Multidimensional Agriculture: Optimizing space and time by farming with Forest Gardens


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The Value of Land

Throughout the world, our limited amount of farmland plays a vital role in sustaining countless livelihoods as well as local, regional, and global economies. The agriculture industry doesn’t only provide income and economic support, it is responsible for feeding the world.

Unfortunately, as poverty persists and hunger grows, the proposed solution is to clear forests to make room for more farmland. This practice is incredibly short sighted; according to The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, forests are being cleared at a frightening rate of 40 soccer fields per minute and the planet is losing an estimated 24 species per day.

It is imperative that the land on which so many people and economies depend is used effectively. What if, instead of clearing land of precious trees and ecosystems, the agriculture industry made better use of the existing arable land? The good news is that today, more and more farmers are considering unconventional farming methods to get the most out of the land they have.

Traditionally, conventional methods tell farmers to rely on monocrop agriculture, the practice of using a field to plant large quantities of just one crop. In practice, farmers plant the same crop in rows, which means their productivity is dependent on one dimension.

Farmers will no longer suffer from seasonal hunger or struggle to rise above the poverty line when they begin to think like an agroforester – in multiple dimensions.

The Three Dimensions of a Forest Garden: Horizontal Space, Vertical Space, and Time

In agroforestry and Forest Gardens, farmers consider how to optimize space, both laterally and vertically, and they work to get the most out of the time they have in each growing season.

Forest Gardens are made up of a variety of trees, shrubs, fruits, vegetables, and other perennials. They’re strategically planned ahead of time to use every available piece of land, from corner to corner the farmer is able to plant something that will benefit their health and income in some way. The horizontal and vertical layers of a Forest Garden are capable of improving biodiversity and provide diversification that protects the farmer from unforeseen weather events or pest issues – these are benefits that monocrop agriculture will never be able to offer. The third dimension – time – is another shortfall of monocropping. Forest Garden farmers’ crops are producing on a rolling schedule, providing ten or 15 paydays each year instead of one. At Trees for the Future, farmers learn about the three dimensions of Forest Gardening before they start planting and they reap the benefits for years.

A Forest Garden succeeds when attention is paid to the value of space and time.

The First Dimension: Horizontal Space Optimization Along the ‘X’ Axis   

When looking at the use of horizontal or lateral space in a farmer’s field, traditional monoculture models suggest planting straight rows of a given crop (think of the fields of cereal grains common in the US). This monocropping strategy manages to squeeze in as many plants in the field as possible, but the perimeter of the field is forgotten.

Beginning on the perimeter of a field where the farmer has used conventional methods to plant  one short-term crop, typically, the edges are vastly underutilized. This border zone is forgotten real estate, but farmers can actually plant a wide variety of crops around the field that provide many additional services and benefits, increasing returns significantly. In Sub-Saharan Africa where farms are very small, farmers have no land to waste. When they apply the Forest Garden Approach, the border is used to plant a living fence; trees, thorny shrubs, and climbing plants form a protective barrier to keep out grazing animals and reduce wind erosion. At the same time, some of those plants can be harvested for food, firewood, or livestock feed.

Moving into a monocrop field, the uniform rows of cereal grains or vegetables line the ground, some rows or sections are often performing visibly better, while other areas reveal underperforming plants and patches of soil or rock.  The Forest Garden Approach helps recognize these variations and recommends plants that can survive in poorer soils and improve the quality of them.

By optimizing their horizontal space, farmers are growing more with the same amount of land – no deforestation required. Trees for the Future Forest Garden farmers are able to increase their income by 400% on the same exact piece of land, and they’re actually improving the quality of the land as they grow food on it.  

The View from Above: Top View Mapping

Top view mapping helps create a visual representation of the farm. In the Forest Garden Approach, farmers take a step back to assess their land’s potential from all angles. They start by thinking through their horizontal spacing by designing their field from above. Top View Mapping equips the farmer with the perspective and information  needed to fully utilize the horizontal land area available to them. This process helps to inform decisions about which trees, plants, and crops will best diversify the Forest Garden.

Learn how Forest Garden farmers map out their horizontal spacing with Top View Mapping.

The Second Dimension: Vertical Space Optimization Along the Y Axis  

By and large the biggest oversight of conventional monoculture models is the failure to think vertically. While a farmer in a system of monoculture can still make decent use of the ground space available, a farm implementing the Forest Garden Approach literally goes above and beyond the ground space by making far better use of the vertical space within the confines of the field. While a monoculture model only uses one layer of vertical space, the Forest Garden Approach uses seven.

Once Forest Garden farmers have established their living fence around the perimeter of their land, they planting nitrogen fixing trees within the  protection of the living fence. They plant ‘portfolios’ of fruit trees consisting of dozens of fruits and install permagardens of vegetables among the trees.  After a few years several distinct layers begin to develop:

  1. Canopy plants: can be fully grown fruit or nut trees, timber species, or pioneer species that grow quickly and provide shade. This is the tallest layer, averaging over 25 m in height.
  2. Subcanopy plants: lower plants utilizing some shade of the canopy plants,these include coffee plants or small trees such as banana.
  3. Shrub plants: large bushes or tall annual crops.
  4. Herbaceous plants: often edible and medicinal plants.
  5. Vining or climbing plants: plants that climb their way up subcanopy and canopy plants.
  6. Groundcover plants: shade the soil, conserving moisture and preventing soil loss, can be nitrogen fixing.
  7. Underground or rooted plants: become nutrient pumps for the surrounding soil enhancing its fertility, these often include root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, tubers, onions, etc.

When standing at the side of any Forest Garden, there are visible gaps above the medium-sized fruit trees where tall timber trees and coconut trees can fill the void. There are areas below or among the trees where vines or shade-loving plants can also flourish. In the vegetable permagardens, perennials, bushes, and trees are added among the vegetable crops.

When combined, all seven of these different layers and the many species of plants create a guild. A guild refers to “a group of plants together in a system that maximizes the service and production potential of each plant”. Instructing farmers to carefully and intentionally plant a multitude of species that work well together to optimize the growth, health and production of their fields sets the Forest Garden Approach apart from most agricultural models.

Looking Sideways: Side View Mapping

A tool Trees for the Future uses with low-literate farmers to help facilitate good vertical integration of species is ‘vertical mapping’ or side view mapping. A side view map is a hand drawn picture of the different layers and heights of plants that grow on a farm. This information, in turn, can be used to identify gaps that can be filled with new and complementary plant species.

Learn how Forest Garden farmers map out their horizontal spacing with Side View Mapping.

The Third Dimension: Time Optimization Along the Z Axis

The average monocrop farmer is tied to the success of just one crop for the entire year, but a Forest Garden farmer sets themselves up for success by making the most out of the entire year.

By increasing the number of paydays throughout the year, farmers can make more money and begin to build their resilience.

The average field crop farmers spends 6-9 months clearing the field, plowing, seeding, weeding, harvesting, cleaning and bagging the crop. During these months, the entire family is obligated to work long hours for months to accomplish the task. In contrast, the Forest Gardens farmers begin to see fruit trees and timber trees mature in the third, fourth and fifth year. The trees and bushes become permanent assets which produce more and more with less and less effort. As years progress, families continue pruning trees, tending to vegetable gardens, and harvesting and selling fruit. They have more time for value-added enterprises and more options to work with.

Calendars

Much like farmers plan out the horizontal and vertical spacing of their Forest Gardens, they also plan out their use of time. Calendars are an analysis and planning tool. They help farmers anticipate how things change across seasons and times of the year and how to think long term and avoid decisions that are based simply on what is happening right now (or happened last season).

Equipped with this information, farmers can start optimizing what they get from their fields – food for consumption, produce for sales, market price for products – and what they put in  – effort, methods of pest control, seeds. Taking the time to optimize their time enables farmers to succeed beyond one harvest and one payday, strategic planting by season and market demand ensures that land achieves maximum outputs while still maintaining soil health and biodiversity.

Learn more about calendaring at the training center.

Eclipsing Conventional Agriculture Systems

By optimizing the space and time of the farming system, the Forest Garden Approach eclipses conventional agriculture systems when it comes to productivity, financial return, nutrition, and sustainability. Rather than turning to chemicals to increase crop production or cutting down acres of forest land to make more room for cropland, Forest Garden farmers are successfully using the land they already have. By working smarter and more strategically, farmers can produce more food and make more money. Without the help of harmful chemicals or genetically modified seeds, farmers are able to turn their lives around and alter the trends of their local markets.

Trees for the Future’s Forest Garden Approach is changing the landscape of the agricultural landscape. By helping hundreds of millions of farmers view agriculture in multiple dimensions, they will feed the future without destroying the planet. Learn more about the Forest Garden Approach and become a certified Forest Garden Trainer at training.trees.org.

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