With the rainy days sweeping through our forecasts with the warmer temperatures, the soil is moistening and loosening up for the new planting season.
Permaculture gardening is about more than just letting nature do most of the work for us, it is also about working with nature for the Earth’s well-being. Permaculture is about giving back to the Earth, and replenishing resources as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t receive rewards for our hard work too, right?
Going into this new gardening season, whether you are starting fresh or planning to reorganize your zones, think about include some of these twelve trees and shrubs that will give more than you might expect.
Elderberries and elderberry syrup have skyrocketed in popularity and accessibility in the past few years, making this one of many bountiful additions to your garden. The elderberry, or “sambucus”, species comes in a variety of types and forms, as there are both elderberry trees and elderberry shrubs.
Elderberries are most often depicted as the dark-blue/indigo orbs we see printed on product labels in stores, but elderberries can also be a striking red color. These berries have been around for centuries, as early as 400 A.D. during Hippocrates time, and were referred to as nature’s medicine chest.
Elderberry plants are native to the entire North America continent and can thrive in a wide range of climates, growing in an approximate five to ten feet in height.
The elderberry plant is one of the easiest to plant and grow, and worth the wait to raise on your own to save a nice chunk of change. You can start the propagation either from seed or from cuttings, the easier of the two options being fresh cuttings.
Aside from the abundant benefits to our wellbeing, the leaves and flowers are great for pollinators, so it is recommended that you plant more than one shrub or tree to increase the pollination benefits.
Elderberries are extremely high in Vitamin C, and are most often boiled down into a syrup for aid the immune system all year long. Be observant when you plan to harvest these berries, as unripe berries contain high doses of precursors to cyanide.
Elderberries are also high in tannins, potassium, phenols, and flavonoids, which make any jellies, pies, or syrups made with elderberries a nutritious treat.
But be ready to prepare your goods as soon as you harvest the berries, as they ferment quickly once picked (unless you decide to make wine, which is a popular use of elderberries in Europe).
Witch Hazel Tree
Witch hazel, also known as Hamamelis, is a shrub native to North America that has a tremendous reputation for its medicinal properties. This large shrub can grow up to between 10 and 25 feet (3 to 7.5 meters)high and bloom with fragrant flowers during the months of October to December.
The flowers give off a citrus scent and a beautiful orange fall color, with the shrub’s bark being the primary source of the cosmetic and medicinal benefits. This plant grows its best in full sun, rich soil, and regular watering (mulch is helpful in retaining moisture!).
What’s interesting about witch hazel, besides its medicinal properties, is the history and folklore behind the plant. Branches of witch hazel were traditionally used as “divining rods” that would aid in the finding of water sources beneath the surface.
The name often contributes to the magical thinking behind the plant, but name actually relates to another plant. The term “witch” stems from the olde English term “wych”, which means “bendable”, and the name carried over because the witch hazel tree looks similar to the European Wych Elm.
I have relied on the bottle of witch hazel astringent in my medicine cabinet whenever I get a bad scrape or cut (often from gardening or cooking), so having a primary fresh source is a great aid for first aid.
White Willow Tree
This variety of willow is tall, approximating a height around 80 feet, and graceful, with silvery green underneath the leaves.
While this tree is not native to the country, cultivation of this majestic white willow began in the United States around the 1700s, and the popularity surrounding this variety stems from the longevity of the leaves, as it blooms early in the spring and stays until the very end of fall.
The width of this tree can reach up to 70 feet in diameter, and is fast-growing with low hanging branches. White willow thrives best in moist soil, with a pH range of 5.5 and 8.0, but can also grow in clay-like soils and flood-prone areas.
Willow trees are great providers of a variety of resources, including building materials, medicine, energy, and environmental uses. The wood from the white willow tree is flexible, making it a wonderful choice for furniture and wooden additions, such as tool handles.
Here is a fun fact about this tree, too: white willow timber was used during ancient times to make bows and arrows. While the wide crown of the tree offers tremendous shade, the branches are also great for making wicker baskets.
While white willow is a short-lived tree, it is easy to propagate from clippings, which makes this tree a great option as an energy resource, including biofuels and biodegradable plastics. In the environment, willow is able to clear toxins from contaminated sites, filter wastewater contaminants, reconstruct wetlands, and be used as feed for livestock.
Willow trees are actually a source of an active ingredient in aspirin called salacin and is one of the benefits to this plant.
Ginkgo is a tree native to China that grows in zones 4 to 9, full sun or partial shade, and sandy, well-drained soil. This tree has fun fan-shaped leaves, which inspired the tree to be referred to as “maidenhair”, which relates to the maidenhair fern.
At full maturity, ginkgo can reach a height of up to 80 feet with a width of up to 40 feet. It’s important to keep in mind that this tree struggles in hot, dry climates.
But don’t be fooled, this is an ancient tree dating back 270 million years of age, and with a hardiness that withstood the blast in Hiroshima, Japan. Once the tree matures, the ginkgo tree can reside there in good health for up to 3,000 years.
Ginkgo has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 1,000 years, and migrated into Western cultures in recent centuries. Thus, there are a wide variety of ailments that ginkgo has been used to aid in the treatment of, but it’s effectiveness in medicinal purposes come down to its anti-inflammatory properties and high antioxidant count.
A fresh source is the best source, but do not eat the seeds or unprocessed ginkgo leaves since both are toxic. What makes this an attractive addition to the homestead is the ginkgo tree’s ability to ward off pests and insects, while being highly resistance to droughts, disease, and pollution.
White Oak Tree
White oak is an important tree in North America for its strong timber, and is one of the best sources of food for wildlife, especially birds and deer. The white oak tree grows to be around 50 to 80 feet, with a width span of around 50 to 80 feet at full maturity.
This tree grows best in full sun and partial shade, with only needing around four hours of total sun exposure a day. When planting a white oak, make sure to provide moist, well-drained soil that can accommodate the tree’s strong roots. The white oak prefers slightly acidic soil, whereas it is intolerant to alkaline soil.
While there are other varieties of oak that produce acorns, white oak acorns are seemingly more enjoyed by wildlife than red oak acorns, especially for our native squirrel populations.
Other animals that seek out the fruit from the white oak include wild turkeys, ducks, quail, woodpeckers, pigeons, chipmunks, raccoons, and bears. Any acorns that are left forgotten on the ground are then carried off by the wind to propagate new white oak trees.
Wildlife aren’t the only ones who can enjoy the white oak acorns, but before any human can ingest them, the acorns should be boiled rigorously due to the tannic acid content. The acorns can even be dried and ground into flour!
Hawthorn is thorny tree that belongs to the rose family, with over 280 varieties across the globe. In the spring, this tree blooms with either white or pink flowers that will later turn into the well-known red berries in the fall.
Most of the varieties of the hawthorn tree grow to be around 15 to 30 feet tall (that’s around 6 meters). If you are a bird-lover and enjoy listening to the various tunes of songbirds, this shrub is a big attractor for songbirds in the fall and winter because they love the ripe berries.
The parts used for their edibility include the young leaves, berries, and flowers. The harvest time for flowers and leaves takes place in April and May, while berry-harvesting time takes place in late September to October.
To tell when the berries are ripened, check the texture, which should feel similarly to the skin of an avocado, and check for a five-pointed star shape at the bottom of each berry. The taste of ripe hawthorn berries should have an apple-like taste.
When harvesting any portions of this plant, be careful of the thorns that decorate the branches, as they can reach a length of up to 1 inch / 2.5 centimeters.
Black Walnut Tree
The black walnut tree is popular not only for its timber, but also the nuts that grow on it. It is a native tree in the eastern side of the United States, particularly the state of Virginia, that takes upward of 40 to 50 years to reach full maturity.
While the length of growth is long, these trees are exceptionally valuable due to the variety of resources they produce. The estimated value of the lumber of black walnut trees alone makes them an attractive resource to care for, reaching a price of $100,000.
Nut trees in general, including the black walnut, are great trees for producing shade, and are great trees to incorporate into wind breaks. Because of these qualities, black walnut trees are considered a bountiful investment for future generations.
Black walnut trees contain allelochemicals, which makes the tree toxic to neighboring plants, while they also enhance the tree’s ability to survive.
The zone of the toxicity reaches up to 60 inches, but the effects can be reduced by maintaining the ground beneath the tree by removing fallen leaves and fruit, and just generally cleaning up the area.
Tolerant plants of the black walnut include: elderberry, black raspberry, hawthorn, aster, bee balm, goldenrod, marigold, sunflower, yarrow, melons, squashes, peach trees, cherry trees, and pear trees to name a few. Be aware that the nuts from the black walnut may damage the gentler plants.
The nuts contain tannins, which produce anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. While the nut is difficult to extract, the other micronutrients are plentiful, including essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, and linolenic acid.
Other nutrients include magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and selenium. It does take some finesse to use black walnuts, however.
Birch trees come in 18 different varieties, each with there own growth expectations and appearances. The one that comes to mind for most is the paper or white birch tree, with its peeling paper-like bark, and is native to North America.
Other varieties of birch include black/cherry birch, river birch, gray birch, and yellow birch, which are all native the United States. Choose accordingly for your zone range, as the white birch tree grows in zones 2 to 6, while rive birch grows best in zones 4 to 9.
Birch trees are incredibly versatile, as they can be used for food, tinder and kindling, and even be processed into tar.
While select pieces can be foraged, if there are birch trees near your location, it is often better for the trees and environment if you add a tree or two to you garden, as then the harvesting is controlled to your home and is a beautiful statement plant to your yard.
Plant your choice of birch in locations where the soil would remain cool, yet where the canopy will receive plenty of sunlight. You can also plant birch trees in singles or in groups.
The sap tapped from birch trees contains betulinic acid, which has anti-tumor properties. The sap has also been traditionally tapped as a source of nutrients, now commonly known for its diuretic, detoxifying, purifying, and cleansing properties. The taste is said to be similar to water, but with a sweetness to it.
The nutrients the sap contains includes: 17 amino acids, minerals, enzymes, proteins, vitamins C and B, and antioxidants. The sap can be consumed fresh from the tree, or be made into syrup, wine, beer, mead, and vinegar.
Slippery Elm Tree
The slippery elm tree is quite well known for its medicinal properties. This tree is native to both eastern Canada and the eastern and central United States, most commonly found within the Appalachian Mountains.
The bark is similar in color to the white birch tree, with a grayish white appearance, and a reddish-brown trunk underneath. During springtime, brown buds with bloom in small clusters at the end of the branches. Other names that you might hear include red elm, Indian elm, sweet elm and moose elm.
Traditionally, slipper elm trees were used to build canoes, shelter, and baskets. As far back as the 1700s, during the American Revolution, the mucilage the trunk produced during the spring and the leaves were often used against wounds.
Pine trees are a great option to grow if you are in need of building shaded areas in your garden. Evergreen plants are always a welcome plant in gardens because of how resilient they are and how they still offer a sighting of green and growth even in the depths of a blizzard.
There is an overabundance of various pine species, amounting to over 100 types. The most common varieties in North America include: eastern white pine, western white pine, sugar pine, red pine, pitch pine, jack pine, longleaf pine, and shortleaf pine to name a few.
All of these types have pine needle that grow in bundles of 2 to 5, which drop as the tree continue to grow and age. There are also two types of pinecones; one that produces pollen and the other than develops and drops seeds.
There are separate uses and benefits for the needles and nuts. The needles naturally suppress weeds from growing beneath the tree, which if you choose to plant tolerant companion plants, this is an added benefit.
The needles can be processed into a mulch, which will keep plants cool in the summertime and well-insulated in the winter. The mulch also helps to retain moisture, for the plants that can handle a more acidic soil. Pine needles can also be made into a simple tea, which is commonly drank during the cold and flu seasons.
Pine nuts have a subtle sweet taste and are often expensive to buy in bulk or from a health store, so home-grown is a great benefit. While small, it is still worth harvesting the seeds due to their health benefits.
Benefits include: fighting inflammation, maintaining eye health, reduced cancer risk, energy booster, immunity strengthening, maintaining brain health, decrease in heart disease risk, and digestion promotion.
Yes, this buzz-word fast-growing resource would be a great addition to any garden. This easily recognizable plant has been a well-known eco-friendly resource that is versatile both in home and industry, in DIY crafts and the garden.
Bamboo absorbs more carbon dioxide than most plants, and also produces more oxygen than most plants. Bamboo fully matures within seven years, and can be processed into hardy building materials, becoming a popular alternative to wood, which is steadily depleting in population by the day. Bamboo is also a great water purification tool for the home.
Bamboo shoots and leaves are edible, providing nutrients and other health benefits. The shoots and leaves are a great source of antioxidants, aids in digestion, acts as a mood booster, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory, and a diuretic.
Bamboo is in general a highly nutritious plant, rich in phytochemicals, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and fiber.
In the home or in the garden, bamboo is a great purifying of both air and soil, being able to remove harmful metals and other toxins from water and soil. Some varieties of bamboo are cold hardy, if you live in colder climates then bamboo is still a great option for your garden with over 1,500 varieties to choose from.
Native to the northern hemisphere, hazelnut trees thrive in full sunlit areas and produce hearty, delicious nuts. These versatile trees grow in USDA zones 4 to 9, to a height range of 8 to 20 feet with a width spread of up to 15 feet.
Hazelnut trees are also easily pruned that are not difficult to grow. They grow in most soil types when they are well-drained and of light pH levels (about 5.5 to 7.5).
For pollination, it is best to plant tow or more varieties. Hazelnut trees are also a great source of pollen for pollinators, as the pollen-bearing catkins are available as soon as late January to late March.
Hazelnut trees offer wind breakage and diversity for more wildlife in your permaculture garden. They also act as a buffer for streams and wetlands, helping to protect these water sources from erosion and chemical runoff. Wildlife that is attracted to these trees include squirrels, deer, turkey, woodpeckers, pheasants, quail, and jay birds.
The nuts themselves are of great nutritional value, containing traces of vitamins E and B6, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. Hazelnuts are also a good source for omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, in addition to antioxidants.
Plant those Permaculture Trees and Shrubs Now!
If you want to have a beneficial permaculture landscape, now is the time to plan it and get started. Any of the shrubs and trees discussed here would make great additions to your homestead’s sustainable, useful landscape.
So, do a little research, and transform you’re your yard and fields into something healthy and beneficial for everything around you!
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.