Turning Your Yard Into an Edible Forest

by Norm & Rita Bober

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops but the cultivation and perfection of human beings. Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolutiion

How and what we grow in our yards is a reflection of our worldview. What does your yard look like? It is said that 12% of this continent is lawns. Do you want to reduce the amount of lawn you have for a natural and edible landscape? Two workshops attended recently gave us many tips to reduce our lawns and increase the amount of native plants that provide food and shelter for wildlife native to the Midwest as well as provide food for ourselves in a natural environment. "Edible Forest Gardens" presented by Dave Jacke was held at Oikos Tree Crops in September. Jacke with Eric Toensmeier is the author of a two volumes set of Edible Forest Gardens1. The second workshop, "Gardening to Save Our Insects & Birds: The Urgency & the Know-How", was presented by the Kalamazoo Chapter of the Wild Ones at the Kalamazoo Nature Center in October. Douglas Tallamy, a professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology was the main presenter. He is the author of the book Bringing Nature Home.

For the first time in history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener...Unless we modify the places we live, work, and play to meet not only our own needs but the needs of other species as well, nearly all species of wildlife native to the United States will disappear. Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home

Both workshops covered a tremendous amount of materials, so we will try to cut that down to a few key elements. Both authors describe a permaculture view of their approach to gardening. Jacke describes his design as a garden mimicking the forest. Edible forest gardening is not necessarily growing things in a forest but is gardening like a forest. It is a consciously designed ecosystem with "a perennial polyculture of multipurpose plants." You will find many species in each patch of edible forest including fruit, nuts, greens and shoots, roots, culinary and tea herbs, mushrooms, etc. Plants would include nitrogen fixers, ground covers, edible greens, bushes, and trees. There would be maximum self-maintenance once the "forest" is established. This would lead to optimal ecological health and would improve economic sustainability. Just like the Native American practice of growing the Three Sisters garden, in the edible forest there would be functional interconnection, such as having Jerusalem artichoke growing with groundnuts. His books go into great detail describing his vision: the elements of forest architecture, its social structure, fertility of the soil, designs, and descriptions of hundreds of edible and useful species. An example of a patch of edible forest would include alpine strawberries (ground cover), Dutch white clover, Welsh onion, dwarf bush cherry, mini-dwarf peach, and French sorrel — approximately 2-7 species in each patch.

Tallamy shares that native gardening and biodiversity matter. He recommends turning your property into a wildlife preserve. That this is the last chance we have for sustaining native plants and animals that were once common in the United States. With the increase of our population (over 300 million in the United States), our love affair with the car and cheap gas and our quest for larger homes, there has been unprecedented development. City sprawl, increased suburbs, and miles of paved roads add over two million additional acres per year of unproductive land. "We have turned 54% of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs, and 41% more into various forms of agriculture...we have taken 95% of nature and made it unnatural." What are the consequences of turning so much land into park-like settings? It can be disastrous for biodiversity and ourselves.

All of creation needs food, shelter to survive, and to reproduce. In many places we have eliminated these options. According to Tallamy, in Delaware, at least 40% of its plant species are now rare or extinct, and 41% of its forest birds do not nest in the state anymore. In Pennsylvania, over 800 plants and animal species are rare, threatened, or endangered and 150 have disappeared. The song birds have declined 40% since the 1960s. Birds that breed in meadows like northern bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, field sparrow and grasshopper sparrow have declined significantly and are completely absent in some areas where they once had healthy populations.

This loss of biodiversity is a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. "The ecosystem that supports us — that determines the carrying capacity of the earth and our local spaces — are run by biodiversity." We humans can't live on this earth without the plants, trees, and animals we share the earth with. It is the "other species" that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time a species becomes extinct, we are encouraging our own death.

Tallamy recommends we plant native species of trees, bushes and plants for our area. His research shows that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals. Landscape species from Europe or Asia have been used extensively in local suburbs. These plants are less likely to be compatible to our local insects, butterflies and moths. An insect that can't eat a leaf cannot fulfill its role in the food chain. Native flowering dogwood supports 117 species of moths and butterflies. Native plants do make a difference.

We need to replace unnecessary lawns and European and Asian ornamentals with densely planted woodlots that can serve as habitat for our local biodiversity. Plant the borders of your property with native trees such as white oaks, black willow, red maples, and shagbark hickory among others, and underplant with bushes like serviceberry, hazelnut, blueberries, etc. If everyone in a suburb or city block did this, an extended woodlot would be formed. The Kalamazoo Wild Ones will focus their programs on this process for the next two years.

The debate over "invasive" versus "native" species continues. Yet, the core issue is that of maintaining diversity so we, meaning all God's creation, can continue to live on this beautiful planet. Remember, we are all nature!

  1. Edible Forest Gardens, Volume One: Ecological Vision and theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture. Volume Two: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture.

Printed in the Michigan Land Trustees Newsletter, Fall, 2008