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Robert Hart’s Forest Garden

Forest Gardening

In late summer of 1996 Ken and Addy Fern and friends visited Robert Hart’s forest garden in Shropshire, which at the time was generally considered to be the only mature working example of a forest garden in Britain.  The Ferns were deeply impressed, describing it as ‘a very special place with an atmosphere of peace that we have never felt in any other garden’.  Following their visit they wrote this piece entitled ‘The Garden of Love’, reproduced in full below, and subsequently they have said that it had inspired the whole PFAF concept.  

The Garden of Love

‘We arrived at the garden rather late in the afternoon, thanks to getting lost on the way. The summer had been a difficult one, it had been rather dry, and there had been a lot of damaging winds. However, the garden looked in excellent condition.

Whilst the surrounding fields looked dry and barren, the garden was green and lush and, as we soon found out, it was literally dripping with fruit.

We walked around in a dream. This is indeed a very special garden that really shows forest gardening in practice. Narrow pathways lead you amongst fruit and nut trees, growing into them you will find climbing plants such as grapes and kiwi fruits. Growing under them are various fruiting shrubs such as blackcurrants and gooseberries and also many herbs and salad plants that will succeed in the woodland shade. On the sunnier edges of the garden a number of more conventional vegetables are grown.

There was an amazing amount of food, especially plums, in the garden. ‘Help yourself to whatever you want’ Robert said, ‘there is much too much here for me.’ We needed no second invitation, our meal that evening was a large bowl of plums!

As darkness fell, we shared a meal with Robert and talked a little about the garden. Later in the evening, we talked in depth about forest gardening and his hopes for the future. He explained the reason behinds the garden and tried to share some of his vision. We would like to try and explain some of this here because his message is so special - We hope that the words can do justice to his vision.

Robert first moved to his farm in 1960 with the idea of self-sufficiency. At that time his views on this were fairly conventional -annual vegetables, fruit trees and various livestock such as chickens and cows. However, his views gradually changed. He found that perennial vegetables and herbs were much easier to grow and more productive than the annuals and the animals. He discovered that many of these crops could be grown successfully under trees and also that there were many less well known types of fruit and vegetable that could also be grown in this system. Gradually the forest garden was evolving.

The motivation behind the garden was not just based on growing more food in less space and with less effort. Robert was very aware of the inequalities in society, especially between the western cultures and the less developed nations. He wanted to demonstrate a lifestyle that could help to provide more food and an improved standard of life for those areas of the world where starvation is an ever present threat.

Beyond all this, Robert wanted to demonstrate a garden that could heal - that could heal both the individual and the planet. Robert’s whole philosophy is based on love. He is convinced that this is the most powerful force in the world and that, when given unconditionally, it will transform. His life is a living example of his beliefs and so is his garden.

When you look at a conventional food garden, what you normally see is a row of this vegetable, a row of that vegetable, plus a few fruit trees and bushes in a separate area. The gardener is constantly battling against the forces of nature in the form of pests, diseases, drought, too much rain or whatever. The ground is dug every year, it has to be fertilized, there is a constant battle to control the weeds - it is warfare on a small scale.

The forest garden is a totally different concept. Here everything grows together in a way that is very similar to a natural woodland. However, instead of the usual woodland plants (most of which are not edible), the trees and shrubs all bear edible crops, whilst growing under them are many different edible herbs and vegetables. Instead of battling against nature, this is a garden that works in harmony with it.

As Robert explained, it is love that powers the garden. When you manage to harmonize a garden with nature, then so much of the work is done for you. Below ground, for example, there are all sorts of root interactions taking place that help the plants to grow. One of the best known of these is the fact that certain plants (especially peas and beans) have a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria that actually enriches the soil with nitrogen drawn out of the atmosphere. There are many other activities taking place that also help to increase soil fertility and therefore the overall productivity of the land. This same symbiosis is taking place on all levels. We see the bee visiting flowers and taking away nectar and pollen. That same bee is also fertilizing the flowers so that the fruit and seed are produced. Thus everything gains. A bird eats the fruit, flies away and later defecates an unharmed seed that will grow into a new tree. Once again, everything gains. This co-operation between different life-forms is a manifestation of the power of love, and is a much stronger force than the concept of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Humans can also become part of this symbiosis, become a part of the cycle of life rather than always trying to dominate, to control. It is this desire to dominate that has actually driven us out of control and has created the environmental problems that are so acute today.

The forest garden is a practical way in which humans can once more learn to work in harmony with nature. It is a very healing garden for, not only does it heal the gardener, it also helps to heal the planet and re-integrate us with the rhythms of nature. Just being in the garden is a wonderful, peaceful and healing experience.

We talked till quite late into the night, and would have loved to talk more with him, but it was clear that Robert was tired and we eventually made our excuses and went to bed. We were very lucky to be camping in the garden that night, which in itself was a magical experience.
In the morning we walked around the garden feasting on plums, apples, plums, mallow leaves, more plums, whitebeam fruits and yet more plums. We tried to harmonize with the energy of the garden, to feel that energy coming in as we ate the food given by the garden. This was the most delicious and satisfying meal we have eaten!

Later on, Robert gave us a short tour. He apologised that the garden was not looking as good as it could because he had been unable to do much work in the garden earlier in the year as a result of a serious accident. However, to us this was the final proof of the value of forest gardening and using perennials. If this had been a normal food garden, with its rows of annual vegetables, then what would be growing there now if the gardener had been too ill to work the garden? Weeds, weeds and more weeds! Unless you are able to get out in the spring, prepare the soil, sow the seeds, weed and do the 101 other necessary things, your garden of annuals will not exist. However, the forest garden and its perennials will still produce a good crop even if you spend no time in the garden, and they will continue to do this for many years to come.
The time soon came when we had to say our goodbyes -though we all found it exceedingly difficult to tear ourselves away. As one of us said, ‘If this isn’t the garden of Eden, then it is a close second!’ What is needed is for more people to take on this concept of forest gardening -you do not need large areas of land since it is possible to set up such a garden even in a small backyard. Can you imagine how much greener it would be, how much more wildlife there would be and how much more food there would be if we set up forest gardens? In the southern Indian state of Kerala, which has a population density three times greater than Britain, there are literally millions of small forest gardens. Most of the area is covered with trees; it is lush and also productive. In fact it is a living example of how to grow food in harmony with the other creatures around you. Robert’s dream is to see forest gardens being developed all over the world, bringing more food to the people and healing both the humans and the planet. The only thing that might stop it happening is our own lethargy and shortsightedness.
We are sorry to report that Robert Hart passed away peacefully on March 7th 2000. Robert has been a great inspiration to the whole permaculture community and to Plants For A Future in particular. We hope that our book will help others to follow the example he led.


Now available: PLANTS FOR YOUR FOOD FOREST: 500 Plants for Temperate Food Forests and Permaculture Gardens.

An important new book from PFAF. It focuses on the attributes of plants suitable for food forests, what each can contribute to a food forest ecosystem, including carbon sequestration, and the kinds of foods they yield. The book suggests that community and small-scale food forests can provide a real alternative to intensive industrialised agriculture, and help to combat the many inter-related environmental crises that threaten the very future of life on Earth.

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