Our Top Fifteen forest garden plants for Denver
1. Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) - This is a great large shrub with many positive attributes. These large native shrubs fill in nicely and are a great native plant to introduce into a more conventional landscape. Elderberries also have edible fruits and flowers and do well in the Denver area. They also make great bee forage plants.
2. Currant (Ribes spp.) - Currants come in many forms with the best suited varieties for Denver being the Golden, White, Red or Crandall. Currants are 3'-6' sized shrubs with somewhat delicate fan shaped foliage. Currants can be highly productive fruiting shrubs with delicious fruit when made into jams or jellies. Also a great bee forage plant.
3. Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) - This tree is great as a semi-dense over-story canopy tree. Black Locust is a strong rot-resistant hardwood and is a great coppice wood for fence posts or bow staves. Black Locust is also a nitrogen fixer bringing atmospheric nitrogen from the air down into the soil for your other plants to suck up as fertilizer.
4. Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) - Another great native medium shrub to small tree depending on the species. For a smaller shrub try Utah Serviceberry or Running Serviceberry. If you want a bigger tree give Shadblow Serviceberry a shot. Serviceberries have edible fruit, pretty flowers and birds love them.
5. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale or Symphytum grandiflorum) - Comfrey is a green manure and mulch plant. It gathers up nutrients from deep in the soil and deposits them on the surface as leaf fall. Let it get big and cut it back leaving the cuttings on the surface of your planting beds as mulch and fertilizer. Its a pretty plant but its more practical than anything else. There are also many medicinal uses. Try the Russian or Dwarf varieties.
6. Plum (Prunus spp.) - A great fruit tree in dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties. The Damson variety is a productive, reliable and delicious blue variety great for Zone 5. You can make five years worth of jelly and jam off one years crop. Best to give some away to friends and family or trade some for new forest garden plants!
7. Siberian Peashrub (Caragana aborescens orCaragana microphylla) Another nitrogen fixer and bee forage plant. Siberian Peashrub is best used among fruiting shrubs and trees. This is a prized plant for its ability to fix nitrogen but can also provide fodder for chickens and other birds.
8. Raspberry (Rubus spp.)- Enough said. Try the native varieties!
9. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) - Asparagus is expensive in the stores and we all love it right? So why not grow it at home in your forest garden. Its a great perennial vegetable that will spread slowly over time. You can break it up and spread it around or trade for new plants. This one is also pretty easy to take care of, but does take some time to come into productivity so be patient its worth it.
10. Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) - Jerusalem Artichokes look like little sunflowers above ground, but below the surface is where it gets really good. Jerusalem Artichokes are tubers with highly productive yields. Simply dig up the tubers at the end of the season and you'll find a lot more than you put in to start with but be sure to leave some in the ground for next years crop. Kids really like to play and hide in them too. Check out a recipe here.
11. Ground Cherry (Physalis spp.) - This isn't actually a cherry, but its fruit are delicious. A low growing plant with golden fruit. There are many varieties and you should be careful as some are perennial and some are self seeding annuals so pick the one most appropriate for your situation.
12. Wild Strawberry - (Fragaria virginiana) - While not as big as traditionally cultivated varieties these little guys are DELISH! They can be transplanted from the wild, but if you go this route please keep in mind that there are laws governing this and they exist for a reason. Observe all regulations around harvesting native plants and don't harvest all your plants in one place. Harvest one here and one there so you don't make as big of an impact on the native stand. This is a great ground cover for your forest garden to gain some extra fruit. Try marinating a handful in balsamic vinegar for a few hours, mashing it up, mixing in olive oil as well as slivered almonds and finely minced rosemary for a spring green salad dressing to die for.
13. Garlic Chive (Allium tuberosum) - Garlic chives are easy and grow like crazy. The new slightly open flower buds are great for salads or edible garnish and the blades (leaves) can be diced up and used as chives on a potato or anything else. The flowers have a more distinct garlic flavor than the greens but both are delicious.
14. Cherry (Prunus spp.) - Enough said. Cherries are a great fruit tree for the front range. Be sure to pick a variety good for Zone 5. I recommend the Nanking or Van cherry. Also, if you want to get funky try an all-in-one cherry. These trees are grafted trees with four or five different varieties of fruit on one tree so they are great for urban food forests.
15. Hops (Humulus lupulus var.)- We are in Colorado right? Beer!!! Hops are a beautiful and interesting plant that is fast growing and has a nice mellow scent for our vine layer. And if you are a hobby home brewer or professional brewer its a very useful plant. You can grow many different varieties on a trellis or a tree.
Bonus Plant: Walking Onions (Allium cepa proliferum) - Walking onions are just plain cool. Unlike typical onions the edible part grows above ground on the tips of the stalks rather than underground like a traditional onion. They are small but tasty and add a fun conversation piece to your garden. Just pop of the little onions on top and plant them to get more...pretty cool.
For more great forest garden plants for the front range check out this plant list.