Lessons On A Forest Garden In Three Different Climate Regions

Categories: Green

Montana Forest Garden

When I returned to Montana after selling my farm, I began with a meadow surrounded by Ponderosa pine forest. The land had been in my family for 35 years. The meadow was full of dry-site native and non-native grasses which I have watched cycle and change dominance since I was a child. The challenge was to go from this relatively wild meadow on the forest edge to food production with minimal disturbance.

Tilling in green plants pros and cons: Tilling in growing, established plants is a major soil disturbance, but at the same time, it adds a quick source of sugary, rapidly decomposing material that releases nutrients plants need when they need them.

I had learned from my experience in a British Columbia forest garden (see story below) that initial soil incorporation of high carbon material (like large, woody branches) along with low irrigation addition in a dry climate can be a challenge when you are trying to grow annual vegetables. What occurs the first season after high carbon materials are added to soils is tying up of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and low yielding vegetable plants. I wanted to eat from my garden as soon as possible, so I avoided high carbon organic residue additions and instead mowed the meadow that was to become garden. I chose a slightly sunken area below a spring at the top of the meadow. It had taller, more vigorously-growing grasses and several moist-site grass species growing in it. The slightly sunken area was much wetter when I was a kid, 35 years earlier. Then I raked the mowed meadow and sowed dutch white clover.


The clover grew unirrigated with ease in the spring, struggled during a dry July and August, but came back vigorously in the fall. I mulched the clover and meadow grasses with alfalfa hay all winter, and only removed it to plant the following spring. Warm season crops were planted into black plastic and weed mat placed over the decomposing alfalfa hay. Cold season crops were planted directly into the hay mulch.


Fruit trees, like pear, apple, cultivated and wild plums, nut trees such as native hazelnut,and shrubs like Aronia, honeyberry, serviceberry, and golden currant were planted into the meadow grasses and mulched with alfalfa hay and vegetable trimmings. Eventually the viney squash plants moved down the hill and connected the woody tress and shrubs to the annual vegetable plants.


The annual vegetables grew vigorously and intermixed wildly, growing up as well as out.


Several varieties of winter squash and melons grew around and up the newly planted trees.


Despite what looked like a lot of competition for light, soil nutrients, and water, the harvest was bountiful the first season. I saw again and learned anew lessons about which plants can do well, even in slight shade with a lot of competition (one of my favorite shade and competition tolerant species is pictured: black beans, a stable in my diet all winter.)



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