Forest Gardening: Planting Small Shrubs and Soft Fruit

Reader Contribution by Maddy Harland
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In my last blog about forest gardening, I described the lower canopy layer of smaller trees and suggested some well known fruits and nuts like apples, plums and hazel nuts and encouraged you to explore some exotics like Siberian pea tees and truffle innoculated hazel.

Below the lower canopy of smaller trees is the next niche planting space, the shrub layer. In temperate zones this will eventually become very shady, so you have to plan for that. Shrubs are mostly 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 particularly like gooseberries and have six different varieties. My favourite is the large red, lucious Hinnomaki Red. It is resistance to mildew and is vigorous. I pick in mid July, before much of the other fruit is ready.

We also have jostaberries and worcesterberries, both crosses of gooseberries with currants. These 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 croppers. I tend to add them when making gooseberry jam. We are also experimenting with goji berries which grow long limbs and have to be pruned back. It’s is early days for them in my garden. They are reputed to flower and therefore fruit long into the season but the jury is still out on this one for us.

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

If you have a resilient palette you can also plant chokeberry (Aronia spp.), barberry (Berberis spp.), and Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.). In our sun deprived summer they are pretty bitter so I don’t generally bother with the sharp tasting fruit, but your palette may differ.

Useful Tips:

1) Don’t plant anything directly under a tree and in a cool climate allow more space than you would for a warmer climate, more light filled, forest garden. In my first year, I planted a gooseberry bush very close to a medlar tree – it fruited fine for the first 10 years but now its yields are very small, despite the fact that goosberry is relatively shade tolerant. I will probably take cuttings this autumn and grub it out.

2) Be generous with the spacing of your trees and plants to allow good light penetration to the lower levels, especially if you live in a cool temperate climate. Space is also important for you to be able to move about between your trees and shrubs when fully grown. Never plant closer than the fruit tree rootstocks or the nursery (for soft fruit) specifies. I have seen a few forest gardens that are planted too close together and it makes for gangly fruit bushes and encourages deseases like canker and mildew.

3) Cultivate what you can manage and start by mulching small plots below the canopy. Be realistic about how fast you can plant the lower layers. Don’t mulch large areas thinking you can infill unless you have enough plants and the time to plant them. Left unplanted you will only encourage weeds into the system and will have to remulch.

4) In early years if you lack time and plants, sow or plant wildfowers below the trees and shrub layers. The bees will love them and therefore so will your trees and shrubs.

5) Plants what you like to eat. I know this is obvious but it is useful to taste what you may want to plant if you can before you buy. One forester gardener’s fruit of choice may be another’s astringent nightmare!

6) As with the tree layer, check out 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 and you will therefore be more likely to come across a species or variety that works particularly well for you.

Next blog: planting herbacious perennials, ground covers, climbers and roots.

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