Gardening from the Roots to the Treetops – Create a Backyard Food Forest!

photo of Serviceberry sapling growing under a mature Maple
Serviceberry sapling growing under a mature Maple

By Christine Maloney

Four mature maple trees around my house (two on the south and two on the north) leave only a narrow strip of full sun in the middle to grow my favorite sun-loving garden crops.  To complicate things further, my house and driveway take up the majority of that area in my typical suburban .33-acre lot.  Where was I going to grow the abundance of food I had dreamed of harvesting and preserving for winter storage?

In permaculture, we say “the problem is the solution.”  This means we flip the problem on its head and view it from another perspective.  If you have slugs in your garden, you don’t have a slug problem; you have a duck deficiency!  Duck loves slugs and other insect pests, but won’t harm your garden plants.

So maybe I didn’t have a shade problem; maybe I had a knowledge deficiency.  Were there shade tolerant (maybe even shade loving) plants that I could also grow as food and medicine?  As I studied and researched plants that grow in a typical Midwestern forest canopy and the Indigenous peoples who foraged in these forests, my eyes were opened to the plethora of edible and medicinal plants that could grow (and actually thrive!) in the shade of my Maples.

photo of the north side of my yard under full shade of Maple and Tulip Poplar with bricks outlining various food forest planting
The north side of my yard under full shade of Maple and Tulip Poplar with bricks outlining various food forest planting

By looking at and mimicking the plant layers of the forest, we can utilize the upper canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous layer, ground cover, and roots for food production, while also maintaining native habitats for and sharing space with birds, butterflies, insects, and mammals in our yards.

Upper canopy trees like Maple, Oak, Honey Locust, Black Locust, and Basswood provide abundant sources of edible and nutritious syrup, seeds, pods, and leaves.  Understory trees like Pawpaw, Redbud, Serviceberry and Witch hazel, offer their fruits, flowers, and medicine.

Shrubs like Spicebush, Gooseberry, and Maple Leaf Viburnum give us fragrant leaves and tasty fruits.

Vines like Smilax/Greenbrier, Grape, Swamp Rose, and Raspberry/Blackberry generously gift their fruits, leaves, and tendrils for our nourishment.  Herbaceous plants like Solomon’s Seal (both true and false), Nettles, Wild Leek/Ramps greens, Wild Onion, Wild Geranium, Sweetroot Cicely are just a few of the edible gifts of Nature that grow close to the Earth.  Ground cover like Wild Ginger, Bunchberry, Violets, Partridge Berry, Wintergreen, various edible Mushrooms offer spices, berries, protein, and medicines.

And, roots from Wild Leek/Ramps, Spring Beauties, and Sunchoke gift us their starchy bulbs and tubers for sustained energy.

And that’s just a short list of native plants we can grow in our yards!  There are many other typical annual garden plants that can tolerate part- to full-shade, such as onions, garlic, beets, leeks, spinach, turnips, kale, chard, potatoes, oregano, and lettuces.  When we plant native edible and medicinal plants and start to open our eyes and broaden our palate, we can receive the nutritional gifts, taste the array of flavors, and harvest the abundance that Nature offers right outside our own front doors.

The names of the plants have been intentionally capitalized to honor their alive-ness and their part in our shared experience on this beautiful planet.  Please note that foraging on Shirley Heinze Land Trust nature preserves is prohibited, but permitted on private property (with permission from the landowner) and at state preserves.

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photo of Christine Maloney in her garden
Christine Maloney

Christine Maloney is the Volunteer Coordinator at Shirley Heinze Land Trust. She is also an Advanced Permaculture Designer & Educator certified through the Permaculture Institute of North America.  She has taught permaculture workshops about seasonal wild edibles, composting, maple tree tapping, garden design, and the many gifts of Black Walnut. As well, she started the NWI Permaculture Meetup and NWI Permaculture Facebook groups to connect kindred spirits.