Much has been written on domestic permaculture(zones 1-3) and by now we all know the basics on growing domestic plants in accordance with natural systems. But, how do you encourage the wild edges of your land to produce more food and useful resources?
In this article, I will discuss how to create a wild food forest in the often ignored zones 4 and 5. Zone 4 is used to denote a semi-wild area and zone 5 is used to denote wilderness. These zones are usually far away from the house and are likewise last in priority and importance to permaculturists. Yet before agriculture, indigenous populations exclusively tended the wilderness to increase food production.
Historically, there has been extensive human management of wild forests. The amazon rain forest has an unusually high percentage of edible plants and is said to be one giant food forest. Indigenous people of the region planted seeds around their villages and along their elaborate trail systems. But indigenous people all around the world did much more than plant the seeds of their favorite foods. Kat Anderson claims in her book Tending the Wild“ that “much of what we consider wilderness today was in fact shaped by Indian burning, harvesting, tilling, pruning, sowing, and tending”(1). Indigenous horticulturalists expanded the food production of the wild plants by utilizing ecological processes on the landscape.
On the fringes of your property, there might be wilderness or recovering land. How do you tend the wild to increase the abundance of wild edibles in zones 4 and 5? The principles of tending the wild include increasing of the bounty of the wild plants already on the land and introducing native wild edibles from the surrounding area. This serves to boost the biodiversity and edibility of the wild landscape. This process can involve simple measures such as the scattering of seeds and transplanting of wild edibles. Traditionally burning, pruning, and coppicing were more involved actions to achieve greater food productivity and diversity.
Robert Hart, the first modern proponent of forest gardening divided the landscape into 7 layers. These layers were:
1.Canopy 2.Low trees 3.shrub layer 4. herbaceous layer 5. ground cover 6. Rhizosphere or underground layer 7. vertical layer
An ideal template for a wild food forest in the northeastern U.S. would be comprised of the following plants.
1. Canopy: Red Oak, Sugar Maple, White Pine, Black Walnut, Spruce
2. Low trees: Black/Pin cherry, Staghorn Sumac, White Walnut(Butternut)
3. Shrubs: Raspberries, Blackberries, Shadbush, Gooseberry, Elderberry
4. Herbaceous layer: Ostrich fern, Lambsquarters, Wild Cucumber, Tall Lettuce, Wild Mint
5. Ground cover: Wild Strawberries, Eastern Wintergreen, Partridge Berry, Lowbush Blueberry, Dwarf Dogwood(Bunchberry)
6. Rhizosphere: Burdock, Queen Annes Lace, Cow-parsnip, Wild Leeks, Hog Peanut
7. Vertical layer: River grape, ground-nut
You might be tempted to destroy the wild areas to make way for productive farmland or plant domestic forest crops like apple trees. While wild plants will likely not comprise the bulk of calories, they are more nutritious than domestic counterparts. Wild plants as a whole have more fiber, antioxidants, and omega 3 fatty acids. They also have a wider array of phytonutrients which gives many wild edibles a bitter quality. Phytonutrients give plants and your body protection from disease and environmental dangers Most wild foods have exceptionally high levels of vitamin c. Even among relatively plants like the wild and domestic blueberry, the nutrition difference is staggering. Wild blueberries(low-bush) have twice as much fiber and 8 times as much manganese as cultivated blueberries(highbush). They also have twice the antioxidants as cultivated blueberries(2). Not to mention, they have more flavor and a more intense blue color. Zone 4 and 5 most likely will not provide the bulk of your calories, unless you have a ton of acreage. But the wild food forest can provide nutrition that zones 1-3 can’t.
Not all the plants have to be wild, but highly domesticated plants like tomatoes will not be able to compete with domestic plants . Slightly cultivated plants like leeks, asparagus, and most herbs will be able to complete with wild plants. The place for highly domestic crops is around the house, zones 1-3. Zone 4 should consist of wild plants and minimally cultivated plants. Zone 5 should be purely wild plants. Most wild plants are tenacious and don’t need the careful babysitting like their domestic counterparts. Once the wild food forest is created, it should be able to propagate itself with little human interference.
My Wild Food Forest Experiment and Tips to get Started
To start a wild food forest, learn about the natural history of your area and the edible and medicinal plants within it. Forage around your house and in the surrounding areas for food. Try and identify all of the edible plants on your property.
Naturally Occurring Wild Edibles on my Landscape:
1.Canopy: Sugar Maple, Red Spruce, Northern Red Oak, Eastern White Pine
2. Low Trees: Pin Cherry, Staghorn Sumac, Hawthorn
3. Shrubs: Red Raspberries
4. Herbaceous layer: Ox-eye Daisy, Spotted touch-me-not, Crimson Bee Balm, Yarrow, Dandelion, Field Horsetail
5.Ground Cover: Wood Sorrel, Clover, Wild strawberry
6. Rhizosphere: Queen Anne’s Lace, Cow-Parsnip
7. Vertical layer: None
I have recently added a small population of Lowbush blueberry, Dwarf-Dogwood, and Eastern Wintergreen to maximize the ground cover edibility. I plan to add more nut bearing trees; White or Black Walnut and increase the number of Red Oak Trees. There are a great number of red raspberry bushes on the property, but I could plant blackberry, elderberry, or even black raspberry to increase diversity. I will plant a few Wild Leeks under the Sugar Maples and add Ostrich Ferns to wet areas of the land in the future. Ramps and Fiddleheads are some of my favorite wild edibles and it would be a shame not to have them close by.
If you passively allow a section of your land to revert back to wilderness, at first you will have mostly successional and weedy plants growing. For example, I have many successional tree species, such as white ash and quaking aspen growing. I would rather have more climax hardwoods like red oak, sugar maple and spruce. However, there are edible successional trees like pin cherry. Pin cherry also known as fire cherry invades disturbed ecosystems. However, many of the useful wild plants will not quickly invade the land like the successional and weedy plants. In order to maximize nature’s bounty, human cultivation is necessary. It does not take much effort to integrate wild plants into an ecosystem.
When considering adding wild edibles to your land, realize there is a very limited variety of wild plants available in seed stocks and nurseries. Given this fact, the wild food forest designer will have to be crafty. Find wild edibles in your surrounding areas. Then, learn how the wild plants in your area propagate and get them onto your land. For example, you can collect the lowbush blueberry seeds from the berries or transplant a small portion of the wild population. The plants will reproduce from the root once it is established.
1.Anderson, Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Berkeley: U of California, 2005. Print.
2.”A Nutrient Rich Superfruit.” Wild Blueberries. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.