Staying grounded: Food Forestry Lessons from Brambles

Written by: Fiona Loomis, intern at Het Schippershuis from september 2020-february 2021

I arrived at the food forests of Het Schippershuis with a backpack full of romantic ideas and enthusiasm. How can one not be idealistic when food forests are agricultural systems that aim to be self-sustaining, to host large numbers of biodiversity all-the-while having high food production? This magic is achieved by planting seven plant layers together, from large trees to ground-covers and climbers, in order to mimic the beneficial interactions that are found in natural ecosystems.

Creating and maintaining a food forest involves myriad different activities, some of which are romantic, and some a little less so… but all of which have lessons to teach us.

Clearing the ground

The time-consuming and hard work of clearing a piece of land of undesired herbs or invasive plants can be a substantial part of the start-up process. At one of locations of Het Schippershuis, one part of the land, a young regular forest to be turned around to a food forest, was overgrown with Bramble bushes (Rubus Fruticosus). These had to be cleared to make room for new species: a not-so-romantic task.

Changing perspectives

Before beginning, I thought rather negatively of these Brambles because of their sharp prickles and the amount of space they covered. However, while working on clearing these brambles, I discovered a different perspective.

Anyone who has ever cleared Brambles knows how frustrating and difficult a job it can be. Nonetheless, if you consider them for what they are, which is a pioneering species, it is quite wonderful! Brambles are helpful as they stimulate the growth of young trees by creating the right soil conditions and by protecting them from rabbits thanks to their prickles. Brambles are incredibly strong, with long roots and a clever growth system. Young branches shoot out of the ground and can set new roots from the nodes that are at their end. By doing so, Brambles create dense, strong bushes with arched branches and dozens of root anchorage points. Covering the whole network of branches is an intricate layer of leaves which create a protective mesh. The leaves themselves are delicate and when young and fresh, delicious to eat or use for tea.

Food forest creation: Strongly rooting delicate values

I like to think of my experience of partaking in the creation of the food forests of Het Schippershuis in terms of the structure of a Bramble bush. There are two parts to the work we have been doing.

Firstly, there is the theoretical and creative side, which involves thinking, planning, imagining and sometimes dreaming. This part can be compared with the Bramble leaves.

The second part is the practical aspect of a food forest, involving physical work, and this I will compare with the root anchorage points of Brambles. These two parts work together to create a strong organism.

The theoretical and creative aspect of making a food forest are crucial, as the valuable systems that are being created are complex and require creativity and imagination. Food forests are systems that are full of interactions that often cannot be seen with the naked eye, and it is through research that these interactions come to light. In order to design a food forest, it is necessary to combine knowledge from research with imagination of what the food forest could look like in five or ten or even fifty years. It is only through reading, researching and imagining that the food forest can be theoretically designed. Thus, to return to my Bramble theory, the theoretical aspect of creating a food forest might be compared to the leaf layer of a blackberry bush: a bundle of delicate, interdependent facts, figures, insights and images that have created a beautiful and delicate mesh of expertise and visions, all in our heads.

Growth system of brambles (picture from NC State Extension Publications)

However, without their strong root system, Bramble leaves would be eaten or blown away. In this analogy, it is impossible to create a food forest, or to be part of any agriculture system, with only theoretical facts and figures and images. In my experience, the physical work involved in the food forest, with all its rich sensory input, has given solidity (roots) to the theoretical world of facts and images. I have learned that ultimately the most effective way to understand plants and interactions within food forests is to simply be there, observe, do and use all senses. Since a food forest is a three-dimensional living organism, no amount of two-dimensional knowledge will suffice to understand its workings. When trying to apply it in reality, the knowledge in books can often seem simplistic, or dualistic or on the contrary, too complex to fathom. However, when working on the land, the complex workings of Nature gradually become evident and more readily understandable. And now the human interventions can become more subtle and effective.

Working with nature, enhancing what’s already there: Hedge Woundwort

One example of such an experience for me, was the discovery of a patch of wild “Bosandoorn” or Hedge Wounwort (Stachys Sylvatica) on one part of the food forest. This plant looks a lot like Stinging Nettles or White Dead Nettles, but has its own special story.

Hedge Woundwort (Bosandoorn) in bloom

Hedge Woundwort has a strong scent and flavor, tending towards the taste of mushrooms, which many find unappealing, and has soft leaves covered in a thin peach fuzz-like layer.

Hedge Woundwort can be used medicinally to heal wounds, as an antiseptic, and it can stop bleeding. It is also shown to help with menstrual pain and aching joints. If made into a distilled water, the plant has also been shown to have uplifting effects on the spirit. And of particular interest to us, Hedge Woundwort can be dried and used as a flavorful herb in cooking. Who would have known that this plant to whom few pay attention to, has so many properties!

After we spotted of a few patches of wild Hedge Woundwort and researched its properties, it was decided to clear away the Stinging nettles and Brambles growing above it, so it would have more room to expand. Permaculture and Food Forest philosophy have for foundation to “Work with Nature, rather against it”. To me, this seemed logical and positive, but I had little idea how that was done in practice. However, the patch where the Hedge Woundwort was located was a perfect example.

Fiona and Yvonne are clearing brambles and nettles to give way to the hedge woundwort

Clusters of woundwort interspersed with wild fennel

After some hours of cutting and digging past Brambles and Stinging Nettles, we discovered that underneath was, not only Hedge Woundwort but also wild Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), White Dead Nettles (witte dovenetel, Lamium album), along with Creeping Charly (hondsdraf, Nepeta or Glechoma hederacea) and some occasional Ground Elder (zevenblad, Aegopodium podagraria). All of these species are not only delicious, but have numerous other properties!

After clearing the patch of most of the stronger invasive species, we encouraged the other species to breathe and grow. Our contribution gave a boost to already-growing plants, aiming their growth in the direction that would benefit us as harvesters and the species which are now receiving more sunlight and air. In just a few weeks after the clearing, the Hedge Woundwort has doubled the ground it covers, and the plants have grown larger. Had we not researched the properties of Hedge Woundwort, we might have pulled it out or ignored it entirely, missing out on its contribution to our food forest.

Combining knowledge and practice to form lasting human-plant companionships…

To me, this shows the importance of combining theory and practice and working with what Nature is already offering us. Just as Brambles combine delicate leaves with strong roots, we combine knowledge with practice, and the result is a resilient and abundant system. After all, food forests are meant to be places where all beings of Nature can benefit, including humans from its delicious food and beauty.

Plant-human companionships in the food forest (drawing by author)

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