Six on Saturday: Our Forest Garden

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Most times when you hear someone talk about creating a ‘forest garden,’ they are designing a complex environment to generate fresh, healthy food for as many weeks of the year as their growing season permits.  Forest gardens are built around trees, of course, and the food producing plants come in many different layers from tree-tops to ground covers.

I began working with this idea in the 1990’s on another, suburban property where I grew a great deal of food.  In fact, most summer evenings I’d wander around our yard, basket and clippers in hand, and gather a basketful of produce to cook for our evening meal.  There were beans and squash, tomatoes, okra, various leafy greens, potatoes, apples, peaches, berries, various herbs and more.  I experimented a great deal with mixing edibles with flowering plants so the garden was both productive and beautiful.

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Vitis vulpina, a native grape, cascades through the tree tops on the sunny edges of our garden.  Can you see the ripening grapes?

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I wanted to take that to the next level on this property, where I had more space and had several species of fruit trees established when we arrived.  We all have dreams, don’t we? 

It took only a few years to understand that my best attempts would yield more frustration than success…. or dinner.  My old neighborhood had major roads all around and not a single deer for miles.  We had squirrels and the occasional raccoon.  This community is home to herds of roaming deer, a warren of rabbits lives and breeds nearby, and there are squirrels everywhere.  I’ve come to love the wildlife, especially the many species of birds who live with us, but have mostly given up my plans of growing produce at home.

Actually, I pivoted somewhere  along the way from trying every edible plant I could to cultivating as many poisonous plants as I can.  They last longer….

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You see squirrels eat peaches, pears and apples before they ripen.  Deer eat tomato plants and snack on squash and beans.  Even the container garden I tried on the deck fed our acrobatic squirrels before we could harvest the tomatoes.  We never harvest a single nut, even though there is a huge hazelnut patch right beside our deck.  Now we have a few hickory trees maturing, and I’ll be curious to see whether any nuts are left for us.

A forest garden is built around a few carefully selected fruit or nut bearing trees.   Vegetable plants are planted between and under the trees, depending on how much sun each plant requires.  Fruiting shrubs, like blueberries and brambles grow along the perimeter, and one finds room for a few elderberries, gooseberries, figs, currants, and grapes.  This is a sustainable garden, and so one tries to plant perennial crops like asparagus, sun chokes, perennial herbs and the woodies.  It is very elegant and productive when it is well planned on a fertile site.

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Figs are growing on this fig tree that I planted from a cutting of another tree in our garden.  When a branch broke off in a storm, I cut it into pieces and ‘planted’ them where I wanted new trees to grow.  Figs are great ‘forest garden’ plants.

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We’ve had some small successes.  I can grow herbs here and expect to harvest them myself.  The critters don’t bother our rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, or mints.  In fact, fragrant herbs also help deter herbivores from other delicious plants. We’ve grown rhubarb, which has poisonous leaves that the deer won’t graze.  Rhubarb prefers a cooler climate, and isn’t long-lived in our garden.

We have an Italian fig variety that doesn’t darken as it ripens.  They remain light green, and swell until they burst.  We’ve enjoyed some fine fig harvests over the years.  And grapes love our garden.  I grow a delicious Muscadine that bears well, if ‘we’ don’t prune it too hard while it is in flower.

I started our Muscadines from seed after a particularly good purchase at the farmer’s market.  But we have wild grapes, too.   Not that we ever taste them, but large clusters of other native grapes hang down from the canopy through the summer months, until birds decide they are ready to harvest.

We have Vitis aestivalis, the summer grape or pigeon grape with its beautiful trident shaped leaf; and Vitis vulpina, the wild grape or fox grape.   V. vulpina is bitter until very late into the season, and by then the wild things have claimed them.  These vines crop up as volunteers, as they do throughout most of Virginia.  They scamper up and over trees and shrubs and every gardener must decide whether to allow them or to ignore them.  By the time I decided that our forest garden is at heart a wildlife garden, I welcomed the grape vines.

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Fennel may be used fresh, the flowers are edible, and the seeds may be harvested for cooking.

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There is actually quite a lot here one could eat if one were hungry.  We could harvest the bamboo shoots in spring, but we throw them to the squirrels.  We could use many of our native flowers and other herbs for teas.  We have the full cast of edible herbs, beech nuts, acorns, figs and fiddleheads.

I could try harder.  If Trader Joe’s weren’t so conveniently close, I surely could grow potatoes, at least.  Maybe one year I’ll plant some of the seed potatoes I always save.

But quite honestly, foraging for one’s food in the garden takes planning and commitment.   It is a wonderfully interesting undertaking, and very good for both the wallet and the planet.  But it also takes really good fences and barriers.  After all, the wild things have nothing else to do all day except find their food.  Who am I to stop them?

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Monarda provides excellent forage for pollinators. Its leaves may be dried and used to flavor tea.  Its flowers are edible.  This is the distinctive flavor in Earl Gray tea.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Visit Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful.

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

 

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

11 responses to “Six on Saturday: Our Forest Garden

  1. Muscadines? I just got seed to sow this autumn. I know nothing about them, except that they are North American.

    • They are one of the most flavorful grapes, Tony. They are V. rotundifolia because they are round rather than egg-shaped. Some eat their skins, others split the skins and pop out the fruit. The skins have a lot of pectin if you area making preserves. Why wait for autumn to sow the seeds? The vines are very hardy. Once you get them going, they’ll take off pretty quickly.

      • ‘Concord’ is what we grew in town. It was great, and is supposedly related to muscadines. I still want to grow the real thing though. It seems that those who know them really dig them.

        • Nothing better! I love the flavor. They are very good baked, too. Do something like you might do with figs, with a lovely sharp cheese.

          • Are muscadines like ‘Concord’?

            • Tony, that is hard to say. Muscadines and Scuppernongs are much larger than most grapes. Since I’ve not had the pleasure of enjoying California Concord grapes right off the vine, it is hard for me to say. These southern grapes have thicker skins than grocery store grapes and are incredibly juicy and sweet. The closest thing I can offer as a comparison would be a cross between a small plum and a regular grape. They all have 3-5 seeds, so watch out for those if you’re eating them out of hand.

  2. I am doing a forest garden too and it is not for the faint of heart.

    • It certainly isn’t a ‘One and Done.’ You have to plan very carefully and work with the garden community as it changes year to year. It is a dynamic system and something that is never completed. Have you read Akiva Silva’s: Trees of Power, 10 Essential Arboreal Allies ? It is an excellent resource for anyone attempting a forest garden and goes into tremendous detail on managing soils and terrain, propagation, companion planting and ways to generate income from your trees. It is a real joy to read. Best wishes! ❤

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