Friday, March 12, 2010

Have your forest garden and eat your tomatoes too!: Incorporating annual favorites into a no-dig, perennial system

One of the biggest challenges I face when trying to "convert" people to forest gardening is an unwillingness to give up our favorite annuals--tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, carrots, etc. In fact, forest gardens are very heavy on fruit trees and nuts, followed closely by berries. Littered across the food forest floor is a smattering of this green and that.

It's a system built on shade.

Our lovable annuals are sun-hungry.

Well, I have four tentative solutions for this sticky situation.

The first is to grow your annuals at the edge of your forest garden. This is my least favorite solution as it requires me to give up valuable space I could be using to grow the more productive fruit trees and bushes. Still, there might be some merit to training vining vegetables like peas and beans up the trees at your gardens edge. If one has to give up valuable garden space, I suggest sticking to productive and multi-layered companion plantings like three sisters.

The second solution is to grow your annuals in the sky. No, I'm not talking about magic. I'm talking about upside down planters like the Topsy Turvies I used in my indoor garden. These could be attached to the sturdy branches of larger trees, or, lacking such trees, could be attached to a building or temporary fixture. A simple bamboo tripod comes to mind.

This technique has the advantage of adding another layer to the forest garden: plants that start at the top and grow down. Granted, you'll want to be careful where and how you're planting your upside down planters as leafy trees can block the sun and cause your tomatoes or other annuals to die. But, a well positioned planter can give you annuals and keep your forest garden a no-dig zone.

The third option is to focus on winter crops. Broccoli and other brassicas, root crops, and many greens can be over-wintered... depending on how harsh your winters are and how well you take care of them. This means they're better suited to low light conditions and can thrive when the trees lose their leaves in the fall. They'll certainly grow slower and may never develop to the extent that they would in a sunny monocultural garden bed. But, they should develop nonetheless.

The fourth option is to find alternative crops. It might seems like forest gardens are all fruits and nuts, but their not. Lots of edible greens can be grown in a forest environment. Ostrich ferns can be grown in dappled shade and their fresh young shoots can be harvested at the beginning of spring and used like asparagus. Bamboo shoots are another good pick. Cow parsnip can be used as an alternative to rutabaga. Hog peanut serves as an alternative to true peanuts. Wild cucumber (Streptopus amplexifolius, there is also a plant called wild cucumber which is poisonous) can be a substitute for... you guessed it: cucumber (in terms of flavor, at least... it doesn't look like anything you'd ever call cucumber).

My entire list of shade-loving perennial edibles can be found here. I'm still working on the much longer list of of plants that thrive in dappled shade and hope to have that up sometime before the end of the world.

Until then, hopefully these solutions inspire you to jump into forest gardening whole-heartedly. You won't regret it.

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