Plant Once, Harvest Forever!
Our 2023 garlic harvest!
Did you know that there are many types of crops that you can plant once and continue to harvest year after year, with little to no maintenance? Being able to plant edible items one time and reap their harvest for many years to come may seem like a fantasy, but it has in fact been achieved successfully for thousands of years. Permaculture, growing food forests, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable gardening are all systems that incorporate the idea of growing edible plants for harvest in a manner that replicates Earth’s natural ecosystem.
Access to nutritious and healthy food is a basic human need–it should be a human right. With many people all over country experiencing food apartheid, one would think that an easy solution would be to grow food forests in every neighborhood by making good use of vacant lots, practicing permaculture gardening in our own backyards or wherever possible, and regenerative agriculture in order to feed the people and preserve the land.
Understanding Permaculture, Food Forests, Regenerative Agriculture, and Sustainable Gardening
Nature is continuous; it cycles over and over again. Dead leaves and plant matter decompose, adding nutrients to the soil. New plant growth absorbs the nutrients from the soil to begin the cycle all over again. Many types of plants can be planted in harmony with nature’s continuing cycle, but it is important to know the basics before you can plant a garden that you can harvest forever.
Compost produced from our worm bins.
Before getting started, you’ll first need to understand a few terms: Permaculture, food forests, sustainable gardening, and regenerative agriculture. Knowing the basics of what they are, how they work, and how they benefit both you and the environment can help you understand just how important sustainable gardening really is.
What Is Permaculture?
A term you may not be familiar with if you’re a beginner gardener, or even if you’ve been gardening for quite a while, is permaculture. Permaculture is considered to be a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture. The idea behind permaculture is to design a garden or other agricultural space in such a way that they are sustainable and self-sufficient, requiring little to no maintenance to produce a bountiful harvest for years to come. Permaculture ethics and principles are designed to meet the needs of humans while also healing and protecting the land.
Though the term “permaculture” is fairly new, the practices and ideas of permaculture have been incorporated by people for thousands of years. Chemical-free, organic gardening was the only way that ancient civilizations were able to cultivate the land. The main core ethics of permaculture include earth care, people care, and fair share. It challenges us to observe the natural environment and working with the nature’s systems.
What is A Food Forest?
A food forest is a sustainable way to grow food–it’s a growing system that is similar to a natural forest. By planting indigenous edible plants, shrubs, and trees to replicate the natural ecosystems and patterns of a forest, you can create an ecosystem that can thrive on its own without the need for weeding, mowing, watering, fertilizing— or using pesticides or other harmful chemicals. Think about a natural forest; the tall trees provide shade and protection for the shorter trees and shrubs below. The shade and dead leaves also provide protection and cover for the soil, allowing it to absorb and retain moisture year-round.
Natural forests do amazingly well without the need for help from humans. A food forest, when strategically planted, can mimic a natural forest in its self-sufficiency and sustainability. With the right plants in the right places, you can plant your food forest and reap the benefits for many, many years. Depending on what you choose to plant, a food forest can provide you with fresh food from your own backyard year-round.
Below are photos of a section of our front yard that we transitioned to a food forest. Our food forest has a variety of plants that grow here and no matter the season there is something available to harvest. We harvest African blue basil late summer through early winter for making stews, soups and flavored spreads. Our ground cherries are a delicious refreshing snack during the summer months that anyone who passes by it cannot resist this juicy fruit. Edible flowers such as nasturtiums and calendula make it into our salads, mezze platters and salves. Best of all, planting a food forest takes less maintenance than the average vegetable garden as all the plants support each other.
Circa 2018. Our front yard was covered in grass and we slowly removed the grass by sheet mulching the area using recycled cardboard and free wood chips. Over time, I began planting the area with some of my favorite perennial and self seeding plants.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Farmers are becoming more and more aware of the terrible environmental effects that many modern agricultural practices have on the planet. According to Sustainable Agriculture vs. Regenerative Agriculture — Regenerative Farmers of America, modern agriculture is one of the most polluting industries on Earth, responsible for up to 25% of greenhouse gasses produced each year.
Regenerative farming is rooted in the principles of permaculture-it relies on agricultural practices that are meant to emulate nature. Farmers practicing regenerative agriculture focus on increasing biodiversity and improving the water cycle. They also engage in agricultural practices that focus on the overall health of the entire ecological system, rather than on high-yielding crops.
What is Sustainable Gardening?
“Sustainable gardening” is a term that is a lot like the term “permaculture” in that it is basically the concept of using gardening practices that enhance the natural environment and cause no harm. Sustainable gardening usually consists of chemical-free, organic gardening practices that are self-sustaining.
Benefits of Permaculture and Food Forests
In their aim to keep agricultural processes as sustainable and natural as possible, permaculture gardening and growing food forests come with many, many benefits, so we’ve listed a few of the major ones for you below:
- Since permaculture’s goal lies in efficiently using the earth's resources, it can result in the reduction of environmental waste. Organic waste that is generated is recycled and used as mulch or compost. This lessens the amount of waste in landfills that pollute our soil significantly. Permaculture gardening also focuses on using fewer chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides, which can significantly pollute our soil as well.
- Soil and water pollution usually go hand in hand–any harmful chemicals that leech into the soil will eventually make their way into the water. By reducing soil pollution, permaculture gardening also helps to reduce environmental water pollution.
- Permaculture focuses on growing crops in the most natural way possible, there aren’t as many large machines used. Using fewer gas-emitting machines can result in a reduction of the emission levels in our Earth’s atmosphere. Here, an urban farmer uses a broad fork to deeply aerate and till the soil while maintaining soil structure without the use of machinery.
A Broadfork is a tool used to break up the densely packed soil without the need for heavy machinery. This helps to improve soil aeration and drainage. The gardener in the photo is doing what we call 'extreme broadforking.'
- A food forest’s soil is kept moist and nutrient-rich from mulch formed from fallen leaves, branches, and other plant material. This layer of organic mulch will protect the soil and help it retain moisture, while also adding nutrients as it breaks down. Even rotting fruit and vegetables have a role to play in a food forest–they’ll attract insects that will help break them down, creating nutrient-rich fertilizer for the soil. This layer of organic matter is also a master at keeping out any unwanted weeds.
- Food forests attract many types of pollinators and natural predators to your area. Protecting pollinators and providing a home for native species of plants, birds, and other animals, a food forest is likely to be buzzing with activity. When the right types of plants are used, you can even naturally keep pests away. Walk up to the African blue basil when its flowering and you will hear the soft buzzing of our honey bees diligently foraging and enjoying its flowers!
Honey bee foraging on Purple Aster Flower.
Crops That Can Be Harvested Repeatedly
Now that you’re familiar with permaculture, food forests, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable farming, I bet you’re wondering, “What types of crops can I grow that can be harvested repeatedly?”
We’ve talked a lot about how permaculture works, but what types of plants can actually be harvested over and over again? Perennials, by Merriam-Webster’s definition, are “present at all seasons of the year” or “persisting for several years usually with new herbaceous growth…” In other words, they are plants that come back every year. Though not all types of edible plants are perennials, we’ve made a list of a few that come back year after year that you can grow in your garden.
- Berry Bushes
Berries have a lot of health benefits–folk medicine utilized them for centuries for health and medicinal purposes. Many types of berries are loaded with antioxidants and are high in fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients. There are many different types of perennial berries to choose from, just be sure to choose a variety that is native to your area. Some examples include strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and gooseberries. When growing a food forest, note that berry bushes can grow quite large, so be sure to research the best placement for them.
- Fruit and Nut Trees
It goes without saying that one plant that keeps giving, year after year, is a fruit tree. Peaches, pears, apples, oranges, avocados, and various types of nuts all grow on trees. The one drawback of planting fruit or nut trees in a permaculture garden or food forest is that they can take many years to bear fruit. Don’t let this deter you from adding a few of these to your garden though. They will bear fruit and nuts for many generations to come and can help feed many people through the seasons.
Our walnut trees are one of my favorites. I enjoy making Nocino, a delicious black liqueur, using green walnuts, fresh vanilla bean, cinnamon and more. It also has been known for its numerous health benefits.
Left: Me standing in front of our California Black Walnut (Juglans hindsii). Right: Harvesting green walnuts for nocino making.
Very high in Vitamin A, sorrel is a leafy green herb that has been used around the globe for centuries. Although it is mainly utilized to be consumed, its medicinal properties include aiding in digestion, liver health, and relief from mouth ulcers and sinus problems. Sorrel prefers moist, fertile soil in full or partial to dappled shade.
Great for pies, sauces, and jellies, rhubarb is a beautiful, versatile perennial vegetable. Though it prefers full sun, it can tolerate parietal shade as long as it has well-draining, nutrient-rich soil. Once it’s established, it doesn’t need much attention and can be productive for up to 10 years. Rhubarb is good for bone and heart health and is a great source of fiber. It has more antioxidants than kale and is said to help fight inflammation and aid in digestion.
- Onions: Bunching Onion and Egyptian Onion
A few types of onions will grow year after year, and those include the bunching onion and Egyptian onion. A bunching onion is a long green onion similar to a chive or green onion. They grow in clusters and require between 4 and 6 hours of sunlight a day. They can be added to stews, soups, or any dish. Egyptian onions are closely related to garlic and leeks but are treated much like an onion in cooking. They are easy to grow and can be used like spring onions.
Garlic is a common seasoning that is used worldwide, and it offers a plethora of health benefits along with its widespread culinary use. It has been known to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and is a common treatment for colds and the flu. Although garlic is dug out of the ground for the use of its root, leaving a few portions of the bulbs behind will result in more garlic the next year. Garlic is often planted in the fall, where it lies dormant in the winter and begins to grow as the soil warms in the spring.
Garlic confit is a cooking technique where garlic cloves are slowly cooked in oil at a low temperature until they become soft and tender. This process infuses the garlic with a rich, mellow flavor and creates a creamy texture. The resulting garlic cloves can be used as a versatile and flavorful ingredient in various dishes, such as pasta, sauces, soups, or spread on bread. The infused oil can also be used as a delicious base for cooking or as a flavorful dressing.
Grown as a perennial in U.S. zones 3-10, chives are cold-hardy members of the Allium family. They come back every year and can be harvested for their edible leaves and flowers. While adding a zesty, flavorful pop to your dishes, chives are known to be good for your heart and can boost your immune system. They are usually used in cooking but can be eaten right out of the garden.
One of the first vegetables that are ready to harvest in the spring, asparagus is a great addition to a permaculture garden or food forest. They can take a year or two to become established, but once they do they can last for decades. Asparagus is virtually fat-free and is high in iron, Vitamin C, and Vitamin B-6. Asparagus prefers to be planted in full sun with well-draining soil. Be sure to prep the soil well before planting for best results, since your asparagus will be around for a long time.
A perennial root vegetable that is known for its peppery flavor, horseradish can come back year after year. The root can be replanted to create new horseradish plants. Being a root vegetable, horseradish is a great addition to a permaculture garden that needs help with compact soil. It’s known to boost immunity, improve digestion, and has antibacterial and diuretic properties. It has also been known to improve respiratory conditions. Its other medicinal uses include natural anti-inflammatory properties and potent, pain-relieving analgesic.
Everybody deserves to have access to nutritious food. Incorporating practices such as permaculture, food forests, and regenerative agriculture can help ensure racial and food justice and equality for an entire nation. There are many different types of crops that you can plant once and harvest for years to come to help feed people from your community. Always research which crops can grow in your area.
Starting your own food forest or permaculture garden today, no matter the amount of available space can have major environmental, social, and individual benefits to your community.