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Introduction to Forest Gardening

We had a big turn-out on a brutally cold day for Lincoln Smith’s talk and slide show about Forest Gardening – thanks for coming, everyone!  And if you couldn’t make it, hopefully  these fast notes and links to more will turn you on enough to pursue this fascinating topic.

So what IS Forest Gardening?

Not what I thought – not woodland gardening, which refers to ornamental plants, not productive (edible) ones.   A subset of permaculture, it’s sometimes called “food forestry” or “agroforestry”.  And contrary to expectations, it’s not just about shade gardening, but assumes patches of sunlight, so a mix of sun and shade.  Unlike most edible plants, the ones in forest gardens last at least two seasons and usually many more.  Plants are in layers – at varying heights, like fruit trees underplanted with herbs.  But importantly, the plant mix is diverse, nothing like the monocultures of conventional agriculture.  And if you mix the plants correctly, as a group they feed themselves and share space efficiently – both underground and aboveground.  That’s a lot to ask but it’s how it happens in nature, so it can be done.

Plants that need lots of nitrogen, like apples, can get what they need from “Nitrogen-fixing” plants growing near them.  Prime Nitrogen-fixers (plants that turn nitrogen in the air into nitrogen in the soil that plants can use) are clover, sweet fern, groundnut, false indigo, New Jersey tea, American wisteria, and vetch…. Larger plants that produce their own Nitrogen include black locust, alder and bayberry.

Lincoln showed data from a California researcher showing that as much flour can be made from acorns as from the same space devoted to wheat.  Google: “Bainbridge Use of Acorns for Food in California.”  Wow.  Makes you totally rethink our assumptions about food production and understand a bit how people sustained themselves centuries ago in forested regions like ours. Sure enough, check out this website about cooking with acorns,  and this nursery in Michigan is growing oaks for food production.

An Easy Starter Forest Garden

Lincoln says to start small.  Just plant a fruit tree or two with clover beneath it and voila – a forest garden.

Best Fruits for our Region?

Lincoln recommends pawpaw, currants, hardy kiwis, pomegranates, figs, and blueberries.

To Learn More

Visit Lincoln’s website about the courses he gives in planning a forest garden, in nearby Bowie.  (I’ll be visiting his 10-acre site this spring to see the progress of his own forest garden and to chat with some of his students.  So stay tuned.)

The Apios Institute website is a great resource about forest gardening.

Posted by Susan Harris.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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