Gardening or Forest Gardening?

It seems likely that in the coming years climate change will make parts of the world increasingly uninhabitable and their lands increasingly uncultivable, leading to population movements towards the remaining cultivable areas. At the same time, energy prices will probably continue to rise, resulting in a situation where more people have to be fed from less land using fewer inputs. What would farming look like in that situation, and what kind of societies would result from it?

An army of technocrats and associated cheerleaders are hoping to engineer their way out of this troubling situation. Who knows, maybe they’ll succeed – at least temporarily. In the mean time, permaculturists and many in the alternative farming movement are focusing on more homespun small-farm solutions involving labour intensification, close resource husbandry (soil, water, energy) and the like. But of course we don’t really know if that will succeed either.

Maybe we can get some kind of inkling about the likely ecological and social shape of a future intensive small farm society by looking at examples of such societies from the past. Like colonial Indonesia, for example, as analysed by Clifford Geertz in his book Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. It’s an old book, first published in 1963, and I have to admit it’s one of those classics that I was supposed to have read in college but never did. Still, only about twenty years later I’ve put that right, and I think what Geertz says is of interest when applied to our contemporary predicaments.

Geertz contrasts two indigenous forms of Indonesian agriculture – the swidden (‘slash and burn’) agriculture of the forest and the sawah agriculture (wet rice paddy) of the cleared terraces. Swidden involves cutting and burning primary forest, and then reseeding the cleared area with a complex interplanted polyculture of annual and perennial root, leaf, seed and woody crops, using leguminous crops and the ash as fertiliser. After a few years of production, the cleared plot is left to return to secondary forest before being cleared once more after a lengthy fallow period. Swidden was often regarded as an irrational and destructive agriculture by earlier generations of western analysts, but Geertz and other anthropologists of the 1950s and 60s showed that it was subtly adapted both to the needs of the farmers and the ecology of the forest – it was “a canny imitation of the natural landscape” in which “a natural forest is transformed into a harvestable forest” while retaining the same basic form of the natural ecosystem. In other words, its logic was a lot like that of the temperate forest gardens that have been popularised by the permaculture movement.

Of course, the two aren’t identical. For example, swidden is mobile because tropical forest soils are generally poor with the majority of ecosystem nutrients being held in living biomass which has to be unlocked through burning. Mature forest trees also need felling in order to establish more manageable and useful woody crops. Forest gardens, on the other hand, can take advantage of nutrient rich soils in temperate climes and of modern dwarfing rootstocks. But both are ways of mimicking early woodland succession to preserve perennial polyculture while diverting it to human ends.

One problem with swidden mentioned by Geertz is that, despite its complexity and its preservation of ecosystem properties, what he calls its ‘equilibrium’ is a lot more delicate than that of natural forest. Managed badly, swidden easily leads to ecological deterioration, and the replacement of forest cover by invasive grasses that create ‘green deserts’. One way this occurs is through population pressure – if the fallow period is excessively shortened, or the system is otherwise overdriven to divert more of the nutrient cycle into extra human mouths then productivity decline and ecological deterioration result. In other words, the system isn’t expandable.

Not so with sawah, according to Geertz. The stability of the rice terrace as an ecosystem, he says, means that “even the most intense population pressure does not lead to a breakdown of the system on the physical side (though it may lead to extreme impoverishment on the human side)…the sawah seems virtually indestructible”. The output of the rice terraces can be “almost indefinitely increased” by what Geertz calls “careful, fine-comb cultivation techniques”, in other words by intensive gardening (horticultural) rather than agricultural techniques: pregermination, transplanting, exact spacing, careful composting, meticulous weeding and harvesting.

Perhaps we could express these contradictory tendencies of swidden and sawah in the jargon of economics. A lot of jobs can be more easily completed when there are more people to help (“many hands make light work”).  Indeed, often each extra (or ‘marginal’ in economic jargon) person contributes as much or even incrementally more to the final result – there is constant or increasing marginal productivity of labour. But there comes a point when adding yet more workers starts to have a proportionally lower effect (“too many cooks spoil the broth”) – there is diminishing marginal productivity of labour. That point of diminishing returns is reached quite quickly in the case of swidden, to the extent that adding more workers (ie. experiencing population growth) threatens the very ecological viability of the system. But with sawah marginal productivity doesn’t seem to decrease– you can achieve constant returns to labour.

It’s interesting to apply this marginal labour analysis to growing methods in drier, more temperate climates such as here in the UK. So for example forest gardens are often extolled for their abundance and designed redundancy. You’re never going to pick all their fruit, all their edible leaves and other goodies. But it doesn’t matter – it’s there for the picking if you want it, and if you don’t it’ll fill the belly of a bird or a beetle and somehow cycle its way back through the system into a future crop.

I think that makes a lot of sense given the nature of the present UK economy. Most of us don’t need to grow food for subsistence, but most of us don’t have much spare time either, so if we’re going to grow food it makes sense to opt for a low input system like a forest garden (besides its ecological advantages over other growing systems). Suppose, however, that we face the situation mentioned at the outset of rising food and energy prices and a rising local population. Growing space is now at a premium, and you have to start looking to your forest garden as a real source of subsistence. You used to harvest its best-looking apples and plums, grab a few welsh onions, snip the occasional herb, and then pretty much leave it alone. Now you go back to it, looking to reap more of its abundance. The wineberries are pretty tasty, but crikey it’s a lot of work fiddling about with all those little fruits. How many orache leaves do you need to pick for the family lunch? And where exactly has that walking onion wandered off to? I strongly suspect that, as with subsistence swidden, diminishing marginal productivity of labour will quickly kick in, and the cleverly redundant abundance that you designed into it might start to seem more redundant than abundant.

Let me be clear that this is in no way intended to be an argument against planting forest gardens, but it is an argument – or at least a hypothesis – about the returns to labour that forest gardens may furnish. Temperate forest gardening is still in its infancy, so maybe people will come up with forest garden designs with good marginal labour productivity. But only if we think about the issue – simple advocacy for abundance too easily neglects it, and this is an important omission in David Holmgren’s discussion of the ‘maximum yield fallacy’ in his influential book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability (p.159).  For while he’s right to criticise mainstream approaches for focusing too narrowly on single yields at the expense of considering secondary yields, without considering marginal labour productivity those secondary yields can all too easily turn out to be rather theoretical. Holmgren asks us to contrast a high energy input monoculture with a low energy input polyculture to suggest the superiority of the latter. But Geertz’s analysis suggests that in situations where low energy input is a given, high labour input monocultures or near monocultures may sometimes outperform low labour input polycultures in terms of marginal labour productivity.

So would the same hold true for a future low input UK agriculture? If the forest garden doesn’t yield enough, can you bend your back a bit more in the intensive vegetable garden to make good the deficit? I suspect our temperate dry-land staple crops don’t offer the extraordinarily constant returns to labour that Geertz reports for sawah.  I haven’t yet located any useful data on marginal labour productivities (either on a per unit area basis or otherwise) – and indeed Geertz himself is a bit coy on the hard numbers when it comes to Indonesian sawah. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with some relevant figures. But in the absence of proper data, here’s a few factoids:

  • The highest reported rice yields are 5.21 times higher than global average yields, whereas the corresponding global figures for wheat and potatoes (the two key UK staple crops) are 5.03 and 5.06 (source – trusty old Wikipedia).
  •  Average UK (arable) wheat yields have increased fourfold since the 1880s as a result of technical developments such as synthetic NPK fertiliser, dwarf cultivars and fungicides, currently averaging around 7.8 tonnes per hectare (but each subsequent yield-increasing technique is likely to offer incrementally less).
  • In his excellent book Small-Scale Grain Raising Gene Logsdon reckons that a small grower in the temperate USA can grow about 6 tonnes of wheat per hectare, enigmatically adding that “a really good wheat grower with a little luck” could double that yield (apparently the world record wheat yield is 15.6 t/ha by a New Zealand farmer).
  • John Jeavons, doubtless a really good wheat grower – and one who has the luck to live in Southern California – reports wheat yields for his biointensive methods of 12.7 t/ha.

Actually, given that Jeavons’ methods are highly labour intensive, maybe a comparison of his maximum yield figures with national average yield figures might give us a handle on marginal labour productivity (though of course his methods don’t only involve applying more labour). Taking the ratio of Jeavons’ maximum productivity to average US productivity (derived from pages 143, 151 and 153 of his book How to Grow More Vegetables…8 edn) his figures are as follows:

  •  Potatoes    9.3
  • Rice             6.3
  • Wheat         4.9

So maybe rice meets its match with potatoes as the temperate staple to focus labour intensification around (though presumably his rice figures are based on dry cultivation, not paddy). Well, I hate to say I told you so, but millions of Irish peasants can’t be wrong (…or can they?) Actually, I find some of Jeavons’ figures rather curious. And few organic gardeners I know in the UK manage to match the average arable potato yields here of about 45 t/ha, which – to put it mildly – is some way below Jeavons’ maximum yield of 382 t/ha. I’ll try to come back to this topic with some better data in the future.

So where does all this lead? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure, but inasmuch as climate change and rising energy costs might force us to intensify agricultural productivity with low input methods in the future, I’d predict that in the UK we might see relatively little use of techniques like forest gardening, more use of techniques such as orchard silvo-pastoralism, more people working harder to produce smaller yield increments of staple crops (potatoes?) and a worrying convergence between actual demand and theoretical maximum supply for such crops. In other words, we might see a UK farming landscape that doesn’t look too different from the traditional small-scale mixed farming of our forebears. Which maybe shouldn’t be too surprising since indigenous agricultures have generally figured out better than anything how to feed local populations maximally in the context of energy constraint.

In the past, Europeans managed to revolutionise local food availability by various means: technical innovation, exporting people or importing food through colonial or trade relationships. I suspect that none of those options will be so easily achieved in the future, which will mean people may have to work harder for less reward to earn their bread. A big issue that this raises – and that Geertz’s study also touches on – is what society would look like in those circumstances. But that I’ll leave to the next post.

10 thoughts on “Gardening or Forest Gardening?

  1. Yes, I think there’s definitely a place for forest gardening and other such systems – in the situations you mention, in scarce labour situations, for biodiversity, for experimentation and so on. But as you succinctly put it in your blog, there are some questions about it in relation to labour. As you point out, the cost of labour will probably diminish in future low energy scenarios, but inasmuch as many of us want to see permaculture strategies being used more widely to help feed a populous and energy-constrained world, I think we’re going to have to start looking more carefully at questions of marginal labour productivity.

  2. 1/ When Geertz compared swidden agriculture with sawah he is not comparing like with like. Sawah produces a single crop, which must have its counterpart in swidden, but swidden is producing many other products as well, such as fuel, fibres and building timber made available during forest clearance. The poly culture probably produces fruit vegetables herbs, spices and medicinal plants. Did Geertz have anything to say about how these products were replaced post swidden? You mentioned human impoverishment and I assume ecological impoverishment also occurred as sawah took up the pressure of population growth. There seems to be a tacit acceptance that human and ecological impoverishment is an acceptable consequence of population growth. If this was not acceptable then some other aspect of the total agricultural system would limit the overall expansion of the productivity.
    2/ When you predict the future side-lining of forest gardens you may be over looking something. I hope that in your imagined future we will still be able to eat fruit. My own diet contains much more fruit than the staples which you spend most time considering. Fruit is largely grown in orchards. A fairer productivity comparison would be mono cultural orchards and forest gardens. Martin Crawford’s forest garden course notes (2008) contain the following productivity data (as GJ/ha/year) Intensive forest garden -24, Medium maint. forest garden -9, low maint. forest garden -1, allotment-10, modern arable-7, modern dairying-7.5. If this information is even roughly correct then arable has a long way to go before it can match an intensive forest garden and marginal labour increments appear to apply to forest gardening as well as arable. I expect you will argue that the productivity of the forest garden is in un-useable product. I would counter that by suggesting that we have to give the developers of forest gardens the time to be as canny as the swidden practitioners in Indonesia.
    3/ Would it be worthwhile starting an analysis of future agricultural practice from a nutritional point of view? Nicki and I have been researching nutrition from several perspectives and adapting our diet accordingly with the aim of eating for health (strange idea I know but hey I am a bit old fashioned). We have massively reduced our intake of sugar and cereals, significantly reduced potatoes and replaced all vegetable oils with olive oil. Seems we have, without setting out to do so cut out the major products of world agriculture. Could it be, shock horror, that our globally agriculture is not designed to keep us healthy? I recommend that the labour implication of returning agriculture to its primary function should be built into your analysis. Poly cultures will start to look better when comparing them with multiple mono-cultures.
    5/ I must admit cereals do have a functional attribute that links to your previous post. They can be stored for long periods much more easily than other food stuffs and therefore provide a handy method of seasonal energy balancing, even between years of good and bad harvest. You can’t do the same with fruit, without high energy input processing, so another way of avoiding the consequences of poor harvests is needed here– how about extra growing capacity, targeting sufficiency in bad years and over production in good years. Sounds like a forest garden to me.

  3. Thanks Paul for another characteristically blunt and incisive response (if indeed it’s possible to be both blunt and incisive). I’ll do my best to respond to your points in kind.

    1. I think Geertz’s sawah analysis would encompass a kitchen garden type polyculture of fruit, veg and medicinal plants. I’m not sure about fibre and building materials, but then again I’m not sure about that with swidden either – there’s plenty of that in the surrounding forest and I suspect the emphasis would be on getting as strong a burn as possible in the cultivated area, so I think in both cases you’d be looking at importing those materials from outside the cultivated area. With higher population densities that would likely be more destructive. But Geertz’s point is that the intensification of the cultivated area itself is NOT more ecologically destructive with sawah, whereas with swidden it is. And what seemed to happen historically in pre-colonial times was a spontaneous switch from swidden to sawah as an ecological strategy to cope with growing population, suggesting that people found it a better way of furnishing their overall needs. Tacit acceptance of population growth? Maybe, but I’m not offering a normative analysis of what I think population levels ought to be – I’m just looking at what happens when in fact they grow. But, normatively, what’s the alternative? Telling people that they shouldn’t have been born? I’m not sure I understand what you mean in saying “If this was not acceptable then some other aspect of the total agricultural system would limit the overall expansion of the productivity.”

    2. In this post I’m not really concerned with ‘fair’ productivity comparisons but with what landscape uses are likely to emerge in practice in the context of energy and population constraint. Your figures from Martin Crawford are interesting, but hard to interpret (not that the ones I gave are much use either) – and you don’t actually give a figure for orchard productivity. But taking your figures, an allotment yields about 43% more than arable per unit area, but it uses around a hundred times more labour so it’s labour productivity is miserable by comparison. Of course, that certainly isn’t a fair comparison, firstly because the arable is a high (fossil) energy input system and secondly because ultimately it’s both total (or average) and marginal labour productivity that matters. In that context, it’s important to know what the marginal labour inputs behind Martin Crawford’s ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘intensive’ are (How intensive? Do they involve different sorts of plantings, such as annual staples? Do they refer to domestic or commercial labour? And so on). I agree that we have to give forest gardeners time to catch up with the canniness of swidden practitioners. Once again, I’d reiterate that nothing I’ve said is intended to suggest that forest gardens shouldn’t be planted or can’t be a useful part of the farmed landscape. But forest gardeners will only get canny about returns to marginal labour if they actually think about it as an issue, which rarely seems to be the case at present (that’s why Holmgren’s ‘maximum yield fallacy’ discussion is disappointing). And perhaps there may be intrinsic limits even then, as in the case of Indonesian swidden – though I can think of reasons why temperate forest gardens may turn out to have better marginal labour productivities than swidden. But the reason I discussed Geertz’s analysis is that it’s an actual historical example of the balance between ‘forest gardening’ and intensive gardening in a low energy context – and what happened in Indonesia is interesting in that context don’t you think?

    3. Yes I agree that global agriculture isn’t designed to keep us healthy. But I don’t particularly see the relevance of that to my post. One of the most fundamental factors underlying good health is whether you have enough to eat, including whether you’re getting enough calories. This is a problem that very few of us currently face in the UK, but it’s a situation that we might face in the future. Given that there are likely to be a lot of people around for some time to come who will strive to feed themselves however they can, and given that there may be less cheap energy around in the future available to help them, then it’s worth thinking about what kind of agricultures might be optimal in that situation, and it’s helpful to look at similar situations in the past from which we might learn. I think Geertz provides an interesting analysis of such a situation. I think your own experiments in providing for yourselves are also interesting, but I’d be cautious about extrapolating from them without more of an analysis of marginal labour productivity and embodied costs. Suppose you had to feed an additional two or three households from your land area (with the concomitant increase in labour) – could you do it adequately on the basis of your fruit-rich, starch-poor diet? The answer may depend on what other commitments you had (of which more in the next post) – but I think it may be more of a struggle than intensifying cultivation of starchy staples. And if you couldn’t adequately feed the extra households from your plot, then your nutritionally superior diet would turn out to be nutritionally inferior in actuality. There doesn’t seem to be much good data around on marginal labour productivity to illuminate such questions, but I think it would be useful if we started building up a picture of the marginal returns to labour of various different sustainable-ish growing systems.

    5 (hey, what happened to 4?) – yes I agree that running grain surpluses can be a good idea, though I’m not sure why you say it sounds like a forest garden – unless forest gardens have now copyrighted the concept of a surplus?

    • Blunt yes, incisive maybe but perhaps not clear and concise so I’ll try that approach. This may therefore appear even more blunt, sorry.
      If I understand you correctly you are asking whether local population increases may be accommodated by increased agricultural productivity achieved through more labour intensive agricultural practices. You cite the Indonesian rice growing as an historical example and start to suggest that the same may be true of our staple crops.
      I don’t agree that the historical example is valid because I suspect that the “success” of Sawah has been bought by increased human and environmental impoverishment. The increased population cannot live by rice alone and even if a range of crops are susceptible to the same returns to marginal labour the environmental cost of this activity should not be ignored (or I would argue accepted).
      In our case the environmental and human impoverishment has already gone beyond that which should be regarded as acceptable. So why not ask the question – can we increase productivity by throwing manpower at it in order to improve our diets and return some agricultural land to the other species inhabiting our environment?
      If Martin Crawford’s data is correct one way to do this is to adopt intensive forest gardening.
      If you insist on trying to answer your initial question you must extend your analysis beyond staples to cover the full range of necessary agricultural crops if you hope to get a meaningful answer. And you should make sure that you investigate the other capital expenditure (human and environmental) that is required to achieve your goal.
      The original point 4 was deleted because it was too blunt!

  4. Paul, I think you may be misunderstanding my point, so I’ll try to be clear too – concise is harder.

    First, Geertz argues that sawah IS less ecologically destructive than swidden beyond a certain level of population density. No doubt you’re right to raise the question of agricultural productivity in its totality, rather than just the staples, and Geertz is a bit vague on the details. However, bear in mind that sawah peasants don’t just grow rice, and that swidden peasants do grow starchy annual staples. More importantly, I don’t think you can simply assume a priori that swidden is ecologically (or economically) less destructive than sawah. If Geertz’s analysis is right empirically, then presumably we could agree that replacing swidden with sawah at higher population densities was a good move.

    You say ‘why not ask the question – can we increase productivity by throwing manpower at it in order to improve our diets and return some agricultural land to other species’? Why not indeed, but what if the answer is no? Or if we can only do so under conditions of diminishing labour productivity, which would lead to some difficult trade-offs? That’s essentially the problem I’m trying to pose in my post.

    Bear in mind that my analysis did NOT compare staples with forest gardens – it compared (albeit not very illuminatingly) two staples (wheat and potatoes) with another one (rice) to ask whether the marginal labour productivity Geertz claimed for rice might also hold with temperate staple crops. Still, I agree – I ought to extend the marginal labour analysis to cover the full range of necessary agricultural crops and other capital inputs. But then so should forest gardeners, and they generally don’t. My punt is that they might not like the results.

    On that score, I’d like to know more about the marginal labour returns and the crops associated with an intensive temperate forest garden, but until I do I’m afraid I can’t help being a little sceptical that it produces more than double the food energy per unit area of allotment gardening without either a heavy labour input or by including annual staples in its design. If the former, then you’d need to ask if that labour mightn’t be better devoted to something else (it’s not as if forest gardens are the only reasonably sustainable way of growing things). If the latter, in temperate climes I can’t see in what sense you’d call it forest gardening – though it could certainly be part of an integrated design which included a forest gardening element. If I’m wrong, well that’s great – perhaps the future agricultural crisis is averted. But overall I think we face complex optimisation problems across labour, resource inputs, unit area productivity and system resilience. Surely we need to look at these without assuming a priori that any one cultivation system will be superior across the board?

    The sawah/swidden comparison with forest garden/garden breaks down I think because swidden is an agriculture of the forest, whereas both temperate gardening and forest gardening are essentially both agricultures of cleared horticultural land. I think there’s likely to be scope in the future for both gardens and forest gardens, but I also suspect that under future scenarios with more Malthusian pressures of population and resource constraint many existing forest garden designs will fall by the wayside. There can be lots of different and worthwhile reasons to plant forest gardens, but if they ignore marginal labour productivity I doubt many of these designs will stand the test of time. That, at any rate, is something that I’d like to see discussed more widely.

    Maybe it’s best to think of forest gardens in the context of orchards, as indeed you suggested in your first comment, because there are various reasons for thinking that they do a better job at fruit production than orchard monocultures. That, however, doesn’t seem to be quite the way that the issue is currently presented.

  5. I am resurrecting an old thread here, but I think the readers need to understand a particular concept that gets overlooked when we get analytical.

    My point is that the primary product of any living system is water, air, and carbon capture. These primary yields sustain all life on this planet from the small to the large.

    It is by imposing our fictitious and fantastical human conventions that we inadvertently change the order of things. Very few people talk of this order, and I believe it is because we do not want to be bound by anything (be held to any objective standard other than the ones we create for ourselves).

    Until humans can come to acknowledge that these flows of energy in nature are of primary importance, that we will continue to degrade and marginalize our planet regardless of swidden or sawah. Both systems become unsustainable when viewed with the objective order.

    I also wish to add that you are a fantastic writer, and are very courteous and engaging with your replies.

    I posit that the primary problem with comparing agricultural systems is an ethical one that comes from distorted individual world views regarding humans and the physical world:

    No systems are made accountable to their impact, within a human time scale. All systems end up stealing the beauty and good of the living world from future generations in some way. We have been moving the goal post. It is high time we moved it back.

    Food for thought.


    • Thanks for that Rylan and for your generous remarks. It’s a long time since I wrote that piece so I’ll have to look at it again and remember what I was saying! But, yes, food for thought indeed…

  6. Pingback: Old posts from “Darwinian Agriculture” blog at the University of Minnesota

  7. That’s an old post, but I’ll add my bits.

    Top recorded apple orchard yield is 150 tones per hectare. That was also in New Zealand. Keep in mind that was with high fertilizer inputs and all that. On calories basics that is out-yielding 15 tones of wheat (but probably being on the lower side on protein). But then you can grow something after you harvest potatoes, cover crop for soil improvement or fodder for animals – that’s extra food too…

    Will forest garden ever yield as much calories as potatoes? That’s possible with more labor, that could:
    -control gees or goats
    – weeding (chop and drop, recycling humanure)
    -foliar fertilization every 3-4 days

    …all that stuff that could make sense if the price of fertilizers and food wouldn’t be so cheep. But it is, so it doesn’t make sense to do most of that (unless you are a hobby farmer/gardener).

    Much more food could be grown in UK (or many other countries) if the price of food would go up. It’s just not economical.

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