Forest gardens in Ontario

Established 1983 at The Living Centre

The following article was kindly contributed by The Living Centre, an eco-spiritual education centre in southwestern Ontario. It follows the establishment of their forest gardens, starting as a dream in the 1970’s, leading to the implantation of diverse forest gardens as part of an ethic of land stewardship. Learn more about their centre at The Living Centre and Goveganic.

The Dream

In 1975 Shantree Kacera began dreaming of an organic piece of land, to live off the land and live the good life. In 1982 the vision was about to unfold: a small tree nursery had recently been planted in his parents’ backyard garden. The following year the land was found and the dream began to come to life.

History of the land

The site was formerly a run down organic homestead with very few trees on the property, except for a 25-acre mature forest, a neglected pear orchard and a recently planted windbreak of evergreen trees around the house and another one around the barn. The land was organic since the beginning of time. Shantree has met all three previous owners, even the children whose parents built the house and barn from 1912 to 1914 and who grew up on this land. The house and barn were built from the lumber harvested from the forest that covered the whole 50 acres.

Over the decades the property was deforested except for 25-acres, which is now classified as a heritage forest. The 25-acres that was cleared was farmed organically, for almost 100 years now. The pear orchard consisting of a few acres was planted in the late 1970’s with Bosc and Bartlett.

Spirit of the Earth, The Living Centre and Living Arts Institute, home of ‘Earth Wisdom Permaculture,’ has been operated and co-directed by Shantree Kacera since 1983 as an eco-educational centre. Over three decades, Shantree has developed a productive forest garden that has been an ongoing experiment and evolving into a fertile mature forest garden.

These 30-year old forest gardens were mostly created and planted for educational research, design and propagation, allowing observation and providing plant material for teaching purposes and foraging for medicinal plants for the ‘Apothecary Clinic in the Garden’.

Site Assessment

Our forest garden site is located in fertile countryside in southwestern part of Ontario, Canada called ‘Carolinian Canada,’ the banana belt. It is the most diverse and warmest region of the country. It is located about 20 kilometers north of Lake Erie, which is the mildest of the Great Lakes. It is the fourth largest of the five Great Lakes in North America, and the thirteenth largest fresh water lake globally (by surface area).

Latitude: 42°47’58"N; Longitude: 81°12’52"W; and the elevation altitude about 200 meters above sea level.

The total property size is 50 acres.

  • 25 acres is a mature heritage forest,
  • 10 acres, which has been reforesting itself,
  • 7 acres wildflower meadows,
  • 3 acres of semi dwarf Bosc and Bartlett pear trees,
  • 3 acres of herb, vegetable, fruit and berry orchards and greenhouse,
  • 2 acres of semi-wild edible forest gardens around a beautiful tranquil pond, which includes fruit and nut trees including filbert and paw-paw groves.

The property has a pond, stream, wetland and even a swamp. This diversity of land has the greatest potential for a wide range of vegetation and wild life.

One of the unique aspects of this property is the diversity of soil. Soils are loamy sand and some of the property has hard clay and there are a few special spots with rich loamy black muck with a sprinkling of sand which goes down to one meter deep. The organic matter is between 5% to 10% on average. Soil tests indicated low potassium, manganese, magnesium, copper and zinc with a pH of 5.9 to 7.3. Soil compaction was noted in the deforested areas. Due to the sandy nature of the soil and high rainfall during the spring and fall months, nutrient leaching is common.

Rainfall averages 50 to 80 mm during the rainy months. Yearly average rainfall is 900mm. The rainiest months are April through June and the second rainiest season is from September through November. The rainiest months are June and September with average yearly rainfall being around 100 mm.

The main monthly snowfall is between the months of December to March.

The growing season begins after the spring equinox of March 21st when temperatures begin to go above 0 (°C) and the temperatures usually stay above 0 (°C) till around the winter solstice or the holiday season. The main growing months are from April 13, temperatures being around 7.5 (°C) to November 15, temperatures being around 4.5 (°C). The hottest months being June to July when temperatures reach up to the mid to high 30’s.

There is a pond on the southwest section of the site that varies from 4 to 5 meters deep, depending on rainfall, and is 45 meters in diameter. The terrain slopes gently up from the pond to the north, leaving much of the grassy area high and dry. The soil is primarily clay. However, around the south slope of the pond is rich black muck. We have been reforesting this area with edible fruit, nut and native trees, such as apples, plums, mulberries, cherries, peaches and apricots. Also we have planted filberts, north pecan and heart nuts surrounding the pond.

The hardiness zone is 6A with an average last killing frost around May, 1st and first killing frost October 15th. We have been able to establish pockets of hardiness zone of 7—these are microclimates located under or near existing sheltered forest canopies. There are about 275 days above 18 °C (cooling Degree days) in the summer.

The area is subject to high winds from the northwest. Windbreaks exist on the north and west sides. Summer months of July and August bring drought conditions with temperatures reaching into the mid to high 30s, often accompanied by hot dry winds. The area is home to a fairly large population of wildlife, mice, rabbits and deer with a taste for young tender leaves, requiring tree protection.

Research and Planning

The initial plan for the site when it was acquired was to plant mixed fruit and nut orchards and grow annual vegetables and medicinal herbs. One of our main crops was growing organic garlic. When planting began, we were not fully aware of forest gardening techniques or had the experience, even though there were some aspects of permaculture that were practiced in the early 1980’s. In the interests of diversity, a few trees high on the wish list that were marginally hardy in the climate were selected on an experimental basis with knowledge that workload would be increased and success not assured. The demanding conditions on the site indicated drought tolerant, hardy stock and these were sought out for the majority of plantings. Research was done and many unusual species of interest were put on the list and were tried. From the fruit category were persimmons, kiwi, quince, various species of apricots, peaches, nectarines, paw paw and figs. Berries and vines included josta berries, pink currants, jumbo gooseberries, grapes, kiwi, and goji berries. The nut category we experimented with were English walnut, pecan, heartnuts, almonds and various types of filberts.

Our primary focus has been on growing a very wide variety of medicinal, culinary and edible herbs. At one point in time we reached over 500 species. Around the perimeter of part of the property is an ongoing project of establishing a native edible medicine hedgerow trail.

Windbreak

Windbreaks already existed on the north and west sides of the house and barn where the cold windy storms usually blow from. A suitable windbreak has now been planted to the remaining eastside. The property has numerous microclimates from very windy dry south areas to somewhat wet swampy fertile forest. As more trees were planted various microclimates began to emerge and become evident.

Site Preparation and Fertility

In order to establish trees quicker, it was decided to plant into the grassy area with little site preparation. Fertility was created in the form of mulch, compost, and other non-animal-product amendments.

Repeated sheet mulching, extensive use of chop-and-drop nitrogen fixers and other mulch plants and of course more trees has created more biomass resulting in remarkably fertile soil.

Canopy Establishment and fertility

What is now the canopy level was initially planted as a mixed orchard, using circular or spiral planting patterns. The spacing of the earlier trees back in the 1980’s turned out to be a little too close for a healthy forest garden, which will either limit what can be grown underneath or will require a little more management to thin or prune back. A few fruit trees, which are short lived in our area, are reaching their lifespan for this zone and climate. We when moved onto the property there were five mature cherry trees, which we figure are now around 50 years old. Nitrogen trees and pollinators were planted around the property, something that we would do differently from what we have learned through some of our trials and errors. Now we create a polyculture around each tree we plant starting with a one to two meter circumference. We usually plant between 5 to 10 varieties of herbs or edible plants per polyculture.

As the operation has expanded beyond 1000 trees and shrubs over the 30 years, much of our time now is maintaining and fine-tuning the forest garden practice. Pears, plums and grapes are the best fruit producers. New additions to the canopy are established during the fall or spring rainy periods and hand watered on an as-needed basis during droughts. Locally available soil amendments such as compost, nettle and comfrey tea, and kelp meal were used initially followed by foliar feeding, amendments such as straw or mulch and actively aerated compost teas later. Nitrogen fixing clover mixes were broadcast between the polycultured trees as a legume cover crop to continue shifting towards on site fertility. Research was conducted into additional nitrogen fixing plants as well as nutrient miners. The alfalfa/clover cover crop is mowed a few times per year and the first mowing used to mulch around the trees. Chipped wood mulch was brought in as needed from a local tree service.

Shrub Level

When the canopy tree grid had nearly filled the remaining grassy area, windbreak trees were put in on the western edge and the shrub level was started. Shade tolerant nitrogen fixing shrubs that produce edible fruit were planted in an alternating pattern between existing trees in the least fertile section of the site. Other nitrogen fixers such as black locust (which is also a mineral accumulator) were planted, with more to be added each year until cropping trees are all adequately supported.

Herb, Root and Ground Cover Understory

When the nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating trees and shrubs are all in, further attention is given to fertility in the herb layer. Comfrey and horseradish have been chosen to be a major fertility source for the herb level, and several hundred plants were eventually needed fill in the herb layer. These are propagated by division in the herb garden and are planted under or near the cropping trees. They are cut and left in place a few times a year. As the canopy and shrub layers have continued to grow and make more shade, the time has come to finish the understory. This is the time when the plant nursery is fully utilized. The insectory plants (food, habitat and aromatic pest repellers/confusers) as well as perennial vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs and other ground covers are needed in fairly large numbers, which would be quite expensive to source from nurseries. Propagation from self-seeders or division is our approach. The herb, root and ground cover layer is usually done in stages or patches. Sheet mulch is applied around and under the existing trees and shrubs, at a rate of between 3 and 5 thousand square feet per year. When the underlying vegetation has died out from lack of light, transplants from the herb garden or plant nursery can be brought in. Mulch will be used initially to suppress weed growth until transplants are established.

Fungi

Since the site has existing woodland and established forested areas, fungi has been establishing itself quite well.

Maintenance Stage

There is maintenance required through all stages of forest garden establishment. At our site, mowing between trees, seasonal pruning and topping off (chop and drop) of mulch around trees has been required from the beginning. Fertility support is also ongoing, but in diminishing amounts as the nutrient cycles mature. Plantings continue, as will replacement of plants that have succumbed to wildlife, droughts and freeze pressures or extreme climate patterns. Mature system maintenance will be minimal in comparison with establishment work. Spring weeding, fall pruning or trimming back of over ambitious species as necessary, replacement of short-lived plants, path upkeep, harvest and food preservation are all that are anticipated.

Accomplishments & Future Visioning

Shantree has also left some areas of the original vegetation, or permitted certain species to grow. These islands of biological diversity are important reservoirs of organisms for pest control, and Shantree considers them a place of calm and beauty within the garden.

The pond is also home to a "tranquility zone": a swinging bench, a deck, and a path that leads to the water, with a sacred tipi and spiral garden overlooking the pond surrounded by forest gardens.

It is worth mentioning that the centre has a world-class Earthship passive solar greenhouse with an indoor, 4-season forest garden featuring figs, passion fruit, goji berries, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, and all kinds of fantastic stuff.

Future visions for the research and education centre in general are reflected in the forest garden goals and include:

  • Emphasizing continuing research in local native foods and medicines
  • Regenerating the property
  • Serving as an educational property and a living classroom
  • Community gathering
  • Serving as a sacred space
  • Research and demonstration

Final Thoughts

This forest gardening project has been an ongoing creative endeavor with lots of learning and hard physical work with hundreds of students and apprentices involved in the process. There is such a great deal to discover about forest ecology and the individual plants and trees, this truly is a life journey. The one thing that keeps me going is to create a more peaceful, healthier and happier world for future generations. Shantree

Historical Timeline

Date & Landmark Project

1982

  • Dreaming in the Forest Garden
  • Started a Small Tree Nursery

1983

  • Moved on to the property Summer Solstice June 21st
  • Clearing up the property
  • Taking out the trash

1984

  • Started an organic vegetable garden
  • Pruned back a very neglected pear orchard
  • Designed a circular medicine wheel herb garden

1985

  • Planted a half acre medicine wheel herb garden
  • Build a grape arbor, followed by planting a few varieties of grapes
  • Finished repairing a small unfinished greenhouse

1986

  • Planted a few English walnut and other hard to find fruit trees
  • Planted a two acre vegetable garden
  • Planted a one acre cash crop of garlic

1987

  • Expanded to planting two acres of garlic
  • Redesigned and expanded herb garden to one acre
  • Planted ‘May Peace Prevail on Earth’ pole

1988

  • Focus begins to be more on educating the public on organic food production and herbs
  • Medicine wheel herb garden has around 500 species of medicinal plants.
  • The garden begins to get attention.
  • Started planting out more trees from the tree nursery (between 50 to 100 trees a year). An assortment of fruit, nut, and medicinal trees as well as evergreens to expand wind breaks.

1989

  • Began focusing on harvesting and wild-crafting medical herbs for healing.
  • Created a culinary garden just outside of the kitchen backdoor.

1990

  • Offering more garden herb tours
  • Medicine wheel herb garden becomes known as one of the most diverse herb gardens in Canada, numerous write-ups in newspapers and magazines.
  • Created a rainbow shaped herb tea garden with around 50 varieties.

1992

  • Expanded tree nursery in diversity and size

1993

  • For the 10 year anniversary of the centre had a special celebration around the peace pole.

1994

  • The beginning of establishing an edible native plant medicine trail (1 kilometer in length around the periphery of the property)

1998

  • Planted a Sacred Tree Grove around the pond.

1999

  • Planted 12 apple trees in the north section of the vegetable garden.

2000

  • Herb garden looks more like a young forest garden.

2001

  • Began building a 1,000 sq. foot passive solar Earthship greenhouse.

2002

  • Completed building a 1,000 sq. foot passive solar Earthship greenhouse, which contains a solarium.

2003

  • Landscaped around the around the outside of the Earthship greenhouse.

2004

  • Build an outdoor summer sprouting kitchen

2005

  • Designed and planted a new fruit orchard around pond.

2006

  • Planted around 30 fruit trees in the periphery of the vegetable garden.
  • Began planting Polycultures around the fruit trees in the new orchard.

2007

  • Redesigned vegetable garden as a half-acre spiral garden.
  • Created a spiral garden just north of the pond.
  • Began reclaiming a semi-wild pear grove at the forest edge.

2008

  • Created a sacred spiral garden in the middle of the vegetable garden.
  • Planted heartnut, pecans trees and other fruit trees around pond.

2009

  • Planted a filbert and paw-paw grove near pond.
  • Created a sacred space for tipi next to the sacred spiral
  • Built a tipi just north of and over looking the pond

2010

  • Created an herbal spiral outside the kitchen backdoor.
  • Designed and planted 3 native garden polycultures.
  • Planted a paw-paw trail along the south side of the pond.
  • Designed a semi-wild edible forest landscape in the pear grove. (This is a microclimate with four large heritage pears)

2011 and beyond

  • To plant more trees!
  • To plant more peace!
  • To plant more joy!

7 May 2011
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