Productivity in the Temperate Understory

I started my permaculture journey in Central America. I was introduced to the term in Nicaragua. I spent time with it in Panama, Guatemala, and Belize. Then, I learned more in Colombia and southern Spain, Andalucía. What I’d never done until recently is spent much time—at least not with regards to permaculture—in cool temperate setting. Now, I’m in North Carolina, reimagining much of what I know and learning new plants and techniques for growing them.

In the tropics, the understory always felt easy and approachable, if not to say downright profitable. Coffee, chocolate, and vanilla all like the shade. Ginger likes the shade. These plants, which are sought after commercially, as well as wrought with small-scale medicinal and culinary uses, actually require a lot of shade. Otherwise, tropical crops often appreciate the relief of some over-story trees, like coconut and papaya, to block out midday sun. Kale, chard, and lettuce all thrived in the dappled sun under avocado trees. In other words, shade was certainly not wasted space and, at times, could be an asset.

In North Carolina, things work a little differently. Initially, I was (and still am) very excited to learn about wild foods that could be foraged in the forest. I never learned much about the wild foods available in Central America, but here we have a huge choice of tasty greens, mushrooms, and roots. Of course, cultivating has proven a little more daunting. Where I used to know how to take advantage of shade, I now find myself warier of it.

Learning Anew

Shitake Logs (macguys)

However, as with other new challenges here—deer, frost, shortened days, I’m finding that, of course, there are options for all of these situations, ways to be productive even when others may find the odds insurmountable. For some reason, in both the tropical and temperate climates, people often feel they need to cut down the forest to get anything useful out of a piece of land, but it simply isn’t true. The fact is that, like with coffee and chocolate and ginger and vanilla, one only needs to recognize what works and move in that direction rather than trying to force what doesn’t.

A couple of months ago, my wife Emma and I checked out two books — The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (Ben Falk) and Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests (Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel) — from the local library, and these two delicious reads really started putting the pieces in place. The understory, I discovered, can be a hugely productive and prosperous place here in the cool temperate as well.

Of course, on a basic level, I knew this already. Without a doubt, all forests have foodstuffs for us to foster and forage, and the existence of shade-tolerant plants are no big secret. I think what these books did for me was both to verify that it isn’t all that complicated to work with the existing forest, even in temperate climates, and that there is notable benefit to utilizing these spaces to grow things. Now, I’m really excited about the potential.

In the Shade

Ramps (Edsel Little)

Farming the Woods seemed to focus a lot more on the potential of what could be done with farming (in) the woods, whereas The Resilient Farm and Homestead was largely based on what Ben Falk has actually done on his farm in Vermont, a much more brutal environment than North Carolina. Between the two of them, I’ve been putting together a list of plants that, hopefully, I can one day experiment with.

1. American ginseng

American ginseng is a highly valued forage plant, which fetches a price (a few hundred dollars per dry pound) that dwarfs just about any other crop I’ve come into contact with. It’s used as a medicinal herb, usually to make tea. However, as laws become stricter and supplies more exploited, wild cultivated ginseng is offering good returns on the effort. It’s a low maintenance crop, but it takes nearly a decade to mature into harvestable.

2. Shitake Mushrooms

Mushrooms, I knew, would always feature in the game up here. They weren’t a big part of what was happening in Central America, and that always felt regrettable to me. Shitake, it seems, is amongst the easiest and most profitable to cultivate, and again, they are well respected for medicinal, specifically anti-cancer, properties. They are said to garner about $20 per pound, but I’m also just excited about eating and preserving them for personal use. Small-scale production is completely doable.

3. Ramps

Ramps, or wild leeks, are a hugely popular early springtime green here in North Carolina, and they are beloved for being one of the first fresh vegetables available. This has given them the reputation as sort of health tonic for revitalized vitamins and minerals after the winter. They are eaten fried with potatoes, as part of omelets, or pickled for later. Like ginseng, ramps have more of a foraged reputation, but they can be cultivated in the forest.

Pawpaws (A. Drauglis)

4. Pawpaw

Having watched many Australia-based permaculture videos, I’ve always thought Paw Paws were papayas; however, here in the US, pawpaw trees are something entirely different. American pawpaws are actually part of the Annononacea family, which includes cherimoya, guanabana, and custard apple. Pawpaws here work in the understory, and they are prized for providing a tropical flavor—something reminiscent of a mango, citrus, and banana–in a temperate setting. This one, however, doesn’t ship or store well. Guess we’ll have to eat it.

5. Sugar Maples

Maple syrup is, for many, the make or break ingredient for a good pancake breakfast, and sugar maples are where it comes from. These are large trees in the end, 20-25 meters tall and 10-20 meters wide, but they are shade-tolerant. It takes a large stand and a lot of work to produce much in the way of syrup, but it’s another potential high dollar crop. A simpler option is to use the sap (before its reduced) as a drink. This is also a good crop addition because it is harvested before having to devote most of our energy to spring cultivation.

6. Elderberries

Elderberries are prized for being delicious berries on their own, but they are known to make some great jam and wine. More importantly, they are versatile, tolerant of many different types of soil, as well as full sun or full shade. They are a mid-sized shrub, going up to about 3-4 meters high, and they are respected as good attractors of pollinators for the rest of the garden and forest. In other words, they are good companion plants, willing to work where they are needed.

7. Mixed Medicinals

In Mudge and Gabriel’s book, Farming the Woods, they also list a host of medicinal plants that have potential for the right, experimental type farmer. Goldenseal, black cohosh, trillium and many, many others can be converted into cultivated, understory crops of the temperate forest, but as the book notes, a large market may not necessarily be there for them yet. However, herbal and holistic medicines are definitely something with a lot of potential for the future.

Tapped Sugar Maples (Mark Goebel)

For me, it’s been a great realization of what can be, a reaffirming that there is a temperate replacement—in the sense of shade-grown—for the coffee, cacao, and so on that excited me in more tropical environs. What I also like here is that the shady spots are being devoted to cultivation for niche markets, possible sources seasonal income that don’t interfere with food production for home. And, of course, all of these things would be great additions for our own kitchen pantry.

Growing mushrooms (shitake, oyster, wine caps), trying my first American pawpaw, drinking elderberry wine, harvesting some maple sap—these things all seem extraordinarily adventurous. As easily as that, a productive temperate understory is something I’m much more capable of picturing, from the roots (ginseng) to the floor (ramps) to the shrubs (elderberry) to the trees (pawpaw). I’ve even managed to discover a productive, shade-tolerant vine: variegated kiwi.

As well, the full-on food forest is layering up with possibilities.

Feature Image: Ginseng (Eugene Kim)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Just a note to temper yield expectations: elderberry gets lanky and doesn’t produce much in the shade, whereas it can be quite productive in full sun.

    This is common among most shade-tolerant temperate plants. You can optimise for either stacking or yield, but not both.

    One notable exception is plants in the Grossulariaceae family — currants, gooseberry, and jostaberry. They seem to be quite productive in the shade, although I’ve heard their fruits aren’t quite as sweet as if they were grown in the sun.

  2. I would also like to add fiddle head ferns beside wild leeks since here in eastern Ontario they often grow together and around the same time.
    It is a very plentiful, dark green early

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