Easy Edibles for the California Central Coast Food Forest – Part 1
Food forest gardening utilizes perennial plants, shrubs, vines and trees that support each other in a way similar to those relationships found in nature. We humans are a part of nature after all, and the systems we use to produce our food can align with our environment, rather than degrade it. Encouraging diverse ecosystems with multiple canopy layers and companion plants (plants that naturally support each other by attracting beneficial insects, suppressing weeds, and/or making nutrients more available to other plants) benefit the overall health of the garden, create micro-climates and reduce the amount of maintenance needed. They also make for a beautiful garden!
This series of posts will highlight those plants that I have successfully grown or seen grown in Santa Cruz and the California Central Coast that are easy to grow and adaptable to a changing climate. Many of these plants will grow with ease in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, depending of course on the unique micro-climates present where you live and grow. This is Part 1 out of….many posts. There is a limitless number of plants that thrive in our region that are appropriate for a food forest style garden. I will focus on perennial plants (plants whose life cycles are longer than 2 years), though your favorite annual plants can certainly be included in a food forest garden as well. Annual plants can be chopped to the ground when they’ve reached the end of their life cycles and composted to reinvigorate the soil. This is especially true of plants in the Fabaceae (legume) family which are capable of making nitrogen more available in the soil through their symbiotic relationship with soil microorganisms. Without further ado and in no particular order here are some easy edibles for the California Central Coast perennial food forest – part 1:
White Sapote (Casimiroa edulis) is a fantastic small tree for much of California. It can easily reach 30-40 feet tall, but can be kept much smaller with pruning.
Growing successfully in coastal Central and Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area and even in Sacramento in protected areas!
Once established, trees can tolerate temperatures down to 25° F and potentially lower. This is an easy tree to go in full to part-sun in well draining soils and very drought tolerant once established.
White Sapote is evergreen with beautiful new growth that is tinged in orange and red.
There are many named varieties of the fruit, which ranges in flavor from flan (custard) to pear, with texture reminiscent of avocado. Eat it fresh or blend into your favorite desert.
Passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) is a vigorous fruiting vine. Make sure to choose a non-invasive variety of passion fruit, such as Passiflora edulis ‘Frederick’. Some ornamental passion fruit vines have a habit of taking over and spreading aggressively, so make sure to research the variety before planting it.
The vine can be trained up a fence or trellis and will produce spectacularly beautiful flowers. It is evergreen and low maintenance.
Passion fruit likes regular water but is somewhat tolerant of drought once established. Reportedly hardy down to 20° F. The ‘Frederick’ variety makes a sweet purple fruit that will fall to the ground when ripe (and can be counter-ripened for additional sweetness), often in the wintertime. Passion fruit is a tasty treat on its own or can be added to your favorite juice or dessert.
Sage (Salvia spp.) is a huge genus with many species and varieties to include in a food forest. I could fill a book with all the wonderful different kinds of Salvias, but I’ll just include a few in this post. Some species are well adapted for full hot and dry sunshine, while others will do fine in the moist shade, with many others adaptable to varying conditions. Not all Salvias are considered edible, so make sure you know which one you have before you get to snacking. Some species have edible flowers, others have edible or medicinal leaves, and some, like the annual chia (Salvia hispanica and Salvia columbariae), have edible seeds. Most all Salvias, even if they aren’t edible to humans, are great at attracting pollinators and hummingbirds.
Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) is a delightful California native sage with a heavenly scent to include in the food forest. It is a low-growing groundcover that is great for competing with unwanted plants (weeds). Highly adaptable and drought tolerant, it can be grown in the shade under your fruit or nut tree canopies to open spaces in the sun.
It blooms for much of the year, and as the name implies, is highly attractive to hummingbirds. The fragrant leaves can be brewed into a sweet and fruity tea.
Mexican Scarlet Sage (Salvia gesneriiflora ‘Tequila’) has a different growth habit than hummingbird sage. It quickly reaches 10 feet tall and wide, though it can be kept smaller with pruning or trained into a smaller shrub. This sage is also adaptable to sun or shade, and is drought tolerant once established.
I lovingly refer to one in the corner of my garden as ‘Hummingbird Cafe’ due to the near constant presence of local hummingbirds buzzing around its bright red tubular flowers. The nectar-filled flowers are edible for humans too.
Ground Cherry (Physalis peruviana) aka ‘Goldenberry’ aka ‘Poha’ aka ‘Cape Gooseberry’ is a shrub, a vine or a groundcover. The highly adaptable plant with many names is extremely easy to grow in our area.
In my garden in Santa Cruz it grows as a perennial, while in slightly colder areas it will live as a reseeding annual, with each forgotten ground cherry making plenty of new plants for next year.
The fruits look like tiny tomatillos in their papery lantern-like husks and are ripe when they fall to the ground. Inside the husks are bright orange, cherry tomato sized fruits with a sweet-tart flavor that is great fresh or dried as a snack for later.
African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum ‘Dark Opal’) is a gorgeous perennial basil for the coastal California food forest. It likes full sun and is drought tolerant once established. Its leaves are a bit spicier than annual sweet basils, but delightfully tasty all the same. The pretty little purple flowers are edible too, great for attracting pollinators and they make lovely bouquets!
Continue reading Part 2