Reducing competition, maximizing co-operation, minimizing work – all these things sound like undeniably good ideas. In forest gardening, an edible landscape can act like a natural ecosystem to reduce maintenance and work. And at Ben Caesar‘s Fiddlehead Nursery in Kimberley, Ontario you can learn how to create your own forest garden – incorporating trees, shrubs, ground-cover, vines, perennial vegetables, and salad greens and interplanting them to reduce competition and maximize co-operation.
As Caesar teaches, you can create a forest garden on any scale, from a small backyard to a few acres; a large, mature garden can take ten to twenty years to create, though many crops will be available after the first year. Forest gardens become easier with each passing year, because nearly all of the plants are perennial.
Forest gardening differs from other farming in that most of the fertility needs of the system can be designed into the garden itself. Ie, a plum tree needs a certain amount of nitrogen in order to produce an abundance of fruit each year. This can be achieved by planting a nitrogen-fixing tree, such as a black locust, nearby (and you can eat its blossoms).
Equally useful is comfrey; its deep taproots reach deep into the subsoils and subsume minerals into their leaves. When the leaves decompose in the fall, these minerals are available to nearby plants.
Another benefit of forest gardening is the innate resiliency of the system. In a mature forest garden, a diversity of species and structure leads to a robust environment that can resist weather extremes; perennials develop large root systems to access water and nutrients, and if a few crops fail, many more will fill the gap.
Forest gardening in temperate climates is still in its infancy and much experimentation lies ahead. Ceasar recommends starting small; a couple of sorrel plants in your backyard is an ideal place to start.
Fiddlehead Nursery carries a wide variety of unusual and low-maintenance perennial edibles and Ben Caesar’s workshops demonstrate how to garden, harvest and cook with them. Workshop schedule here. Online resources here.