“The Integrated Homestead”
The Forest Garden
The permaculture concept of the “forest garden” is the more diverse, dynamic, interesting alternative to the conventional orchard, which usually has a limited number of species: fruit trees, grass ground cover. Unless we are going to do something interesting like grazing sheep in that orchard, the level of diversity is unimpressive. It is much better, as anywhere else on the homestead, to create patterns as kaleidoscopic as possible.
The model for this increased diversity of species and function is provided by a natural forest. The largest, tallest plants in the forest are the trees, which form the canopy with their greedy reach for the sun. Their smaller siblings, the shrubs, cannot compete for canopy space, so have had to learn to thrive and even produce fruit and nuts in the partial shade of the trees. At ground level is a diverse cover, mostly perennials, also adapted to varying degrees of shade.
Such a mix, if well planned and executed, can be more productive than the conventional orchard. That shouldn’t be surprising, once we start “shoe-horning” compatible shrubs in between the larger fruit and nut trees, and covering the ground with a profusion of plants, many producing harvestable food.
The forest garden is also more productive because we can harvest continually over a greater portion of the growing season. Orchard fruits and nuts have a harvest season of only a few weeks at most—but we can harvest in the forest garden throughout the growing season. We might start the season by digging skirret, a perennial that grows a root which tastes like a cross between potatoes and parsnips. Much of the harvest can be taken to the table, while a few root divisions are replanted in place to continue the cycle. As the season moves on we might harvest perennial bunching onions, garlic chives, violets (both flowers and leaves are edible), and sorrel; medicinal perennials such as Chinese milkvetch (Astragalus sinicus, one of the most important Chinese medicinal herbs), feverfew, lamb’s ear, and yarrow; culinary herbs such as chamomile, lemon balm, catnip, and anise hyssop; and small fruits like bramble berries, cranberry, lingonberry, and wintergreen. Don’t forget the “weeds” that make nutritious “people food” as well: dandelion, upland or field cress (Barbarea verna), burdock, and poke, whose (very short, early) shoots make an excellent cooked “spring tonic.” Also clamoring for our attention might be nodding onion, Good King Henry, sea kale, Solomon’s seal, and edible ferns.
After listing a few of the many possibilities above, we have yet to ascend into the shrub and canopy layers of the forest garden. Our current plantings in these levels include three plums, six apples, three kaki (Oriental) persimmons, one American persimmon, one quince, one medlar, five European pears, two Asian pears, three paw paws, four cherries, a juneberry, three mulberries, several elderberries, three gooseberries, two currants, two bush cherries, two Nanking cherries (one each of white and red), two jujube, and one che (melon tree). Nuts include eight filberts (hazelnuts), two each of pecan, walnut, and hickory, and one each of hican (a hybrid of hickory and pecan) and Carpathian walnut. (Our bit of woodlot already has wild black walnuts and hickories, as well as white oaks that produce abundant crops of acorns.)
Note that not all the plants in the forest garden are planted for harvesting food. Some we plant for soil fertility—our dynamic accumulator friends like dandelion, comfrey, and yellow dock; and nitrogen-fixing legumes like clovers or Baptisia—while others are planted to encourage insect diversity, or to provide medicines.
The forest garden project often starts with killing an established grass sod, in preparation for the planting of a more diverse mix. Remember that it is far preferable to do so without disrupting and hampering our friends in the soil food web. A “kill mulch” for killing the sod while leaving soil organisms undisturbed can be assembled from refuse from clearing/cleaning operations elsewhere on the homestead—raking leaves, mowing grass or pasture, chipping prunings, etc.—together with ever-accumulating newspapers and cardboard.
If you are lucky enough to have some woods, remember the many ways they can be used to produce harvestable food.
Medicinal and culinary woodland plants
Some useful plants grow in the deep shade and moist soil of a woodland setting. I have made a little woodland garden that includes medicinals such as spikenard, downy rattlesnake plantain, bloodroot, goldenseal, black cohosh, blue cohosh, and Solomon’s seal. Culinary plants in this lovely little retreat are ramps (wild leeks), sweet cicely, and wild ginger (Asarum).
Look around you—you may find that your woodlot already contains large numbers of valuable food trees such as mulberries, black walnuts, hickories, oaks, and native American persimmons. Oaks? Actually, the native Americans used acorns as food. Some oaks have been bred to have sweeter acorns which are more appropriate as “people food.” However, acorns, wild persimmons, and mulberries were once especially prized as free, self-foraged feed for livestock. Many a small farmer and homesteader of previous eras fattened the fall crop of pigs and turkeys by turning them loose in wild stands of such trees.
If you have any sort of “wild water” on your place—spring, pond, stream—you are lucky indeed—plan to incorporate it into the needs of the homestead and its communities. Establish wetland plantings and habitat for useful and interesting species. Neighbors of ours dammed a spring on their place to make a small pond, which became a magnet for all sorts of amphibians, dragonflies, aquatic plants, and birds, greatly increasing the diversity of their landscape. A future project as our forest garden becomes better defined will be the addition of a small artificial pool for aquatic plants, and a water source and egg-laying site for insects and amphibians.