Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture, by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2005, 378 pp., List $75.00, ISBN 1-931498-79-2.
We've been eagerly awaiting this book (and Volume 2, Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture, due out soon) for several years. Years ago, we publicized an offer from Dave Jacke (a long-time HortIdeas subscriber) for pre-orders to help subsidize research. Probably no one who pre-ordered (and certainly not ourselves), nor even Jacke himself, expected the enormity of the outcome: two weighty tomes with the potential to found a new discipline in temperate-zone horticultural science: "forest gardening."
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There have been numerous previous attempts to extol "gardening in the image of the forest." But Edible Forest Gardens stands apart from those attempts not only in its comprehensiveness and detail, but also (and most importantly to us) in its approach. I (Greg) am already on record, in a Whole Earth Magazine review of the rather disappointing Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (ironically, also published by Chelsea Green, 2001), as highly critical of those who promote temperate-zone horticulture relying mainly on perennial edible and other useful plants as an "easy" enterprise having negligible (economic and other) disadvantages and abundant (especially environmental) advantages relative to reliance on annual crops. Their claims might well turn out to be correct, at least to an extent, but up to now I have seen insufficient evidence (and I've looked hard for it for decades) to support them. That's because, as many advocates of temperate forest gardening manage to avoid acknowledging, so little data are available from actual examples of the practice. The truth is that the development of temperate-zone forest gardening systems is in its embryonic stages, very little is known empirically about what works well and what works poorly. I sympathize with those who seek more sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture, but I can't condone enthusiastic advocacy based on little more than wishful thinking and a few anecdotal reports.
Enter Edible Forest Gardens, which makes absolutely no pretense to contain cut-and-dried answers. Jacke and Toenmeier are refreshingly candid about the need for (a lot of) scientific research to point toward methods and plant species that might allow truly advantageous alternatives to conventional resource-intensive horticultural practices. And they don't claim that the pathway to, and the practice of, forest gardening will be easy.
on the other hand, they succeed admirably in giving investigations into forest gardening possibilities the aura of a grand adventure, an adventure that could be hugely rewarding for backyard gardeners. (And with the current and projected directions of professional horticultural research in developed countries, the most significant research on forest gardening techniques is likely to be accomplished by amateurs!) That isn't to say that such research is destined to show that forest gardening in some form can replace annual-based gardening in general in temperate areas. What it will show, assuming that the research is properly carried out, is the extent to which at least some forest gardening methods truly deserve adoption on a large scale. This is the way to move enthusiasm for studying the potential of temperate-zone forest farming beyond enclaves of cult-like veneration into mainstream consciousness.
So, we unreservedly recommend Edible Forest Gardens as a textbook for gardeners who are able to participate, with their peers, in a research program that might show how industrial agriculture can be supplanted in temperate zones. The very real possibility that amateurs could be instrumental in "reforming" 21st-century food production provides a great opportunity for gardeners to become scientists. We'd like to see an amateur research network get underway with Internet communication among participants and electronic dissemination of significant findings.
The first volume of Edible Forest Gardens is, as its subtitle indicates, mainly about the general ecological basis for forest gardening in temperate zones, with chapters on natural forest features, the forest as a metaphor for structuring production of food and other goods, forest plant and soil structures, social organizations in forests, soil microbiology, and forest changes over time (with a particularly valuable review of hypotheses about how forest plant populations change over time, including critiques of the venerable notion of "succession"). There are many references to scientific publications, case studies of existing temperate-zone gardens that emphasize perennial crops, and an appendix with information on "Forest Gardening's - Top 100 - Species," selected from the hundreds of species included in the second volume. The "Top 100" list whets our appetite to devour volume two! Also included is a glossary of (mainly) biological terms. The index unfortunately lists plants only by common names; only a tiny flaw in a lovely gem!
(Reprinted by permission from HortIdeas, Sept. 2005. For subscription information, contact Greg and Pat Williams, 750 Black Lick
By Greg Williams, Editor, HortIdeas