Food Forests – An Exploration (part 1)

Forest gardening is one of the most exciting techniques of practical permaculture, aiming as it does to create a fully functioning, self-regulating and ecologically beneficial ecosystem which also provides a huge proportion of your food and other needs. Over time, as they become established, forest gardens require less maintenance but give more produce, until eventually the “designer becomes the recliner” as Bill Mollison has been famously quoted as saying.

European Forests

All of this and they are helping to regenerate the earth as well; stabilising the soil, attracting wildlife, holding moisture and cleaning the air. Such wonders would be wowing to witness, right? Yet in Europe, since the time required for a forest garden to fully establish is so long, and the idea is still relatively new, there are not so many to choose from.

In this article I shall explore some of the more mature and well-known food forests on this continent, from England to Tenerife; as well as some lesser-known and newly planted ones, from Portugal to Bulgaria, and in between, taking in Sweden, Ireland, Spain, France and Italy.

How does it work?

Forest gardening has been practised by humans for centuries if not millennia. As a modern practise it has been made popular by forest garden aficianados such as Martin Crawford, the current director of the Agroforestry Research Trust, a UK-based charity set up in 1992 to further education about forest gardening; and Robert Hart, widely credited with starting the first food forest in Britain, back in the 1960s.

The idea of forest gardening is about using natural patterns to obtain a yield. The natural patterns of a forest are that plants with different needs – nutrients, light, water etc can all grow together, helping each other to grow. A forest has many layers, all of which can be maximised by planting things which will grow well in that layer, as well as having the benefit of producing food or other useful things for you.

Layers of a food forest. Drawing by Charlotte Haworth.
Layers of a food forest. Drawing by Charlotte Haworth.

A forest does not need regulating; there is no need to come and plough the land, and if the ecosystem is balanced, then pests are kept in check and nutrient levels optimised by the diverse variety of species which can all help to provide for each other. As someone looking after a food forest you probably still have to (or want to!) do some work such as pruning of fruit trees to make sure you have good crops; but the huge amount of labour integral to high-input intensive yield annual-crop farming systems is removed, and instead you have an ecosystem which functions more or less on its own, and also just happens to also provide many of your dietary needs.

There are many food forests which you can come and see in action. Some are more welcoming, with places available to volunteers, while others require you to pay to visit, if visiting is allowed at all. Below is my pick of some of the highlights of Europe. The selection is by no means exhaustive and if you feel some important ones have been missed out please feel free to comment.

Big reputation…

Martin Crawford and Robert Hart were from the UK so this is where I shall begin my exploration. Hart’s farm, Highwood Hill in Shropshire, is by many accounts an awe-inspiring example of a fully-functioning food forest. However, since his death in 1997 it appears that the farm is no longer open for visits. The Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon is, with three sites available to visit, at a cost of £5-7 (around 8 – 11 euros) per person. There are only two open days per year, with next year’s being 17 May 2016 and 11 June 2016; so it is probably advisable to book well in advance. The oldest site is 20 years old, with many established species and unusual edibles, such as Chinese Dogwood.

A food forest with a far-reaching reputation is The Field, Cornwall, run by Ken Fern. You may well have already come across Fern’s work if you’ve ever had to research plants and their uses as he is the founder of database and website Plants for a Future. To visit The Field, the Plants for a Future research site, you can camp for £5 (around 8 euros) per person per night; the price is reduced if you volunteer on the farm.

To small…

Up in Scotland is the Garden Cottage, a food forest set up over twenty years ago by Graham and Nancy Bell. Visitors are welcome on open days (check the website for details) for a suggested donation of twenty pounds (around 30 euros).

Finding the Plot

For a cheaper but perhaps less impressive experience you can visit the plot of Brighton Permaculture Trust in Stanmer Park, Brighton, which is also home to England’s only (official?) Earthship. The forest garden here is only around 6 years old but there are still many established species. The Trust have volunteer days every Thursday where anyone can come to the plot to help out with the gardening and share a lunch with fellow permies. Along with Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, they have also been planting community orchards around the Brighton area for the past ten years, many of which are being managed using permaculture techniques.

Getting to the roots of the forest

Perhaps a good time to visit these orchards would be during the annual ‘Wassail’, an ancient English tradition celebrated every January where the fruit trees are offered gifts of toast, cider and ale, and songs are sung to encourage the good spirits to enter the orchards. It could be a good opportunity to visit numerous forest gardens as the celebration includes a procession from orchard to orchard.

Thanks to the popularity of Crawford and Hart’s work in the UK, and the outreach work done by the Agroforestry Research Trust and the Permaculture Association UK, among others, there are now over one hundred forest gardens in the UK. A list of these with descriptions of the sites is available from the Permaculture Association; many projects welcome visitors and volunteers and offer refreshments and meals if you come and help out there, for example the Higher Druid Farm in Devon and Gwyls Cranken in Cornwall.

Where are you going? There could a food forest there…

Though the Canary Islands are a part of Europe in political-speak only, being as they are located in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa, it is worth mentioning here the Atlantis forest garden in Tenerife, which at 25 years old is already very well established. This food forest is run by the New School of Permaculture, who do not accept visitors or volunteers. The only way to come to the food forest is as a paying student on a course or as a paying intern. “Accommodation” is in the food forest itself, so make sure you bring a tent!

Moving back to the mainland, if you are in Portugal it may be worth visiting the Sustainable Forest Garden Farm Project in Quinta do Boico, central Portugal, a 12-year-old food forest which is open every Sunday to the public. Visitors have to pay though it is not clear how much; if you are interested you may wish to contact the project through their website.

Right across on the other side of the continent there is the young food forest at Permaship, outside the small village of Shipka, Bulgaria. This was set up in 2007 and is managed by the Balkan Ecology Project, and is open to volunteers and you can visit on a help exchange basis to assist with the project.

Krameterhof and beyond

Probably one of the most famous permaculture sites in Europe is Sepp Holzer’s farm, Kramaterhof, in the Austrian Alps. The established species here include, in spite of the cool Alpine climate, oranges, lemons and kiwis, thanks to Holzer’s work with water retention and creation of microclimates. Visits are organised by Sepp’s son, Josef, and tours are given in English and German. They cost 95 euros per person for 1 day, making this, as well as one of the most famous, also one of the most expensive permaculture sites to visit in Europe.

Also in Northern Europe there are a number of small sites in Scandinavia, including the Holma Forest Garden in Höör, Sweden, which as a showcase food forest is free to the public. On the car-free Koster islands of West Sweden you can find the Koster Tradgardar, a food forest which is also home to “Sweden’s most sustainable restaurant”. Tours of the food forest cost 95 Swedish Krona (around 10 euros) for 1 hour, and as well as garden tours you can book kayaking, cycling or walking tours.

Heading West and South

In the centre of Ireland, the nine-year-old food forest of Bealtaine Cottage in County Roscommon is free to visitors on most weekends (check the website to be sure). A newer project in Ireland is the Grove of Akademus, which has just recently been planted. This is run by the Living Tree Educational Foundation whose aims include

“conducting educational courses relating to the creation and maintenance of forest gardens”

through the Tree University. All of this is in developmental stages at the moment, so if you are interested in having an input it may be worth contacting them through the website.

In Spain you can find the edible forest of Juan Anton Mora, established more than twenty years ago in Alzira, Valencia. Mora’s attitude is apparently that

“Everyone is welcomed to come and see his edible forest and to learn from it”.

There is no mention on the link I found about price. Mora is quoted as saying,

“The forest is like a book which does not use letters but another kind of language. You only need to look at it to understand and remember it until the end of its life. Coming to see the forest is far more instructive than any other speaking words”;

Encouraging indeed for the aspiring food forest designer.

A little further south in Andalucia there are a number of new-ish projects, such as Permacultura Caña Dulce in Coín, Malaga. The breathtaking views of La Loma Viva, Gualchos, Granada, might be worth the visit alone and you can see their forest gardening biodome techniques. La Loma Viva welcomes visitors and volunteers on an exchange basis. Nearby, high up in the mountains of La Alpujarra is Semilla Besada, a farm based on Holistic Management principles and home to hundreds of fruit and nut trees. Semilla Besada is sometimes open to volunteers; try contacting them through their website to find out.

Italian and French connection

Heading east again, we can find L’Oasis de Serendip, a 15-year-old project just outside Valance, Southern France. The project is inspired by Pierre Rahbi’s ‘Oases in All Places’ and has 5 core principles – “governance, agroecology, education / transmission, energy / eco-construction, local and solidarity economy”. The project is open to paying visitors.

In Italy, there is Podere Veranello, a new forest garden in Tuscany, and very close to the Saturnia hot springs, which you can easily visit from the site.

More forest gardens, everywhere!

As you can see, Europe has many opportunities to experience forest gardens. These are just the ones I have found, either through visits or searching online. To begin your own explorations, you can try checking out some of the places mentioned in this article, or use it as inspiration to search for yourself.

Happy forest gardening…

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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