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Starting an Edible Forest Garden

Table of Contents

Natural ForestStrategiesBoxwoodCast of Characters

Our Cast of Characters

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Beginning the Conversion

Orchard to forest garden

My main attempt toward establishing a forest garden is the conversion of our existing orchard, consisting of three plums, six apples, three kaki permimmons, five pears, three paw paws, and one each of cherry, juneberry, and mulberry. At the beginning of the growing season last year, I put heavy kill mulches over as much of the orchard as I could manage. In the spaces between the existing fruit trees, I planted an additional cherry, one elderberry, eight filberts (hazelnuts), three gooseberries, two currants, two bush cherries, two Nanking cherries (one each of white and red), and one che (melon tree). Expanding the original area slightly, I also planted two Asian pears and two jujubes. In a couple of weeks, I will plant into this additional area as well two Swiss stone pines (Pinus cembra), which yield edible pine nuts.

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Second Year

As said earlier, it is to my mind wiser strategy to forego fruits and other crop plants that do not thrive in one’s area without extensive spraying or other highly interventionist input. In my case that has meant ripping out the four peach trees I nurtured for years, getting perhaps a dozen ripe peaches for my pains, and planting instead kaki (Oriental) permimmons, jujubes, and pears, all of which are largely disease and insect free in my conditions. At present I’m sticking with the plums, which I often lose either to the late spring frosts typical of my area, or to brown rot. However, I have advised the plums that I am thinking of easier-care alternatives: medlars, loquat, mayhaw, hardy kiwi, and quince.

Apple-comfrey

Comfrey Ground Cover

Starting at ground level

My main effort at ground level so far has been the spreading and maintenance of mulches to kill the existing grass sod to make way for a much more complex herbaceous cover. However, I have made a beginning establishing permanent plantings. I have planted a great deal of comfrey directly under my existing fruit trees. Comfrey is one of the best of all dynamic accumulators, and is a much better ground cover for orchard trees than grass. Its roots grow eight to ten feet into the soil, “mining” it of minerals which it makes available to the more shallow rooted fruit trees. Once comfrey is well established, I harvest this high-protein, mineral-rich plant in large quantities to feed my poultry and the worms in my vermiculture bins, to use as mulches and for “tea” for feeding plants, and to “fire” the compost heap. It is an excellent shelter plant for beneficial insects and spiders. (One study found that a square meter under comfrey might contain 240 spiders.) Its dead foliage should not be “cleaned up” in the late fall, but left in place as overwinter shelter for such beneficials. I strongly recommend comfrey as one of the most useful of all homestead and forest garden plants.

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Hazel and Skirret

Last spring I also started skirret (Sium sisarum), a perennial with an edible root whose flavor resembles parsnip. It is now well established, and I have just expanded the planting through root division. Other edible perennials established last year and ready for further vegetative propagation include perennial bunching onions, garlic chives, violets (both flowers and leaves are edible), and sorrel. Medicinal perennials now well established are Chinese milkvetch (Astragalus membranaceus, one of the most important Chinese medicinal herbs), feverfew, lamb’s ear, and yarrow. Herbs of value culinarily and as enhancers of beneficial insect populations include chamomile, lemon balm, catnip, and anise hyssop. Small fruits which went in at ground level last year are cranberry, lingonberry, and wintergreen.

This spring I have sowed mixed clovers (for soil fertility and insect habitat) and mixed crucifers (to enhance beneficial insect populations) in the areas of the forest garden where I killed the sod with mulches last year. This mix will be the main cover in these areas until replaced with other perennial plantings. During the coming season, I plan to put in two species of Baptisia or wild indigo (nitrogen fixers—B. tinctoria is also used medicinally), sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) and other goldenrods (S. virgaurea is medicinal), and “mountain mints” (Pycnanthemum spp., primarily to encourage insect diversity). New plantings for edible shoots, leaves, or flowers will include nodding onion (Allium cernum, a nice ornamental onion with edible leaves), Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricum), sea kale (Crambe maritima), and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

Burdock

Burdock

“Weeds”

There are several plants I formerly considered “weeds” which I have welcomed into our forest garden. Dandelion and yellow dock (Rumex crispus or R. obtusifolius) are both excellent dynamic accumulators, and also furnish nutritious greens for our poultry. (Dandelion makes excellent “people food” as well.) I now allow upland or field cress (Barbarea verna) to grow anywhere it volunteers—its leaves make a delicious and nutritious potherb. Burdock (Arctium lappa) furnishes edible roots and stems, and is also known as an excellent detoxifying herb. Poke is a beautiful plant whose (very short, early) shoots make an excellent cooked “spring salad.” (It has also been used medicinally, but this is a plant for seasoned herbalists only, since heavier dosages can be seriously toxic.)

Just a beginning

Does it seem I have listed a lot of fruit, shrub, and perennial ground plants that we have already put in place in the short time since we started our forest garden? Believe me, dear reader, we have barely scratched the surface of the many possibilities.

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A Beginning

To learn more about the many facets of forest gardening, read How to Make a Forest Garden, by Patrick Whitefield. While the book is written by a Brit and is more oriented to forest gardening in the British Isles, much of its information, including that regarding useful species, is applicable in any temperate climate. A much larger and more ambitious source is Edible Forest Gardens, by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. This is a huge work in two volumes, with a wealth of information on natural forests, and how to mimic them to grow forest gardens that are beautiful, low-maintainence, and bountiful. It can get quite tedious at times, is too concerned with labels and pigeon-holing of concepts, and is much longer than it needed to be. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal about soil ecology and plant communities; and it was this work that inspired me to put the concept into practice on my own homestead. The extensive appendices, about plant species for the forest garden and their characteristics and best applications, are alone worth the (considerable) price of the books.

Conclusion

The forest garden is exciting not only because of its promise of increased food yield, but because it offers a deeper connection to the natural world. Even those of us who are gardeners usually work with far too “tame” a version of nature, forgetting that we are part of a much larger and more complex “garden,” with which we can cooperate, but cannot control. The forest garden is a fusion of garden and orchard and woodland; a merging of the cultivated and the wild; offering food not only for the body, but for the eye and the soul. It can be the place where Garden of Eden meets Sacred Grove.

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Red Leaf Hazel