Starting an Edible Forest Garden
Our Start at Boxwood
A flexible concept
From the beginning I have thought of the forest garden as quite a flexible concept. Basically, if we start with any part of the homestead and make it a more complex, multifunctional polyculture, we have created in essence a forest garden, however small the scale. For example, I have managed my poultry flocks on our acre of pasture for two decades. Last year I decided to take a somewhat static model and make it a bit more interesting: I planted two mulberries and three chestnut trees on the pasture. As ground cover under the trees, I planted comfrey. As the trees grow, they will provide shade for my chickens, ducks, and geese, who will also self-harvest the comfrey and the dropped fruit from the mulberries. When the chestnut weevils—one of the biggest challenges to growing these nuts—are going to ground in the fall, or emerging in the spring, they will be feasted on by the sharp-eyed birds. Note how even this small step toward making a forest garden (perennial polyculture) illustrates key aspects of the forest garden: Producing more food on the same piece of ground (the addition of chestnuts; and mulberries for both us, the chickens, and wild birds) where before there was only pasture forage for the flock. The use of dynamic accumulators to heighten soil fertility while producing food (in this case comfrey plays both roles) for us or our livestock. Relying on animal predators (in this case chickens) to solve problems of insect damage, rather than toxic sprays.
I am also experimenting with opening up an existing bit of woodland to forest garden. Many of the nut trees are quite large, so to make room for them I have to cut some swaths into my woods edges. Since I use black locust for fence posts, I am trying to coppice all the locusts I cut down for rapid growth of new trunks for posts. Similarly, I hope to coppice all the hickories I have to cut, and reserve the new growth for tool handles.
I will be planting nine nut trees (which arrived as I write!): two black walnuts, a shagbark hickory and a shellbark hickory, two pecans, a hican (hybrid between hickory and pecan), a heartnut, and a Carpathian walnut. Since there are already established wild hickories and black walnuts in my woods, I am confident that grafted cultivars of these related species should do well here.
A woodland garden
A fold in the land through our woods tends to stay moist through most of even the driest season. Last year in this space I transplanted ramps (wild leek, Allium tricoccum); and with spring they are making it obvious they like their new environs. Despite an earlier failure with ginseng and goldenseal, I plan to try again with both this year in this new location. Other plants that will go into this area as soon as they arrive are downy rattlesnake plantain, pipsissiwa, spotted wintergreen, sweet cicely, wild ginger (Asarum spp.), bloodroot, angelica, and meadowsweet. Along the edges of this forest area we have planted many brambles—wineberries, black cap raspberries, etc.
I am excited about the potential for using mushroom species in the forest garden for both edible and medicinal mushrooms, and to speed the decomposition of thinned trees. I inoculate the occasional hardwood tree I cut down with spawn for shiitake mushrooms, a fine edible considered excellent for health as well. This year I will be “plugging” hardwood logs and stumps with reishi spawn (Ganoderma lucidum, highly prized in Asia as a medicinal), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor, medicinal), and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus, edible).
Most of the trees I am cutting are heavenwood or tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), a prolific invasive species from China. When we cut this species—the wood of which is too light to make decent lumber or firewood—we load the bar oil reservoir in the chain saw with mycospored oil, a vegetable oil carrying a heavy load of mushroom spore. While lubricating the chain as petroleum oil would, it inoculates stump, log, and slash with every cut of the saw. We cut the trunk into many short sections to increase the areas of inoculation, and cut the slash enough to ensure close contact with the ground. One can buy mycospored oils for several species—we are using oyster mushroom spore (Pleurotus ostreatus) because it is so aggressive (greatly speeding decomposition of the colonized wood), so indiscriminate (will colonize many species of felled trees), and so delicious an edible mushroom.
I am also experimenting with two other edible species to speed decomposition of thinning slash and woodchips in the edges of our woods: blewitts (Lepista nuda) and king stropharia (Stropharia rugoso annulata, also known as wine cap stropharia). [For more on the exciting uses of mushrooms as decomposers, edibles, medicinals, and for bioremediation, see the latest book by Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running. Paul’s company Fungi Perfecti is a great source for spawn, equipment, and “all things mushroom.”]