Sometimes, finding the right plants for your needs can be a little frustrating. What types of trees should be in your canopy layer? What N-fixing plant should you use? What types of shrubs will be suitable for your site?
Now the usual answer is, of course, “it depends”. To answer the question, you’ll need to be more specific and you’ll want to have a basic understanding of your site’s climate, microclimate and soil condition. However, even this is only one part of the puzzle, another is actually figuring the most suitable plants with which to work.
Rather than Googling, searching the various forums and then getting lost in the endless research, I recommend that you check out the Plants for the Future Database (PFAF), a great online resource which, to my mind, doesn’t receive anywhere near the attention it deserves.
PFAF is a fantastic free online plant database with information on over 7000 edible or otherwise useful plants, including their origins, place in succession, edibility and medicinal uses. This comprehensive directory is simply ideal for finding potential plants to grow and a fantastic resource for any plant geeks out there.
Moreover, the number of ways in which you can search for information is almost overwhelming, including by Latin or common name, and by plant family, habitat or use. Each plant listing includes plenty of useful information about the plant and where to source it.
To demonstrate how amazing it is, consider the plant properties you’ll need and your site conditions and do a search.
Let’s take a look at one example. Say you need a nitrogen-fixing shrub, you know that you’re in a zone 7 according to the USDA Hardiness Zone Map and that your soils are alkaline. In addition, your climate is somewhat prone to droughts, meaning your plants would need to be drought-tolerant.
So how you would go about searching this kind of shrub? Let’s take a step-by-step look at the process:
Step 1. Open the PFAF homepage
To begin with, open this link and you’ll be presented with the Database search page.
Now, I know that the sheer amount of information and choices available can look a little intimidating at the outset, but we’ll just focus on the basics for now. It can be quite difficult and time-consuming to search based on all the properties that are important for a food forest guild, and, at this stage, it will anyway be unlikely you are aware of all of them.
Step 2: Tick all the boxes you need
So, in our example, we have a general idea of what we need – our criteria is a shrub, hardiness zone 7, nitrogen fixation, with tolerance to droughts and alkaline soils, so we’ll perform a search for these types of plant and tick all the necessary boxes. Again, do yourself a favor and don’t worry about all the other properties for the moment.
Step 3. Do a search and get your results
Once you perform a search, you’ll be shown a page based on your query, with a numbered list of plants that might be suitable for your given conditions.
As you can see from the image above, we have many interesting plants from which to choose, such as the Siberian peashrub (which Geoff Lawton likes to use), Russian olive (favored by Martin Crawford), goumi, silverberry (Michael Judd’s favorite), autumn olive, and sea buckthorn (Ben Falk’s plant of choice).
Step 4: Choose the most appropriate plants and create your list
Finally, click on the name of each plant and find out more about its characteristics. This is well worth doing, because you’ll want to read up a bit on each plant and how it might fit into your guild.
Now, copy the information you find into an empty spreadsheet and you’ll have your list of N-fixing shrubs that will potentially grow well in your climate and can tolerate occasional droughts.
Having done this, you simply rinse and repeat for any other plant functions you can think of that you’ll need in your food forest guild, and you’ll end up with a master list of plants.
This can, of course, be a somewhat laborious process and will be time-consuming for anyone who is new to creating guilds and perhaps doesn’t even understand which functions plants should fulfill or why.
For this reason, I built Creating Food Forest Guilds online course, which shows you a quicker and easier way to select the plants that are right for you.
In this course, I’ve done all the heavy lifting for you and created a comprehensive list of plants based on their form and function, from which you can simply choose without having to search the database.
So stay tuned for further information soon.