As the leaves continue to fall, the perennials go dormant and the earth starts tucking itself in for a winter sleep, we find time to ponder our lives, the world and how much there is to be genuinely grateful for. And while we’re kicking our thoughts of abundance into high gear, there’s time for one of my favorite activities: planning.
Is that a collective groan I hear? Not a crowd favorite?
But hear me out, because what I’m excited about is what I’m planning — and what you could start planning, too, if you are so inclined.
Agroforestry, food forests — call it what you want, it has become one of my newest passions. Forest gardening is a way of optimizing all your plantings around two goals: low-maintenance food production and using space and resources efficiently.
And, despite the name, you do not need a forest to accomplish it. (Though creating a community food forest for the Charleston area would be a game changer, so let’s keep the forest option open.)
So, what makes this approach special?
When’s the last time you popped in to your local forest to water it? Or the last time you and your friends had to plant the new forest for the spring? Growing food in the form of forests takes much of the toil and trouble out of gardening while increasing the reward.
Forest gardens are self-regulating once established. They’re great for food security; erosion control; wildlife shelter and food; soil enrichment; and even pest and disease control, to an extent.
Forest gardens have been around for a long time. Agroforestry is considered one of the oldest forms of agriculture — though, until the 1980s, it had only really been practiced in tropical regions as an easy way to feed large groups of people without devoting huge chunks of time to maintaining the land. It’s also considered to be the most resilient agro-ecosystem, in part because disease and pests have a hard time decimating something as biodiverse as most food forests.
The trick is to use all of the layers a forest would, with topstory trees, understory trees, shrubs, vines, general herbaceous plants and groundcovers. You kind of have to get a little wild with it. Let go of using rows and separating out your veggies. Let the plants work together.
When we diversify what we’re planting, the nutrients in the soil tend to stay more balanced, eliminating the need for fertilizer outside of what you get naturally from plants dropping leaves or dying back. Mixing it up also allows plants to play to their strengths. Some provide shade, some act as natural pest repellents and some pull nutrients from deep in the soil. It’s the ultimate companion planting.
Like I said before, forest gardening can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. It can be as simple as planting a pair of apple trees and under-planting them with currants and sorrel. Or planting a beautiful fruit-bearing quince with some lavender and hardy thyme scattered around it.
You can also go wild. West Virginia is one of the best places for this approach to gardening. We have so many areas tucked away that could just as easily be growing a gorgeous selection of food with little to no maintenance as they could be growing poplars and multi-flora rose. We just have to get a little creative.
The hitch with this approach is you need to work with the ecosystem you’re in.
I think we all get a little discouraged when we think about all the plants we can’t grow in our climate. We get so used to the dozen or so types of fruit we see in the grocery store and the dozen or so veggies we feel comfortable cooking with, and we forget how diverse and abundant the world can really be. There are actually a lot of perennial fruits and vegetables that are hardy to our zone.
If you’re planting canopy trees, you can go for full-size apples or pears or cherries; or you could go for pawpaws, persimmons, hardy almond, hican nuts or chestnuts. Raspberries and blackberries are great, but let’s talk about seaberries (they’re super cute), honeyberries, mulberries, elderberries, serviceberries and goji berries, all of which have varieties that can be grown as perennials in West Virginia.
Grapes are cool, but did you know there is a hardy kiwi vine you can grow here? Chayote, sea kale, walking onion — there are so many delicious edible perennials out there that most of us have never heard of because they haven’t been marketed to the masses. They’re just as delicious and nutritious — if not more so, since you’ll be growing them in your own back yard.
So here I am, planning myself a forest garden. It’s going to take time and some effort upfront, but like so many wonderful things in life, I think it’s going to be worth it.