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Meeting Report on Forest Gardening

Janet Scott

Jun 24, 2019

With Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat


Fresh from what for her is a normal spring in which she seeded 1,700 heirloom tomatoes, sold all but twenty, and then planted 150 more in her garden at home, all while teaching at the University of Toronto, Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat somehow found time to speak to the Fenelon Falls Horticultural Society on June 24th about forest gardening. Introduced as “an Energizer bunny who wears many hats,” Sylvia spoke to our membership (which has reached 100!)  about mimicking the natural systems of the forest to create biodiversity.  Sylvia earned a permaculture design certificate in 2014 and, while studying in California, compared a traditional rowed garden to one designed to permaculture specifications. The former was a quiet place and the latter was filled with bird song and the buzzing of insects. It was a fragrant and visually complex place and encouraged Sylvia to put permaculture practices to work at home in Ontario. The properly designed garden is productive, conserves water, replenishes the soil, absorbs carbon, smells and sounds good and, once established, requires little maintenance. Doesn't that sound like something to aim for? These gardens combine food, beauty, habitat, and species preservation, all while potentially earning income from the crops they produce. 

The original gardeners in our area, the Anishinaabe, managed the forest ecosystem for millennia. They conducted controlled burns, cut willow for baskets, tapped maples and birches for sap to make syrup, built canoes, and harvested chestnuts, acorns, elderberries, grapes, and raspberries. They made medicine and planted the Three Sisters, corn, squash, and beans, in fire-cleared areas. European settlers brought with them the idea that wealth was demonstrated by using land for cultivating beauty and they grew flowers, parterres, and hedges, and relegated food crops to kitchen gardens. 

Sylvia showed us a picture of a mature monoculture crop of grain in a field. Once harvested, its resemblance to a clear-cut forest was unmistakable and every creature which lived in or fed on the crop was made homeless. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to keep annual yields high. Forest gardening does not.  Sylvia noted how important food crops are to recent immigrants to Canada in her Toronto neighborhood, a habit more established residents seem to have lost.  One man in Toronto has become famous for his precious backyard fig tree, which he bends to the ground each fall and buries in a trench covered with pink fiberglass insulation and raises again each spring! 

Forest gardens are anchored by trees, says Sylvia. The erosions plaguing Haiti is not repeated on the Dominican Republic side of the island because the Dominican Republic has kept its trees. The Toronto neighbourhood of Wychwood Park can be 10 degrees cooler on hot days than the concrete-covered downtown due to its tree canopy. Even dead and dying trees have value: forest managers in Germany's Black Forest are resorting to building birdhouses for woodpeckers to replace the natural snag trees they need to survive.  A single tree can make a huge difference:  its leaf litter enriches the soil, its roots hold the earth and channel water slowly, and it provides habitat for birds, mammals, insects, flowers, and fungi.  An acre of wheat produces a ton of grain.  An acre of chestnut trees produces three tons of nuts.  An acre of apples produces seven tons of fruit.  Sylvia showed us a picture of curving rows of trees with grass planted between them in which cows can graze.  The forest garden can be seen as a series of seven layers. At the top, well-spaced nut trees (walnuts, pecans and oaks) grow tallest.  Below them grow smaller fruit trees yielding apples, peaches, and plums.  The shrub layer features currants, raspberries, milkweed, (“a more important newly legal plant than marijuana,” says Sylvia) and even peonies for their sheer beauty.  In the herb layer, comfrey, yarrow, basil, sage, tarragon, parsley, and catmint grow. Trying a recipe for tincture of motherwort, Sylvia found herself at the LCBO asking for a litre of their cheapest vodka. “It's like that, is it?” said the man at the desk sympathetically.  Ground cover plants such as thyme, clover, strawberries, nasturtiums, spinach and lettuce come next. But check your leaves well before you make a salad for guests: Sylvia was forced to phone a friend to say, “Mary, we may have poisoned you this evening” when calendula leaves were mistaken for lettuce!  A vine layer can grow grapes, cucumbers, hops, kiwis, and squash.  A root layer will produce horseradish, onions, potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes.  Gaps at the garden edges can be planted with annuals. 

Wanting to put her studies to practical use, Sylvia has plunged into forest gardening at home on what for her is a completely undaunting two-acre scale!  Forest gardens provide shelter and windbreaks.  They fix nitrogen in the soil.  They act as dynamic accumulators, pulling deep nutrients up through the soil.  They repel pests:  nasturtiums, feverfew, and anything lemon-scented will do the trick. They mask scents and shapes from hungry critters:  calendula planted amongst spinach both resembles and hides it. They attract insects: bergamot, dill, yarrow, alyssum, and lavender are loved by bees and butterflies. “My black locust is buzzing right now,” says Sylvia. 

Sylvia showed us pictures of forest gardens both large and small as inspiration and told us of a man in Melbourne, Australia, who has turned his 1/10 acre yard into a productive and profitable place with only two hours of labour a week.  She also mentioned taking heartnuts from a squirrel “and he moved into our roof!”  She recommends the book Gaia's Garden as a great place for anyone interested in forest gardening to start reading.  She says that due to the English spring we've had, her tulip season was nice and long and all her gardens are huge.  Barbara thanked her for her presentation.  

Whether you grow “spuds in the tub” as Mary Carr does or you're just outside enjoying our long-awaited summer at last (try lint rollers to remove ticks, we were advised), we hope to see you at our next meeting for the screening of “The Gardener” on July 22nd at the Senior Citizens’ Club on Murray Street.

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