The Forest Garden

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Some of us have vast, open expanses to play with in our gardens. These expanses are sunny, and the soil is good for vegetables. Others? Well, if you’re like me and you live in the Pacific Northwest, rain is more common than sunshine, and forests dominate the landscape. This is lovely for walking, but it can be much more challenging if you like to grow the traditional sun-loving vegetable crops.

What’s a gardener to do? Whether you have one big tree in your garden or you live in the middle of a forest, you can grow food. Forests are naturally full of food. After all, animals live there, and many of them eat plants. To grow food in your urban or suburban forest, you just need to be a bit more creative.

Today we’ll talk about strategies to create a forest garden. Over the next few days, you’ll learn what edible plants can thrive in this unique environment.

While trees might seem like a big challenge in a vegetable garden, they are also ecologically important. Many ecosystems have trees as a dominant feature. What do trees do? They provide shelter. If you’re in a windswept area, trees provide a welcome windbreak for plants. They filter out weed seeds that blow around, too. If you live in a place where it rains a lot, trees shelter plants from pounding rain, and they also keep the moisture in the garden longer, trapping it on their leaves and with their roots. Trees’ roots systems are an essential part of keeping the soil in place.

If you’re lucky enough to have a tree in your garden, here’s what you can do to get ready to plant your forest garden.

Figure out how your tree impacts the light in your garden. Watch your garden at different times of the day. Track sunlight and shade, including dappled sunlight. Many plants don’t need full bright sun, so this dappled light can be useful and important.

Watch where the water goes in the garden. There are likely dry areas right around the tree trunk. Near the tree’s drip line, water will fall. Note the areas in your garden that are very wet and very dry.

Think about your garden in terms of layers. Conventional vegetable gardens are often built in a single layer, one that’s based on ground crops such as lettuce and potatoes. In a forest garden, you already have a top canopy layer. Think how berry bushes, smaller trees, and groundcovers can fit into your garden.

Consider how your tree contributes to the garden soil. Does it spread large leaves everywhere in the fall? Is there a steady rain of needles? How can you use this mulch to protect your plants in the winter, and how does this contribution change the nature of your garden soil?

Tomorrow we’ll talk about plants to grow in the forest garden, starting with our salad favorites – the greens.

Image Credit: Iandtree

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