words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten.
Foraging in their backyard is a way of life for the Harris children. When it’s time for a snack break, they pause to reach out for a handful of leaves, seeds or berries, then get back to the business of playing.
“We just make sure the kids know what they can eat and what they can’t eat,” says Dano Harris, who with his wife Shannon planted the various gardens at their Ceylon home. “We do have a greenhouse and veggie garden, but all around the house the beds are too small for conventional gardens, so we planted them with perennials that are mostly edible.”
When I stop by for a visit, the kids pull me from one corner of the property to the next, picking and sharing, watching intently as I try my first sweet cicely. Do I like it? Do I want more? Here, try it with this mint. What does it remind me of? One offering is bitter to me, and my puckered face shows it. They laugh and pinch a leaf from the next plant, eager to observe my reaction. For something that’s so shrug-worthy to them, their enthusiasm is contagious.
“We just always liked gardening and eating fresh food,” says Dano. “These perennials are nice—they come up earlier than annual plantings, and they’re tough. We don’t need to worry about the kids tromping on them as we would with lettuce. And it’s stuff you can’t buy in the store. It’s available here, to eat right away, fresh.”
Round or teardrop-shaped beds surround the family’s fruit trees, filled with berry-producing shrubs and more edible groundcovers. This concept of multi-tiered gardening, mimicking a natural ecosystem, is one of Ben Caesar’s many passions. Ben, whose Fiddlehead Nursery near Kimberley provided Dano and Shannon with many of their plants, is a bonafide edible-landscaping and permaculture guru.
Ben is sought-after for his breadth of knowledge, the sprawling gardens and bursting greenhouse—and his grinning excitement. Every plant has a laundry list of uses and a storied history. And does he ever know how to pair them: If you visit Fiddlehead Nursery during the growing season it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll find yourself munching on a fresh sandwich of leaves and herbs as you take your tour. And take notes.
He points out skirret, a root vegetable popular in Roman times, cultivated as a vegetable until the Middle Ages. Sea kale is a perennial in the mustard family that enjoyed a moment as a fad vegetable in 19th century England. Sweet cicely is an entirely edible plant that looks like a fern, but isn’t. When the seeds are still green, they’re like little licorice candies—and the seeds make excellent pickles. The shoots of Solomon’s seal make a nice asparagus-like vegetable. And who knew those invasive Phragmites were edible?
Ben’s research led him to study ethnobotany, understanding the ways people have historically used wild foods and how they’ve introduced them into their gardens and diets. Many of these plants remain in our beds, but we’ve forgotten their initial uses as food.
“The first step is identifying the plants in your yard that are edible that you didn’t know were edible.” Hostas, for example, are popular perennials, appreciated as a richly coloured ground cover that keeps out weeds and requires no maintenance—but hostas are edible, too. “They’re actually a common vegetable in Japan; you can find them in grocery stores. Cut the spring shoots when they’re tightly curled spears, then toss them in olive oil and cook as you would asparagus, with a little salt and pepper. The shoots regenerate after cutting; hostas are pretty bomb-proof. It’s a wonderful vegetable that’s tragically underutilized.”
Chris Sweatman at the landscaping company EcoCultures has been working with Ben to incorporate more edible elements into his clients’ properties.
“People are starting to talk to us more about spending time outdoors, working in their yard,” says Chris. “And I encourage them to think of the garden working for them, rather than the other way around.”
He suggests planting even a small portion of a yard with edible perennials and plants that attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, incorporating fruit trees and native elements where possible. “It’s really about pairing plantings, where the parts work cohesively to make the system work as well as possible.”
Chris has some favourite recommendations: Strawberries are a favourite groundcover. “Everyone loves strawberries, and they do well for a long time with very little effort. They’re great for poolside and around walkways.” Raspberries are good for bordering. Children love to pick and enjoy the fruit. Sorel makes an incredible soup and “is just so amazing. You can walk outside and have a taste of lemon.” “Walker’s Low” catmint blooms almost the entire season and is “super-easy to maintain. Just put it in the ground and watch it do its thing.”
As I feverishly make notes, asking him to pause and repeat, Chris laughs. “Once you start us garden folk, we just can’t stop talking.”
As the southern Georgian Bay area continues to fill with telecommuters and retirees, all spending more time in and around their homes, both Ben and Chris note an overall increase in gardening interest. Nudging folks in the direction of edible plant choices can only be good—for the bees, butterflies and maybe even a foraging kid or two.
Excerpted from ML Blue Mountains, spring ’21.
Nature as Teacher: Outdoor Schools Bring Learning Into the Elements