Garden to Forest-Garden to Forest

September 19, 2011

It’s coming up for ten months since we moved into these mountains and already great big tap roots have sprouted from the soles of our feet and sunk deep into the earth. As our roots grow and spread we proceed lightly and slowly, finding our way of inhabiting these forested mountains, becoming forest people, mountain people.

Food is a very direct way to connect to a place. Literally the plants become your flesh, plant cells become your cells, a transference of wild energy.

View to the south east. Fruit and nut trees in the foreground with deciduous forest background left and sugi (Cryptomeria) plantation background right.

The sustenance of food is more than just physiological, it is, of course, economic too. And in a culture where the food has been put under lock and key it is surely liberating to not be paying. Time is liberated, for one. To be here doing this we needed to start producing as much food as possible as quickly as possible as otherwise, food would constitute our main expense. And expenses lead to jobs… In ten months we have been able to achieve a reasonable degree of food self-sufficiency by extensively foraging and establishing a good sized garden of annual vegetables.

Looking south west over the terrace where we have been growing most of our annual vegetables.

Our method of gardening is in stark contrast to the fastidious approach practised throughout Japan. Where the local farmers see a chaotic mess of weeds and crazy plants growing over the top of each other we see lush, natural growth and abundance. And a lot less work! The late Masanobu Fukuoka with his notions of “natural farming” and “do-nothing farming” may have been from Japan but he doesn’t seem to have been of Japan. Nevertheless, like countless others, tucked away in the mountains, up valleys, out of sight of the villages, we keep Fukuoka’s spirit alive.

Tomatoes, hot peppers, basil, shiso, beans, okra, eggplant, cucumber, kushinsai…

Direct sowing winter root crops amongst the summer vegetables

Seedlings of winter vegetables. Asako has developed a great seed raising/potting mix from materials close at hand and our seed raising trays grow in the bamboo grove.

Growing annual vegetables is the most efficacious way of producing food fast. Hence, our first priority was establishing a garden largely planted to annuals. We also utilized open spaces between trees to plant large crops of annuals (in a temperate climate) such as sweet potatoes, azuki beans, peanuts, yacon and ginger. These crops were grown in true natural farming style. That is, no preparation of the soil was done we simply cut the grass and scraped the surface where the seed was to be sown or plants transplanted. Once or twice grass around the young plants was cut and used to mulch the plants.

Azuki beans growing behind a mikan (citrus) with a chestnut and myoga ginger in the background.

Foreground, peanuts; midground, sweet potatoes; background, chestnut with an understory of myoga ginger and tea.

Ginger (the regular kind) with red and green shiso behind, a wonderful Japanese culinary and medicinal herb and excellent attractor of insects. Leaves and seeds of the shiso are eaten.

We are now switching focus to the development of a forest garden where perennial plants and tree crops will dominate. We are very fortunate to have many well established fruit and nut trees here. An excellent foundation on which to develop the forest garden.

With the forest garden we will still maintain some openings where annuals can be grown, particularly self-seeding ones, or sun-loving perennials such as the Jerusalem artichokes pictured below.

Jerusalem artichokes flowering in a nice sunny patch in front of a persimmon.

Pomegranate and kumquat with lemon balm, spilanthes and dong ling cao underneath. In the background to the right are myoga ginger, tea, peach and mulberry.

A large portion of our forest garden understory will be occupied by tea. Contrary to what you might think, if you have ever seen a tea plantation, tea actually thrives in partial shade. In fact, here in Japan, shade grown tea, called Gyokuro, is considered to be of the highest quality. But the plantation mentality has never been about quality, has it. Tea grows wild in the mountains around us but in the full shade of a closed evergreen forest canopy leaf and seed production is considerably less than plants in partial shade. So a great plant for shady edges that are lightly brushed by the sun or for under deciduous trees, allowing for winter sun exposure, when the tea is in flower.

Tea plants seeding as the multi-use kudzu clambers over top.

Tea is also very tolerant of being clambered over by other plants. In the picture above it is kudzu that has sprung out of the forest and is reaching over the tea. From kudzu we use the root medicinally and as a thickener, the vine for basketry and the flowers for making wine or vinegar or eating in salads. We will harvest the kudzu vine before we do our next tea harvest so it should not impede harvesting of the tea. We harvest for tea twice a year, once in spring to make sencha and again in autumn to make bancha. The seeds are also harvested in early autumn to make cooking oil. We shall be doing our first seed harvest and pressing in three or four weeks time. (For those that have read the post from May 17, we will be testing all tea products for possible caesium contamination before consuming in any quantity or selling. The joys of living with nuclear fallout).

A large part of our “work” this first year has been observation. Many of the plants are unfamiliar to us and as we watch them through the seasons we come to learn what they are, what they produce and what their eco-system function might be. A long term project! Attempting to understand energy flows through the land, particularly water, has also been a preoccupation. This is a super charged landscape: steep forested mountains surrounding us, a number of perennial springs and an equal number of ephemeral springs, above ground streams, underground streams, ancient streams buried by shifting mountains, terraced slopes that recharge the land. Feeding this we have the rainy season and the typhoon season. Any attempt to drastically transform this land would be to invite disaster. As I mentioned earlier, we proceed slowly, lightly.

Forest of the eastern slopes

From garden to forest-garden to forest. The realm of deer and wild pig. Of sansai, mountain vegetables like shidoke and wasabi. Of magnificent walnuts and oaks and other-wordly fungi. The forest around us provides our fuel for cooking and heating water, vines for basketry, timber for building, medicinal plants and much food and it charges our springs with pure cool water. But to quantify what it gives us is to miss the point. For the real point is the vision the forest engenders.

Walnut along side a stream

The fall. Losing paradise by clearing the forest to grow fields of crops and domesticated animals and later sub-divisions and parking lots. Cain, the agriculturalist killing Abel, the forager. The story is well enough known but have we grasped the meaning? One vision, carrying the mark of Cain, marches us toward the precipice. In the forest we have another vision.

more images of stuff growing at Shikigami


10 Responses to “Garden to Forest-Garden to Forest”

  1. Haikai Says:

    Wonderful beginnings ~ truly inspirational! Well done you two have demonstrated once again that practical successes out-perform mountains of words. Fukuoka would be proud!

  2. greg Says:

    can’t wait to visit next year πŸ™‚

  3. Karin Meissenburg Says:

    Thank you, Asako and Dion, waves of gratitude and joy … The vision in action and Haikai is right, Fukuoka is somewhere and smiles with a very happy heart …
    It cheered me enormously to hear you are well, and so well!
    All the best al-ways and lots of love

  4. Cath Koa and Karin Says:

    Kia ora Dion – We so love all you are doing – what vision – Fukuoka would love your mahi – keep it flowing and we send karakia to all in Japan for healing of people and land…your vision and mahi show the way forward…kia kaha-arohanui- cath koa and karin – mohala organic gardens, matakana, aotearoa.

  5. Having visited Asako and Dion recently (early June 2011) we can say the forest-garden looksevery bit as spectacular ‘on the ground’

  6. Wakako Sakaguchi Says:

    It’s wonderful garden! At first I was surprised you are in Japan.I’m glad to hear you have practiced doing same way of Fukuoka’s farming style.I would like to visit there one day. By the way how do you protect vegetables from wild animals such as wild pig or deer?

    • dion Says:

      γ‚‚γ—γ‚‚γ—γ€‚γƒ‘γƒ«γ‚γ‚ŠγŒγ¨γ”γ–γ„γΎγ™γ€‚γ„γ€γ§γ‚‚γ‚γγ³γ«γγ¦γγ γ•γ„γ€‚
      For the deer we hang strands of our hair on the plants. They don’t like the smell of human hair. So far this has worked very well.
      For the wild pigs we grow the most vulnerable vegetables, like satsumaimo (sweet potato), inside a moveable fence. We have only lost a couple of carrots to pigs. There is a lot of food in the forest for them so I think this helps.
      For the monkeys, we chase them away.
      It helps that the most vulnerable plants are grown close to the house so the animals are reluctant to come close but also we have a better chance of hearing when they are there. A dog or geese would also help to alert us to when the wild animals are eating the vegetables.
      We are learning what we can grow that we like but the animals don’t. These things we can grow further away from the house, and more of them in case we ever lose a lot of food to a very hungry wild animal.

  7. Wakako Sakaguchi Says:

    It’s interesting to hang the hair in the garden.
    In these days I cultivated the land and planted garic and spring onion. There are a lot of wild pigs and deers around here.I think they don’t like these smelly vegetables.I’m not sure if it’s effective but we’ll see. I heard my land is used to be a river. Once you dig on the ground, you’ll see full of stones.It’s poor land and bamboo grass is overgrowing everywhere. But I’d like to have a nice η•‘γ€€and 田んぼ one day. Anyway where is Shikigami? Could you tell me your address?

    • dion Says:

      Deer were eating the tops of our Jerusalem artichokes, azuki and kibi but as soon as we hung hair on these plants they stopped! So, I would definitely recommend trying it.
      I think the garlic and negi might keep the pigs away if there is enough of it. A “fence” of negi around the whole garden! Anyway its a good practice as a lot of species benefit from growing near garlic and onions.

      Shikigami is on Izu-hanto in Shizuoka-ken. When you want to visit send me an email I can can give you the exact address and phone number.

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