Forest gardening project paves way to sustainable future


The Food Forest in the Flemish Ardennes is training young people hoping to build careers in the sustainability sector

Training in everything from rocket stoves to mushroom growing

When crossing the village of Nokere in the gently undulating landscape of the Flemish Ardennes, you might easily pass by Het Voedselbos (The Food Forest) without much thought. Modestly nested into the surrounding woodlands, this edible forest garden seamlessly blends into its green surroundings. Make no mistake, though, Het Voedselbos is a hive of activity throughout the year.

In addition to producing organic food in abundance, Voedselbos offers practical training and courses in permaculture, ecological designs modelled after natural ecosystems. “Permaculture is not merely about gardening,” says founder Bert Dhondt. “It’s a design system that can be applied to create lifestyles, communities and any project to render them sustainable.” 

Het Voedselbos attracts young people who aim to make sustainability their life’s work. Here they can begin with short courses in anything from cultivating mushrooms to building an energy-efficient rocket stove. “Permaculture is based on the most efficient ecosystem – the natural forest, a vast support network of interlinked, multifunctional elements,” Dhondt says, adding that learning permaculture produces creative and innovative mind-sets based on observation.

In the official Permaculture Design Certificate course, Dhondt explains, students acquire skills through hands-on learning, blending theory with practice. “It’s a science, really, but it’s fun too.”

Hands-on learning

The Food Forest receives subsidies from the Leader Flemish Ardennes chapter – a mix of funding from the EU, the province of East Flanders and the Flemish government – to organise its open workdays. Voedselbos also secured a grant from the Leader funding scheme to set up educational picnics with a local produce box company and to build a straw bale building as a teaching space.

Permaculture is not merely about gardening

- Bert Dhondt

During open workdays, “people can just come and muck in, satisfy their inclinations, help cook an organic meal for up to 25 people, strip bark, learn about seed saving, harvesting, planting – you name it,” Dhondt says. Even the organisation’s cob roundhouse – made of tree trunks, old windows and earth – was built with the help of volunteers.  “Getting the wood and straw roof in place was really hands-on learning for all of us,” says Dhondt. 

With 13 natural top-bar beehives, a polytunnel greenhouse, chickens, fruit, berries, vegetables and flowers, Voedselbos offers a compelling example of just how much permaculture can stimulate biodiversity.  

Sustainability sector

The permaculture design course runs over six weekends from April through October and tackles topics like harvesting rainwater, a natural water-filtering process known as phyto-purification, building with natural materials, renewable energy and food production. It also offers evenings training sessions on leadership skills. 

After those six training weekends, some participants choose to take additional courses with a view to landing a job in the rapidly changing sustainability sector or setting up their own green projects. Others, Dhondt says, use the course knowledge to simplify their lifestyles or try to convert their back yards into natural habitats for endangered species.

Before setting up het Voedselbos project, Dhondt worked at a Steiner school, using gardening as a learning tool for adults with disabilities. Giving that job up to dedicate himself to realising his Voedselbos dream was a challenge, he says, but it made him well-equipped to teach others how to design and implement successful sustainable projects.