I first came across the work of Ken and Addy Fern who founded the charity Plants for a Future, a year ago, and realised straight away they were contributing something very valuable and positive to the planet. They are inspire us as we work on our own patch of land creating a forest garden.
Plants For A Future was originally set up to support the work of Ken and Addy, on their experimental site in Cornwall, where they carried out research and provided information on edible and otherwise useful plants suitable for growing outdoors in a temperate climate. Over time they planted 1500 species of edible plants on 'The Field' in Cornwall, which was their base since 1989. Over ten years ago, Ken began compiling a database, which currently consists of approximately 7000 species of plants. This is an extract from their web site:
It is our belief that plants can provide people with the majority of their needs, in a way that cares for the planet's health. A wide range of plants can be grown to produce all our food needs and many other commodities, whilst also providing a diversity of habitats for our native flora and fauna.
There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food. Large areas of land devoted to single crops increase dependence upon intervention of chemicals and intensive control methods with the added threat of chemical resistant insects and new diseases. The changing world climate greatly affecting cultivation indicates a greater diversity is needed.
When comparing a large cultivated field to natural woodland the woodland receives no intervention but produces lush growth and diversity of plants and animals. Yet the cultivated land supports very few species. The quality and depth of soil in a woodland is maintained and improved yearly whilst erosion and loss of soil structure plague the cultivated field.
Our emphasis is on growing perennial plants with some self-seeding annuals, a large part of the reason for this is the difference in the amount of time and energy it takes to cultivate and harvest crops. Annuals means the cultivation of the ground every year, sowing the seeds, controlling the weeds, adding fertilizers and attempting to control pests and diseases. It all seems so much extra work compared to planting a perennial and waiting to harvest its yield. Especially when you consider that even with all the effort put into growing carrots their yield for the same area of ground will be less than that of a fruit tree and will only last the one season.
Not only do people seem trapped in a method of growing with lower yields for far more input but also one that is damaging the environment and all the plants and animals that live in it.
Continued cultivation of the soil, whilst creating a desert to most of our wild plants and animals, destroys the organic matter and opens it up to the risk of erosion from wind and rain. The soil structure is damaged and becomes compacted leaving it unable to drain properly or allow plant roots to penetrate and obtain nutrients, and valuable topsoil is washed away in heavy rain.
A cultivated crop such as wheat has all its roots in a narrow band of soil with intense competition between plants for the same nutrients. Any nutrients below this belt are inaccessible to the plants. The crop is susceptible to the same pests and diseases and has similar climatic requirements, if one plant suffers they all suffer. The amount of energy used in producing high yields is far more than the food itself yields in energy. We do not believe this is sustainable.
When looking at woodland, almost no weeding is required, no feeding and no watering yet year after year a host of animals can be found along with the inevitable plant growth. A wide range of plants grows side by side each occupying its own space. Some with deep roots bringing up nutrients from beyond the reach of other plants. When leaves fall they provide nutrients and substance to the soil. Plants with shallow root systems obtain their nutrients from nearer the surface of the soil. The canopy of trees creates a shelter and temperature fluctuations are less extreme in a woodland environment. The soil is protected from erosion.
Woodland sustains itself and is highly productive due to its diversity which leads to a gradual build up of fertility. All the different available habitats allow a wide range of creatures to live in woodland, and the plants, insects and animals all work to create an altogether much more balanced and harmonious way of life. Another benefit of Woodland Gardening is that the high humus content of the soil acts like a sponge to absorb water therefore replenishing the ground water table.
Growing a diversity of plants emulating woodland, we can grow fruit and nut trees, under- planted with smaller trees and shrubs, herbaceous, ground cover and climbing plants. This way it is possible to produce fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves and roots throughout the year. Unlike the majority of cultivated food plants these have not been selectively bred to increase size of yield, reduce bitterness or increase sweetness, yet many of them are delicious and highly nutritious.
We aim to recover lost knowledge and learn more about the hundreds of medicinal plants that we can grow, in a race to find safe natural alternatives to drugs used today. Plants can also provide us with fibres for clothes, rope and paper, oils for lubricants, fuels, water proofing and wood preservatives, dyes, construction materials and more.
A large number of native broadleaf trees are planted to provide natural shelter and wildlife habitats. Trees are the lungs of the planet; they purify the air locking up carbon and have the potential for reducing the greenhouse effect. Trees protect the soil from erosion, encourage rainfall, and regulate the flow of ground water preventing flooding. Fallen leaves are an effective soil conditioner.