One of the major differences between Forest Gardens and traditional agricultural systems is the plant diversity found on-farm. Traditional agriculture typically depends on one or two crop species, whereas Forest Gardens are a polycultural agricultural system, meaning they use multiple crops within the same space. This increased plant diversity has many benefits and advantages, such as:
- more reliable products & food available year round
- reduced pressure on surrounding landscapes
- increased habitat for animals on and off-farm
- reduced need for expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides
- an opportunity to provide some of the ecosystem services provided by natural forests
Forests Gardens directly enhance on-farm biodiversity and contribute to the conservation of landscape diversity. At the same time, integrated land use diversifies and sustains rural incomes of the farmers growing them.
Forest Gardens Mean Food Security
Mono-cultural intensive agricultural systems are characterized by one main crop, thereby creating a dependence on the success of that crop for farmer livelihoods. If market demands change, pests and diseases increase, weather is unpredictable, or the soil is depleted, the result can be detrimental. Crop failure means farmers can no longer provide food for their families or income for other essentials like education, medical care or labor.
Diversifying the number of both annual and perennial plant species, especially native ones, develops a more diversified agricultural system. The Forest Garden farming system boasts diversity of species and generates a more stable and dependable income and food.
The Forest Garden can increase access to food and income in an environmentally responsible manner, leading to improved food security and resiliency at the household level. This is achieved by diversification of crops and improved land management techniques. The Forest Garden incorporates fruit, fodder, fuel, fertilizer, medicinal, timber, and other native species of trees and shrubs as well as other food crops together in a strategic, integrated, design. Fresh fruits and vegetables consumed by farmers and their families help vary their diet and improve their nutrition. Surplus of fruits, fuel wood, animal forage and other products are sold or traded to local markets year round.
Forest Gardens Improve Animal Habitat
Many farmers in Africa live in landscapes that are under threat, but act as a rare refuge for the plants and animals that reside in them. For example, the mountains of Cameroon are endowed with very rich biological diversity and hold some of the highest levels of plant and animal densities and endemism in Africa and are home to critically endangered and threatened species.
However, these ecosystems are under intense pressure from local people who depend upon their resources. In order to survive, people resort to subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, the unsustainable harvesting of forest resources, including illegal logging and overgrazing. This results in forest destruction and habitat fragmentation. This, coupled with poaching and the bush meat trade, leads to the extinction of globally threatened flora and fauna, decline in biological diversity, watershed destruction, and degradation of livelihood systems. The impacts are devastating both locally, and globally.
Reducing pressure on these fragile ecosystems by enabling farmers to be self-sufficient is paramount to the success of these ecosystems. Self-sufficiency can be established through increased on-farm plant diversity through Forest Gardens.
One of the most important environmental benefits of Forest Gardens is their ability to maintain biological diversity, particularly in degraded and fragmented landscapes. Forest Gardens can act as refuge for animal populations and may provide a critical habitat function, especially when there are few alternatives. Animals, especially insects, are critical in pollination, which is important for fruit production.
Providing habitat for birds is especially important as birds are often seen as indicators of healthy ecosystems. Bird population fluctuations can be indicative of environmental change, as well as a good measure of Forest Garden success in respect to biological diversity and overall ecosystem health. Birds are also important for restoring degraded lands as they play an important role in seed dispersal and the control of certain pests.
Forest Gardens Decrease Dependence on Chemicals
Farms with very little crop diversity often rely on expensive and often dangerous chemical inputs. Additional fertilizer is constantly needed to maintain yields and pesticides are often needed to combat the diseases that attack mono-cultural agricultural systems. Diversifying cropping systems through Forest Gardens can not only provide natural forms of fertilizer, it can also offer new options for food production and marketable products, not affected by diseases. As many diseases are crop-specific, a diverse cropping system will ensure that some farm products are unaffected by disease, leaving farmers with options for both food and income generation.
Reducing the dependence on chemical inputs is cornerstone to sustainability. The more they are used, the more they are needed. The result is a poverty trap reliant on heavy expenditures and lower crop yields. Throughout the world, impoverished farmers use chemicals without proper training. Intensive improper use of chemicals will eventually have detrimental results on the soil quality. Overuse depletes beneficial soil microorganisms and soil structure, reducing the incentive to add organic material, which is critical in proper soil maintenance. It is a vicious cycle that farmers too often find themselves trapped in.
Forest Gardens Benefit Landscape
When farmers are not able to support themselves or the needs of their families with resources produced on their land, they start exploiting additional natural resources to meet their needs. Depending on the availability of resources in the surrounding landscapes, this pilfering can put a lot of pressure on the plants, animals, and functions of these often fragile and endangered ecosystems.
By providing farmers with the fuel, fodder, medicines, fruits, vegetables and animals they need on-farm, there will be less pressure on the adjacent natural resources thus giving them an opportunity to prosper.
Forest Gardens Service Ecosystems
A Forest Garden is a hybrid agricultural system combining some characteristics of typical agricultural production with less intensive practices and investment in longer-term returns.
Perhaps the largest environmental benefit of Forest Gardens, through their greater biological diversity, is their ability to provide some of the ecosystem services that a natural forest. Once matured, Forest Gardens become a modified natural forest or ecosystems, in respect to structure and function. A Forest Garden’s diverse horizontal and vertical arrangement of plants (and animals) provides diversity, watershed and soil protection, and carbon sequestration. This is especially important in degraded landscapes where many of these things are in dire needs.
In short, Forest Gardens provide many biodiversity advantages and a path to a healthier planet for us all.