The Forest is a Pantry

I often find myself thinking about what a culture would look like if it were actually able to live within the bounds of what their ecosystems could provide. One in which people cared for nature, and allowed nature to return the favor.

As it stands today, there’s a divide in our thinking: in one space is where we grow our food, and in that other space is where nature happens. But within this, agriculture shapes 39% of Europe’s land, while wild spaces are only somewhere between 1.7% – 4%.

What if we were able to grow ecosystem’s that did both? Create ecosystems that still manage to feed us, while giving nature equal say in their design. That’s the question we took up this year; as we sought to design a forest that produces everything a family could need to eat in the real amount of time they would have to care for it.

The Forest is a Pantry

Our answer is “The Forest is a Pantry” project. An exploration of how a forest can become a family’s primary source of food while at the same time, growing natural resiliency, and protecting biodiversity. How a plantation can be a regenerative experience for the land and the people living there. How a forest can combine wild nature, and agriculture.

It’s a bit of trivia to know that a person can survive on nothing but butter and potatoes. Somehow, those 2 foods contain every essential nutrient your body needs to not die. It’s not a particularly interesting diet, and not one I’d want to live on, but it works. What’s more relevant about that diet is that it’s often the image people have of what happens if you try and live off what the land can provide. (In Portugal, and Galicia, famine is etched into the subconscious of both my parent’s and grandparent’s generation.)

But the truth is that a well designed forest is capable of so much more than we think. So many of us have spent so little time in genuinely productive enironments, that we can’t imagine how much is actually possible. But when we begin to experience the possibilities of the forest first hand, and begin to trust in nature’s abundance, we can grow to expect a bit more than potatoes and butter. And towards that goal, of seriously out-competing butter and potatoes in every way. We’ve designed a regenerative forest that:

  • Boasts a complete nutrition, providing every calorie, amino acid, vitamin, and mineral we need to live healthy lives.
  • Provides a wide variety of possible meals that celebrate flavor and satisfy bellies.
  • Produce a resilient diet, that changes along with climatic conditions, but whose diversity allows it never to fear failed crops. (In practice this might looks like having too many hazels, and not enough walnuts one year, followed by too many walnuts and not enough hazels the next.)

And with these goals in mind, we’ve developed two unique forest systems that, together, aim to fulfill those goals.

Part 1 – The Pantry

For reasons, we’ll get into in a minute, we noticed that the first forest we would plant would be best served by following the principles of regenerative agroforestry. With regenerative agroforestry, we’d be able to keep the design and management intuitive while still producing serious calories, ensuring a full variety of vitamins and minerals, and creating something that a real person would actually be able to manage.

With this ecosystem, we really want to make something accessible to most people, yet we know that the more diverse an ecosytsem gets, the harder it becomes to manage. So we sought to create something that could be managed by someone who has:

  1. A desire to plant a forest that will eventually feed them. Establishing a forest is a generational commitment. One who’s fruit we may never see. This does require someone genuinely devoted to being present, year after year.
  2. A basic understanding of nature. Forests are complicated webs of relationships, and every new element increases the complexity of the system. For this reason, this forest was designed with simple repeating patterns that seek to minimize complexity.
  3. Limited time. Most people live believing they don’t have enough time for the things they care about. And so, this forest is thought out to be cared for with a minimum of interventions (pruning, fertilizing, etc) to keep maintanence time down.

The Physical Forest (as it stands today)

At the bottom of the land in Silverto, is a terrace about ~1,900 m2. At the outset of our actions there was a few meters of blackberry, tangled over a few scotch brooms. Our theory, since this land is accessible by tractor, is that it was cleared a few years ago, and never completed its succession (never was able to grow into a forest). For that reason, today it is much more open, and will require much more from us in the way of protection of species, watering, and general management in order to establish a healthy forest.

It is also closest to a very small tributary of the rio coura (a couple kilomters away.) The presence of this water, allows us to plant a few species that are more prepared for riversides, and will keep humidity higher than in other parts of the forest.

Design (How it might look in a generation)

Here, we’ve opted for grouping rows of trees into rows and waves. Beginning with a tall canopy tree like a pecan, then placing a fruit tree to its south, followed by a tall-bush (hazel or pawpaw) to its south, continuing to plant a smaller bush beneath it, and finally leaving an alley for a crop. After this the pattern would repeat. Starting again with a tall canopy tree, a fruit tree, a hazel and so on.

By directing these towards the southern sun, and working with species adapated to full or semi-sun, we’re able to effeciently use sunlight. And, by using rows we facilitate harvest, and create a pattern that can be extended almost indefinitely in any direction.

Species

These are the species we believe will be present in the mature forest.

StrataSpecies
CanopyPecan, Chestnut, Mulberry, Monkey Puzzle, Walnut
UnderstoryAmelanchier, Pawpaw, Hazelnut, Seabuckthorn, Apple, Pear
BushAronia, Eleagnus Umbellata, Eleagnus ebingeii, Currants
HerbaceousPumpkin, Native wild plants.
Ground CoverNative wild plants.
RootYacon
ClimberChayote

Part 2 – The Forage Forest

While ‘the Pantry’ is suited to provide us calories, and a few snacks, it isn’t so good at providing us with rich and diverse flavors (at least not while being low maintenance). For this reason, the second direction our design brought us was towards a forest that could produce a greater diversity.

‘The Forage Forest’ will do just that. It aims to be a forest you can always visit to forage a salad, gather veggies, or add a bit of spice to a recipe. A place where fresh food is ready to be picked every day of the year.

Here, we were served best by the principles of the forest garden. Well designed, and cared for, this type of forest will produce one of the most productive ecosystems possible. And will be able to supplement a family’s meals, through a large diversity of herbs, vegetables, seeds, nuts, berries, and fruit.

The tradeoff, is that this forest, though, more biodiverse and substantially more productive, is also bit more difficult to manage. It requires a bit more experience and time to implement. )Or a willingness to learn through mistakes.)

The Physical Forest (as it stands today)

The physical place in which we’ve chosen to plant the pantry is a ~500 m2 terrace on the Silverto land. It’s a beautiful space in which 15 years of abandonment have left a closed canopy of 3-4 meter Scotch brooms (and an inpenetrable tangle of blackberry we had to clear beneath it for the fire risk it posed) that have created the perfect nursery for a future forest garden.

The shade they provide will protect whatever we plant through their first few years while their roots become established, and as the brooms are cut, they’ll leave a gift of nitrogen in their roots, and organic matter with their branches in order to continue building the soil.

Design (How it may look in a generation)

As it goes with forest gardens, we will be establishing an open woodland. This means, that though the space will be forested, there will be quite a substantial amount of space between the crowns of trees. This allows us to distribute the sun’s light a bit more effectively in order to establish bushes, and plants that might not otherwise have enough space or light. In a native forest, for example, where the tendency is for the canopy to close and shade them out, these species might not find their niche.

Forest gardeners work much like a beaver might. Who by cutting down certain trees, and shaping the structure of the forest, create all sorts of niches in which different species can grow. Often resulting in some of the most biodiverse forests we can find. This diversity of niches, in turn, allows us to work with a richer assortment of species.

For example, in the different shades of each tree, we can work with native superfoods like nettle, or chickweed. While, farther south, in the semi-shade we can work with species that are happy in the semi-shade like currants, rosemary, rhubarb or a thousand others. While reserving the spaces south of each tree for the species who demand the greatest amount of hours of light like yacon, groundnut, or other vegetables.

Each tree will work with a different guild. (a group of several plants who work in concert to find a stable ecosystem.), and in this terrace specifically we’ll be creating guilds around the 12 central trees. Through their diversity these guilds will work to ensure that there is also something to harvest.

Species

This is an exploration of some of the species we believe will be present in the mature forest.

StrataSpecies
CanopyBlack Mulberry, Oak, Beech, Chestnut
UnderstoryPawpaw, Amelanchier, sea buckthorn, Lemon, Orange, apple, Plum, linden
BushEleagnus, Umbelata, currants, blueberry, ugni mollinae, barberry,
HerbaceousRhubarb, nettle, Leak, Turkish Rocket, Cardoon, Buckler leafed sorrel, Good King henry, Asparagus, Chives, Sage, Rosemary, oregano, Columbine, Broccoli, Kale, Cauliflower, Tree Collards, Sweet Cicely, chard, parsley, beans, beets, Yarrow, Chickweed.
Ground CoverStrawberry, Thyme
RootYacon, sunchoke
ClimberGroundnut, Kiwi, Grape, Magnolia Vine

The Diet

What quickly becomes clear when looking at the foods that these forests will be producing is that if we want to base our diet on what the forest can provid, our diet will have to change.

Keeping in mind that more than half the world’s diet is base around about 3 plants (Corn, wheat, rice.) who are not represented on our forests, I think it warrants talking over what this diet would actually look like in practice.

  • Our central starches would become chestnut and acorn. While ,in general, we would have fewer meals centered around starches.
  • Instead, our diet would be focused much more on good fats. Those central good fats would be walnut, pecan, an hazelnut. (Although, in lands closer to the coast where frost is less of an issue, you could easily grow all the avocado you could eat.)
  • This would also be a diet very reliant on fruit and berries. Providing a full breakfast and several snacks a day of seasonalities.
  • This diet also calls for a period of transitioning, as your body gets used to gathering its energy from fat instead of carbs, and as your skill with the ingredients grows.
  • In our land, geese and chickens will be rotated through, to produce eggs and meat if you’re into that sort of thing. (While in larger pieces of land, you could begin to consider goats, sheep, pigs, cows, turkeys, rabbits…)

Figures

Yields

These are the expected yields on 2,500 m2 of land.


The Pantry (kg)Forage Forest (kg)Total (kg)
Nuts92242964
Fruit7713461117
Berry442190632
Aromatics0.150.15
Leaves1.55.57
Vegetables5386241162
Total2674.51207.653882.15

People need an average of 900kgs a year. (Although that figure is for americans, who everyone knows are the hungriest of the lot.) Which means, theoretically, 3800kg of food is enough to feed 4 people on 2,500 m2. Although we wouldn’t recommend more than 2-3 to account for seasonal variability.

Hours

Average Hours of labor per year at maturity, including management and harvest.

The Pantry (Hours)Forage Forest (Hours)Total (Hours)
230131361

With 361 hours a year, this brings the average amount of work for a family down to an average of about 7 hours a week spaced out throughout the year. With the majority of time spent in spring and fall during the harvest.

Our Pantry

It’s a sad reality that most people are only a few days away from empty cupboards. Recent history has made it all too clear how fragile our world is, and how directly we’re effected by events halfway around the world. If our hope is to transitions to a more local world, where we can maintain that connection to the world, while at the same time improving our local resilience, then the ability to feed ourselves is an absolute must.

And, of course, the supermarket is still down the road. As most people lack any other way to feed themselves. What we’d like to see through forests like these, is a transition to a world in which supermarket becomes that place we go to buy the things we don’t feel like growing. (Or, to find all those things we can’t properly grow ourselves, like chocolate or coconut. Because everyone likes chocolate.)

But, what’s become clear to us, is that with a bit of effort, we’re able to feed ourselves on small tracts of land. We’re able to grow quality regenerative/organic food that fills our pantries, and free ourselves of damaging chemicals on our food. And what’s more, is that this change, once you have it, isn’t a temporary. Once a forest reaches maturity, it stays there. And with minimum upkeep, it will produce reliably, every year, for the rest of not only your life, but also the lives of your children’s, and your children’s children.

2 thoughts on “The Forest is a Pantry

  1. I’m replying.. see if it works.. you didn’t mention animals in this project. Or did you? Manure is essential!

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    1. I didn’t! But that isn’t because animals won’t be part of the project. But only because the animal part will be such a work in progress as we learn to cycle them through the whole forest. I’m imagining geese, chickens, and maybe mini-goats (for the blackberry).

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