By now the benefits of incorporating native plants in your landscaping and vegetable garden are very well documented. Native plants require fewer inputs and less upkeep because they’re adapted to your local environment, they provide habitat for native insects and birds, and in some cases, they are a refuge for plants that are threatened or endangered in the wild. I can already hear you saying, “Yea, that all sounds great, but I’m trying to use my garden to feed my family,” well native plants can do that too!
Over the years, we’ve replaced nearly every non-native plant in our yard with native fruits, edible herbs, and even wild mushrooms. Below are a few of our favorite native plants and fungi that we have incorporated into our garden.
Saskatoons, also called Serviceberries or Juneberries, are native to nearly all of North America. Their delicious fruits taste like a cross between a blueberry and an apple, and their showy spring flowers give them ornamental value. Depending on the species, saskatoons can grow as either a bush or a medium-sized tree. Native birds and chipmunks love their fruits, but they usually leave enough for us to harvest as well.
Ramps are delicious oniony-garlicky spring ephemerals that are typically only available to foragers who venture out into the spring woods to collect them. But if you have some relatively moist soil, you can grow your very own patch at home! We transplanted a few ramps into the less sunny parts of our garden a few years ago, and they spread and expand their patch every year. We also collect seeds from them which we scatter around our yard and the woods near our neighborhood.
To learn more about harvesting ramps, click here.
Pawpaws are sometimes described as being the northernmost tropical fruit because of their similarities to bananas and mangoes. Before the industrialization of our food system, they were commonly eaten in Eastern North America, but because they don’t ship well, they fell out of fashion.
You likely won’t find them in a grocery store anytime soon, but if you grow some in your backyard, you can pick them at peak ripeness and enjoy their tropical flavor. Pawpaws need to cross-pollinate in order to produce fruit, so you’ll need to plant at least two. Pawpaws are understory trees, so we grow them under a mulberry tree in the shadiest part of our yard where sun-loving plants would struggle.
The ancestors of cultivated strawberries are native to the Americas, but wild strawberries (which are sometimes called Alpine Strawberries) are more similar to the original fruits. They are much smaller than the cultivated strawberries you might find in the grocery store, but their flavor is unmatched. We plant wild strawberries on the sunny hillsides in our yard that aren’t ideal for vegetable garden beds.
For a helpful video with more information on cultivating strawberries, click here.
Lion’s Mane Mushrooms are exploding in popularity due to their potential use as a treatment for degenerative brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. These mushrooms are native to North America and can be found growing on hardwood logs in many of our deciduous forests.
You can also buy spawn online and inoculate logs in your backyard to grow your very own native mushrooms. We grow them on oak and beech logs that the arborists around our city cut near the powerlines.
Click here for more information on growing lion’s mane mushrooms.
Wine cap mushrooms are native fungi that work for our garden on three levels: soil-building, water retention, and food production. The mycelium of wine cap mushrooms breaks down wood chips and mulch and quickly turns them into rich mushroom compost. It also ties the mulch into big mats, which are excellent at holding moisture in the soil.
In the spring and fall, it produces bounties of delicious mushrooms that resemble the cultivated button mushrooms found in the grocery store. We spread wood chip mulch under all of our fruit trees and inoculate it with wine cap mushrooms. As the wood chips break down into compost, they feed the trees, and the mushrooms feed us.