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Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Woodlots, Mushrooms, Medicinals and More

What can I do with my shade? That is the question for a lot of us - we know that the trees on our property - or our neighbor’s - improve our lives and provide necessary habitat, carbon sequestration, shade. And yet - there’s also that question - what can I grow there?

Well, trees for one. If you heat or cook with wood, whether inside the house or if you can build an earth oven or a rocket stove for cooking, you can make some use of fallen wood, or careful and wise coppicing (assuming they are your trees) and pruning. You can plant more trees at the edge of your woodlands that grow fruit, nuts or produce syrups (sugar maple or birch). You can grow high quality wood for carving or making furniture.

You can have the satisfaction of a yard that produces copious food for wildlife, even if it doesn’t produce a lot of food for you. You can accept that tiny wooded oases are sometimes the best we can do in a world where forests are increasingly lost.

Still, you don’t have to give up on all food production, or even the hope of a little income from your land, just because you’ve got shade.

Now it really depends on what kind of shade you’ve got. Dappled shade, or shade part of the day offers more options than deep shade. In light shade, you can often grow fruiting plants, especially currants and gooseberries and strawberries. They may not produce quite as well as in sun, but if the shade is light enough, they’ll do fine.

You can also make use of seasonal shade - spring bulbs, or early harvested crops can be grown under trees that leaf out late. Many greens can handle intermittent light shade, particularly if they get 3-4 hours of morning sun. They may even do better with it in warm climates, where hot afternoon sun can be a killer. Perennial greens like sorrel and Good King Henry seem to do ok in light shade.

Wild leeks (ramps) and chickweed are two incredibly nutrious and delicious plants that like fairly deep shade. So do many medicinals - goldenseal and ginseng are perhaps the most obvious woodland herbs, but many herbs tolerate at least some shade, the exceptions of course being the mediterraneans - basil, oregano, thyme, etc… which like sun. But meadowsweet, marshmallow, mints and a host of other medicinal herbs do extremely well in light to medium shade.

And then there are mushrooms - if you want to produce maximum nutrition and taste in shady spots, the place to go is to fungi. In many cases, growing mushrooms will also improve your soil, nurturing the complex web of fungi and bacteria that keep soil healthy. My favorite resource for fungus is

There’s a chronic balancing act in our exercise of growing food - it is urgently important that we take places where humans live, and use them wisely, to preserve wild places. At the same time, sometimes the only wild places for miles are the ones we create in our yards and on our farms. Our shade should never been seen simply as “the place where I can’t grow food.”



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