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The Vining Forest Layer

Vines grow up through and between the other layers of a food forest system, bringing another vertical component to a design. Vining plants can also sprawl along the ground, contributing to the ground cover. Vines can often provide edible yields or serve the ecosystem as a whole in a range of different ways.

Climbing or vining plants in a food forest or forest garden can often be the final piece of the puzzle. Though vines may also sprawl across the ground, creating ground cover in such a system, the vining layer is the term used to describe the climbing or vining plants which ascend through the other layers of the food forest or forest garden.

The Vining Layer In a Food Forest

The vining layer in a food forest is perhaps the most difficult to get right, involving as it does thinking in an additional dimension and planning for vertical growing. Getting it right involves thinking carefully about the needs of the vines, but also about the needs of the supports (typically trees or shrubs within the food forest system).

In a food forest design we may sometimes incorporate man-made support structures like trellis. But more typically, we will allow vines or climbing plants to grow with other plants for support, in a more natural way.

The main challenge here, of course, is that growing below trees and shrubs, shade can be an issue for some vining plants. So we need to select and position climbers carefully so that they get the light they need.

Another key consideration when creating the vining layer of a food forest or forest garden is making sure that the vines or climbing plants we place do not compete excessively with trees, shrubs or other plants within the system. Caution is most definitely required because some climbers can be particularly vigorous and fast-growing, and may become invasive.

The key is to make sure that the needs of the trees, shrubs and other plants the vines climb on and near and in harmonious balance with the needs of the vining plants themselves.

Though it can sometimes be more challenging to find the right vines for a forest garden and incorporate them in the right ways, it is well worth doing so because when we have vines climbing through the space, we take advantage of the vertical plane. And when we have vines covering the soil, we protect that precious part of the ecosystem.

The vines we incorporate can help the system and provide for us in a number of different ways.

Types of Vining Plant to Consider

The two main categories of vining or climbing plant to consider are perennial options and annual ones.

Perennials are of course those vines that continue to grow or come back each year over multiple years. Annual vines are those that complete their lifecycle in a single season. Note that some perennial vines that are perennial in their native range may be treated as annuals in cooler temperate climes.

Annual vines such as Cucurbitaceae (cucumbers, squash, pumpkins...) are often grown against a trellis or other man-made support. But are sometimes also grown amid trees and shrubs in a forest garden on the southern side (northern hemisphere) or where light penetrating the canopy is sufficient.

The Functions of Vining Plants in a Food Forest

The vining plants in a food forest are space-fillers, that help us to maximise photosynthesis and production within the area of planting. They help us to make the most of space and time within the system we have created.

Vines or climbers can:

  • Provide an edible yields. (Leaves, fruits, roots or tubers etc...)
  • Give us additional tangible yields. (Medicine, plant fibre, crafting materials etc...)
  • Aid in maintaining or add to fertility. (Nitrogen fixation, quickly producing biomass/ mulch material etc..)
  • Flower, thereby attracting beneficial wildlife to the food forest or forest garden. (Pollinators, predators of pests...)
  • Provide ground cover within certain parts of the ecosystem.

However, it is important to note that when we choose the wrong vines, they can also potentially become hugely invasive, stifle, smother and even destroy other plants within the system. Which is why we have to choose wisely, with reference to our own specific sites.

Vines tend to be more prolific in tropical, subtropical and other warmer climate designs, and while they are definitely incorporated in cooler temperate climates too, do not tend to be used quite as frequently.

This is largely due to the lower strength of sunlight in cooler climates, which means that not as much photosynthesis can take place below the main tree canopy.

Vining plants are, however, still incorporated here and there, and there are options both for sunny glades and south-facing fringes (northern hemisphere), and even a few for deeper shade.

When and Where Vining Plants are Used in a Food Forest

The first think that we need to think about when looking at when and where vining plants are used in a food forest or forest garden is whether those vines will grow along the ground, or up through the other layers of planting.

Of course, some vines thrive when allowed to sprawl over the ground, while others do best when allowed to climb up through, vine around, or cling to shrubs or trees.

When we are talking about vines ascending vertically, we are talking about the vining layer, or vertical layer. Vines growing along the ground are considered a part of the groundcover layer.

Vines do need to be incorporated carefully within any design, so that they do not stifle other plants, or take over. But at times, even vigorous varieties can be extremely valuable and useful parts of a design.

In some areas, however, and in some designs, the problem with vines or climbers might not be excessive vigour but a lack thereof. Vines will often fail to thrive where they have not been chosen or positioned correctly.

Lack of water (due to trees or shrubs nearby taking a lot of moisture from the soil, perhaps), or insufficient light (due to a dense canopy) are just a couple of reasons why vines might not work as intended.

This is why it is so important to think very carefully about the environmental conditions that you can provide before you think about adding vertical vines in particular to your system.

In my own forest garden, I have few vines actually climbing trees within the system. Though I do have vigorous thornless blackberries that climb along a boundary hedge and send shoots up into an apple tree.

However, around the fringes of my garden, on buildings and walls, in my polytunnel and elsewhere I have a much wider range of climbers and vines. The key for me is not to overcrowd the forest

garden since doing so can potentially cause a range of issues. While the garden is dense with many layers, the sun here in Scotland is not as strong as it is further south.

Choosing Vining Plants for a Food Forest

When choosing vining plants or climbers for a food forest or forest garden, it is not only important to think about the basics that we will always think about when choosing the right plants for the right places.

We definitely need to understand our environment and the growing conditions we can provide, as well as the specific needs of the vining plant in question. But we also need to know more about the vining plant to make sure that it is a good addition to our food forest or forest garden.

Some of the basic things that we need to know about the vining or climbing plants we are considering are:

  • The length/ height to which a vine or climber will likely grow.
  • The speed of growth of the climber or vine in question.
  • The root form and growth habit of the climber.
  • How the plant in question climbs. Whether they need to be tied in as they grow or support themselves.

(Some vines or climbing plants will twine around a support. Some use thorns or hooked structures to cling on. Some have clinging, adventitious roots. Others have twining petioles, or use tendrils that hook or curl around supports, or which stick onto them to attach... but some need to be tied in as they grow and are therefore not as well suited to a low- maintenance food forest or forest garden scheme.)

  • Whether the climber is annual or perennial.
  • Whether the vine is woody (e.g. lianas) or herbaceous (with a non-woody stem).

Since vines can differ so widely from one another, it is very important not to make the mistake of generalizing. You definitely have to take great care to make sure that you make the right selection for a particular set of circumstances and location.