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Top 13 forest garden species

SochanZev Friedman, vice president of Living Systems Design, regaled us with an exciting talk about Real Life Forest Gardening at the Organic Grower's School.  He included a list of the top 13 species that he recommends for every forest garden, reproduced below:

Sochan aka Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) is an herb that can grow in shade or sun, damp or dry soil, and will feed you spring greens followed by echinacea-like medicine in the summer.  I'd never heard of sochan and would be very curious to hear from someone who has tried it in their own garden.  I have a hard time believing that sochan would win out over winter kale in a taste test, but Zev asserts that he's changed over entirely to perennial greens.

Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) is a shade-loving native that's related to the more familiar (but non-native) stinging nettle.  Zev notes that wood nettle is tastier but has fewer medicinal properties than stinging nettle.  I have wood nettle growing all over the woods of my property and I've been meaning to bite the bullet and taste it --- maybe this spring!

Elderberry fruitsAmerican elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is grown for its fruit, and also for the shrub's vigorous habit that allows it to form hedges and retain soil along streams.  We've got wild elderberries and I even let a shrub grow up in our forest garden, but I don't think this plant will become one of our primary food producers --- very few people eat the fruits raw and we're not wine-drinkers or jam-eaters.

Mulberries (Morus alba, M. rubra, and M. nigra) produce edible fruit, fiber, fodder, and wood for bow-making.  I'll eat mulberry fruits, but I tend to relegate them to the bottom of my taste test list.  Nevertheless, I have planted an ever-bearing mulberry since the copious fruits are great for chickens and other animals.

Lamb's quarter (Chenopodium album) is a self-seeding annual green that grows in sunny, disturbed areas.  I suspect this species is of a lot more use to urban gardeners, who can forage lamb's quarter from an abandoned lot.  We try to keep the weeds down in our garden, so don't provide much habitat for it.

Poke shootsPoke (Phytolacca americana) produces edible stalks in the summer.  I've always steered clear of it because I don't believe you get much nutrition after you boil the greens a few times to remove the toxic substances, but Zev likes the flavor (with plenty of butter and salt) and notes that poke stimulates the lymph system just when you need it, at the end of a long winter.

Hybrid chestnut (Castanea sp.) is grown for its nuts and wood.  American chestnuts used to be a huge component of the Appalachian diet, and have now been replaced by Chinese chestnuts.  I've planted a few trees in out of the way spots, but I have to admit that I'm not as keen on this nut as on others --- it's the one nut that is nutritionally more like a grain.  If I was raising pigs, though, I'd be a chestnut-pusher.

White oak (Quercus alba) is grown for the nuts and wood.  I consider oak more of a livestock-food tree than a human-food tree, but (like poke) the nuts are edible after leaching out the toxic parts.

DeerDeer (Odocoileus virginianus) are hunted for their meat and skins.  Zev notes that deer prune plants and distribute nitrogen, but that's where I think he's getting a bit caught up in philosophy and not considering reality (a major downfall of philosophical forest gardeners who don't garden their own land.)  I'd rather get my nitrogen from an animal that doesn't eat up every food plant in its path!

Heritage turkey (Melagris gallopavo) is grown for its meat.  When an audience member (not us, though I was thinking along the same lines) asked Zev why he suggests turkeys instead of chickens, he replied that turkeys are more capable of dealing with predators.  I could write for hours about why I think chickens are better suited to the homestead and forest garden --- ability to eat food scraps, taste, small size, copious eggs, etc. --- but I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Ducks (various species) are grown for eggs and meat (and to remove slugs from the garden.)  I've read on several blogs, though, that ducks are very difficult to pluck and that they lay few eggs compared to chickens.  I'm sticking to my working chicken flock.

Oyster mushroomsOyster mushrooms (Pleurotus sp.) is (finally!) a recommendation I can get behind whole-heartedly.  We've found that these are the easiest mushrooms to grow in our climate, can be propagated at home, and are among the tastiest.  Zev notes that in addition to eating the mushrooms, you can also use them for myco-remediation.  (More on that next week.)

Appalachian reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) is a medicinal (and somewhat culinary) mushroom that is Zev's response to the hemlock woolly adelgid that is currently wiping out one of Appalachia's keystone species.  If we can't prevent the death of our mighty hemlocks, Zev notes that we can at least grow some food on the fallen giants.

After reading through Zev's list, I can tell that he rates his plants quite differently than I do.  I tend to choose food species first by taste, second by ease of growing, and only factor in multiple uses at the end.  Zev, on the other hand, clearly chooses first by multiple use, second by ease of growth, and only considers taste at the very end.  (Either that or his taste buds are just very different from mine.)  Nevertheless, I think we can all learn a lesson just by looking at his top 13 forest gardening species --- what other list includes animals and fungi along with plants?  We should each work to create a diversified group of species that together provide greens, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, and meat.  What species would be on your list?

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This post is part of our Real Forest Gardening 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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Ducks can be OK. We've got Indian Runners, and they're really good layers. I'd recommend both chickens and ducks, though, since they seem to stop laying at different times to each other.
Comment by Darren (Green Change) Thu Mar 17 07:52:33 2011
I was hoping someone would chime in and tell me I was wrong about some of these. :-) That's a good point about ducks and chickens working well together because they lay at different times of the year --- I'll have to look into that. I'm curious what the duck laying cycle looks like for you. Here, if we have young hens, they lay all year, although they slow down a bit in the winter. Our oldest hens (5 years old) did stop for the winter this winter and last.
Comment by anna Thu Mar 17 08:50:05 2011

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