Hope You Like Talking About Plants!

With my blogging career on the precipice of fizzling out completely, I’ve been inspired to take this thing in a new direction. It helps that I seem to have a little more time on my hands lately, and a lot of information I need to synthesize. This is as good a place to do it as any, and hopefully the information and experience I’ll be writing about from now on will be helpful to others with similar interests, especially those in Japan.

I imagine there will be a smattering of cute kid pictures and chronicling of bicycle rides with pretty pictures from time to time, but the main focus from now on will no longer be ‘life in Japan,’ although by virtue of my living in Japan that will always be a pretty steady undercurrent of my writing. Rather, from now on I’m going to spend the bulk of my time detailing the goings-on of my garden, which I am just now beginning to establish as a ‘forest garden’ or ‘food forest.’

If you’re unfamiliar, a forest garden is designed to mimic the conditions of an immature forest. Unlike a mature forest, with a thick, light-killing canopy that limits understory growth, forest gardens are engineered to permit plenty of light to reach the ground, allowing for several layers of vegetation, ranging from the canopy down to ground covers. There’s a heavy emphasis on using perennial plants, and on choosing species that compliment each other to fulfill functions like improving soil, attracting beneficial insects, and generally creating favorable growing conditions for everyone involved. It’s a simple concept that nature does beautifully on its own, but the devil’s in the details.

When we moved into our new house about a year ago, I was excited to plant a large, productive vegetable garden, and you can see it was successful in the pictures from the previous blog post taken over the summer. However, I realized a few downsides to having such a giant vegetable garden. For one, it was too big, or perhaps just not well-enough thought out. There was a lot of food that we couldn’t consume ourselves or give away, so a lot of waste. Bugs and crows were enjoying the vegetables as much as we were. When the garden was in full bloom it was beautiful, lush, and provided some privacy in addition to delicious food. However, once the annual summer crops died down and I planted low-growing winter crops, there was suddenly a lot less green and a lot less privacy.

While I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do with my garden to improve it, the gears were starting to turn with the realization that there must be a better, more efficient way. At some point towards the end of summer I became intrigued by the ideas of permaculture and forest gardening. I’ve been growing my own vegetables for a few years now, but I’ve recently been becoming more concerned about where our food comes from. I’ve begun putting more emphasis on sustainability, ecology, and actually DOING something to reduce my and my family’s impact on the planet. Over the past few months I’ve been gorging myself on information regarding these subjects, educating myself and formulating the plan that, while not entirely flushed out, is about to be put into action over the next few months. It’s been a while since I’ve been as interested, passionate, and excited about learning something new and putting it to use.

Part of my motivation for writing about building my forest garden here is self-serving — to organize my own thoughts and ideas since my brain is so awash with the information I’ve accumulated. But I also want to provide one more resource for forest gardeners and permaculturists to learn through my own successes and mistakes, especially those who also live in Japan. One thing I’ve realized is that while there are plenty of kindred spirits here in Japan, there isn’t a lot of English information available, especially regarding where to find certain species of plants. So if you’re into that sort of thing, I hope my writing and pictures will be useful, or at least entertaining. For those of you who have been long-time readers, I hope I don’t scare you away with the change of this blog’s focus.

To kick things off, I want to introduce and briefly review three books that have provided the basis of my understanding of permaculture and forest gardening. I would recommend these to anyone who is interested in these topics but lacks a fundamental understanding of what they actually entail. All are available from Amazon Japan.

Gaia’s Garden – A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture — Toby Hemenway 

As the title suggests, this is a great introduction to and overview of permaculture principles that can be applied to pretty much any aspect of your vegetable or forest garden. Unlike the other two books, it’s easily digestible and not overly technical. There are lots of pictures.

Creating a Forest Garden: Working With Nature To Grow Edible Crops — Martin Crawford

This book is a little more technical, but very helpful in describing the principles (natural and man-made) behind the concept of forest gardening. It goes into great depth about design processes, but does a good job of presenting them in fairly uncomplicated language. The best feature of this book is that for each layer of the forest canopy, there are pages upon pages describing plants that are suitable for that particular layer, along with all of their properties. It also has more extensive tables at the back of the book, and many suggestions about how to actually use the crops that are grown in your forest garden, since many of them aren’t your typical food crops. One drawback of this book is that many of the plants outlined in this book are difficult to find in Japan, if not available at all.

Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2 — Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier

This is, far and away, THE book on forest gardening. It’s an actual college textbook, and is priced and sized accordingly. Volume 1, which I haven’t read, is more concerned with the theory behind forest gardening. Since I had gotten enough of that (for my own satisfaction at least) from the Crawford book, I only bought Volume 2, which is all about the actual forest garden design process. I can’t say enough about this book. It has so much information, it will likely break your brain for a period. I feel like I’ll be going back to this book for many, many years. As valuable as the content of the book itself is, the absolutely massive appendices at the end of the book, nearly as long as the text portion of the book, are amazing. They present an extensive ‘plant matrix’ that provides all of the major characteristics of hundreds of plants (climate, soil/light/water requirements, beneficial characteristics, size, etc.), but there are many other valuable tables to help you choose plants that will help your forest garden grow into a healthy, dynamic, self-sustained juggernaut! By this book!

I already have many future posts in mind, and in the future I’ll be posting a lot more pictures to go along with all of these words. Let the forest begin! Thanks for reading.


9 thoughts on “Hope You Like Talking About Plants!

  1. Have you seen The Resilient Farm & Homestead by Ben Falk? I found it to be more applicable than Gaia’s Garden but not as technical as some others. We are beginning our journey here in Maine, on the road to sustainability – good luck and I can’t wait to read more!

    1. Hi Rachael,
      Thanks for the comment. Are you a friend of Sheryl’s by any chance? I’ve actually visited Ben Falk’s website but somehow hadn’t seen there was a book to go along with it. I’ll definitely check it out, although I’m still trying to process all the other stuff I’ve been reading! Good luck to you as well!

      1. Yes! Sheryl recommended your blog to me! I’m very excited to see how your forest garden grows! My spouse, Josh, has been a podcast junkie if you like that sort of thing, too. It is deep winter here this year so we are all plans but not yet in the thick of ‘doing’ and can’t wait. Are you forgoing an annual garden all together?

      2. Your name and the fact that you’re from Maine rang a bell…I think I’ve seen you on Facebook somewhere. I definitely plan on having a large annual garden for more traditional summer and winter veggies — a lot of the plants that are recommended for a forest garden are not things that I regularly eat now, so my diet will be changing. I haven’t figured out how to really integrate a vegetable garden into a forest garden yet, so for now they’ll be separate.

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