Monday, February 23, 2009

Understory Planting

Today we had visitors to the farm. [I won't say who since I forgot to ask permission if I could mention them in the blog. They're from another local farm.] It was a dreary, wet and cold day but it was good to sit around and jaw about local agri-happenings. Eventually the conversation turned to what could and could not be planted in the local area.

Many people mistakenly believe that forested land is inhospitable for food production. To which I say, "If you can build a home there, you can grow food there." The key is to do as the forest does: take advantage of growing space at different altitudes.

At Little Grove, the top layer consists of trees between 130 - 170 ft (40 - 50 m) trees. As you get closer to the forest floor the understory consists respectively of madrone, young redwoods and oaks, wild berries, orchids and other flowers, and mushrooms. The fact that these shorter trees and plants exist at all reflect that conditions are suitable for growth. If you pick your crops carefully, they will thrive as well.

There are several nut tree species which do well in the understory: such as hazelnuts, chinquapin, and oaks. We have planted hazelnuts under a semi-open Douglas fir canopy. The site was chosen because of the proliferation of forget-me-nots, stinging nettles, and foxglove in the area which indicated good light and good soil moisture. To learn your own forest's light- and wet-loving plants, consult a forest plants guide for your region. [Peterson N. Amer. Field Guide to: Eastern Forests, Rocky Mountain and Southwest Forests, California & Pacific NW Forests]

Many berries do well as understory plants: thimbleberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, paw paw, maypop, and madrone berries.

Photo credit: Thimbleberry, ©2007 Walter Siegmund/WikiMedia Commons

Fungi are not to be excluded or overlooked. A healthy forest ecology is not complete without these subterranean inhabitants. While many mushrooms taste bland or disgusting and some are poisonous, there are a plethora of tasty mushrooms you would be wise to know. For instance, oyster mushrooms are great in soup or a stir-fry, but did you know that they are a natural source of statins, an important class of cholesterol-fighting drugs? I mention them here because they are ridiculously easy to grow in straw, as are many different types of mushrooms.

It is important to partner with a local expert or group of expert mushroom hunters to learn what is safe to eat. We, ourselves, are members of the Mycological Society of San Francisco. This group holds monthly meetings, an annual Fungus Fair, and several mushroom hunting trips. Their knowledge is shared freely so that we all can safely enjoy the porcinis, morels, chanterelles, etc. that grow abundantly on forested land.

To increase the production of mushrooms on our land, we collect mushroom spores and 'plant' them in areas that each type of mushroom prefers. We have had great success harvesting mushrooms planted in this way after as little as year and as great as three years. While mushroom hunting is very satisfying, it is gratifying to know exactly where to look year after year for almost guaranteed collecting. Knowledge shared by the experts and gleaned from a good mushroom text will let you know the right season to search for the various mushroom species.

These lists are not exhaustive but represent a number of the plants we have researched for experimental plantings at the farm. Enjoy farming in the forest!

Audubon North American Field Guide to Mushrooms
Fungi Perfecti (Stamets) Indoor and Outdoor Mushroom Growing Kits
Paul Stamets books
David Arora books

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