I have evolved into primarily a forest gardener. As a child, I had some fairly unsuccessful gardens in the shady margins of the yard, and relied on carrots from my mom’s raised beds to sustain me. Mostly, I was oblivious to the effort to turn out an edible yield. When I first started to garden seriously in grad school , I quickly realized that gardening threatened to turn me into an enemy of wilderness. My young self had once waxed poetic about delicate, trumpeted bindweed flowers and mischievous raccoons, and my Kansan farmer grandma had responded with a ‘bahh, I’d poison ’em all!’. I was indignant. That was until I started cutting slugs in half with shears, and realized the nature of her antipathy.
I have worked hard to try to not let my unconditional love of wilderness, all of her, be slowly turned by a sense of battle against her for my own needs. In that vein, I chose no-chemical, no mow, low energy methods without even a thought. Through extensive reading and experimentation, I have evolved my own Alaskan forest garden style. In general, forest gardening involves the extensive use of edible perennials and easy reseeding annuals arranged much as nature would, with layers – plants that have extensive roots, low ground covers, herbaceous plants, bushes, vines and trees (and possibly multiple stories of trees). No gardening method is really low work. More ecological methods tend to involve a lot of work and/or money up front (digging big holes, sheet mulching, gathering materials, buying trees, etc) and the hope is that it evolves into a low input, self-sustaining system. You won’t be tilling every year, buying as many new plants, adding lots of fertilizer, etc. In practice, I am usually still filling in where trees didn’t make it, pulling quack grass, mulching, spreading compost, re-wood chipping paths, and other things every year. But the way the work is distributed really fits my nature – my motivation runs in cycles. I can happily spend all day in the yard pulling invasives and mulching one day, only to spend the next week unable to leave the house. This doesn’t usually phase a forest garden.
Often annual vegetables are also grown in the forest garden in their own spot or under young trees. I have a big sheet mulch bed just for veggies and often fit more around some trees. This year I was out of town all spring though, and didn’t get any starts going. I did eventually, in June, push most of my old seeds into the earth somewhere in the yard, and some things came up and did well. I’ve had all the butter crunch lettuce I want, big radishes, lots of field peas (great as edible green shoots or small flat pods in salads when young, shelled peas later), turnips. The favas and squash are mostly just enriching the garden as living mulch, though I do stir fry young squash leaves and flowers. But this has been a good test of what my yield would be if I didn’t plant anything new in the spring, and here it is:
- Berries and fruits – unsurprisingly, since I have concentrated on planting and nurturing trees and bushes I have gallons upon gallons of apples, currants, raspberries, strawberries, juneberries with lesser amounts of aronia, improved mountain ash, and arctic kiwi. Hopefully soon my cherries, sea buckthorn, apricots, pear, and cherry-plum will bear – again or for the first time (most of these need me to plant a good pollinator). I make pie, juice, soda, and preserves. We eat a ton straight from the bushes, and freeze the rest for later. My roommate makes great fruit leather and ciders/wines.
- Herbal Teas – My son loves to pick the self-reseeding annual german chamomile and add vanilla and honey to make tea. My favorite is roasted ground dandelion root – just as good as coffee to me! I really love the rich aromatic satisfaction of starting my day (or ending it) with a steamy cup. I also am drying rose hips, currant and raspberry leaves, sea buckthorn leaves, mint and others for tasty, healthful herbal tea for the winter. I am trying out dandelion leaf and horsetail (my do I have a lot) as a diuretic tea to help with PMS bloating and the sinus headaches that causes me every month, we’ll see if it helps.
- Weeds, uh I mean Greens – I make huge batches of pesto with weeds. Sure, basil or arugula (which does self seed in my yard, but I need to give it a bigger space, it got crowded out this year) is the best, but lacking that my abundant dock, dandelion leaves, lambs quarters and chickweed make great pesto! It’s bright green and mostly its the oil and garlic you taste anyway. My recipe is simple – blend a few garlic cloves and walnuts (or other nut on hand – I use the nut closest to the nexus of cheapest and most sustainable I can find), add a bunch of olive oil, a quick pour of salt, and as many leaves as I can cram in the blender. I also put all these things in salads. I’m not a big fan of bitter greens, but a few is ok and lambs quarters are great for having a mild spinachy flavor. They also get sautéed or stir fried and added to eggs or any recipe that can take a green. Or blanched and frozen…basically they are all nutritious greens that I couldn’t keep from flourishing in my garden if I wanted to. Not having other choices really helps me utilize them.
- Eggs and Poultry – My chickens and ducks eat barley that I buy for them and salmon guts and waste and table scraps. Other than that they are on the yard all summer, eating grass and weeds. The ducks are in a big pen, the chickens in a movable tractor right now. I get regular eggs and baby ducks (male muscovy ducks don’t make loud noise and can be kept in town, unlike roosters). This year there are three baby ducks, and a couple of those will probably become dinner, depending on gender. Two of my three laying hens are bad at laying in their old age too, and will probably be saved the long cold winter by becoming stew hens. They will be replaced with chicks in the spring.
As you can see, I am not aiming for some pipe dream of self-sufficiency. The bulk of my calories is still from grain products bought at the store. I also eat a lot of meat and occasional dairy – from fishing, the store, local farmers, what have you. I would love to cut down on this and am getting there… I have a small plot of land in the city. I could grow a lot of potatoes, and usually do have at least some, but I don’t find it too hard to justify eating whole grains and other products from other places. It saves a large amount of expense and the woes of our current food production system for me to produce most of my own fruit, eggs, greens, and beverages.