Mixing Edibility With Elegance

Suburbia is used to perfectly tailored gardens with a nice row of cut evergreens, uniform lawns, and vibrant flowers with colored mulch.  So it’s a given that many “Suburbanites” aren’t so fond of growing food in the context of permaculture and forest gardening.  It doesn’t “fit in” to the suburban landscape.  It is my opinion, though, that both things can be accomplished.  Maybe a little less lawn, a little more work, but all very worth it.  With a little compromise, one can have vibrant flowers, colored mulch, and most of it you could eat!

One of the rules of gardening in general is to not trample the soil.  Gardens are usually segregated to the front of a house and maybe the sides of the yard, while lawn takes up most of the space.  On the contrary, in permaculture you want to add as many species as you can fit in a smaller space.  This requires paths that weave through the landscape, leaving room for the plants to have non-impacted  soil, while still allowing access.  In short, you want to have designated trampling grounds.  This ground should be mulched for multiple reasons.  If you have a section of the path that maybe you haven’t gotten to for awhile, without mulch, it will become overgrown, and if you have paths that are continuously walked without mulch the opposite will happen.  You’ll end up with muddy, and quite unattractive pieces of ground.

Since last year I’ve been doing some experimenting.  We knew we wanted to add some sub-canopy, and shrub layers to the yard that already contains one black walnut, one oak, a silver maple, and a beautiful thicket-forming crabapple… which has of yet to make very many apples. The space between the trees was all lawn and had been mowed for several years.  We knew we were going to stop mowing, and begin adding fertility to the soil before planting any new trees.

The problem began to be finding the right mulch to cover our path surface. Wood mulch from stores is not only expensive, but most of it is treated with dyes and chemicals.  So I got to thinking…

Have you ever noticed the beautiful blanket of pine needles that form underneath one of these magnificent trees?  Although they’re evergreen, they shed a bit in the fall and leave masses of needles.  Pine, unlike some other species, have soft bristles that don’t poke if you walk on them barefoot.

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We are lucky to have these beauties that provide more than enough mulch for my garden in the yard.

Of course you need a weed barrier.  Pine needles aren’t going to stop growth alone for a whole season.  They will let in sunlight allowing plants to grow, and get eaten up by fungi in no time if they were touching bare soil.  For this, I used cardboard.  No, it’s not even close to a long-term weed barrier, as it too will be eaten by fungi and microbes to become part of the soil once again. BUT! What this layering does can be far more wonderful than any permanent solution.

This is where compromise comes in to play.  Someone used to tailored gardens may have preferred to used plastic and treated wood that will last for quite literally years, but won’t add any fertility.  It requires more maintenance, but after experimenting with sections of the path for a full year, I saw the cycle taking place.

I found that the cardboard will do it’s job for just about one full year, at least on our soil.  By then, it’s still holding true to aesthetics, but there isn’t much time left before life from underneath will break free.  Towards the end of the winter when we had a few warm days, I scraped at it with a hoe, and was pleasantly surprised.  Not only did the cardboard break up easily mixing with the pine needles forming a fine debris, but there was a fresh layer of nice topsoil directly underneath.  This layer scraped away with ease.  I simply hoed the material and mounded it upon the soon-to-be planting spots.  It was a lovely mixture of compost fit for perennial plants.  So I began work to bring the process to the rest of the paths.

At first the pine needles didn’t look like they were going to stick.  They were quite fluffy and slippery on top of the cardboard, and I thought they would all wash or float away.

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This was immediately after completion, the pine needles weren’t quite adhered to the cardboard yet.  The mounds of soil are prepared spots for trees and shrubs.

Once I saturated the layers, my worries were calmed. They became one stuck mat.  Even where it seemed they would all float downhill from the curves in our path, they became adhered to the cardboard, and the cardboard had adhered to the soil.

It is now June, and the paths are holding strong in color and function.  The path has become an elegant piece of our growing forest garden.  I had to learn as I went along, and go back and redo parts that our puppy chewed up and destroyed, but now I think I have it down to a fairly easy and low maintenance system.  The fall being time for collection, and the end of winter being the time of maintenance so things are all fresh and ready for planting in spring.

The whole of the forest garden I intend to grow here is nowhere near its completion.  We’ve added peach, apricot, plum, pawpaw, and gooseberry.  The fruit trees will make a beautiful array of purple, white, and pink flowers in the coming years.  I’ve added yarrow, cilantro, and onion to the herbaceous species, all of which have their own unique flowering forms.  They are all white, and I’m looking to add more color variety that is still, at least useful, if not edible.  I’m also planning to collect and use an array of fall leaves and store them through next spring to add a thick mulch to the planted areas.

This is just one way that you can add function, benefit, and elegance while working with nature for sustainability.