Growing food on the edge of a forest

Wild Black Raspberries on the Forest Edge

In order to maximize food production, you need to use every sunny spot your yard has to offer. In my case, I have a small 130 square foot, fenced-in, raised bed in the only sunny area of my lot.

The rest of my yard is forest or shaded by forest - except for the "edge."

I have been growing food on this edge for over 7 years. It has been a struggle. If you are thinking about growing along the edge of a forest or even growing among trees in your yard (ala permaculture) then I have some knowledge to share that might save you some time and energy.

What you should know about growing among trees
1. Trees change the microclimate for plants nearby. They not only shade (offering a cooler environment in the summer and blocking out much needed sunlight) but they also increase the humidity levels and may or may not offer wind protection.

2. Trees are hungry and thirsty.  Trees use a lot of water and nutrients. They will constantly draw from the area under their drip zone (basically as wide a circle in the soil as their leaves up top.) You will have to monitor and take extra care of your forest plants if you expect them to compete in that environment.

3. Trees provide homes for animals that want to eat your produce and seedlings. Squirrels, birds, raccoons, badgers, gophers, chipmunks...need I go on? They all make their homes in the forest (and rightfully so.) They will be thrilled that you have planted edibles near their home. If you net your plants,  you will trap many of these hungry animals. They will get tangled and die a horrible death. Instead, you should overplant and hope that you are able to get a bit of what you plant.

4. Trees will send out roots. Trees send out roots at least as wide as their drip line (as wide as the leaves up top). They are very sensitive to water/nutrients. They will travel and pop up in your garden and will especially send extra roots into your forest edibles. This means they will take an even greater share of the nutrients/water added and it also means that it will be difficult to dig near the forest edge. You will have to chop through roots.

5. Trees drop leaves. This is a good thing, most of the time. Tree leaves will create a nice mulch that eventually breaks down into a nice organic humus. Unfortunately, these leaves might smother or bring fungal infections to your plants, especially when combined with the increased humidity in the under story.

Leaves also brings slugs and snails. Some trees even bring excess tannin and toxins that stunt the growth of other plants (Black Walnut is the worst, oak trees aren't great either.)

6. Native plants that developed to live in under stories will constantly compete with your plants. Hardy plants that thrive in difficult areas will continuously pop up to take advantage of whatever sun or nutrients they can gather. You will need to watch to be sure they do not overtake your plants and choke them out.

7. Children and animals will run through your edibles. I encourage running in the forest, and all the neighborhood children take advantage of our back yard. Unfortunately, that means my strawberries get trampled, my brambles get broken. As with the animals, plant extra and expect that some plants will be damaged.

In my own "forest garden" I have successfully grown strawberries and black raspberries. I have poorly grown asparagus, a blueberry bush, chives, tomatoes, and red raspberries. I have unsuccessfully grown grapes.

I have planted Egyptian onions, ramps, and sunchokes this fall. I am hoping the sunchokes will be able to survive in the two most difficult portions of my forest edge. Nothing has survived there (besides grasses and weeds) over the last 7 years. If sunchokes can't make a dent, then I think nothing will and I will have to abandon those sections. I am also hopeful that the ramps (slow growers that usually inhabit under stories) will take hold and that the Egyptian onions will be able to navigate around my strawberries.

I plan to get more aggressive this spring. I will be expanding the strawberry coverage, will attempt to root blueberry cuttings near the forest edge (a risk in itself!!) will be planting sunflowers, fava beans, and a cheese squash.

I will be putting the annuals in the sunniest areas and am anxious to see how they perform. The fava beans will be taking the space of my previous strawberry bed (it is now spent.) I am hoping to turn the foliage into the ground and revitalize that soil. The strawberries have been there for years and have used up a lot of the fertility.

I am also going to tip layer the black raspberries again to increase the number of plants. I have added a small raised bed into a shady spot and will be transplanting rhubarb I will plant by seed this spring. I will also be adding herbs and flowers intermittently to increase the visits by honeybees. Maybe even a few wild ones will decide to move in!!


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Thank you for your comments! I appreciate all your tips, advice, and well wishes!


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