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Agroforestry and Native Understory Crops

Agroforestry is an exciting way to sustainably harvest food and herbs in your backyard without compromising your woodland. The concept of agroforestry has been around for decades, but is becoming increasingly popular due to its numerous environmental and economic benefits. Agroforestry is a science-based design framework of supplying food while integrating trees, shrubs, and ground crops. In this method of polyculture (multiple plants) production, growing crops does not detrimentally tamper with the functions of a natural ecosystem. Popular techniques of agroforestry include composting, alley cropping (creating rows of trees and shrubs, with crops in between), and Silvopasture (cattle grazing beneath trees). The cool thing about agroforestry is EVERYBODY will benefit; whether it be through health, environmental, or economic advantages. So here are a few tips and species to help you get started!

Potential Money Makers

Just like all things, agroforestry can be a lot of work. However, if you have the time, space, and know-how, the product can be very rewarding. These are some crops native to North America that could potentially be profitable without losing or clearing any woodland because they grow well in partial shade. We recommend these species as economically viable because they are in high demand.

 

Four harvested morel mushrooms lying side-by-side with a hand visible for scale.

Freshly foraged morel mushrooms. Photo courtesy of Ryan Davis.

Mushroom Cultivation

Mushroom cultivation is an appropriate agroforestry practice for woodlands because mushrooms need shade in order to fruit. Although the initial process is somewhat intensive, once started, mushrooms are relatively low maintenance. After an initial investment drilling the wood and inoculating oak logs with mushroom spores, you can enjoy long term mushroom production because it will take years before the fungal hyphae (the ‘body’ of the mushroom; as opposed to the ‘fruit’ that we eat) decomposes the log. It is very important that the logs used for production have no previous fungal rot at all, otherwise your logs may become contaminated with an undesired mushrooms species. We recommend doing a bit of research on mushroom cultivation, as different species of mushroom will thrive in different environmental settings.

A brief set of directions for mushroom cultivation can be found at: https://www.ashevillefungi.com/blogs/news/inoculating-logs-by-mushroom-species

 

Ramps grow at the Frostburg State University arboretum in Frostburg, Md., on April 20, 2018. Photo courtesy Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.

Wild Leeks/Ramps

Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) are very trendy these days. A consistent harvest may generate a little extra income and make you popular among friends. In fact, the recent rise in popularity of ramps has caused a great toll on their abundance in local woodlands. Wild leeks have the flavor of an onion with a soft, easily edible texture. Ramps survive in shady, and cool environments, usually found in the wild above 3,000 ft elevation. In order to harvest these ramps sustainably, it is very important that the bulb be left in the ground. No need to worry, the leaves are edible and delicious! Unless you are fortunate enough to live in a high alpine environment, we recommend growing ramps indoors in a cool area such as your basement.

 

A nearly ripe paw paw fruit dangling on the tree. Photo courtesy Ryan Davis.

Paw Paw

Paw paw (Asimina triloba) is a native tree that produce a custard-like, mango-flavored fruit. The paw paw fruit is the largest fruit native to North America. Considering their tasty flavor, these trees are surprisingly unheard of, but are found growing naturally and readily in forest understories throughout the eastern United States. Like mushroom cultivation, once planted these trees are relatively low maintenance. In order to ensure a successful paw paw tree, the young plant should be planted and adult trees can be found in areas with fertile soil and sufficient drainage. 

Fun and Low-Maintenance Fruits to Plant in Open Spaces

We recommend these fruits as low maintenance because they are very tolerant to environmental conditions. Meaning, you mostly just plant them and enjoy watching them grow! Not to mention, the fruits are delicious!

 

Photo courtesy White Oak Nursery, New York.

Serviceberry

Serviceberry (Amelanchier) trees, also known as shadbush are a great source of native fruit. Recently, this crop has been very popular in residential areas, and is increasingly used in conventional landscaping. This is a low maintenance medium-sized tree to small shrub. It’s fruit have a similar taste to cherry and looks similar to blueberries.

 

Wild blueberries. Photo courtesy Ryan Davis.

Wild Blueberries

Wild blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are a great crop for woodland areas for their delicious flavor and shade tolerance. This perennial shrub is hearty and will grow without much maintenance. Also, because this is a flowering berry, planting multiple bushes will increase overall berry production.

To learn more about agroforestry, check out these helpful resources:

http://www.docs.dcnr.pa.gov/cs/groups/public/documents/document/dcnr_20031291.pdf

https://www.fs.usda.gov/nac/practices/forestfarming.shtml

Always practice caution when foraging. Make sure you properly identify the plant or fungi, and know what parts are edible and what parts are toxic.

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Laurence Claggett Chesapeake Forests Intern, Virginia Office