Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ecosystem approach to landscape design using Appalachian edible and medicinal plants

An edible landscape can include much more than fruit trees and vegetables. The Southern Appalachian woods contain a plethora of edible and medicinal plants, which can be found at a few small local nurseries. By incorporating these plants, we're eventually lessening our workload in growing our own food. The perennial herbs come back year after year and typically don't need to be replanted. And, since these natives are accustomed to growing in the local ecosystem, they typically survive disease and pest pressure as long as they have the proper nutrients, pH level and sun exposure.

The varying colors in tree symbols denote seasonal changes.
I'm showcasing this landscape design (pictured above) because it contains many Appalachian edibles as well as other elements I like to include in my designs. The layout of the yard, the existing vegetation and the solar exposure all combine to create the perfect setting to establish several different ecosystems, even though the front yard is less than a quarter of an acre. By using primarily perennial and/or native plants, we are limiting the amount of labor required to maintain the property once all the vegetation has filled in the space. We're also including many plants with qualities that benefit other plants, helping to create a self-maintaining landscape.

Tamara (the main gardener in the family) and her husband Jeff both have full-time jobs and a young daughter. Tamara enjoys gardening, but most of that time is reserved for attending vegetable beds in their backyard. So whatever she plants in the front yard should be relatively low maintenance in the long-term.

Her goals are to better control weeds in existing ornamental beds, incorporate native plants, and make use of the full sun in the middle of the yard by adding semi-dwarf fruit trees. To my delight, Tamara is especially interested in using medicinal herbs, a long-time interest of mine. She envisions the finished landscape having a "cottage-style" feel.

"We've struggled for a long time over what to do with our front yard," Tamara said. "When I contacted Megan to do a landscaping plan, I was so excited that she really listened to what our goals for the yard were. Megan really took a lot of care to research what would work best for our yard and added tons of flowers and plants I'd never even thought of.  She also provided lots of additional information on the benefits and uses of each plant she was recommending.  She was so thorough and creative."

"Rich Cove"
The first tree to greet us to the property is an existing black cherry tree. Around it, we will create a "Rich Cove" ecosystem, incorporating a shrub border and groundcover with shade-loving medicinal herbs, first adding organic matter to increase the fertility. The shrub border has a mixture of three different native shrubs, including Viburnum. Out of the many varieties of Viburnum, I suggest the native blackhaw, not only for its showy creamy white flat-top flowers and edible blue drupe that can be used in jams, but also for its medicinal values. The bark from the branches can be used as a relaxant and sedative, particularly for disorders of the female reproductive organs.

If clients can are patient in waiting the years, in many cases, it takes to establish woodland medicinal herbs, I like to incorporate them in designs, particularly over-harvested herbs such as Goldenseal, which is at a high risk of extinction. Patience is particularly needed in this location because we first need to establish a denser canopy from the shrubs and small trees to ensure proper shade.

Among the five different herbs in the groundcover is Solomon's Seal, a versatile medicinal herb most well known for treating injuries of the musculoskeletal system. While Solomon's Seal is currently abundant in the Southern Appalachian forests, it is not always easy to find in the health food stores, making it a good candidate for backyard harvesting.

"Heath Mix"
In the adjacent corner of the property, where hemlocks, a black gum and redbud currently live, we'll create a "Heath Mix" ecosystem, adding pine bark mulch to boost the acidity of the soil and installing understory trees such as rhododendron and spicebush. The groundcover will be a mix of low-growing edible and medicinal native evergreens such as wintergreen. It has edible red berries and medicinal leaves, traditionally used for colds, headaches, stomachaches and kidney ailments. Wintergreen also contains a volatile (potentially airborne) organic compound called methyl salicylate, which enhances plant communication. The chemical switches on neighboring plants' genes that protect them from disease-causing microbes.
"North Wall" contains a groundcover under existing Abelias

Part-shade natives are in "Northeast Corner"
Abelias currently live along a privacy fence on the north border of the property. We will fill in this area with green-and-golds and other native groundcovers to crowd out weeds.

The back corner of the property will feature a pocket of medium to tall natives, all good for inviting pollinators and butterflies. Among them is one of Tamara's herb interests, jewelweed, which has a delicate orange pendent-like flower shaped like a trumpet that attracts hummingbirds. The juices from the stalk and leaves also alleviate the first signs of a poison ivy rash. It's best to first establish all the other plants in the bed before putting in Jewelweed a couple years down the road to make sure the plants are large enough to compete with Jewelweed, which can spread quickly if not properly contained.

Crossvine, a native begonia, will be trellised to screen a propane tank and furnace. Since this area has been taken over by weeds in the past, we're currently solarizing it with a plastic tarp, which we will remove after a few months and then build up the soil with layers of weed-suppressing cardboard and organic matter.
"Orchard/Forest Garden"

The center of the yard will be the orchard, which is designed to be a forest garden with upper-, mid- and understory levels, incorporating plants that are beneficial to the fruit trees, all semi-dwarf. Among the beneficial plants is comfrey, which has a long taproot that pulls up nutrients from far below the surface. The large fuzzy dark green leaves can be harvested and spread along the orchard ground to increase nutrients for the fruit trees. Horseradish will also be planted near the trees since its roots are said to prevent rots on apples, cherries and plums. The shrub layer includes the edible goumi, which fixes nitrogen in the soil so that it is in a usable form for surrounding plants. Goumis can grow tall, so it will need pruning to remain a shrub after the first five years or so.

"Prairie" for beneficial plants
Next to the orchard will be a prairie-like ecosystem, a bed of perennial flowers and self-seeding annuals mainly planted to attract beneficial insects that are predators of common orchard pests. I combine an array of flower colors that are complementary to the rest of the landscape as well as vary the types of inflorescenses, or flower structures, incorporating several plant families such as the aster, carrot and figwort families. By doing so, the hope is to accommodate an array of beneficial insects with all sorts of mouthparts needed to extract the nectar from the flowers. The diversity of flowers also adds to the visual appeal of the garden. None of the plants in the bed aggressively self-seed or spread rhizomes (underground stems), limiting the work needed to keep the plants in check.

"Rose Hill," front walkway and blueberry patch
As guests turn up the front walkway, they'll pass a lattice with hardy kiwi­­ (screening trashcans in her driveway) as well as planters covering an unsightly black pipe near the house foundation. The planter shape will mimic a picket fence to lend that "cottage-style" feel that Tamara likes. In the planters, she'll grow mint or some of her other favorite medicinal herbs that have rhizomes too aggressive to plant in the yard without spreading out of control.

Along the front walkway, Tamara has already planted roses and vinca on a slight hill. She likes them but the weed growth in the area has been too heavy for her to keep up with. We decided to interplant lavender, which she has a particular affinity for, along with creeping thyme. As we fill up the beds with vegetation that is useful and attractive, we'll be taking up space where weeds otherwise might appear.

We also will move existing roses that are under her front windows to the rose hill, further filling in that area. We'll then renovate the soil under her windows to accommodate acid-loving plants, such as highbush and lowbush blueberries and azaleas.

Tamara is planning on installing the plants over a period of two years so she is not overburdened with too much work at once. She looks forward to pulling her car into the driveway after a day at work feeling like the front yard is finished.

"Thanks to Megan, I now feel excited about the future of our yard!" Tamara said.
Contact Megan at 828.333.4151 or gardens@wncmretc.com about designing an edible landscape at your home or business.