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Forest Gardening by Luanne Panarotti

Wherever I wander, wherever I roam, I couldn't be fonder of my big home The bees are buzzin' in the tree to make some honey just for me When you look under the rocks and plants, and take a glance at the fancy ants – Then maybe try a few? The bare necessities of life will come to you, they'll come to you!

“The Bare Necessities” from Disney's The Jungle Book

Mmmm, fancy ants. So maybe Baloo's vision of a bountiful jungle buffet didn't quite jive with Mowgli's. But this ideal of an environment that offers sustenance without the sweat of our brows to till and plant has been sought by humankind ever since we got the bum's rush from The Garden. Hunter-gatherers tracked and picked their way through their own imperfect Eden, but as soon as we decided to settle in one place, cultivation became the norm.

Now, when people talk about growing their own food, more often than not, they're thinking kitchen gardens: tidy beds, neat plants in straight lines, cages, trellises, row covers—all propping, supporting, protecting. Not that there's anything wrong with that: what could be better than a juicy tomato from your own backyard? But the plants we tend in our veggie beds—our tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers and so on—are annuals, tender things in need of tilled soil and yearly planting, ongoing watering, weeding and pest-management to bring forth their tasty yield. If what you're seeking is a food-providing planting that's more permanent and more self-sufficient, it's time to get out of your raised bed, and head into the forest.

What is a forest garden...

A forest garden is a consciously-designed community of hardy plants that mimics a natural forest ecosystem in form, function and diversity, while at the same time providing food and other resources for human use: fiber, fuel, animal fodder, pharmaceuticals. Chosen properly, the trees, shrubs and perennials form a mutually-beneficial coexistence that helps to make the garden more self-sustaining once established. They offer one another shade and structure; some attract birds and beneficial predatory insects, others lure in pollinators. Some are dynamic accumulators, whose roots tap minerals deep in the subsoil, then make them available to more shallow-rooted plants via their decomposing leaves. A few may fix atmospheric nitrogen, ultimately converting it to usable nitrogen in the soil.

...and how can I have one?

Your biggest investment, in both time and resources, happens during the initial set-up of your garden. There are various ways you can approach the process. If a natural forest edge surrounds your backyard, perhaps begin by building out from the existing community. If you have already planted some fruit trees on your property, orchard-style, underplant them with complementary edible perennials. Or, go whole-hog, and create a complete ecosystem from scratch.

The easiest way to prepare the patch of land for this is by using a method called sheet mulching. Knock down any tall weeds, then cover the area with a thick layer of enriched compost and manure. Over this, spread the weed barrier: six-sheet thicknesses of non-glossy newspapers, or pieces of cardboard, making sure there are no gaps. Top this with another three or more inches of compost, then three-to-five inches of matter that mimics the forest floor—leaves, twigs, wood chips, etc. To install your plants, slash an X through the weed barrier, and sink them into the richness beneath.

Old Mother Nature's recipes

Like a natural forest, a forest garden has multiple layers, or stories, of plants. Tall trees create the canopy. Tucked among them in the understory are smaller trees, and assorted flowering and fruiting shrubs. Beneath these are herbaceous plants such as wildflowers, medicinal herbs, perennial vegetables and wild edibles, then groundcovers, then root crops. Food-bearing vines and logs sprouting mushrooms may round out the picture, which can be a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

When you pick a pawpaw, or a prickly pear...

When it comes to selecting your plants, the palette is wide and varied. For the uppermost story, try a northern shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), which develops its characteristic shaggy bark as it matures, and bears flavorful nuts that were a mainstay of the Algonquin diet. The common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a large-leaved native tree, with relaxed habit and tropically-nuanced fruit. Members of the mulberry family (Morus spp.) offer tasty fruit that can be eaten fresh or used in pies and preserves. The native red mulberry (Morus rubra) has bright yellow fall foliage, and serves as the larval host plant for the elegant mourning cloak butterfly.

For the shrub layer, consider the Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) or American plum (Prunus americana), both of which offer pristine spring flowers and beautiful fall hues in addition to a toothsome yield. Currants and gooseberries, of the genus Ribes, are also good choices, as they are prolific even in the partial shade. For medicinal as well as aesthetic value, there is common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), whose colorful autumn foliage gives way to an uncommon November display of pale yellow flowers. Oil extracted from the bark can be used to make an all-purpose treatment for burns, insect bites and abrasions.

The herbaceous portion of your forest garden can include native plants as well as more exotic additions. Ramps (Allium tricoccum), also called wild leeks, can be used in place of garlic or onions in your cooking; practitioners of Appalachian folk medicine swear by their power to ward off colds. The leaves of wood sorrel (Oxyria digyna) have a fresh, tart taste and are rich in vitamin C, while the leaves, roots and seeds of sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) are permeated with a spicy anise flavor. The local groundnut vine (Apios americana) has crunchy tubers that are high in protein. The hardy kiwi vine (Actinidia arguta), on the other hand, is native to Asia, and bears a small fruit similar in taste to cultivated kiwifruit.

So just try and relax, yeah cool it, fall apart in my backyard

Productive, and also a lovely, peaceful place to be—a forest garden is a smart and sustainable means of growing your own food. And, you don't have to eat the ants....


Edible Forest Gardens by David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier; Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction VT. (the definitive two-volume “bible” of forest gardening and ecological garden design)

Wonderful Weeds & Other Useful Herbals: a workshop with permaculture educator Anya Raskin, Sunday July 25 @ 10 a.m. The Phantom Gardener, Rhinebeck, NY 845-876-8606

YouTube: search for “perennial vegetables” and enjoy a tour of Eric Toensmeier's prolific backyard garden, or visit the UK planting of forest garden pioneer Robert Hart.

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