By Heather Jo Flores
In a forest, the plants collaborate. They take turns blooming, share space, distribute different nutrients and succeed each other over generations. In our home gardens, we can create diverse, low-maintenance food forests by mimicking these patterns. In its most basic form, this is called companion planting, and gardeners have been doing it for millennia.
You probably know the classic "Three Sisters" example. Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash in a shared space because together they repelled pests and provided a successional yield. I have heard from some old-timers that there was actually a fourth Sister: lupine, a self-seeding, nitrogen-fixing biennial that was planted all around the corn patch to repair the soil.
Ironically, as much as I am a true believer in perennial polyculture gardening, I don't grow the Sisters. I like to hill my corn (like potatoes) and that disrupts the baby beans and squash. I also find that the corn patch needs more than just the beans (and/or lupine) to repair the soil. So I plant the corn, let it get a few inches high, then plant potatoes in between the stalks. Every week or so, I hill up the dirt around the corn and potatoes with a hoe. I do plant squash, but only on the ends of the rows, so that they can sprawl out away from the patch.
Then, after harvesting corn and potatoes, I cover crop the whole thing with fava beans over the winter to repair and hold the soil for the next rotation.
How to Grow a Permaculture Food Forest
In permaculture, we use food forests to grow as much as possible on a small piece of land. Using those principles, we design garden beds with a collection of complementary perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, roots and annual vegetables called "guilds" that are placed in a microclimate landscape best suited for the group. The idea is to group plants together for specific reasons, encourage them to spread into permanent, self-managing landscapes, and thus reduce the amount of effort it takes to grow food.
You don't have to plant a whole food forest at once. You can carve out niches and build one guild at a time. As they grow, these plantings will attract birds, pollinators, microorganisms and fungi. Over time, as you add more and more guilds, your entire space will yield to nature, becoming your own handcrafted Eden.
How to Build a Guild
So exactly which plants do we group with which other plants? It takes a lifetime to learn all the differing functions, get familiar with the size of plants at maturity, with their growing patterns and individual needs. There are some great books on the topic, and any search for "companion planting," "food forests" or "perennial polycultures" will keep you busy reading and designing all winter.
For now, I offer you a handful of my personal favorites from years of experiments with hundreds of plant combinations that yielded mixed results. These are the guilds that I continue to plant in every food forest I design.
Blueberries, strawberries, valerian, yarrow, spinach/lettuce/orach
Blueberries are slow-growing, water-thirsty and thrive in an acidic mulch like sawdust. Strawberries also enjoy the acidic mulch, and can get well established as a ground cover before the mature blueberries shade them out. Valerian and yarrow are clumping, blooming medicinal perennials that attract beneficial insects and help build soil for the berries. Together they look great and share space without much intervention. Sow the spinach between the spaces and alternate with patches of lettuce and orach.
Apples, horseradish, clary sage, kale
Apples cast deep shade and only a handful of plants will thrive under them. Horseradish repels diseases common to apples, and the two are a classic pair. Because I often use it in my apothecary, and because it doesn't mind a bit of shade, I add clary sage. The fuzzy, aromatic biennial, which grows up to 6 feet tall, glimmers throughout year two with huge plumes of purple flowers. Interplant a few different kinds of kale and you will have a rainbow of foliage.
Figs, seaberry, canna, comfrey, squash
If you have space, this guild is epic in every way: year-round harvest, giant flowers, mulch crops and vegetables. Visually, it's Jurassic. Figs can get quite large at maturity and tend to sprawl. Between those sprawling shoots you can plant comfrey, which will fill the space with fuzzy foliage and tubular flowers that pollinators love. Seaberry fixes nitrogen and also produces a tart, seedy fruit that can be dried or added fresh to a wide array of dishes. The canna has edible roots (similar to tapioca) and needs a bit more sun, so plant it on the southern edge. Poke in your squashes around the border to give the tendrils room to run.
Peaches, rosemary, marigolds, arugula, zinnias, cucumber
Peaches don't cast a ton of shade. They tend to be sparse with skinny leaves. This means that companions that wouldn't do well under other fruit trees will do just fine under a peach. I like the way rosemary looks, especially when joined with annual plantings of marigolds, arugula, zinnias, and other tall, showy annual flowers. Cucumbers do enjoy full sun, but smaller varieties can thrive in mottled shade, and I have grown some beauties as a ground cover in this guild.
Pears, echinacea, beets, poppies
There is something about a pear tree in bloom that always reminds me of the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe image that I grew up with. To me, the way a pear tree holds its blooms looks like an angel. As a sort of tribute to that beauty, I plant echinacea with pears. Echinacea is a clumping perennial with fancy daisy-like coneflowers in purple, green, white and pink. It's medicinal and beneficial to gardens, with a network of thick roots that help to break up the soil and increase nutrient distribution. Beets fit perfectly in the spaces between, and the foliage is visually splendid in this combination. If you want to make it really beautiful, add some poppies, but keep in mind that poppies are heavy feeders, so you'll need to compensate the soil.
Generally speaking, as a nitrogen fixer, I habitually sprinkle white subterranean clover seed, both as a cover crop and as a living mulch in beds and paths. It makes an awesome cover, attracts pollinators, and can be easily removed when you decide to plant something new. For best results, mix organic clover seed — coated in bacterial inoculant — with fluffy, finished compost and keep it in a bucket for easy access. If there's a spot with bare soil, sprinkle the seeded compost around and make sure it gets evenly watered until the clover is established.
Finally, please remember that just because plants in a guild support each other, that doesn't mean they don't need your support. You need to weed, prune, mulch and clear. You need to harvest the food, save the seeds and participate in the cycles and seasons. A food forest is an ecosystem, and the gardener should be a part of that. In fact, for the first three years, your newly planted guilds might need some extra attention. Think of the baby plants like little puppies — you have to train them, nurture them, and raise them, but if you do a good job, they will be your best friends for many years to come!
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
#foodforest #guilds #howtogrowapermaculturefoodforest
by Heather Jo Flores
By no means an exhaustive selection of great plants for gardening with children, the following twelve plants can all be direct-sown, grow quickly and easily, and are fun to harvest for food, cut flowers, or seeds.
Popcorn is always a hit with children, and many varieties grow quite well in a home garden. There is also a vast array of interesting Indian corns available, in a rainbow of beautiful colors. Sweet corn is another option, and nothing compares to a fresh ear right out of the garden as a refreshing snack on a September day.
Small gourds grow fast and dry easily to make rattles or small bottles and containers. Large gourds need a longer growing season but make a magnificent addition to the garden; they can be dried and made into birdhouses, bowls, and musical instruments.
The leaves, flowers, and immature seeds of nasturtiums are edible and also repel certain insect pests, making them great companion plants. Trailing varieties are a nice addition to a bean tepee or sunflower house, and the bright flowers are a delight to children and adults alike.
Because potatoes can be grown by just throwing them on the ground and tossing some straw on top, they are great fun to raise with children. Also try planting them in a bag or crate: Just fill it one- third of the way with soil, toss in some spuds, and cover with leaves or straw. As the shoots emerge, add more mulch, and in a few months you will have a bagful of fresh sweet spuds to eat.
Large or small, pumpkins and other squash are a favorite for children of all ages. Giant varieties, such as ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’, can grow to up to two hundred pounds and make excellent jack-o’- lanterns.
Smaller types are more manageable for small hands and can also be carved or used to make pie, stew, or bread. Some varieties are grown primarily for their seeds, which are a healthy snack and have been known to prevent intestinal worms.
Try making pumpkin tattoos: Use a nail to scratch children’s names or little drawings into the skin of immature pumpkin fruits. Be careful not to go too deep—just scratch the surface. When the fruit is mature, the name will appear as a healed scar on the surface, and the finished product will last months longer than a carved pumpkin.
Radishes are great for children because they grow very fast and can be planted in just about any space, even a small container. The brightly colored roots are ready to eat in just over a month and can be carved into rosettes or other designs.
Scarlet Runner Beans.
Jack and his beanstalk are legendary to many children, and while there are no boy-eating giants at the top of most beanpoles, runner beans are fast growing and produce brilliant red and orange flowers. The seeds are large and speckled purple and can be eaten, replanted, or used for a variety of craft projects, like beads or mosaics.
Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries . . .
Need I say more? Children love to hunt through the berry patch for a juicy snack, and when they’ve planted it themselves they feel a sense of pride and accomplishment with every bite.
They come in many colors, from yellow to orange, white, red, and even tiger-striped. Tall or short, large or small, sunflowers are easy to grow and are a must for any children’s garden. The cut flowers last several days, and seeds provide protein and amino acids for young bodies and wild birds alike.
Give a child a small shovel and a bagful of tulip bulbs, and when spring comes you will have a yard full of surprises. Tulip flowers are edible and quite delicious, and they help attract beneficial insects into the garden. The general rule for planting bulbs is to bury them twice as deep as they are long, with the pointy end up.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like turnips would be a hot item in the children’s garden, but many varieties grow to be quite large and can be carved and stuffed for a delicious baked meal. John Sundquist grows lots of turnips at his farm, and the children who come out for tours love to see the giant purple, orange, and white roots jutting out of the ground. Fresh turnips smell wonderful, are an excellent source of fiber, and are known to reduce cholesterol.
Last but far from least, zinnias come in every color of the rainbow and are one of my personal favorite plants of all time. They bloom when they reach about three feet in height, just the right height for young eyes and noses to enjoy. One of the many beautiful gifts from Mexico to our gardens, zinnias make excellent cut flowers and can last weeks if you change the water every few days.
#gardeningwithchildren #permaculturewomen #freepermaculture
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