Indigenous Forest Gardening
Indigenous Forest Gardening

Indigenous Forest Gardening

The Madawaska Forest Garden, year 20, surrounded by maturing nut trees. Left is a fast growing Buartnut (Heartnut x Butternut), that started to produce nuts (that look like butternuts) in year 14
The Madawaska Forest Garden, year 20, surrounded by maturing nut trees. Left is a fast growing Buartnut (Heartnut x Butternut), that started to produce nuts (that look like butternuts) in year 14

Here at the Sacred Gardener Farm, things are winding down for the season. It’s not quite the end of October and we just had 10cm (4in) of snow. It won’t stay, but it sure did crack the whip for me to get my garlic planted and to dig up the last of the wildcultured roots, like evening primrose, burdock, goat’s beard and wild carrot.

We cellar these roots in damp sand for winter use, just like their domestic cousins. I’ve introduced and fostered the growth of these ‘weeds’ and 46 other edible-medicinal volunteers in my integrated polyculture gardens for more than 20 years.

You might think because I wrote a book on indigenous forest gardening that it’s the only way I grow things. But the way I see it, every place on the land, and every crop requires a unique treatment. To limit yourself to one ideology or particular approach is to cut yourself off from thousands of years of growing tradition. We cut ourselves off from those traditions based on our modern perspective of how organic monoculture looks now. But, we have to ask the question: how did these old ways work for literally thousands of years without exhausting the soil? So before disregarding our ancestral ways we need to ask how these ancient green technologies really worked and look at what the origins of these land use traditions were.

At the farm here we are big miso makers, so this year we grew Arikara beans in the small polyculture field where I forage the wild roots. This is a First Nations bean from the Arikara sourced from Minnesota (zone 3). Like soy, they are very hearty and make exquisite creamy miso. The field they’re in has been a polyculture perennial herb field for two cycles of seven years. With polycultural plant diversity, there is not only resilience and synergistic relationships, but also adaptability.


In my gardens, there is never a ‘bad’ year because if it’s hot and dry, some things do well and if it’s cool and wet others will thrive. Wildculturing, using integrated polyculture, means that in a given area, there are plants I bring in (like beans, corn and squash) and there is also a huge range of plants to work with that are already present, living or dormant in the seed bank. There are also those opportunists that fly in or are brought in when the ground is open. Most of the wild volunteers are indigenous or naturalized to the area. Some were already here in my garden area and others I brought in from similar areas close by. These plants are already fully adapted to the land and fill specific ecological niches. They have arrived to heal the land and heal us, so it’s to our great advantage to work with them. We must come to understand their place on the land, before just getting rid of the ‘weeds’ we don’t even know, to replace them with all new unadapted plants of our choice. As a rule, I must know who a plant is, what she’s for, where she’s from, how she fits into the environment, before I remove something from a garden area.

Growing Annual Crops

If you love annual crops like vegetables, corn and tomatoes and if you’re serious about growing your own food in the colder climates, you must surrender to their needs. Most need to grow in rich soil with full sun. Forest gardens have their place, but there’s not enough space or sunlight for growing the hundred kilos of Hopi flint corn, Russian sunflowers or even Arikara beans that my family and helpers eat in a year.

Here in the North (zone 3b) we have an intense four month growing season and frozen snow-covered ground for six months with long -30C periods (-2oF). The land herself is suited for a short high production cycle and a long dormant regeneration cycle. We’re not able to amble out in our flip-flops and grab fruit off a tree in December.

The cycles here lend themselves to annual production, which in turn perfectly fits our human need to sustain ourselves for half the year or more on the stored excess of that cycle. So, the question is not ‘if ’, but ‘how’ are we going to grow these annuals in the best way possible? How do we grow in the most sustainable, ecologically integrated way, which generates the least amount of ecological destruction?

To find out how to grow organic annual crops, you might initially look to the founding sources on organic gardening, such as works by Sir Albert Howard or Rodale. These are very productive methods. But, if you have a larger grasp of land use history you will quickly see these manuals (and all those derived from them since) are actually modern high-input methods designed to be applied unilaterally. They should not be seen as representing a traditional or indigenous agriculture. While published before the advent of chemical agriculture, and just before the green revolution, it’s clear these earlier guides to ‘high-input’, ‘universal’, organic gardening methods, were a response to industrial thinking more than they were traditional culture. To begin to grasp how pre-industrial annual production methods worked relative to modern organic methods, we must have a feeling for the context of the old-time knowledge.

Pre-industrial Agriculture

For example, in pre-industrial times, meat was rarer and when available was used more sparingly. Before the introduction of the turnip from the Middle East, around the beginning of the Industrial Age in the 1700s, over wintering animals was very difficult and too expensive. So, for many reasons European farming methods were not as geared towards raising meat, as they are now. A well off extended family kept a few family groups of multi-purpose field animals, for milk, wool and meat. The older animals would have been culled at the end of the season and only those kept for breeding would be overwintered in the bottom storey of an extended family cottage. Because of the close quarters with the family, the animals lived an outdoor life except during the coldest times.

After we started industrial style production of meat and animal products, we had far less animals out on the land and more animals penned in and grain fed. So, by the time Sir Albert was writing his opus The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture, it was common to have great piles of manure around. But traditionally, for tens of thousands of years before this time, fertilizing fields with piles of composted manure wasn’t an option. The ‘organic annual gardening’ that most of us know is completely dependent on the input of composted manure, and was skewed away from tradition and toward monoculture, by the industrial mandate of ‘efficiency’.

The Old Ways

Traditionally, our ancestors used other methods to regenerate the land, like fallowing, where a field was given back to the wild for a year out of every four. No doubt this would be seen as very inefficient today, but of course in another way fallowing is infinitely more efficient, because it requires zero input. If we look back in history we can see that there are also many other methods of increasing fertility without animal compost. Flooding, burning, mulching, polyculture (companion planting), letting fields go fallow and green manuring are some of these methods. In letting a field go fallow, we let the parade of healers, the weeds, come in. They magically work with what is already there, alchemically transforming the land by covering her in a polyculture tapestry of plants. This living blanket of herbs taps into both the realms of air and the deeper subsoil. So, with this fallow method, rather than immediately demanding production by plowing and adding compost, or by covering everything up with mulch and adding pockets of compost, there is a longer vision at play and time for the Earth’s healing magic to work. Like many old ways we need a bit of patience and faith to apply this method.

Read the rest of the article in Permaculture Magazine’s Spring 2017 Issue.