Permaculture and Food Forest Gardens- Native Plant Talk Series

Jayme Melrose began the discussion by outlining her premises, guiding theories and values of permaculture. She then discussed the importance and nature of ecological gardening, of permaculture, and the idea of a food forest. From there she moved into explaining some patterns and processes, and native Nova Scotian plants that would be useful in food forest garden in our region.

Six Principles:

1.  Everything we consume has a landscape impact whether we see it or not, and this matters.  The more we can consume or create things that have positive instead of negative impact, the better.

2.  Peak oil and climate change are real and happening, and we need to take both into account.

3.  We need to get to sustainable design, but even more than that, we also need to do restorative design.  We need to restore health in ourselves and in the landscape.  Permaculture is a design methodology working to that end.

4.  There are many people who want to move from being consumers to being producers.

5.  There is room to decolonize our notion of food and landscape.  We can eat native foods, not just broccoli; we can have a food forest, not just a lawn, in our urban lots.

6.  Fr. Thomas Berry, a Catholic environmental activist and spiritual leader, suggests that every culture has a great work before them.  This includes us, and our task is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation to being part of the planet, as “participating members of a comprehensive earth community.”


Jayme studied permaculture at the Linnaea Ecological Garden School, Cortes Island, B.C., under Oliver Kelhammer, who argues for a new commons, for landscapes that can be art.  He also argues that there are two kinds of succession at work in permaculture, the first in the land, the second in the type of gardening itself.

A common pattern of succession in land, for instance after a fire, is the move from devastation to annual plants to perennial plants and grasses, then to shrubs, to softwood trees and pines, and finally to hardwood trees. Each stage makes changes to the ecosystem – to the qualities of the soil, the amount of light and nutrients available, and so on – that then create the conditions for the next stage.

Likewise, urban gardening moves from guerilla gardening, trying to reclaim unused spaces, to community gardens, to community orchards – which require commitment of time, place, energy – and finally to community forests.  This is happening around us, particularly in Seattle, where a food forest is in the process of being established.

Both of these kinds of succession are important for us in thinking about gardens and food production.  Our gardens are often in the first stage, of annual plants – which in wild nature is the post-devastation stage.  After a devastation come weeds, which pull up nutrients from down below the surface turmoil and are medicinal for both the land and the animals in the ecosystem.

Permaculture is a kind of post-modern gardening calling for regenerative design.  It is trying to design so that we live in a way that has the stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.  It has to be both socially and ecologically regenerative.  In order to do this, it has three main components:

1. Ethics.

2. Techniques.

3. Principles

Ethics: To care for people, to care for the earth, and to share fairly.

Techniques: Anything fitting the ethics above.  Permaculture focusses on relations — the relative locations of things, adjacencies and mash-ups.

Principles: Permaculture has a value system to make decisions, including:

– work with nature

– observe and interact

– catch and store energy

– obtain a yield

– use small and slow solutions

– use biological resources

– make it multifunctional and redundant

– integrate rather than segregate

– treat the problem as the solution

Forest Gardening

This comes along a spectrum, from the deeply cultivated and hands-on approach to the hands-off wilderness.

landscaping — organic farming — ecological gardening — forest gardening — eco-forestry — parks

Parkland is treated as something to be admired, but also as something where we should “leave only footprints” — the same attitude as high-energy public gardens.  Neither of them are treated as productive food sources, though they could be.

Forest gardening is both gardening, which is to say tending, the forest, and bringing the woods into the city.  The goal is to create systems that function like native land but also feed us.  It is something ideally held in common, a way for us to relearn how to manage and govern our resources in a community.

The Food Forest

A food forest is an edible ecosystem.  It is a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production.  It uses less energy to maintain, particularly in Nova Scotia, where most of the land, left to itself, would be forest.  Our agricultural systems are high-energy because we have to resist the forest.

The goals and needs of an agricultural system are the “7 Fs”:

– Food

– Fuel

– Fibre

– Fodder

– Fertilizer

– Pharmaceuticals

– Fun

A forest garden can produce a multitude of human needs, by gardening the land in woodlandlike patterns.

Key Characteristics of a Food Forest:

Like any other forest, the food forest is a multi-storied affair, from underground, surface, undergrowth, shrubs, understory trees, and the canopy.  The basic building block is the Tree Guild.

This consists of:

1. the tree at the centre

2. an insect attractor

3. nutrient accumulator

4. mulch maker

5. nitrogen fixer

The tree at the centre is likely to be one a nut or fruit tree, such as one of the nut trees native to north-eastern North America: the black walnut, beech, butternut, hickory, beaked hazelnut, chestnut, pecan.

The insect attractor has to attract beneficial insects, both predators and especially pollinators.  For this purpose it needs to bloom at the same time as the main tree.

Nutrient accumulators have deep roots to bring up nutrients from the subsoil.  Generally, these are tap-rooted plants, such as burdock, comfrey, yarrow, dandelions, or some trees such as oaks.

Mulch makers, like comfrey or hostas, help with water retention and build up the humus in the soil by returning carbon.

Nitrogen fixers include legumes and also several native shrubs, bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), sweet fern, and alder.  They have bacterial symbiotes on roots that help fix airborne nitrogen into a form that plants can use.


The basic pattern of the Tree Guild can be put together in many different ways. In a food forest, it is very important to remember the importance of pathways, to avoid compacting the soil and to enable people to be active participators in the forest.  It is to be used — and harvested!

A good resource is Edible Forest Gardens, in two volumes, by _____.

Our forest system in Nova Scotia is the Acadian, a combination of the Boreal and Carolinian forest systems.  The Carolinian, to our south, includes heartnuts, pecans, hickory, pawpaws, and persimmons; butternuts are native to the Saint John River valley in New Brunswick.  Although it would be best to stick with plants native to Nova Scotia itself and we certainly need to be careful of invasive species, we live in an era of climate chaos, and it makes sense to look to the next system south of us as well.

Useful Native Plants

Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)

– nitrogen fixer

– good in poor soil, near the sea, forms thickets at the forest edge

– many virtues — you can even make candles from the waxy berries

Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina)

– dry forest edge plant

– nitrogen fixer, insect attractor

– good for tonic tea

– hard to propagate and transplant, because of bacterial symbiosis, so one needs to be very careful to bring a lot of soil with it.

Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

– dry forest edge; wind-tolerant

– quite tall, around 20’

– productive of nuts, shade, coppice (for pole wood)

Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)

– wet or rocky forest edge

– tolerant of salt, pollution, drought

– spring insectary

– fruit high in anti-oxidants

Wild Raisin (Viburnum nudum)

– spring insctary

– edible (though seedy) fruit

– shade tolerant

– good for bird food

Amelanchier spp. — includes serviceberry/ Saskatoonberry

– spring insectary

– edible fruit high in pectin, iron, copper

– wind tolerant

– wood good for tool handles

– forms rootstock for Malus spp.

Also, here’s a link on Seattle’s food forest:

Written by Victoria Goddard.

6 thoughts on “Permaculture and Food Forest Gardens- Native Plant Talk Series

  1. This is a great introductory resource and a good reminder for those who are trying to practice permaculture. Thanks. (FYI, Edible Food Forests is written by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier )

  2. Pingback: Restorative Design | A Moveable Garden

  3. Can you tell me where to buy the poster? I love it. I’m turning my yard into a home garden, and this poster gives me so much inspiration.

  4. I love this! I would love to have a home garden with pathways, edibles and other useful plants. Our garden is small compared to that now and there is no community garden that I know of in our area. Great post!

  5. Really lovely to find a permaculturalist who is focusing on natives, much needed in the debate, as a lot of harm can be done in ignoring the native food forest. Given this great theme, I was greatly surprised to see some rather thuggy (dare I say invasive) non-native understory species suggested in this piece. Virtually none support larval herbivores to any degree (while generalist pollinators will use them). The whole, wonderful NS berry cycle of wild strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, bunch berry and many other native edible plants (such as cat-tails) were left out.

    Surprising, since your selection of shrubs and trees appear to be spot-on. Keep up the good work, and maybe some of the other permaculturalist leaders will begin to understand that anthropocentric has not worked until now, and will not work in the future if we wish to have many other species around.

    I was extremely upset when an instructor of a massive online course of 5,000 people around the world recommended “bamboo” for planting windbreaks of useful materials. The error is that NO species was recommended and no advice was given about examining the potential invasive properties of many species of bamboo (there are over 1,000 species of bamboo). So your interest in creating a synthesis of natives and permaculture ideas is exciting. If you are ever in Baddeck, let’s have coffee:)

    Joni Mitchel said it well when she said “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I say “if you don’t know what you’ve got you won’t know it’s gone,” lol.

  6. Pingback: Starting Permaculture – Druidings

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