Forest gardening: Planting small shrubs and berries – Mother Earth News

In my last blog on forest gardening i described the lower canopy layer of small trees and suggested well-known fruits and nuts like apples, plums and hazelnuts and encouraged you to explore exotic plants like Siberian peas and hazelnut inoculated with truffles.

Beneath the lower canopy of smaller trees is the next niche planting space, the shrub layer. In temperate zones it will eventually become very shady so you need to plan for this. Shrubs are generally quite shade tolerant. Common choices are red, black, and white currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp.) and berries such as raspberries and blackberries (Rubus spp.). I especially like gooseberries and I have six different varieties. My favorite is the big red, lucious Hinnomaki Red. It is resistant to downy mildew and is vigorous. I pick in mid-July, before most of the other fruit is ready.

We also have jostaberries and worcesterberries, two crosses of gooseberries with currants. They are both more vigorous plants than their ancestor and require more space. The berries are smaller than gooseberries but larger than currants and are reliable harvesters. I tend to add them when making redcurrant jam. We are also experimenting with goji berries that grow long limbs and need pruning. It’s the first days for them in my garden. They are renowned for flowering and therefore fruiting well into the season but the jury is still out on this one for us.

We also planted a blackberry cultivar given to us by a friend. It has such big berries like a man’s thumb and is juicy and sweet. Like most blackberries, it is vigorous and roots easily if any part touches the ground, so be careful if you plant one!

If you have a resilient pallet, you can also plant chokeberry (chokeberry spp.), barberry (Berberis spp.) and Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.). In our sun-deprived summer, they’re quite bitter, so I don’t usually care for strong-tasting fruit, but your palette may differ.

Useful tips:

1) Don’t plant anything directly under a tree and in a cool climate, leave more space than you would for a warmer, brighter, forest garden. In my first year I planted a gooseberry bush very close to a medlar – it fruited well for the first 10 years, but now its yields are very low, despite the fact that the gooseberry is relatively tolerant to The shadow. I will probably take some cuttings this fall and pull it out.

2) Be generous with the spacing of your trees and plants to allow good light penetration to lower levels, especially if you live in a cool temperate climate. Space is also important so you can move between your mature trees and shrubs. Never plant closer than the rootstocks of fruit trees or the nursery (for soft fruits) specifies. I have seen a few forest gardens that are planted too close together and this creates lanky fruit bushes and encourages diseases like canker and mold.

3) Grow what you can manage and start by mulching small patches under the canopy. Be realistic about how quickly you can plant the lower layers. Don’t mulch large areas thinking you can fill in unless you have enough plants and the time to plant them. If you don’t plant, you will only encourage weeds in the system and you will have to remulch.

4) In the early years if you are short on time and plants, sow or plant waterfowl under trees and shrub layers. Bees will love them and so will your trees and shrubs.

5) Plant what you like to eat. I know it’s obvious, but it helps to taste what you might want to plant if you can before you buy. One forest gardener’s fruit of choice may be another’s astringent nightmare!

6) As with the tree layer, consult your local nursery and friendly fruit growers for varieties and species that work well in your bioregion. Your local growers will know what grows healthily and fruits well, so you’ll be more likely to come across a species or variety that works particularly well for you.

Next blog: planting herbaceous perennials, ground covers, vines and roots.


Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine. You can download a free sample copy.