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"Perennial Forest Gardening at D Acres" by Joshua Trought, published April 2005

Spring planting time is almost here and D Acres of NH is once again presenting a Perennial Forest Gardening Workshop. This workshop focuses on utilizing the landscape to create a diverse multi purpose array of flora and fauna. This workshop presents viable options to the traditional landscaping of lawns and plants that are strickly ornamental. Perhaps we have a prejudice against lawnmowers and brush cutters. These fossil fuel 2 strokes are notoriously loud and polluting. The whirling blades create a manicured effect but offer little purpose beside a symmetrical and uniform appearance. What is the purpose of a lawn? There is a need for pasture for animals and play fields for children but why take the time and expense to grow a lawn especially if there are other options?

Perennial forest plants are the mainstay of the landscape here in New England. The forest has reasserted itself after being cleared for pasture until the Civil War era. In early spring the understory is alive with fiddle heads and naturalized daffodils. Along the forest edges juneberry and apple tree flower before they leaf out. The overstory of hardwoods slowly transform from budding until the leaves are fully formed in June. This shows the natural process where the energy of the sun is first absorbed by the ground level. As the seasons change to summer the less frost tolerant species of the overstory absorb more of the sun's energy.

The idea of forest gardening is to mimic rather than subdue nature. This type of gardening is about producing food, craft materials, medicine and added aesthetic ornamentals to the landscape with less yearly work than is required to mow that lawn all summer. The upkeep that is required on a mature forest garden consists of pruning and dividing prolific plants.

Often you see landscape trees planted in a lawn area with a tight mulch ring of fresh wood chips piled high around the base. This practice does not promote the growth of the tree, instead it often weakens the stem of the tree because the mulch traps moisture on the trees skin higher then would occur natural. The fresh chips look pretty but serve little purpose other than a barricade against the mowers. The roots of the tree that are probing for nutrients near the surface of the soil extend laterally at least as far as the branches. Therefore they are competing with the roots of the sod. Anyone who has pulled up sod understands the web of competitive roots that grasses produce. This typical system pits the juvenile trees roots against the established sod. It is as difficult as trying to grow trees in the sidewalk on Main St.

Imagine Eden. The image is not a carefully mowed monoculture of Kentucky bluegrass. Eden is a forest composed of fruit with tall shade trees that are climbed by vines, medicinal and ornamental plants at our fingertips. The place that supplied all our Earthly needs should be modeled and promoted. We should attempt to transform the landspace that is currently devoted solely to the aesthetic into a landscape that is functional as well as beautiful.

Often people feel restricted to follow the conventional interpretation of straight rows and proper spacing between plantings. This is designed for a maximum yield of a specific crop focusing on annual production. Perennial gardening allows the grower to design a system that recognizes the long term development of the plants. Through this process the soil around a recently planted tree can be utilized in relation to the size of the tree. An example of this would be to cultivate the soil around a recently planted tree. As the trees grow from a 2" diameter root spread until the roots search the soil 20' from the trunk, we aim to plant and cultivate the available space around the drip line without competing with the tree. By growing specific annuals and perennials around the base of the tree you can fertilize and loosen the soil for the growing roots of the tree. It is also beneficial to grow flowers that will attract pollinating bees. Without pollination no fruit are set. Therefore no bees no fruit. Certain flowers also attract insects that prey on orchard pests.

Perennial growers can also develop design by creating vertical and edge space. Vines such as grapes and hardy kiwis have a place intermixed in the garden. Trellis and arbors can be designed to create areas of shade and shelter from the wind. Using the south facing edges of fields a tiered garden can be created that begins at the southern side with ground cover, moves from herbaceous perennials into shrubs, fruit trees then full size nut trees on the northernmost edge. This type of stacking along the edge provides southern exposure to all. The edge design mimics the natural succession of the forest edge in this region. "Clearing the fence lines" of any pasture one can observe the natural edge succession as the grass transforms to brambles then the pioneer trees like apple and juneberry. The poplar and white birch then lean into the picture as they creep onto the edge. These species demonstrate the vertically tiered possibilities and niches that the different species fill in the natural system of balanced diversity and competition.

Combining species may limit the individual productivity of specific plants but consider the combined production of a diverse landscape. Annual food production is a yearly struggle to cultivate varieties such as tomatoes that would not normally survive at this latitude. If we focus instead on the perennials we are not caught by the need to cultivate the soil during the months when the black flies and no-see ums are the menace. The work of the perennial garden is mostly pruning and applying mulch which is the fertilizer of the system. Depending on how generous you are with the wildlife you might also need to net the small fruit. Fruit trees need a spraying regime for saleable fruit but apples were our choice as national beverage long before synthetic sprays. Remember Johnny Appleseed.

So what is stopping you from redefining the landscape aesthetic to make functional beautiful? Let us get serious about home food security and retire that lawn mower. Let the neighbors worry about mowing on Saturday as you pick your backyard fruit. Heck invite them over and show them the way. It is as patriotic as apple pie.


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