The Holistic Health Benefits of Forest Gardening (Part 5/5 of "What is Forest Gardening?" series)
Updated: Apr 3, 2019
In this article, we discuss the health benefits of forest gardening. We will explore the holistic benefits of not only gardening, but many evidence based health studies from the past two decades that support a holistic, integrated approach to health.
PROMOTING HEALTH BY LEARNING PATIENCE THROUGH FOREST GARDENING
One of the central aspects of Turaida forest garden is to promote sustainable models where people work to develop self-reliance. In some ways, to limit over indulgence is a form of self-sacrifice, since we are deferring the immediate rewards of instant gratification (clink link here to the previous article which explains more on forest gardening as a long term project). We also briefly discussed how this deferral leads to empowerment since good things come to those who wait.
Author David Brooks explains this in his New York Times Op-Ed article Marshmallows and Public Policy (a popular Opinion piece he wrote in 2006) where he looks at how psychology tests show can predict the long term success by observing delaying gratification with children and marshmallows. It is a very interesting and significant observation. He explains that those who are capable of not succumbing to temptations are most likely to succeed in longitudinal follow up studies.
Perhaps we don't need psychologists to tell us this, since there are so many examples of this in one's own life. Certainly, growing slow developing forest gardens can take quite a while to develop. Clearly, patience is essential to any kind of long term project.
JEAN D'OR NKEZABAHIZI, AND A CLASH OF CULTURES AT THE GAS PUMPS
We begin with a heartwarming (and heart of gold) story from our signed copy of a less known book named Priorities, Choosing an Ideal Life (2011). The Burundi native author Jean D'Or Nkezabahizi offers insights through his own personal transformation. He begins the book with a Chapter titled 'Chance Meeting at a Gas Station'. He describes an unusual encounter between two strangers at a gas station when living in Hamilton, Ontario as a newcomer to Canada from Africa. He explains the event, where he decides to return a lost envelope of money to a rude man that stole his place in line at the pumps. He later goes out of his way to track down the man and return the money. In doing so, the unexpected confrontation forces a man to search for, or confront a more meaningful existence from his existing lifestyle (from Priorities, Choosing an Ideal Life, p7). This is similar to the description offered of the double bind these two men face during their encounter (see the link to the Avatar essay behind the inception of Turaida forest garden).
Mindfulness meditation, as well as other forms of spiritual encounters that extend beyond strictly Judeo-Christian religious observances are considerations at Turaida forest garden. Living in a global world requires that people attempt to develop their own abilities and serve as an essential part of their own compass. In a discussion on "complexity and the growth of the self" (from Flow p 41), Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi highlights the need to "integrate and differentiate", as a process of self-directed learning. See a more detailed discussion on this holistic model that has been applied to several other fields in the book Flow (1990) by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Money becomes more than just a commodity during this exchange of places and orders at the pumps, including cultures, ideologies, races, histories, world views and nationalities. He seems to be describing a clash of civilizations (see also Samuel Huntington's book of the same title in the references section). It is these kind acts of beneficence that show how human kindness can be found in the most unexpected places and occasions. In a similar way, he later goes on to describe God's Economy in another chapter (p 127-140).
These kinds of unexpected, contingent events are the kinds of circumstances that plague historians. These contingencies teach us not only how history unfolds at a large scale, in the past to explain the present, but we can also see how they occur at a personal level. We shall follow Jean D'Or Nkezabahizi's lead, and start this article with the priorities. As our late grandmother Mary Buckton once explained, "if you don't have your health, you don't have anything." Health should be a priority.
SYMPTOMS OF LOSS AND GRIEF THROUGH MOBILITY IN AN INCREASINGLY GLOBAL WORLD
Many move around in today's mobile society, leaving behind the peoples, places, customs, cultures, and histories they intended to care for years later. Part of our sense of who we are remains in the places and spaces we once lived in. There is some kind of loss with mobility that happens gradually over time. While travel is far easier and more common than previous times, there are some unintended consequences many people remain unaware of. While not everyone can be equally at risk, staying connected and having a sense of balance of one's own sense of selfhood is important to avoid feeling lost in the shuffle of a highly mobile life over a longer living cycle. Mindfulness and other forms of meditation can offer relief, and a sense of peace to those struggling, especially in natural garden spaces that allows people to reconnect with nature.
This process occurs through the initial separation, then disconnection, eventual dissociation, and finally longterm alienation and finally loss. Being there for life partners, colleagues, community, family, friends and country still matters. Staying connected through technology isn't the same as being there in person, since we all have bodies, and minds that exist in only one place at a time.
Similarly, Jean D'Or Nkezabahizi himself describes his transformation, and later he becomes a gateway to his personal own change. In The Doors of perception (the title of a less well known book by Aldous Huxley from 1953, that later served as the inspiration behind the band's title, The Doors) through which we can see this separation. Nkezabahazi opens the door as the stranger opens his car door, with the envelope of money falling from one hand into another, then back again in kindness. The symbolism described in his book Priorities occurs through a powerful reconnection with a total stranger. No psychedelic drugs were used for this change in perception.
While the book The Doors of Perception (1953) deals with mind enhancing changes, time is also a doorway. Our times differ greatly with those that once lived in medieval village life of the past. Back then, people rarely traveled beyond a limited distance of their birthplace. Being connected to common cultures, places, belief and people must have made the living conditions very different back then. We are living much longer (the average equivalent of several past lifetimes).
THE PATH TOWARDS A HEALTHIER LIFESTYLE AND EXISTENCE
Through taking control of one's own ability to prevent disease by adopting healthy lifestyle, we can help ourselves, where these absences created by mobility can occur. We can influence our own living environments and how we react to them. While we encourage everyone to continue to support and engage with health care systems, we are recommending that people be cognizant of their own degree of displacement and the effects it can have. We can make efforts to promote our own wellness. Simple steps can make an essential difference toward improving our self resiliency. It is possible to lead by example, and help others who are unable to see the way to a healthier future. In short, we can be stewards to the land and the plants, as well as to ourselves and others.
We can drastically reduce the wait times, and the crippling dependencies on financial burdens for health care provision by taking better care of ourselves. In some ways, the challenges on health systems reflects the 'symptoms of the disease' that come with the incredible benefits of globalization.
It is far better to work to promote health care in one's own life, than to externalize the problems of a health care system that can at times struggle to provide the needs for our entire population. Like our experience with tending to plants, we must remain patient with ourselves, and those who tend to our health care needs. Plants, like people, get sick for many reasons, some of which rests in our shared genetic predispositions. However, as Louis Pasteur pointed out years ago, "chance favours the prepared mind." It is often said that experience is the best teacher. Between our own past, we can take our self-knowledge, our sense of our predispositions in the family, and take steps forward to improve the chances and our odds of success, as Pasteur is pointing out.
Managing the health care system is not simply a problem for all forms of government. The psychiatrist Foucault wrote about the consequence of increasing the health care burdens on society when he wrote The Birth of the Clinic (see references) back in the 1960s. One's personal health can be seen as a personal responsibility, that requires that people try to be honest about making an effort to live healthier. It should matter how people are living. After all, it is our health care system and also our health.
Only by developing healthier relationships with our own bodies and minds can we hope to relieve the burdens on all those who work to provide care for us. By fostering healthier relationships with a sense of healthy living, we can all try to build our own personal resilience necessary to make the whole system work better. We will now outline what attempts can be made to accomplish this important goal.
HOLISTIC HEALTH AND GARDENING
Gardening offers so many health benefits it shouldn't entirely matter exactly what kind of gardens we're talking about. However, for the sake of conforming to the limits of these articles, we shall focus on our version of forest gardening because of our ongoing discussion related to Turaida forest garden project.
We can recall how one of the goals in our gardening model is to integrate a self-generated vision of unity and meaning. If we extend our doorway analogy, we need to move through space and time the door to get from one side to the other, where experience will allow a change in perspective, as one would experience walking into another room. We are designing as a holistic model that builds off previously designed forest gardening projects. At Turaida forest garden, art and history play larger role in this model (see mosaic by M White below).
We can see this as a holistic health and wellness model that will reduce the demand on the health care system (and ourselves) since it would reduce the wait times, rescheduling, and other demands that limit access and availability to the kind of care necessary to diagnose, treat and monitor health conditions. While having injuries from gardening or finding a tick could bring a person into a situation where care could be needed, the benefits overall should reduce the need for care, not increase it.
Having worked as part of the system for years, we are aware of the challenges that our clients faced. The behind the scenes view we had while providing care gave us insights into its limitations and strengths. By reducing the work load and demands on the system, the goal is to encourage better health of all parties involved. Seeing how other countries such as the Swedish Eye Care system (such as St Erik's Ogonsjukhus in Stockholm) was another experience that opened our eyes up to understanding how different systems operate around the world. It was an excelllent opportunity that both of us enjoyed back in 2004.
THE SIX KEY BENEFITS OF HOLISTIC FOREST GARDENING PRACTICES
Here we'll emphasize six key aspects to the holistic health benefits of forest gardening. The goal of including this information is to encourage preventative medicine. Health Canada's newly released food guide for 2019 (visit their site in the link here https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/) is encouraging a higher amount of plant derived foods in the diet. Beyond the diet, we encourage that people consider the exercise, balance and flexibility training. Forest gardening can certainly include animal products. However, because of the limits of space, and our current system, we do not presently harvest animal sources of food from our garden. Ducks and other fowl, and other products are often included in other forest garden systems. Depending on one's perspective towards diet, our nutritional needs can be met by including dairy and other animal products, whether we try to produce some of these within a forest garden, or whether we source them from outside.
There are cognitive and even musical therapies that can be added (we will discuss this in more detail in another article- see the 'about the author and forest gardener' on musicians and their help with gardening), while pets certainly can find a home in forest gardens. The goal with forest gardening should depend on ones interests, abilities, and goals in gardening and personal health.
Please see a discussion in Farming the Woods, An integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel (2014) for a detailed discussion on other plants, animals and forest gardening products available that is not be included in this article.
We summarize these six key holistic health benefits below:
Firstly, forest gardening offers season extension, providing a longer range of food product availability from the perennial gardens. This availability is based on the time that plants can produce a sustained yield into late fall and early winter in particular. While other gardens can still offer food late into the season, the quantities available may not be as great as that offered in a food forest.
Selective tree and shrub crops offer another dimension to growing in vertical space that includes an understory area that allow edible plants to grow which can tolerate shade. One of the big differences includes the kind of pests that come with forest gardening. As we have been told repeatedly while purchasing tree stock, one can expect to find squirrels in a nut grove. It is a good idea to have a plan of action if the goal is to avoid losing valuable crops to these pests. Again, some kind of pest management program is needed.
Secondly, forest gardening allows larger yields from bigger perennial trees and shrubs. Since we are dealing with large trunk, root and branch structures that overwinter every year they grow perennially, there is more abundance in most cases. It can depend on how much we decide to prune, but overall the yields over time can be impressive. Growing a variety of plants in the space available can help to assure better yields to level out the masting effect as a percentages game over the years between the different tree types that are producing.
While there is the problem of hard shells to crack with nuts, the nutrient density from the fat and protein content is hard to compare with annuals. In some ways, annuals and long lived perennials are so different that it seems difficult to make sound comparisons between these two groups. We see different plants growing following differences in growing conditions over succession. But temperate climate perennials have many similarities with annuals so it is not surprising that we try to make comparisons. After all, both are important food sources.
Therefore, thirdly, the forest gardening can sometimes offer greater nutrient density of foodstuffs and medicines (think of high calorie and mineral rich nuts, and other less common native tree crops) than some conventionally grown temperate climate fruit.
In the book Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (1953), we learn about the nutritional profiles of the crops in detail. While much of the information given is too nutritionally detailed for our purposes here, it is helpful to see that many trees offer nutritious yields in abundance during those years which they produce mast crops.
In the book Farming the Woods, Mudge and Gabriel point out that most masting happens in cycles of two to five years, where the yields vary from a hundred to a thousand times the amount in an unproductive season (p103). With that kind of variability, we see the importance of having variety in the forest garden.
It is for this masting issues that at Turaida forest garden, we try and expand the diversity to keep a range of cultivars, as well as seedling plants. As the these authors explains, there is a difference between them in terms of the frequency and influence of the masting. While these plants are slow growing to establish relative to some other types of fruits, there are advantages. Freezing or at least cooling the nuts is another important consideration to preserve the oils from rancidity for storage.
Our fourth key concept is that forest gardening increases the range of diversity of foodstuffs and medicine. As we highlighted earlier, variety is the spice of life (this was on sign at the University of Waterloo Food Services, South Campus Hall location back when we studied Health Sciences in the early 2000s). The range in the diet is expanded since the biodiversity of food is greater. Similar to studies done in nutrition, expanding to include a broader variety helps to encourage that nutrient deficiencies are avoided. The same variety will also reduce the chances of excess amounts of any particular nutrient of toxin from the foods eaten.
Fifth, the forest gardening reduces exposure to UV light because of canopy coverage. This UV exposure is minimized since most UV light will be intercepted by leaves and branches above.
Lastly, (as our sixth key point) we can see that forest gardening is ergonomically advantageous because of vertical growth coupled to horizontal motion of our bodies across the landscape. The ease of access will be restricted to those areas of the forest that are able to be reached.
One of the main ideas behind the sustainability of food forest gardening as a long term model. It is based on how living ecosystems naturally move towards a mature forest (or savannah as Mark Shepard discusses and is covered in the book Farming the Woods) as part ecological succession
SUN EFFECTS ON PEOPLE, SOIL AND PLANTS IN THE GARDEN
Full sun is often highlighted in growing catalogues, and listed on the tags that come with potted stock. However, it's not always the case that we can have access to have full sun. Also, many plants find the full sun of the summer to be too much heat and dryness in the afternoons, especially when rainfall is scarce. This applies especially to plants that are often found in forest garden, because of their unique physiology. Our own observations also suggest that many plants appear to do better with less than full sun, and some are just flat out prefer shade. The other issue relates to water and moisture under the baking sun of the summer heat.
While clay is a fertile soil, without adequate amending it lacks the organic matter to prevent cracking, and the roots can be quite damaged. Full sun can increase watering needs, leaving a higher water bill, or more work for watering. It is for this reason that we suggest having some treed shelterbelts or shrubs scattered throughout your growing area. Even partial afternoon shade, or mulching can help prevent cracking. These islands of shade also can reduce the stress of wind that drives evapotranspiration (see an explanation in Gaia's Garden 2nd Edition, by Toby Hemenway).
Just think of the sun scald on fruit tree leaves, the sunburn that can hit the bark during the intensity of low angle sun in the off season. Plus, we have the UV exposure and heat of the Southwest exposure that can not only be a problem for plants, but for people too.
As with UV burn to the soil, and plants, people need protection from UV. Regardless of one's attitude on climate change and our role, the incidence of skin cancers has increased. By shading our gardens with canopies, we protect ourselves as well.
EAT AND LIVE LIKE AN OKINAWAN
In the book The Okinawa Program (2002), two Canadian cardiologists (and Makato Suzuki) studied the lives of people on the Japanese Island of Okinawa to explain longer health and life expectancy. Japan has the highest life expectancy of any Western country, explained in part through eating less, and also eating a greater diversity of food in their diet, exercise, social structures, emphasis on education, respect for elders. Japan is an island surrounded by deep sea, so there are lots of omega 3 sources from fish and seaweed. Kelp and other water grown vegetables are considerations. Gardening is an important element of Okinawan lifestyle and diet as they explore in this book.
Foods coming from an indoor environment are often processed to extend shelf life, and are specifically designed by food chemists for taste. Reduced fibre and water volume can make a person stay hungry. See a lengthy discussion of these differences in diet in their other book The Okinawa Diet Plan: Get Leaner, Live Longer, and Never Feel Hungry, (2005) also by the above mentioned Willcox twin brothers and Makato Suzuki.
"SITTING DISEASE" IS A PROBLEM OF OUR HIGH TECH AGE
While a couch potato lifestyle can be considered an insult to anyone, we need to be cognizant that our bodies are designed to move. Our skeletal system requires strength training. Our bodies' bones and joints depend on impact bearing exercises and the weight we put on them. We need to avoid over eating snacking foods that cause dental problems and other health related illness over the long term. We should be aware of how much time we spend sitting versus actually doing exercises. Where health is placed outside of the living space (for example, health is perceived on what you eat, how many times you work out a week, seeing your health care provider).
The movement towards taking responsibility for our personal health and prevention should be a lifelong goal, until we are no longer capable of providing this for ourselves. While it's important not to over extend oneself, most of use are spending too much time sitting, often online. We are not meeting the weekly needs of exercise training. The earlier these habits are developed, the less likely we are to run into chronic illness. Ultimately, it is these chronic, slowly progressing illnesses that people will succumb to later in life. In forest gardening, much of this exercise regime is built into a model of forest gardening that runs on human physical work to build, operate and maintain.
PRODUCE SOME OF YOUR OWN FOOD, EXERCISE IN THE FOREST GARDEN AND BECOME MORE SELF-RELIANT
What is more conveniently and accessible than an exercise and food source system at your doorstep? It's hard to think of having better access to a system that you can tailor to your health care needs. If the forest garden is placed right around the house, it's easy to manage as so many permaculture oriented models suggest with zoning. Avoid tall, deep rooted trees and shrubs where infrastructure and underground cables and pipes, and avoid planting close to foundations. Another benefit is how gardening can be quite an independent activity. The solitude can encourage oneself to discover the forest garden in ones own space and time, depending on personal preferences. Many artists (including ourselves) find gardening a wonderfully creative activity.
GROW, AND EXERCISE ON MOUNDED SLOPES FOR THE HEALTH OF THE PLANTS AND US
Consider what Dan Buettner discusses in his book The Blue Zones on slope. He discusses how walking on sloped ground, such as islands with hills, that adds more work into the exercise (think of an inclining treadmill and the extra work involved). Some slope can be introduced using mounded structures. This kind of simple design modelling can increase the work load on our bodies since we are working across vertical slopes. Growing on mounds can increase the kinds of food and medicines you can grow, by increasing drainage, oxygenating the roots by improving air-soil surface interface and exercise at the same time. In the book Sepp Holzer's Hugelkultur (2011), the author explains his model also uses sloped ground, even at higher altitudes in his case. Here, he stands leaning forward on a slope on the cover of his book. Again, there are exercise benefits that extend beyond improved drainage and more surface area.
Andrew Weil, MD is a mycologist, researcher, writer and holistic health care provider that promotes the health benefits of mushrooms. His many books cover both the alternative and mainstream has helped to bridge the gap between these two areas of health care.
CROSS TRAINING IN THE FOREST GARDEN SPACE
While this seems pretty straightforward, having a gardening routine that encourages a range of motions and activities offers several benefits that can be complicated in the forest garden. Podcasts of discussions or music can offer additional auditory input to contribute to the holistic model. Our observations is that forest gardening (and gardening in general) is based on doing what needs to be done at that time of the year. While perennials mature over time, the needs of the plants change as succession moves along. However, there are still cycles that play out on a yearly basis over the year.
In a related side note, an excellent book Make the Most of Life by Inge Peitzsch and Weidling Verlag offers wonderful illustrated example of how different activities and customs are built into the calendar year. While the book showcases cultural customs of Bavaria, there are examples from around the world (such as those found in cultural anthropology).
We have designed curvilinear walkways to use wheelbarrows and create a system that resembles narrow winding bike paths in the forest garden. There are cul de sacs, but overall the larger pathways link together. Some of our forest garden is still under development, but most of it is already there (after years of landscaping). This is comparable to cross-training exercises used to give our bodies a range of motions to reduce repeated overuse of certain muscles and joints. A balance of semi-aerobic workout, lifting weights, flexibility and stretching through a range of motions helps to reduce strain on specific parts or our bodies. Designing the garden can also be improved by adding ergonomically designed spaces.
In this article, we began by explaining the need to take ownership of one's own health care in preventing disease. Our health providers wouldn't be so overworked if people tried harder to better care for one another and themselves.While we hurry around to attend to our needs in life, it is commonplace to avoid caring for one's own needs.
The six key points we discussed include: season extension of several crops, greater yields, in some cases more nutrient density, more variety of food and medicinals, UV protection from the canopy, and ergonomic benefits that can improve exercise ability and cross training in the forest garden. See a more detailed discussion of many of these points in the book Farming the Woods, by Mudge and Gabriel.
Lastly, we briefly introduced many health and wellness authors and their works. Many wellness and alternative health care approaches are working to attempt to offer a more holistic model of health and wellness. Cross training in the forest gardening reflects the different motions, activities and locations that gardeners move and operate within a living, dynamic and evolving work space. Together, people in the forest garden are integrated, reflecting the holistic model of health care, and the reciprocity between nature and society.
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Andrew Weil, MD is a holistic health care writer and health provider. His knowledge of mycology has helped to promote the health benefits of Asian cultures by incorporating mushrooms into Western diets.
Louis Pasteur was a renowned French bacteriologist and scientist.