Tag Archives: Far North

Muscovy Ducks in the Urban Food Forest

I have had muscovy ducks in my backyard for about 4 years now…at first penned up with the chickens, and then penned up in the back of the yard, where only the raspberries and weedy grass grew.

Muscovies foraging in the Yard

Muscovies foraging in the Yard

Just this year I have fenced the whole back food forest to let them forage a little more widely and it seems to be a good experiment so far!  It’s early days, and they weren’t on the yard in the early spring as young plants were making their tender way in to the world, so I am curious to see the effects throughout next year and the following years, but these are my observations so far:

Throughout most of the summer I didn’t notice too much change due to the ducks – extra poop everywhere, and some trampled areas where they liked to bed down for the day (they liked open ground, so my newly planted asparagus bed, which for some reason was not well mulched, suffered.), and some holes in the woodchips where they stuck their bills in and sifted for protein snacks.  I fed them fairly daily with barley grain as well – about a quart for 4 adults and a baby.  As fall rolled around, and I started realizing how well they have been finding their own meals (and since the wild seeds are in profusion) I sometimes go a few days without feeding.  If I go too long they figure out how to escape the yard, but they are doing a much better job of mowing down some of the plants I want them to now (mainly quackgrass).  I have wanted to eradicate grass from my plantings for years, but now I see its value as forage…and of course this foraging pressure will cut down its dominance!

It seems their preferences have been, sorta in this order (at least of what is available in the space): insects (including worms, slugs, flies, etc etc), berries within reach, red clover, tender grass, kale, comfrey, (probably chickweed and dandelions about here), turnip greens, tougher grass, turnip stems, mature lambs quarters seeds, chives, horseradish leaves, valerian leaves.  They have not seemed to damage in any way strawberry plants, trees and shrubs and raspberry canes, russian tarragon, yellow toadflax, lupine, or motherwort.  They have smooshed, to varying degrees, some small, young transplants of asparagus, native artemisia, french sorrel (they probably ate this too), lovage (though this isn’t in that bad of shape, just walked on a bit), and haskap.  All of this could have been prevented with a low fence around the plants, but so far the area and number of plants affected is small.

I have great hopes that this arrangement will lead to healthier ducks, fewer pest insects (especially hopeful on slugs, currant worms and leaf rollers), naturally mowed grass for a ‘cleaner’ look to the yard – for those who care, low effort fertilization of the fruit trees, and less food expenses for the ducks.  For more thoughts on the subject, I found 10 reasons for and against muscovies in the back yard in this great post, which mostly mirrors my experience!

10 non-rose family fruits for the Northern Forest Garden

Many of the fruits we rely on in the temperate regions come from one family.  Believe it or not apple, pear, plum, cherry, quince, and even raspberry, service berry, aronia, mountain ash and strawberry all are in the rose family.  Many of our ornamental bushes are in this family as well.  As a food forest gardener seeking biodiversity, I want to plant and gather from as wide an array of genetic material as possible.  Plants in the same family can concentrate pests that they are vulnerable to – fireblight, canker, insect predators such as leaf rollers, even damage from mammals such as voles, rabbits, and moose (the bark and leaves of the rose family are pretty universally tasty to these browsers – I’ve even seen a young moose angrily put up with a rose’s thorns to eat the branches, stomping the plant in between mouthfuls!)  To be fair, there are benefits to family relationships too – by rights my pear and sweet cherry shouldn’t bear fruit, because neither has a pollinator tree from the same species (and different but compatible cultivar), however they do bear some fruit.  I’m guessing a sour or bush cherry helps with pollinating the sweet cherry and mountain ash with the pear (and maybe there is some very limited self pollination.)  In any case, here are 10 fruits that I do, or possibly could grow in my zone 4 (max of about 1000 Growing Degree Days, just over 100 Frost Free Days) Alaskan food forest – some require favorable microclimates, most are worth a try, some might be a big stretch!  My observations are for growing (or trying to grow, or contemplating growing) these plants in Anchorage, Alaska.

1. Rhubarb (Polygonaceae family) – here is a standard Alaskan fruit, that of course is not biologically a fruit.  great!  No leaf roller, easy to propagate by splitting, early availability.   Jams, pies, crumble, ice cream topping, lemonade substitute, savory sour soup ingredient – What’s not to love!

2. Currants (Grossulariaceae family) – A nice prolific bush fruit that comes in white, red and black.  I love the black for their sweet, somewhat skunky taste, and their resistance to currant worm. This saw-fly larva does defoliate white and red currants, and gooseberries as well, so those are a bit more problematic in my yard.  I eat them straight, freeze them, and make sweetened juice concentrate that then is easy to make into home-fermented soda.  They self root where branches touch the ground, so are easy to spread around.  This link is my whole post on my love of black currants 🙂

Green gooseberries subbing for limes in this mojito!

Green gooseberries subbing for limes in this mojito!

3. Hardy Kiwi (Actinidiaceae family) – a small non-fuzzy fruit with a soft kiwi taste when it finally ripens in the fall.  Great for fresh eating, these grow well for me!  I am hoping to root some vines so I can propagate to other parts of my yard.  But don’t pick too early or they are astringent and hard!

4. Highbush Cranberry (Adoxaceae family) – this native viburnum is ubiquitous in the local birch forest under story.  I love the tart taste, though the big seed is best spit out and milled out of sauces.  There are other viburnums such as nannyberry that might do well here too.

5. Honey Berry (or Haskap, or edible honeysuckle – Caprifoliaceae family) –  A good sub for the harder to grow blueberry, well at least in color!  Honey berries are a pretty blue oval blob with a sweet and accessible taste.  Unfortunately, I’ve had bad leaf rollers the last two years and they have ruined most of the berries before they can ripen, but as my plants get larger and pest populations ebb I expect great things!  I do have a couple of blueberry plants (Ericaceae family) too, another non-rose family, but they limp along in my yard, and it is great to get up in the mountains and pick the much tastier wild blueberries by the gallon in the fall.

Alaskan Blueberries!!!!

Alaskan Blueberries!!!!

6. Elderberry (Adoxaceae family – same family as highbush cranberries!) – red are native, and a better bet than blue or black to grow in your yard in Anchorage.  The flowers make good fritters, or juice/soda/wine, the berries are the only thing I’ve ever made wine out of – tasted like Boones Farm, but nicely alcoholic!  I’m trying a couple of domestic blue plants, but I’ve failed before with these, so may be difficult to grow this far north.

7. Mulberry (Moraceae family) – probably require more Growing Degree Days than we have, but global warming/microclimates might help!  I planted one from St Lawrence Nurseries this year, we’ll see if it makes it through the winter and does anything fruitful in the future!

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A male Sea Buckthorn in search of a female!

8. Elaeagnaceae family – Goumi, russian olive, Sea buckthorn, etc – Sea Buckthorn definitely fruits here, and tastes a bit like tang, or Hawaiian passion fruit orange juice.  Yum!  Russian olive is widely sold here as an ornamental, but mine died. Other members of this family might work!






9. Wolf or Goji berry ( Lycium family) antioxidant rich, faddish ‘super’ food – for what that’s worth.  Hardy to zone 5, some maybe to 3 – but do we have a long enough season?  Maybe worth a try!

10. Pawpaw (Annonaceae family) Temperate member of an otherwise tropical family.  A large, native fruit depended upon by early inhabitants of the eastern US.  Nutritious.  I’ve never tried it.  Low water content like a banana.  Needs water and probably way more Frost Free Days and Growing Degree Days than we have in Anchorage…but I can dream because,  according to the internet, Pawpaws have a creamy, custard-like flesh with a complex combination of tropical fruit flavors.  But it is on my list to put in a tree and see…someday, because this is a stretch!

I also dream of persimmon and various nuts (chestnuts, heart nuts, hardy hickory) that would be serious experiments.  I have some hardy hazelnuts that grow well, and even have male and female flowers, but so far have failed to set any nuts. One of my problems is that I have an urban yard and can only experiment with a couple of trees in most cases.  For plants on the very edge of being in acceptable growing conditions, one would need to plant a huge number of genetically distinct plants to roll the dice on finding a collection of genes that might be adapted to our conditions.  What crazy fruits or other perennials have worked for you in the far north??  Let’s learn from each other!