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Starting an Edible Forest Garden

Table of Contents

Natural ForestStrategiesBoxwoodCast of Characters

Strategies for Establishing the Forest Garden

It should be obvious that even a small forest garden is a big, complex project. What is the best way to start? The answer depends on one’s inclinations, preferences, and circumstances. It is possible to “start from scratch”—say, begin with a plot of grass sod—and assemble the forest garden as an interlocking set of plantings in all three layers. Certainly this option offers the greatest flexibility, and the widest choices of species, design, and strategies.

Clear4nuts-07

Clearing for Nuts

At the other extreme, we might start with an existing plot of woodland, and clear strategic areas to make way for new plantings. Such an approach should be seasoned with care and with respect, since the cutting down of a tree is a serious matter. [I always read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars” (included at the bottom of this page) before cutting down a tree. The poet’s anguish on seeing a beloved grove devastated by the ax speaks to my own deep sense of loss.] It is good to remember that various mushrooms both yield food (or medicine), and speed the decomposition of felled trees for a renewal of forest fertility.

Old-new-07

Out with the Old…

Remember when cutting out trees in an existing forest the possibility of coppicing them. Many trees, if cut off low to the ground, will sprout new growth, which grows rapidly because of the already extensive root system. The forest gardener can manage this new growth, for example by pruning it back to a single rapidly-growing stem, and look forward to yet another yield from the forest garden (fence posts from black locust, tool handles from hickory). Indeed, any use to which forests have been put—as for example the cultivation of medicinal herbs such as ginseng and goldenseal—can be incorporated into the forest garden.

In either case, extensive planning is the key: Making changes to the layout of a vegetable or herb bed is easily done, even moving most shrubs can be done with care. But once a large tree is established, moving it is not an option.

An interesting option is the conversion of an existing orchard to forest garden, which offers greater potential yield and a more interesting landscape. Imagine a typical orchard: fruit trees at their required spacing over a ground cover of grass. Unless we hark back to an earlier model and graze sheep on the grass, the only harvest from the orchard is its yield of fruit. (Indeed, in the typical orchard the ground cover becomes little more than a mowing chore.) Now imagine that we “shoehorn” in between the fruit trees various shrubs that have evolved with the capability of producing edible harvests—fruits, berries, nuts—in the shade of their taller brothers and sisters. Imagine further that we replace the grass cover with other herbaceous plantings that either produce food, medicine, fertility for the garden, or other benefits such as enhancement of insect diversity and wildlife. It should be obvious that the well designed forest garden offers a greater potential yield in the same space than the conventional orchard, while affording a more complex environment.

I have referred to the utility of plants that have evolved in the shade of taller plants. That does not mean, however, that there is no room in the forest garden for plants needing full sun. Such plants can be placed along the edges of the forest garden.

Orchard-2-forest-garden

Making a Start

It is likely that most forest gardens will be started on sites with an existing cover. Tillage which destroys an established cover is tremendously disruptive of soil life, and thus fertility, and should be avoided. A better option is to begin with what I call “kill mulches.” Start by laying down a smothering layer of organic matter such as newspaper or cardboard, then cover thickly with whatever organic matter you can grow or scrounge—cuttings from pasture, leaves, residues from threshing operations, stable bedding, etc. Under such a close mulch, the existing sod dies, but without damaging the web of soil life—which indeed is given a big boost by the rapid breakdown of the dying sod. It is now possible to open up holes in the kill mulch to make individual plantings for the new herbaceous cover.

It is wise to work with the dictates of site and climate, rather than fighting them. For example, if there is a wet place in the target area, introducing wetland plants and encouraging water-loving species such as amphibians, dragonflies, and many birds is much easier than attempting to drain the area in order to impose our pre-chosen design ideas; and leads to greater species diversity in the forest garden. Similarly, if a desirable fruit such as peaches would require a lot of spraying in your area, it might be wiser to forego the peaches and explore alternative fruits that are naturally disease-free in your climate.

If you have natural water on your place, you are lucky, and should use it to establish wetland plantings and habitat for useful and interesting species. Neighbors of ours dammed a spring on their place to make a small pond, which became a magnet for all sorts of amphibians, dragonflies, aquatic plants, and birds, greatly increasing the diversity of their landscape. A future project as our forest garden becomes better defined will be the addition of a small artificial pool for aquatic plants, and a water source and egg-laying site for insects and amphibians.

Pond

Small Pond


            Binsey Poplars
             FELLED 1879

  My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
  Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
  All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
            Not spared, not one
            That dandled and sandalled
        Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank. 
  O if we but knew what we do
        When we delve or hew—
    Hack and rack the growing green!
        Since country is so tender
    To touch, her being só slender,
    That, like this sleek and seeing ball
    But a prick will make no eye at all,
    Where we, even where we mean
            To mend her we end her,
        When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
    Strokes of havoc únselve
        The sweet especial scene,
    Rural scene, a rural scene,
    Sweet especial rural scene.
    
                     ~Gerard Manley Hopkins