I’m standing on the edge of about an eighth acre covered in wood chips and newly planted trees and shrubs at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary. It doesn’t look like much now, but Sanctuary Director Ian Ives and volunteer Cara Wilking say the idea is to highlight native and edible plants in an interactive exhibit.
“This is what we like to call a food forest, and it’s based off the model of forest gardens and restoration agriculture where you’re integrating multiple levels of growth so you have a canopy layer of fruit trees, a shrub layer, and a base layer of perennials,” Cara said.
This garden focuses on native edible perennials.
The philosophy behind restoration agriculture is to grow food in a way that’s both groundbreaking and ancient. Most of the food Americans eat today is produced through annual mono-cropping, which requires heavy machinery, tilling, and the application of pesticides and fertilizers.
These practices in turn lower biodiversity, erode topsoil, and contribute a whopping 30 percent of global carbon emissions. In contrast, the idea of a food forest is to grow food by instead mimicking natural systems.
Cara Wilking is part of a group called the Food Forest Initiative of Cape Cod, and she explained it more.
“The way that we set up the garden is for there to be layers, and so it’s south facing and the tallest trees are in the back. And so when this fills out you’ll have a very tall layer of chestnuts with beach plums underneath, then we have American persimmon, which will get quite tall, we have there’s a row of paw-paws and then elderberry and American hazelnut,” Cara said.
She added, “And then underneath there’s a ton of different kinds of edible perennials.”
The edible perennials are plants like native strawberries, huckleberries, mushrooms, and ground cherries.
The smaller, lower layer of the garden will be a prominent feature and as the trees fill in they’ll become more prominent. It’s a long process, explained Cara, with a lot of productivity throughout its whole cycle.
This long-range design mimics a natural process called succession. Succession describes the series of changes that take place in a habitat after it’s damaged or disturbed. This can happen because of something natural like a hurricane or a wildfire or an earthquake—or humans can change an area for better or worse.
“Ecological succession is just a natural progression changing of the landscape. When you have human disturbance i.e. farmers that came and cleared all of the Cape, you’re going to naturally have a rapid succession,” explained Ian.
This succession will happen in disturbed area no matter what. But we can encourage it to happen in a healthy way that reintroduces biodiversity and especially edible perennial native plants instead of letting non-native invasives take over, which is what usually happens today.
There are many edible native species that used to be way more common in our landscapes but that over the past several hundred years have either been lost or made rare by human disturbance.
For instance, the American Chestnut used to make up 25 percent or more of the native Eastern hardwood forest before it was wiped out by a blight introduced from Asia. Chestnuts were a big source of food for both humans and wildlife—and Cara Wilking and Ian Ives say that by reintroducing them, there’s a chance chestnuts and many native edibles could spread and become more prevalent again.
”We’re working really hard to try to maximize biodiversity and this is a great way to represent that and to demonstrate to people that they can do the same thing in their yards with pollinator gardens or food forests,” Ian said.
The food forest exhibit at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable allows visitors to see and touch some of these forgotten native edible perennials. And it’s great inspiration for restoring other disturbed areas of land as close to home as our own backyards.
Here is the list of the native edible perennials from the food forest garden in Barnstable:
Edible Native Perennials, by layer
American Chestnut (blight resistant)
Meader American Persimmon
Ruby American Persimmon
2. Low Tree Layer:
3. Shrub Layer
American Hazelnut (Ecos and Skinner)
Winkler American Filbert (another type of Hazelnut)
American Ostrich Fern
New Jersey Tea
Wine Cap Spawn (mushroom)
6. Soil Surface (ground cover)
7. Vertical Layer
Crispy Snack Hog Peanut (climbs up other plants)