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Looking for the best plants for a strong forest garden in your growing zone?
I am going to walk you through the process and thoughts we used to select our forest garden plants. By the end, you’ll have a mix of foods you want, foods your forest needs, and unheard-of plants you didn’t know you’d love.
To make your plant list; save this spreadsheet I originally found from Permaculture Apprentice. Since then, I have amended the spreadsheet so you can account for your forethought for solid plant choices. Read on to fill it in step by step.
Make a list of everything you would want to grow
This step keeps your forest garden relevant to what you are familiar with.
What do you want from your food forest? Think about what you like to cook with, what you already buy from the store, and what you always eat on a regular basis.
Out of those items, what can grow in your climate? Type them out in the what I want tab of the spreadsheet.
If you love everything, this step is easy! There isn’t anything we don’t want to grow. So we are going to find out everything we can possibly grow that will grow well here. Onto the next step!
Identify what already grows in your surroundings
Now it’s time to discover new delicious foods, health benefits, and resilient crops you won’t find available in stores!
Including native plants in your forest garden diversifies and strengthens its defenses. Nature already shows you what grows well. Why not make it easier by copying what already works?!
Natives also preserve worldwide diversity. The more unusual regional plants you include, the better for us all.
First, observe your surroundings. Identify as many plants as possible.
To identify plants you can:
- Join an ask local Facebook groups
- Buy a local plant identification book
- Search for common plants that grow in your area and compare them with the pictures
- Ask neighbors or friends who have an interest in the outdoors
- Use an app on your phone
- If you think you know, google “suspect plant identification”
I began to learn about most of the native plants from my mother-in-law. Later I became interested in mushrooms and joined a Facebook group to help me identify what we find. After feeling like a pester to the group I found a free mushroom identification app to help me get on the right track.
If you have no idea what is growing and have trouble with identification search the internet for “edible natives place you live.”
You can read about native plants to find out which ones you want to include in your forest garden. Regardless if you’ve seen them outside or not!
Upon searching “edible natives ontario” I found this helpful list! With a link to each plant on the list, I was able to read about each one and add it to my list of what grows here.
Do this type of search until you have a list of desired plants for all the layers of a forest garden.
Search terms that can help could be:
“Edible native trees place you live“
“Edible native shrubs place you live“
“Edible native fruit place you live“
“Edible native herbs place you live“
“Edible native tubers place you live“
“Edible native ground covers place you live“
“Edible native vines place you live“
Finally, consider doing some of these searches without the term “edible.” You could omit the term or change the term to the function you need. For example; “Wind resistant trees place you live.”
Below, we will talk about other possible functions!
Determine the functions that will benefit your landscape
Not every plant you have must serve all the functions you need, but the functions you need should be served.
To plant successfully for yourself is to plant for the benefit of your surroundings.
Wind resistance is often the first function we plant a forest garden for. If you live in an open area that tends to gust, you’ll want to plan for a shelterbelt or strong-rooted canopy. If you don’t consider this function first, then all your flowers, leaves, and fruits would be stripped, your tender plants withered, and your bees blown away.
Uncovered dirt/soil with hot sun would benefit from mulch. In nature, who gives mulch to a forest? The deciduous trees! Find deciduous trees that can tolerate droughts if you have dry bare soil.
Clay soils need organic matter and strong roots to break through. Many plants love the stability and abundance of nutrients provided by clay. Include deciduous plants with large root systems and fast-growing wood for passive material to amend with.
Sandy soils need lots of amendment, plants that love drainage, tolerate drought, and don’t demand too many nutrients to grow. Nutrients leech from sandy soil very quickly when structure from organic matter is missing. Include many nitrogen fixers.
Slopes or hills that make you anxious during every rain need plants with widespread root systems to hold it all together. The erosion-controlling plants should also tolerate drought for times when the rain may not penetrate the surface of the soil due to the slope and dry crust.
Rainy areas with waterlogged soil need plants that are okay with “wet feet.” Over time as the earth builds from leaves dropping, and the water-loving roots sponge the moisture; other plants can be introduced. Perhaps these areas are humid and need disease-resistant varieties.
The mature height of chosen plants should not interfere with important infrastructures such as solar panels or power lines.
Trees with large root systems should be placed well away from homes. A minimum of 30ft or the expected “spread” of the tree canopy.
For interesting properties with multiple types of conditions, determine the functions you need for each area. Find plants that serve multiple purposes for all functions in need, including you!
Don’t worry about finding the right plants for each job in this step. Simply determine what “job positions” need filling.
Decide how many trees you can or want to grow
The space available is the control. The plants you choose are the variable.
- How much space will your selected trees and shrubs need? Large numbers of herbs and such can be grown around them.
- Even if you aren’t filling your space instantly and space is limited, figuring out how many main trees and shrubs will fit can help you select appropriately.
- Also, consider what you can afford. Do you have the time and money to prepare or purchase protection for your forest garden? Here’s how much it costs.
If you have deer, fencing can be expensive! If you can’t fence the entire area you wish for, plant a smaller space and grow the rest in 5-year phases. By then, more mature and larger-growing fruit trees can grow tall enough that deer won’t be able to reach the majority of their canopy.
At this point, the fence can be moved or affordably extended.
If you plan to relocate the fence for new young trees, getting trees that outgrow the reach of deer is a good idea. You’ll later need harvesting tools to reach the fruit.
If the fence you place is permanent and will be extended later, consider dwarfed trees that have reachable harvests to cut down on tools. With permanent fencing, you can also enjoy a plethora of untouched deer-loving herbaceous edible perennials.
Use a database to find suitable plants for your zone
Now it’s time to find the most appropriate plants for your pre-determined space and needs!
Plants For A Future is an ever-expanding and improving database of helpful plant species.
Their search filters allow you to easily search for the functions and climate you need plants for.
So easily because they’re so comprehensive! Need a plant for a specific medicinal purpose?
What about coffee or sugar substitutes? Or a tea garden? Just check the desired box!
At first, all the checkbox options can seem overwhelming. But since you’ve already determined the functions you need from your plants, filters are particularly useful for relevant results.
To get accustomed to the website, start with a broad search such as your zone, and your general conditions.
Once you get your results, look at the edibility rating column and explore the details of the palatable plants.
Refine your list with more detailed searches
If you’re starting a forest garden, you’ll want to start with selecting your trees! They will be the centers for all your other plants, making it easier for the next step.
For example, let’s say we want to find an edible fruit tree that can tolerate wind, and clay soil, and won’t block the solar panels.
Once you get your search results, expect a range of plants that may be suitable in more or less ways. Sift through and find the most suitable ones for your needs. Make many searches so you can discover new foods.
On another note:
A wider time spectrum of food from your forest garden is better than getting it all in 3 measly (but prosperous) months!
Try out the seasonal spectrum search! Although this search feature can lack results in general; you should still be able to find some unique plant options by using it.
If you want harvests for many months of the year rather than an all-at-once clump, stretch the season with monthly searches! Here’s how:
First, try using the database.
Turns out, the earliest thing I could harvest to eat in zone 5 is wild garlic in early May!
But this isn’t actually true in my area. I can harvest hosta shoots and fiddleheads from ostrich ferns in early May too! (as well as morels, but that is a mushroom!)
Next up, the month of July in zone 5 provides mature blackcurrant fruit! A highly-nutritious food. Glad I was able to find out about it through this search!
But once again, there are many more plants that could be listed here. This is why I encouraged you in a previous step to also do an independent search for your native edibles before using the database at all. A single database isn’t perfect, and that’s okay! It’s still wildly useful.
Once you’ve gone through this monthly search in the database to see what you get in your zone move on to a different source. Often times the season of when the fruit is ready depends on the specific variety rather than a specific fruit type! For example, one plum tree might have ripe fruit earlier than another type of plum tree. Your local nurseries will have this information on the varieties they offer.
If you are looking for more unique plants, you could search for other plant suppliers in your country and get this information from their various offerings too. More information is in the sourcing section below.
Sort them into guilds with functional companion planting
After your trees are all picked out, start companion planting them! This step will help you decide on the best plants to surround your trees.
Find out what each tree loves to grow with and include those plants in their “guild.” A guild is an arrangement of plants that all play a part in supporting each other in their own ways.
You’ll want each guild to include different heights, pollinator plants, strong scents, food for you, pest-deterring characteristics, and nutrient accumulators. Through this diversity, there will be mutually beneficial relationships within each guild.
Source your plants from one or all of the following ways
Your available sources will likely have an impact on the plants you actually include in your forest garden. Many of the really unique plants may have to be sourced from seed!
- Your local nursery can provide well-taken care of trees, shrubs, vines, and all the rest.
- Your neighbor who grows a lot of weird-looking plants might offer you some cuttings after a conversation
- Local farmers often like to grow unique perennials on their land. You might be able to score a taste test at the right time of year.
- If all else fails, PFAF.org has this list of seed and plant suppliers.
Whiffletree nursery is where we have sourced some of our trees. On their website, they offer an accurate harvest filter for their specific tree selection.
Find local places to source your plants where possible
A good base of locally sourced and native plants is essential for picking the best plants for a thriving forest garden.
The closer you source your plants, the more adapted they will be to your climate. Many unique edible perennials are also likely to be cultivated nearby by someone! Even if it’s a short-distance shipment away.
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
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