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Farming the Woods

Farming the WoodsI have a love-hate relationship with books from Chelsea Green. Their titles are so enticing...but the price tags are daunting and about half of the books ultimately disappoint once I crack them open. Farming the Woods by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel was partially inspiring and partially disappointing, with a dry and academic tone and far too much basic information, but with beautiful pictures and hands-on information that made reading worthwhile.

The most helpful part of the book was the authors' realistic notations on which plants will really produce in the shade. Despite forest-gardening literature to the contrary, Mudge and Gabriel report that in a woodland setting with more than 40% canopy cover, the only species that reliably bear fruit are pawpaws, elderberries, ramps, and mushrooms. At 25 to 40% shade, shisandra, hawthorn, currant, gooseberry, honeyberry, hazelnut, juneberry, and groundnut join the mix, although productivity is likely to be significantly lower than yields in full-sun environments. For example, hazelnuts produce about 70% of their optimal yield in 30% shade and 30% of their optimal yield in 90% shade, so you have to decide at which point the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.

Another useful facet of Farming the Woods was the authors' analysis of which non-timber forest products make economic sense. After all, for forest farming to be more than a hobby, landowners need to be given an incentive to keep those trees standing rather than selling them to the local sawmill. Although many non-timber options were presented, the authors felt that the most economically feasible include tapping sugar maples (and possibly birch) for syrup, growing ginseng for roots, and raising shiitakes on logs. In addition, chestnuts and hazelnuts can provide relatively lucrative nut crops, and turning the forest into a nursery for shade-loving ornamentals can also help pay the bills.

In the end, Farming the Woods isn't the must-read permaculture book of the year that I thought it would be, but it's definitely worth at least checking out of your local library. Or maybe you'd like to be the lucky recipient of my lightly read copy? Enter the giveaway below and you may get a copy of your very own for free!

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I attended a workshop by the one author, Steve Gabriel, at this year's PA Assoc. for Sustainable Ag Conference, and my biggest thrill was hearing I could tap black walnut trees to get a syrup similar to maple syrup. I didn't get the spiles in time to try this year, but it's on my list for next since I have many walnut trees and no maples.
Comment by Julie Mason Wed Mar 18 08:17:52 2015
I've been wanting this book. About 80% of our acreage is woods so I'm continuously looking for ideas of how to work with it. Thanks for the review and the giveaway!
Comment by Amy Wed Mar 18 09:54:29 2015
I start my 10.5 acre "forest farm" within the next few weeks. My plan is to cultivate shiitake, oyster, lions mane, and stropharia mushrooms along with some other forest products. Steve Gabriel is a permaculturist who deserves serious notice. I will be attending 10th annual Camp Mushroom (April 24 – 25) at Cornell University’s two-day event for farmers, woodlot owners, and hobby growers who want to cultivate their own forest mushrooms. It is held each year at Cornell’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest located about 20 miles south of Ithaca, NY. Sorry you did not enjoy the book but as you noted, the authors' analysis of which non-timber forest products make economic sense. That's the point. Best wishes as always Ron
Comment by Ron Fri Mar 20 04:42:28 2015
Thanks for the candid book review... I almost bought that book but then backed out at the last minute thinking it might be exactly what you I live without regrets! For real though... I like your blog and It's too bad that the wave of commodification has crashed on the shore of permaculture and radical homesteading. It doesn't make it any less awesome though
Comment by breakfast Sun Mar 22 21:19:50 2015

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime