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Solving the world's problems in a FOREST GARDEN

Project: Karuna

Posted by Janta Wheelhouse over 10 years ago

An article on the inspiration and impact of experiencing a Forest gardening course at Karuna, an exemplary site with examples of forest gardens in place for people to see,touch,and taste! By Vanessa Spedding

Solving the world's problems in a forest garden

Vanessa Spedding senses the potential of natural living in a Shropshire garden of eden

Occasionally an idea crops up that's so obvious and so elegant that it makes you wonder why people hadn't thought of it earlier. Usually, when it's that good, people have actually thought of it earlier.

Such is the case with forest gardening; fast gaining popularity among food-growing enthusiasts it's now regularly mentioned in mainstream media (including recently in The Telegraph[1] and on the BBC[2]) yet can be traced back to practices that date back millennia. As a method of growing a diverse variety of food and materials it can't be beaten, which is not surprising given that it's based on natural systems that were millions of years in the making: forests.

Forests are highly diverse, self-sustaining ecosystems that meet all their own needs (given a reasonable supply of air, sunlight and rain) from within, by decomposing waste, cycling nutrients, renewing the soil, holding water and building fertility. Because of the diversity of species they support they are resilient to shocks and environmental change. In some parts of the world - for example southern India, Africa and the Amazon - people have been using the inherent wisdom of forests to produce their food for thousands of years, sometimes by modifying existing forest to boost the number of food producing plants, sometimes by creating new, woodland-style 'forest gardens', as they have come to be known.

It's no surprise that forest gardening has been embraced as a model of good practice by the permaculture movement, which promotes an 'applied common sense' design methodology for sustainable living that consciously integrates people into the landscape. Not only does forest gardening offer a low-maintenance method for growing plants for food, medicines, fibres, fuel and other materials, it also boosts soil fertility and enhances biodiversity, resulting in beautiful, healthy and useful natural environments.

Since permaculture started off in Australia in the 70s, forest gardening has taken off in warmer climates. In temperate climates, though, it's still in its research stage, with just a handful of well-established pilots scattered around the UK and a growing number of newer sites.

I was lucky enough to go on a weekend-long forest gardening course this summer at one of the more established sites: the Karuna permaculture project near Church Stretton in Shropshire.

Long-time permaculture teacher and forest gardening expert Chris Evans of Designed Visions ran the course, assisted by Jess Clynewood, one of the team behind the Coed Hills forest garden in South Wales. Between the two of them they delivered an experience that was eye-opening, fascinating and highly instructive. Theory sessions on the seven levels of a woodland, guild planting, design methodology and species selection were interspersed with practical classes on mulching, planting and fruit tree grafting. But what really made the experience come alive was the fact that we were surrounded by forest gardening in practice - eight acres of it to be precise, evolving in real time all around us in a stunning elevated setting overlooking the dramatic South Shropshire landscape.

Pioneering spirits Janta and Merav Wheelhouse are the inspiration, the engine and the determination behind Karuna. Determined to transform a patch of dreary rough grazing into a haven of wildlife, beauty, fertility, variety and of course food and fuel, they bought the land and started work in 2005, since when they have planted some 8,500 trees as well as countless other plants and shrubs. The majority of these are native forestry trees for shelter, wildlife and soil retention; many more form part of a forest garden system that includes fruit and nut trees, nitrogen fixers (such as alder and broom), coppice trees, bushes for food, wildlife and the soil (such as sea buckthorn, currant and jostaberry), herbs in profusion for food and pest control (such as mint and welsh onion), mulch crops (like comfrey and tansy) and of course ground cover plants, including the familiar strawberry, among myriad others.

The planting is done according to a time-planned design so there is always a range of plots with different themes at different stages of development, each deliberately planned yet with the wonderful appearance of chaotic abundance. Delve into the thicket and you get an assault on the senses that is visual, textural and aromatic and with the intriguing knowledge that any number of the leaves, berries or flowers is edible or useful in some way. It's not often the hunter-gatherer in us gets quite such an intense fix.

But no pudding is proven until it's eaten, to mangle a well-worn saying. Another big upside of the course was the food provided by our hosts, which gave us the opportunity to eat our landscape as well as to learn about it.

I am a compulsive consumer of salads and vegetables but the meals here took me into another realm. There were leaves I didn't recognise, mountains of them, sprinkled with petals and seeds in a combination that delivered tastes from a different dimension. Not being industrially produced, prematurely harvested, sprayed, refrigerated or packaged, but simply picked from the plants and presented meant that every harmonic of every flavour was available for the delectation, hinting at a much richer and more sustaining nutrient balance than can be had from any shop-bought produce.

The lessons to be gained from forest gardening are deep and wide; it's not just about growing and eating but also about nurturing, learning, committing, connecting and belonging. At Karuna, Janta and Merav provide a portal into another world of possibilities, and their passion is clear.

"Karuna is about many things," said Janta. "On one hand it's a recycling project: we've recycled a bit of land that was given over to monoculture for many years and we are restoring it to a more natural, diverse state. On the other hand we are showing alternative ways to provide food security and fuel; we are raising awareness; and, through the permaculture courses we run here, we are helping to bring people closer to nature."

And there is a deeper side. Asked about his vision for Karuna, Janta's response was "Karuna is the vision. It's all about change, but positive change. Karuna is an evolving expression of my spiritual vision for a better world."

Merav's thoughts reveal an unaffected alignment with these values. "I like Karuna to be a place of inspiration and beauty, a model for living sustainably and simply," she said.

Both acknowledge that living simply is not proving to be so easy: there is still some local resistance to their low-impact, low-consumption, land-based way of life. But the growing interest in their project, the role model they provide for others, and their warmth and generosity of spirit mean that they will surely prevail, and the world will be a richer place for it.


Vanessa Spedding is a writer and permaculture apprentice; she blogs at http://itsvivid.wordpress.com


Further information

Karuna: See http://www.karuna.org.uk/ and if you'd like to visit, Karuna is open to the public via the LAND project run by the UK Permaculture Association: http://www.permaculture.org.uk/land

Designed Visions: See http://www.designedvisions.com/

Coed Hills project: http://coedforestgarden.co.uk/blog/

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/hampton-court-flower-show/8610464/Growing-food-at-Hampton-Court-Palace-Flower-Show-2011.html

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/food/2011/05/from-potatoes-to-pecans-what-w.shtml

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