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AUGUST MEETING REPORT: John Forti, The Heirloom Gardener

By Donna Mallen for Let's Talk Plants! September 2021.

Note from newsletter editor-in-chief, Karen England to the membership:

Please watch the YouTube recording of the August Zoom meeting before September 4th because it may be removed sometime after that date per the presenter's wishes.

Ethnobotanist John Forti is not only a lecturer, a Facebook blogger, a consultant, an herbalist, an author and a garden designer. He is an enthusiastic mentor and preservationist of our precious heritage of the pre-industrial wisdom passed down to us from the memories of generations past. He’s also a leader in the Slow Food Movement and a proponent of Biodiversity.

His motto:

“Teaching from the past to help create a more sustainable future.”

Throughout his life, from his childhood adventures in the New England woods and gardens, through his formal horticultural education in college, and during his professional career in historical garden restoration and design, he has been in awe of the depth of wonders that nature holds for us.

Over the years that he spent as the researching and re-creating historical gardens as the Director of Horticulture of Plimouth Plantation Museum in Massachusetts, the Curator/Director of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Director of Horticulture for the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Executive Director of the Bedrock Gardens in Lee, New Hampshire, and on numerous public and private children’s gardens and other design projects, he was focused on bringing our ancestral farming and horticultural skills and related crafts back into the modern consciousness.

Through the demonstration gardens he creates, he is able to pass on this knowledge and to engender enthusiasm for our garden heritage by providing living, growing examples from the past. Visitors can travel back in time to experience ancestral crafts and skills in person. They can find the answers to such questions as, “How did humans live when they had to make or grow everything without machines or electricity? And while they were dependent upon local and seasonal sources of food? When pharmaceuticals and chemicals were undiscovered and unavailable to assist them in managing their crops, their animals and their own illnesses?”

Children’s gardens are particularly important to him as inclusions in these living museums. Welcoming 21st Century school children into these teaching gardens and historical recreations of villages and homesteads where the gardens were placed gives the children a lasting understanding of our past and our direct connection with nature. Studies tell us, he warns, that children today can identify fewer than ten plants and animals in the back yard, but they recognize over 1,000 corporate logos.

His book, The Heirloom Gardener: Traditional Plants and Skills for the Modern World, is a wide-ranging compendium of the things he has learned, reviving the ancestral wisdom that has nearly been forgotten.

This relatively short book (264 pages) is an engaging collection of essays, stories, instructions, gardening aphorisms and useful resources, illustrated by vintage-style woodcuts by Mary Azarian. Despite its length, it is so thoughtfully written it seems to hold at least twice as much information as could fit within its covers, yet it’s thoroughly enjoyable to read.

A few examples of the trove of knowledge that you’ll find in the book, which is arranged in brief chapters, by topic:

Biodiversity - Its critical importance in fighting the mass extinction, attributable to human activity, that is currently proceeding at the rate of nearly 200 species per day. How can we help reverse this trend? By creating “green corridors” from yard to yard.

Fiddleheads - How to find and cook fiddlehead ferns, “the asparagus of the woods,” which is high in anti-oxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties.

Language of Flowers - He calls this Victorian concept “the emojis of their day”.

Herbarium - What it is and how to create one for yourself and your children to keep track of your plants’ characteristics and reactions to weather and your plantsmanship.

Dandelions - Why they belong in your lawn.

Mr. Forti offers instructions on many traditional home and garden crafts - how to cook and preserve foods, make perfumes and liqueurs, craft beer, bitters and tonics, and using herbs as seasonings and in medicinal applications.

Speaking of the importance of using and preserving nature’s gifts instead of relying on shortsighted artificial and chemical substitutes, he warns, “Every species lost is another broken strand in the web that supports us.” Let’s support that web.




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