You guys are in for a treat today! I'm interviewing Karl Treen creator of the Food Forest card game and founder of Permaculture Providence. I happened upon Karl on instagram (@foodforestcardgame) and I have been enjoying his informative and often humorous posts ever since.
Most of you have probably heard about Permaculture before and seen pictures of beautiful and productive food forests. This is what Permaculture is known for (though it is so much more). Karl, a certified Permaculture designer put his passion for Permaculture into playing cards, the Food Forest card game, with multiple games that help others learn about Permaculture. Man oh man, I am thoroughly impressed with what he created! So let's meet Karl.
Karl, how long have you been studying/ practicing permaculture? When did you go from being a computer programmer to a permaculturalist?
I earned my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2014 from Geoff Lawton’s online course. I always feel like I need to defend this course whenever I mention it. Even though it’s an online course, it really is amazing! Permaculture is a design science and, as a science, it requires a good deal of bookish study in order to understand the details. This course, spread over several months, walked me through every section of Mollison’s Permaculture, a Designer’s Manual. In a shorter course, I don’t think I ever would have finished the book.
Technically, I am still a computer programmer. I work part-time at Brown University, which gives me the luxury to spend lots of time with my garden and my family. It also gives me a brain that makes connections. As I studied Permaculture, I began to see organisms in nature as collections of properties and functions. Like computer programs, organisms have inputs and outputs by which they relate to the surrounding world; this metaphor was the basis of my card game. The vast web of connections between the various organisms in a food forest is incomprehensible to the human mind. Using models, like this input-output
You started the Food Forest Card Game in 2016 but in a way, it has been in the works since your childhood and your desire to one day have a forest that was filled trees and plants that all provided food. Tell us a little more how your love of gardening/ Permaculture came about.
Thank you for asking. And thanks, also, for the opportunity to tell my story!
My interest in food forests probably first came from my interest in foraging. As a kid, I was never happier than when I was eating something out of the forest. Whenever berry season came along, I was in heaven. I remember my first beach plum, from a neighbor who had a small, unproductive little bush in his front yard. He didn’t much care for them but, to me, the very idea that food could just be picked and eaten has always been incredibly compelling. I always wanted more than I could forage. My dream was someday to live in a forest where everything was edible, where fruit and nuts were abundant, and where the forest would provide everything I needed.
Fast forward to 2013. I was now in my mid 40’s and had a yard, a vegetable garden and some fruit trees, vines and bushes of my own. I had killed a lot of trees over the years, but there were a few winners in the mix. Still, I dreamed of doing it better. One day I did a web search for “Forest of Food” just to see if anyone had ever planted one. To my great surprise, this was really a thing! People were doing it, especially in warmer climates, but there were some notable temperate food forests, too. One food forest was especially exciting to me. Eric Toensmeier & Jonathan Bates’s Paradise Lot is a book about their “Food Forest Farm” in Holyoke, MA. This site appeared to be in zone 5, while I was in 6b. That book confirmed to me that a food forest could be a reality, even in colder climates.
My fascination with Toensmeier’s work led me to Bill Mollison, Geoff Lawton and Permaculture in general. I quickly realized that, while food forests were a rarity in New England, there was great potential here. At the time, I didn’t realize how much potential there was!
Before we go on everyone has to know that not only did you come up with the idea of the game and design it, you also created all the botanical drawings for the game. The amount of time it must have taken to create the drawings for 66 cards! Tell us a little bit about that process and how you decided which plants to use in the Food Forest card game.
Funny that you mention that. I am not a professional artist. While I have always had a knack for drawing things that interest me, my sister (Cynthia Treen) is the real artist in the family. I only decided to draw the cards myself because I couldn’t afford an illustrator. One day, out of pure frustration, I ripped a clover plant out of the front yard and just started drawing it. It didn’t have a flower, so I found one online and drew it on the top. A botanist would probably realize pretty quickly that this is a franken-clover, but the picture looked good to me, so a few days later I drew a praying mantis. It took me awhile to realize that I would be able to illustrate the entire deck. One friend tried to help, but he gave up after realizing how long it took. I drew that first picture, the clover, in Oct 22, 2015. The final picture I drew was the goumi, on May 10, 2016, almost 7 months later. I just kept at it, from fall to spring. In the end there were 44 unique cards in the deck, so I guess it was around 150 hours of actual drawing time.
Looking back at the first draft, it now strikes me how many cards were swapped out for others. I was trying to maintain a balance between many different elements. I didn’t want too many climbers and too few trees, for example, and I needed a certain number of nitrogen fixers to make games playable. Every icon: food, water, pollinator attractor, ground cover, and trellis, had to be well-represented. I also wanted the layers: like canopy, understory, climber, etc. to be about equal. I duplicated some cards, to create balance. I remember stacking and sorting my sample decks in many ways, trying to find the best ratios of one thing to another. In the end, not everything could be equal, just because of the nature of things. But I guess that’s kind of how a garden is, too. In retrospect, this also explains why the goumi was the last card. I still needed both a shrub and a nitrogen fixer, so it was a very valuable addition to the deck - and to your food forest!
My kids and I have been playing the game Picklet and having so much fun with it. Even my 5-year-old is playing with us. Picklet is the easiest game. There are more challenging games, but I think it is great that it is so versatile and even little kids can get involved. That being said it is helpful to have a little understanding of what a plant guild is or how plants interact with each other when playing the games. Can you explain to us how they work?
A guild is simply companion-planting by another name. When you are using a companion-planting strategy, one plant benefits from the qualities or behaviors of another plant. These beneficial qualities or behaviors can each be considered inputs of one plant and outputs of the other.
In the Food Forest card game, every element in a garden is imagined to have inputs and outputs. For example, a fruit tree might need cross-pollination, so it would rely on the other pollinator attractors in the food forest to make sure there was a healthy population of pollinators living in the forest. The pollinator icon (a bee, of course) would therefore be one of its inputs. The tree might, when mature, be strong enough to serve as a trellis for other plants. In this case, the trellis would be an outputof the tree. You can quickly see how it might be useful to plant a climbing vine with lots of flowers, close to the tree. Of course, in real life, you need to be careful about how aggressive your climbers are, and how strong your trees are. It might be even more helpful if they bloomed at the same time, though a succession of flowering plants is also necessary for a healthy ecosystem. There are always going to be limits to what you can teach in a game.
When everyone hears about Permaculture they usually think about gardening. Yes, gardening is a major part of Permaculture, but it is so much more. Tell us a little bit about systems and how these are represented in the Food Forest card game.
I tried to express more complex Permaculture concepts both in the Food Forest card game rules, and in the descriptions on each card. For example, the game Homesteader forces you to place your cards in proximity to the home in much the same was as you might build your Permaculture zones. In order to do well in the game, you need to place your “zone 1” elements close to the home. Your “zone 5” elements will probably be further away. This concept of “Permaculture zones” is crucial to designing a successful Permaculture homestead.
Cards like the Barn card give you a good idea of how one element can serve many functions. Conversely, playing any of the games will introduce you to the notion of using multiple elements for one function. These are just a few ways that the deck can be used to illustrate the Permaculture concept of “functional analysis”.
Many games incorporate the notion of sun orientation, and the cards help you with that. Some cards cast shade on their neighbors, while others might require full sun. Sun orientation is very important in Permaculture. Observing your hot spots and your shady places (aka microclimates) and planting accordingly, is crucial to a successful food forest. Because of sun orientation, I had to create a PDF version of the deck that was made specifically for the southern hemisphere. Their sun requirements are a little different than ours, so I had to tweak a few things. The deck does not handle the sun orientation of the tropics very well. In general, the deck represents a temperate, or seasonal, much climate better than a tropical one.
Below the description on many of the cards is a word that describes the layer of the forest in which this element is most likely to be found. Layering is another concept that is crucial to building a good food forest.
There are other concepts expressed in the cards, and more games can be created to demonstrate other ideas. I have a friend who is a doctor in mathematics teaching at an Ivy League college. She once described the deck as a “combinatorial explosion”, which is a term that I like very much. In other words, she believes that it is impossible to calculate the total number of ways in which the cards could be combined. In this, I hope that the deck can give players a tiny glimpse of the complexity that can be created in their own food forests.
*In Permaculture zones are created by how often you visit them. Zone 1 is closest to your house because you visit it the most. So in this zone you would probably have your kitchen garden.
Ok, now that we have the basics down let’s see how the game works. We will start with Picklet since it is the easiest and probably what most people will start with.
Picklet isn’t the only game. There are several others such as Homesteader (this is what we want to learn next) and customers are coming up with their own games as well. Which game is your favorite? What is the object of the game?
I like Homesteader. The goal is to establish a homestead using your share of cards.
It is plain to see that you are passionate about sustainability and helping people learn to grow their own food. Your card game is printed in the US at an environmentally friendly printing company, Omnicolor Printing in Rhode Island from responsibly sourced materials. Furthermore, every time a customer purchases a deck of cards they are also making a contribution to the Eden Project. What a wonderful non-profit! They plant millions of trees EVERY MONTH and they do it in a quite a unique way. Explain to the readers how this project works.
I would really like to direct readers to the Eden Projects to learn more. It is such a great organization, and they have a variety of sites from Haiti to Madagascar, each with its own strategy. Overall, the organization teaches local communities to replant their own forests. Communities are given the resources to raise and plant trees, and incentivized to protect the forests once they are established. Beyond that, the projects appear to be catered specifically to the needs of the communities they serve.
Karl, you yourself do much volunteer work and you are the founder of Permaculture Providence. At Permaculture Providence you work on building community and teaching children as well as adults about Permaculture, regenerative gardening, and reforestation. Through this organization and others, you have been involved in many projects. Can you tell us about some of your current projects?
Currently, I am wrapping up my work with the Ocean State Montessori School. I have been volunteering with them for 5 years, teaching the kids about gardens, and running an “edible landscape committee” made up of volunteer parents who go into classrooms and help with garden upkeep.
Permaculture Providence has been through an interesting evolution in 2018/2019. After running it very actively for the first few years, I realized that we needed other people to be more involved. The only way to inspire that has been to pull back and act in an advisory role. I still host a seed swap or a pot-luck a few times a year, but I am asking others to contribute more to the process. While the group has contracted a bit, we are starting to grow again. Running a volunteer organizations is a challenge.
My primary focus, at the moment, is planting my own new yard. This spring the project has really started swinging! You can follow my progress on Instagram (@foodforestcardgame) or Facebook (just search for “Food Forest Card game”).
Before we go, there are several blank cards in the game where you can add your own plants or structures which is awesome, and we will definitely be utilizing them as well as the downloadable blank cards on your website, but this leads me to my next question. This is also my kid’s number one question for you, are you going to be making any more card sets that we can buy to add to our game?
A lot of people ask that question. I certainly intend to. Running a small business raising money for charity takes a lot of time and energy. I wish it were easier, and less expensive, to create expansion packs. I will get there, never fear, but please don’t hold your breath!
My daughter had one more question that I think is a common question because there isn’t as much information on it. I see the question get asked a lot. Can you suggest any plants for colder short season climates? We live in zone 3 and there are never very many suggestions in Permaculture and gardening books for cold climates like ours.
Zone 3 is tough! but I do have a few suggestions. I love honeyberries (haskap bushes), which should be just fine in your zone. I also believe that there are beach plums (prunus maritima) that are hardy to zone 3, but you might want to put those in a sunny corner, with a little shelter from the wind. I also LOVE hosta shoots and flowers. I am pretty certain you can grow them in zone 3. If they have a hard time, put a cold frame over them in the winter. With any plant that you buy, there may be some cultivars that are hardier than others. Make sure you get one of the more hardy types. If you can find one that has been bred up north, even better!
You will want to focus on creating micro-climates for anything that needs to make it through the winter. Sometimes you can create warm spots that will raise the temperature enough to overwinter some plants that wouldn’t normally survive in your zone. That might mean placing them next to south-facing stone walls, or using landscape blocks to create semi-circles that focus the heat on your plants. This can work much like a satellite dish, to absorb and radiate the rays throughout the winter sun’s arc. If you want to really warm things up, paint the stones black. Just be careful not to cook your plants in the summertime!
Thank you, Karl for taking the time to do this interview with me and giving us a little insight on Permaculture. You have created a great game and learning tool that I’m sure sparks the enthusiasm of many! Your volunteer work is inspiring and I hope it encourages my readers to get out there and get involved in their communities helping others to learn about sustainability and growing their own food. Is there anything else that you would like to share before we go?
Just a big thank you - to you, and to everyone else who has supported this project! Your support means so much to me!
Karl has a great Instagram feed where he shares all kinds of valuable information about gardening and creating a food forest. You can find him @foodforestcardgame. If you would like to purchase the Food Forest card game, please visit his site https://foodforestcardgame.com. You can also follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FoodForestCardGame/
So are you inspired? Are you biting at the bit to plant your own food forest? Well be sure to get yourself some Food Forest playing cards first to help you plan all your plant guilds and learn about regenerative gardening all while playing fun games! . Really, they are a great resource to have!
Happy planting and thanks for stopping by!
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Hello, I'm Jaci. I look forward to sharing my gardening and homestead adventures to help you reach your gardening goals! If you have any questions then don't be shy, I'd love to hear from you. Send me a message and I will be glad to help!