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

Forest garden islands are easy

Forest garden islandOver the last year and a half, we've been experimenting with three different forest gardens.  My ambitious plan to turn the nectarine-plum-apple area in front of the barn into a forest garden in one fell swoop has been going as slow as molasses --- I've mostly been spreading comfrey around for fertility and building a few mounds here and there to raise plants' roots out of the waterlogged soil.  My low maintenance plan to subtly tweak a nearby area of young woods to encourage edibles and nectaries is in the growing stage, with little active management needed.

The star of the forest gardening has been my third variation on the theme --- a little forest garden island outside the kitchen window, an area that receives our concerted attention twice a day as we gaze out the window while eating meals.  As a result, I'm often reminded to spend two minutes pulling weeds or raking back the mulch to throw some flower seeds on the ground, and the result is a mass of color and fertility that the central peach seems to enjoy.

Good King HenryWhile the concept of creating a forest garden whole cloth seems pretty daunting, slowly expanding a forest garden island has turned out to be easy and fun.  A heavy leaf mulch on the compost mounds from last year resulted in a weed-free area to sow cosmos, marigolds, zinnias, and other easy flowers this spring.  The self-seeded poppies I transplanted out of the vegetable garden last year are now in full bloom and the extra Egyptian onion bulblets I tossed beside them are in just the right spot to make it easy to snip a few leaves for our dinner.  I snuck in a few Good King Henry plants --- a perennial green that will bear in partial shade --- and randomly poked some giant pumpkin seeds into the ground.

Mushroom bed in the forest gardenUnderneath the peach's canopy, comfrey continues to grow in the shade, ready to be cut back to feed the tree's roots.  A mass of wood chips innoculated with King Stropharia spawn gives me an easy spot to sit and enjoy the view of swelling peaches.  In my nook under the peach, I feel like I'm immersed in the woods, but with edibles and flowers within reach.  No wonder our visiting songbirds like to perch in the peach's branches before flying out into the vegetable garden in search of bugs.

If you're intrigued by the idea of forest gardening, but are daunted by the extensive planning and initial work load, I highly recommend starting with a little forest garden island.  A few minutes' play can turn that tree in your yard into the cornerstone of a vibrant ecosystem, feeding you and the local wildlife.  As the tree grows, so will the understory, and soon you'll have plenty of perennials to spread under the enlarged canopy.

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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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I find the idea very intriguing. How much "forest" do you need? Can you do this with just "that tree in your yard", in a yard in the suburbs, or do you really need to be more out in the woods for this to work?
Comment by irilyth [] Fri May 28 13:25:12 2010

Josh --- That tree in your yard is a great place to start! You'll probably have to work a little harder to get woodland species to move in, since they might not be present in your neighborhood. But you might be surprised what will start turning up once the habitat is right!

I'd probably start simple with a kill mulch of cardboard topped with a heavy mulch of leaves or wood chips, then cut holes to add in a mixture of a few shade-reliable plants like comfrey, maybe alpine strawberries, and currants or gooseberries if you have room. I've seen a few early spring ephemeral bulbs from time to time at Lowes --- any of those could be tucked into the shade.

If you want to jump start your soil ecosystem, you could grab a cup full of leaf mold out of the Crum while you're at Swarthmore and use that to seed your soil!

Comment by anna Fri May 28 18:21:13 2010

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