Edible Forest Gardens: Following Masanobu Fukuoka's Lead


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Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a farmer and philosopher who was born and raised on the Japanese island of Shikoku. He studied plant pathology and spent several years working as a customs inspector in Yokohama.  While working there, at the age of 25, he had an inspiration that changed his life.  He decided to quit his job, return to his home village and put his ideas into practice by applying them to agriculture.

Over the next 65 years he worked to develop a system of natural farming that demonstrated the insight he was given as a young man, believing that it could be of great benefit to the world.  He did not plow his fields, used no agricultural chemicals or prepared fertilizers, did not flood his rice fields as farmers have done in Asia for centuries, and yet his yields equaled or surpassed the most productive farms in Japan.

Mandarin orange, a main crop of Fukuoka’s food forest.
At one time he was shipping an impressive 90 tons of citrus fruit annually

Many of us in the permaculture and organic movements have read Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, which lays out his ingenious (though hard to replicate) no-till organic rice production system. I was surprised and pleased when, in my job as librarian for theNew England Small Farm Institute in the late 1990s, I stumbled on his Natural Way of Farming, a translation of his 1976 book Shizen Noho. At that time he had already been running his orchard as an organic polyculture food forest for over three decades — since the 1940s! Natural Way of Farming offers much detail about Fukuoka’s methods of grain, vegetable, and fruit production. It was a major inspiration to me as I worked on writing Edible Forest Gardens (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2).

Fukuoka’s food forest (he refers to it as his orchard) is a fantastic example of a warm temperate/subtropical food forest featuring multiple layers, abundant nitrogen-fixers, a diversity of fruits, nuts, and perennial vegetables, with sophisticated use of self-sown and broadcast annual crops. There is much for us to learn from his lifetime of experimentation in his humid, warm-temperate to subtropical climate. This is a good-sized operation, covering ten or more acres. In the 1980s Fukuoka was shipping 200,000 pounds (about 90 metric tons) of citrus annually from 800 citrus trees. (1) 

The book is full of fantastic color photos of his no-till grain, vegetable, and food forest systems. I don’t have rights to them, so get a copy of the book and check them out! Used copies of several editions are available online.

Food forest design

Fukuoka recommends diverse polycultures, starting with mixing deciduous and evergreen fruits.

Never forget to plant green manure trees. (2)

Fukuoka’s nitrogen fixing trees include acacias, alders, autumn olive, wax myrtle (Myrica) and podocarpus. He advocated maintaining a productive and diverse understory.

Using the open space in an orchard to raise an undergrowth of special-purpose crops and vegetables is the very picture of nature. (3)

A natural orchard in which full, three-dimensional use of space is made in this way is entirely different from conventional orchards that employ high-production techniques. For the individual wishing to live in communion with nature, this is truly a paradise on earth. (4)

Food forest establishment

When starting an orchard, the main goals initially should be prevention of weed emergence and maturation of the soil. (p.144)(5)

Fukuoka also advocates for terracing and the use of contour berm-and-basin systems (known as contour swales to many of us in permaculture).

Fukuoka set out his orchard in forest land he had recently cleared. Trunks and branches from land clearing were laid out in windrows on contour — like the hugelculture technique popular in permaculture today.

To establish a natural orchard, one should dig large holes here and there among the stumps of felled trees and plant unpruned saplings and fruit seed over the site, leaving these unattended just as one would leave alone a reforested stand of trees. (6)

Resprouting stumps and weeds were cut or coppiced with a sickle.

He offers some sophisticated ecosystem mimicry advice, listing weed crops by family and replacement crops in the same family. For instance, wild morning glories might indicate planting of sweet potato. Fukuoka advocates a minimal pruning strategy (see below). At establishment, he aims to set up the tree for a lifetime of minimal pruning by establishing a form like its wild character. After 5-6 years, Fukuoka came in and built terraces uphill from each tree row. Then he transitioned the understory to ladino (white) clover (Trifolium repens).

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