Environment & Conservation, Organic Gardening & Farming, Plants

The Oak Garden

I first noticed this little volunteer oak tree in spring of 2022. It was right in the middle of the plot that I was working to transform into a market garden for veggies. It was a small sapling at the time, no higher than my knee. Although I had other plans for the space, I was happy to see this tree. I love oak trees for their edible acorns, their beauty and long life, and their substantial contribution to the environment and the ecosystem. Determined not to harm the tree, I mowed around it, prepared the beds around it, and planned to come back during the dormant season to transplant the tree to another spot where it would fit in better with my plans.

I loved this little tree, but I thought it was kind of in the way. I was trying to force that plot to become a market garden with an industry standard design including straight beds and straight pathways. The design called for an open space with full sun. If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t even really want that garden. That project didn’t align with my truest goals for this farm or for my life. It was something I thought I had to do, for money. Ultimately that garden was a huge flop, and in hindsight, I’m really not surprised. The project was rooted in a scarcity mindset and it wasn’t the best choice for this land. Though I mourned the loss of my time, money, and work, I’m grateful now for the lessons I learned in the process, and for my second chance to nurture this space into something even better.

If there is one lesson above all others that this farm is teaching me, it is that true success must be mutual. The land, the plants, the animals, the insects, the microbiota, the water, and the farmer… we all work together in building this farm, and whatever we create must nurture us all. No one truly thrives at the expense of another. So I decided to let the tree stay in the place where it first rooted. Humans are much better at moving than trees are.

As I slowly re-imagine my vision for this field, a very different picture is forming in my mind. I see this tree as the center of whatever the space becomes. A single mature oak tree can produce 1,000 pounds of edible acorns in a single crop. It’s a native tree, a keystone species, and serves as a host plant to 434 species of local butterflies and moths. Instead of a market garden, what if this space became an oak garden?

What is an oak garden? I’m not sure yet, but I know how to find out.

I look for clues about what this space might become in the untended parts of the field. In addition to this oak tree, I recognize other familiar friends thriving here. I see Eastern Red Cedar, a beautiful native Juniper species that provides medicine and incense. I see Allegheny Blackberry, a native blackberry with rich flavor and juicy berries whose leaves and roots also provide medicine. I see Late Goldenrod, a valuable pollinator plant that also happens to be one of my personal favorite herbal decongestant allies. I see Riverbank Grape, a native grape with edible fruit and leaves. These volunteers are the founding members of the oak garden guild, and they offer clues as to which other plants might also thrive there. For example, if blackberry is happy, black raspberry will probably be glad to join the party as well. Red mulberry, wild plum, and serviceberry are also good candidates. As time goes by, I have no doubt that my list will grow. I will focus mostly on native plants that produce a yield as a part of my goal to revitalize the natural ecosystem through my farming work.

Several ash trees from the surrounding woods have fallen on this garden, after succumbing to the invasive emerald ash borer. Maybe the wood from those trees could also become part of the garden, helping to rebuild eroded topsoil through hugelkultur mounds. I could still grow some familiar garden vegetables on a labyrinth of hugekultur beds winding through the trees, fulfilling my original wish for more vegetables without compromising the soul of the farm.

I’m already more excited about the way this wild garden is unfolding than I ever was about the market garden. There is always an investment of time and energy when planting a new space, but the more this garden grows, the more self-sustaining it will become. The work is more fulfilling because it aligns with my true goals and values. It will nurture people and all the rest of our ecosystem. I do not have to dominate this land if we choose to work together towards a mutually beneficial goal.

It would be possible to create a vegetable market garden in this space. If I really wanted to, I could force this land to become one giant vegetable garden. It would take money, hard work, carbon emissions, and off-farm inputs by the truckload. It would be a constant battle, but people do it all the time. Instead, I choose to try something different here.

I believe that this land has something unique, wonderful, and abundant to share with the rest of the world. I believe the same is true of all land, all parts of the Earth, and all living beings who dwell on this vibrant planet. My job, as I see it, is to help develop these natural gifts, to nurture them, support them, and work to bring them to life. That is the kind of farmer that I want to be.

Today, I’m erasing the straight lines from the remains of the old market garden. No longer will I look out on this field and see the remains of that market garden. Instead, I will see the beginnings of a wildly abundant co-creation. I am deeply excited to dive in.

Related Articles For Further Reading

Rake Leaves, Make Compost
Good Soil
The Business Of Farming: Five Big Lessons From My First Two Years As A Market Grower
Why I Farm Native Plant Foods
Oaks of Indiana