Edible Forest Garden – Practice Plot – Part 1

the original goal

The inspiration – Edible Forest Gardens Volume I and II.

These are tomes. TOMES! There is so much information packed into those two volumes that I will be reading and re-reading and referencing them for ages. Which also means I will need to buy them for myself and actually return the ones I have to the library before the fines get any bigger.

There are many ideas, options, inspirations, methods, etc. in the books but for the Lawns to Legumes grant I decided to go with a tree guild polyculture as a very first “nuclei that merge.”

The “nuclei that merge” option is a method for large spaces and/or limited budgets where you plant small nuclei of a tree with supporting plants and as those patches grow they merge with one another to eventually create your Edible Forest Garden. One of the books many recommendations is to start with a small plot to practice, well, everything, because they have suggestions from planning to prepping to planting and all of it can get very nuanced and detailed if you want it to. Though, the book is also very good about always reminding you to take and try what you want and not worry too much about the rest.

There are so very many cool plants to work with and I know so very little about them all that I was having a hard time narrowing it down on my own. Luckily, I found the Project Food Forest website and they have four starter polyculture tree-guilds listed as inspiration and the “native bounty” one seemed perfect, all native plants with edible or medicinal properties.

Here was the starting inspiration:

  • Wild Plum (Prunus americana) as the center tree, native to the U.S. with edible fruit
  • Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) as the nitrogen fixing shrub, native with edible berries
  • Supporting plants:
    • Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) as native, edible, medicinal, insectary, and mulch maker
    • New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) as native, medicinal, nitrogen-fixer, mulch maker, insectary, and soil improver
    • Wild Garlic (Allium canadense var. lavendulare) as native, edible, medicinal, pest confuser, and insectary
    • Winecup or Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) as native, edible, insectary, ground cover, and soil improver
    • Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) as native, edible, medicinal, mulch maker, and insectary
    • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) as native, medicinal, insectary, and wildlife food
    • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) as native, edible, medicinal, insectary, soil improver, and ground cover
    • Yarrow (Achille millefolium) as native, medicinal, edible, insectary, soil improver, and beneficial insect attractant

Though all those plants are native to North America, they are not all native to Minnesota and so they would not all work for the Lawns to Legumes grant. I also had to keep our limited budget in mind and couldn’t afford to get at least four, preferably eight, of each of the plants on the list.

I did a search on Minnesota Wildflower to determine which ones were native to Minnesota and to find possible substitutes for the rest. The updated list with only Minnesota native plants was this one:

  • Wild Plum (Prunus americana)
  • New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) to replace Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea)
  • Supporting plants:
    • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) to replace Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
    • Wild Garlic (Allium canadense var. lavendulare)
    • Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
    • Narrow-leaved Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) to replace Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
    • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
    • Yarrow (Achille millefolium)

Unfortunately, I didn’t plan ahead very well (okay I didn’t really plan ahead at all, kind of skipped that part of the process…) and by the time I got to the Prairie Restoration Garden Center they were sold out of some of the plants I wanted. They also reminded me that for the Lawns to Legumes grant I needed a fall blooming plant and none of the ones on my list were fall bloomers so we had to add something to cover that need. My first and second choice of the fall bloomers they normally carry were also sold out so the final list I came home with was this:

I did have a rough idea of how I wanted everything laid out: tree in the center, four paths leading out creating four quadrants, two of each plant in each quadrant. The reality changed a bit as we got the prices and adjusted for what was and wasn’t there, and the addition of the fall bloomer.

After I got home I laid out the following plan on paper:

Now I just had to get all those plants into the ground. Should be an easy Saturday morning project, right?

Plans to Plant

plants to plan for

As I mentioned in this post, I finished Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway last weekend and it was a very good book, highly recommend. There were many great things in the book but the two big ideas that have really been rattling around in my head sparking ideas are polycultures or plant guilds and alternative garden layout arrangements.

Polycultures, aka plant communities, aka plant guilds are all about planting things in mixed together groups that benefit one another instead of in individual monoculture groups. Nature abhors monocultures and nature is the best gardener of all so it would behoove us to follow her lead. The right polycultures can help everything grow better if the correct plants are chosen that work with one another to create healthy communities both above and below ground for plants, insects, and animals. Hemenway’s book goes into great detail about these ideas so I will not; but if you garden at all I think it would be worth your time to read.

The alternative garden layout ideas extend in some ways from the polyculture ideas. If we aren’t planting single rows or groups of one type of plant that opens the door to a wide range of alternative layouts such as this one from his book:

Image from Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

While trying to find that image I stumbled upon another article that discussed taking his ideas even farther to really maximize not only the amount of space used for growing things but to combine that with as much space that is within easy reach.

image is from https://www.interdependentweb.com/articles/rethinking-circular-keyhole-beds-and-mandala-gardens

I have much more to learn on this topic, but I am super excited and super inspired by what I have learned so far.

These two things combined with my ideas for what I’d like to do for the Lawns to Legumes grant we received and a rough draft of an idea is starting to take shape in my head.

I’m thinking of putting together a small fruit tree guild based on all edible native Minnesota plants. The basic idea is you have a fruit tree in the center surrounded by beneficial and edible plants all around it. The tree is possibly planted with a “nurse” plant of some sort to help offer shade and act as wind break for the young tree as it is growing. Ideally the nurse plant would also be a fruit producing shrub or a nitrogen fixing shrub so that it not only offers physical protection for the baby tree but either nutrition to the tree or nutrition to the human who planted it. Then surrounding them both with various other shrubs and plants, which are either edible foods like wild strawberries, ramps, wild ginger, etc, or offer benefits like breaking up heavy soil, fixing nitrogen in the soil, drawing up other nutrients, attracting pollinators, etc. I still have much research to do about exactly what plants will work in our soil and with our intense winds and of course consideration for the fact that in the beginning there will be full sun but as the tree matures there will be less sun. But many people have been planting fruit tree guilds and there are tons of examples online, such as the one below, so I know this is doable it is just a matter of figuring out which plants will work for our location.

image from theresiliencyinstitute.net 

One of the sticking points for me is that most of the fruit trees native to MN are also toxic to horses. I am still searching to see if I can find one that isn’t, but regardless I am not planting any of these things inside their current paddock or any future paddock so if I can’t find a fruit tree that isn’t toxic I think we’ll still be okay. Though it will mean being vigilant after any storm to pick up anything that may blow into the pasture and making sure they always have hay available so they are not tempted into poisoning themselves out of hunger or boredom.

One of the resources Hemenway recommended to learn more about polycultures/plant guilds are the Edible Forest Gardens Volumes I and II by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. I just got them from the library this week and started reading them but then anther book I had on hold came in that I need to read for a book club. The learning cirlce is hosted by the Land Stewardship Project and we are reading Building Community Food Webs by Ken Meter. Our first session is in two weeks so that book has moved to the top of my reading pile.

So many ideas and so much more to learn and so much excitement! I’m going to make this regenerative farm thing happen!

Reading Lists and Projects

some completed, some not so completed

This weekend was not as productive as I had hoped (shocker!). Juniper has been slowly getting pickier and pickier about eating. For most of the fall she would be standing by the gate to the round pen, ready and waiting to eat her breakfast; and she’d eat most of it, or rather, most of it made it into her mouth at some point though she lost a lot in the process. Side note – we’re hoping to find an equine dental specialist and have them out once it’s warmer to take another look at Juniper’s teeth. She is still having too hard of a time eating despite the dental float we had done this fall. Luckily Leeloo is always happy to eat up anything that Juniper drops. Anyway, as the weather has gotten colder we’ve had to add less water to Juniper’s food because even at her most excited Juniper is a slow eater, SLOW, and once the temperature really dropped her food would invariably start to freeze before she would finish it and then she didn’t want it anymore (Leeloo of course had no such compunctions). I have eased back the water to the point where it doesn’t freeze, but this also means Juniper is less interested in finishing it. She’s still super excited for that first bite, but sometimes we barely get much more than that. Some days she decides hay is better and stops eating if she thinks I’m about to come around with the hay sled and bites the bars of the round pen gate until we let her out. Some days she’s thirsty and wants to have a drink in the middle of breakfast. For a while I brought her, her very own small bucket of water for while she was eating breakfast and that worked for a little while, but it has stopped working. Some days she just wants us to hold it for her the way we hold it for Leeloo (I wish I was joking). My hope is that if we can feed Juniper (and Leeloo) in the “barn” shelter that I can throw a little hay in there, and her bucket of water, and then just leave her and Leeloo in there long enough for Juniper to finish eating. I’m also hoping that if we feed in a sheltered area instead of out in the open I can start adding a little more water to her food without it freezing. All of that combined with how much it sucks to stand outside in almost all weather feeding them has really motivated me to get that last “barn” shelter bay cleaned out so we can use it as the make-shift barn as I had planned. We ALMOST got there this weekend, almost but not quite. The stupid ice from last week has made getting in and out of that shelter very treacherous so Nate and I spent much of the weekend trying to rectify that situation instead of finishing the cleanout. The last thing I need is for the horses or for us to slip (again). Fingers crossed that by next weekend we are officially feeding in the “barn” shelter.

Though I didn’t make as much progress on the “barn” shelter as I had hoped, I did make a decent dent in my “I want to be a farmer” reading list. This urge to be some sort of farmer/food producer/livestock rancher is not a new thing for me, though it has never felt quite so urgent and immediate as it has now. Over the years I have done a variety of reading related to these farming dreams. Most of these were read back-to-back-to-back so I have a hard time remembering exactly which information I learned from which book, particularly since there is a lot of overlap. The exception being the book by Ruth Stout; that one I remember very well, and I highly recommend it – funny and informative!

books I read a while ago – I recommend all of them:

The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka – this is a book on many “must read” lists regarding sustainable, natural, regenerative, buzz word of your choice, agriculture.

The Soil Will Save Us. How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet. by Kristin Ohlson The subtitle tells you all you need to know, it was actually a pretty hopeful book. If you are feeling depressed about climate change then this book may help you feel better.

Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

Building Soils Naturally: Innovative Methods for Organic Gardeners by Phil Nauta

Those last two had a lot of overlap being focused completely on soil, how it works, what makes it healthy, and ways to improve it. I learned a ton and if you are interested in soil I recommend them both (mostly because at this point they have merged into one book in my head).

Gardening Without Work. For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent by Ruth Stout – HIGHLY recommend. Not only was it informative but it was very entertaining. Her gardening method is extreme mulching and I had planned on trying it out last summer but then I randomly decided to bring Leeloo home and there went every free second.

books I have read in the past week –

The Complete Guide to No-Dig Gardening by Charlie Nardozzi. This one was good, but didn’t offer that much new information having read those previous books. He goes over many things a little bit but not any one thing in depth; mile wide, inch deep sort of thing. He did however give me a few things I want to learn even more about, in particular polycultures and keyhole beds. He also led to another book I’m currently reading, Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway.

The Ultimate Guide to Natural Farming and Sustainable Living by Nicole Faires. This book was meh and I didn’t finish it. Again, very mile wide and inch deep. Though if we’re comparing them it was more like 100 miles wide and a ¼ inch deep – except for the places where you fall in a trench. Perhaps it gets better if you read the whole thing but I have a pile of books I want to read and this one just wasn’t doing it for me so I moved on after only getting about 1/3 of the way through it.

Start Your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk. This book was great! It both got me excited to start farming and also made me stop and think many times about whether I really want to do this. Again more on the mile wide, inch deep end of the spectrum but it was appropriate for the purpose of the book, laying out all the things a new farmer needs to think about and consider before starting a farm related business.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. This is the book I’m currently reading and I am really enjoying it so far.

I am also eagerly awaiting fall because I am hoping to take the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Class which is a year long program for new and prospective farmers and it starts again in September.

I’m also supposed to be doing reading for my two education-related classes, but it is much, MUCH, harder to motivate myself to read any of those books, even the ones I was mildly interested in a few months ago. My heart has without question moved on from teaching – now I just need everything else to catch up.