Permaculture gardeners look for plants that are multifunctional. These berry bushes can fix nitrogen in the soil while providing edible berries.
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Finding food-producing plants that are useful in other ways is a great joy of mine. Multifunctional plants can help improve the efficiency and resiliency of food-producing landscapes while saving time.
When I learned that there were some berry bushes I could add to my garden and food forest that would give nitrogen back to the soil, I wanted to give them a try!
Why is Nitrogen Important for Plants?
Nitrogen is a primary nutrient that is essential for building strong plants with vigorous, healthy growth. Plants need a lot of it. The trouble is, nitrogen isn’t easily or widely available to plants.
That’s because it largely exists in the atmosphere, and most plants can’t access it there.
The good news is that you can create your own nitrogen fertilizer by growing nitrogen-fixing plants, such as the berry bushes in this article.
Nitrogen-fixing plants take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that is useable by plant roots in the soil. Certain soil bacteria form nodules on the plants’ roots that “fix” the nitrogen into the soil.
The plant uses some of it, then makes the excess nitrogen available to nearby plants.
How to Use Nitrogen-Fixing Berry Bushes
Mulching with cuttings of these plants is one way to transfer the nitrogen to your garden beds. (See: Mulching in the Permaculture Garden.) You can also compost the cuttings first to create a rich soil amendment for vegetable gardens.
Permaculture practitioners often plant nitrogen-fixing plants, like these berry bushes, in food forests to feed nearby fruit or nut trees. They feed the surrounding perennials through the soil. On top of that, the plants can be chopped back regularly.
Try dropping the cuttings around fruit and nut trees as mulch to feed the soil from above.
Tip: Chopping and dropping at the beginning of a rainy season helps the nitrogen-rich cuttings break down faster.
Related: How to Build a Permaculture Fruit Tree Guild
Want to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your front yard landscape without sacrificing curb appeal? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape.
Berry Bushes for Fertilizer
There are quite a number of nitrogen-fixing herbs and trees to add to your landscape or the outskirts of your garden, but sometimes a hedgerow of berry bushes is just the thing you need for privacy and food!
The following berries taste nothing like common berries from the grocery store. In fact, modern grocery stores are a detriment to having a varied and diverse diet by only making a few fruits available to us.
The modern grocery store phenomenon has reduced our appreciation and wisdom for nutritious wild foods. Where once we had knowledge about local wild plants that could feed us, now we rely on a grocery store to determine what we should eat.
If you’re wondering how to make uncommon berries more palatable, see my ideas in How to Grow a Jelly Garden (Jelly being just one idea I mention!).
Four Nitrogen-Fixing Berry Bushes To Try
1: Buffalo Berry Shepherdia canadensis
Other Common Names: Canada buffaloberry, russet buffaloberry, soapberry
USDA Growing Zone: 2-7
Fruit Palatability: Fair
This berry bush has a long history of use by native people, and is an important food source for bears due to its high protein content. Birds and deer are only mildly in favor of this fruit. The flowers are an important source of nectar for pollinators.
The fruit is bitter and traditionally mixed with other fruits and/or sweetener. Native people made a sauce similar to cranberry sauce.
It is eaten raw sparingly because it contains saponins, which can upset the stomach in large amounts. Cooking the berries mellows the bitterness and removes saponin.
What it lacks in palatability this shrub makes up for in nitrogen-rich biomass that enriches soil. This multi-stemmed shrub grows to 6-12′ tall/wide and prefers dappled sun in open woods or in sunny thickets at the forest edge.
Read more about buffalo berry here.
2: Goumi Elaeagnus multiflora
Other Common names: Cherry silverberry
USDA Growing Zone: 5-8
Fruit Palatability: Good
Goumi is a native to Asia and has long been used as a superfood for its high levels of lycopene (more than tomatoes) and vitamins A, C and E. Birds like the berries but the shrubs are resistant to deer. The spring flowers provide nectar for pollinators.
The taste of goumi is astringent but sweet. Though it has a flavor all its own, it has been likened to the tastes of sour cherries, cornelian cherries, and even rhubarb. Waiting until the berries are fully ripe provides a more enjoyable eating experience.
They can be eaten fresh, but like many tart berries, cooking mellows the flavor, and they make good sauces, jellies, syrup, and pies. The seeds can be eaten or spit out. Cooking softens them. Or make them into wine!
Goumi is a fast-growing, clumping berry bush that grows to 6-8′ tall/wide. The shrubs are self-fertile, so only one variety is required. This species naturally grows in dappled shade in thickets and open woods. It favors well-drained soil, but it happily grows in poor soil.
- Read more about goumi here.
- Harvesting Goumi Berries
Tired of generic permaculture design advice that you can’t apply to your specific goals? If so, check out my Permaculture Design Program and get the tools and support needed to create and implement your own permaculture design.
3: Sea Buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides
Other Common names: Seaberry, sandthorn, sallowthorn
USDA Growing Zone: 3-7
Fruit Palatability: Good
Sea buckthorn is native to Europe and Asia, naturally growing near the coast in sandy soil or on rocky mountainsides. It is a superfood and traditionally has many medicinal uses as a source for antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids.
It provides food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. The berries hang on into the winter and provide winter forage.
The super tart berries are often juiced and mixed with other fruits for a more enjoyable balance of flavor. The seeds are like apple seeds, but the berries can be run through a food mill to get rid of them. Freeze the berries and then cook them on the stove for about 10 minutes to mellow the tartness.
Sea buckthorn is a thicket-forming berry bush. It spreads through suckers to quickly hold disturbed soil in place and begin healing it through fertilization. The healthier your soil is, the more slow-growing and tame sea buckthorn will be. It likes well-drained soil and is drought tolerant.
Both male and female plants are needed for berry production.
The shrub grows 10-20′ tall/wide, and makes a nice privacy screen or security barrier in part shade. It dislikes trimming, and will reduce berry production in a year after pruning.
The shrubs have needle-like thorns that make harvesting a challenge. Be sure to wear rose pruning gloves. Thornless varieties exist, but are not yet widely available in the U.S.
Read more about sea buckthorn here.
4: Silverberry Elaeagnus commutata
Other Common names: American silverberry, wolf-willow
USDA Growing Zone: 2-6
Fruit Palatability: Fair
Silverberry is native to western North America and has a long history of use by native people. The bark makes strong baskets and cordage. The shrubs provide good shelter for birds but is not a favorite food source. The flowers are a good source of nectar for pollinators.
The berries are mealy and dry, and can be eaten raw. Native Alaskans fried them in moose fat as a high protein treat. They can also be made into wine.
Silverberry is a multi-stemmed berry bush that grows 6-12′ tall/wide to form a nice hedge. It prefers sunny edges of open, disturbed areas where its rhizomes can spread to slow soil erosion. Careful, these shrubs have thorns!
Read more about silverberry here.
Notes on these Berry Bushes
1: Watch out for aggressive spreading from the root zone with sea buckthorn and silverberry.
One way to contain these shrubs is to mow wide strip on both sides of the row. Keep it mowed to prevent rhizomes and suckers from spreading. In small spaces where preventing their spread is crucial, a rhizome barrier around the border of the planting area would be a wise choice.
Remember that once the soil is healed, or if you already have great soil, these plants will be slow growing and easy to manage.
2: Elaeagnus species can be dispersive.
Elaeagnus umbellata (autumn olive) is widely detested in many regions. Native to Asia, it is considered an invasive species in much of North America because of its dispersive habit.
Birds feast on the berries that fall off the trees and largely go to waste. The birds then drop the seeds, which make more trees!
My friend Janet at One Acre Farm has this to say about autumn olive, “…environmentally conscious people realize that using the berries for sauces, fruit leather, and jam requires boiling the berries, killing the seeds…killing the seeds of an invasive shrub reduces its spread…”.
Read more of her article on foraging autumn olives here.
I don’t suggest planting autumn olive, but we can take advantage of its wondrous berries (see them as a gift for the land and wildlife!) and help slow its spread.
Likewise, goumi is another non-native Elaeagnus species in North America. There are reports that it has already naturalized in 12 states. If you intend to plant goumi, do so with the intention of harvesting as many of the berries as you can.
Many people have discovered that goumi is not dispersive like autumn olive.
Remember, nitrogen fixers—unlike many other invasives—are short-lived. Their job is to jump-start healing in disturbed and damaged soils. Once soil is healthy enough to support mature trees, nitrogen fixers die out all on their own without human intervention.
If they’ve spread, it’s because the ecosystem needs their help. Read more about this topic in my article When Weeds are Good. You’ll also find an excellent perspective in the book Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration.
- Transitioning to the No-Till Garden
- 7 Comfrey Uses in the Permaculture Garden
- The Cherry Tree Guild and Natural Pest Control
The book Edible Forest Gardens, Vol 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture was instrumental in my understanding of nitrogen fixation and the plants that perform this function to reduce our reliance on store-bought fertilizers.
If you’re looking to have fertilizer and eat your berries, too, these berry bushes will do the trick!
Are you growing any of these four berry bushes? Do you grow your own nitrogen fertilizer?
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>>> Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments for more ideas:
Wonderful article! I’ve grown two of those – Guomi and Sea Buckthorn. I think my males crowded out my female buckthorns, though, because I never did get berries. They are aggressive but I’m looking at them for my new house to form a natural fence along our road. They’re cheaper and more useful than a fence, that’s for sure.
That’s great feedback, Tessa! What did you think of the taste of the goumis?
Gord Harris says
I have a zone 5 garden with a relatively small area for a food forest. in it I have 2 sea buckthorns, 3 currants, 3 gooseberries, a dwarf cherry and 2 goji berries as well as several rhubarbs, and one peach tree in the centre. For now, I also have some Egyptian Walking onions, garlic, a couple of comfrey plants and a couple of grape vines on the surrounding fence. Last year this space was taken over by gourd and melon vines, all of which gave good crops. Of the berry bushes, only the goji berries produced well. The peach died and the cherry nearly did the same. All the rest at least grew well in their first year and produced flowers, hidden in the melon vines!! Oh yes – I also planted a few potatoes that had gone soft and had the most wonderful crop of scab-free baking potatoes!!
This year, the gourds are gone but I think I’ll try watermelons and Russian striped Melons again, as they produced very well. I have another veggie garden separated from this one and it was pretty much a flop last year except for peppers, squash and cucumbers. Everything else over there was eaten by either small birds or underground assailants. None of that in the Food forest!!
Your food forest sounds like an excellent experiment in perennial and polycultural gardening! I’m curious to know if you have any guesses as to why you didn’t get more berries or why the peach and cherry died/didn’t thrive.
Gord Harris says
I don’t know why the second peach didn’t survive. The one before it was doing fine in the same place until my bull terrier puppy tore it up! He literally tore it out of the ground and chewed the roots off! The Sea Buckthorns didn’t fruit because the same puppy tore nearly all the branches from the female bush so it didn’t flower last summer. It spent all season regrowing. Maybe this year it’ll do better now that there’s a fence protecting it. However, the male bush grew like Topsy and should be ready to fertilize any female flowers that show up. The currants and gooseberries all had a few berries each so they should all do better this year. I think it was just a bit of transplanting setback that affected them. I had a big crop of rhubarb, much more than expected in a first year. The grapes won’t fruit until the 3rd year but they are doing well and will have a new arbour later this week upon which to grow. As for the cherry, it came to me by post and was about a foot tall when first planted in the veggie garden where nearly everything flopped last year. The leaves fell off it and it nearly died so I moved it to the Hugelbed where it improved and lived through the summer shaded by melon and gourd vines. It still looked pretty good when I tore off all those vines in Fall, so if it made it through its first zone 5 winter, it should do well this year. However, it will be several years before I expect any fruit from it.
I can see the joy on your puppy’s face as it tore the tree out of the ground and chewed the roots of LOL! I think you have lots of years of productivity ahead with this food forest (now that there’s a fence) 🙂
Rob Halpern says
These are some seriously invasive species. The Elaeagnus, especially, have caused a great deal of trouble in natural areas from one end of the country to the other. In many states these shrubs are actually illegal.
Are you sure you want to recommend them????
The debate about invasives is a good one, and much more intricate than can be discussed in a comment section. But I appreciate you bringing it up–it is a serious question. You’ll notice my “notes” section above that describes the responsibility in choosing to plant some of these species. Of course, I would only encourage planting them where it is legal. Two of these species are native to North America and pose no threats.
Elaeagnus is edible for both humans and wildlife and also repairs damaged soil, so in the category of invasives, it is one that I don’t feel bad about planting, especially in a food forest where the primary goal will be to eat the berries. There are plenty of invasives that don’t seem to offer any benefit to the ecosystem.
Ma Kettle says
Try to remember that readers (potentially) around the globe. Eleagnus grows successfully in my area but is not invasive. Yahoo!
Yes, great reminder 🙂
N. Cox says
These shrubs are horribly invasive. They spread to natural areas and much money and effort is used to dig them up all over the country. Please do not plant non native shrubs. Native insects need native plants. We have to change the dialogue in all gardening forums. Insect biomass supports native songbirds. I don’t want a silent Spring. Many were used in mine reclamation for reasons you mention. But this turned out to be s bad idea.
These articles are read by people all over the world, so invasive to whom?
Ouch! Recommending……then saying “be responsible”? I think this article is NOT appropriate OR responsible as a post. Naturalizing in 12 weeks? Why not an article about planting four healthy and easy berries? Maybe berries that DON’T need “notes”. The slant on fertilization could be interesting, though not when a shrub has such potential as a noxious weed.
This is a good article. Interesting and informative. Calling the author irresponsible is pretty extreme, and a little ridiculous. People are free to choose whether they want the extra work that comes with various plants, and they are probably intelligent enough to make that decision for themselves, especially if they’re reading this type of article in the first place. If you prefer an article about “four healthy, easy berries” that “don’t require notes”, then by all means go write one.
You are free to not plant these if you don’t want to, and you’re entitled to your opinion. However, there is an alternative discussion about “invasives” if you’re interested in learning about it. I really like the book Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration.
Colin Dunphy says
we are the invasive species. dont blame something the pioneer for the disturbed environment.
I always learn something new from your posts. I’m big on chopping and dropping, mostly with woody material as we have a wood lot. Just recently learned that it’s best to cover woody material with herbaceous material to help with carbon sequestration. I know, seems obvious but it was news to me!
That’s a great tip! It will also help it decompose faster. Thanks for sharing 🙂
can you recommend where to buy these? my usual places – southern exposure and baker creek don’t carry them . . .
ps – i love your newsletters and blog so much! 🙂
You may need to Google them and buy them online.
Yes, what Leslie said: You can check with local nurseries in your area, but you may have to buy from nurseries online. A couple of my favorites are Oikos Tree Crops and Raintree Nursery, but googling will give you options that meet your needs for your region 🙂
Can you point to references for the distance that nitrogen-fixing berry shrubs feed nearby fruit or nut trees through the soil?
Also I’m curious about the high protein content of buffalo berry which I haven’t heard about before.
To read more about nitrogen-fixing plants, see Martin Crawford’s books, Nitrogen-Fixing Plants for Temperate Climates or Creating a Forest Garden. The USDA Plants Database also gives information about nitrogen fixation.
Perennial Solutions is also helpful.
The information about buffaloberry comes from the United States Forest Service.
Rolande Theriault says
As far as I know, the nitrogen fixed by these plants is for their own use. Great for poor soils where nitrogen is low.
It is likely that much of the fixed nitrogen is used by the plant itself in a barren environment. However, research is beginning to show that diverse plant communities above ground support a diverse soil ecology below ground, enhancing nitrogen creation and sharing. These nitrogen-fixing plants are likely most effective when grown in diverse plant guilds.
Do you anyone who has tried eating Caragana arborescens Siberian peashrub?
Another nitrogen/fixing shrub with edible fruits.
According to Dave Jacke in Edible Forest Gardens, the beans can be eaten cooked but are “small and troublesome to harvest.”
How are these 4 bushes to be used in an orchard to give the other fruiting trees N? How close do they need to be planted, and how many N fixing plants need to be planted in an orchard? For example, 1 nitrogen fixing bush in the middle between 4 non nitrogen fixing fruiting tree?
Martin Crawford, who has written a number of books on the subject, suggests that at least 25% of your plants in an orchard or food forest should be n-fixing plants. That is the low end. He thinks a better ratio of productive plants vs. n-fixing plants is 50%.
So for every fruit tree, you’d have a n-fixer planted nearby. Many practitioners actually plant a n-fixer in the same hole as the tree to be sure the roots intertwine with one another, but definitely plant it within the root zone of the tree. The n-fixing bush would subsequently be pruned to whatever size is needed to ease harvesting of the main crop (cuttings are laid down as mulch).
If you have four trees planted closely whose roots likely intertwine, then I’d say planting a n-fixer in between them would give them all shared benefits. Although you might not notice a huge benefit with just one n-fixer shared among them.
There are a number of n-fixing plants that act as a nice groundcover or herbaceous layer beneath fruit trees that could supplement the work of the n-fixing shrubs. Read more in my article about planting hedgerows.
While Sea Buckthorn can be considered invasive, in reality because it does not in any way shape or form tolerate shade, it’s generally safe to plant. Most invasive species are classified as such because they end up slowly destroying the natural forest and wooded areas. Sea Buckthorn simply can’t do that as it doesn’t survive in those areas.
It’s a fabulous companion plant for fruit trees when planted close by as within a few years the shade of the fruit tree will throttle the growth of the Sea Buckthorn. As with many things, including plants, learning how to use them properly reaps the best rewards.
I have enjoyed all of your articles, including this one. However I live in zone 9 which is supposedly too warm for any of the four recommended—are there any “warm climate” species you would recommend? Thank you!
I don’t know of any nitrogen-fixing berries for warm climates, so I think you’d have to grow two separate plants to achieve the functions of nitrogen fixation and edible berries. 🙂
I’m zone 9b and I plant pigeon pea trees for my N fixers. I plant all my berry’s that don’t do it for the joy of harvest.