A Perennial Food Forest Garden

Garlic chives

Garlic chives

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Do you grow any food in your garden?

We have had difficulty with growing food crops in this garden.  Between poor soil, shade, and a forest full of hungry critters, many of our efforts have not left us with much to eat.  Even efforts at growing tomatoes and other vegetables in pots on our deck, out of reach of the deer, have not produced the harvest we expected.  This community’s squirrels must be some of the cleverest in the state!  Most of the produce ends up in their little paws days before it is ready for us to harvest.

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June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.

June 6, 2013, and the tomato crop is gone.  False strawberry plants grow along the border to the left of the photo, untouched.  Tomatoes are perennial crops in warmer climates.

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But I remain interested in finding new and productive ways to grow food in a ‘forest garden.’  In fact, “food forests” are a whole genre of garden in themselves, and there are many dedicated gardeners out there experimenting with various crops and novel strategies for  organizing and camouflaging those crops in order to supplement at least part of their diet from their own land.

Which is what we would like to do, too.  I realized after the first year or so that planting raised beds in the sunny areas of our back garden simply invited more critters to find their way in through our deer fencing.  I won’t even tell you how many tomato plants and cucumber vines simply disappeared in the night.

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Our first raised bed garden in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

Our first raised bed  in our new garden, mixing herbs, shrubs, and perennials.

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Among the things we liked about this property, when we first saw it, were the fruit trees, fig trees, rosemary and tomato plants already here.  The variety of fig selected by the previous owner stays green, even while ripe, fooling the birds and squirrels.  We have had some good fig harvests, although the harvest fluctuates year to year.  This past year we got a few pears.  But the peaches have never made it through the summer to harvest, nor have the hazelnuts.

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June 12 garden at dusk 011

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But I don’t give up easily, and keep searching for new ideas.  Which led me to Martin Crawford’s book, How to Grow Perennial Vegetables:  Low-Maintenance, Low-Impact Vegetable Gardening.9781900322843_p0_v1_s260x420

Now Martin gardens in the UK, in East Devon,  which means some of the crops available to him are harder to come by here in the United States.  And his climate is a bit warmer than ours here in Virginia.  But he also offers very practical suggestions for overwintering many of these crops in cooler climates.

I’ve learned a great deal from this book, and recommend it to anyone interested in ‘forest gardening,’ which is Martin’s own approach.  He focuses in this book on vegetables, and only includes herbs which might be used in quantity in salads.  He also leaves fruit trees, vines and shrubs off of his plant list unless the leaves may be harvested and eaten as a vegetable.

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May 24 2014 vines 049

Milk Vetch is a legume and produces edible seeds. It also adds nitrogen to the soil as it grows.

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And that brings us to the most illuminating thing I’ve learned from this book.  There are many plants we grow for one purpose which may be eaten in another way.  For example, I grow pots of strawberries on our deck, a gift from a friend, and harvest a few handfuls each spring.  Did you know that strawberry leaves may also be eaten?  All of those leaves can be added to salads, stir fried, layered in casseroles, or used to wrap small packages of food before it is cooked.  Who knew?  I’ll include a list of plants whose leaves may be eaten at the bottom of this post.

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Some of those weeds are edible...

Some of those weeds are edible…

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A bonus of many perennial vegetables, and their leaves especially, is the concentrated nutrition and minerals they contain.  Since perennials tend to be very deeply rooted, they have access to deeper layers of soil than many annual crops.  They absorb more nutrients from the soil, storing these nutrients in the roots, tubers, bulbs, and leaves which we can consume.

Perennials also require less effort to grow.  Planted once, enjoyed for years to come.  Many take care of themselves once established, or need a minimum investment of time and labor.  Most need little or no fertilizer and can be grown with organic (chemical free) methods.

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Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.

Our figs remain green, even when ripe, fooling the squirrels and birds most of the time.  Although the fruits are delicious, these leave aren’t edible.

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And perennials are a good investment, anyway.  Once purchased, you have them for many years.  Whether you divide them, save seeds, or take cuttings; your volume of plants will increase each year through annual growth, suckering, and clumping.  Food producing perennials, shrubs and trees are always a good investment for the frugal gardener.

My eyes were opened to the many many plants already growing here successfully which we could eat, if we chose to.  The wild ‘false strawberry,’ Duchesnea indica,  which I yank out of my beds by the bushel each year as a weed, is edible.  Martin suggests eating both the leaves and tiny fruits in salads.  The many new shoots of bamboo encroaching on areas we prefer to keep clear, which we’ve been cutting back each spring, could be harvested and eaten rather than tossed into the ravine.

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Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12" for the most tender vegetable.

Harvest bamboo shoots in spring when they are less than 12″ for the most tender vegetable.

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In fact, the perennial vegetables Martin describes are harvested throughout the year.  Some crops are enjoyed in spring, others in late autumn or over winter.  Most can be eaten all summer, and many can be eaten in different ways at different points in the growing season.  For example, many of the Alliums may be eaten throughout the season by cutting back their leaves even though the bulbs aren’t harvested until late autumn.  Some of the Alliums produce bulbils or offsets which may be harvested before the main bulb is ready to dig.  For each plant described, Martin indicates whether you may eat the roots, stems, leaves, shoots, offsets, fruits, seeds, or some combination of these.

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Wood Mallow

Wood Mallow

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I recently read an essay by Euell Gibbons, reprinted in the current issue of Organic Gardening magazine, about gathering a meal of wild foods in Central Park to feed himself and a skeptical journalist interviewing him.  Originally printed in August of 1968, Gibbons “Survival in the Wilds of Central Park” demonstrates how many edible food plants grow wild with little or no effort on our part at all.  It may require some adjustments to our taste and cravings to choose to use them, but they are still available to us if we can only recognize them and understand how to harvest and prepare them.

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Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.

Apple mint, with its relatively mild flavor, is one of the herbs listed for use as a leafy vegetable good for salads.  Viola flowers may also be eaten in salad or used as a garnish.

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Martin Crawford’s book goes into detail about how each part of each plant should be prepared for eating, as well as giving enough cultural information to allow one to grow the plant successfully.  There is even a section on growing a number of aquatic perennial vegetables, including our native arrowheads, water chestnuts, water lotus, and watercress.  Detailed instructions are offered for growing these crops in a child’s wading pool for those not blessed with a pond on their property.

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The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water.

The tubers of Arrowheads, Sagittaria species, are very nutritious and will grow in a foot of water in sun or partial shade.

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And reading this book, now for the second time, has made me far more optimistic and open-minded about our potential for growing food in our forest garden.

I have a far better understanding now, than I did five years ago, of what plants we can grow successfully.  I know what the deer will leave alone and what they will fight their way through or over our fences to eat.  (In fact, a beloved neighbor recently suggested, as a group of us were discussing our gardening, that we should all plant those things which would feed our beautiful deer.  She is a confirmed animal lover, and I understand her concern for the well being of all creatures.  She just didn’t understand that in planting crops for them, they would overgraze and kill the plants very quickly to the great frustration and expense of everyone.)

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Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

Our beech tree produces edible nuts and leaves.

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Now I know that plants with very fragrant or coarse textured leaves will be left alone by deer.  That means that most herbs will grow here in peace.  It also means we could grow artichoke, cardoon, all Alliums, and hops.  Did you know you can eat the new shoots of hops vines each year?

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Food crops may also be grown in unconventional ways, in polycultures with other plants, so they are effectively hidden.  Mixing the tasty with the pungent is one way.  Growing crops like potatoes, which bear poisonous leaves but tasty tubers is another.

Whether you are gardening in a forest, on an average suburban plot, or even on a balcony or rooftop; you’ll find this book about growing perennial vegetable crops useful and very interesting.  There are many reasons to grow some part of our food; and great value in knowing how to gather and eat “wild foods” when needed even when we normally shop for our groceries.

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Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

Battered and friend Hosta shoots, anyone?

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I’ve developed a new appreciation for the richness and delicious diversity of our own garden, and generated a good list of plants to add this season.  The Gogi berry shrub, Lycium barbarum, which I’ve considered for the last several years, is now ordered.  And there are several other crops I’ll hope to order over the coming months.  There is a good list of sources at the back of the book, some US suppliers, where I’ll hope to find some of the more interesting “walking” onion varieties.

We will also plant a patch of Jerusalem artichokes this year, which have grown easily in other gardens.  One huge advantage of many of these crops is how well they support bees and other beneficial and beautiful insects.  These are so prolific, once established, that there will be plenty of tubers to dig in autumn even if the tops do get grazed a bit during the season.  They likely won’t though, as their foliage is coarse.

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Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

Garlic chives with Muscadine grape leaves and thyme.

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I’ve made a good list of perennial food crops we already have growing, along with that list of plants we would still like to acquire.  Have you ever considered harvesting the leaves of the lovely flowering Columbine, Aquilegia, for a salad?  Well, neither had I….

Here is a short list of plants recommended by Martin Crawford for their delicious leaves or leafy shoots.  Some might surprise you, as they surprised me.  But if you’re a bit adventurous, you might want to try a few of them over the season ahead.  Just make sure to check out his book, or another trusted resource,  for complete instructions on how to best harvest and prepare them.

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Columbine in a friend's garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

Columbine in a friend’s garden. Grown for its flowers, both flowers and leaves can be eaten.

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Perennials with edible leaves:

Alliums, Basswood tree, Beech tree, Cardoon, Chard, Chives, Columbine,  Dandelion, Daylily, Elephant Garlic, False Strawberry, Gogi Berry, Grape, Fennel, Hollyhock (Mallow), Hops,  Horseradish, Hosta shoots, Lemon Balm, Linden tree, Mints, Mulberry tree, Ostrich Fern (shoots only) Plantain, Pokeweed, Rosemary, Sage, Strawberry, Sweet Potato, Solomon’s Seal (shoots),  Thyme, Violets

Woodland Gnome 2015

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August 15, 2014 014

 

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

4 responses to “A Perennial Food Forest Garden

  1. Sounds like a great book. I think a lot of the economy with which generations gardened was abandoned in the 50s for more ‘modern’ and disposable gardening (annuals). There is a renewed interest in fostering a healthier soil that involves no-till gardening (& mulching), so perennials are a good fit. Isn’t it funny how the old becomes new again?

    • It is comforting how the old becomes new again 😉 Especially when the value of the old is appreciated once again in a new light. This book has a great section on Mycorrhizal fungi which I didn’t even try to mention in this post. It deserves one of its own. So much to learn! And such an excellent case made for NEVER tilling the soil and planting with the minimum of digging necessary. I’ve learned more from this one book than from the last half dozen gardening books I’ve read… Cheers! WG

  2. Such a beautiful post, love the images! Nature is incredible 🙂

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