Review: Edible Forest Gardens, vol 1: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture

The two-volume Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier is the last directly permaculture-related work on my reading list for now; I gather I have amassed enough knowledge on the topic for the time being after these two final books; it’s then time to do some thinking and action before further reading. This two-volume text is topically split with most of the theory in this first volume what this review is about – titled Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate-Climate Permaculture and more practical things in the second volume, titled Ecological Design And Practice For Temperate-Climate Permaculture

One important thing to note is that despite the name, these books are not about creating “forests” per se, but mimicking the interconnectdness, sustainability and resilience of forests. It’s not about organic agriculture either; organic agriculture attempts to move agriculture toward the ‘nature’ end of the agriculture-nature continuum, maintaining high yields while reducing negative characteristics such as high rate of nutrient flux, high fragility, low resilience, low biodiversity, high amount of management effort required, high amounts of waste & pollution produced etc. Forest gardening, on the other hand, starts at nature’s end and attempts to increase yields while maintaining all of nature’s desirable characteristics (typically the opposites of that list).

Trees certainly play a role here, but are not the only plants of relevance – and you do not need acres and acres of land to implement the ideas. Instead the book specifically focuses on smaller-scale solutions and systems, often making the designs more applicable to real life than those in Mollison’s Permaculture Designers Manual that I recently read & reviewed (it should, however, also be pointed that this book covers a much narrower scope, but does so in more detail and with more up-to-date information).

To begin with, Edible Forest Gardens lays out some reasons why we should start radically re-thinking our food production; to mention just one interesting point is that when fossil fuel usage is included, traditional industrial agriculture often has a negative net energy production. That alone should ring some serious alarm bells.

The book covers a large number of fascinating details about soil structure and soil life (and how critically important it is to healthy ecosystems), social structure of forests and many other things. It also provides an overview to four perspectives on vegetation dynamics, starting with how the traditional linear succession and climax model and how it is not exactly true (I vaguely remember this linear succession model from school), then introducing three other theories; progressive succession to shifting-mosaic steady state, patch dynamics and a unified old field theory.

Previously I mentioned that quantifying yields is one aspect lacking in many permaculture materials; these books do provide some data on typical yields in different ecosystems; it’s interesting to note, for example, that agricultural land yields around 3000 kcal/m2/year, whereas temperate forests yield almost twice that and tropical forests and swamps even more in terms of raw net primary productivity (NPP). Nevertheless, more work on this area is still needed.

The text, while firmly under the permaculture umbrella, introduces only some permaculture principles (and omits others). Included are things such as polycultures and guilds, the latter which is defined here as “groups of species that partition resources or create networks of mutual support” – probably the tightest and best description of it I have seen so far.

In the sustainability discourse, there continues to be much talk and debate about suburbs and their fate. Many argue that suburbs cannot be maintained when fossil fuels become scarce and expensive (like argued in the documentary “End of suburbia“), while others quite convincingly claim we simply can’t afford to just abandon them either. This book takes a view that probably best aligns with my own thinking (and also aligns well with the permaculture edict of “the problem is the solution”) – that despite being generally poorly suited to dealing with energy decline, suburbs actually represent one of the best opportunities for sustainable design and living.

“There are more people with a little bit of land in these habitats than in any other. In the cities, people have far fewer opportunities to connect with any semblance of the natural world, much less to be self-supporting in any major way. Rural areas have too few people for high productivity without machinery driven by fossil fuels.”

There is no question that ultra-commutes, particularly with cars, will become difficult to maintain, but suburbs can provide a good basis for relocalization – and with good communication technology infrastructure, it should be possible for most knowledge-workers (those who primarily commute to begin with) to work remotely. This transition is probably easier in places like Melbourne where many suburbs are already relatively lively places filled with services and small local merchants, as opposed to many US suburbs where there is no local service-infrastructure and the little there is are shopping centers or strip malls.

The book ends with a “Top 100” species list, their growth environments (zones, sunlight preference), size, what they produce etc. There are also comprehensive reference and publications lists and a glossary at the end.

Much of this book is theory. Theory, for many people can be rather boring, which brings me to one of the best aspects of this book; it is very professionally written, well laid out with clear illustrations and in general is a joy to read. Mollison, for example, can at times be a bit rambling, but happily this work does not suffer from such superficial annoyances. The polished, well-researched presentation of interesting material makes Edible Forest Gardens yet another recommended book, but naturally only if you find the topic somewhat interesting.

I have a lot of books on my reading list right now, so getting to the Vol 2 of this great work may take some time. Nevertheless I’m really looking forward to that after the fascinating background in this first volume – next up, however, will be some more business and innovation-oriented books related to my day job.

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