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A new gardening movement is emerging. For centuries known innocuously in parts of Africa and Asia as ‘home gardens’, more than two thousand so-called forest gardens have now sprung up in the UK, and the Agroforestry Research Trust in Dartington is the centre of this gardening convulsion.

A new breed of grow-your-own gardener has started to think of their garden as a ‘system’.

Out with the annuals: our familiar leeks, carrots, cabbages, broccoli, a plant group whose evolutionary function by the way is only to cover and protect soil after a soil disturbance, and in with the ‘perennials’. Perennials naturally take over from annuals, and come back year after year. But why? In part because conventional agriculture depends on damaging inputs based on oil. Mass farming of annual crops counts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions.  The bare soil between plants also vents CO2.

No watering, no digging and weeding only once a year, means you don’t disturb the soil fungal network, the thinnest network of filaments that stretch right through the soil like the body’s circulatory system which deliver and exchange minerals and nutrients with plant roots.

This amounts to a food revolution. The maths say you get a 30 or 40 times return on energy invested in a forest garden as compared to 5 times or less with conventional agriculture. Of course if your garden design incorporates an open sunny area, you can grow your favourite annuals too. Perennials will happily tough it out in the shade.

All this was a revelation when I visited Dartington. But I began to get really excited when I heard forest gardeners explain their practice: “I step back and don't control too much, I ask myself what's the least I need to do”; “I still catch myself in the act of labelling something a ‘weed’ but I prefer to ask myself maybe it has a place here for a reason”; “I keep plants that are needed to keep the whole system going not just to extract for food”; “I'm trying things all the time and I’ll be learning till I die”

Just the kind of thinking I try to get across in my professional work with leaders wanting to change their organisations: rather than rolling up your sleeves and getting busy, ask what’s the least I need to do right now for the good of the whole system?

Perhaps there’s a lesson too about how we think about efficiency. What forest gardeners say (and theories of complex systems agree) is that systems need some redundancy in order to be resilient…

Last Autumn I began inviting systemically-minded academics, circular economists, planners, designers and architects, educationalists, sustainability professionals and of course forest gardeners to a first gathering to explore how we might excite others with the potential of these gardens. I proposed we might think about launching a National Forest Gardening Scheme. We decided fairly quickly to expand the ambition beyond organisations or professions, to society as a whole: How can forest gardens become inspiring outdoor spaces for community learning? And (take a deep breath…) Can forest gardens catalyse the transformation towards a sustainable society?

I’m delighted to say we already have nine new forest gardening projects at various stages of development, five to be community led, and four specifically learning-focused. The context for a National Forest Gardening Scheme is also taking shape. This year 2017, is the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, a companion charter to Magna Carta which re-established access to royal forests as common land. It was perhaps the first ecological charter. Also within weeks, a Parliamentary Inquiry into public parks will report on the impact of reduced local authority budgets on public parks and green spaces, concerned that their existence is under threat.

If the National Forest Gardening Scheme could support communities to turn the pressure on our commons into an opportunity, and we could galvanise people around a truly sustainable way to produce food and other resources like biomass, then in the process this will challenge a conventional passive and distant relationship with nature, a relationship we all know is generating worrying trends and threats. The success of Fellow-led Incredible Edible already shows us that communities are receptive.

Let me leave you with the words of one of our forest gardeners, the author Anni Kelsey. “Nature”, she says, “is efficient, conserves energy and produces no waste…and promotes variety and diversity in unplanned but endlessly beautiful and productive ways”.

If you’d like to join or even just stay in touch, you’ll be warmly welcomed.  Please contact me on Paul Pivcevic

More information about Forest Gardens can be viewed here which includes a link to our RSA Catalyst funded film.

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