I live on a half lot with no back or side yard, so for better or worse, any food gardening experiments I’ve done have been conducted in the publicly-viewed area in front of our house. Inspired by Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates projects, I sheet mulched our scrappy lawn and put in a bunch of annual vegetables. One challenge I hadn’t fully understood as a novice gardener in a northern climate: in places like Minnesota, the soil isn’t really ready to be planted with anything until well into April, which meant limited planting opportunities till kale and chard plants sized up and sweet potato slips could go in sometime in late June!
Doing a beautiful front-yard food garden is certainly possible, but with limited time and talent and a short growing season, perennial food plants seemed a smarter way to go. I read extensively about permaculture, a method that mimics natural systems to create “food forests” that resemble the way forests grow in nature, with diverse plants that mutually benefit one another. Short for ‘permanent agriculture,’ permaculture is a method of garden design that emphasizes perennials and seeks to minimize inputs while maximizing efficiency.
A Food Forest Takes Root
I picked out seven dwarf fruit trees to get me started and began scoping out areas of our traditionally-landscaped yard that I could take over for food production.
Edible landscaping has allowed me to grow food in our front yard without offending the neighbors’ sensibilities. (At least, not too badly. Thankfully, I have pretty tolerant neighbors.) Our tiny lot includes dwarf apples, plums, and serviceberry trees as well as shrubs and groundcovers that give us food all season long. Our lawn mower is a distant memory, and yard work more often than not includes harvesting snacks while we watch busy insects at work in our diverse plantings.
Early season honeyberries are followed by serviceberries, strawberries, gooseberries, and raspberries. We also enjoy rhubarb, mint, thyme, lemon balm, and numerous other herbs and edible flowers (including several most folk consider weeds.) We can never get enough groundcherries (which are annual) so we fill in with them anywhere we discover an open space that gets enough sun.
Want to grow more food while maintaining an attractively “landscaped” yard? Start thinking of your yard as a food forest using some permaculture principles.
The 7 Layers of a Food Forest
If you want to dig more deeply, as it were, into permaculture, there are technically seven layers to the food forest. The tallest trees are the overstory of the permaculture garden, with smaller understory trees below them. Next comes the shrub layer, where you can grow small fruits. The next layer is herbaceous, which can include herbs such as mints, rosemary, or sage as well as medicinal plants like feverfew or comfrey. Groundcovers form the lowest above-ground layer, then come below-ground roots and tubers, like Jerusalem artichokes. The last layer is composed of vines, which can twine up trees or other supports.
Overstory and Understory Layers:
When you need to replace landscape trees, consider selecting new varieties that will give you food. Depending on your climate and preferences, this may mean apples, peaches, nuts, oranges, or some of the luscious tropical fruits we northerners can only dream of.
Depending on the amount of space you have, you may or may not be able to fit in the biggest overstory trees, like majestic pecans or full-size pear trees. For smaller spaces, your overstory and understory layers might be the same, using dwarf varieties of apple, for example. Talk with a local nursery about your options, and whether you need more than one tree for pollination. Apples and pears, for example, require another tree for pollination, while some varieties of cherry and plum are considered “self-fertile.” Here’s a useful guide to choosing fruit trees.
Here’s where things get fun. Instead of just mulching around your tree, you underplant your trees with fruiting shrubs. Possibilities are endless: blueberries, currants, hazelnuts, honeyberries, serviceberries. Fruiting shrubs can also make great hedges if you need one. Highbush blueberries, nanking cherries, or elderberries are among the many possibilities to consider. You can add a raspberry or blackberry patch if you have the space for plants that ramble a bit more (and usually have thorns).
All sorts of wonderful culinary and medicinal herbs can go in this layer. Chives, oregano, sorrel, mint, and sage are among your many options. Flowers such as echinacea, wild indigo (also a nitrogen fixer), and flax add visual interest and attract pollinators. Early perennial greens like miner’s lettuce and good king Henry are also popular additions to permaculture gardens. I think rhubarb is a striking landscape plant, and its stems are delicious in a variety of breads and desserts. Depending on your tastes, you might allow nutritious weeds like lambs quarters, dandelions and chickweed in this layer as well.
Groundcovers help crowd out weeds, and they can also provide food for insects, animals, and people. Creeping varieties of thyme are especially useful, as they tolerate a decent amount of foot traffic and smell amazing when you step on them to pick fruit off your shrubs and trees. Herbaceous ground covers like wooly thyme, however, lack the flavor of culinary varieties. Wild ginger, sweet woodruff, and ever-bearing strawberries also work well as groundcovers. Groundcover raspberries would be one of my top choices if I lived a bit further south. Plant a bunch and enjoy them for me, OK?
I like to encourage the “weed” purslane wherever I find it, as it’s an amazingly nutritious plant. Other medicinal and edible weeds like plantain might deserve a spot in your groundcover also.
If you’re really looking to maximize your growing space, think underground as well. There are several perennial roots you can eat, including ramps (wild leeks) and groundnuts. Daylily bulbs are also edible. Jerusalem artichokes, which are fast-multiplying tubers a little like a cross between a potato and a water chestnut, grow very tall (over 8 feet!), so these are best planted where their height won’t pose a problem. They make a nice privacy screen if you have a narrow space to fill.
You can use perennials such as grapes, hops, or kiwis, or you can add some annual vines like beans or cucumbers to your plantings. Just be sure if you’re using a tree for support that it’s a sturdy one like an apple rather than a more delicate sort, like plum. Vines can also climb fences, arbors, or purpose-built trellises or other structures.
Create Mutually Beneficial Guilds
Permaculturists have studied which plants get along best together, noting that in nature certain species tend to grow near one another, forming what permaculturists refer to as “guilds.” For instance, only certain plants can tolerate the juglones produced by black walnut trees, so you will find hackberries and elderberries growing alongside them.
Permaculture practitioners also use their knowledge of plants’ habits, like fixing nitrogen, or attracting pollinators, and plant them in guilds accordingly.
You don’t have to go all-in on permaculture to create edible landscaping, though its principles might help you make the most of your garden. Some plantings strike people as looking a little “wild,” since they’re built to resemble forests, but they don’t have to. You can construct very tame-looking groupings if you choose your plants carefully.
Or if you prefer, you can simply start adding edibles wherever it suits you. Check out some of the excellent ideas these edible landscaping gurus and permaculture experts have for squeezing food into any landscape, even quite formal ones.
What delicious treats might you add to your yard this season?