(A beautiful new forest garden we're helping with, in the very beginings of establishment!)
"Establishing a Garden is Expensive!"
I recenty spoke to a gardener who said they thought they had spent countless hours and thousands of dollars establishing native plant gardens in their landscape. Many of these plants are sold for $10 -$25 and up per plant at the nursery. And most can be very difficult to start from seed.
You can absolutely spend that same kind of money in establishing an edible forest garden, with some rare edible plants starting around $10, and some fantastic edible tree species hard to find under $50.
At least a forest garden pays you back in food. In fact, a well-designed forest garden should be able to pay for itself in the first year, and quickly require far less management and maintenance than other kinds of gardens, including "native" gardens.
But Permaculture founder Bill Mollison proposed a somewhat different model, that starts outside the front door and uses that first garden area as the nursery that will provide you with the plants to convert an entire yard. This first planting bed/nursery is sometimes called a "first locus" by Permaculturists, and it's often the first thing that gets planted when we start converting a site.
This was exactly the strategy we used, establishing our first couple of plantings with a set of high-value edible plants that could fit together like a natural ecosystem, or "guild," and from there, those first plantings have provided a large percentage of the plant stock for our entire garden.
Which means there are two basic charactaristics of the plants that work for such a plan:
1. They're high value. They provide high-quality ecosystem and edible functions. If you're going to be using these throughout your entire site, then you have to be able to use these plants and their products in large quantities!
2. They have to be "prolific," having the ability to rapidly multiply or be easily propagated out to cover an entire landscape.
Now, the drawback to that second charactaristic is that such plants are often called "weedy," usually by gardeners who don't understand ecology or the process of natural succession. All the same, understand that we're choosing these plants BECAUSE in early succession, on a newly prepared site, they are going to spread rapidly, providing you with high-value plants to cover your garden.
If you've chosen "high value" plants, this is a good thing. A very good thing.
From then on, instead of "weeding," you will be "harvesting" valuable plants that you can eat, transplant, mulch with or sell! With such high-value agressive plants in the garden, you'll have very little room for low value "weeds" that will be more burden than boon. Many of these actually act as "fortress plants," staving off the encroachment of weeds and grasses.
And this is even more important on very "extensive" low maintenance food forest gardens, such as public projects, church and work gardens, etc, where we need to get nature to do as much work for us as possible. If you're worried about the labor problem of "weeding" these high value plants, then perhaps the project could use a little more consideration and design before planting begins, since these plants will ultimately reduce garden maintenance. If you don't have time for these plants, you certainy don't have time to garden without them!
So, there are many fantastic plants that fit this bill, but to avoid getting too overwhelming, I'll keep it simple and recommend:
10 of my top "essential" pioneer plants for a forest garden
Plants that are very high-value, great to eat, highly useful in polyculture "guilds," and prolific:
1. Egyptian Walking Onions. 3 onions in one, available all through the year. And since onions can go in just about everything savory, it's great if they fill the garden.
2. Sorrel. Lemon-flavored spinach, very nutrient rich, and available in early Spring. Excellent as a "mulch-maker" plant and dynamic accumulator.
3. Blood-veined sorrel. Slightly less good to eat, though very pretty, and better in its ecological roles.
4. Plantains. Pretty much all of them are terrific, though "minutina" is the best-tasting. Rugels plantain gives a native option.
5. Endives. All are great in their ecological role and spread nicely. These include Belgian endive, frissee, radichio, and a few other expensive vegetables, but only choose one, because they'll cross and lose their mojo. Even then, all can be celar-forced for fresh greens in January.
6. Turkish rocket. An amazing vegetable, a great insectary plant, and "fortress plant" to be reckoned with.
7. Dames rocket. A relative of #6, but better tasting, in my opinion. However, its "ephemeral" growth pattern means it needs to be interplanted with a good summer species to take over when it dies back. Here at Lillie House, we're actually developing a "hairless" version of this delicious , but slightly fuzzy veggie.
8. Jerusalem artichokes. One of the only native vegetables that can be put on this list, I recently spoke to a native plant gardener who called this lovely edible native "terribly invasive!" Go figure.
9. Oregano, thyme and other mints. That's right, understand that planting mints in a garden without barriers is not for the "faint of heart." IF you actually USE these herbs, they will not become a "problem." But don't plant more than you plan on using, and keep them to plantings that can be controlled by mowing around them. Thyme deserves special mention as the only real "ground cover" on this list. We recommend planting a large variety of thymes, lemon thyme, orange thyme, mastic thyme, etc. to make your ground-cover as useful as possible, since it's likely to take up a lot of room in the garden. But if you're worried about mints escaping, don't plant them! Don't say I didn't warn you.
10. Crosnes. Speaking of mints, here's an old forgotten gourmet vegetable that deserves to be remembered. Excellent as a "fortress plant," vigorously spreads and produces a tuber much like a water chestnut, but corkskrew shaped to liven up salad and stir-fry.
Bonus: A few woody perennials that also fit this description:
1. Black raspberries and blackberries. I recommend planting both to extend harvest time. Blackberries have superior fruit but can be more challenging to tame, since they spread by runner. Black raspberies only spread by "tip-rooting" when the tips touch the ground, so they can be controlled by pruning. Good quality blackberry plants are expensive, though, so they can provide you with a valuable nursery yield in addition to fruit that costs a fortune at the store.
2. Elderberry. Another "cane fruit" that spreads rapidly and is very valuable.
3. Gooseberries and currants. Great fruit, easy to propagate via "tip layering."
4. Cornelian cherries. Good to eat, easy to propagate.
5. Nanking cherry. Precocious, fruiting in a few years time, and Readily spreads by seed.
6. Mulberry. You can keep them "coppiced" into bush form for easy picking. They produce huge amounts of biomass to mulch the garden with and leaves can be fed to livestock or herbivore pets.
And remember the keys to quick establishment are high diversity and high density, so I recommend starting with as many of the above plants as possible.
We still have a few spaces left in Sunday's Polyculture Design Class.
Establishing good, self-maintaining polycultures has been the key strategy in quickly transforming our site at Lillie House, allowing us to get an area "finished" so we can move along to the next project.
Polycultures are plantings that incorporate multiple species of plants, not just one as we see in a conventional crop field, or a suburban lawn. "Perennials" are plants that come back year after year, instead of needing to be planted and re-established each year.
When you create a new conventional garden, you create more work for yourself: tilling, planting, weeding, watering, pest prevention, disease intervention... and each year the work starts all over again. If it took 50% of your free time this year, it will take the same next year, which is why people get "stuck" in their projects, never able to move forward.
But when you invest your time in creating a perennial polyculture, it might take 50% of your free time the first year, but in the 2nd year, it might only take 3% or 4%, allowing you to move on to the next area of your yard. In this way, you can build a complete edible landscape, or "food forest garden" as a tapestry of polycultures.
In this class, we'll learn about a variety of approaches to polycultures and study dozens of models that can be put to work in gardens in the Great Lakes region.
We'll also be releasing this class as an "online" class for those who can't make it this weekend.
SPACE IS LIMITED: To register, contact Mike at email@example.com
Time: Sunday, 9:00 am, suggested donation $25, ($40, includes online materials and videos.)
Polyculture, growing multiple plants together, rather than only one, is all about minimizing competition and maximizing the opportunities for cooperation between your plants.
One way of doing this, is by gardening in the 4th-dimension, time. At Lillie House, we take advantage of plants that thrive throughout different times of the growing season, so that we start get harvests as soon as the snow melts in late winter, right up through the first snows of Winter. Ephemeral crops like garden cresses, avoid competition since many of them will be grown and off to college in April or May, well before the next set, like tomatoes, are going into the ground in June.
They also help our crops cooperate, since over-wintering ephemerals keep nitrogen circulating in the garden that would otherwise be lost to winter rains, and provide habitat for soil organisms when we'd otherwise have bare soil.
Many of these are also light feeders, making them ideal to grow as part of a polyculture ground cover, prior to a "main crop" of heavy feeders.
Remember that when you design polycultures to get constant successions out of the same beds, you can rapidly deplete soils, so we think it's important to use lots of mulches, nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators, and a rotation that allows our self-sowing polyculture to grow as a "green manure" cover crop every few years.
I hope you'll help me improve this list by adding your own suggestions in the comments.
Over-wintering crops for cold-temperate climates
Sweet rocket (Perennial)
Onion grass (Wild Garlic)
Biennial Crops that Overwinter, then Set Seed
Kole Crops (Possibly overwinter, depending on variety.)
Lettuce (depending on time of sowing)
Very Early Spring Crops
Claytonia Virginica (perennial)
Sweet rocket (Perennial)
Spring Crops (that likely finish before Summer planting)
Quick "Catch Crops" for Cool Weather
Those are my recommendations based on our experience, ease of germination, and suitability to polyculture plantings. If you want to experiment with other options, here are a few lists that can help you design polycultures:
List of Cool and Warm season crops: https://www.northeastnursery.com/blogs/the-complete-list-of-cool-season-warm-season-crops
List of cool season crops from Sunset: http://www.sunset.com/garden/garden-basics/cool-season-crops-0
Because polyculture, growing many plants together, instead of just one alone (monoculture), can reduce pests, disease, and weeds, conserve water, improve soil health and fertility, eliminate the need for tilling and reduce our dependence on chemicals, fossil fuels and poisonous biocides, polyculture is one of the most important elements of Permaculture.
It can certainly be the key to a much easier way of gardening!
And yet, because it's an advanced kind of gardening that requires detailed plant knowledge, experience, observation and experimentation, it remains one of the most mysterious, and least discussed.
Time to de-mystify polyculture!
Because this type of gardening is so important, we'll be putting together a simplifed version of the Polyculture Design class we offer with our Forest Gardening course, Sunday, August 21st. This "Introduction to Polyculture Design" course will be based on the material we teach our forest gardening students, but geared towards beginners and those new to Permaculture.
We're also making the first two videos available for free online, and we hope you'll check them out.
The class will be August 21st, from 9:00 - 11:00 am, for a suggested donation of $25.
This is our absolute geekiest class of the year. While we'll keep the material accessible to beginners, we'll also be going deep into current theory and best practice on polyculture design.
Space is limited! Registration required. Please contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your space!
Because polyculture design is so important, we'll also be making most of the videos and online materials for this polyculture design class (which are included with the Forest Gardening Design Course) available for $40, (or for an additional $15 for folks who pay for the class on the 21st.) This online version of the class includes dozens of example polycultures that gardeners can use to start learning and experimenting with polycultures. It took a lot of work to put together and we're very proud of it!