A Foray into Edible Forest Gardens

4 Nov

I have been fascinated by edible forest gardens since I participated in an immersion permaculture course in 2009, the year before I started my first year at Smith. I was exposed to edible forest gardens as a way to conceptualize integrated and cohesive systems of growing food. Forest gardens mimic a structure of a forest to maximize yields for human food production. They allow inter-species interactions across several different vertical layers of growth. Edible forest gardens support a high diversity of species, most of which are perennial. After the initial planning and implementation, the plants maintain the fertility of the soil and reduce the external need for fertilizer supplements. This concept has roots in traditional agricultural methods when people planted mutually beneficial crops side by side to mitigate pests and maximize growth, instead of only relying on technological advances to provide commercial pesticide and fertilizer.

Forest_garden_diagramBasic diagram of a forest garden, illustrated by Graham Burnett*

Corn, beans, and squash, traditionally referred to as the Three Sisters Crops, are examples of mutually beneficial species that have been cultivated together for thousands of years in southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Central America. The three crops hold distinct roles in their inter-species interactions. Beans fix nitrogen in the soil through the nitrogen-fixing bacteria present on their root nodules. Squash plants spread out along the ground and create a distinct microclimate, preventing weed growth and minimizing evaporation. Corn serves as a vertical structure to hold up the beans. The combination of these three species also forms an integral part of a wholesome diet.

corn_beans_squashCorn, beans and squash grown together

As seen with this particular plant combination, edible forest gardens can teach valuable lessons about inter-species relationships and integrated system management. Over the last four years I have worked in different capacities to introduce educational edible forest gardens to Smith College, through STRIDE work and special studies projects. Now, as a CEEDS intern, I am excited to incorporate these integrated systems of growing food into ongoing research at the MacLeish Field Station. This year we are beginning to collaborate with Wellesley College as part of a temperate edible forest garden research network. We will be incorporating underutilized groundcover and perennial plant species into integrated food-producing systems. Be sure to check back to learn more about how we will be working with Wellesley and other collaborators on our edible forest garden research here at Smith!

-Ellena Baum ’14

Ellena is an engineering B.A. major and an environmental science & policy minor and she works as a CEEDS MacLeish Field Station intern. She is happy to be back on campus for her senior year after spending last spring semester studying away at ECOSA design institute in Prescott AZ, where she concentrated on ecological design. Ellena hopes to continue learning and sharing her experiences with others about integrated systems management and food production.

* Illustration from Graham Burnett’s website: http://www.grahamburnett.net/

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