There’s a big wet snowstorm dumping on us for the next three days. So what am I doing? Thinking about gardens, of course!
I’m still reading about the garden rather than tackling the pruning and brush clearing that I feel like I should be doing at this time of the year. If it weren’t for all this snow… This is what gardeners do in the long cold months, according to no less an authority on the subject than Jamaica Kinkaid. So I don’t feel too guilty about spending what free time I have studying the gardens of others. It is certainly helping to refine my Jungle Remediation planning. There have been multiple complete overhauls. This too is completely normal for gardeners in cold climates, says Kinkaid (among others). There are far more garden plans made than actual gardens, and every garden is planned about 6000 times before something happens, which something is rarely any given version of any given plan. Usually the something is an amalgamation of bits and pieces of the most durable ideas.
Then again, sometimes the something is completely new that just happens as you do it.
I’m more of a planner than that, mainly because I can’t afford mistakes. I don’t have the money to plant trees more than once, for example. Nor, at my age, do I have the years to spare on doing something that is unhelpful. Furthermore, in my experience it takes much more effort to fix a bad beginning than simply doing one thing then doing another. Fixing is always more than the sum of its parts, more than ‘do this thing plus undo this thing plus then do that thing’. There are a whole slew of extra tasks that pop up when you are trying to get back to that initial clean slate. So I try not to do that. I plan. And I read extensively about the mistakes of others… um… gardens of others… before I do anything at all.
This week I was reading two books on approximately the same thing — forest gardening — that came at the idea from almost comically opposite viewpoints. At least it was funny reading them at the same time. Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to ‘Zuiki’ Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles (2007, Chelsea Green) approaches the low-till garden from the permaculture perspective. Trees of Power: Ten Essential Arboreal Allies by Akiva Silver (2019, Chelsea Green) is an arborist’s approach. I’ve put off reading both of these books for years because both titles were unappealing. Trees of Power sounded a bit too fluffy even for me. And Toensmeier’s title plants are not applicable to my garden. I live in a place where neither artichokes nor taro can be perennial without a good deal of expensive climate control.
But since there’s all this snow… I picked up both.
I discovered that Silver’s book is not at all fluffy. It is possibly the best reference on growing trees I’ve ever read — from raising trees from seed and explanations of grafting techniques to tree biology and detailed instructions on fending off rodents and rabbits and deer (oh my!). Yes, there is a bit of sylvan spirituality because Silver has developed such strong bonds with his woodlands he can’t help but sense the awareness and intelligence in each tree — and the palpable desire to be fully alive as each tree is meant to be. I know this may go further than most people are willing to travel along the woo-woo path, but I too have learned to see the trees. I know they are sentient beings with their own desires and needs, goals and dreams. Like Silver, I approach gardening — especially with the long-lived denizens of the forest — as a partnership. I have read maybe three of four other garden books that, like Silver and I, place the gardener within the system of the garden — a part, not a creator, nor even a director. The gardener is in service to the garden just like the plants are. And Silver constantly points out that neither plants nor humans are nearly as crucial to the garden system as is the living soil.
This is about as close to my philosophy of the garden as I’ve ever encountered in print. Furthermore, I am very much enjoying his deep dives into the ten plant allies he’s chosen. I am also modifying my vision of the Jungle to accommodate those allies. Truthfully, I had already incorporated most of his list into the plan, and several of them were growing on the property when I showed up. Here is his list: chestnut, apple, poplar, ash, mulberry, elderberry, hickory, hazelnut, black locust, and beech. These are the giving trees. In fact, Silver calls mulberry, specifically, The Giving Tree. All of these trees provide many kinds of shelter. Most provide food for many species, with harvests timed so that there is always some form of manna falling from above. With these tree allies, you can make a living. In partnership with these trees, it is unlikely that you will ever be hungry or cold again.
Silver gives extensive information on each of his ten allies. Propagation and harvest, ideas for turning your giving trees into trade goods, even history and research. I had no idea, for example, that we have come so far with breeding chestnuts that there are now varieties that have all the cold-hardiness of the American chestnut — the tree that used to cover most of the eastern third of North America — with the blight resistance of the Asian varieties. In other words, chestnuts are a New England option again! I was operating under the assumption that if I wanted chestnuts I would get the Chinese varieties, and those just don’t have the best nuts nor can they reliably produce a harvest each year in this cold. So yes, I have been changing my plan. In fact, chestnut is now the anchor tree in the design.
To his list, I would add rowan, maple, oak, white willow, linden, serviceberry and a few varieties of native evergreen. I also have a passion for blueberries. But Silver’s list comes very close to being my ideal all-purpose forest garden. For me, the best thing about Silver’s list is that all these trees can grow in my northern mountain home. Each genus has at least one species that is native or naturalized here. Most have been cultivated and bred for this part of the world by the people who have lived here for thousands of years. None are aggressive or colonizing; they all have their own local checks and balances (ie pests and diseases). They will not take over the garden. They will work with me to make the garden. These are trees that will provide for me and those humans who follow me while they create and nurture a woodland ecosystem, providing food and shelter for many other living beings, enriching and providing structure to soil communities, making peaceful bounty and welcoming comfort for all.
In contrast, Toensmeier’s book is just… not as inspiring. I don’t understand this. I’ve been interested in growing perennial food for decades, and he rightly points out that few of the perennials in North American gardens are vegetables — that is, low in simple carbohydrates and high in nutritious phytochemicals and fiber — and most of us never go beyond rhubarb and asparagus. Turns out there are reasons for this. As I said, I didn’t bother with his book for a very long time because little of it seemed like perennial food in my climate, nor indeed in most temperate climates. But for the sake of completeness in researching possibilities for that Jungle project, I picked up Perennial Vegetables.
There are several problems with this book. First of all, these are not perennials. It’s not just that most of these plants are hardy only at the southernmost rim of North America, it’s that these are, well, vegetables. What parts of veg plants do we eat? Mostly the roots, shoots, and leaves. Few of what we deem vegetable plants have fruiting bodies that can be harvested without damaging the plant. Some perennials can tolerate the harvest of their earliest spring shoots and leaves but will die if we cut them down later in the growing season. In fact, they have myriad ways of discouraging leaf and stem predation. After a brief period in the spring, most perennials become tough, spiny and generally toxic. Some are even deadly after a certain, somewhat nebulous stage of growth. Plants very adamantly don’t want their living parts eaten.
They also don’t want their roots dug up and taken away, but that is the part of the vegetable plant that we most commonly harvest — because that is where the plant has stored up starchy, energy-rich carbs and lots of nutrients. For itself! Plants don’t make roots for humans; they make roots to keep their own internal harvest to feed themselves over the winter and to have the energy to regenerate in the next spring season when they have to start growing again with less help from the sun and almost no help from the soil. (At least in cold climates.) They make getting at these energy stores rather difficult by putting it all underground, safe from most browsing and grazing animals, and also safe from winter cold and desiccation. Some plants have bulbs and stolons that are somewhat close to the surface, but most are like carrots with deep-ranging taproots that are firmly connected to the soil with lateral roots. We grow carrots in deeply dug garden soil not because that is what grows the best carrots; that is what grows a root we can extract. Left to their own devices year after year, carrot-family plants will create a tough and inaccessibly deep web of thick roots that you will never, ever eliminate, never mind want to eat. Hence, Queen Anne’s Lace.
In any case, many vegetable plants are not going to survive harvest. You can certainly keep parts of the plant in storage for the next growing season, treating the tuber or bulb exactly as the plant would — as an energy-rich jump on spring growth. But you can’t dig up the plant, take most of the roots away and call this a perennial. You are gardening in exactly the same fashion with these longer-lived plants as you would with annuals, most of which, it should be noted, are also perennials in their native climates. You are still disturbing the soil and damaging the plant. You have to feed that plant because it seldom can develop the soil networks that enable it to transport nutrients to its roots. You have to water it because you probably have made the soil very porous and light to enable you to get at the root, and this increases evaporation. You have to plant it, dig it up, and then replant it. And with a good many of the wilder versions of our garden vegetables, you need to process the plant parts very carefully to make them palatable. Because there are poisons in these plants, and at best poison tastes foul.
Toensmeier extols the virtues of low-effort gardening — another of my garden goals — but his list of ‘perennials’ are not low-effort! From his descriptions of cultivation (notice that word!) and food preparation, many of them require far more work than ‘normal’ garden veg. There are reasons for this. Normal got that way because in a given location, this mix of plants gives us the most reward for our labor and expense. Toensmeier then indicates that many of these plants still need breeding efforts to make them more durable and more palatable. I am all for expanding our range of food crops, but not like this. Not for plants that need radically different ecological niches than where I live.
And Toensmeier’s list is definitely not composed of temperate zone plants. Plants that grow year after year and can make lavish fruiting bodies or fat tubers rich in carbohydrates need the long growing seasons and the abundant sunshine of the tropics — even those tropical plants that grow at high altitude and can tolerate cold need lots of sunlight. Think about the very long time it takes a sweet potato to develop its tuber. It needs that much exposure to the sun to make all that starch and sugar. So it’s not merely that these plants are not cold hardy — and his own hardiness maps clearly show that most of them are not — it’s that these plants need more from the sun than high latitude gardens will ever be able to supply.
There are many other problems with growing non-native plants. They may have moisture needs that don’t fit the local climate, requiring either irrigation or efforts to create good drainage. They probably need to partner with soil microbes or other plants that don’t exist in artificial growing environments. They almost certainly need a different soil chemistry than they will get as transplants in foreign lands. In fact their only advantage is that they have few local pests. And this is not an advantage to the locals!
This is the second big problem I have with Toensmeier’s book. Those plants on his list that will actually live as perennials — albeit mostly short-lived perennials with lots of digging and planting involved — also tend to be non-native with no local checks and balances or the type of plants that will rapidly colonize disturbed areas. Some are both, colonizers with no local predators. He does spend a careful chapter talking about the problems of invasive and aggressive plants. But then he rather disturbingly (to my mind) goes on to cheerfully conclude that since many of these weeds are already everywhere, we might as well plant more in our gardens. He even rationalizes cultivating a known scourge — the air potato vine — saying that it ‘could be an important crop’.
Whoa! Logic breakdown!
First, if a plant is aggressive, I don’t want it in my garden beds. It will quickly take over. If it is also not very tasty or requires a great deal of work to make it tasty, then it is diminishing my harvest rewards. I don’t want a monoculture of sunchokes, but that is exactly what will happen if I plant sunchokes in the sort of friable garden soil that makes it easy to harvest their roots. I sure as hell don’t want lamb’s quarters and Good King Henry popping up in every bed. I don’t care if they are free food. I don’t like them. (In fact, I’m really not fond of any of the plants that contain oxalic acid. There are probably good reasons for this.)
But my garden beds are not the low maintenance perennial garden plantings that Toensmeier’s book seems to promise. (Even as most of his explicit plant descriptions involve heavy garden cultivation.) What happens if we plant air potato vine in a free-food, no-work-for-humans, wild setting? Well, if it grows at all, it smothers everything! It will kill all the other plants!
Fortunately, air potato vine won’t grow in temperate climates. That’s the big check on its aggression. But in Florida where it is hardy, there is nothing that will hold it back. It has no predators and no diseases in its non-native habitat. It runs riot until it soaks up all the sun, all the nutrients and all the moisture. And then it crashes. That is its job in nature: to turn whatever is within its grasp into plant tissue and then die so that long-lived plants and their microbe partners have a bonanza of easy-access nutrients to feed on while they become established. Air potato vine does not hesitate to kill off existing plants. It knows but one function: Make as much of ‘me’ as possible. Right Now! When there are no critters eating on air potato vine leaves and stems — and only a few of the ‘potatoes’ are getting harvested by hapless humans — then it will make ‘me’ all over every surface. It will destroy living ecosystems.
Now… notice what we call this thing. A ‘potato’. Do I need to point out that we already have garden potatoes? Ones that taste very good with very little tedious food prep. Ones that will not gallop all over the garden. Ones that take almost no work and little extra input from the gardener to make food that lasts all winter — as well as new plants for next year. Exactly like Toensmeier’s ‘perennials’!
And that is the final problem that I have with Perennial Vegetables. Nearly every root and leaf in the book is described in terms of existing garden veg. Roots ‘taste like carrots’ or ‘nutty potatoes’. Leaves ‘taste like spinach’. Shoots ‘taste like asparagus’. If it takes just as much effort — quite often more effort! — if it comes with substantial risk of invasive destruction, if it even just tastes inferior, why bother with these plants? We have carrots, potatoes, spinach and asparagus. For sure, there is room for expansion in the perennial garden and our wild foraging lands for native plants that will provide food, but that is really not what Perennial Vegetables is describing. Toensmeier is talking about annual gardening with plants that need extra accommodation in the temperate veg garden to provide pale imitations of what we already grow in those veg gardens.
There are reasons for this too. As I said, in high latitude climates there are few rooty perennial food plants. And all plants do everything they can to protect their leaves and young shoots from predation. This means that there are few perennials that will feed you roots and leaves in winter. Plants that go dormant for long periods of the year because there isn’t enough sunlight to support growth tend to focus on making fruiting bodies to support future life. Most native North American food plants are fruiting perennials — mostly shrubs and trees. They do store energy in their root tissues, but not in fat swellings of almost pure carbohydrates. In any case, digging up the plant does not allow it to live as a true perennial. So most of the native wild foods are the fruits and nuts that Toensmeier carefully excludes from consideration.
Perennial food plants that grow in my climate, particularly the plants of the forest gardens that have been carefully stewarded for thousands of years in this soil, produce fruits and nuts. The nitpicker in me would point out that fruits and nuts are just as nutritious as roots, shoots and leaves — and far more yummy! Effortlessly so! But I also want to point out that Native Americans also cultivated annual plants. Extensively. Quite often integrated into their perennial food forests. And they grew some plants that are naturally perennial or biennial as annuals in controlled settings. This was done to be able to easily get at roots and to keep some things like sunchokes from galloping all over everything. They also bred cultivars of perennials that would grow to maturity as annuals or would produce larger fruiting bodies or that didn’t have all the nasty plant defenses. That is, they gardened. Mostly annually. They foraged for ‘free’ fruits and nuts. (Or maybe not so free… they carefully managed those nut woods!)
This distinction between fruit and veg is strange to me. To a Native gardener it would have been laughable. More white people crazy. Calling something perennial that is cultivated exactly as rigorously and restrictively as an annual is nonsense. And I think privileging colonizer foods over local options is just plain wrong. Maybe that’s not Toensmeier’s intent. I hope it’s not. But forcing tropical plants to grow in temperate gardens is certainly not ecologically savvy. Nor is it necessary. We have perennial foods. They may not ‘taste like carrots’, but then I suspect most of what Toensmeier describes in that fashion probably also does not taste enough like carrots to justify growing these plants instead of, you know, just carrots.
In my part of the world, if you want nutrition, you can’t beat walnuts and blueberries. If you want free food that falls from the sky, grow chestnuts and acorns. If you want perennials that will develop rich soil while they fill your belly, don’t plant something you have to dig up every year. Plant trees! Those are true perennial foods.
Now, one final point… these are the perennial foods that grow well in my Jungle. Which is not a jungle. In actual jungles, in places that have abundant sunlight and warmth and all the other resources necessary to tropical roots, plant them! Don’t try to grow blueberries and apples in Brazil or hazelnuts and rhubarb in Australia. Grow what is adapted to your local garden. Grow the foods that people in your region have been eating for centuries if not millennia. If you, yourself, are a transplant or if you have exotic tastes, you can nurture a few foreigners in a controlled setting. Maybe breed something that is better adapted to your place over time. But don’t go out into the bush planting, for example, nut pines in South Africa or prickly pear cactus in Egypt.
There are all types of gardens. I think Silver does a better job of teaching this important lesson even as he restricts his list of plant allies to a few that work for him. That is the point. They work for him, in his specific soil and climate. He spends the first half of his book showing us how to nurture any forest garden and talks a great deal about forest gardens in other regions. But then he pulls back and focuses on what he grows in his own garden. Lucky for me, he lives only a few hours away from my garden. So his list is perfectly suited for my garden. But if you don’t live in this part of the world, it is still worth looking at how he looks at trees. You will see your own native species with fresh eyes, maybe see food and shelter and giving trees already growing all around you.
I should also add that I don’t think Perennial Vegetables is a waste of time. If you are an adventurous gardener, there will definitely be something interesting to challenge your skills. Maybe you’ll decide that oca, a Peruvian root, does in fact taste like a tart carrot. Maybe you’ll even like it! (I’m sort of waffling on that… if I had more space in the veg beds… maybe?…) Just don’t expect that you’ll be growing low-effort perennial foods. And certainly don’t grow anything that can escape your veg beds — no matter how ‘important’ those plants might be as a food crop.
Teaser photo credit: Mulberries. By Geo Lightspeed7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118396765