Sunshine and mud is upon us and thus brings unrealistic hopes of gardening in the near future, if you live in the North. We have at least one more month of cold temps and snow before we can begin to see the landscape change into spring. And our springs a little muddier and a little chillier than most, earning it the unrivaled title of Break-Up. Like I really need to label my feelings on how I feel about winter right about now…
BUT, spring is coming. And so I must be ready, because in the North, gardening season happens fast, happens dirty and happens to never last.
Since January hit, I’ve been scouring the internet and several books to gather the information I’ll need to start putting our garden into place. Exciting! In a previous post, I discussed my interest for permaculture gardening and how we implemented some practices last summer (read more here). This summer, we plan to take on a larger chunk of our property and start building a food forest, a lush perennial garden as well as a possible annual market garden. I mean, you know, because we don’t have a lot to do around here. In my quest to put as much research together before the soil thaws, it made sense to start piecing together a list of plants that are both favorable to a permaculture garden as well as the garden zone in which we live.
Fort St. John, British Columbia is noted as a garden zone of 2b-3, although it is apparent after much observation we have a pretty great micro climate on our property, especially in our 1 acre garden plot. Most of our 1/4 section is south facing towards the Peace River and our garden plot slopes slightly towards agriculture fields, downwards from a large hill and in between a shelter belt of trees and a dugout. I’ve noted that it warms incredibly fast in the the spring, has good drainage and isn’t terribly affected by our winter winds. We did a soil test last summer that came back great, made some amendments, mostly with old manure soiled hay and left it to it’s own devices. We also tested for pesticides since it is so close to traditionally farmed fields which came back negative (whew). All in all, the plan is to plant with the zone 2b-3 in mind, but experiment and have some fun as we go.
I’ve been making lists and lists. Lists of fruit trees, of bushes, of varieties, of herbs, of nitrogen fixers, of dynamic accumulators… pretty much anything I’ve come across as favorable to our zone. Well ladies and gents, it’s time to put those lists to work and start piecing them together.
Let’s talk about edible forest gardening. I’ve always wanted an orchard and with land comes the opportunity. Though, the more I read up on permaculture practices, the less I wanted a traditional orchard. Enter the edible food forest garden. The principle of a forest garden is to build in layers, 7 layers to be exact, imitating the natural process and growth patterns of a natural forest. If you’ll notice, no one ever has to weed or water a forest because there is a balance. Building a forest garden allows the gardener to use similar patterns while allowing a break from too much weeding and watering. Sounds good, right?
- Canopy – large fruit & nut trees
- Low tree/tall shrubs – dwarf fruit trees, tall shrubs
- Shrub layer – berries, nut bushes, etc.
- Herbaceous layer – comfrey, herbs
- Rhizosphere – root vegetables
- Soil surface – ground covers
- Vertical layer – climbers, vines
When you include each layer surrounding a main large fruit or nut tree, we refer to this as a plant guild. Each plant has a “job” within the guild and an overall purpose to the health of the guild. Jobs include providing nutrients, mulch, pollen, protection, etc. Plus, with each group of plants comes differing root length and spread, so planting in guilds cuts down on competition. Two major types of plants within a guild are described as nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators.
Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for plants and plant growth. In traditional farming practices, nitrogen is added through fertilizers. In a permaculture garden, nitrogen is added through plant systems. As a nitrogen fixing plant grows, it creates a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Excess nitrogen is built up in the plants tissues and when leaves fall, roots die, or gardeners prune back leaves and leave as mulch, the excess nitrogen is released back into the soil. This excess nitrogen is picked up by the other plants in the area and utilized for their own growth.
Dynamic accumulators (DA) involves the idea that certain plants (often deep-rooted ones) will draw up nutrients from the lower layers of the soil, and these nutrients will be deposited in the plants’ leaves. When the leaves fall in autumn and winter and are broken down, those stored nutrients are then incorporated into the upper layers of the soil where other plants will benefit from their decomposition. You can hasten this process by cutting back vigorous growth and leaving the leaves as a green mulch layer.
Pretty cool, huh? Making your own fertilizer with living plants – sounds good to me!
So I’ve started my list. I’ve gathered plants that will survive in our 2b-3 garden zone that I will use to create my plant guilds and it was quite the research project. But I am so happy to finally have them all in one place. Now I can share them with you and hope that other northern gardeners will find it helpful.
PDF found here – Food Forest Plant List
There you have it… the beginning of something beautiful. Food forests are a labor of love and can take a few years to establish, but I’m up for the challenge. Looking forward to many days spent planning, planting, pruning and providing… with so much to do, it only makes sense to make my plants work too.
Do you have plants with jobs in your garden?