Review: Edible Forest Garden, vol 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture

Where volume 1 of this book was focused more on permaculture-related theory, this 640-page whopper is all (well, mostly) about practical things – a toolkit, really. And what a toolkit; without a doubt the most comprehensive manual for designing and implementing forest gardens – not the entire permaculture landscape that Mollison focuses on, but much more useful and practical than the Designers Manual for actual plant planning. The book covers the entire process of building a forest garden, from strategies to describing the necessary pattern language, to various aspects of the design itself and finally site preparation and garden establishment and seasonal maintenance guides.

As one would expect from a book as massive as this, there are too many points to highlight. Some of what personally caught my eye, however, are:

  • Timelines are given as a guidance on the design; one cannot do a good garden design in one evening, and there are useful guidance figures to give an idea as to the amount of time and effort that goes into the planning process – that, as well as practical tools to help you get there.

  • In permaculture, having a single systems element perform multiple functions is important; Edible Forest Garden highlights beauty and prettiness as one of these aspects, which is not just a nice touch but a really important aspect, considering beauty is the guiding principle of most gardens out there and one cannot expect for people to just disregard that in search of useful plants.

  • There is heaps of practical, hands-on advice for design and building. One of the more interesting elements was the chicken moat combined with an electrical fence as a way of keeping unwanted wild animals away from the garden while providing a chicken run and vertical room for vines etc. There are also extensive site preparation and soil improvement techniques and tree planting techniques, described in enough detail that even I could to that 😉

  • A small but important point is made about the detrimental fruit perfectionism; people buy only fruits that look “perfect”, whereas one should really be more skeptical about apparent “perfection” in fruits than natural variation and visual blemishes. I am happy to report Australians aren’t quite as bad at this than the Finns, but both nations have room for improvement here.

  • The approach taken is very much that of real life, not just perfectionist theory. For example, the malleable nature of one of the permaculture founding principles – zoning – in real life is well recognized and examples given of “real-life” zoning.

  • Turns out each specialty has its own vocabulary; Edible Forest Garden lays out the various vocabularies needed to discuss things like landscapes in plain language, yet in sufficient detail.

  • This book delivers something the majority of permaculture literature just glosses over; quantified yield figures. It also quantifies many other things as, including nitrogen needs for specific plants etc. The yield figures are, of course, guidances, but it still helps to know that out of e.g. a single mature kiwi plant you one can expect an annual yield of 50-60kg/year.

In addition to the highly practical and valuable main parts, possibly the most useful part of this book, however, can be found at the appendices – of which there are 200 pages worth. There is an incredible amount of information in the plant species matrix; habitat & growth environment tolerances, root patterns, soil needs, plant architecture, uses & functions, drawbacks (such as thorns) and so on, for hundreds of plants!

That alone makes this book an amazing resource and an extremely useful reference. Then there are species by use-tables, by-function tables, separate sections for herbs and spice plants, tea & beverage, medicinal plants, ground covers etc. Flowering times are there, as are useful indicative life spans, animal needs of selected species etc.

Personally, this book was also a little bit (a lot really!) frustrating to read, as I do not have any land of my own currently where to implement these ideas. Looking at the USDA hardiness zones reveals an interesting fact; while the book was written with North-East USA in mind (hence the “temperate” in the title), many of the species discussed can actually survive not only here in Victoria (which is USDA Zone 9 or 10) but also in Finland, which falls under USDA hardiness zone 5, the same as Maine where the authors live. I do, however, suspect more limited sunlight in Finland during the darker months may exclude some of the more borderline species.

Overall, the two-volume Edible Forest Gardens set is a highly useful, fascinating and in-depth resource for designing a forest garden / permaculture garden. I cannot think of a more comprehensive book for those wanting to design a yard that keeps on giving. Even though I have no practical experience to speak of from implementing most of the advice here, I still feel comfortable recommending the book. And even if you, too, are not in a position to actually do anything about it right now, the books make for supremely interesting reading and contain probably the most comprehensive collection of species information in the permaculture literature today.

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