"Obviously, few of us are in a position to restore the forests.. But tens of millions of us have gardens, or access to open spaces such as industrial wastelands, where trees can be planted. and if full advantage can be taken of the potentialities that are available even in heavily built up areas, new 'city forests' can arise..."1
A pioneer in the the agroforestry and permaculture movements, described by many as a gentle, wise man, an innovator, an environmental genius. Robert Hart lived in Shropshire, England, where he created the first forest garden.
His Work and Life
Forest gardens around the world provide a lasting, living tribute to Robert Hart. They are an invention which grew out of the permaculture movement.
Permaculture and agroforestry are based on the principles of sustainable organic gardening mimicking the Earth's natural biomes.
Robert Hart's greatest achievement was to take these principles and concentrate them into a form available to anyone with a little space. A tiny backyard; a patio; an abandoned lot; any of these can be turned into a dense miniature forest.
Hart began developing this model in the 1960s, in the United Kingdom near the Welsh border. He and his brother Lacon both lived with severe learning disabilities, and Robert began experimenting with permaculture gardening to create a therapeutic, healthy environment for the two of them. He discovered that their beds of perennial plants required very little intervention, and began to study the way different plants worked together in a garden. Robert became an influential ecologist and wrote many books about agroforestry and forest gardening.
He was also very interested in alternative health issues. He studied the benefits of many of the edible plants in his garden, and adopted an entirely vegan and ninety percent raw food diet. His interest in health went beyond food; for example, he has written about sinus health:
"The human being is intended by nature to be a singer. The head has three pairs of sinuses, the only known function of which is to act as resonators corresponding to the three 'registers' of the singing voice. If they are not used for that purpose, they tend to get clogged with mucus, causing headaches and catarrhal troubles. Everyone should take singing lessons, as singing is one of the most health-promoting of all activities."5
The forest garden he developed is still a famous and well-visited example of his innovations.
"Stepping into the Forest Garden is like entering another world. All around is lushness and abundance, a sharp contrast to the dust bowl aridity of the surrounding prairie farmed fields and farmlands. At first the sheer profusion of growth is bewildering, like entering a wild wood. We’re not used to productive landscapes appearing so disorderly. But it doesn’t take long for the true harmony of nature’s systems to reveal themselves, and the realisation sinks in that in fact it is the Agribiz monocultures, with their heavy machinery, genetic manipulation, erosion, high water inputs, pesticides and fertilisers which are in a total state of maintained chaos."3
There are several major benefits of these gardens. First, they provide everyone with a means to help replace the Earth's natural habitats. Urban areas, for example, don't have to be grim concrete expanses broken only by stark buildings: they can be covered, slowly but surely, with the seven layers of plants that had been sacrificed for that city.
Second, they make good financial sense. Not only do forest gardens not require owning a backyard, but they don't even have to take up a lot of money. As any dumpster diver knows, people, department stores, and garden centers throw out living plants all the time because they're not selling, they're overgrown, they've begun to turn brown, most of them are dead, and so on. Anyone who can find a neglected patch of land and some abandoned plants can begin their own forest garden there. And they provide a tremendous amount of food, because they are so densely packed with fruit trees, herbs, beans, and other edible plants. After all, every vegetable we grow is a blow against global capitalism.
Third, after the first year or two they do most of their own upkeep. People may choose to prune the trees, but who ever heard of anyone having to weed or water a forest? And they're generally organic: Robert Hart devoted a large part of his life to teaching people how to use safe herbal pesticides and fertilizers.4 His writings teach people how to work with the rhythms of nature, and how to make gardens that produce different crops all year round.
"To me Robert was a true 20th Century hero, whose contribution to our sense of possiblity far, far outstripped the sad, small values my generation have been encouraged to see as aspirational.
"I'm proud to have met him, and hope that I can do the best I can to carry forward the vision that he had of productive city forests and edible landscapes replacing the grey concrete jungles and factory farmed 'countrysides' in which so many of us exist."2 - Graham Burnett
The Forest Garden, published by Institute For Social Inventions
Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, published by Green Books and Chelsea Green Pub Co.
Beyond The Forest Garden, published by Gaia Books
Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation, written with Sholto Douglas, published by Intermediate Technology
How to Make a Forest Garden, written with Patrick Whitefield, published by Permaculture Resources
- Ecosociety, published by Eco Books
- The Inviolable Hills: the ecology, conservation and regeneration of the British uplands, published by Eco Books
All are available through their publishers at sites like ecobooks.com and chelseagreen.com, as well as Powell's Books.
Robert Hart died on the 7th of March, 2000, but lives on in his gardens.
3. VOHAN News International, issue 2, available from ‘Anandavan, 58 High Lane, Chorlton, Manchester, M21 9DZ, UK (quoted at http://www.gburnett.unisonplus.net/Forest/page2.html)