Have you noticed two small clearings in the woodland edge out behind the library? Last fall & summer, did you see folks chopping up branches, laying out cardboard, and raking out piles of woodchips? If you did, you were witnessing the beginnings of a food forest.
Food forests, also known as edible forest gardens are just what they sound like: gardens that look like forests, but that are designed to provide more of things people need, such as food, fuel, fiber and medicine.
Here in New England, our native forests are extremely productive in terms of supporting wildlife, helping to clean our air & water, and providing wood for heating and construction, yet no one needs to water them, fertilize them, or weed them. Most forests also lock up enormous amounts of carbon in the soil. If this soil stays relatively undisturbed by clearcutting or tilling, the carbon may remain locked up indefinitely. In fact, many scientists believe that changing agricultural practices to limit soil disturbance may be the single best tool currently at hand to fight global warming.
What if we could create a landscape that mimics the structure of the natural forest, with a high canopy, mid-level layer, shrub layer and ground cover layer, but substitute in plants that are even more useful to people? What if this landscape could be similarly low maintenance and similarly good at providing “ecosystem” benefits such as wildlife habitat, clean air & water? This is the goal of the edible forest garden.
Growing food in this way has been identified as a possible significant factor in addressing world hunger. Forests are far more resilient to climate change, pests, droughts & diseases than typical one-species agricultural crops. See, for example, a recent study by the Global Network for Forest Science: http://www.iufro.org/science/gfep/media-information/gfep-ffs-assessment-press-release/.
In 2015, the Topsham Public Library received a Norm Steel Memorial Seed grant from the Maine Master Gardener’s Association for the purpose of starting a food forest garden. During the 2015 growing season, a dedicated group of volunteers identified two already disturbed sites along the woodland edge behind the library to start the garden. The first site had been used as a compost/utility area, and the second was infested by a massive tangle of invasive oriental bittersweet.
Both areas were cleaned up, all available organic material was spread around (e.g., brush, decaying logs, sod leftover from creating new pathways, leaves, and compost), the plots were covered with cardboard to suppress weeds, and finally topped with a heavy layer of straw & wood chips, the latter generously donated by WellTree.
Over the winter our group has planned an initial phase of plantings. We chose a mix of edible plants, plants that support wildlife, and plants that fill different roles in the ecosystem, such as building soil, providing shade, improving fertility, repelling pests or attracting pollinators. Most attractive were the plants that do more than one of these things at the same time. Native groundnut, for example, provides an edible tuber, suppresses weeds on the forest floor, and helps add fertility to the soil.
Our plant list includes ramps, cherry dogwood, serviceberry, chokeberry, wild ginger, edible ferns, hazelnuts, rhubarb, elderberry, groundnut and blueberry, among others.
Volunteer planting session at the edible forest garden: Friday, April 8 at 9am. This is our first round of planting in areas that were prepped last year. Please contact Sarah Wolpow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 721-0941 if you are interested in helping.