Among the many plants that can provide an edible yield, one category not to overlook is the category of shrubs (such as berry bushes) and fruiting canes.
Of course, not all shrubs produce an edible yield, but many can still be extremely useful in many permaculture projects – aiding in and facilitating food production, or providing other extremely useful yields.
What are Shrubs?
Shrubs (or bushes) are perennial plants with a persistent framework of woody stems above the ground. Like trees, they have a woody structure and remain in place over a number of years.
They differ from trees in that they are generally shorter in height, and have multiple stems rather than a single trunk. There can however be some overlap between trees and shrubs and some species can be either, depending on the setting.
Shrubs are found as the dominant plant type in shrubland ecosystems around the world, in a range of different locations and climates. They may also be interspersed with small trees in such biomes. Shrubs can also be found in lower layers of forest and woodland environments, in deserts, in wetlands, and in a range of other ecosystems.
Trees are often our go-to when thinking about which plants to include for carbon sequestration and environmental enhancement. But shrubs, often overlooked, can also be extremely useful in helping us tackle many of our global problems.
Types of Shrubs
When discussing shrubs in a permaculture context it can be helpful to characterise different shrubs based on their characteristics and yields.
In permaculture design we will often consider, for example:
- Nitrogen fixers and other tolerant and hardy shrubs utilised to improve the soil and conditions to enable other plants to grow.
- Flowering shrubs to draw in pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, and for visual appeal.
- Shrubs useful for hedgerows, whether these are used in boundary planting, for wind breaks, for privacy or screening, for wildlife, or for livestock control.
- Edible shrubs – which produce food in the form of fruits/ berries, leaves etc…
- Shrubs to provide fuel, constructional or crafting material.
- Shrubs to provide fodder for livestock.
Where We Use Shrubs & Fruiting Canes in Permaculture Designs
Shrubs might be incorporated in a number of different ways into a permaculture design. Some of the most interesting and useful planting schemes that incorporate shrubs to consider are:
- Hedgerows & boundary planting.
- Forest gardens & other agroforestry schemes.
- Native shrubland rewilding schemes.
In each of these different planting schemes, shrubs can be carefully chosen in order to provide the ecosystem services required, to fulfil desired functions, and to produce required or desired yields.
Using Shrubs in Hedgerows & Boundary Planting
One reason that we might use shrubs is in creating hedgerows and boundary planting. Traditional in many parts of the world, but sadly lost from, or diminished in, many areas true hedges are wonderful features to include in many permaculture designs.
One key reason, of course, that a hedgerow might be created is to create more sheltered conditions. Wind break hedgerows can be very useful features and, when properly designed and positioned, can improve growing conditions and conditions for livestock, wildlife and/ or for people on our properties.
Hedges using a range of different shrubs can also be beneficial in other ways, even when wind breaking is not the primary concern. For example, a hedge of shrubs might provide a garden area with privacy. It might provide some protection against pollution in the air, or reduce noise pollution at least to a degree. You might use lower growing hedges as bed edging or garden partitioning.
When many people think of a hedge, they think about a dense planting of a single type of shrub. But in permaculture, we recognise that diversity is key. Choosing shrubs appropriate to where you live (especially native species) is the best option, and multi-species hedges will always bring more benefits.
Remember, shrubs can be as tall as smaller trees, or ankle height. They can have a broad range of characteristics and yields. Some respond better than others to the trimming that might be required on a frequent basis for a more formal hedgerow, and others are better suited to a looser more informal look.
Using Shrubs in Forest Gardens
Another way in which shrubs are frequently used in permaculture designs is of course within forest gardens, or other agroforestry schemes.
Shrubs in forest gardens nestle below the trees within the system, and may also have herbaceous plants beneath. Climbers can also be trained to grow up through the shrubs within a system.
However, not in all cases will larger shrubs be incorporated within the drip-line zones of trees. Some shrubs may also be a part of an overall forest garden design, but sit in sunny glades within the scheme, or along the boundary edge of the system, for example.
Shrubs within a forest garden are often chosen primarily either for their edible of useful yields to us, or for their use within the system as a whole (as nitrogen fixers for example) – often shrubs can cover both of these bases.
Using Shrubs in Shrubland Rewilding Schemes
Permaculture designers and those involved in conservation or restoration schemes may also use shrubs, of course, in protecting the native environment, or recreating native shrub habitat on a particular site.
Recreating natural habitats in your garden might involve using shrubs in many instances. And rewilding schemes can be important on a domestic scale, just as they can across broader swathes of landscape.
But in doing so, we may need to ask ourselves interesting questions such what other features are within a shrubland type ecosystem, and how he area is maintained within this ecological state and does not evolve to tree-based woodlands or forests…
Of course, when trying to create wilder and more natural areas on your property, starting with good observation of nearby ecosystems and choosing native species is key.
Why Grow Shrubs with Edible Yields?
In permaculture, one primary goal is often to obtain a yield. There are a number of reasons why, when choosing shrubs for a hedgerow or forest garden, it can be a good idea to consider species that provide an edible yield, as well as potentially also fulfilling other roles and value.
When shrubs provide us with an edible yield, they become human attractants. Whether harvesting or foraging, we are drawn to them and are therefore more likely to carefully tend and keep an eye on the planting areas or systems they are within.
The right edible shrubs in the right places can also provide food in such abundance that it can be shared with native wildlife. So growing these can also be a boon for many of the other creatures with whom we share our space.
While there may well be reasons to grow other shrubs in certain places too, it is often a good idea to seek out edible options in preference over those that only do other things.
Certainly, where there is a choice between two shrubs ideally suited to the needs and growing conditions, where one offers an edible yield and the other does not, it can often be better to choose the one that fulfils more functions.
Shrubs With Edible Yields
Shrubs with edible yields can be berry bushes, fruiting canes (or ground cover plants), or have edible leaves.
Berry Bushes & Fruiting Shrubs
Though it would be impossible to have a complete list, here are some notable berry bushes and fruiting shrubs that you might consider for permaculture plans in temperature climates:
Currants and gooseberries:
- Ribes aureum (USDA planting zones 3-8)
- Ribes burejense ((USDA planting zones 4-8)
- Ribes divericatum ((USDA planting zones 4-8)
- Ribes nigrum (USDA planting zones 4-8)
- Ribes rubrum (USDA planting zones 4-8)
- Ribes uva-crispa (USDA planting zones 4-8)
(And many other Ribes in N. America, Europe, & Asia)
Blueberries & cranberries:
- Vaccinium australe (USDA planting zones 2-7)
- Vaccinium angustifolium (USDA planting zones 2-6)
- Vaccinium corymbosum ((USDA planting zones 3-8)
- Vaccinium myrtillus (USDA planting zones 3-7)
- Vaccinium macrocarpon (USDA planting zones 4-8)
(And many other Vaccinium ssp.)
Saskatoons, Serviceberries etc…:
- Amelanchier alnifolia (USDA planting zones 4-6)
- Amelanchier confusa ((USDA planting zones 4-8)
- Amelanchier laevis ((USDA planting zones 5-8)
- Amelanchier lamarckii ((USDA planting zones 3-8)
- Amelanchier stolonifera ((USDA planting zones 4-8)
- Crataegus festiva (USDA planting zones 6-9)
- Crataegus pedicellata (USDA planting zones 4-8)
Edible berries & nitrogen fixation:
- Elaeagnus multiflora ((USDA planting zones 5-9)
- Elaeagnus pungens (USDA planting zones 6-10)
And other Elaeagnus ssp.
- Hippophae rhamnoides (USDA planting zones 3-7)
And other buckthorns.
Gaultheria ssp e.g:
- Gaultheria shallon (USDA planting zones 6-9)
- Gaultheria hispidula (USDA planting zones 4-8)
There are many, many more options, however, that might be considered, and while the fruits may not be quite as useful or appealing, they can be useful in other ways.
In my own forest garden I have redcurrants, white currants and blackcurrants, European gooseberries, some Elaeagnus (though these are yet to fruit), and also – not mentioned above – barberries, and Japanese quince that were already present when we moved in, in a shady border.
In addition to the above, an important category to look at is berry producing plants in the Rubus genus, such as blackberries and raspberries (and hybrids). Which Rubus you might consider will depend on where you live and the growing conditions to be found there.
These are also very important in many temperate climate permaculture schemes, but it can be helpful to separate these from other shrubs in your planning, as they way in which they grow – on canes rather than in a bushier form – can mean that they are better placed differently within a planting scheme, and are often grown with some sort of support.
However, not all Rubus are fruiting canes – some have a much more prostrate habit. These groundcover raspberries can also be very useful to consider for a forest garden, or another permaculture scheme, and some are remarkably tolerant of shade, though they may grow too vigorously for some smaller spaces.
I grow many different types of raspberry and blackberry in my garden, and also allow wild raspberries to grow in some parts of our property. These are definitely among my own favourite fruits.
Shrubs with Edible Leaves
A number of shrubs are also useful for inclusion within permaculture planting plans because they offer abundant sources of edible and nutritious leaves.
A few examples are:
- Crataegus monogyna (USDA planting zones 4-8) (edible leaves when young in addition to haws)
- Hibiscus syriacus (USDA planting zones 5-9)
- Lycium barbarum (USDA planting zones 6-9) (edible leaves in addition to fruit)
- Atriplex halimus ((USDA planting zones 7-10)
- Chaya (USDA planting zones 9-11)
- Katuk (USDA planting zones 10-12)
Though of course there are many further examples.
Choosing Shrubs and Fruiting Canes
When choosing which shrubs to grow in your garden or other permaculture project, there are a number of different factors to consider.
But as long as you think carefully about your goals, consider your site and find plants suited to the environmental conditions, think holistically – determining where shrubs will be used as part of an overall plan, and consider the yields of specific species you are considering, you should not go too far wrong.