This spring we're turning our attention more and more to edible landscaping. Most of the obvious spots around our 2/3 acre property have been spoken for. We now have one fully mature and very large apple tree, one old and marginally productive plum tree, two newly planted cherry trees and two newly planted pear trees. We also started asparagus, blueberries, elderberries and raspberries this year, all of which will take years to reach their full bearing stages.
The areas left to us to consider are all marginal in some way. There are patches of ground in full or partial shade. There are places that are in full sun now, but will be fully or partially shaded when those fruit trees and berries get larger. Much of the perimeter of our property is made up of poor soils where junk was dumped over the years; trash piles, essentially.
The ideas of edible forest gardening and permaculture are helping me see these spaces in new ways. Certainly it is challenging to envision what could be done with them. Even if I can't create a true forest garden in such small spaces, the concepts of forest gardening provide me with several tools to work with. One basic idea of forest gardening is to layer plants in any given space. For instance, you can have a bush surrounded by a ground cover that doesn't need full sun, and the bush itself may be shaded part of the day by the canopy of a full sized tree. Forest gardening challenges the gardener to know plants and their requirements a little more deeply than conventional farming, which generally relies on giving annual plants full sun as often as can be managed. One key in forest gardening is to find plants that can live cheek by jowl without competing with each other. In other words, the plants need to exploit different niches in a given ecosystem. While they will need to grow under identical conditions of climate, soil type, and rainfall, they need to have different nutritional requirements. Different heights and root structures would be nice too.
Instead of mulching all around my blueberry bushes, so that they exist in isolation, I am looking for a ground cover that can grow in highly acidic soil (which the blueberries require), will tolerate being stepped on occasionally (I will need to harvest at some point in the future), and doesn't need full sun to grow. Oh yes, and I'd like it to be either edible, or have some medicinal virtues, or feed my laying hens. Those are my must-have properties for this plant. If it can fix nitrogen in the soil, outcompete other low-growing plants, and/or provide nectar for bees, so much the better. Sounds like a tall order, doesn't it? It is. But at least by having identified the characteristics of the plant I'm looking for, I now have a chance of finding it. Any ideas from you out there?
Fortunately, I have found at least one online resource that can help me search by some of these parameters. It's the Plants for a Future database, and it contains fairly detailed information on useful plants that will grow in a very wide range of climate zones. There are several ways of searching for plants in this database, and the website also has lists of the most highly recommended plants for permaculture. Of course, I don't get everything I could wish for in this database. I can't search specifically for plants that can be used as animal fodder. The listings for many plants will specify if they are nitrogen fixing, but it's not a search parameter that I can select in a highly detailed search. There is a fair chance that many of the plants identified as edible for humans are also good to feed animals, but I've never seen this information offered in the listings.
So far the best looking candidate plant for my blueberry area is Corsican mint. Check out the listing in the database - the amount of detail is impressive. I find that I'm turning to this database fairly often as I explore and carefully consider the marges of our property. Turns out that fenugreek and salad burnet, both of which produce edible greens, are great candidates for the junky area where we ripped out the forsythia. They both tolerate poor soils. The fenugreek will fix nitrogen in the soil while giving us both greens and seeds to grind for spice. Fenugreek is widely used in Iranian and Indian cuisines, both of which we enjoy. Salad burnet is tough enough to reclaim and heal badly damaged ecosystems in mined areas. It also provides nectar for bees for most of the growing season. Both of these plants will eventually be shaded out by the young elderberry plants we put in, which may reach 18 feet (6 m) tall. But in the meantime, they'll keep less useful plants at bay while providing us with a little food.
Expanding the list of foods we eat is part and parcel with edible landscaping. The more we insist on growing our own food, the more we are driven to eat what will grow in different areas of our property. Sometimes that means getting to know an unfamiliar food. The mainstream diet makes use of a fairly narrow range of all possible edible and nutritious plants. So, in trying to supply our food from a small piece of land, we are forced to stretch our tastebuds and our comfort zone. I can't help but suspect that this is probably a good direction for our own health. A diverse range of plants in the diet, each one eaten in turn at the peak of ripeness - what could be better than that? In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan recommends that we not buy or consume anything our great-grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food. It's a pretty good rule of thumb. Yet I doubt that any of my great-grandmothers would have recognized fenugreek as food. But someone's great-grandmother would have. If that's bending the rules, then so be it.
What are you growing this year that's new to you?
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