Edible forests

Yes, this is something completely different, but I wanted to get away, just for a little while, from “who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out”, and consider a subject that’s beautiful and long-lasting and useful and tasty; and something that’s maybe in the political economy of all our futures, if we’re lucky: Edible forests (also called food forests).

The Beacon Food Forest project will be breaking ground in Seattle this summer. Here’s one example of a food forest, maybe something like what they hope to achieve:


[GEOFF LAWTON] This is another interesting system that we’ve been lucky enough to visit in Vietnam, about seven hours south of Hanoi in the province of Ha Tinh. And one day, when we were investigating different areas of the landscape and culture, we were asked if there was anything else we’d like to visit, or anything we that could be helped with, as far as getting a better record of traditional systems. And I’m always interested in old suburbs, because there’s often very interesting little events and happy little accidents that happen in suburbs, because the microclimate of the buildings and the streets. That’s why I’d like to see an old suburb, and so I could just do a check on the possibilities of different trees and different systems that might have been established. Well, this was interpreted in a form that was quite different to old suburbs that we understand in Australia or most of the developed world.

When we entered the village, all the streets were extremely small. And our guests and administrators of the project took us through to this little garden, and it was a complete established food forest. […]

And it was extremely well-established. Small gardens, vegetables, underneath fruit trees, large fruit trees, palms, climbing productive plants like black pepper, specific gardens with pineapples, tumeric, […] onions, borders with herbs, bananas, papayas, many varieties of fruit trees in the understory, emergent palms coming out of the canopy, small animals, even a small grazing cow under the canopy, deer in a compound, which they used for their horns as a medicinal harvest.

And the old gentleman and his wife were processors for food for their meal, they showed us around, and I casually asked, How long had it been there, how long has this system been established, and it turns out — about two acres of ground, probably a little bit less — it’s been in the family for twenty-eight generations. So it’s a completely different timescale of establishment, because everything has been tried and tested. The bees’ hives, the natural bees’ hives in hollow logs, all the medicinal plants, every plant, every tree, in the system had a use, had a story, and if it wasn’t a specific, regularly used food, it was a very specific medicine or herbal tonic.

The knowledge was just encyclopedic. You could write a book just on this one small garden. This gentleman and his wife were both in their eighties, and their varieties of fruit trees had also been there for so long, and their older varieties had been well tried and tested, they’re actually used now as reference to the modernized area where people are coming back to these more stable, more traditional, and in some ways a lot more productive per square meter complicated layered food forest systems. And they come back for reference material asking if they could share some of their genetic material, because they now realized it’s actually a much more energy efficient system, because they put in very little work, for the amount of return they get. And the return is constant, it’s daily, it’s continuous. It’s just about every meal that they eat, and all their medicine contained within their garden.

For me, it was an absolute shock to try and understand the timescale of the establishment I was looking at. This is something that was literally off my scale. I couldn’t really see the way this had been established it had been there so long, and it was very hard to see the interaction between the system and the people, because they were literally so casual and so productive: An absolute pleasure to visit it. It’s the second time I’ve visited this garden, and every time we’re made very welcome, and every time we learn more about how to approach design in an established form.

A wonderful example of tropical food forest. This is a view of the past, and a view of the future. Any possible future we have is in the sustainable suburbs of the food forest. We had it before, we’ll have to have it again.

How rare in this life is “absolute pleasure”! And while the lifespan of the average oh-so-important multinational inhuman entity is 40 or 50 years, this quarter acre garden has lasted six times longer. Indeed, and thinking back to the pioneers in Seattle, an excellent litmus test for any political economy would be whether it permits edible forests to survive and thrive. (I certainly hope Monsanto doesn’t catch wind of this; they’d welcome the chance to put the old gentleman and wife in debt!) How rare, as well, is systems thinking.

Now, if I didn’t know who Geoff Lawton was (interview) I might be inclined to dismiss the video as New Age hokum, even if he is Australian. But I’ve also read Charles Mann’s 1491*, about “pre-Columbian” [cough] culture in the Americas, and it includes these amazing passages on the Amazon rain forest, which, as it turns out, was also edible. From page 306 forward:

According to Charles R. Clement, anthropological botanist at the Brazilian National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) in Manaus [the approach of the first Amazonians was not] to clear the forest but to replace it with one adapted to human use. They set up shop on the bluffs that mark the edge of high water — close enough to the river to fish, far enough to avoid the flood. And then, rather than centering their agriculture on annual crops, they focused on the Amazon’s wildly diverse assortment of trees. …

Of the 138 known domesticated plant species in the Amazon, more than half are trees. (Depending on the definition of “domesticated,” the figure could be as high as 80%.) Sapodilla, calabash, and tucumai; babacu, acai, and wild pineapple; cocopalm, American-oil palm, and Panama-hat palm — the Amazon’s wealth of fruits, nuts, and palms is justly celebrated. “Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the forest here and constantly pick fruit from trees,” Clement said. “That’s because people planted them. They’re walking through old orchards.” …

Planting their orchards for millenia, the first Amazonians slowly transformed large swaths of the river basin into something more pleasing to human beings. In the country inhabited by the Ka’apor, on the mainland southeast of Marajo, centuries of tinkering have profoundly changed the forest community. In the country inhabited by the Ka’apor, on the mainland south of Marajo, centuries of tinkering have profoundly changed the forest community. In Ka’apor-managed forests, according the Balée’s plant inventories, almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food. In similar forests that have not recently been managed, the figure is only 20 percent. Balée cautiously estimated, in a widely cited article published in 1989, that at least 11.8 percent, about an eighth, of the non-flooded Amazon was “anthropogenic” — directly or indirectly created by humans. [Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania] told me in Bolivia that the low-land tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet.

So, no wonder edible forests can give us absolute pleasure! And not a smidge of petroleum in sight, either. Funny, that.

So, having led you up the garden path, I’d like to circle back to political economy one last time, scattering some random thoughts:

1. Pleasure is important. So far as I can tell, our current dispensation don’t produce pleasure nearly as well as it produces, say, high fructose corn syrup, “innovative financial products,” anti-depressants, and debt slavery. But other arrangements can do better!

2. Begone, Thomas Malthus. I don’t accept the idea that we must have a massive human die-off to save the planet. (On bad days, I think that not only does the 1% of the 1% believe this, they’re engineering it.) Looking at edible forests, it seems clear to me that we have barely begun to work on systems that can sustain us all. Wildly optimistic? Perhaps!

3. To euthanize rentiers, abolish rents. In Seattle, Vietnam, and in the Amazon, you aren’t forced to cut some robber baron his 5% from the fruit you pluck from a tree. Isn’t that how life should be?

NOTE * Some miscellaneous material on 1491 from one of Brad DeLong’s classes.

UPDATE Cross-posted to Corrente.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. deeringothamnus

    On food forests, you also see similiar things in other places, China, Europe,the Amazon jungle, the deep South in the US,etc. where people planted pecans, chestnuts, walnuts, pears, etc. a long time ago, which in places look like a natural forest but aren’t. There is great potential for this concept in the temperate zone. The emergent trees could be your nut crops, like pecans, Japanese heartnuts, black walnut, etc. The understory could be shade tolerant fruits and herbs like paw paw, , fuki,parsely, water cress, coriander, may apples, hardy bamboo and others. Persimmon is another emergent tree that does not need much care. Vines like grapes and hardy kiwi can twine up the large trees. Horace describes the culture of grapes in ancient Rome in this manner, still done in parts of Europe. Black locust can provide edible flowers. Cedrilla provides edible leaves. Cornel cherries, aronia, currents,bluberries, for more fruit. Akebia is another vine with fruit and edible leaves. Kudzu provides a huge root as a source of starch, and may not be as invasive further north. This is only a sample of what may be grown. None of the above is very maintenance intensive or needs to be sprayed. Anyone living in suburbs can plant this now, and give trees away to friends to get a barter economy going.

    Japanese fiber banana “Musa Basjoo” is a great thing for any gardener to plant, up to zone 5, for use as paper plates. It makes a very elegant serving dish, and saves water, detergent, and energy. likewise, bamboo may be cut into chopsticks.

  2. Morning Herbs

    We need a revolution, anti-depressants and debt salvery are themselves class trappings. ” ‘Muricans are living on borrowed time, economically. What remains of our prosperity will be violently stripped away. and don’t think for a moment that this isn’t by design.” – Linh Dinh

        1. different clue

          Beavers build dams to block little streams into big ponds so they can escape predation and swim around to all their favorite beaver trees.

          What arrogance on the part of those beavers, to think they can actually dam a stream with a bunch of tree trunks.
          Oh wait! They just did! Over and over, actually. Well shame on those beavers, daring to arrogantly control nature like that.

          1. F. Beard

            Man is merely an animal or he isn’t.

            If he is then everything he does is natural. So what is the basis of your complaint?

          2. Skippy



            : based on an inherent sense of right and wrong
            a : being in accordance with or determined by nature b : having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature
            a (1) : begotten as distinguished from adopted; also : legitimate (2) : being a relation by actual consanguinity as distinguished from adoption b : illegitimate
            : having an essential relation with someone or something : following from the nature of the one in question
            : implanted or being as if implanted by nature : seemingly inborn

            : of or relating to nature as an object of study and research
            : having a specified character by nature

            a : occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural b : formulated by human reason alone rather than revelation c : having a normal or usual character
            : possessing or exhibiting the higher qualities (as kindliness and affection) of human nature

            a : growing without human care; also : not cultivated b : existing in or produced by nature : not artificial c : relating to or being natural food
            a : being in a state of nature without spiritual enlightenment : unregenerate b : living in or as if in a state of nature untouched by the influences of civilization and society
            a : having a physical or real existence as contrasted with one that is spiritual, intellectual, or fictitious
            b : of, relating to, or operating in the physical as opposed to the spiritual world
            a : closely resembling an original : true to nature b : marked by easy simplicity and freedom from artificiality, affectation, or constraint c : having a form or appearance found in nature

            Skip here… which usage or combination of, do your infer?

            “Man is merely an animal or he isn’t.”…. Beard.

            Definition of Animal


            An organized living being endowed with sensation and the power of voluntary motion, and also characterized by taking its food into an internal cavity or stomach for digestion; by giving carbonic acid to the air and taking oxygen in the process of respiration; and by increasing in motive power or active aggressive force with progress to maturity.
            One of the lower animals; a brute or beast, as distinguished from man; as, men and animals.
            Of or relating to animals; as, animal functions.
            Pertaining to the merely sentient part of a creature, as distinguished from the intellectual, rational, or spiritual part; as, the animal passions or appetites.
            Consisting of the flesh of animals; as, animal food.

            Skippy…. It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions… Mark Twain.

          3. crzchn

            I think man is the only animal that has the capacity to think, nay, imagine, he is not an animal and not subject to natural laws. Animal, after all, is just a human concept that we do not even share with the chimps.

            We can imagine also that our capacities as humans can be an evolutionary fault rather than a benefit. We are just children when compared to the understanding of the crocodile.

            Permaculture is hope dope for a species that can imagine its own death.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, thank you. I was gobsmacked to see the video, myself. Since most the rentier media almost seems designed to enslave us to fear or anger — and whatever “consumer products” assuage those terrible feelings* — it’s really a pleasure (that word again) to come across material that’s deigned to teach and share and empower. I know that sounds patchouli-esque, but you know what I mean.

      NOTE * As Bush said after 9/11, in his (by comparison) honest and open way, “Get down to Disney World in Florida.”

      1. Carla

        Thank you so much, Lambert, for sharing this remarkable video and your additional insights on edible forests. Amazing and life-affirming.

        1. Bev

          This is another very similar project for fish and fish ponds designed along a hillside:

          Austrian Alpine Aquaculture

          By Meara O’Reilly at 8:13 pm Friday, Mar 26
          There’s been a lot of press about Aquaponics and sustainable fish farming cropping up lately, so I wanted to share this astonishingly beautiful example:

          Sepp Holzer lives on a mountaintop in Austria, where he casually but thoughtfully manages a fish farm that provides all of his food, clean water, income, and electricity through nothing but a series of carefully placed pond systems. Gravity pulls the water from pond to pond, and little micro-organism-eating fish are gradually replaced by bigger and bigger predatory fish until he has clean water and full-sized trout! It’s so simple it might seem like magic, but it’s actually cooler than that.




  3. Frank

    Thank you for the great link. Want to highlight an incredibly important issue that is taking place now in California. Voters’ signatures are being gathered to
    put on the next ballot the question of whether all
    genetically modified food that is sold shall be labeled.

    i.e.”these teething bisquits contain Brazil nut genes, Roundup Ready corn, 2-4-D doused Soy and other genetically modified products”

    Gee, wonder if the new mom will skip those and go to the organic ones that cannot contain any of them?

    As goes California, so goes the nation.


      1. different clue

        Much of life is a mixed bucket of shit and shinola. One has to pick through the shit to find the shinola. No point feeling guilty or dirty.

        1. JTFaraday

          You just can’t say things like that with Rick “Santorum” in the news everyday.

          I’m going to have to draw the line until the madness passes.

    1. different clue

      Well at least pay New Mom the respect of giving her an informed choice and the information to make it with. And if enough New Moms publiclly say: we will pay for FrankenFree teething biscuits if someone will make them to sell . . . . someone may very well make them to sell.

  4. Middle Seaman

    The book “1491” contains many lessons we should take to heart. Edible vegetation is available in less exutic places. PBS has shown a series of visits the chef Tom English took to places all over the world. When he visited Israel, a rather water scarce place, someone took him around the woods and showed him many edible or medicinal natural plants. (In particular he saw a cure all herb that cure every ill “except a broken heart.”)

  5. underwateFL

    Thanks Lambert!

    When I lived in Florida a neighbor who grew up in rural Georgia had the most amazing green thumb. On a plot of land only slightly larger than an average suburban lot, she yielded collard greens, cabbage, lettuce,citrus, papaya, pineapple, avocado with plenty of medicinal herbs. I’d wonder past her yard in awe bemoaning the fact that we’ve all become grocery store slaves.

  6. Elliot

    What works in Seattle or other frost free climates works on a smaller scale in frost-bound ones, you know. Much smaller.
    But then with the climate warming, that will even out I suppose.

    And having seen how much room it takes in a frost-bound climate to raise enough food to feed a family, I’m not so certain you can kiss Malthus good-bye, no matter how comfy it makes city dwellers.
    Round here, in the wilds, we’re not so fond of the idea of plowing it all down for the convenience of the incontinent, and having seen the glacial soils on the mountain above me, I can say that they wouldn’t support that kind of food production anyway.

    But it’s a nice fantasy.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, it’s a bright sunny morning, so I’d like to substitute “Let’s take a shot!” for “fantasy.”

      Up here in the great state of Maine, where I am most definitely not a city dweller, season extension is huge, and there’s a lot of care being put into it, and with some success.

  7. Paul Tioxon

    Orchards? My family’s back yard had in my lifetime alone, 1 apple tree, more than 5 different peach trees with at least 2 fruit bearing trees at any given time over a 60 year period of family ownership. That does not even begin to describe all of the tomatoes, green beans, peppers, eggplant scallions etc that came out of the ground. I really miss big red Jersey tomatoes direct from the vine in the back yard. Yea, more zucchini than you can shake a stick at.

  8. LeonovaBalletRusse

    NC readers, did you catch the MONEY QUOTE?

    “We asked if they’d give us some of their GENETIC materials.”

    If obtained, will these *genetic materials* be patented by a Private Monopolist?

    What do you think is the likely outcome, given today’s *economic* environment, with its “perverse incentives” (Bill Black)?

    1. Rehabber

      He’s looking for heritage stock – sort of like adding to the seed bank of gowing food uncorrupted by Monsanto.

  9. different clue

    There is also this Moroccan Food Forest video by Geoff Lawton also.

    You Tube is just full of these videos. People should watch them and learn before the internets go dark intermittently and then go dark for good.

    Here is a whole other interesting permaculture reading source called Permaculture Reflections.

    A particular interesting article they wrote was about fuel
    trees which could be worked up into fuel forests, or the fuel component of mixed fuel-food forests.

    See what I mean about interesting material all over the web? This sort of thing should be read and thousands of copies made by thousands of people onto dead tree paper before the web goes dark and takes all this information with it into the darkness.

  10. rd

    Several times Charles Mann’s 1491 has been referenced. I also suggest Douglas Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home” be added to the reading mix. It’s focus is the importance of native vegetation to maintaining eco-systems and the importance of suburbia plantings in that quest.

    Instead of manicured lawns, a garden can be readily converted into something that will provide real ecological benefit as well as having plants that can provide food. My garden has been heading in that direction for a decade now with the simple addition of a couple of walnut trees, edible oaks, hazelnuts & filberts etc.

    Please note that this requires foresight and patience as it takes at least a decade for these trees and shrubs to become productive citizens as they have to reach sexual maturity and then become large enough to produce significant edible bio-mass. However, most of these plants are likely to be producing at or close to peak for decades.

    Unfortunately, most people view their gardens as an extension of their living room, designed for appearance with little functionality, and not for active use by generations of people.

    BTW, the native populations in North America also did extensive management of their forests with extensive planting of nut trees and maintaining the forests through the use of fire.

    1. rd

      I think one of the major problems is that most people in the developed world have lost connection with the land and manufacturing as a source of necessary products. It is now possible to live a completely sanitized life where you don’t even have to see the factories or farms anymore. A couple of generations ago, a high percentage of the population had family in farming, resource extraction or manufacturing. That has rapidly declined. “The Toaster Project” by Thomas Thwaites is an interesting look at how separated we are from the origins of the products that we use as he makes a toaster from raw materials (including smelting his own ore).

      We demand inexpensive products and then whine about labor and environmental conditions in China. Um…why do we think those factories are over there instead of here?

      We have people flying around in private jets complaining about fuel consumption and global warming. Similarly, we complain about high gas prices and then lobby against a new oil pipeline (some minor re-routing was a good idea, but the issue went hyperbolic)

      I think an under-rated source of inflation over the coming decades will be the growing realization of the people in the countries that received our exported jobs that they want better working and environmental conditions. That will drive additional costs into the process.

      1. different clue

        We did not demand those products to begin with. The OverClass moved our factories there to begin with and then sold underpriced products to American buyers. Shame on those people who bought cheap Chinese when they still could have bought expensive American? Well, yes. But how about when we were given no choice at all? When whole industries were carefully shut down and totally dismantled here, packed into crates and shipped to China (or Mexico or wherever), and then “re-mantled” there? Does one blame ordinary Americans for that? That doesn’t seem very fair.

        I still buy things based on job-doer value over shareholder value even if the higher job-doer value means a higher price. That is because I live alone with no dependents and I can afford to do that when the choice even exists. But if a whole industry has been carefully exterminated in America and moved to AntiAmerica on purpose by the OverClass to work the differential-costs-arbitrage rackets, then my choices are to either buy the thing from AntiAmerica or go without it altogether. Some things are easy enough to go without . . . like eyepodpads and such toys . . . but some things are harder to go without . . . like desktop computers.

  11. craazyman

    This stuff is kind of creepy. It makes me think that trees are really in control of a higher reality we can’t perceive, and all we are is slaves to their care and feeding. And they drop a fruit or two just to keep us in business. haha

    1. different clue

      If we are their slaves, then they will try to keep us alive to serve their needs . . . those of us who DO serve their needs. So that may be a key to survival . . submission to our woody perennial overlords.

  12. Skippy

    Loved and used the freestanding edible gardens in Costa Rica and other sub tropical locations.

    Skippy… Lemons the size and taste of pink grapefruit, skin was edible too!

  13. Francois T

    Few people realize how beneficial edible forests would be to mitigate the effects of climate destabilization.

    Produce edible and sustainable forests, cut and USE the wood for building and countless other high-tech uses, which keep CO2 stable while planting and harvesting which increases O2 production and CO2 fixation. BTW a growing tree fixate 6 times more CO2 than a mature tree.

  14. Fiver

    Very neat. You could almost imagine “talking to animals” in a setting like that. It’s always amazing to see examples of how much better other humans, in other places and times, have been in creating very sophisticated modes of living that much more elegantly “work” than our own.

  15. LRT

    This is an amazing thread. It is indeed nice to have a few fruit trees, and it is indeed true that with a lot of work one can grow much of the vegetables one needs in a fairly small garden. It takes planning, and it takes work every day, and one is very dependent on chance. Your potato crop gets blight, and you starve. You need to have a cow and chickens, and that’s a lot of work too. And you have to keep off the foxes. But it can be done. Much of Europe lived like this for centuries.

    The problem comes with cereals. You cannot do wheat or rye on this small scale. Then there is grinding it into flour. Then there is fuel. You simply cannot grow enough fuel to keep yourself warm and washed. This is flat out impossible.

    Its quite nice to go look at these kind of demonstration projects, but to think they have any bearing on feeding the people we have is just nuts. Self sufficiency is another word for subsistence agriculture, and it is basically back breaking, low productivity work, all day, every day.

    And besides, how do you get the money to subscribe to the internet?

    1. different clue

      Painfully good set of questions which do deserve answers and may well require them. Hopefully smarter people than me will offer answers over the next day or so. If not, then I’ll stumble around offering a few tentative replies.

  16. Kakko

    The video brings out a deep sense of longing for a more simple yet pleasant life forgotten in the rat race. Even the 1% longs for it (reminds me of the story of the Wall Street banker and Mexican fisherman).

    I have 3 concerns:
    1) How well are the deer treated?
    2) The “small” farmland seems to be several acres. On a large scale how practical would it be?
    3) The last line opened my eyes:
    3. To euthanize rentiers, abolish rents. In Seattle, Vietnam, and in the Amazon, you aren’t forced to cut some robber baron his 5% from the fruit you pluck from a tree. Isn’t that how life should be?

    Now organic farmer’s market producers pay the government 1.25% land tax+income tax etc for the fruit from their tree and some places require sales tax on that.

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