Written by Isidora Bugarski
What is a food forest, and who are the people who decide to live in it?
You would think they are probably some extreme introverts, but you would be surprised as I was when I heard Marko Simić’s story.
Marko is a director by profession; he received his master’s degree in film direction in Prague, where he lived for 12 years. As a director, he made music videos, short feature films, commercials, television series, documentaries, etc. His life in Prague flourished materially; he received awards and had his own production house and construction company. Eventually, he realised that even though he was doing everything he could to be successful, it didn’t make him happy. For a long time, he was dissatisfied and desired a change. Marko realised that the more “successful” he was, the less satisfied he was. At one point, he got tired of running around in a world of material abundance, wherein he couldn’t imagine a good life for his family.
How did he end up in a Spanish village and get involved with a food forest?
Sun was a very important factor to his family because the Czech Republic is quite cloudy and dreary, and so is the mood of the people living there; they didn’t feel happy. He found out via Google that Cadiz is one of the sunniest cities in Europe and bought a ticket. The idea wasn’t to move right away, but when they went there and saw how people there lived, time seemed to stop. People in Cadiz were in a better mood, more polite, and kinder. He says it felt as if they were in a fairytale. It took them 15 minutes to make the decision to move there.
Eleven years later, he is still in the same place with his wife and two children. Marko says that there is far less work in the profession, and they live much more modestly, but they say they are incomparably happier than before.
In the meantime, they discovered permaculture and moved into a house on the property, where they planted their “food forest” with the intention of stopping buying mass-produced food.
What is a food forest?
“Food forest” is a term used in permaculture and refers to a forest that has been created to meet as many of our needs as possible — from food to firewood to protection from wind and sun. The idea is to create as diverse, stable and independent an ecosystem as possible, yielding greater bounty while intervening as little as possible. A food forest can contain fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, medicinal herbs, teas, spices, etc.
Marko says that when we think about a food forest, we must imagine a garden of Eden, a harmonious and varied plant environment that provides any food you need and love. Apart from that, it is self-sustaining too. Everything is done in cooperation with nature, and a small ecosystem is created.
The difference between food forests and conventional agriculture is that in conventional agriculture, every season restarts the process of growing plants from the beginning, and a food forest should be self-sustaining and maintain itself. It is like a supermarket where you enter with a basket and take whatever you need. But it is not just a supermarket. It is also a pharmacy in which you don’t need any prescription, only enter and pick up any medicinal herb you need. Everything you need is available, from firewood to shelter to food.
All the plants are connected harmoniously: the taller trees protect the lower trees, the lower trees help vines to climb, and there are bushes of berries and herbaceous plants around them that keep and provide moisture to the others.
What is the first thing we must consider when deciding to make a food forest?
The first step that Marko suggests is to think about the climate we live in and what we can grow in that particular type of climate. The second thing we need to think about is what kind of microclimate we can create in which to grow the plants that are not usually found there. Then we try to fit everything into a harmonious and functional system. When you enter the wild forest, you know that no one is fertilising it or ploughing it, and it still grows; that’s the kind of harmony we are looking for in our food forest.
Comparisons between the mass production of food and the food forest
The most obvious thing we notice in a food forest is that there are no pests, even though nobody is spraying pesticides. Also, most of us are learned that plants can’t be grown without fertilisers, and we don’t even think that there could be another way. The lack of pests in a food forest is accounted for by the diversity of plant species. In nature, there are no places with identical food as in conventional agriculture. Nature doesn’t grow monoculturally. If you have a field with one kind of crop or vegetable, it is a great amount of food for particular species, and it’s hard for nature to ensure balance and provide a space for the particular predators that could eat those pests. We call them pests, but they are living beings that have their role in the chain of life and need to eat. The problem is that we provide them with an overabundance of food, resulting in large concentrations of them and because of that, we call them pests.
Comparisons between the medicine and the food forest
Many would agree with the statement that modern medicine is responsible for us living healthier and longer lives than previous generations, but Marko provides some facts which show that to be an untrue or partial truth. First of all, if we look at the places where the healthiest and longest-lived people are, the so-called Blue Zones, we find that even though they are situated in different parts of the Earth, what they have in common is their lifestyle: they live modestly in nature, they eat food from their own gardens, they hang out with each other and enjoy life in a simple way. Their average life span is 100 years. It is not a result of modern medicine because, in those places, medicine is not well developed. On the other hand, if we consider the unhealthy and unnatural conditions in which we live, the hasty and stressful lives spent in a polluted environment, we would certainly live shorter lives if we didn’t take medicine. But if we would organise our life in a healthier way, then we wouldn’t need medicine to keep us alive artificially. Basically, it helps us to survive but not to live. It may be considered an extreme way of thinking, but he doesn’t think that modern medicine shouldn’t exist, but that medicine and agriculture should focus more on avoiding disease because illness is not a natural state for any living being.
How does conventional agriculture work?
It seems that everything works against nature. For example, fertilisation is something that we invented which doesn’t exist in nature and functions automatically. Plants need some food and minerals for their healthy growth and development, which are made through natural processes in the soil. In order to maintain those processes in the soil and to make larger, more diverse and abundant forests, we need to help those natural processes work faster and more intensively than they would naturally. Conventional agriculture, in trying to imitate those processes and get better results in a faster way, adds organic materials to the soil, whereas in a wild forest, organic material is provided by all the things that fall on the ground. Everything that lives eventually dies and ends up on the ground. It activates microorganisms, bacteria, and fungi that decompose the organic material and make peat in the ground, which is important for the structure of the soil, making it loose enough for the plants’ roots to grow freely. The bacteria have the ability to absorb the minerals that are part of the soil as well as the minerals that come from the air, like nitrogen which is the most important for the plants’ growth. They ‘communicate’ with the plants’ roots and pass those minerals on to them. How does that “communication” work? Every plant secretes substances, mostly sugar, which is food for microorganisms. After that, microorganisms make colonies in the plants’ roots and, in the process, provide minerals that are food for the plants.
What is the main problem in conventional agriculture?
People use fertilisers to feed the plants. On the other hand, in the food forest, we don’t feed the plant; we feed the microorganisms in order to develop their lives in the soil, which is helpful for all the insects and other beings that live in the ground and activate the natural system that feeds the plants. If the plants are fed directly, we are disturbing that food chain in the ground. When the plants are given the food directly, they don’t need to secrete substances for bacteria and as a result, the bacteria die out, the soil becomes poorer, and over time it becomes completely sterile.
The other problem with chemical fertilisers is pollution. It happens that people put much more chemical fertiliser into the soil than the plants actually need. Most of the chemicals go deeper into the ground and pollute underground water, killing a complete, live ecosystem in the ground. Chemical fertilisers make the plants grow faster, and they don’t develop natural resilience and become “easy prey” to the pests, which are treated with other poisonous chemicals. Along the way, other organisms; good insects, etc., are also killed. Like in medicine, people are addressing the symptoms, not the things that cause the problems. The same problems happen in organic agriculture, which uses the same techniques with only one difference: they don’t use chemicals to treat the pests, but organic or natural substances that are less harmful to people but as harmful to other living beings as chemicals.
Another problem is that artificial fertilisers only provide the three most essential elements for plant growth so that the fruits become big, but it actually needs forty-five elements to be healthy. It is as if we would eat just food full of protein and become muscular but not completely healthy. There is also scientific proof of why natural food tastes different from that grown in gardens or fields. Unfortunately, we are used to food grown in conventional modern agriculture.
Interestingly, the industry of conventionally grown food is tied to the industry of making weapons, armour, and other chemicals needed for war. For example, the surplus of the gas used in concentration camps during the 2nd World War was later used as a pesticide. A similar thing happened about a hundred years ago with fertilisers: A German scientist managed to extract nitrogen and oxygen from the air for use in a fertiliser which was later on used in the 1st World War as an explosive.
Permaculture is trying to teach us how to live in harmony with nature. It is not dealing just with food but with overall healthy living. For example: how to build a house, how to properly use energy, how to organise a plot of land, and how to organise people in small communities to facilitate the exchange of the abundance of food they have. The most important principle of agriculture is to maintain healthy ground for food. Everything is done to maintain harmony and not disturb the ground.
The Myth of Weed
In permaculture, there are no “good” or “bad” plants. “Weed” is a term coined by modern agriculture, and those kinds of plants in permaculture are called “soil condition indicators”. Nature always makes sure to grow plants that are able to develop in particular conditions, according to the state of the soil, and their role is to enrich the soil. For example, if the soil is hard, plants that will grow there will be extremely thick, with hard roots because they can easily penetrate the hard ground, and when they die, the part of a plant that is above the ground makes a cover and perfect environment for the microorganism to develop while the thick root will stay inside and make a sort of a canal which widens the soil and when it rotten it will become the food for the microorganisms. With that kind of organic cover, over the years, barren land becomes fertile.
In the food forest, that process is hastened by providing extra biomass, putting an additional cover on the ground that will produce more microorganisms and, therefore, more food for the soil and plants. It is also important to choose plants that are independent, resilient, and provide nutrition for the other plants around them.
How did Marko find all this information?
YouTube was his main source, and he researched everything he was curious about. He says that every question has its answer, but we are the ones who are not brave enough to try something new and different. He thinks that one of the most important things everyone should do when dealing with growing food is to ask themselves questions and try to find different solutions that fit individual cases.
How much time is needed for this way of growing food?
The idea is to be involved as little as possible, but it takes more time to start and build the whole system than it would in conventional gardening. That is the main reason why people rarely decide to start. It requires a lot of patience, and nothing can be done overnight. It also depends on personal preference, and if you want some plants that are not usual for the climate you live in, then it takes more time to create a micro-climate for them. Creating a fully functional system takes from 5 to 10 years. After that, experts say that it takes just two weeks in a year to maintain it.
Fear and Success
Marko thinks that the fear of change has its root in wrongly setting goals in the first place. There is something in modern society that we call “success”, and if you imagine a successful person, what in him do you envy? His stress, bad diet, living in an unhealthy environment? Common people usually associate success with a life that is actually full of suffering. Most people live in big cities, do a job that doesn’t interest them, and spend two hours commuting every day to earn that people usually manage to spend by the end of the month. Living expenses are very high, and in the end, they have nothing, no free time, are always in a rush, and are constantly in need of approval. Their only satisfaction being the money they earn and the things they can buy, but they can’t completely enjoy it because they don’t have enough time.
The Primary Consideration
The main thing that led Marko’s family to reconsider their concept of jobs, housing, place of living, etc., is that they always try to visualise their ordinary day, and when they think about healthy life in a village where the right priorities are set, in a place filled with love, family, and easy living, those are the things that motivate them and provide them with a good quality of life. Many people continue living in the same way, completely aware of its negativity, but without enough courage to make some changes.
Was it Easy to Adjust?
He admits that there was a period of adaptation, but everything went very playfully even though there were times they didn’t have much means, but the dream and the vision of the kind of life they wanted encouraged them that everything would fall into place. When their priorities and determination were firmly set, and they knew that they wanted to live a healthier and happier life, everything was subordinated to that, and they just thought about the right way to achieve it. They have been where they are for the last eleven years, learned Spanish, met many people, and started working.
Advice for People who don’t have Enough Space for a Food Forest
He says it is possible and that he planted his first cherry tomatoes on an apartment balcony. It is called Urban Gardening, and there is much information on YouTube. His strongest suggestion is for people to consider moving to a village and nature. There is no place for fear because everything is better. Even if they face challenges, later they just become great anecdotes. It is not too hard and definitely not as hard as living in an unhealthy city. The process is very creative, and you constantly gain knowledge by questioning yourself and finding natural solutions.
He likes to compare this kind of life with a strategy game in which you put up your goals and look for the solutions and the best ways to achieve them. It’s important to stay open-minded, and everything fits in well. The term “permaculture” means building something permanent and people making permanent places for healthier living.
Everyone who lives in a big city should ask themselves what keeps them living in that unhealthy environment.