Book review – Edible Forest Gardens

At first, the double volume “Edible Forest Gardens” seems like quite a dear investment. Initially I looked at it with great interest, but then only proceeded to put it on my Amazon wish list. Fortunately it was given to me as an early birthday present. It is an amazingly rich, interesting and useful set of books.

A short while ago, Patricia’s parents were visiting us at Homeland, right at the time we were starting the layout and tree planting planning for Dreamland. They wanted to buy me an early birthday present while they were visiting. However, I am on a big drive to de-clutter my (and our) lives, so I didn’t want any more “stuff”, nor were there any implements I needed at the time. Well, not within any birthday present budget… But they insisted, as they do! Luckily I remembered my Amazon wish list, especially this book I had put on there because I thought it was too expensive at the time – Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005). Fortunately it was on sale at the time as well, and the birthday present issue was solved. Sometimes you take a chance buying a book as a present, but what a great one this turned out to be!

Volume 1

The first volume explains that forest gardening is based on the strategy of mimicking a forest ecosystem with the aim to reintegrate humans into the natural world as co-creative participants. Mimicry helps us to achieve our goals of high diverse yields of food and other produce in a self-renewing, self-fertilising and self-maintaining garden. However, to mimic the forest, we need to understand the functions and structure of a forest ecosystem.

In volume 1 the authors examine forest ecosystem architecture, social structure, underground economics and vegetation dynamics. Many implications for forest garden design and management arise from this understanding. The essence of volume 1 is summarised in the following diagram:

Forest ecology principles

Volume 1 is not the kind of book that you leisurely read from cover to cover. It is rather like a University-level text book that you study. At stages I found I really had to concentrate hard as they cover the material in a lot of depth. However the increase in understanding of forest ecology and how it is applicable to us as forest gardeners is incredible.

Volume 2

The patterns that arise in volume 1, although useful for understanding the underlying principles, are not directly applicable to us as gardeners. For one, we typically don’t have the space nor the time in which it takes a forest to establish and develop. We need to convert those principles to approaches that gardeners can apply. That is what volume 2 is about – turning that knowledge into a “forest gardener’s toolkit”.

Volume 2 starts with a chapter on ecosystem dynamics, where they take the diagram shown above and work through each point by providing guidance how forest ecology can be embedded in mimicked in designed gardens.

Then it addresses topics such as the following, leading you through the practical steps related to each topic as it is applicable to a forest garden:

  • Goals, objectives and site assessment
  • Four realms of forest garden design
  • Site preparation
  • Garden establishment
  • Management, maintenance and co-evolution

The authors manage very well to answer the issues that every gardener faces, such as weed control, when and where to plant, irrigation, composting, etc., into strategies addressed through forest gardening ecosystem dynamics.

Volume 2 is concluded with many useful appendices, such as lists of plants for various functions or conditions, requirements of animals, species to avoid and many more.

So volume two is not a relaxing cover-to-cover read either. Well, for one, weighing in at 654 pages it is too thick! It is the kind of workbook where at various points through each chapter you grab a notebook and make notes, review your designs, jot down to-do lists and so on. Besides the various interesting case studies – at various scales and stages of maturity, it even provides examples and templates for doing all the designs, documentation and lists. It really makes you think about what you’re doing and why. It provides excellent guidance and practical tips, specialised for different climates, soil types and garden types – they even cover our savanna-style forest garden in our dry harsh summers on our hard clay soil!


Even though the books were written with a USA East Coast context, I found it just as valuable and applicable in an Australian temperate climate region. They provide all measurements in both metric and imperial scales. One of the interesting “by-products” was the parallels I could draw between the land management practices originally employed by the American Indians and the Australian indigenous peoples. OK, but that’s another topic for another post on another (rainy) day…

Having recently travelled through and visited a farm in North Carolina, it was really interesting to see the context where this book was written. The area is so rich in forests and self-sustainable farmlands!

On the back cover, David Holmgren, co-founder of the permaculture movement, wrote: “It is exciting how the authors have brought together the ecological theory and practice necessary to further this aspect of the permaculture agenda.” That is such an apt summary of the two volumes.

For me as a practitioner trying to put a medium-sized edible forest garden in place, this has become an invaluable resource. At first I questioned all the theory in the first volume, but as I worked through the second volume, I realised that for the scale at which we wanted to do it, we needed that theoretical background to justify and motivate why we had to do certain things in specific ways. These two books are going to be read, consulted and re-read quite a number of times as we progress through the various stages of successional development that typically happens in a forest garden.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in permaculture, self-sustainable gardening, edible forest gardening or self-sustainable farming.


About (207 Articles)
My name is Martin Rennhackkamp, I now live happily in Lara, Victoria, Australia with my wife, two children and two dogs. My interests, apart from the obvious Organic, Biodynamic and Permaculture Gardening and Farming, include sustainable living, surfing, horse-riding, a wide variety of music, dancing, nature, birds, reading, Christianity and a few other things which I never get to...

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