Sustainable native back-yard gardening: edibles

How’s that for a subject line to push all the buttons?I attended a seminar by Lorraine Johnson at the Brick Works, back in July, on just that subject. Lots of food for thought, and lots of books to consider getting, including:

  • Identifying and harvesting edible and medicinal plants  – Steve Brill
  • City Farmer – Lorraine Johnson
  • Peterson Field guide to edible wild plants

It was a fact-filled morning, discussed fruit, veggies, and mushrooms, and included some things I hadn’t even considered. We’re at the northern edge of the Paw-paw’s range (Carolingian forest), and it seems they were never commercially grown because there wasn’t much of a way to save them — they don’t transport well, they don’t stay fresh long — so they never caught on big with the population. I’d only heard of them in a southern play that got used a lot in scene study classes (can’t even remember what it was called! about 3 sisters).

She described it as very tropical looking… like a small mango, and with an interesting taste, like banana and pineapple and custard all together. To me, it sounds like it should be ice cream at the very least, and probably would make a good cream pie flavour.

These days, we can refrigerate or freeze fruit, which wasn’t available back when.

So it was interesting to hear Lorraine talk about them, and what’s needed to actually get harvestable fruit in the fall.

The tree, which under the most optimal conditions, can grow up to 30 feet tall, is more likely to max out at about 10-15 in our climate, so a medium-height shrub. And they grow slowly. It needs filtered light in its early years, and then full sun when it is established. It doesn’t like wind; it does like high humidity (sounds like Toronto summers!)

The one problem? Lorraine said 3 trees are needed for cross-pollination.

Hey, who says they all have to be in one yard? Given the size of downtown backyards — about 17 feet across, maybe 20-30 feet deep, if three neighbours got together and each planted one, there’d be plenty of paw-paws to go around. Sounds like fertilization is mostly through insects (but not bees). So they can’t be too far apart. Most insects aren’t known for long-term memory.

It’s hard to find them in garden centers now, because there isn’t demand. And there isn’t demand, because people don’t know about them. So it’s kind of a vicious circle. But just as the whole 100-mile diet thing really got started with two writers reporting for the Tyee, maybe Lorraine can start things up here… she told a bunch of us, and if we each tell a bunch of people, and can collectively get people to plant them, then we’d bring back a tree that’s almost been completely extirpated from our ecosystem. And who knows what else that might help?  Definitely the zebra-swallowtail butterfly!

More info about Paw-paws here.

I think it sounds like an interesting project… some garden centres may carry them: Lorraine mentioned Grimo, in Niagara.

What do you think?

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