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Building a Food Forest

My dream is for us to be as self-sustaining as possible and we’re making great strides in that direction. However, we’re still a very long way from our goal. One of my first focuses when we moved to the farm was to start building a food forest of perennial edibles. The downside to a perennial food forest is the time it takes to get established and start producing. The upside to a perennial food forest is delicious goods year after year that require much less maintenance and have better pest resistance compared to the annual garden.

With the emergence of each new plant this spring I’m feeling the excitement. I see many of last year's plantings beginning to come to life and it’s such a great feeling of accomplishment, especially when so much else hasn’t worked out as planned. This year we’ve suffered loss and experienced disappointment; neither beehive survived the winter, the births of all bucklings (all very cute boys, but not much use in the milk department), and a late frost that wiped out most of the blossoms on the fruit trees, and those that weren’t wiped out are facing a hard frost in the coming days. With each disappointment or set back it’s hard to stay focused on the successes around us. This past weekend was good for finding my focus again after weeks of let downs and second guessing myself. We’ve experienced months of almost continuous rain, and my hands haven’t actually played in dirt since fall. Sunday was a rainy day so not a good one for catching up outside. Instead, I spent my day learning how to make sandwich loafs and cheese, perfected my butter and yogurt making skills, and experimented with leftover whey from the cheese. It was a great day, and I’m eating good this week as a result. However, Saturday was a near perfect day. It’s not often I slow down long enough to actually take in our many blessings, but finally I did just that. Walking around my food forest (in the making), I was enthralled with the signs of life slowly emerging from the ground around me.

The strawberry patch is in full bloom. It started with just 20 plants I hastily stuffed into pots during the move from the old house two years ago and just hoped they wouldn’t die from the stress of the move. Because they spread like crazy, I now have a pretty large strawberry patch which produces far more strawberries than I alone can eat, (but that doesn’t stop me from trying.) The birds are pretty serious competition. I’m not a fan of using bird netting, as not only do birds and snakes get hung up in it (we’ve experienced both so far), but I have also managed to get hung up in it, and that ended with me squishing far too many berries with my bum.

The blueberry patch will soon be blooming and several bushes are covered in buds. Last year we harvested 6 of the most beautiful, and the absolute most delicious berries, whether it’s because I know how much hard work went into growing those plants, or maybe I’m just growing the World’s Best Blueberries.

My goal is to plant a wide variety of perennials in the food forest, and I’ve really lucked up and found some exciting plants, both fruit bearing and delicious veggies. So far I have: aronia berries, goji berries, josta berries, honey berries, elderberries, boysenberries, logan berries, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, and I’m probably forgetting some. I also have currents, kiwis, figs, grapes, cherry bushes, and hazelnuts. Some of these I’ve never tasted before, but I’m anxiously awaiting the day I get that opportunity. Last year I tasted my first fresh figs and, oh, what a treat!

I’ve added some edibles that most people grow simply for beauty; daylilies, cannas, hosta, ostrich fern, dandelions, and wild violets. The dandelions were pretty easy to plant, and probably the most fun. I just find a seed head, make a wish, and blow. I hope to try my hand at some dandelion tea and violet jelly this year. I hear they're delicious.

I also have some lesser known edibles; may apples (moved from another part of the property last year, and, much to my surprise, they’re actually coming back), Oregon Grape Holly (David rescued a small plant from a job site last year and it’s really growing well), scorzonera and salsify that I thought I’d planted wrong, and even though it snowed shortly after I scattered the seeds, they’ve sprouted! And then there's my favorite so far, Egyptian walking onions. They’re not walking yet, but when they are, they look really neat. They send up a stalk that gets a seed head and the seed head sprouts. The sprouts send up another stalk, and that, too, sends up yet another seed head. The weight of all the seed heads lay the main stalk down and start rooting, and suddenly it has the appearance ‘walking.’ Celery is also a perennial, so long as it’s protected from our summer heat, and I have a few different varieties planted.

I’m anxiously watching for two other plants to appear, wild ginger David brought home and Solomon seal we planted last year. Neither have made an appearance yet, but the may apples have given me hope.

I’ve gotten a few useful herbs planted, yarrow and several varieties of mint, but I have a lot more to do in building an herb garden.

I’ve incorporated several fruit trees into the food forest. David lucked up and found two small, and rather spindly, white peach seedlings on a job site two years ago and instead of mowing them down, he brought them home. They’ve grown so much since then and this year they actually bloomed. I have also integrated nectarine, plum, and quince trees. I planted a pomegranate, but upon inspection, I believe the dogs have destroyed it. The neighbor has a dwarf cherry tree that has managed to produce small trees on our side of the fence. The fruit is quite small, but the birds seem to enjoy it immensely, so I’ve relocated many seedlings around the farm. My hope is that if the birds have enough to eat up high, they’ll leave my food down low alone.

Since the annual garden is so bountiful, my goal is to extend my growing season as much as possible using the perennials. Currently, the bulk of my bounty comes from June through September. Using my perennial beds, I can have year-round gardening. The cold winter months won’t provide much of a variety, but I’ll count it a success if I can walk into my yard in January and pick something fresh to eat. It’s taken a lot of research to learn what I have so far, and much internet digging to find many of my plants. I have much more work to do, but I’m enjoying the experience.

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