Brandon Smith (Redwoodtwig)

The (Art) Forest Garden Adventure

I follow two basic rules when applying permaculture and ecological principles to the results of the work that I or my partner, mother nature, do in the forest garden.

Is it beautiful and does it work?  If either one is false, something is not right.  For instance, mother nature has allowed a large number of bush honeysuckle to set up homes here.  They are beautiful in the spring flowering, however, they don't work well -- they are greedy invasive exotics that rob everyone else in the garden of light and nutrients.

The adventure is chronicled in five parts:

1.  Introduction (this page)

2. Practical Ecology:  Permaculture  My approach to the process.

3. Walkabouts My informal garden and art journals

4. The Garden Book  By location

5. Crop sharing and participation  

Bald cypress with skirt down

I've let the bald cypress on the left spread it's branches where it wants to toward the east and south. Makes an excellent place for a hammock.


The mission of the Redwoodtwig Art Garden Studios is to create and sustain a permaculture based forest garden with indoor and outdoor studio spaces in which to learn, teach, and create beauty in harmony with nature; and along the way to encourage nature to grow healthy and delicious food crops.

The nature with which I want to harmonize is located on 9.85 acres with a house a couple of outbuildings in southern Boone County, Missouri. Humans do gardening and nature does forest. Here I want to let nature do most of the work with her existing forest and to let me garden parts of it for goodies like blackberries and aesthetically pleasing places to simply be in.

I have tried various methods of gardening over the years, but until I "retired," I wasn't putting in the kinds of hours passion requires.  In fact, up until last year, this place was simply doing its thing, sometimes called forest succession, with little or no intervention from me.  A couple years before that I had started turning my attention to what exactly  nature was doing with her existing forest.

I have over a hundred books about gardening, ecology, nature and related subjects, and by far the most interesting seemed to be the ones linked to Permaculture, starting with Bill Mollison's Permaculture A Designers' Manual.  I was able to attend a day of a workshop with him in Maryland in the early 80's where he told us that in order to make a permaculture operation work, you had have at least 100 acres that you'd inherited from your Grandparents.  This was a bit discouraging to one who had a 2/3 acre plot and no grandparent farms.  So the idea of using a permaculture design in my gardening efforts was put on the back shelf.

He was right, of course, because for him doing permaculture is producing enough food and non-food crops to support a small community, a full time job, one that you (and others working with you) have to love going out and doing every day.  You have to enjoy the thrill of doing battle with nature every day -- but of course, for practical ecological soundness, dancing with nature is a better metaphor.  Same physically demanding work, things like digging ditches and cutting down trees, but with an entirely different mindset: Dancing with your shovel or chainsaw instead of going into combat.

One of my goals for retirement was to turn more of my attention to the garden, and as I renewed my research into gardening technology, I found "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemenway.  There's a reason it is the best-selling permaculture book in the world:  it's a good read and, it applies to very small yards where gardening hours are limited due to job as well as to the 100 acre farm you inherited from your grandfather.  This book showed me how permaculture is  practical way to design and nurture a 9.85 acre forest garden.    

It turns out that there is a very large amount of detailed information about how the ecology of garden works.  One of the best resources for temperate climate forest gardening is the large and heavy-duty 2 volume Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke, with Eric Toensmeier.  But even the many pages of tables covering most of the common plants and how they interact with the ecology only scratch the surface.  It will take years to learn this stuff.

More importantly for me is that it is a local way of doing something about a global problem.  By accumulating biomass here, and doing water catchment and soil building activities, I'm doing good things with carbon.  And also having some nice fresh plant products that don't need energy costs other than my own, and not that much of mine, since once I set up a permaculture bed, nature will do most of the work just fine for quite a few years.  

However, there are downsides -- a permaculture design has to be a long term one.  The basic building block of most plant guilds is a tree, and trees tend to go from very small to very big, eventually.  So the bed you set up for your tomatoes won't work if you plant a tree that starts shading it out in 10 or 20 years -- your design plan needs to keep in mind that plants to move, both horizontally and vertically, even if it is in slow motion.

The other downside is that there is a lot of physical labor involved, even if one has access to earth moving equipment.  Hence, I'm looking for people who want to learn about permaculture by doing it.  Money helps, of course, but when dancing with nature, nothing beats an aware human being doing the work.

Woodland swales and cleanup

Woodland swales and cleanup

There are 4 or 5 existing drain paths through the woods that would benefit from a cross swale water catchment modification. Only this and one other have visible left over trash from previous owners. In some cases, like this tire, the trash can be used in the dam aspect of the swales; but mostly trash needs to picked up and removed.

2016 map of RAGS

This version was built on the Google Maps My Maps platform. On there it tells me the acerage of each area and also will let me load photos or videos for the areas and for specific points within them.

What grows in this garden: The Garden Book

My initial approach was to come up with a way to inventory what nature is doing.  And to work out a process for applying permaculture principles to what I found. To that end, I divided the property up into areas and within the areas have started to identify specific features for further study and sometimes support work.  These areas are the chapters of the garden book.

The areas include both the natural and the human use areas, since ecology demands we include everything that's in the local environment.  I think of the human use areas as the negative space, with everything else being the garden; though that is not strictly true since various kinds of animal and plant life also live in the human use area along with the humans, such as cats and their fleas.

Many permaculture operations start with green building new human use areas, off the grid and self-sustaining.  While that would be great, there is an existing house here connected to and dependent on the grid.  If I won the lottery, I could certainly replace the house with a much more permaculture friendly space, but if I won the lottery I'd be more likely to find another place were noise pollution from the highway was not an issue.  In the meantime, there is plenty of opportunity to at least bring the human use areas into harmony with the natural areas on this property.

Walkabouts: The garden journal

Whenever I go out into the garden, I usually have a camera of some kind with me and most of the time I record a few interesting things that go into walkabout journal entries.  Most of these also show up in the Garden Book according to where they were taken.

Learning and outdoor exercise opportunities

Crop Sharing and Participation

If you want to learn more about the local ecology and are looking for outdoor exercise, there are plenty of opportunities for various kinds of physical labor, from digging to chain saw work. Some schools or courses even offer credit for doing things like invasive plant control work. There is plenty of that kind of work on this place.

There are also plenty of chores related to the studio and art aspects of RAGS.

From time to time, I can afford to pay for labor, but for the most part I'd rather work out some kind of trade. Contact me below if you are interested.