The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Tropical forest gardening

Sri Lankan forest gardenOne of my favorite parts of Forest Gardening was its in depth description of several tropical forest gardens.  In locations as diverse as India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Nigeria, Central America, and the Amazon, people have been creating forest gardens for at least a thousand years.

I've described Central American forest gardens and Amazonian forest gardens in the past, and all of the tropical forest gardens seem to be pretty similar.  These forest gardens are usually small --- less than two acres in size --- and are located around the farmers' homesteads where they serve as a kitchen garden.  The many-layered forest includes fruit and nut trees as well as plants that produce timber, fuel, medicines, and other products.  In many cases, some of the trees are cash crops --- coffee, cinnamon, and nutmeg in Sumatra, bananas and coffee in Tanzania.  Most forest garden owners had plots out in the open where they planted cereals and other sun-loving vegetables to supplement their forest garden food.

Alley cropping in the U.S.Forest gardens are often in mountainous areas where tilling the soil would lead to erosion and soil loss.  In fact, a more modern incarnation of forest gardening was developed specifically for this erosion-reducing purpose.  In the 1970s and 80s in Nigeria, B.T. Kang developed a system called alley cropping that consisted of growing cereals and vegetables in strips between leguminous trees on hillsides.  The trees prevented erosion and fertilized the crops by fixing nitrogen.  The trees were also pruned heavily, with the cut branches used as mulch in the annual garden and as garden stakes, firewood, and fodder.

Why was forest gardening so widespread in the tropics but not in temperate regions?  The fact is that many useful tropical plants will fruit in the semi-shaded understory, while most temperate fruits need full sun to grow.  In addition, the light in the tropics is intense enough to enable tropical forest gardeners to grow traditional vegetables like beans, tomatoes, and corn in the understory of an open forest, another element that won't work here.  Developing a temperate forest gardening system was the challenge that Robert Hart and later pioneers faced.

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This post is part of our Robert Hart's Forest Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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In most tropical countries where land is in abundance, you can hardly see any homes without any fruit trees or vegetation growing in the backyard too.
Comment by Paul Salisbury Wed Apr 27 23:13:06 2011
I think that people in tropical countries are, by necessity, homesteaders in many ways. Of course, I know that if I could have a banana and orange tree in my backyard, I would, no matter how much money I made! :-)
Comment by anna Thu Apr 28 07:25:25 2011

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