The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Choosing Plant Groupings for the Forest Garden

Primary habitats

Based on the wetland and eventual canopy locations, I filled in plant groupings on the map above.  This was a pretty complicated step, which I'll go into in far more detail than you'll care for.  First, I listed all of the plants I was interested in growing, focussing mainly on plants which will increase fertility of the soil but throwing in some nectary and edible plants as well.  Then I narrowed the plant list down to those which I can get my hands on for free (primarily on my own property), or which I'm willing to spend money on.

Next, I grouped the plants of interest into categories based on disturbance intensity, sun/shade, and moisture level.  The categories are as follows:

  • Canebrake --- wild cane and mint growing along barn with some kind of barrier so it won't invade the rest of the garden.  Regular disturbance as I harvest cane poles for building and mint for nibbling.
  • Fertility wetland --- alder shrubs (if I can find them), with horsetail and watercress in standing water.  These are all primarily being grown to be cut for mulch and to feed nearby trees.
  • Edible wetland --- elderberry, with cranberries between them.  This habitat is primary for berries, with nectaries for the beneficials, so it won't be disturbed much.
  • Sun-loving herbs --- Fertility plants (yarrow, chamomile, and comfrey) which I will regularly harvest for mulch with the addition of fennel as a nectary.
  • Fertility shade shrubs --- Hazel, with comfrey, dandelion, violet, and groundnut.  Regular disturbance as I harvest for mulch.
  • Fertility shade herbs --- the category above, but without the hazel.  I'm not sure whether I trust shrubs not to compete with my trees, so I plan to stick to herbs close to their trunks.
  • Edible/nectary shade shrubs --- Currants with bee balm.  Not much disturbance.
  • Sunnier shrubs --- raspberries/blackberries with bee balm and chives.  Moderate disturbance as I maintain cane fruits.
  • Lawn --- just what it sounds like.  For our picnic/work area.

If you're still reading, here was my reasoning behind choosing individual species.  First, the uses which are important to me.

  • Building the soil --- these fertility plants will be used for mulch, chicken feed, etc.
    • Nitrogen fixers are in high demand since only a few species can take atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into a form other plants and animals can use
    • Dynamic accumulators are good at reaching down into the soil to suck up trace minerals.
    • Coppice species are shrubs or trees which can be cut back repeatedly, creating woody biomass for mulch.  (In a larger forest garden, the woody biomass could also be used for firewood or mushroom logs.)
  • Attracting beneficial insects --- nectaries
  • Covering bare ground fast --- ground covers
  • Edible --- I didn't focus on this, but some of the species might make nice additions to our dinner table.

The top species before I narrowed it down (with ones I have nearby marked with an asterisk):

edible, fertility (coppice)
River cane
building material
wet, sun
edible, nectary
edible, ground cover
wet, sun
fertility (coppice)
wet, sun
fertility (nitrogen fixer, coppice)
wet, sun
edible, nectary
sun to shade
fertility (dynamic accumulator), ground cover
sun to shade
fertility (nitrogen fixer), ground cover, nectary, edible
fertility (dynamic accumulator), nectary, ground cover
fertility (dynamic accumulator), edible, nectary, ground cover
*German chamomile
fertility (dynamic accumulator), edible
fertility (dynamic accumulator)
wet, partial shade
*Lemon balm
fertility (dynamic accumulator), nectary, groundcover
fertility (dynamic accumulator), edible, nectary, groundcover
fertility (dynamic accumulator), edible
sun, wet
fertility (dynamic accumulator), nectary
fertility (dynamic accumulator), nectary, edible
*Bee balm
edible, nectary
wet, sun

This post is part of our Planning The Forest Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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