The Druid Garden, Edible Forest Magic
Because I worry about the overuse of chemicals across the earth, monoculture on huge farms that leave the soil depleted, the clear cutting of trees for building, so soil that has taken 500 years to build up is washed away in the next big storm or two, I am hooked on edible forest gardens! They are meant to be as simple as can be, ending up as a hunter-gatherer’s dream come true. And EASY! All those Monsanto chemicals kill the network of tiny micronutrients in the soil, too, organisms that break down organic matter into forms the plants and trees can absorb. Without micronutrients, plants and trees starve. If you are using herbicides on your grass, stop, now! Overuse of chemicals has killed off most of the honeybees, too, so those massive farms are now in a pollinator crisis. But honeybees think an edible forest garden is heaven on earth and come zooming in to thrive all summer long. If food grows scarce in the future from all those Monsanto misuses, the edible forest garden is my personal hope for a simple and natural solution. Everyone should have one!
This year, I moved into a new home, (one I own as opposed to rentals for many years) so, I could FINALLY have an edible garden of my very own! This has been the most fun part of moving, joy that is only beginning as the apples and blueberries plump up and ripen. I will take you through the whole building process, so you can see how any five year old could do this. Beginning a garden after a move is the best possible time because my gardens always begin with sheet mulching, a permaculture technique in which cardboard is laid down over grass and weighted with a few stones to keep it from blowing away. I recycled very little cardboard from my move. And in 3-4 months, the grass underneath has died and the cardboard disintegrated to become organic matter in the soil, enriching it. Be sure to remove the plastic tape and staples, though (the plastic comes off as easily as can be after the cardboard has been outside through a few rains). Sheet mulching eliminates the need for rototilling or digging to turn grass under, both of which also disturb the micronutrient network beneath the soil for 2 years or more. Sheet mulching is a peaceful, simple way to prepare an area for planting, cardboard best laid down in the fall for spring planting.
Every edible forest garden has three layers, a tall tree canopy, an intermediate height shrubby level, and ground covers. Many druids believe in three realms; above, middle, and below just like this. And a forest garden especially is druid to the core! And once the ground covers fill in, there’s no need for mulching with bark or sawdust on the soil level. I was surprised how many plants will fruit or bear under a thin tree canopy in dappled shade. And plants in edible forest gardens are meant to be perennial. Yes, perennial! This means NO digging once the initial planting is done (with the possible exception of a bit of weeding before those ground covers fill in Such edible forest gardens have the most PEACEFUL undisturbed feeling when they mature, like Eden. And one can walk through and harvest nuts or fruit or greens for years to come with very little care. I only add compost around my forest plants in the spring, for compost is loaded with micronutrients, and all my plants sigh in pleasure when it gets watered in, I can feel it. Then, aside from harvesting, which is pure delight, not work, and a bit of pruning or weeding, and organic spraying on the fruit trees if pests come in (I’ve dusted mine with spinosad only once this year), that’s the only work an edible forest garden needs every year.
Some of the plants can get out of hand, and you’ll have to decide how much of this you want to tolerate when you choose what to put in. Most edible forest gardens look like a jungle when they mature. But I am one of those folks who likes neat drawers, closets, and gardens, so I put my plants in sections, rounded edges (another permaculture principle, no straight lines. Research shows there is much more growth and activity with curved borders between plants.), with a path up through them that is mulched in brown bark. So, it all looks exactly like a tree with branches of plant families and companions, as druid as can be. See the photo above (taken before the chicken wire went up to keep out the very chubby groundhog family living nearby who entertain me every evening now that they are no longer eating my dill and lettuce to the ground!). The mulch in the small beds is sawdust I got free from a nice man who cuts and sells wood for heating a few houses away (You do need to add some nitrogen when using mulches because they deplete it when they break down, a little manure, for instance.). Next year or maybe by fall, all those saw dusted areas should be filled in and green. By spring of next year, I will have zero mulching to do. Only adding some nutrient rich compost here and there and popping yummy produce into my mouth!
So, let’s talk about plants that will thrive in a part shade, forested space. Of course, this greatly depends on the climate, and you’ll need to check what temperature number your own location is in when you choose what to put in. I’m in southern New England, so a lot of the edible plants in the texts about them won’t work here, heat and jungle type plants mostly. (In the south, you can have a ball with this!). Many edible forest plants I read about in texts also are quite unusual, hard to find, and with acquired tastes and reactions one has to watch out for if they aren’t cooked properly (like sunchokes-cook those babies really well or you will be on the pot all night long!). In my own little garden, I chose trees with leaves and branching patterns that don’t completely block the sun. I have a Butternut tree (sometimes called a white walnut), a white Oak for acorns (just shell them, boil for 10 minutes, changing the water three to four times to get out the tannins, and grind up immediately [they get hard very quickly] and store in the freezer for use in baking, very nutritious, indeed and as druid as trees! A friend of mine suggested putting them in a pillow case and running them through the washing machine to get out the tannins but I haven’t tried that yet, maybe this year. Tannins make the nuts bitter, a taste that is hard to get rid of in your mouth, too. The Native Americans put their acorns in nets and left them in streams for a few days to get the bitterness out. And it’s impossible to get tannins out of black oak acorns, no matter how much rinsing you do. Use fruit only from oaks with rounded tips on their leaves, not the pointed ones, and you’ll be fine. I have Paw-Paw trees in my edible garden, too, which are native to the US, even in the north, fruit well in part shade, and grow large delicious fruit that tastes like vanilla pudding! Yum! And I put in a small fig tree, too, which is hardly native and not truly hardy here. But a friend of mine has figs he’s grown for many years in his orchard. He makes a columnar box of 2” thick, hard insulation, ties the fig branches loosely together in a tall central stalk, and puts the insulation box over them after one or two frosts in early November here. The insulation box needs to go all the way to the ground and be tied or weighted down to survive winter storms, too Then my friend takes the box off just as the weather starts to warm in spring, just before the last frost in early April (protecting the tree if there is a late frost but opening it up to air out as the warmth comes in. Leaving the insulation on too late results in mold all over the tree.) And his figs are leafed out and budded with fruit well ahead of the rest of his orchard and produce really well with this method. I’ve been aching to try this ever since he first showed me. And I put in a semi-dwarf cherry tree and apple here, too, both of which I keep pruned down to a reachable level. (Most fruit trees now are grafted to roots of smaller growing types, so they will not get too large and need far less pruning than the older, full-height varieties.) So, those are my tree canopy plants for my first-year forest garden. I have a feeling my edible forest “tree” will be expanding and growing with new plants every year, but this was enough for me right after a move. I am aching for several more varieties of apples and cherries, a plum, and a native persimmon, though. (Edible forest gardening can be a bit addictive, fair warning!)
My shrub level then has elderberries, raspberries, and half-high blueberry bushes, too (North Country, with fruit that tastes like those wonderful lowbush Maine wild ones). Wild blueberry pie, mmmm! I’ve planted the raspberries in their own section on the side of the yard and will mow the narrow strip in between other “branches” of my forest garden, since raspberries send shoots off into the wild blue yonder and need to be contained a bit if you don’t want them all over your yard. All these are easy care plants, too, only the raspberries needing any canes that have turned brown cut to the ground after summer fruiting (not the fall fruiting or you’ll have no berries next summer!) All plants need regular watering, soil full of humus, and most need good drainage as well.
Of course, the ground cover level is lowbush blueberries! Along with alpine strawberries, both of which fruit well in dappled sun/shade, so are utterly perfect for a forest garden. I have regular strawberries, too, in front, so they get the sun they need, along with herbs like sage and rosemary, etc. I added a very few annual plants in between this year, too, since there’s so much sun under the new little trees and space between baby ground cover plants I could not resist filling in with eggplant, cabbage, lettuces, parsley, nasturtiums for my salads, and dill (These all need full sun). Once my trees grow big enough and the ground covers take over, the veggies will need a sunny spot of their own. And, of course, they have to be planted every year, so are not true edible forest garden plants, taking more work and requiring digging every year. But there are perennial vegetables, too; onions, leeks, broccoli that is mostly like cauliflower, asparagus, spinaches, and many more to choose from that I haven’t listed here. (See the book Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier, the edible garden guru.)
Put on your druid robe as you plant and carry your wizard wand, for this is the happiest, most delightful and druid way of gardening there is in the world. You’ll create your own Avalon. And you’ll have moons of delicious things to eat with little to no work to produce them. There you have it, edible forest gardening, as magic as can be!
About the Author:
Jill Rose Frew, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, energy healer, workshop leader, and author. She will be opening a school teaching light healing and the Celtic path of enlightenment in 2019. For information, please see www.CelticHeaven.com