Patrick Whitefield “How to make a Forest Garden”

ISBN-13: 978-1-85623-008-7. Patrick Whitefield’s “How To Make A FOREST GARDEN” 3rd edition was published in 2002 by Permanent Publications. (This reprint 2009. The 1st edition dates back to 1996.) 158 pages long including foreword, introduction, ten chapters, weights & measures, further reading, list of suppliers, plant index and subject index. Last year we gave Patrick Whitefield’s “Permaculture in a Nutshell” a high score as it was concise and useful. ‘Forest Garden’ sees Patrick in more expansive mode. Patrick borrows a lot from the works of forest gardening pioneer Robert Hart and Richard Mabey’s “Food for Free”. A few flicks through the book does leave you with the impression that the work is not based upon any long experience or history of forest gardening. Forest gardening is a form of permaculture that seeks to emulate the environment of a highly productive woodland clearing or forest edge. This would make you think that mankind has been using this technique for millions of years. However the lack of examples suggest the technique is barely out of the test-tube. As such a lot of the advice appears speculative. There a no real models to choose from and few detailed examples of what works well when fitting different plant species together. That is not to say this is amateurish – far from it. Without reading the two Robert Hart books it is difficult to tell what is state-of-the-art. There just seems to be a lot of guesswork involved.

This may be because, as Patrick often points out, exactly which combination of species works in your garden depends upon your micro-climate. This is a frustrating point observed in several permaculture books. In theory you construct the forest garden in three layers: high trees bearing fruit, mid-level fruit-bearing shrubs followed by low-level, shade tolerant vegetables. No one layer will yield as much in a Forest Garden as they would in a monoculture scenario, but together the total productivity should be greatly enhanced. It is gardening in three dimensions. Nice in principle but you get the impression that you need a PhD in the subject to have even half a chance of making your garden grow. There are so many pitfalls, so many things to go wrong, so many diseases and so many ‘fussy’ plants that it sounds like you need to endlessly experiment and put up with endless failure before you ever find what works. It is disheartening. Of course, if you love gardening, if it is your hobby, your interest, then you will love this sort of challenge. I am sure the layman would like some proven formulas and rules-of-thumb to get them going. These are lacking. This is probably not a specific problem with this book – just an observation about the entire rapidly evolving field of permaculture. It isn’t plug’n’play technology for a race of creatures desperately in need of a replacement its oil-addicted food system. We need a real “how to” designed for complete gardening duffers. It doesn’t help that so many of the species of plant Patrick describes you have never heard of, or maybe thought were weeds.

The author seeks to persuade us that there is so much stuff growing that you can eat – as long as you pick it at the right time, wash it, cut the inedible bit off and cook it just right. Some poor punters out there might just think ‘screw that – I am off to the supermarket’. Maybe it is a sign of our MTV generation that we have no attention span and desire instant gratification. However we do expect a garden to take time to grow. We know not everything will work, but this book assails you with so many problems you almost feel like not starting. This is not to say that this isn’t a good book. Entirely the opposite, as a text book for forest gardening there may be none better as far as we know. But as an advert for a new way of growing food it is very poor. This is a book for the foodies. One for the obsessive. Permanent Publications made no effort to provide illustrations for the book. There are no colour pictures, in fact there are very few pictures. A guide for the layman should be big, bright, bold, colourful and full meaningful 3d illustrations pointing out dozens of example layouts with their pro’s and cons. We learn through example but this book has so few. Only in Chapter Ten does the book come close to forest garden design. The rest of it focuses mostly on the plants to put in the forest garden. This makes it a good text book – something to dip into as a reference. You can learn everything you need to know to start a forest garden in this book, however it is tempting to get an expert in to get you started. The process seems all so daunting.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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