FINEVIEW — For the past 10 years, Dani F. Baker has maintained a forest garden of wonder on Wellesley Island that for her, is also a time machine.
“I’ll get lost in the garden frequently,” Ms. Baker said. “I’ll go out there with some goal in mind and when I come back in the house, two hours have gone by. It’s like, ‘Where did the time go?’”
It’s not just her who gets lost in the enchanted surroundings.
“I had one U-picker who hung out for three hours,” she said. “She was just enjoying herself so much. She wasn’t doing much picking. She was just sitting there and soaking in the atmosphere.”
Talking to Ms. Baker, there’s lots to soak in as she explains her enthusiasm for growing things, and especially for “edible landscapes.” More people will be experiencing that enthusiasm. Her book, “The Home-Scale Forest Garden: How to Plan, Plant, and Tend a Resilient Edible Landscape,” was released on Friday. It was published by Chelsea Green Publishing, the leading publisher of books about organic farming, gardening, had already done some harvesting from her edible landscape, which she calls the Enchanted Edible Forest.
“Just yesterday, I went around the garden and picked all kinds of ingredients for a frittata, including mushrooms, several herbs and different greens that are perennial vegetables,” she said.
She will continue to harvest deep into autumn.
“I have high bush cranberries that aren’t even ready to pick until they’re hit by quite a few frosts — so early December,” she said.
Her peonies are about to bloom, and they’re not just decorative. Their petals make an excellent garnish and can flavor drinks. There are also recipes for peony jelly.
“I planted a lot of flowers specifically because you can eat them,” Ms. Baker said. “And they’re also decorative.”
Ms. Baker is a former psychologist and a native of Westchester County who spent her formative summers in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. She owns Cross Islands Farm with partner David Belding. They didn’t initially plan to be farmers when they bought their 102-acre property, a former farmstead, near Wellesley Island State Park in 2005. But they became intrigued by the idea of making the land productive again. That year, they attended a local Cornell Cooperative Extension class, “Building Your Small Farm Dream.” She retired from her psychologist position at the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in 2007 to devote her time to Cross Island Farms.
They started their farm in 2006, and it now features grass-fed livestock raised organically, outdoors on pasture, with no hormones or antibiotics. They also grow and sell a variety of organic produce. The couple is committed to using renewable energy on their farm.
In 2012, Ms. Baker attended a two-hour workshop, hosted by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and taught by Steve Gabriel of Cornell University and the author of “Farming the Woods.” It was an overview of permaculture — the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.
“I had never heard of the term before, but I went,” Ms. Baker said. “Before the two hours was up, the ideas made so much sense to me that I decided I was going to plant an edible forest.”
Ms. Baker and Mr. Belding mapped out a plot for the Cross Island Farms site, which has grown from the original half acre to nearly an acre, and he installed a fence to deter the forest from becoming edible to the island’s deer population. Ten years later, the edible forest plot consists of over 300 fruits, nuts, berries and edible flowers. She wanted to create a rather large one from a vision of hosting parties and other events at the garden.
Ms. Baker kept reading up on the concept and has visited edible forests. She attended workshops conducted by experts in the field and two years after beginning her edible forest garden, visited England for a private tour by Martin Crawford, founder and director of the Agroforestry Research Trust, of his 2-acre edible forest. Ms. Baker said she realized key information on the importance of wind breaks and hedgerows.
‘Modeling after nature’
An edible forest garden has seven permaculture layers: overstory, understory, shrub, herbaceous, ground cover, roots and vines.
“The whole idea is modeling a planting after nature, where all the needs of the plants are incorporated into the design,” Ms. Baker said.
For example, key to the concept are nitrogen-fixing plants and others that invite beneficial insects.
“It’s modeling after nature,” Ms. Baker said. “Because in nature, plants find the niches that are right for them.”
With a successful edible forest garden under her thumb and with an addiction fused in her mind, Ms. Baker began spreading the word, through talks and PowerPoint presentations hosted by CCE.
“I love to inspire other people to try their hand at this, and that was my motivation for writing the book,” Ms. Baker said. “It’s really a handbook. It’s very practical, with practical advice, and lots of examples of things that I did wrong that people can learn from too.”
One of those talks was attended by Fern Marshall Bradley, senior editor at Chelsea Green Publishing. She’s co-editor of Rodale’s “All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening” and the author of Rodale’s “Vegetable Garden Problem Solver” and “Building Raised Beds.”
“When I saw Dani speak at a sustainable farming conference in 2020 in Pennsylvania, I was fascinated by the story she told of designing and installing her garden,” Ms. Bradley said.
But the fascination was more than about how Ms. Baker grew things.
“She had embraced the project with so much enthusiasm, and she shared both her success stories and her failures with good humor,” Ms. Bradley said. “She had prepared well for the presentation, including her PowerPoint presentation with photos of her garden over time. She spoke with confidence, keeping the attention of the audience, which filled the room and even the doorway, and asked her lots of questions. That level of audience response is a signal that the topic is something people want to know about, and that’s an important consideration in looking for authors, too.”
Ms. Bradley suggested a book project, and several months later, followed up with a visit to Cross Islands Farm.
“Receiving an in-person tour of her edible forest garden confirmed for me that Dani is the real thing,” Ms. Bradley said. “And by that, I don’t mean she had a perfect garden, but that she is a hands-on gardener who loves to keep trying new plants and learning by doing. That’s the kind of person who makes a great teacher, both in person and as a garden book author.”
Ms. Baker said her edible forest garden continues to be a learning process.
“This is not something that people are accustomed to doing in temperate habitats,” she said. “In tropical habitats, these traditions go back millennia, where people have managed plantings around their homes where they basically provide for all their needs. The Native Americans did a lot of management of woods — controlled burns for example, to encourage nut trees and berry bushes. They would do other things to manage the woods for better production of food, but modern people, at least in temperate areas, don’t really have that much experience. It’s kind of an experiment, a learning process, and it’s a lot of fun.”
But Ms. Baker doesn’t want people to think it’s a matter of plant-it-and-forget-it.
“That’s a misinterpretation,” she said. “The goal is to reduce human labor going forward, and my experience is that is the case. You do have to be out there to manage your plantings so it moves in the direction you’d like to see it move.”
But for the amount of space devoted to an edible forest garden, time could be on the side of its caretaker.
“There’s lots of maintenance and management chores that continue,” Ms. Baker said. “But for the amount of space, there’s a lot less work compared to an annual vegetable garden, for example. If you plant an annual vegetable garden on an acre, you’re going to be busy from dawn to dusk just about every day of the season. If you do an edible forest, you’re going to have less work. There’ll be spot weeding, there’ll be mulching, lots of harvesting, some pruning, replacing plants that die and just making things work the way you want them to.”
Ms. Baker said starting her edible forest garden was the most labor intensive aspect of it.
“I had so many things to plant and beds to create, and mulch and all that,” she said. “Now the harvesting is the most demanding chore, timewise.”
Ms. Baker said she has seen good results in planting “compatible plants” that cover the ground and nearly eliminate her weeding chores.
“And in other areas, I haven’t been quite as successful,” she said, laughing. “But I’m working on it, slowly but surely. This is a learning process.”
One of her teachers has been the pawpaw — a fruit on the borderline of the hardiness zone 4 of Cross Island Farms.
“It’s native to the mid-Atlantic states,” Ms. Baker said. “But I try to create, or choose, micro-climates for plants like that, that will enhance the probability that they will thrive. What I found with the pawpaw is that there are a number of grafted cultivators and I’ve tried three of those and they all died. But the seedlings, that basically grow from seeds, not grafted, they do much better for me. The only thing with the seeding is you don’t have assurances that the fruit will be what you expect.”
But she’s been fairly successful with pawpaw seedlings.
“I have three of them that have been growing for me now for maybe eight or nine years, and all three have already flowered, which is very exciting. I haven’t seen any fruit yet. But I think the trees are just waiting to be big enough to hold that fruit, because it’s a pretty heavy fruit — the size of a mango. Maybe next year.”
It wouldn’t be the first borderline zone fruit that has bore fruit for Ms. Baker. Persimmons, another fruit more common in mid-Atlantic states, have seen good results at her edible forest.
“I had my first American persimmons fruit last year, which is very exciting,” Ms. Baker said. “That tree has been winter killed down to the snow at least two years. It’s risky, but I wanted to see if I could stretch the envelope on the kinds of things I can grow, and I’ve seen some success.”
Witnessing the workings of her edible forest garden makes her visits to it an adventure.
“It’s extremely engaging, from that standpoint, and the way the plants choose to work together is interesting to observe,” Ms. Baker said. “They don’t always work out the way you hope, but it’s very interesting to see which plants play nice with each other and which ones don’t. I just roll with the punches and keep trying new things.”
It doesn’t take much space to create an edible forest garden, Ms. Baker said.
“I have a picture in the book showing all seven layers in 25 square feet,” she said.
But no matter the size of such a garden, Ms. Baker said it involves more than the rewards for the gardener.
“It’s also good for the environment to do this kind of planting because you’re not using any chemicals, you’re inviting nature, the birds, bees and butterflies and all the other beneficial creatures into your garden,” she said. “You’re not tilling, not disturbing the soil. Your ground is covered everywhere, always. You are basically building better soil all the time and putting more carbon into the ground and into growing things, so you’re helping the atmosphere in some small way.”
Ms. Baker realizes a “normal person” may not share her ambition to create such a grand edible forest garden.
“My garden is extremely ambitious,” she said. “I had several ambitious goals for it. But a normal person doesn’t have to be that ambitious. They can start very small and as you have experience, maybe expand on that.”
But for this year, she cut back by three-quarters on her annual vegetables.
“I knew I wasn’t going to have time to deal with them because of all the book marketing.”
Ms. Baker will be at a series of book-related events:
• Saturday, May 28: 2 to 4 p.m. at The Little Bookstore, 413 Riverside Drive, Clayton.
• Thursday, June 2: 4 to 6 p.m., Depauville Free Library, 32333 County Route 179. Registration required. To register, contact Depauville Free Library at email@example.com.
• Thursday, June 9: 6 p.m., working with nature to create your own edible landscape. Clayton Opera House, 403 Riverside Drive.
• Monday, June 20: Guest on “Hey, Boomer!” live podcast, 1 p.m. Website: heyboomer.biz
• Friday, July 8: 5 to 7 p.m., reading and book signing at Fibonacci Art Gallery, 100 Court St., Watertown.
• Saturday, July 9: 10 to 11 a.m., talk about a home-scale forest garden with photos plus book signing, Minna Anthony Common Nature Center, Wellesley Island State Park.
• Sunday Aug. 14: 4 p.m., White Caps Winery, 11544 County Route 125, Point Salubrious, Chaumont. Learn how to create an edible forest garden from groundcover to canopy, modeled after nature. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Aug. 30 to Sept. 1: guest at Global Agritourism Workshop, hosted by University of Vermont at Hilton Burlington Lake Champlain Hotel in Burlington.
n Feb. 20 to 24: the second International Forest Garden/Food Forest Symposium, Dartington, England. Presenting at the virtual event.
WHAT: “The Home-Scale Forest Garden: How to Plan, Plant, and Tend a Resilient Edible Landscape,” by Dani Baker, co-owner of Cross Island Farms, Wellesley Island. 336 pages, with 245 photographs and illustrations.
PUBLISHER: Chelsea Green Publishing.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Ms. Baker shares what she learned as she became a forest gardener, providing a practical, in-depth guide to creating a beautiful, bountiful edible landscape at any scale — from a few dozen square feet to an acre or more. She shares both her mistakes and her successes to help readers better understand the dynamics of a forest garden as it grows and changes over time.
FROM THE BOOK: “Even if you are contemplating growing a few herbs or berries beside your foundation or a fruit tree or two in your yard, this book will guide you to create a planting that is not only fruitful but self-sustaining and aesthetically pleasing.” — Dani Baker.
A CRITIC’S VIEW: “Experienced gardeners with a serious interest in sustainability would do well to check this out.” — Publishers Weekly.
COST: $34.95, paperback.
ON THE WEB: For more information on Ms. Baker’s Enchanted Edible Forest, go to enchantededibleforest.com. It includes info on tours, workshops and other events along with U-pick opportunities.