Over the three years I’ve been actively planting and creating my food forest, I’ve mainly focused on three things: food, food and food.
Of course, that’s not really the best way to plan out a food forest. If you’re doing it properly, your focus at the onset should really be on nitrogen-fixers and chop-n-drop plants that will improve the soil and give your food-producing plants a head start.
Now that I’ve wrapped up planting all the main edible trees, I’ve been spending more of my time tucking in a lot of extra non-food plants around the burgeoning ecosystem. Some are “support” plants for the edibles, some are there to feed and attract pollinators and some are there for medicinal or utilitarian reasons.
Today I’m sharing a list of some useful plants you might want to consider for your own homesteading and food forst projects.
Willow trees have a variety of excellent uses. Their long, thin branches are excellent for basket-making, they can be used to create homemade rooting hormone, you can weave together planted branches and create a living fence, and you can cure a headache with some willow bark tea.
Look at this fence created by Julie Gurr at willowweaver.com:
You can build fences thick enough to contain livestock and as the sticks grow, the fence grafts together and gets even tougher.
Willows like to grow in damp and swampy areas, making them perfect for planting alongside ponds and near roadside drainage ditches.
The castor bean plant is known as one of the most toxic plants on the planet. It contains ricin, a potent toxin that’s been used by terrorists. Yet it also contains an excellent oil that can be used industrially and medicinally. It’s also beautiful.
Dr. Joseph Mercola explores some of its uses here.
Though it’s mostly a tropical plant, castor bean can be grown as an annual outside its range. The plant likes hot conditions and doesn’t mind poor soil. I’ve planted about eight in my food forest thus far.
I know – some bamboos are edible. If you can grow those, great. In my mind, the main usefulness of bamboo is for building and staking plants. Larger “timber” bamboos can be used to frame houses and sheds… smaller bamboos are excellent for creating trellises, baskets and fishing poles. You can also use small-diameter pieces as pipe stems, flutes and whistles – not to mention solitary bee houses. They’re one of the most useful plants on the planet.
Trust me – once you have some bamboo to work with, you’ll find plenty of uses.
If you have the space, plant running types since they’re invasive (that means productive!)… if you don’t have the space for a wild patch of bamboo, plant clumping varieties.
There are two related plants that share the name “Mexican Sunflower.” This is one of them:
That’s Tithonia rotundifolia. An annual, it has red-orange flowers, grows to about 5′ tall and attracts lots of butterflies. However, that’s not the Mexican sunflower that you want (unless you like butterflies).
You want this one:
That’s Tithonia diversifolia, also known as “tree marigold.” There’s a reason scientists use Latin names. If you just use common names you’ll end up with plenty of confusion.
Tithonia diversifolia grows to at least 20′ tall in a single year and is a perennial. I’ve been growing clumps of it in my food forest for a few years now. The stems and leaves make excellent compost additions and are rich in phosphorus. You can chop them down multiple times a year and they’ll grow back, eventually flowering in the fall.
Bonus: the leaves and stems smell like honey.
(NOTE: You can now buy Mexican sunflower cuttings here.)
Wooly Lamb’s Ear
This plant is technically edible (though it’s hard to find any recipes), but where it really shines is as a homegrown antibacterial bandage.
There’s nothing I can write on it that covers the plant as well as Kendra covers it here. Go read her article, then plant some of these very useful plants.
Comfrey is the Holy Grail plant of permaculture enthusiasts. It’s a healing herb as well as being an amazing “nutrient accumulator.” What’s that mean?
It means comfrey has a root system that’s very good at acquiring minerals from the soil. You use this ability to your advantage by cutting comfrey leaves and tossing them around trees, shrubs and garden beds that need a pick-me-up. You can also let the leaves rot in a bucket of water, then use the resulting soup as a liquid fertilizer.
There are some reports that comfrey can damage your liver. Personally, I find those claims ridiculous. This plant has been used internally and externally for ages. I’d rather eat a comfrey salad than anything from a McDonald’s… yet people rarely pay any attention to the toxicity of, say, French fries.
My bet is that comfrey is under attack because it’s such good medicine. Down here in Florida it fails to grow well but I still try to keep some around for application to minor wounds. I once cut my finger badly with a machete and was able to play guitar again within a week thanks to comfrey. It works and it’s very worth growing.
The world is filled with a wide variety of useful plants that fill many niches from fiber to oil to healing and construction… broaden your sights and think about what we might need in a worst-case scenario, then start planting.
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