Monthly Columns

Gael Song

A Druid’s Garden, Edible Forestry, Year Two

A year ago, I wrote an article on putting in an edible forest garden when I was so excited to finally have enough outdoor space to plant one after waiting lots of years for it. And someone requested a follow-up on that first article, so here it is. Just to recap the basics: an edible forest garden is made up of three layers, trees, shrubs, and ground covers, all perennial and all edible in some way. Most of the examples of EFGs I’ve seen look a lot like a jungle, masses of plants scrambling all over each other. But I’m a druid and I like my garden beds untangled, so I made mine look like a tree, instead, with separate planting spaces. It has a central path that looks like a trunk and roundish irregular planting areas that look like branches. Even after a year, I still like this design, for it leaves me plenty of room to walk around the smallish beds, etc. and not step on the plants themselves to harvest. Except that I need to put pavers in a few spots that are hard to reach from the edges.

As you can see in the photo from last year (the one without chicken wire fencing), it was all pretty sparse, just a few plugs of ground covers and all the trees but the apple just tiny sticks with a few leaves. It looks a whole lot different this year! Let’s start with the trees. Rhode island is too far north for figs, so last year, I covered it with a box of hard insulation from about two weeks before the first frost to about two weeks after the last (whenever night temps are about 50 degrees) and it has grown by leaps and bounds. Just make sure all the leaves are off or it will mold under there, tie the branches into a column, not too tightly and cover. Look at the small photo of V shaped twigs.

That was the size of the fig in the spring right after I took the insulation off. Now it’s up to my chin and 4 feet wide but not yet fruiting. See close-up photo. I prefer a garden that takes as little work as possible but having figs in my own back yard is worth this much effort, I think. The Paw-Paw trees, native to New England, have also doubled in size and filled out with lots of leaves but also are not fruiting yet. It will likely be two more years before they do. Mmmm, vanilla pudding fruit! This spring, I put in a Persimmon tree, another native here, that’s small with only two branches, and I’ll have to wait for that to grow a couple of years, too. My six-year old apple tree is happy and fruiting well. But I did need to put up a codling moth trap this year (hang out in the top of the tree when the temps first get up to 62 degrees and just leave it there for two months). The Rainier Cherry I bought last year got some disease and I had to take that out. I’m still waiting to get that one spot filled in, the last. I couldn’t find Rainiers or any other sweet Cherry variety this year with all the nurseries closed down due to Covid.

Ok, so the shrubs. I have half-high blueberries, North Country, a hybrid of low wild and highbush berries that taste nearly as good as those wild ones in Maine I’m addicted to. These bushes are up to my chin and produce really well. There are enough berries in my freezer for several pies. I do have to keep the birds off, though, from the time the blossoms begin to fall or there’d be none left at all for me. For this, I use fine netting that’s only $1.49 at the local fabric store. It works really well but there is one robin I feel a bit sorry for who sits and stares at those bushes for days on end. Poor guy. Today, he actually landed on my back as I uncovered the bushes to pick, a first. The elderberries are now ten feet tall and flowering all over the place, just HUGE, so there will be plenty of berries this year. Mine are St. John’s. I make the fruit into syrup to ward off colds (4T. elderberry syrup spread out over the very first day you feel a cold coming on and that cold will be GONE!).

As for the ground covers, the strawberries have spread all over their own ‘branches’, alpine under the Paw-Paws and red Ozarks under the Cherry that is no more. The red ones have also moved into the next ‘branch’ under the Apple tree, as well as the tree trunk path down the middle. I have to keep pulling them out, the only real work of the whole garden, aside from watering, a bit of fertilizer once a year, not much weeding with ground covers all over the place, and not much mulching any more, either, with strawberry green mulch, instead. This is the beauty of forest gardens. I have LOTS of red strawberries in my freezer and ate a bowl of them with my yogurt every lunch for two to three weeks till I decided enough was enough. The alpine strawberries are under the Paw-Paws and produce small white berries that are super sweet, as long as you let them swell up before picking. They didn’t give as much fruit as I expected, so I may replace those with another variety, we’ll see. I used to have some that fruited till frost but this variety only fruited for a couple of weeks. But they do well under filtered shade, which I’ll need when all those trees get fully grown, alpine strawberries being a staple plant of edible forest gardens. Of course, there are always challenges in any garden, too. The groundhogs chomped up my lowbush blueberries under the Apple tree, hence the strawberries moving in (and the chicken wire!). To fill in under the elderberries, I found arctic raspberries from Sweden that are a ground cover. It’s fine but spreading pretty slowly. Those will also need netting when they begin to fruit next year as do the lowbush blueberries. Birds have a big appetite for their size, teenagers with wings! I have a bunch of herbs under the half high blueberries, some perennial, some not. And under the Persimmon, I planted nasturtiums for my salads. But even with the chicken wire undisturbed, some little creature is eating them down to the ground, chipmunks, most likely. Guess I’ll have to think of something else next year. (It’s odd, for I’ve planted nasturtiums in five or six home gardens over the last 20 years and never had a problem.) And under the fig, I always plant lettuces. This lasted well for about a month and then also got eaten down, despite the fencing. (Good thing I put some lettuce in two big containers beside my porch with chicken wire over the top!)

In the photos from this year, you can see the difference, especially that popcorn fig, elderberries bigger than the trees, and all those strawberries underfoot. Next year, I’ll get some kind of sweet Cherry tree and stop waiting to find a Rainier, and maybe more ground raspberries under the Persimmon, and it will be complete. After that, just lots of unusual fruit to enjoy: plain, in yogurt, in pies and crumbles, and more. I usually wake just before sunrise in mid-summer, around 5:30 am, and go out to pick first thing. Today, it was delightfully cool (before another over 90 degree day), the horizon turning pink, and the sun just peeking over the trees on the other side of the nemeton I have here and the lake beyond. It was completely still as I played hide and seek under leaves looking for blueberries and listened to the catbirds with their beautiful trilling songs. And I felt such a sweetness; of life, of nature’s gifts, and the delicious delights the universe provides. Even in a world that sometimes feels like it’s in complete chaos, one can find deep peace and sheer sweetness in living, enough to nourish any druid’s soul. May you, too, have an abundance of sweet moments just like this to lift your hearts all summer long (and beyond).

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About the Author:

Jill Frew Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and energy/light healer, who has followed a druid path of enlightenment for over 30 years. She is founder of The Celtic Heaven School, a nine-month program that teaches druidry, ascension, and healing. And she is author of the Alba Reborn Trilogy (the life story of a druid priestess and priest in BCE Scotland and their teachings of enlightenment), A Guidebook to Druidry, and Light Healing for Children. CelticHeaven.com