What we now call food forests have been cultivated all over the world for centuries. Many indigenous cultures manage their forest resources to provide themselves with a continuous supply of foods, fiber, medicines, and craft materials. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed permaculture, a combination of the words permanent and agriculture, as an alternative to large-scale monoculture of annual crops. The concept of “forest gardening” was developed by British horticulturist Robert A. de J. Hart more than 30 years ago. He observed that it was much easier to maintain mulched beds of trees, shrubs, and perennials than it was to plant and maintain annual vegetables year after year. He wrote the seminal book on the subject, Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, in 1996.
The edge where a forest meets a field or open space is a highly productive space with a large diversity of species of plants and animals. Forest gardening seeks to emulate and capitalize on this. Hart identified seven layers in a forest garden:
1. The first layer is the canopy of large trees that provide nuts, leaves for mulch, and wood for fuel and building materials.
2. The next layer is the understory where smaller trees produce fruits. Apples, pears, plums, and cherries are part of this layer.
3. Below the understory live the woody shrubs, such as blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, and others.
4. Next are the herbaceous perennials that grow from the ground, flower, produce seeds, and die back to the ground each year. In this group are many of our herbs and medicinal plants. Rosemary, bee balm, lavender, yarrow, and echinacea are a few examples.
5. Groundcovers make up the next layer in the food forest. Wild strawberries, thyme, and perennial clovers are useful groundcovers.
6. The rhizosphere, or root zone, is where some plants produce their parts. Sunchokes, various alliums like garlic and leeks, ginseng, yellowroot, and others provide us with food and medicines.
7. Hart’s final layer is the vertical layer, the vines that climb up into the trees. Grapes and kiwis give us fruit. Honeysuckle and even kudzu provide craft materials. There is a group of immigrants from Bhutan living in our area who weave beautiful and functional baskets from kudzu vines.
Before we began to design our garden here at the Funny Farm, we did what permaculturists call a zone and sector analysis of the property. We mapped where the sun was throughout the day and throughout the year. We took into account the physical structures, our house and the neighboring houses, the driveway, the street, the neighbors’ trees, and other plantings. Since we live in a well-manicured suburban neighborhood, we were sensitive to the possibility that all our neighbors might not approve of our turning our former lawn into a food garden.
Our first design decision was to create a buffer along the street. We planted fig trees 12 feet from the curb and filled the space between them and the curb with perennial and self-sowing annual flowers and herbs, including several large clumps of tall-growing sunchokes. Then we planned and started work on the rest of the perimeter. Our neighbors to the west have some mature oak trees, and the afternoon shade they cast determined how far toward our driveway our vegetable garden could go. Along the drive, we planted two persimmon trees, a nanking cherry, and, this past fall, a plum. On the other side of the drive, there is a 4-foot strip between it and our neighbor’s property line, just enough room for a row of blueberries. There is a nice stand of mature dogwoods, my favorite tree, and a beautiful Japanese maple near the house with a small sunny space in between. In that space, we added another plum, more sunchokes, and perennial welsh onions.
So what we have is a vegetable garden in the center of the front yard surround by a food forest. Our neighbor’s oaks form the canopy layer. Plums, figs, persimmons, and a cherry fill the understory. Blueberries occupy the shrub layer. Two falls ago, we divided and transplanted herbaceous perennials from our bugscaping bed (more about that in a future post) into our food forest. Bee balm, yarrow, and goldenrod provide food and shelter for many beneficial insects, both pollinators and predators. We added sunchokes and welsh onions into the rhizosphere. Wild strawberries and clover cover the ground. The strawberries keep the chipmunks occupied, and the clover provides a home for rhizobium bacteria that capture nitrogen from the air and make it available to the adjacent plants. Our next addition will be an arbor with a grapevine to define the entrance into the garden.
Each plant was chosen because it contributes something to the garden as a whole. Permaculturists call these purposeful groupings of plants guilds. The more functions a plant can contribute to the guild, the more valuable it is. The clover produces edible leaves and flowers. The flowers attract many different beneficial insects. The roots anchor the soil and provide a home for the beneficial rhizobium bacteria. Lady beetles overwinter at the base of yarrow. Its flowers attract many beneficial insects and also look good in flower arrangements. Yarrow is also a medicinal plant. It is an astringent. It can be used to stop bleeding and is said to improve digestion and reduce fevers.
This spring, we harvested 10 pounds of cherries from our nanking cherry tree. The persimmons are covered with flowers now. The figs have many tiny fruits forming on the branches. Our 2-year-old blueberries will produce a modest crop this year. With each passing year, we will harvest more and more from what would be considered by many gardeners to be marginal space. We tuck food-producing plants wherever we can find a space. If you have room for flowering trees and perennials, why not have them do something for you besides look pretty? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could obtain a yield from your garden beds? You have to maintain them anyway. Why not turn your garden into an edible one? Our next-door neighbor who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years told my wife not long ago he thinks of our garden as the Garden of Eden. You can create your own Garden of Eden. Try it—it’s easy.