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

 

For A Friend

This tree in Colonial Williamsburg always captures my interest.  A beautiful tree, I haven't yet been able to identify it.  Do you know this tree?

This tree in Colonial Williamsburg always captures my interest. A beautiful tree,  with an unusual branch structure; and I haven’t yet been able to identify it.   Do you know this tree?

This post is for a special friend who moved away from Williamsburg a few years ago, to return, in retirement, to a Zone 10A garden near where she grew up.

She was kind enough to write to me today, and share some memories of times we shared together here in Virginia.

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She followed a link I sent her to Forest Garden, and has been enjoying a window into our Virginia spring through the photos she has found here.

Sheep living in a field at Colonial Williamsburg

Sheep living in a field at Colonial Williamsburg

And so these photos today are especially for Janet, although you are certainly welcome to enjoy them, also.  I am hoping to possibly lure her back for a visit….

Janet is a dedicated gardener, like most of my friends, and she  also holds the gardens of  Colonial Williamsburg in a special place in her heart.

Colonial Williamsburg allows horses to graze in fields near the historic area.

Colonial Williamsburg allows horses to graze in fields near the historic area.

My partner and I enjoyed a brief visit to Colonial Williamsburg earlier this week.

 

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You may enjoy seeing some of the sights we enjoyed.  Perhaps you will visit Williamsburg this summer, too.  If you enjoy natural beauty, history, and wonderful food, you’ll enjoy a visit here.

The flowering shrubs on the opposite shore are Mountain Laurel.

The flowering shrubs on the opposite shore are Mountain Laurel.

Our world here in Virginia looks and feels like summer now. 

A marsh on Jamestown Island.

A marsh on Jamestown Island.

We hit 90 degrees this afternoon, and some little starts still in their nursery pots wilted in the heat.  I came home from a picnic to find them sadly wilted, and gave them a little emergency watering.

Honeysuckle perfumes the air with sweetness.  It grows wild wherever it can get a foothold.  I've been pulling honeysuckle vines out of the fern garden this week.

Honeysuckle perfumes the air with sweetness. It grows wild wherever it can get a foothold. I’ve been pulling honeysuckle vines out of the fern garden this week.

I felt heartless to have been off having fun with friends with these poor little plants neglected and dry.  If tomorrow morning is cool, they will go into the ground first thing.

Wild bloackberries growing with honeysuckle.  In a few weeks, the berries will be ripe and delicious.

Wild blackberries growing with honeysuckle. In a few weeks, the berries will be ripe and delicious.

We are almost at the end of planting season now.  Our heat has arrived, and it is enough to keep everything watered and deadheaded.

Ligustrum shrubs, blooming now in our garden, add to the sweetness of the summer breezes.

Ligustrum shrubs, blooming now in our garden, add to the sweetness of the summer breezes.

Pools are open now,  school is almost over, and we’re in the lull between college commencements and high school graduations.

The air is thick with sweet scents from honeysuckle, Ligustrum, and box.  Oh, what bliss is this for all of us whose blood flows green…

These shrubs grow "like weeds" in our garden; yet their flowers are beautiful.  Our birds love these shrubs where they find food and shelter.

These shrubs grow “like weeds” in our garden; yet their flowers are beautiful. Our birds love these shrubs where they find food and shelter.

The fragrance of early summer always leaves me nostalgic.

It reminds of friends and good times we shared.  And it entices me out of the air conditioning, into the garden, to enjoy the wonder of it all.

Can you spot the bee visiting the purple milk vetch?

Can you spot the bee visiting the purple milk vetch?

Photos by  Woodland Gnome 2014

This summer's grapes have begun to form on the wild grapevines.

This summer’s grapes have begun to form on the wild grapevines.

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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