How a Minneapolis landscaper turned his urban yard into a food forest

Susan S. Johnson

When Russ Henry moved into his house 15 years ago, the compact Minneapolis lot had a traditional lawn with a small patch of raspberries tucked in the back.

Now it’s a forest.

But instead of stately pine trees, mounds of moss and moose and elk, you’ll find edible native groundcover, grape vines, fruit trees and a couple of curious cats, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson.

Henry and his wife, Chesney Engquist, are growing a food forest, a concept he tumbled to years ago and has been evangelizing about since.

Stroll through their yard in the Longfellow neighborhood and you’ll be immersed in a tranquil garden — one where nearly every plant has a purpose. Henry bends down and plucks a few sprigs of tender wood sorrel. “This is one of my favorites, and this is absolutely my favorite way to eat it,” he said, taking a bite. “It tastes like lemon, and it’s just amazing in a salad. You just chop it up and it just adds a little zest all throughout.”

That he can walk through his yard and forage ingredients for his meals is only part of the appeal of a food forest — a low-maintenance, sustainable, plant-based landscape. Having a yard that requires minimal work and planting for the future are other benefits.

“The price of food is skyrocketing, the price of everything is skyrocketing,” he said. “And while we don’t get our whole meal out of the food forest, we are always supplementing what we’re eating and adding to it. And really some of the most flavorful parts of what we’re eating and our meals come right out of the yard.”

As the owner of Minnehaha Falls Landscaping, Henry might have an edge when it comes to creating an edible forest in his backyard. But he got his start in gardening and the kitchen the way many of us did — from Mom.

As a kid, he vividly remembers helping plant their first garden, putting vegetables into the ground and then waiting. Eventually there would be produce to can, meals to cook, eggs to gather.

“My mom was adamant about teaching me how to cook,” he said. “I was cooking whole family dinners by the time I was in fourth grade. She said ‘Son, these are not feminine skills, these are life skills.’ “

And cooking and gardening are skills Henry has continued to hone, his gardening changing along with his lifestyle. There were hops when he was a home brewer and there have been plenty of vegetables, too.

“Now I have different priorities,” he said. “So all those came out and we installed all these other plants.”

Those “other plants” are some of his favorites — most of them native. When he started to learn more about food forests, he realized that’s exactly what he had already planted.

As a landscaper he likes to tinker, so his yard is always a work in progress as he fills in empty spots or removes what’s not thriving. And it’s dense, another hallmark of food forests.

“We got to 159 species before we stopped counting, and that doesn’t count anything that’s in a container,” he said. “And of those, I’d say a strong 90 to 95 percent are native.”

He estimates about 30% of the plants in his yard are edible.

A living buffet

An important part of growing a food forest, Henry said, is learning how, what and when to harvest.

For example, every part of the daylily is edible, and it tastes like onion. Wild ginger and violets can be tasty additions to salads. And some much maligned plants (think dandelions) should be on your dinner plate.

“A lot of plants that have edible value we think of as weeds. Virginia waterleaf is in almost everyone’s woodland garden and it’s a very edible plant that’s really delicious. It makes great salads in the spring,” he said. “And nobody should be afraid of dandelions because they are edible — every part of it.”

Henry’s yard also contains fiddlehead ferns, sunchokes and “cherry lane,” a row of chokecherries, sand cherries and Nanking cherries. There also are honeyberries, hazelnuts, woodland sunflowers, grape vines, sweet potato vines, a Honeycrisp apple tree and pear trees. And don’t forget the pansies — they’re edible, too.

“It’s really about being creative with it,” Henry said. “We’re constantly out here foraging.”

Once in the kitchen, some ingredients are tossed in salads, others are treated like asparagus — sautéed, simmered in a little water, boiled or even added to hot dishes. Berries are enjoyed straight from the garden, atop ice cream, baked into desserts or made into jam. And there’s still plenty to share.

“The chokecherries make a lot of fruit and I eat a little of that and the birds eat the majority of it,” Henry said. “But with things like the grapes, they make a lot of fruit and I eat the majority of that and the birds get a little.”

There are plenty of places to go for edible guidance, too. Henry cites Sam Thayer’s book “The Forager Harvest” as one of his favorites. And local chef Alan Bergo has a book, “The Forager Chef’s Book of Fauna,” with tips and recipes, as well as a website (foragerchef.com) and an award-winning web series.

The food forest gospel

While starting your own food forest might seem intimidating (Henry has spent more than a decade transitioning his yard from lawn to edibles), he insists that it’s not.

“Native plants are much easier to grow. Food forest plants are typically less finicky and stronger than the petunias and geraniums,” he said.

But there are several steps to take, which follow the ecosystem succession.

Going organic — forgoing the use of commercial pesticides and fertilizers — is the first step, followed by adding bee lawn, which acts as living mulch or groundcover. Henry uses a mixture of white clover, creeping thyme and selfheal (all edible) that blooms throughout the season, providing food and habitat to pollinators.

If you grow vegetables, you’re already on your way to another step: “That’s important because it helps us learn to start harvesting from our own lawn, which is something we’re all out of practice doing.”

Putting in a pollinator pocket garden — clusters of native species that spread — and fruit-bearing shrubs will give you the beginning of what Henry calls the “baby food forest.”

Finish up by planting native edible plants, like fruit trees, around the perimeter of the space. And lastly, think ahead to future generations and plant white pines, red pines or blue spruces. “We’re looking for the peak ecosystem succession plantings that will eventually come up and tower over everything and create the lowest possible maintenance landscapes.”

But you don’t have to do it all at once, Henry said; there are bite-sized ways to begin.

Start with a small area, select a favorite fruit-bearing tree or shrub, like honeyberry, and three or four blooming native pollinator plants, such as columbine, Virginia waterleaf, ostrich fern, wood sorrel and violets.

“That’s a fun combination of plants that will spread and create a small system,” he said. “Over time, you can re-create those small systems and change the components within it so that you’re popping out a different fruit tree or trying a few different native plants.”

Henry’s work extends beyond his backyard. In addition to helping people embrace food forests through his business, which also includes the offshoots Giving Tree Gardens and Bee Safe Minneapolis, he has spent time on the Homegrown Minneapolis food council, an initiative that works to improve the local food system.

“Through that work we helped pave the way — or unpave the way — for urban farms to happen again in Minneapolis,” he said. “Chicken raising — all those policies that are now adopted in Minneapolis and throughout the local suburbs — started at the Homegrown Minneapolis food council.”

And he is still working to spread the news of food forests.

“It’s not just for backyards. It’s for municipalities. It’s for churches. It’s for day cares. It’s for anybody that wants to connect with nature,” he said.

Right now, connecting with nature hits close to home for Henry, who’s expecting twin sons any day.

“I am so glad that we’ll be raising them in this house that has a food forest, right outside the backyard, so they can learn about nature,” he said. “They can smell the smells, they can see the sights, they can hear the birds and see the bugs and connect with nature the entire time they’re here.”

The 8 layers of a food forest

A mature food forest has eight canopied layers, which combine to create a low-maintenance and sustainable plant-based food landscape that mimics the growth patterns of forests.

1. Mycelial: This layer can do double duty, by spurring growth of other plants and creating flavorful mushrooms for eating. Among the easiest to grow? Wine caps. “They’ll grow anywhere,” Henry said. He hasn’t had any morels yet: “But I keep trying.”

2. Root: Examples include dandelions and burdock, both common weeds. While the entire dandelion is edible, usually it’s just the burdock root that’s eaten.

3. Groundcover: Henry is a proponent of bee lawn, which can include a mix of edible greens. “What we want is a completely covered ground with a living mulch or cover crop of native plants,” he said.

4. Herbaceous: Edibles like violets, ferns, Virginia waterleaf and wood sorrel make up this layer. His top pick is the ostrich fern, or fiddleheads. “Just sauté them up and they are super yummy.” They’re also a springtime favorite at farmers markets.

5. Vine: This layer helps fill in where others can’t. “My favorite is the grape, bar none,” said Henry, who has an arbor teeming with Concord grapes. Other options include the American hog peanut, which has an edible root.

6. Shrubs: Henry’s compact yard hosts natives such as honeyberries, Nanking cherries and hazelnuts, which are becoming popular. “It’s really cool that we’ve got this new perennial crop that farmers have adopted in Minnesota.” But his favorites are honeyberries, which are like oblong blueberries. “They’re just delightful.”

7. Understory: Smaller trees and larger shrubs like chokecherry, North Star cherry and pear and dwarf apple trees provide excellent food to eat — and not just for humans. Chokecherries are his favorite native: “They’re strong and powerful and have a flavor that won’t compromise,” he said. “And the birds love them, too.”

8. Overstory: Henry doesn’t have any edible overstory trees yet, but recommends trees like basswood (its spring leaves are “just delicious”), sugar maple and red oak that help put the “forest” into food forest.

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