The incredible, edible forest at Native Earth Teaching Farm

Whistling while they work? Volunteers Anja May, left, farm owner Rebecca Gilbert, Ron Silverman, and Sumner Silverman at Native Earth Teaching Farm on September 30. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The organic foundation of what will eventually be an edible forest of trees, shrubs and other plants was laid down on Friday, Sept. 30, at Native Earth Teaching Farm (NETF) on Middle Road in Chilmark. The perennial plot, that will ultimately yield fruit, nuts, and a variety of other edibles, was launched with humble beginnings.

A small group of volunteers showed up on a summerlike afternoon to engage in the first steps towards raising a variety of wild mushrooms. The fungus planting is the preliminary stage in preparing the area for the edible woodland garden. The actual mushrooms, which are the fruit of a fungus plant that grows primarily beneath the ground, will not necessarily be among the bounty reaped from the edible forest. Said Rebecca Gilbert, owner of the educational and working farm who oversaw the project, “The mushrooms will be a bonus. That is not our main objective.”

The purpose of the fungal foundation is, instead, to provide the groundwork for the trees and bushes that will eventually be planted. In a telephone interview prior to the planting, Ms. Gilbert explained the role that fungi play in an ecosystem. The web part [the underground threadlike strands of the plant] called mycelium connect plants of different species and helps spread water and nutrients. It’s almost an information network for other plants.” She notes that mushrooms also, “Break down the dead stuff in the soil and make it available to plants. They are a decomposter.”

Ms. Gilbert used an interesting comparison while addressing the group of volunteers. “The mycelium moving through the soil has the same pattern as internet connections. It is similarly sharing information. Like the internet, if one connection is broken, it can still function.”

The project began with the preparation of the mushroom beds using a method called sheet mulching, a no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring in forests.

Three patches in a woods-bordering area on the edge of the farm were prepared. First, compost was laid, then a layer of cardboard was placed over the compost to provide an eco-friendly weed barrier and wood chips made up the top layer. More beds are planned, and the edible forest is expected to eventually extend along the border of the woods and possibly into a small clearing just inside the existing forest.

Ms. Gilbert then unpacked the mushroom spawn — bits of the weblike mycelium mixed with sawdust that came from a company called Fungi Perfecti in Washington state. The three varieties to be planted each prefer a different environment, so the volunteers mixed one in with the remainder of the woodchips and one in with the compost pile, while a third was earmarked for the small flower and herb garden on another part of the farm property, where it was later mixed into hay covering the bed.

In about two weeks, when the mycelium has established itself in its starter environment, the inoculated material will be transferred to the prepared beds.

The three varieties (elm oyster, king stropharia or garden giant, and shaggy mane) were chosen both for their gastronomic variety and for their differing benefits to the soil. “We’re trying to increase the number of edible species in this zone,” Ms. Gilbert said. “These all have specific soil-conditioning properties that are helpful to gardens and what we’re going to plant.

“Edible forest is a permaculture term,” Ms. Gilbert said during the phone interview. “We’re trying to create a long-term garden so that it has the structure of a forest, with trees, bushes, understory [short plants]. Our idea would be that in the future it would not look any different that it does now, but a higher proportion of the plants would be food bearing. We’ll replace trees with nut trees, and plant strawberries, medicinal herbs, berry bushes. It’s not a wild ecosystem, but it’s more like it in structure.”

Ms. Gilbert explained the advantages of an edible forest: “There are a lot of environmental benefits. You’re not clearing the land completely as you would with a farm field so you have a lot of carbon in there. Also it’s, hopefully, a little more resilient in terms of weather and climate compared to annual crops.”

The forest’s roots

Ms. Gilbert developed the plans for the edible forest this past summer with the help of Kevin Brennan, a high school senior from Westwood, N.J. Mr. Brennan has summered on the Vineyard with his family for more than 10 years. He contacted Ms. Gilbert via email in the spring, looking for a summer job. They discovered a common interest in permaculture and started planning the forest.

“All summer we brainstormed ideas,” Mr. Brennan said. “We found this spot and made a design.”

Mr. Brennan made a trip to the Island for the initial planting last Friday along with his friend Charlie Zelhof of Hackensack, N.J., who Mr. Brennan credits with helping to further his independent permaculture studies. Mr. Zelhof has a perennial garden at his home and also started one at the high school that he graduated from this past year.

A number of those participating in the project have already had some experience in home gardens. Sumner Silverman of Tisbury says that he grows 10 to 20 percent of the food that he eats. Among his crops are perennials including figs, gooseberries, and pears and he has already started experimenting with mushrooms, having inoculated a tree stump with edible fungus.

“The entire Island has become more aware of food and how we can increase our self sufficiency,” Mr. Silverman said. “We are maturing as a culinary society.”

Another volunteer, Anja May of Aquinnah, grows vegetables, raises chickens, and is an avid forager. She was pleased to hear about the Native Earth project since, as she says, “I’ve been wanting to learn about edible woodland gardens. It’s the art of interconnectedness with people and their surroundings.”

The farm will be hosting further volunteer days for others interested who didn’t make the first event. Says Ms. Gilbert, “We’re hoping to be actively planting this experimental forest garden for the next three years. We’ll give a series of planting days in the spring and fall and build up the layers of the forest. It will take a while for trees to become mature and bear, but once they do they should continue to bear with less labor.”

Mr. Brennan predicts that the fruit trees will take three years to start producing, and the nuts from 4 to 7 years.

“We are hoping to use this project to inspire others to do similar projects,” Ms. Gilbert continues. “We’re keeping track of hours and expenses, including volunteer time.”

Volunteers stand to gain more than just hands-on experience. “The people who end up putting the most into it will get first dibs on it further down the line.”

The next planting day volunteer opportunity is Friday, Nov. 25, from 2 to 4 pm. Volunteers will plant chestnut and hickory nut trees, and learn more about the edible forest. For more information, visit or call 508-645-3304.