As the temperature remains frigid and well below freezing here in Minneapolis, I’ve been doing lots and lots of gardening in my head. I’ve also been starting in on lots of research. Oh how I love research! I’ve been reading about forest gardening, a method of food production that is ecologically sustainable, creates food for humans and wildlife as well as animal habitat, and is low maintenance and provides all nutritional inputs for sustaining the garden without having to rely on outside inputs like fertilizer. It takes companion planting — marigolds, tomatoes and basil growing together for instance –to a whole new level. It is an attempt to mimic a natural ecological system in the garden. In permaculture, this is called a guild.

When you build a guild you design an area of the garden in which all the plants work together for food production, soil building and attracting beneficial insects. So, for instance, one of the most well tested guilds is the apple tree guild. In the center is the apple tree and planted around it are other plants that support the tree and each other. These plants include daffodils, comfrey, yarrow, nasturtium, dill, fennel, chicory, clover, Siberian pea shrub, currants, and alliums. There is lots of mixing and matching that can be done according to climate and the gardener’s preferences but you get the picture.

Foresting gardening is guild building on a garden-sized scale. Granted, my garden is small so I’m not actually going to have a forest, but I can still apply the principles. To that end I have begun doing research into native plant associations in Minnesota — what sort of plants are adapted to my environment and what plants grow together. I can plant all sorts of prairie plants that I think are pretty but they might not be the best things to grow together because in the wild they would never be found near each other. Make sense?

I have a beautiful silver maple tree in my front yard that we call Melody because when the wind blows, she sings. Silver maples are native to Minnesota and I have been learning a little about them and what sort of plants are typically found growing with them. In the process of this, I have learned that Melody is a close relation to sugar maples and, were I ever to feel especially ambitious, I could tap my tree in the spring and make my own maple syrup. How cool is that?

I’m only just beginning my research but some of the plants I have learned grow in association with silver maples are gooseberries, currants, joe pye weed, milkweed, cinnamon fern, wild ginger, and bottlebrush grass. We haven’t done much in the garden area surrounding Melody except not rake the grass beneath her for the last two years (soil building!). Come spring I plan to begin creating a guild for Melody, a Melody garden. I had planned on planting a gooseberry and a couple of currants in the backyard garden next year but I will be planting them in the Melody garden instead. I have more research to do before I sort out all the plants that will be going in the Melody garden which means lots of reading ahead!

I went a little wild requesting books from the library. No surprise there. Here are the books I got to help me do my research:

In addition, I have also borrowed The urban homestead : your guide to self-sufficient living in the heart of the city by Kelly Coyne and One straw revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka.

These will keep me busy for awhile!

If you have a gardener on your Christmas list and you are in need of a book suggestion for them, might I recommend Gaia’s garden: a guide to home-scale permaculture by Toby Hemenway? It is a really fantastic book, has instructions on how to make an herb spiral and is a generally good, all around introduction to the concepts of permaculture and sustainable gardening practices on an urban and suburban scale.

If you are looking for something a bit more in the traditional way of gardening books, then you might want to check out the gardening recommendations from the Sunday New York Times from a week or so ago. There are a few books about famous gardens and a few eye-poppers of gardens on a landscape scale. That last list also includes a book about gardening on a terrace in Brooklyn where the gardener manages to grow a lot more than you can imagine is possible. I actually borrowed the book, 66 Square Feet from the library a few months ago but found it too chatty and recipe-filled for my preferences. It’s a nice looking book though and no doubt can provide much inspiration for anyone with a sunny balcony and a yearning to garden.