Alternative Gardens and Landscapes

Edible Landscapes, Food Forests, Plant Guilds, Sheet Mulch

Edible landscaping and Permaculture offer alternative ways of thinking about landscaping your yard. Edible landscaping generally refers to using food-producing plants in residential landscapes by combining fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and ornamental plants in aesthetically pleasing ways1. Permaculture is based on an understanding of the patterns found in natural environments. Permaculture designs mirror natural ecosystems in ways that build sustainable, cultivated ecosystems, that include people, and that have the diversity, stability,andresilience of natural environments2. Examples of edible landscaping and Permaculture-based techniques follow.

Food Forests
Food forests, such as the one pictured below, are open, many-layered edible gardens in which vertical and horizontal space are used by many plants in non-competitive ways3.

In contrast to monocultures such as lawns, food forest gardens produce multiple varieties of foods, invite and provide habitat for wildlife, and renew garden soil. In the picture above, plant root depths vary and do not interfere with each other; onions are a root-level food crop. Wild or cultivated strawberries or varieties of clover can be used as ground cover, reducing the amount of exposed soil (ripe for weed growth) and inhibiting the growth of grass, whose dense root systems impedes the inflow of water to tree roots. Small woody plants such as thyme, tarragon, or other hardy herbs are perennial crops that are easily added to cultivated landscapes.

Shrubs used in food forests can include fruits such as berries and plants from which we can harvest such things as flowers, foods, or materials for crafts4. As mentioned above, Permaculture designs consider human uses and needs. Therefore, Permaculture designs often contain food- and income-producing plants. Food forests also include dwarf trees, including many varieties of fruit trees, which can be frequently pruned, to provide a supply of mulch. Taller trees, such as shade or nut trees, are the most permanent features in food forests. In the spring, food forests regenerate; new planting is kept to a minimum. As in nature, leaves are not raked from a food forest, but are left in place to decompose and rebuild the soil.

Plant Guilds
A plant guild may be easily established in the area under a fruit tree. Each variety of plant in the guild, or community, performs ecological functions such as fixing nitrogen, building soil, or purifying water. Some plants repel pests, help create mulch, or cultivate soil. Guilds are designed based on the functions of each plant, their needs and yields, and the relationships between different plants.

Many hardy varieties of apples, plums, pears, and cherries grow in northern Minnesota. An apple tree plant community might include daffodils, irises, or other early-flowering bulbs. While blooming under the fruit tree, they provide beauty for us and attract pollinators to the tree. Dill and onions planted under the drip line of the apple tree repel pests that are otherwise attracted to the tree. Beans, peas, or purple clovers fix soil nitrogen, improving the quality of the soil in which the tree is growing. Comfrey and borage are herbs with many human uses. In addition, they grow quickly and can be cut back and used as mulch around the tree.

Native plants can be incorporated into plant guilds as well. Indigo and lupines fix nitrogen and add beauty. Wild strawberries provide ground cover and small but tasty berries.

Sheet Mulch
Sheet mulching is a technique that facilitates establishing alternative landscapes. It suppresses existing perennial weeds and grass, composting them and their roots into a new layer of soil6. Sheet mulching done in the fall results in a plant-ready area in the spring. Three components of sheet mulch are cardboard, compost/soil mix, and straw. To apply sheet mulch:

use a hose to wet down the area to be covered with sheet mulch and then cover it completely with a layer of cardboard,
wet down the cardboard and cover it with two to four inches of compost/soil mix, and then
wet down the compost/soil and cover it with two to four inches of straw.

Getting Started
Here is a suggestion to make getting started easy. Select one fruit tree that is growing in your yard. Sheet mulch the area around the fruit tree at least as far out as the drip line of the tree, being careful to leave a few inches’ breathing room around the tree trunk. Select plants, such as those listed above, that will attract pollinators, repel insects, provide ground cover, or fix soil nitrogen. Plant them the next fall or spring, or during the next growing season. In as little as one year’s time, the plants will spread and fill in the area. Because sheet mulching keeps soil warm and moist, the tree and its plant community will require less frequent watering.
Hemenway, Toby. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2000, p. 168
Hemenway, p. 172-74

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