By Eric J. Wallace
These ancient forest gardens may be more relevant than ever.
Before modernization, food forests were a staple of indigenous communities in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and beyond. Though most have vanished, vestiges have been identified in places as diverse as Tanzania, southern India, Indonesia, the Amazon Rainforest, Central America, and the Caribbean islands.
“This method of agriculture was used throughout the world, but particularly in tropical regions, where multi-species food forests were once the dominant method of production,” says John F. Munsell, Virginia Tech professor of agroforestry and co-author of 2018’s The Community Food Forest Handbook. Though little is known about their early history and adaption, Munsell says forest gardens began with villagers seeking to make their lives easier.
“They settled inside or along forest edges and relied on them for food,” he says. “Naturally, they started managing and altering the environment to their advantage.”
Useful plants were cultivated. Those that weren’t got weaned out. As space opened up, new species were added.
“Say you find bananas growing a mile away,” says Munsell. “That’s great. But it takes time and energy to harvest those resources. Planting them in your backyard is infinitely more convenient.” If you apply that thinking across centuries, “the region’s indigent edible plants became aggregated in one spot.”
Villagers mimicked natural relationships and planted certain species closer to others. Trade introduced non-native plants. Trial-and-error brought horticultural knowledge. Techniques were passed down and steadily improved.
In time, conditions supporting helpful or edible bugs were encouraged. Ditto for mushrooms and medicinal herbs. Gardens came to include plants and nuts that fed livestock such as pigs or goats. Waterways were diverted and rainwater impoundments installed. Domesticated birds including chickens, guineas, and pheasants ate unwanted insects. Restricted to given areas, goats cleared brush. Pigs rooted in the soil, preparing it for planting. The animals’ manure served as fertilizer.
“The goal was effectively to create an agricultural ecosystem that was as self-sustaining as possible,” says Munsell. As a result, advanced region-specific methodologies emerged.