55+ Favourite Plants for Edible Forest Gardens in Ontario (Hardiness Zones 4b/5a)

A colleague asked me about my top plants for perennial polycultures in our region (hardiness zones 4b/5a in Ontario and Québec). This is also a popular question on our garden tours and in our classes! From our observations, here's what I came up with...

Favourite plants for moderate site conditions (sun to part sun; sandy clay to sand clay loam):

edible forest garden, perennial and annual polycultures

  • Toka plum (Prunus salicina?) – tree; edible fruit (ours fruited in 3 years)
  • basswood (Tilia americana) – tree; edible young leaves for salads; flowers for tea; apparently can be coppiced
  • red and white currants (Ribes rubrum) – shrub; edible fruit
  • elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – large shrub; edible flowers and fruit for cooking and medicine
  • perennial onions (A. fistulosum), walking onions (A. proliferum), ramps (A. tricoccum), chives (A. schoenoprasum), garlic chives (A. tuberosum) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking, among first greens in spring; for pollinators
  • bee balm (Monarda spp.) – herbaceous; flowers and leaves for tea; for pollinators and hummingbirds (prefers part sun)
  • oregano (Origanum vulgare) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; leaves for medicine
  • marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) – herbaceous; flowers, leaves and roots for medicine; edible leaves; for pollinators
  • echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) – herbaceous; roots for medicine; beautiful flowers for pollinators (apparently leaves and flowers are edible)
  • St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) – herbeceaous; leaves and flowers for medicine; for pollinators
  • purple top white globe turnip (Brassica rapa), red Russian kale (Brassica napus) and arugula (Eruca sativa) – herbaceous, reseeding annuals; broadcast seeds grow well on wood chips in part sun, as additional crop in edible forest garden
  • wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) – herbaceous ground cover; edible fruit
  • ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) – herbaceous ground cover, spreads quickly, easy to remove; leaves for medicine; among first flowers in spring for pollinators
  • lupin (Lupinus spp.) – herbaceous; fixes nitrogen, beautiful flowers for pollinators

Honorable mentions for moderate site conditions:

  • apple (Malus domestica) – tree; edible fruit, good for winter storage (however, can be prone to fire blight)
  • Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) – tree; edible fruit, good for winter storage (however, can be prone to fire blight)
  • gojiberry (Lycium barbarum) – shrub/trailing vine; edible shoots, best in spring (however, other people have a hard time establishing it in the region – ours is in a warm sheltered microclimate and has not fruited much yet)
  • asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) – herbaceous; edible shoots (however, they'll take some space, so are best for a simple polyculture)
  • sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) – herbaceous; edible roots, best harvested in fall or spring (however, they'll take some space, so are best for a simple polyculture)
  • stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) – herbaceous; edible greens for cooking and tea, dries well for winter storage (however, choose a good location – it stings!)
  • comfrey (Symphytum officinale) – herbaceous; chop and drop for potassium, compost activator; for medicine and pollinators (however, choose a good location – it's there to stay!)
  • beetberry (Chenopodium capitatum) – herbaceous, reseeding annual; edible greens and small fruits for salads (however, reseeds like crazy)
  • daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) – herbaceous; edible shoots for salad or cooking, edible flowers and tubers; among first greens in spring (however, it spreads faster than we can eat them)

Upcoming hopefuls for moderate site conditions:

  • Manchurian apricot (Prunus mandschurica) – tree; edible fruit
  • false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) – shrub; fixes nitrogen
  • sea kale (Crambe maritima) – herbaceous; edible broccoli-like flowers
  • maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii) – herbaceous; edible shoots; for pollinators; apparently good deer screen
  • perennial arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) – herbaceous; edible greens for salads
  • mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; for pollinators

edible forest garden, drier site

 

Promising plants for drier site conditions (sandier soil and full sun):

 

  • sour cherry (Prunus cerasus?) – tree; edible fruit
  • pear (Pyrus communis?) – tree; edible fruit
  • alder (Alnus spp.) – tree; fixes nitrogen and fast-growing for wind-shelter
  • red currant (Ribes rubrum) – shrub; edible fruit
  • bee balm (Monarda spp.) – herbaceous; flowers and leaves for tea; for pollinators and hummingbirds (prefers part sun)
  • horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) – herbaceous; edible roots
  • gobo (Arctium lapa) – herbaceous; edible roots
  • oregano (Origanum vulgare) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; leaves for medicine
  • thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; leaves for medicine
  • wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) – herbaceous ground cover; edible fruit

Honorable mentions for drier site conditions:

  • sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) – herbaceous; edible roots, best harvested in fall or spring (however, they'll take some space, so are best for a simple polyculture)
  • stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) – herbaceous; edible greens for cooking and tea, dries well for winter storage (however, choose a good location – it stings!)

Promising plants for wet site conditions (flood-plain):

  • high bush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) – shrub; edible fruit for cooking
  • elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – shrub; edible flowers and fruit for cooking and medicine
  • haskap (Lonicera caerulea) – shrub; edible fruit
  • alder (Alnus spp.) – tree; fixes nitrogen, fast-growing for wind-shelter
  • river grape (Vitis riparia?) – vine; edible fruit
  • mint (Mentha spp.) – herbaceous; for tea and pollinators; makes a reasonable ground-cover
  • daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) – herbaceous; edible shoots for salad or cooking, edible flowers and tubers; among first greens in spring
  • walking onions (Allium proliferum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; for pollinators
  • lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) – herbaceous; for tea and pollinators
  • cattail (Typha latifolia, T. angustifolia) – herbaceous; edible shoots, flowers, pollen and roots for cooking; best on clean sites with no concerns of water pollution

Favourites for juglone-tolerance:

  • black walnut (Juglans nigra) – big tree; edible nuts (though hard to crack); nut husks and leaves for medicine; beautiful wood (this is one tree that produces juglone, so the other plants below are centred around it in the polyculture)
  • mulberry (Morus alba) – tree; edible fruit
  • ramps (Allium tricoccum) and perennial onions (Allium fistulosum) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; for pollinators
  • Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum) – herbaceous; edible shoots for cooking (tolerates shade)
  • bee balm (Monarda spp.) – herbaceous; flowers and leaves for tea; for pollinators and hummingbirds (prefers part sun)
  • strawberry cultivated (Fragaria spp.) – herbaceous; edible fruit, covers the ground

Promising for juglone-tolerance:

  • raspberries (Rubus spp.) – shrub; edible fruit
  • valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – herbaceous; medicinal roots, flowers for pollinators
  • groundnut (Apios americana) – herbaceous vine; edible tubers for cooking; fixes nitrogen
  • cinnamon yam (Dioscorea batatas) – herbaceous vine; edible tuber for cooking
  • crosnes (Stachys affinis) – herbaceous; edible tubers
     

Check out our Edible & Medicinal Plant Tour and Edible Forest Garden course to learn more!

We'd love to hear your experiences growing these and other useful perennials in hardiness zones 4, 5 and colder!  Please email us at info at eonpermaculture dot ca, or leave a comment below.

 

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Comments

I may have missed it, but raspberries grow well in our city garden (Ottawa); if space is limited, get a thornless variety.We always have a bumper crop around Canada Day.
We are also experimenting with blackberries which are apparently at their zonal limits here. Enjoyed your list!

Cool. Thanks for sharing!

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