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Our Secret Garden: Nature Based Plants a Wildscaped Food Forest

Our Secret Garden: Nature Based Plants a Wildscaped Food Forest

What would you do with an acre of land? Fred Wolf of Nature Based took one look at our recently acquired overgrown meadow and said, "How about turning it into a low-to-no-maintenance wildscaped food forest?"

There’s Farmer Fred, off in the distance, exploring the pond. He came back with a big smile and said, much to our kids’ delight, “Guess what, guys—there are burrs in my leg hair!”

There’s Farmer Fred, off in the distance, exploring the pond. He came back with a big smile and said, much to our kids’ delight, “Guess what, guys—there are burrs in my leg hair!”

Hmmm. We can always count on Fred to come up with an idea that hadn't crossed our (or anyone else's) mind. Known to our children as "Farmer Fred," he teaches their garden class in a wide-brimmed hat, often brushing an errant seed or leaf from his bushy beard. He brought urban farming to our local Brooklyn public school, where he teaches little city kids how to grow basil out of repurposed beer kegs, gives them a chance to get (really) dirty, and teaches them to treat worms and insects as friends. He spent his own childhood hiking and camping in the woods, so for Brooklyn children whose outdoor life moves between subways, sidewalks, and paved playgrounds, he's something like a shaman.

Wild yellow snapdragon (a.k.a yellow toadflax or butter-and-eggs) already grows on our meadow.

Wild yellow snapdragon (a.k.a yellow toadflax or butter-and-eggs) already grows on our meadow.

Anyway, he was our go-to guy when we recently bought the small parcel of land adjacent to my family’s property. It's basically an overgrown field with a murky little pond on it. Our doublewide bunk house fills the needs of our extended family, so we're not looking to build anytime soon. The land would be annoying to mow and even more difficult to maintain as a garden, and yet, we’d love to do something with it. For outside-the-box inspiration, we turned to Fred.

This purplish-blue petaled wildflower, which appears to be chicory (according to the trusty  Wildflowers of the Catskills Guide ), is also growing on the land already.

This purplish-blue petaled wildflower, which appears to be chicory (according to the trusty Wildflowers of the Catskills Guide), is also growing on the land already.

"Oh golly, I envision a permaculture set-it-and-forget-it food forest oasis—where hardy fruit trees and bushes are growing simultaneously with a beneficial meadow," Fred wrote to me in an email, after seeing the land. "Imagine if an old lady curated this wonderful backyard fruit farm and then passed away and no one visited until her grandkid inherited the property 20 years later.  You'd still have an amazing abundance of perennial food-producing plants growing in unison with a natural area."

Pine needles mingle with winterberries on more land we’ve left to go wild.

Pine needles mingle with winterberries on more land we’ve left to go wild.

Okay, sure, I'm sold! One of my favorite books as a kid was The Secret Garden, so this idea really spoke to me, but my husband, Pete, expressed some concern that the "food forest" would attract deer, bears, and every other critter from miles around. Fred said we could set up a "frugal deer fence," work out some walking trails, and focus on as many native plants as possible.

"We want those plants that will survive drought, disease, pests, and produce amazing fruit and nuts for years," Fred explained. "I want Archer and Ramona to open a wildcraft cider business in 30 years and think about that crazy Farmer Fred who convinced Mom and Dad to plant 100 trees and shrubs many years ago."

Many pounds of seeds were sprinkled on our snow-coated land in November. Photo by Fred Wolf of  Nature Based .

Many pounds of seeds were sprinkled on our snow-coated land in November. Photo by Fred Wolf of Nature Based.

So far, Fred has started with a seed planting and the list of species reads like a fairy tale: partridge peas, silky dogwood, rocket larkspur, blazing star, rattensnake master, wild bergamot, mistflower, mountain mint, and more. He says they need to be overwintered, so it's totally fine that they've been sprinkled on the snow. I'm a careful gardener, but I want to believe in all this wild nature magic.

Time will tell. Will they grow?

For more information on Nature Based and all the incredible work they do with NYC schools and with rooftop gardens, please visit the Nature Based site and follow them on Instagram.

The World's Largest Kaleidoscope Lives in the Catskills

The World's Largest Kaleidoscope Lives in the Catskills