Edible Forest Gardening, making food forests where trees only might grow, isone of the oldest methods of agroforestry known. In fact, long before terms for such methods existed people were coming to forests to collect the food to feed their families. By Nature, humans make observations with hopes of repeating demonstrated events, and this led to prehistoric people tending of large food-bearing forests in various tropical portions of the world. First described to the modern mind by Robert Hart and later incorporated into Permaculture approaches by Bill Mollison, edible forest gardens have become one of the pillars of sustainable design to feed the world easily and nutritiously. A founding member of a small but active organization, Central Alabama Permaculture Enthusiasts, I have had the transformational opportunity to help design, implement, and cultivate a living, thriving, and producing edible forest garden in Central Alabama, an area not traditionally treated as progressive across a variety of approaches that surprises visitors with its enormous range of offerings for artists, thinkers, innovators, and activists, across a broad range, too, of lifestyles.
Edible Forest Gardens Thrive Where Encroachment Halts
Vermicomposting Demonstration Led by Charles Thompson of Central Alabama Permaculture Enthusiasts (CAPE) Approaching its fourth year of hands-on development, The Blue Heron Edible Forest Garden proves that good things come in small packages, where there’s a will there’s a way, and what the naysayers don’t know won’t hurt them. Wink, Wink. Along 3/4 of mile of land Montevallo community members living along Shoal Creek have dedicated for walking trail, this garden space teems with life. From the butterfly garden a-whirl with pollinators attracted to flowers and herbs to the tall pecans and black walnuts forming the canopy, harmony in nature The Blue Heron springs forth where the city once cut all but the largest trees to the ground to feed whomever is willing to pick it. Surplus, too, is carried to Shelby Emergency Assistance, a local treasure that helps to ensure everyone in this little community eats as well as possible.
The Granddaddies of the Edible Forest Garden
Designed along the naturally observable principles of the edible forest garden as described by Hart and Mollison, The Blue Heron has grown according to the dictates of the tallest citizens: pecans and black walnuts. The pecans stand above the fruit orchard planted to meet a variety of needs, enhancing the protection tall trees provide and the effects of layering typical of forests. Between a trail-edging row of pecans and a grandfatherly specimen who drops pieces from time to time grow apricots, pears, pomegranates, blackberries, and blueberries. At the bases of these and dispersed between are various attractors and nutrient providers, such as lupine, hollyhock, spiderwort, wild violets and clover.
At the far end of the edible forest garden, just before one comes to the sign announcing the boundary, three tall black walnuts determine exactly what might be grown in this area. Providing canopy, black walnuts excrete juglone, a chemical that is quite toxic to some plants, and this helps forest beds be designed without the help of humanity. Natural adaptations, developed over slow time, help certain understory trees and other plants have a better chance to thrive beneath trees excreting jonglans. True to the permaculture tenet of observation, our team has chosen to introduce plants known to be juglone resistant and whenever Nature offers us a volunteer in this part of the garden, we trust her judgment. Growing here are dansom plums, hawthorne, maypops, and paw paws. And between the two major portions of this garden guided by trees, the butterfly garden helps to ensure that the tiniest visitors are both attracted and welcomed year round.
The Butterfly Garden
Central Alabama enjoys year-long planting opportunities, and the butterfly garden demonstrates that wherever color, fragrance, health, and beauty are welcomed they will thrive. In the spring and summer, shastas, asters, milkweed, pussy willow, salvia, nasturtiums, spiderwort, daylilies, irises, spice bush, and other hot weather beauties burst forth. In the fall and winter, chrysanthemums, pansies, and willing natives continue to feed the bees that call the garden home. Throughout the garden so long as the seasons allow, comfrey, tall, glorious, and healthful, grows to provide health to the soil, the plants, and the people.
The Quick List of Edible Forest Garden Citizens
Comprised of a wide variety of food providers, The Blue Heron Edible Forest Garden includes the resident representatives one might hope to find in such a system. Here are some examples:
- The Canopy layer: Pecans and Black Walnuts
- The Low-Three Layer: Apricots, Plums, Paw Paws, Mulberries
- The Shrub Layer: Pomegranates, Blueberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Goumi Berries
- The Herbaceous Layer: Chard, Sorrel, Comfrey, Rosemary, Oregano, Fennel, Mints, Chives, Beans, Squash, Tomatoes, Peppers, Blood Sorrel, Dill
- The Underground (rhizosphere) Layer: Potatoes, Radishes, Onions and Garlic, Carrots, Dandelion
- The Ground Cover Layer: Violets, Strawberries, Nasturtium, Thyme, Chamomile
- The Vertical Layer of Vines and Climbers: Maypops (Passionflower), Cucumbers, More Berries, Melons.