Gardens That Mimic A Natural Forest
One of the many gifts I appreciate about Permaculture is the concept of food forests. In a nutshell, food forests are a semi-self maintaining “gardens” that mimic a natural forest. There are “trees” or taller shrubs with smaller plants below and in between, that grow in beneficial relationships with plants, aka guilds. The plants may begin as an idea orchestrated by the “human creator” such as a persimmon tree providing the habit for a nitrogen-fixing ground cover like fenugreek that provides nitrogen to the tree and seeds to the gardener that are great in cooking. Nearby there could be stinging nettle in the deepest part of the shade, providing herbal medicine and nutrition to the grower and acting as habitat for painted lady butterflies. This is a simple example of a guild that actually has many more benefits than mentioned. Over time, some plants come and go and many are opportunists that reseed if we let them.
In an ideal world, a garden or cultivated food area is a collaboration between humans and nature. The food forest becomes its own entity and we can help guide or shape it based on our food or herbal medicine needs. Food forests include the notion of growing what you actually eat and letting these plants set seed and naturalize if possible. When I let at least a portion of the plants go to seed, it draws a wide variety of beneficial insects to the garden and encourages the plants to naturalize. By looking at some of the “messier” beds in the spring, you will see parsley, sunflowers, mache, miners lettuce, dill, orach, calendula, stinging nettles, lamb’s quarters, nasturshium, borage, catnip, mullein, thyme, oregano….just popping up here and there. If they come up in a spot with room in one of the beds, then they get added to salads and used as garnishes….at least for awhile. If they come up in a path then they will get trampled or pulled for the compost pile.
Growing what you actually eat can learning curve for some gardeners. I used to grow quirky or unusual vegetables because I could and I thought it was cool. But I found I wasn’t drawn to eating them, so they unfortunately ended up in the compost pile. I also used to grow vegetables that everybody grows because they are highly productive, like beans or peas, but I didn’t actually like them very much and they demanded a lot of regular picking.
No surprise to you, I eat a lot of collard greens and so do my farm animal friends. My lot is small so I don’t have enough room to let them grow everywhere they seed themselves, but I try to allow a portion of the self-seeded tree collards grow and this is one way to come up with new varieties. Tree collards have a wonderful place in a food forest. If you have a tall tree collard, it can be the taller canopy plant, but if you have a shorter one, it can easily thrive in between fruit and nut trees.
In the photo above, you can see a mini food forest in between apple trees: variegated d’Aubenton Kale (perennial) with culinary sage, california poppy, and yarrow, which are all important herbal allies for humans and habitat for bees and hummingbirds.