Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Shady Suburban Farmer

Summertime in the 'burbs: the smell of fresh-mown grass, a hammock in the cool shade of a spreading maple tree, a tall lemonade -- sounds great, doesn't it?

Unless, of course, you're trying to grow your own food. Cool shade trees are all well and good for relaxing and keeping off the summer sun, and they're a boon to the economically-minded and ecologically minded because they help keep the house cool, but alas, those ungrateful tomatoes insist on growing out in the blazing sun. If your yard is a shady delight, the veggies sulk miserably.

So what am I, homeowner with five big trees in the yard and with sunshine at a premium, supposed to do if I want a vegetable garden of more than a few square feet? Cut down all the trees? Sure, and roast in the summer, as well as drive all the birds away. Stick pots up on the roof? Believe me, I've been tempted. Find food crops that grow in the shade? Hah! As if --

But wait, turns out that's not so impossible after all. Turns out there's something called forest gardening, a type of permaculture where people grow perennial, shade-tolerant crops at the feet of useful trees, often fruit or nut trees. My crabapple, oaks, and Douglas-firs aren't exactly fruit or nut trees, but there may be something in this for me.

Books on forest gardening aren't easy to find, but I've rustled up a few. One is by Robert Hart. This is a good summary of the philosophy of forest gardening, and gives a nice list of North American resources. For practical "how-to" instructions, check out by Patrick Whitefield. And if you're way into the idea, there's , which is the second in a two-book series. The first book is on the theory of permaculture, and may be better suited for people who want to do this on a wide scale, or teach others how to do it.

So what's the picture of the scraggly little baby bush at the top there? That's one of a pair of new shrubs I recently installed in a semi-shady spot alongside the deck: honeyberry. It's a honeysuckle (Lonicera) that grows in part-shade and produces an edible blue berry. With berries touted as one of the super-duper and with more shade in my yard than I know what to do with, honeyberry made total sense. sells them in pairs (it's their pretty picture you see at the right), because they are not self-pollinating, and you need two varieties to cross-pollinate to produce fruit. One will grow about six or seven feet tall, and will fill in a space under the deck stairs. The other will grow lower and wider, and fill in the space where the yard slopes up under the deck. With honeyberry by the deck and with my blueberries interplanted with strawberries, I have my own little start toward a forest garden. Now if I can just get those tree trimmers to finally come out and trim up my ratty crabapple, maybe I'll have some new forest garden territory.

4 comments:

chris said...

your post is very timely for me -- I'm planning for next spring's veggie plants, and noticing that most of my yard is shady or dappled because of the three huge pear trees in my backyard!

Thanks for the book refs -- I'm going to see if my library has them!

Reading Dirt said...

Good luck with that. The books have some good permaculture crops that can be grown under fruit trees.

Clayton said...

Just found your blog looking for stuff on Blue Honeysuckle or Honeyberry. I am a retired plant Science Tech and am working on a small breeding project with these plants. I would be curious about the names of your 2 plants.
Here is my blog.
http://aprairiejournal.blogspot.com/

Clayton said...

Just found your blog looking for stuff on Blue Honeysuckle or Honeyberry. I am a retired plant Science Tech and am working on a small breeding project with these plants. I would be curious about the names of your 2 plants.
Here is my blog.
http://aprairiejournal.blogspot.com/