Plant a tree in vegetable garden?

April 09, 2011|Celeste Maiorana
  • Photo by Celeste Maiorana An apple tree will add beauty to your garden in spring, such as these blossoms seen here, and delicious fruit in late summer.
By Celeste Maiorana

People have a way of categorizing things and making sharp distinctions. We plant our flower gardens here, our trees over there, and our vegetable gardens, well, some place out of the way so we won't notice those pesky weeds, which are so hard to keep under control in late summer.

But nature is rarely so clear in its distinctions. Species tend to exist in complex communities, vying for space, water and nutrients. These complex communities tend to be healthier and more self-sustaining than our system of growing plants of a kind together, exclusive of others.

Forest gardening is a food production system that mimics in some ways a forest ecosystem, but it uses only those trees, shrubs, herbs and vegetables that yield food products for human purposes.

Rather than growing crops in rows all on one layer, this type of gardening involves cultivation of food crops in as many as seven layers. It has a long history in human society, particularly in tropical areas where there is an abundance of sun and long growing seasons.

The concept of the forest garden was adapted to the lower light levels of temperate ecosystems by Robert Hart, who found traditional gardening on his one-eighth acre plot in Shropshire, England, too labor intensive. His system involved finding plants that could grow and produce food with less sunlight than traditional food crops.

Of known edible food plants, only a small percentage are cultivated extensively. We truly could have a much more varied diet than we do.

Interest in forest gardens grows as people seek ways to adopt more natural and sustainable lifestyles. There is a lot of information available about it online and in books, plant databases and individual accounts of personal gardening experiences. As a cautionary note, always make sure you know where the author lives, because geography is very important in the culture of plants.

While forest gardening seems like a good idea, it is a radical departure from what most of us have learned and know about growing food. So, in the short space of this column, I am simply suggesting that you mix things up a little. And, as always, I am hoping that you will plant a tree soon, even if your vegetable garden is the only space in your yard left.  

I started vegetable gardening on a one-eighth acre plot in which I grew only sun-loving annuals. Today it mixes perennial flowerbeds, blueberry bushes, flowering shrubs, raspberries, asparagus, strawberries and cherry and hazelnut trees. And it still grows tomatoes, potatoes, corn and other sun-loving crops, too, while reserving some space for seedling trees.

The most positive thing about having trees and perennial plantings as part of your garden is that it makes the space more interesting year-round and provides habitat for birds, amphibians and beneficial insects. This gives you many more reasons to spend time in it, which will make it better tended. The complexity will make your garden a healthier system.

Celeste Maiorana is a member of the Washington County Forestry Board:

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