Grow a Woodland Garden

Brambles and trees can hide potential jewels, says Brett McLeod, author of The Woodland Homestead. Use his tips to make the most of your wooded land.

The Woodland Homestead

The Woodland Homestead

Photo by: Courtesy of Storey Publishing

Courtesy of Storey Publishing

Brett McLeod is the author of The Woodland Homestead:How to Make Your Land More Productive and Live More Self-Sufficiently in the Woods (Storey Publishing).

The notion of homesteading has changed. Back in the mid-1800s, homesteaders were U.S. citizens who could acquire a deed to 160 acres of public land after paying a registration fee to the government and living on the land for five consecutive years. 

Today, most of us think about homesteading as self-sufficiency (the Homesteading Act of 1862 officially ended in 1976, anyway). Modern homesteaders, like Brett McLeod, author of The Woodland Homestead (Storey Publishing), practice homesteading by using their forested land to cultivate crops of berries and fruits, or to cut wood for fuel or furniture. They might harvest fiddlehead ferns and ramps, weave baskets from willow branches or make cider from homegrown apples. 

McLeod's book is packed with innovative ideas for homesteading on your own wooded land. Many of them come from his own experiences of living on a 25-acre, drafthorse-powered mountain homestead. McLeod is also an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Paul Smith's College in upstate New York, where he coaches the Woodsmen's Team, a group of competitive, collegiate lumberjacks.

McLeod says that while many of us carefully plan our gardens, hoop houses or chicken coops,  we tend to overlook other possibilities for using our property. "Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of looking beyond the edge of the lawn to discover a hidden gem, frequently disguised as thick brambles and gnarled trees; these areas are the perfect site for developing your own woodland homestead." 

With a single acre of homestead forest, McLeod says it's possible to harvest five bushels of fruit from an orchard; process two gallons of maple syrup; raise $100 worth of mushrooms and much more. If you keep small livestock, he says you'll save money by feeding them natural forage. You might choose to grow your own firewood or pick wild strawberries, acorns, walnuts and chestnuts.

Planting on wooded land is an important part of homesteading. "The woodland homestead, and its centerpiece the woodland garden, represent a new approach to becoming more self-sufficient," McLeod explains. "Instead of gardening in a typical open, pastoral setting, the woodland garden takes advantage of the ecological conditions found in forested areas. These unique ecological conditions allow for a diverse woodland garden, where at one end you may be growing shiitake mushrooms on a beech log, and cultivating a wild berry patch in another. In the center of the garden, you may be growing ginseng under a grove of maple trees that provide a batch of syrup for the neighborhood each spring. In other words, it’s a forest, and a garden, of opportunity."

Author Brett McLeod

Author Brett McLeod

Photo by: Courtesy Storey Publishing

Courtesy Storey Publishing

Brett McLeod is an Associate Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources at Paul Smith's College in upstate New York. His book, The Woodland Homestead, is a manual for using partially or completely wooded property to produce wine, mushrooms, firewood and more.

Brett McLeod's Easy Tips for Creating a Woodland Garden:

1. "If your woodland garden site is thick with undergrowth, consider using goats or other livestock to clear the site- they’ll even mow down poison ivy! Portable electric fencing makes this job a snap, and is an all-natural alternative to herbicides."

2. "If you wish to fence your woodland garden to protect it from predators, consider 'living fence posts' that make use of existing trees and don’t require digging holes!"

3. "Grow stump-squash. Decaying tree stumps in a recently cleared area can be used as squash-growing containers. Construct a mound of rich humus over the stump, and insert your seeds."

4. "Think in layers. An edible forest landscape starts underground with root vegetables, but then occupies the herbaceous layer, edible shrub layer, and eventually a canopy layer of standard fruit trees."

5. "Grow fruit on your fences. Training fruit trees to grow in espaliered form takes advantage of existing fence lines and other underutilized spaces."

6. "Use old stumps to attract native bees and help pollinate your Woodland Garden. A series of 3/8” holes, ½” apart and five inches deep, make for ideal bee habitat. Spray the holes with a 1:1 mixture of sugar and water to attract the bees."

7. "Tap your trees. Think you can’t make syrup because you don’t have sugar maple trees? Think again. Syrup can be made from a variety of species, including black walnut, yellow birch and sycamore."  

8. "Tired of leaning over to garden? Consider building a hugelkultur (hill culture) garden out of forest debris (stumps, logs, leaves and wood chips, topped with soil). Not only will harvesting be easier since the plants are grown on an elevated mound, but the dense layer of biomass in the mound will also retain water better than traditional raised beds, making it this an idea method for arid regions."
Whether you're an experienced homesteader or a novice, The Woodland Homestead is an informative, useful guide to living on the land - and in harmony with it.

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