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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.