(A beautiful new forest garden we’re helping with, in the very beginings of establishment!)
(Original, August 2016, Updated Feb 2021.)
“Establishing a Garden is Expensive!”
I recenty spoke to a gardener who said they thought they had spent countless hours and thousands of dollars establishing native plant gardens in their landscape. Many of these plants are sold for $10 -$25 and up per plant at the nursery. And most can be very difficult to start from seed.
You can absolutely spend that same kind of money in establishing an edible forest garden, with some rare edible plants starting around $10, and some fantastic edible tree species hard to find under $50.
At least a forest garden pays you back in food. In fact, a well-designed forest garden should be able to pay for itself in the first year, and quickly require far less management and maintenance than other kinds of gardens, including “native” gardens.
But Permaculture founder Bill Mollison proposed a somewhat different model, that starts outside the front door and uses that first garden area as the nursery that will provide you with the plants to convert an entire yard. This first planting bed/nursery is sometimes called a “first locus” by Permaculturists, and it’s often the first thing that gets planted when we start converting a site.
This was exactly the strategy we used, establishing our first couple of plantings with a set of high-value edible plants that could fit together like a natural ecosystem, or “guild,” and from there, those first plantings have provided a large percentage of the plant stock for our entire garden.
Which means there are two basic charactaristics of the plants that work for such a plan:
1. They’re high value. They provide high-quality ecosystem and edible functions. If you’re going to be using these throughout your entire site, then you have to be able to use these plants and their products in large quantities!
2. They have to be “prolific,” having the ability to rapidly multiply or be easily propagated out to cover an entire landscape.
Now, the drawback to that second charactaristic is that such plants are often called “weedy,” usually by gardeners who don’t understand ecology or the process of natural succession. All the same, understand that we’re choosing these plants BECAUSE in early succession, on a newly prepared site, they are going to spread rapidly, providing you with high-value plants to cover your garden.
If you’ve chosen “high value” plants, this is a good thing. A very good thing.
From then on, instead of “weeding,” you will be “harvesting” valuable plants that you can eat, transplant, mulch with or sell! With such high-value agressive plants in the garden, you’ll have very little room for low value “weeds” that will be more burden than boon. Many of these actually act as “fortress plants,” staving off the encroachment of weeds and grasses.
And this is even more important on very “extensive” low maintenance food forest gardens, such as public projects, church and work gardens, etc, where we need to get nature to do as much work for us as possible. If you’re worried about the labor problem of “weeding” these high value plants, then perhaps the project could use a little more consideration and design before planting begins, since these plants will ultimately reduce garden maintenance. If you don’t have time for these plants, you certainy don’t have time to garden without them!
So, there are many fantastic plants that fit this bill, but to avoid getting too overwhelming, I’ll keep it simple and recommend:
10 of my top “essential” pioneer plants for a forest garden
Plants that are very high-value, great to eat, highly useful in polyculture “guilds,” and prolific:
1. Egyptian Walking Onions. 3 onions in one, available all through the year. And since onions can go in just about everything savory, it’s great if they fill the garden. Garlic gets an honorable mention for performing a very similar role.
2. Sorrel. Lemon-flavored spinach, very nutrient rich, and available in early Spring. Excellent as a “mulch-maker” plant and dynamic accumulator.
3. Blood-veined sorrel. Slightly less good to eat, though very pretty, and better in its ecological roles.
4. Crosnes are another interesting useful vegetable, a strong fortress plant with virtually no major pests, and the plant is easy enough to kill when wanted. So it dominates the ground and keeps out weeds but can be easily killed to make way for another crop. Here they are shown pickled as “Christmas crosnes.”
5. Endives. All are great in their ecological role and spread nicely. These include Belgian endive, frissee, radichio, and a few other expensive vegetables, but only choose one, because they’ll cross and lose their mojo. Even then, all can be celar-forced for fresh greens in January.
6. Turkish rocket. An amazing vegetable, a great insectary plant, and “fortress plant” to be reckoned with. Dames rocket gets another honorable mention, though it may be invasive in some regions.
7. Mints. Everyone knows mints will dominate a landscape. The design problem is to choose mints in a proportion you will actually use them in! This usually means a variety of m8 t’s for a variety of purposes, chocolate mint and basil mint are among the most useful. Monardas can be multi function and bring a powerful wildlife companion into the mix. That’s right, understand that planting mints in a garden without barriers is not for the “faint of heart.” If you actually USE these herbs, they will not become a “problem.” But don’t plant more than you plan on using, and keep them to plantings that can be controlled by mowing around them. Thyme deserves special mention as the only real “ground cover” on this list. We recommend planting a large variety of thymes, lemon thyme, orange thyme, mastic thyme, etc. to make your ground-cover as useful as possible, since it’s likely to take up a lot of room in the garden. But if you’re worried about mints escaping, don’t plant them! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
8. Jerusalem artichokes. One of the only native vegetables that can be put on this list, I recently spoke to a native plant gardener who called this lovely edible native “terribly invasive!” Go figure.
9. Various “chives.” These are beautiful, can be used abundantly, and once established tend to spread aggressively around the garden. I include both true chives, and the other chive like alliums (garlic chives, unifolium, etc.) on this list. With a variety, one can have chives all season long.
10. Skirret. This old, abundant, delicious calorie crop has been a surprising self slower on our site, and comes with 3 different modes of propagation, so one plant can easily create hundreds of new plants in a season and as a highly useful, flexible calorie crop, one can eat or sell almost as much of it as can be grown. Delicious as fries, mashed potatoes, a roasted vegetable, pancakes…. Though it does need nice rich soil to thrive.
Bonus: A few woody perennials that also fit this description:
1. Black raspberries and blackberries. I recommend planting both to extend harvest time. Blackberries have superior fruit but can be more challenging to tame, since they spread by runner. Black raspberies only spread by “tip-rooting” when the tips touch the ground, so they can be controlled by pruning. Good quality blackberry plants are expensive, though, so they can provide you with a valuable nursery yield in addition to fruit that costs a fortune at the store.
2. Elderberry. Another “cane fruit” that spreads rapidly and is very valuable.
3. Gooseberries and currants. Great fruit, easy to propagate via “tip layering.”
4. Cornelian cherries. Good to eat, easy to propagate.
5. Nanking cherry. Precocious, fruiting in a few years time, and Readily spreads by seed.
6. Mulberry. You can keep them “coppiced” into bush form for easy picking. They produce huge amounts of biomass to mulch the garden with and leaves can be fed to livestock or herbivore pets.
And remember the keys to quick establishment are high diversity and high density, so I recommend starting with as many of the above plants as possible.