Six on Saturday: Our Forest Garden


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.


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


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….



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.


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.


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.


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


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?


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.


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


Bio Chemistry

Sept 24 2013 pumpkins 006

Three reminders have come my way today about the power of food to heal or to hurt us.  Receiving the same message three times leads me to reflect, and to share a bit of this powerful information.

First, a friend sent an email warning about the unsanitary conditions of food production in a certain large Asian country.  It was graphic and disgusting.  Since I gave up eating meat in the mid-80’s, and haven’t eaten any fish or other seafood since I was 4; I’m not overly concerned about Tilapia production practices in Asia.  The point is well taken, though, that imported foods may not be as clean or healthy for us as we might assume.  Lately we must assume that a lot of imported food has been exposed to chemicals, radiation, waste, and contaminated water in its production and packaging.  A powerful reason to eat locally, and organically, as much as we are able.

The Nixon family has their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand at 3004 Ironbound Road, near the Five Forks Farm Fresh, near Jamestown, Virginia.

The Nixon family had their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand this autumn.

Then, I found an email from another friend detailing the powerful healing properties of a number of foods.  Not surprisingly, nearly every food on that list was plant based.  It used to be common to hear older folks encourage us with, “Let your food be your medicine.”  There is tremendous truth that what we eat, or don’t eat, is the most important factor which determines our overall health, and our ability to resist disease.

Plant foods are packed with chemical compounds to keep us healthy.  We make new discoveries every day about the powerful “phytochemicals” found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, seeds, roots, and leaves.  These are harnessed to produce many medicines, like aspirin, which was originally made from the bark of the willow tree.

But good health just doesn’t come from a bottle.  It is something we build or destroy bite by bite, and sip by sip.

I read a book a number of years ago by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, titled, Eat To Live.  Dr. Fuhrman styles himself as a doctor of “last resort.”  Most of his patients have already been told they won’t recover from their condition, and they come to him with heart disease, diabetes, cancers, gout, and other severe diseases in a desperate bid to extend their lives.Eat to Live Cookbook: 200 Delicious Nutrient-Rich Recipes for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Reversing Disease, and Lifelong Health

Dr. Fuhrman’s patients are desperate enough to “do anything” to extend life, and are therefore willing to take his advice on diet.  He has an enormous success rate with those who follow his guidance.  And, as you might expect, he counsels his patients to give up meat and meat products, along with processed foods.  His book is fascinating because he details exactly how certain foods affect us biochemically.  He helps us to understand what our bodies require for good health, and which foods provide these substances.

Pumpkins, technically fruits, are rich in beta carotene and other important nutrients.  Their seeds are also healthy to eat.  Aloe vera juice heals burns and can be taken internally to heal many conditions.

Pumpkins, technically fruits, are rich in beta carotene and other important nutrients. Their seeds are very healthy to eat. Aloe vera juice heals burns and can be taken internally to heal many conditions.

Now I was raised in the 1960s at the height of the USDA’s outreach to public school students about what to eat for good health.  The old version was concocted primarily to prop up the meat and dairy industries.  My parents were firm believers that meat must be served at every meal, and all children must drink milk through their teen years.  I promise you that made our family meal times far from peaceful, as I disliked both from an early age.

Of course my mother also believed in serving dessert with every meal, even breakfast many days; and so peace was generally restored in some sweet fashion.  My mother is a wonderful cook, an inspired pastry cook especially.  She is known for her delicious meals.  And yes, all of us children were overweight in elementary school.

The accepted wisdom of what is or isn’t good to eat has shifted dramatically over the last 50 years.  We now know more than ever before about maintaining good health, and yet harmful foods are easier and cheaper to get with each passing year.

Diabetes runs through our family, and so I’ve been keen, since my teens, to avoid it.  My first rebellion, in sixth grade, came at the dinner table.  I drastically changed what I would and would not eat, began my own exercise program, and lost more than 50 pounds that school year.   I was proud of that accomplishment, but a neighbor developed anorexia nervosa around that time, and so my parents put an end to my “diet.”

I had to learn that it is more important to eat the “right” foods, than it is to avoid the harmful ones.  Our American diet, so often handed to us in a sack from a fast food window, is based more on what we like to eat than on what maintains our good health.   We are constantly tempted by amazing foods, while also seduced to try the latest diet plan.  Whatever sells, right?

Mushrooms.  These are different from shelf fungus because they are soft, have stems, and release their spores from gills, located under their caps.  These are growing nearby at the base of a Hellebore.

Edible mushrooms provide many health benefits, contain no fat, and are low in calories.  They’ve been used medicinally for many thousands of years.

So I’ve been on a long term quest to learn what to eat for optimum health.  However much I’ve learned from Dr. Fuhrman’s book, and others, I haven’t successfully adopted his diet plan.

Why?  It isn’t easy.  And, I cook for others, so I have to consider others’ tastes and wants along with my own. Our meals are bonding times when families gather together.  Agreement about our food; what, how much, how it is prepared; brings us together, or splits us apart.  Rejecting a dish or a meal is a rejection of the cook.  It is personal.  Deliberately preparing a dish your loved ones won’t or can’t eat carries the same message.  It is hard to change your own diet, to care for your own health, when your friends and family enjoys eating differently.  A different diet sets us apart.  It takes a great deal of self-confidence, and strength of will to maintain.  And often relationships suffer from it.

We Americans use food as recreation and entertainment.  We “treat ourselves” and give in to our cravings for this or that.  We celebrate our holidays with particular menus, regardless of how those foods affect us.  We gather to eat:  pig pickings, covered dish suppers, barbecues, cocktail parties, fish fries, birthday dinners; we are expected to eat and drink the same as everyone else.

So much of our eating is for recreation and entertainment.

So much of our eating is for recreation and entertainment.

“There comes a point when we accept responsibility for our own health, and the connection between our health and our diet.”  That was the third message today from a guest on Fareed Zacharia’s GPS show on CNN.  Another medical doctor, he has consulted with the Japanese, and others, on how to combat the affects of radiation poisoning.  I missed much of the interview, but it seems he is another “doctor of last resort” who helps those in dire straights recover through wholesome food.

Which brings us back to gardening, and plant based foods, and my friend’s email about foods which heal.  Many of the healthiest foods are crops we may raise ourselves- even in pots on the patio.  We can grow these foods for ourselves organically and inexpensively.  We know how they have been handled at each step along the way.  An abundant supply of fresh food growing at  home tends to influence our choice of what to cook, and what to eat.

What are these super foods which bring us health?

Dark, leafy greens  Dr. Fuhrman’s diet suggestions build meals around spinach, kale, collards, lettuces, and other fresh, raw vegetables.  He explains how these vegetables pack in proteins and other necessary nutrients with very few calories.  He builds a good case for calorie restriction as the cornerstone of longevity.

There is great truth to the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

There is great truth to the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Beans  Many cultures use protein rich beans as their main protein, and the mainstay of most meals.  Beans are versatile enough to use in many different types of dishes and to flavor in many different ways; from beverages through to dessert.  Bean seeds are easy to grow in pots or in the garden.

Fruits   Every sort of fruit is good for us.  Although some pack more sugar than others, all contain antioxidants to protect our health, keep our cells younger, and make us feel more vibrant.  Each sort of fruit has its own particular gifts, including fiber.  They are high in vitamins, many help us maintain a healthy alkalinity, and they are delicious.  Keep in mind that many vegetables, like tomatoes and squash, technically are classed as “fruits.”

Garlic  Garlic offers many benefits, and is one of the healthiest food/medicines out there.  One worth mentioning is its anti-viral properties.  Eating it regularly helps our bodies fight off illnesses to which we’ve been exposed.  There is some evidence that it also has antibiotic properties, and helps protect the heart.  Onions and shallots share many of the same health benefits which garlic offers.

Herbs   Herbs can raise metabolism, protect us from viruses, settle the stomach, improve our memories, along with many other wonderful things as they flavor our foods.  Herbs are very easy to grow, easy to use, and are beautiful in the garden.



Other health-giving foods, that we might not be able to grow for ourselves, include coffee, tea, coconut oil, honey, mushrooms, ginger, dark chocolate, red wine, and tumeric.  All have been in the news recently and have been the subject of various studies.

Coffee is said to ward off depression, especially during the winter.  Tea and chocolate are both rich in antioxidants.  Honey is an antibiotic and an antiviral substance.  Whether rubbed on the skin to heal a wound, or drunk in tea to soothe a sore throat, it speeds healing.  Red wine slows aging.

Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and settles the stomach, but also controls the fats which clog our arteries.  It is used in Indonesia to treat blood clots.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a powerful medicine which fights infection.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a powerful medicine which fights infection.

When I taught middle school, I took Echinacea daily, and kept a bottle in my desk drawer.  Children think nothing of sneezing on their homework or quiz paper and then handing it in.  I used Echinacea and Vitamin C to fight off all of the little “bugs” the children brought in with them each day.  You may know Echinacea as Purple Coneflower.  Native Americans have used it for centuries as a medicinal herb.  Purple Coneflower is easy to grow and beautiful in the garden.  It attracts butterflies and gold finches.

Our gardens can be our greatest resource for health and healing.  As we plan our 2014 gardens and place our orders for seeds and plants, let’s keep in mind the wonderful healing properties of the plants we grow.   In some cases we might begin using things already in our gardens, like rose hips and Echinacea roots, which we’ve never used before.  Or, we might try growing something new, like ginger or Goji berries.  I’m planning to give Goji berries a try this year, and hope the squirrels will leave them alone….

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Pineapple Mint with Lavender

Pineapple Mint with Lavender

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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