Robert A de J - a biography of the author of The Forest Garden

Andy Langford
Tuesday, 31st October 2000

Andy Langford pays tribute to a generous, spiritual man who produced some of the most important permaculture literature

"No epicure dish served at the most expensive restaurant can compare with fresh fruit, organically grown without chemicals, picked from one's own garden."

- The Forest Garden by Robert Hart

Robert Hart died peacefully on the 7th March 2000 at a nursing home in Church Stretton, Shropshire. It was not a great surprise as I knew he had been ailing over the last few years, but I am sad that this remarkable visionary is lost to us.

I first became aware of his powerful contribution as an action researcher in the field of sustainability in 1985 when I picked up his joint work with Sholto-Douglas on Forest Farming (1973). This was my introduction to the notion of perennial agriculture in general and agroforestry in particular. My imagination was inspired (and still is) by the foresightedness and the practicality of their work and my own visions filled with images of abundant, dynamic and lifefull landscapes, worldwide, carpeted with verdant forests.

Later in that year I attended my first permaculture design course (PDC) in France. Now, far more inspired, I returned to England ready to forward the work of sustainable development as best I could. A significant disappointment to me was that all the case study material presented on the PDC was drawn from the US, Asia, Africa and France. As far as I was aware I was returning home to a permacultural desert. England and the rest of the British Isles were part of the problem it seemed and not part of the solution.

Imagine then my joy and delight when I discovered that, on a permaculture pilgrims progress around England on my bike in the spring of 1986, Robert Hart not only lived in Shropshire but had installed his radical, world changing version of agroforestry in his back yard in Wenlock Edge, Church Stretton.

I pedalled there immediately and spent three instructive and happy hours, generously and patiently guided by Robert, in his now famous Forest Garden. Seeing his work, his theory in action there on the ground made it so much easier for me, as a novice, to dare to take up the daunting task of teaching permaculture here. So, in a very real way, Robert was a mentor and support person who enabled much of the current expansion of permaculture in Britain today.

Amongst the many learnings Robert offered on that day, two in particular stood out for me. One was his commitment to converting the large scale concept of agroforestry practice into a form appropriate to any and everyone's garden in Britain. His original Forest Garden (the first of many international peace forests he envisaged) occupies an eighth of an acre and, as he pointed out, even that is quite large. His evidence that any sized garden could use the principle of stacking perennial plants to create multi-dimensional food forests has been and still is one of the most useful gifts to sustainability anyone could have made.

The other equally powerful learning Robert embodied, as he chatted animatedly amongst the fruit trees, was just how much one person can do to move things forward when they give themselves permission to work their visions out of the realms of thought and practice. This remains a core inspiration to me and is, I believe, an essence of permaculture.

In 1987 Robert published (with Nicholas Albery's Institute for Social Inventions) details of his experiments in a slim manual entitled The Forest Garden. This became a best-seller for Ecologic Books for several years and so the spread of the Forest Garden concept commenced.

In the following years many learners of permaculture have visited the Forest Garden at Church Stretton either on their own pilgrimages or with design courses from all over Britain. Robert enjoyed the visits very much for the most part, although in later years there was some danger that we would overwhelm him. Happily, a number of our people volunteered from time to time to help maintain and develop his several projects. For, although I have mentioned his original Forest Garden, there was much more to see and experience there on the Wenlock Edge, including his arboretum, the fruiting hedge, the withy plantation, a German mound, a novel irrigation system, the hut with wind charger and Robert's thought provoking collection of edible herbs, sallet plants and fruiting bushes and trees.

One of my abiding delights as a leader on some of these visits was to watch a group of fifteen to twenty people disperse around the Forest Garden in full leaf. In 20 minutes almost no-one would be visible and the only evidence that this little patch was densely occupied was the steady hum of obscured voices. If ever we want to know how a densely populated country can seem cosily private we have the answer to hand – cover it with food forests.

I have one regret. Robert, a generous and spiritual man who yearned for a Gandhian-based community, lived a somewhat dusty and isolated lifestyle and experienced the stress and pressure of being the primary carer for his disabled brother for many years. Whilst we did make a big difference to his isolation by seeking out his wisdom and visiting him to see the Garden, we never did find a practical solution to adequately surrounding him with support in his old age.

I think of Robert time and again as I breakfast on summers days on loganberries, blackcurrants, alpine strawberries and cherries harvested from my forest garden in my tiny back yard in Oxford. Robert lives on in hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of temperate forest gardens that have since sprung up all over the world because of the years of his thoughtful and visionary work. Robert enriched the planet for sure and that is no mean feat.

Andy Langford, is a Trustee of the Permaculture Association (Britain) and Principal of the Permaculture Academy.