After the first rush of excitement when the plant catalogs start pouring into the mailbox each winter, it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed by the variety of plants available.
While it would be lovely to have the money and space to plant some of everything, that’s not reality for the vast majority of us. Sure, maybe you can plant twenty kinds of seeds, but planting twenty kinds of fruit trees is less likely to be an option. Everything in the catalogs is bound to look appealing in the dead of winter. Narrowing down the choices is part science, part art, and part deciding you’ve packed and repacked your parachute enough times and taking the jump.
In order to spread the costs out and avoid decision fatigue, my own approach has been to focus on one section of our property each year, all the while keeping my big picture in mind: grow a variety of food, plant enough to share, give the plants what they need, minimize labor, and aim for pretty.
The area I am working on this year has a mulberry tree and a small wisteria, each about fifteen years old. The mulberry fruited its first and second years, but hasn’t since. This was a disappointment, as mulberries are one of my favorite childhood foods, so I knew I wanted more mulberries. Other than that, I was open to anything.
For each plant I considered, I researched the following questions:
Will it grow well in my zone? (Zone 6)
When does it fruit? (I’d like to be harvesting continually, rather than all at once.)
How big is it? (Will I have room for it, and will it thrive among nearby plantings?)
Is it self-pollinating? (If not, I’ll need more than one.)
Does it have thorns? (I’m anti-thorn.)
What kind of soil and sun does it need? (Wet, hot, shady, dry?)
Do I want to eat it? (Just because I can grow it doesn’t mean I’ll like it.)
Do I like the way it looks? (I’d sacrifice looks for flavor if necessary, but it rarely is.)
Is there likely to be a market for excess? (Not a concern for everyone, but as I sell produce and preserves and hope to sell a greater quantity in the future, important for me to consider.)
I settled on three varieties of mulberry: Illinois Everbearing, Shangri La, and Weeping Mulberry. The Illinois is a large tree that begins fruiting in June. The Shangri La will fruit a bit earlier, beginning in May, and is mid-sized at about 20 feet. Smallest of all is the Weeping Mulberry, which is the kind I grew up with, making it more a nostalgic choice than a strategic one.
Along with the mulberries I’ll be planting two pawpaw trees, Sunflower Pawpaw and SAA Overleese Pawpaw. Again, one is a bit larger than the other. My objective is to create something of a food forest – a garden which mimics nature, where plants grow in layers, tall trees spaced widely to provide an open canopy, shorter trees, shrubs, and groundcover plants nestled around and under. Plants in straight rows may look tidy, but I want to garden as a participant in nature, not a director.
To begin my shrub level I chose three varieties of honeyberry (Blue Moon, Blue Pacific, and Blue Velvet) and to get started on the groundcover I chose wintergreen. The honeyberries will bloom early and the wintergreen late, extending my fruit harvesting season.
I’ll likely need more for the shrub layer, and will plant some bulbs and possibly some herbs as well, but we’ll be off to a good start this spring. All told, I’ll spend about $300 on this area. That’s about half as much as we spend each month on groceries for our family of four. Not small change, but I’d just as soon have my savings grow in my backyard as in the bank.