By Heather Jo Flores
No garden is complete without a yummy patch of edible, perennial shrubbery! Even a small garden can squeeze in a few brambles, berries or 'chokes. To create a low-maintenance food forest with a year-round harvest and multiple layers of plants, a mid-sized perennial understory is an essential piece of the design.
Shrubs connect the canopy to the ground and create habitats for birds and insects. The shrub layer also shelters smaller plants and creates boundaries and microclimates.
I picked a baker's dozen of my favorites that are easy to grow and disease-resistant while providing a reliable, perennial harvest. Plant them all and you'll be well on your way to the food forest of your dreams!
I have a particular fetish for artichokes grown either in a wide hedge or placed at random across a mowed grassy lawn. The spiny leaves look like something out of Jurassic Park and the flowers are a giant, delicious thistle. Artichokes are water-thirsty and gophers love to eat their roots, so plant them in a bent chicken wire "gopher basket" and irrigate during the dry season.
This seems like a no-brainer — who doesn't love blueberries? But they aren't for every site, nor for every gardener. Blueberries need sun, regular pruning and fertilizing, protection from birds, acidic mulch and other forms of special attention. So do your homework and consider whether blueberries are really your best choice.
Pretty much everything in the genera Rubus (blackberries, raspberries, etc.) is edible and easy to grow. I enjoy using cane fruit hedges to create "rooms" in a large garden area, sectioning off zones for napping or secret fountains. Prune canes annually, in the fall when fruit is done. Cut branches that fruited this year to ankle-height while retaining the young shoots, which will be the ones that set fruit in the spring. Like any plant, cane fruits love a top dressing of rich compost. Harvest ever-bearing varieties daily to provoke a sustained harvest of up to six months.
Not all types are edible but canna lilies are such a beautiful, stunning addition to any garden. Canna edulis is an edible species that can be used much like tapioca. Break apart the corms and plant a patch near the house so you can watch the show of insects and birds attracted to almost year-round blooms.
There are about 150 species of edible currants, but my favorite is the classic flavor of the red currant (Ribes rubrum). I design site-specific gardens to meet the needs of the client/homeowner/gardener, but pretty much always include currants. Regardless of which species you choose, currants grow well as an understory shrub in marginal areas with part shade and acid soil. The plants can be susceptible to rust and mildew, so weed and rake around them once in a while and give them some nice composted manure every year.
Most fig varieties are tree-sized. Except 'Petite negra', which only grows 4 or 5 feet tall and does quite well in a temperate climate.
Because of their bittersweet flavor and super thorny stems, these aren't my favorite choice for small gardens. But as a hedge to deter animals or create privacy and security, gooseberries are an awesome edible alternative to barbed wire. You can "coppice" them by establishing the plant then cutting it all the way to the ground and training the forthcoming tall, straight shoots into a fence.
Pineapple guava seems to do best in a temperate climate, but if you have a greenhouse or a hot, south slope, try strawberry guava too. The flowers and foliage of both species are visually stunning, making them an excellent choice for a low hedge across a front yard or in an intimate courtyard garden.
Filberts can be grown in a wide range of shapes and situations. Plant as part of a mixed-plant guild or in rows along a large boundary and coppice into tall, permeable hedges. Filbert makes the best bent-wood outdoor furniture — it lasts longer than wicker or even plastic!
Attractive to hummingbirds, bumblebees and a zillion other pollinators, rosemary is known in folklore to repel bad energies from the home and garden. There are two basic types: shrubby, upright rosemary, and prostrate types that will spill down slopes and terraces. I love the way rosemary looks in a front yard garden with other Mediterranean plants like figs, brussel sprouts and oregano. Once established, all types of rosemary are resistant to deer, drought, and disease. Too easy!
With shimmering, silvery foliage and tiny, abundant, bright-orange fruit that tastes like sour-patch candy, seaberries (Hippophae rhamnoides) add a yummy, nitrogen-fixing conversation piece to the garden. Fruit has seven times as much vitamin C as lemons, ripens in September and can go until mid-winter.
Sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichoke)
These will grow in otherwise undesirable garden areas, such as the alley behind your house or that strip of land between the garage and the neighbor's fence. The more you dig them, the more they grow, so place them with intent and plan to leave them in that area forever. The starchy, edible tubers can cause gas but if you soak them in water overnight and rinse them before cooking, that really seems to help.
These lanky perennial brassicas will provide year-round nutritious greens, even in a foot or two of snow! Did you know that Brassica oleracea is one of the oldest cultivated species of plants? I love to imagine the rich, rocky banks of the Fertile Crescent, terraced and stacked with blooming collards!
Most of the plants in this list will do fine when grown together, as long as everyone has enough elbow room to mature. Use them as companions for larger trees, planted close together in a guild to support each other's needs. Or plant them in a line or long curve to create boundaries and microclimates. A well-placed hedge can also serve as a windbreak, privacy barrier, or conceal an ugly area. Make a raspberry spiral with a small lawn of clover in the center and it becomes a secret fort for naps and playtime. Do your own experiments and let me know how it works out!
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Worm composting, or vermicomposting, is one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to compost kitchen scraps. The end product of the composting process is sometimes referred to as Black Gold because it is one of the most nutrient rich sources of fertilizer available. The best thing about worm composting is that it is easy, fun, and cheap and can be done indoors — even in an apartment.
Vermicomposting uses manure worms (not earthworms) to break down decomposing food scraps. The most commonly used manure worms are called red wrigglers and can be bought by the pound online — look on kijiji.
These worms are smaller than the earthworms we are used to seeing when we dig in our gardens.. In the wild they live in forests and work at decomposing the decaying materials on the forest floor. They can also be found — as their name suggests — in steaming piles of manure.
Red wrigglers, the manure worms commercially used for vermicomposting, originate in California so they are not cold‐hardy. This means, in regions that get a cold winter, they are best suited for indoor bins and are ideal for people who do not have access to a backyard for composting. Vermicomposting is also great for folks who want to supplement their outdoor composting in order to quickly create amazing fertilizer for their gardens and plants.
Here’s how it works: Red wrigglers can eat half their body weight of food scraps each day. They eat the food and quickly pass it through their body. The result — worm poop or vermicompost — is the amazing black gold that is filled with beneficial bacteria and nutrients.
Starting a worm bin
Red wrigglers don’t live deep in soil like earthworms. They live in decaying materials at the surface so they can easily live in small human‐created composters. You can make a simple worm composting bin out of two plastic storage containers. Drill holes in the sides and bottom of one storage container and put it inside the other one. Drill holes in the lid.
When you first receive a package of worms, they will come with some vermicompost and their egg cases. You will need to add some bedding - I use damp shredded newsprint and some grit (sand or ground up eggshells). When you first set up a vermicompost bin, wait a few days before you start feeding the worms kitchen scraps. Start with a small amount — about two cups. Remember to always bury the food under the bedding.
A pound of worms can contain up to 1000 worms. The worms will regulate their population depending on the amount of room they have and the amount of food they are being given.
Under ideal situations, a pound of worms can eat up to ½ pound of food scraps every few days. The best way to determine if your worms are being over or underfed is to feed them food — remembering to bury it under the bedding ‐ and check in a few days later. When it looks like the worms are breaking it down, add more. If there are still a lot of intact food scraps, wait a few more day before feeding them. You will have to replace the bedding periodically. Simply rip some newspaper into strips, soak them in water and wring them out. Fluff them up and put them on top of the worms.
Amazing facts about worms!
1. All worms are intersex. They have both male and female parts and can freely reproduce with each other
2. Worms do not have teeth but have powerful muscles in their mouth that take in the food and move it down their digestive tract.
3. Worms lay (release?) an egg case out of which about 5 baby worms emerge. Looking for egg cases in your worms bin is an easy way to determine how healthy and happy your worms are. They look kind of like dill seeds.
4. Worms do not have eyes but they move, find food, and find each other through their skin, which is sensitive to both touch and light.
5. Some people claim that composting worms can live up to three years!
Feeding your worms
Harvesting the worm poop
When your worms are healthy and happy they will produce lots of castings. How do you separate the worms and their castings to put this amazing fertilizer onto your garden/plants? You can take a handful and pick out the worms and egg cases but this is a time consuming endeavour.
Here’s an easy way to harvest the castings: take the lid off the bin and put all the bedding and food to one side. Make sure the bin is in a place with bright sunlight or turn on the lights. Most of the worms will eventually crawl over to the side of the bin with the bedding and food. Most will migrate to the bottom of the bin to escape the light. This makes it much easier to get worm‐free castings (I still pick out any extra worms and egg cases).
You can put the castings directly on your garden or houseplants. You can also make a nutrient‐rich worm tea for even more impact.
How to make worm compost tea
1. Fill a 5 L bucket with warm water
2. Mix in 1/3 cup of molasses and stir well
3. Put a cup of castings into a nylon and tie it closed
4. Put the “tea bag” in the water
5. Take an aquarium pump and attach to an air stone (you can buy both at pet stores). Put the stone into the bucket and let bubble continuously for 48 hours. This is crucial as it helps the good bacteria to grow.
6. Dump the tea on your garden and plants for a bacteria and nutrient rich feeding or put in a spray bottle and spray on foliage.
I am a permaculture educator, feminist and anti-racist activist in London, ON, Canada. I am currently a PhD candidate in Geography at Western University, where I study the relationship between people and bees in cities. My M.A. in Anthropology, also at Western University, focused on gentrification and belonging in a community garden in Toronto. I live in a suburban permaculture sanctuary with my family, two dogs, three cats, two bunnies, and thousands of gorgeous, busy bees. I maintain the blog Permaculture for the People.
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I am so excited to be teaching urban permaculture as part of the first online Permaculture Design Certificate taught exclusively by women. If you would like to know more or would like to have me as your permaculture design reviewer, please check out my blog and get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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By Heather Jo Flores
I can't stop eating them. There's a fig tree at the place where I am staying and I can't seem to keep them out of my mouth! It's a huge tree, maybe 50 years old, sprawling across the low wood fence and dropping down into the neighbours' yard. They don't mind. Every October, both houses get more figs than they know what to do with, just from the one tree. It's a Black Spanish, and it's famous among fig aficionados as being one of most prolific, cold-hardy and easy to grow varieties.
If you don't have figs in your garden, you should plant one immediately! Plant 10! Figs are not only beautiful, delicious, nutritious and easy to grow, they also provide shade and privacy, create habitat for birds and insects, and are star players in food forests from Vermont to Arcata to Spain and back again.
The sprawling nature of a fig leaves space between for annuals and perennials. Try currants, comfrey, seaberry, canna and blueberries, for starters.
Fig trees can definitely take up a good amount of space, so give it to them. If you live in town or space is limited, plant the figs on an edge, against a back fence or on the parking strip. In the country, plant a patch to create a circular grove or establish a border. I have never had problems with deer eating figs, though your results may vary.
But not all figs are created equal. Many types of figs will literally drown in a wet winter and/or die back all the way to the ground every time it freezes. Here are my four favorites. Each of these bears fruit at different times, so plant one of each and you'll have an extended bounty. These are available online and at most of the local nurseries.
Black Spanish, as mentioned above, is always a winner. It loves hot summers and wet winters, and can be quite prolific, even in a marginal site. The fruits are medium-sized, dark, firm and juicy, and delicious fresh or dried. Naturally smaller than other varieties, in the right spot it can produce two crops a year.
Desert king is one of the best varieties for maritime gardens because it resists late spring frosts and ripens in mid-summer, even in cooler microclimates. Trees can get quite large.
Lattarulla, aka Italian honey fig, is more of a golden color, excellent for drying and can bear two crops in one season, one ripening in late July and the second in mid-September.
Vern's brown turkey fig, not to be confused with plain brown turkey, was developed by Oregon gardener Vern Nelson and is widely known as reliable, productive and prolific in temperate gardens from British Columbia to the Bay Area. It bears large, sweet brown figs and will often produce two crops a year.
Neverella, also called Osborne prolific, makes stunning, opalescent fruits. Naturally a smaller tree that is more shade-tolerant than other varieties, this is an excellent choice for urban gardens.
Petite negra grows only 3 to 4 feet tall — perfect for your container garden! Medium-sized fruits are reddish black and come twice a year.
You could also just take some cuttings from an existing tree in your neighborhood. Figs are super easy to propagate. If you know of one that does well where you live, just wait until it's done fruiting and then ask to take a few cuttings, either from the tips of the young branches or from the suckers around the base of the tree. If you get lucky, some of those suckers will already have roots growing! Get the cuttings established in pots and plant out in early spring while they are still dormant, or if you can keep the soil evenly moist for a month or two, then you can just stick the cuttings directly in the ground.
Once established, figs can be extremely drought tolerant, but, as with most trees, they need to be watered regularly for the first three years. Use this young-tree time to establish companion perennials before the shade canopy of the fig begins to spread. They respond well to an annual top-dressing of rich compost, but aren't especially needy when it comes to maintenance, fertilizers or pruning. In my experience, figs don't take kindly to being pruned, and whole sections can rot if a cut is made improperly. Prune if you must, but be sure to do it only when the tree is completely dormant: after Thanksgiving and before Groundhog Day.
Fun fact: Figs are an inside-out flower, and some varieties are pollinated by the aptly named fig wasp. Other types of wasps don't pollinate but simply use the figs as a nursery for their larvae. These wasps are also known to hunt insects that are harmful to plants, so having figs benefits your whole garden. "I wish I wouldn't have planted that fig tree" said no one, ever.
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