Enchanted Forest Gardening

Article by Brigunath
brigunath@yahoo.ie

Photographs by Jan Stefanik

An edible forest garden ideally includes trees, shrubs, bushes, plants from around the world that will grow in this climate zone. Designing a forest garden can either begin by planting trees and shrubs in what is currently a field or meadow. Or alternatively, by clearing or thinning trees to establish a glade for planting fruit bushes and other perennials. Dynamic conversions proceed from both ends of the spectrum simultaneously.   

Where I live in Mountshannon, rowan, hawthorn and elder thrive in the acidic soil. Thus I have planted out an elderberry grove consisting of ten different cultivars, some of which are European varieties that are grown commercially, and reputed to be good, tasty croppers. The Canadian elder will carry on producing flowers throughout the summer due to the absence of a like companion for pollination.  As the native elder can tolerate waterlogged soil, the plan is to use cuttings from these exotic elders to infiltrate a stretch of bog, which is presently willow and rushes territory.

 Elderberry is a proven remedy for flu and has a similar vitamin and nutritional content to blueberries, and are much easier to grow. This year the blackbirds ate most of the fruit from my blueberry patch. Each time I checked, there would be an ever diminishing crop of green berries that never seemed to ripen. Birds also help themselves to the raspberries and blackcurrants, but that has not been a concern as there are plenty enough for all of us. 

An edible rowan, sorbus aucuparia edulis, which bears larger, less bitter fruit, and an American hawthorn, capable of producing 2cm haws, have also been planted.  An edible hawthorn and rowan hybrid has settled in nicely, as has a pear shipova, a cross between a rowan and pear. If these hybrids can be propagated they will join, and ultimately replace, their conventional cousins skirting the bog. They might then be assisted to advance inwards until they eventually touch roots with some solitary fruit trees currently in raised beds dotted about the bog. However, this long-term vision of a bog orchard won’t be coming to fruition in my lifetime.

Wind turbine and a raised bed at the edge of Brigunath’s land

I recently went online looking for a pineberry, ie., a white strawberry that has a pineapple taste. In addition to being expensive, they require the presence of a specific strawberry companion in order to pollinate. Whilst searching, black strawberry and yellow strawberry seeds started clamouring for my attention on the periphery of the screen, together with seeds of a cucumber-melon cross called a cucamelon. A cursory check revealed that these seeds were being despatched from P.O. Box addresses thousands of miles away, and feedback from one disgruntled green-fingered, black-strawberry customer complained about no instructions, and nil germination.

Too much monkey business. My curiosity eventually got sated with some reasonably priced White Delight alpine strawberry plants from the ultra-reliable Agroforestry Research Trust. Equally worthy of recommendation are the Sustainability Institute in Westport, from whence I ordered some sirola sea buckthorn, a recently developed thornless variety that produces berries which can be picked without wearing gloves. They also did an excellent bulk price on cobnut trees which I collectively purchased with others. With the aid of a tape measure and string I arranged ten of these cobnuts saplings into a Tree of Life configuration on a hillside.

A couple of years ago a south-facing slope was cleared of gorse and is now an orchard which, in addition to pears, apples and plums, also produced greengages, medlars and mulberries for the first time last year. I recently interspersed an assortment of elaeagnus and josterberry bushes between the trees in order to prevent gorse seeds propelled from the adjacent bog reestablishing a foothold.

“When You’re Smiling the Whole World Smiles With You”

My fruit saplings are typically ring-fenced with mesh and wooden stakes. Where the topsoil is not deep I sometimes construct a dry-stone raised-bed, whereby the clearing of the patch, stone collection, importing of compost, manure and soil is quite time-consuming. Consequently the ultimate tree planting is accompanied with a healthy dose of TLC.

This TLC strengthens the bond between the planter and the planted. In Primary Perception the late Cleve Backster, the inventor of the polygraph machine, details his lifetime’s research monitoring subtle variations in plant activity by means of psychogalvanic reflex apparatus in conjunction with a polygraph machine. In 1966 he famously sandwiched a leaf of a potted dracaena plant between a pair of electrodes, and recorded a sudden reflex in its electrical resistance which coincided with his intention to burn the leaf with a match. Subsequent research has confirmed that house-plants respond to a wide range of emotional excitements and traumas experienced by their human waterer, even when that person is situated many kilometres away.

This extraordinary biocommunication has been successfully reproduced by other researchers, notably, in 1972 by Soviet scientist V.N.Pushkin, and also by Col. John Alexander and staff at the U.S. Army IntelText Box: Type to enter textligence and Security Command headquarters in Washington DC in July 1983.

The majority of these laboratory experiments were conducted with potted plants, which receive only seconds of human attention per day. Imagine the level of response to a protracted radiance of TLC? Perhaps the different trees in an orchard could orchestrate their attunement to the emotional rhythm and temperament of their caretaker? 

In springtime I venture out after twilight on slug patrol, first checking the greenhouse then doing the rounds to collect up any molluscs sampling the newly planted flora. Grateful for their natural recycling role in the garden, I gather them up by torchlight and relocate them onto the compost heap if there is only one or two, or the opposite bank of the stream if there are more. After a week or so, when the nightly catch dwindles, I leave it to the frogs and the birds to keep the remainder in check.  

In 2010 Ruth Brooks won the BBC Amateur Scientist Award for her research into the homing instinct of snails. Ruth would mark their shells with an identifying coloured speck of nail varnish before removing the members of two separate colonies to a point midway between their Home Patches. Her subsequent statistical analysis, detailed in A Slow Passion, conclusively confirmed the gardeners’ lore about removed snails returning to their home turf. 

So what homing technique do they use? Rupert Sheldrake, who has studied homing in great depth, has publicly acknowledged that all the experiments conducted with pigeons testing the standard hypothesised avian navigational cues, such as the sun, stars, geo-magnetism, and memorising the direction of their outward journey, have drawn a blank. Therefore, it is unlikely that these same materialistic theories, already discounted for birds, would be applicable to molluscs? It is not impossible, of course. Just nigh-on impossible.

As with the neighbourly chaffinches, coal-tits and robins in my garden, pigeons have monogamous relationships, and it is a prerequisite for entering a pigeon race that all homers participating have a mate to fly back to. Indeed pigeon fanciers typically alternate between racing the male and female of a pair, which on occasion have flown distances in excess of a thousand miles, Could love be the drug? Could the prospect of being reunited with its mate not only be the motivation behind a pigeon flying tremendous distances but also their navigational ability? 

mobile pigeon loft from WW I

In Pigeons in Two World Wars, Lt.Col.A.H.Osman summarises the Air Force Pigeon Service in the First World War, and recalls that when “orders were received to remove Headquarters from Harwich to Felixstowe, about 15 miles to the north of Harwich…In less than ten days after the complete removal of birds and loft all the birds homed from 60 or 70 miles at sea regularly and came straight to Felixstowe without crossing Harwich.” Lt. Osman further notes that the Carrier-Pigeon Service, which he was instrumental in setting up, eventually had 150 mobile pigeon lofts servicing the wartime pigeon-post.

So could homing be attributable to biocommunication rather than instinct? Due to my resident molluscs being predominantly slugs and not snails, consequently awkward to mark and monitor, I am not readily able to investigate this issue.

However, Cleve Backster devised some EEG equipment for electroding yogurt. In one experiment he took two samples of live yogurt from the same carton, placed them ten feet apart, one electroded and the other not. He detected that when he fed nutrients to the bacteria in the unelectroded sample, the chart monitoring marker of the electroded sample leapt into action. As the live yogurt was not a single living entity, this indicates that biocommunication operates at the bacteria level.

In a series of discourses collated in Microvitum in a Nutshell. the late Indian polymath P.R.Sarkar maintains that consciousness units called microvita swarm, swirl and stream about the Universe and can travel at superluminal speeds. These positive, negative and neutral microvita are ultimately the constituent parts of matter, and are alive and in constant motion. Sarkar proposes that the minds of less complex species are strongly influenced by microvita, more so than humans who possess egos, and whose development is linked to the laws of cause and effect.

       Wildly Inaccurate
A creature that is independent, self-motivated and free is exhibiting attributes that are praiseworthy within human society. Yet the word “wild”, as in wildlife or wild animal, typically has negative connotations, ie. crazy, haphazard, dangerous. The term “wild” has its roots in the Dutch language, but the notion of non-human wildness dates back to the equivalent Latin term fera, from which the English words “feral” and “ferocious” are derived. Yet apart from the occasional prickle or a sting, wildflowers pose no harm to humans. Many self-seeded flora labelled as “wild” or “weeds” possess beneficial properties, and even those that don’t make their relevant contribution to the biodiversity.
Is it honest for citizens of western capitalist civilisation, who have clear-felled rain-forests, driven countless species to extinction, polluted the oceans and atmosphere, to call the flora and fauna wild? Is this not the pot calling the kettle black?

       The Global Garden
P.R.Sarkar who, during the 1980s, initiated a project in Bengal collecting trees and plants from around the world, frequently used the colourful flowers in a garden as a metaphor for our human society. Last autumn’s leaves of the sugar maples, service tree, and grapevine were merely a sample of the riot of colour that characterises an established forest garden. The range of world fruits ensures a continual stream of different ripening berries throughout the summer, which encourages some interesting combinations in smoothies and jams – a bit like sending the taste buds to another planet.

The Progressive Utilization Theory, propounded by Sarkar, advocates the maximum utilisation of the world’s resources. Yields from forest gardens can be three to four times higher per acre than for standard agricultural land. Unlike fields and meadows, forest gardens make good utilisation of the vertical dimension. As vegetation grows skywards, a greater proportion of the sun’s energy becomes reflected, refracted and absorbed via chlorophyll and photosynthesis, which promotes the growth of more produce. While the deeper roots of the trees and perennials nitrogen-fix the soil, the foliage provides an annual carpet of leaf mould.

Were there to be a global switch to forest gardening, this cumulative seasonal addition to the topsoil would expand our Earth’s surface, which would not only provide more space for future generations, but an extra layer of insulation to minimise heat loss from Earth’s planetary interior.

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