Ground Covers for Midwest Food Forests

Using Ground Covers to Repair Nitrogen, Pollinate, and Create Beauty

Things to Consider

  1. Succession of plants and species –  When you first plant your food forest, you’ll likely have much more sun available because the trees are thinner and there is less canopy creating shade.  This gives you the opportunity to plant more sun loving, nitrogen fixing plants, which will help get your food forest off to a great start. For more articles about starting a Midwest Food Forest, click here.
  2. Annual vs perennial benefits – Obviously having a plant come back year-after-year is less work on our end, but at the same time, we shouldn’t overlook the benefit of annual crops to help meet specific functions.  Sometimes those functions need to serve a short-term purpose, which is where annuals play a really important roll.  For example, does the soil need tilling or aeration?  Consider annual root crops like turnips, dandelion, or daikon radishes.  Does the soil need biomass?  Consider buckwheat or something in the vetch family.  Does the area need fast pollination?  Consider creeping thyme or a crimson clover.
  3. How the area will fill out over time – Some species may work really well for a few years, but as the over story canopy grows, production increases, or as new plants are introduced small adjustments are often needed to the original species.  As the canopy of top story trees thickens, the succession of species around it will need to evolve with it.
  4. Where ground covers are located within the forest – Some ground covers can get tall and lush, but also serve as a chop and drop mulch.  Comfrey (the bocking 14 variety) is great for this, because it creates substantial biomass, but will still still stay localized.  It works great at the base of young fruit trees and provides needed pollination.  There is some debate as to what it provides for the soil, but at the very least it is proven to increases minerals in the top soil region and provide shade for the tree roots that it’s planted by.  At the same time, other ground covers need more sun, so will do better away from the base of the trees.  For example, planting clover varieties in the alleys between orchard rows will help keep grass at bay, prevent the need for frequent mowing, and provide pollination sources. For more on selecting a location in your food forest or permaculture orchard, click here.

Depending on your region, there are a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to ground covers for a food forest or permaculture orchard.  Before spreading seeds, it’s important to research and study your site thoroughly, because some ground covers can be harder to get rid of once established.  It’s also important to pay attention to the sun and moisture requirements these species need to really help your ground cover be a show stopper. Lastly, be sure to research the ground cover you have selected so you prepare the soil correctly before seeing. Doing research beforehand will save time and money in the long run.

However, to get you started, here are a few suggestions for those of you who live in the Midwestern USA.

Ground Cover Comparisons

Species Annual vs
Perennial
Height &
Description
Benefits Drawbacks
Dutch White Clover

Hardy perennial 3-6”, but can be easily mowed. Nitrogen fixer, soil builder, dense foliage to cover soil.  Great for sunny areas in food forest and for alleys between rows.  Can also be used as a forage for animals and poultry.  Can spread easily to other areas if allowed to flower and go to seed.  Should not be planted next to other plants it’s name height, because it can choke them out.
Ladino Clover Perennial (4-5 year max) 4-8” Nitrogen fixer, soil builder, dense foliage to cover soil.  Great for sunny areas in food forest and for alleys between rows.  Can be used as a forage for animals and poultry.  Does better rebounding after animal pasturing and often more economic. Spreads easily.  Attracts deer more than other clover varieties.  
Red Clover 1-2 year perennial 6-8” Highest nitrogen fixing among the clovers, great for bees and honey flavor, excellent for adapting to a wide variety of soil types.  Easily tilled under.   Short lived, does not do well in shady areas.
Crimson Clover Annual 5-8” Stunning flower display, similar nitrogen fixing to other clovers.  Excellent source of nectar for bees and butterflies.  Great for areas that need a temporary ground cover. Short lived, attracts a full spectrum of insects (some good and some bad), including moths in southern regions. 
Hairy Vetch Tender perennial Up to 3’ Very high nitrogen fixing ability and an excellent pollinator.  Great for larger areas that do not have bushes or understory, fields, etc.  

Best used in larger fields, livestock areas, and places that are not farmed multiple times per year. Great for soil stabilizing along water areas.
Hard to get rid of, because the vines can grow to 12’ long and get wrapped around smaller farm equipment.  It’s best to till them under in April, before they are too invasive, and will likely need additional turning to terminate them (in a commercial or large scale setting).
Cow pea Annual 2’ tall areas, but vines can be 12’ long. Excellent at fixing nitrogen, but also gives an edible crop for dried beans.  Easy to harvest, dry, and remove at the end of season. They are a great no-till cover crop that can be “mowed over” at the end of the season. Not a great pollinator.  Can climb up nearby trees and bushes if allowed.  However, this is easy managed and pruned back.
Buckwheet Annual (self sowing) 30-50” Pollinator, usable seed for ancient grain, excellent bio mass producer.  Great at choking out unwanted species. Some animals will use it for forage. Thick, harder to harvest the seed without equipment.   Will resow itself if you let it go to seed before chopping and dropping.
Tokinashi Turnip Annual 12” Greens are edible when cooked and roots are a pleasant food source (raw or cooked).  Greens are excellent for animal and poultry forage.  Excellent understory crop that can tolerate dappled shade.   Needs sunlight and space to grow if you are harvesting the roots.  If you are harvesting greens, they are very easy to grow, even in lightly shaded areas.  
Comfrey (Bocking 14) Perennial (4-5 year max) 12-18”  Very resilliant, pollinator, medicinal usage for humans (bone and muscle healing), roots for tea and tonic.  Biomass and mineral accumulation, chop and drop mulch, excellent forage for animals. Hard to get rid of once established.  Do not use anything other than bocking 14 or it will spread at a near uncontrolable rate.  
Creeping Thyme Perennial (4-5 year max) 3” Herbal use, excellent pollinator, hardy once established, and great for areas that need lower growth.  Needs sun to flourish.  Can be walked on and moderate tolerate foot traffic. Needs sunlight to do well and get established.  It can be harder to get established in mass plantings, but once it has take root, it never needs to be mowed and covers the ground well.
Sweet Woodruff Perennial 3-5” Flowers can be used as a tea or added to white wine, pollinator, shade loving. Spreads once established.
Wild Ginger Perennial 4-5” Shade loving, wild edible, small flowers under leaves. Does well for smaller areas, but not ideal for large scale.  
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March Gardening To-Do List

Here’s a list of what you should do in your garden in March, if you live in the Midwest (specifically in the Kansas City area). Granted, we get it, weather isn’t exactly a science… well it is… it’s just not an exact science. So, that being said, here’s the list of chores we are doing in the month of March in our Kansas City food forests and permaculture gardens.

Without further delay, ladies and gentlemen, here is your completely arbitrary March Gardening To-Do List!

crocus bulbs in bloom
Crocus in the spring garden

In the Garden

  • Take soil tests and send to your local extension office. Take samples from each area of your yard and make sure to get the detailed report. The most important part for me is not the NPK… it’s the amount of organic matter! Generally speaking if you have a higher percentage of organic material in your soil, the rest of the soil health will follow suit.
  • Make minor amendments before the spring rains (add bone meal, blood meal, etc.).
  • Spread chicken poop and hay from the nesting boxes on the compost pile and get it working before it’s warm.
  • Start planting some frost friendly veggies (radish, Swiss chard, cabbage, broccoli, some lettuces, etc.)  We recommend direct sowing a little every week, so that way your harvest is staggered.  It also helps to insure a diversified crop and give extra insurance that if one round dies… another one will do just fine!

In the Greenhouse

  • Plant seed trays: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, broccoli, cabbage, etc. Start perennial seeds for food forest planting: goji berries, gooseberries, trees from seed, etc.
  • Add black 5-gallon buckets of water (with lids) for radiant heat source, if you do not have a heated greenhouse.
  • TIP: Always plants more than what you think you’ll need. The worst case scenario is that you have some to share with neighbors, friends, or gorilla plant in a local park.

In the Food Forest

This hori hori tool, from Barebones Living is one of my new favorite gardening tools.
  • Break up any large sticks and twigs. They will decompose much faster if they are in direct contact with the soil.
  • Remove leaf cover from the soil and use as a mulch around the base of trees / bushes (cover the sticks). You can chop it up a bit with the mower if the leaves are still crispy.
  • Plant alley crops between rows and plantings. In our area I often use a blend of red clover, white dutch, yellow closer, and crimson clover. I plant this between the rows.
  • Plant living mulches around the base of the trees (turnips, bocking 14 comfrey root, berries, herb roots, etc.).
  • Feed native wild birds before nesting season starts in order to encourage them to live in your area. They are fantastic bug control and leave behind little bits of birdie poo.
  • Hang wild bird houses and bat houses before nesting season begins.
  • Set out orange halves and grape jelly to attract early migrating orioles.
  • Last chance to prune apple trees (before buds open)!
  • Spray your spring foliar spray on every perennial in the food forest! Get our recipe here.
  • Add fresh mulch to trees and shrubs (up to 5″ thick). Remember to always keep the mulch away from the trunks of the trees.

In the Shed

  • Sharpen mower blades and all cutting tools.
  • Oil any metal that rusted over the winter. Remove tarnish with steel wool. Ax heads should be treated with bees wax.
  • Check for broken pots from winter cold.
  • Set a few extra mouse traps in the shed, greenhouse, and garage.
  • Start up the mower, weed whipper, and other tools for the first time. If you have difficulty starting them, you can always use a bit of Sea Foam to get things moving. Use two ounces per gallon of gas. It will work wonders!

In the Chicken Coop

  • Remove winter bedding, if you used the deep bedding method.
  • Deep clean…deep clean…deep clean!
  • Lower fat content (corn) and increase protein sources. If you are doing a mealworm farm, it’s a great time to give the girls an extra boost!
  • Feed extra omega-3’s. Get some feeder fish (minnows) from a local pet store and put them in a shallow pan. Watch your chooks go nuts for them!
  • Use honey, garlic, and ACV in their water once per week to give them an extra immune boost before the springtime. I also add a product for livestock by SCD Probiotics based out of KCMO.

Around the House

  • Clean out the gutters from any winter debris.
  • Remove winter window treatments and wash windows (inside and out).
  • Power-wash the sides of the house, cement, and garage doors.
  • Oil doors (interior and exterior).
  • Prune any trees around the yard before leaf buds begin to open.
  • Get hoses ready to bring outside.

In the Perennial Flower Beds

  • Finish cutting back any dead growth from last year.
  • Trim back winter ferns and greens (holly, lenten roses, etc.)
  • Remove leaves or debris from the top of bulb areas, leaving only compost or wood chips. The debris should be composted and added back to the beds later.
  • Start planning mulch and compost deliveries now. Look for sales or companies to bring it to you in bulk.
  • You can also plant cold season annual flowers at this time as well. Snap dragons, violas, pansies, and calendulas do great this time of year.
  • TIP: Never use mulch that has been colored or dyed (red or black). Let’s just use our heads on why that’s a bad idea.
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How to Select a Location for a Food Forest

food forest planning
food forest planning
Food forest planning

Knowing how to select the location for a food forest or perennial garden is possibly just as important as knowing what to plant. Before you start digging, take time to examine your site. Study. Watch. Learn from the environment around you. Take notes on some of the topics below to help you decide which location will be most suitable for your new food forest or perennial garden.

  1. Sun and soil requirements:  What pH will be needed for those plants?  How much organic matter exists on site already?  Does the site meet the sun requirements for the species selected?
  2. Identify precursor species:  Knowing what plants are already thriving will tell you about the site, soil, and environment.  For example, if there are a lot of dandelions or tap root plants, the soil is trying to rebuild minerals and nutrients.  If there are signs of plants with shallow, hair-hair-like roots, the soil may be trying to stabilize itself from erosion or drying out.  Do you see acid or alkaline loving plants growing native?  
  3. Space to grow and fill out:  Do the plants have room to thrive and have airflow at their mature size?  Do you have room to move among the plants or rows?  Do you need extra or protected space to make allowance for animals or livestock?
  4. Ease of watering:  Is there water access?  The first 30 days are often the most important as the plants establish, so you will want to have easy water access points.
  5. Ease of maintenance:  Is the area something that you frequently visit or drive by?  Is this area one that can be easily maintained or get tools and equipment to as needed?  Will you need truck or tractor access?
  6. What is the long-term use for this area?  Consider mapping out 3-5-10+ years.  Is your current use of the space preparing the site adequately for those goals?
  7. Ease of Harvesting:  Will you or others be able to quickly and successfully harvest?  Are there rows or adequate spacing between key areas?  Are 90% of the crops within arms reach?  Will you see and be able to easily use the crops you have planted when the harvest time arrives?


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