The Snarky Gardener continues his article on Perennial Food Crops.
Shrubs, Cane Fruit, Vines, and Others
There are many perennial shrubs, brambles, and vines that produce food for humans. Shrubs include fruiting plants such a currants, blueberries, elderberries, gooseberries, huckleberries, and serviceberries. Cane fruit include raspberries, blackberries, and thimbleberries (all in the genus Rubus). Vines include of course grapes and also kiwis (also known as Chinese gooseberry). A good ground cover is Wintergreen, a eastern US native that makes a good-tasting berry (Shein, 2013). Bamboo provides edible shoots in the spring plus screening and poles for fence and garden use.
Trees are the cornerstone of perennial food production and have been for millennia. Pome fruits include apples, pears, medlar, and quince. Stone fruits are made up of such species as apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, and plums. Citrus are usually warm-weather trees (such as grapefruit, lemons, limes, and oranges), but with some protection, Meyer lemons have been known to be grown in more cooler climates. Mulberries bear fruit early and have a long fruiting season. Maples (especially the sugar maple) provide sap that can be boiled down to be used as a syrup. A lesser known fruit tree is the Paw-Paw, the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States. Nut trees also have an important place in perennial food production. Filberts (aka Hazelnuts) are good garden-scale nut trees (Shein, 2013). Black walnuts are native to the US and their hulls have been used to stain wood black for centuries. Chestnuts and acorns from oaks can be used to make flour.
Putting It All Together – the Food Forest
The food forest, otherwise known as a permaculture orchard or forest garden, puts all of these types of edible perennial plants into a polyculture to mimic nature’s forest systems. Forest gardening has three goals in general. The first is to produce high yields of diverse products of not only food but also “fuel, fiber, fodder, fertilizer, ‘farmaceuticals’ and fun”. The second is a primarily self-maintaining garden with little inputs from the outside. The third goal is a healthy ecosystem. These goals are reinforcing with a self-maintaining ecosystem with diverse crops providing an abundance.
Instead of growing fruit trees in rows and rows of the same species with just mowed grass under them (ie apple orchards), the food forest design uses a diverse range of fruit and nut trees to create environmental stability. More importantly, these trees are just the first and second layers of the overall design (shown above). Under and on the sunny side of the trees (to the south in the northern hemisphere), lower level plants are grown with the preference being perennials whenever possible. The third layer is made up of shrubs and bushes, like raspberries, blueberries, and currants. In the wild, these are succession plants that thrive in fallow fields and on the edge of woods. The fourth layer is herbaceous (meaning green and leaflike). These plants store their energy in woody roots or bulbs during dormancy (Bane, 2012). The fifth layer is made up of root crops (sunchokes, ground nuts, crosnes). The sixth layer is ground cover crops (mints, rhubarb, strawberries) , The last layer is made up of vines, grapes and such. These need to be planned well as they can easily overtake a smaller tree in time.
The best part of the polyculture food forest is that the permaculture designer has many plants to chose from. While there are specific common techniques that can be used (like planting comfrey around a tree’s drip line), it’s really up to the human mind to use the resources that lay at hand. For instance, I live on three-quarter’s of an acre of a rental. On the property is an apple tree, a grape arbor, several maple and pine trees, an oak tree, and woods to the north and east that has many “wild” species on its edge, like red and black raspberries, multiflora rose (which is edible), black walnut, and garlic mustard. Using the principles of permaculture, I have resources aplenty. I’ve already planted some perennial edibles on the edges of my annual garden, including sunchokes at the back and sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and lemon balm outside the western fence. In front of my house, I started a perennial herb shade garden, which includes peppermint, lemon balm, and chives, with biennials like cilantro and turnip greens in the mix. The flower garden (to be planted this year) will include already established multiflora rose and raspberries, plus sunchokes and many native perennial flowers such as purple cone flower. I could plant ground cover (herbs and wild leeks) under the maples and the front yard oak, both of which can provide food in the form of sap and acorns respectively. All of this potential food production from just a relatively small property. That’s the power of the perennial food forest.
Bane, Peter (2012-06-26). The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Flores, Heather (2011-10-19). Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community (p. 106). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Shein, Christopher (2013-01-15). The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem. Timber Press. Kindle Edition.