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

 

Wild Fruit

Wild grape vine found growing along the Colonial Parkway

Wild grape vine found growing along the Colonial Parkway

Have you ever eaten wild fruit, picked from seeming “weeds” growing wild?

There are those who believe wild fruits are the sweetest…. or is that my conditioning from an adolescence lived in the 1970s speaking up again?

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(Yes, my ears still perk up when I hear the languid strains of  “Afternoon Delights” by the Starland Vocal Band.)

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If you’ve ever picked wild blackberries and eaten them while still warm from the sun, you understand.

There was a time when I could locate every wild blackberry patch and Sassafrass tree within biking distance.

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Mother didn’t so much ask where those berries came from, as she set about making a crust for the cobbler we would enjoy after dinner.

Oh, how delicious those cobblers tasted drenched with melting vanilla ice cream.

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Somehow my best summer memories include freshly picked blueberries or peaches; apples from our own trees; blackberries, or hidden grapes left behind by the birds.

Wild Muscadine grapes

Wild Muscadine grapes

These blackberries and grapes grow along the Colonial Parkway.

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Protected by the National Park service, they are there for the wild creatures who live nearby.  So no, we didn’t gather or sample….

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Grapes grow here in abundance, popping up as though by “magic.”

Another gift of nature, ready to offer up their sweetness, if only allowed to grow.

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Last autumn we bought  some  Muscadine grapes, a species native to this area of Virginia, from our favorite farm stand.  And you know what I did with those seeds now, don’t you?

And, yes, I’m finding tiny little starts of vines popping up in the many places I scattered them.

Not edible; in fact poisonous, these berries grow among the grapes.  I believe they are called "Canada Moonseed."

Not edible; in fact poisonous, these berries grow among the grapes. I believe they are called “Canada Moonseed.”

You see, our plan is to grow a little “wild fruit” of our own here in our forest garden.

Poisonous, but still pretty.  These vines are semi-evergreen, and grow to great heights in the trees.  These berries will turn dark purple by fall.

Poisonous, but still pretty. These vines are semi-evergreen, and grow to great heights in the trees. These berries will turn dark purple by fall.

There are “wild” blackberry vines growing now along the fence line in the edge of the ravine.

And grape vines one day will cover the stump in the center of our “stump garden.”

Our "stump garden" is coming along well.  I hope our own Muscadine grape vines will grow on the stump, replacing the Virginia Creeper growing up the stump at the moment.  Virginia Creeper produces berries loved by birds.

Our “stump garden” is coming along well. I hope our own Muscadine grape vines will grow on the stump, replacing the Virginia Creeper growing up the stump at the moment. Virginia Creeper produces berries loved by birds.

Perhaps that is the lesson learned in one’s fifth decade on the planet:  “Wild fruit is still the sweetest; but it is best when eaten from your own garden.”

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Inspired by Ed’s Sunday Stills:  Macro  Since we took these photos on Sunday, perhaps they’ll count 😉  And Ed, you’re right- so much “macro” to enjoy beyond flowers and bugs.  But I still included the shot with the spider.

Please also enjoy Cee’s Sunday Stills for some fascinating photos.

 

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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