are increasingly witnessing.
But the question that might pop in everyone's mind is edible forest gardening a valuable alternative to the current unsustainable agricultural system based on monoculture and annual grains? Despite the side effects of industrial agriculture in terms of soil erosion, nutrient depletion, and land use it's still the most resilient method thanks to improved varieties and technological innovation. Until now, it is the only agricultural system able to satisfy global food demand for an increasing world population.
One might affirm that forest gardening is the most productive land use, at least in tropical climates, in more temperate regions it's unlikely to happen due to light limitations and the narrow availability of tree crops.
Research and experimenting with forest gardening and permaculture design still play a significant role. The aim is to improve agriculture and food production by mimicking and learning from nature, and even if it seems improbable that forest gardening will substitute traditional agriculture soon, it still represents a viable alternative worth improving.
The need for further research and improvement is truly an important factor to address current and future environmental challenges and food production systems.
Martin Crowford (2010), Creating a Forest Garden
Jerome Osentowski (2015), The Forest Garden Greenhouse