'Grow Your Own' Week: Forest gardening

Posted: Monday 29 March 2010
by James Alexander-Sinclair

It is my wife who holds sway over the kitchen garden and who dictates what, why and when: I just do what I am told.

Harvesting plums from a treeGood morning and happy 'Grow Your Own' Week to you all.

There are, I have to admit, many other gardeners who are hotter on vegetable growing than me. Give me herbaceous borders and I can muddle through and make them look pretty good, but when it comes to vegetables I am on far less stable ground. It is my wife who holds sway over the kitchen garden and who dictates what, why and when: I just do what I am told. But I have been reading quite a lot recently about forest gardens and it is here that perhaps we can bring our two skills together.

The idea of forest gardening is to get away from the traditional vegetable plot (neat rows of annual vegetables that need to be sown every year) towards a more perennial way of growing edible plants. Perennial vegetables and shrubs involve much less work than annual vegetables.

The rough principle is this: imagine that you live in a clearing in a forest: on the edges of that forest there is enough light and sunshine to grow all sorts of edible plants. There should be layers of food from tall trees through shrubs down to perennials and ground cover. So starting with things like chestnuts (Castanea sativa); cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) and obvious things like apples, mulberries and plums. Then shrubby stuff like elder (both common or garden and American, Sambuccus canadensis); bamboos (what’s good enough for pandas is good enough for us) and all the normal currants, raspberries etc. Finally a layer of perennials like cardoons, rhubarb, crambe or daylilies.

It also introduces a number of things which are not generally considered edible - for example solomon’s seal (the shoots are a bit like asparagus), Hosta 'Big Daddy' (leaves), Mahonia aquifolium (edible berries) and varieties of gleditsia. There are many more.

All this is augmented with plants grown specifically to boost fertility of the soil (so obviating any need for fertilisers) and plants to encourage bees and other pollinating insects.

One of the slight disadvantages is that, obviously, a forest garden won’t fit that comfortably on your average allotment. It is possible if your local committee is broad minded and doesn’t mind you planting trees. You need about 140 sqm of free space. Also forest gardening is not in any way instant and is probably not going to take over from traditional vegetable gardening just yet. But it is an exciting idea that cleverly melds traditional 'grow your own' with plants that are not only edible but also look a great deal more attractive than your average kohl rabi.

I think it is all rather fascinating although I am but a novice. If you want to know more then you should immediately go and watch Martin Crawford's excellent YouTube video and look at the Agroforestry website. Also the website and blog of Mark Diacono at Otter Farm - he grows all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff (interspersed with peregrinations about darts, pain and biscuits).

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Gardeners' World Web User 29/03/2010 at 14:13

Thank you for the useful websites, James. in the Rockies National Park in Canada you can see forest gardening as done by nature - gooseberries, black currants, raspberries, abound under the trees as well as lots of fungi and edible tips of fern fronds.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/03/2010 at 09:54

Fab post - and even though you might need a bit of room for a complete forest garden it's the principles that are the most exciting part - and how people take those principles and work them into their space and into their other ideas. Works perfectly well in an urban setting or small garden, you just drop one or two of the higher tiers (canopy, larger shrubs etc). Forest gardens meeting with the usual domestic setting is going to be a fascinating space to watch over the next few years and the future of the whole grow your own thing.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/03/2010 at 10:10

Lovely idea although I think we need the Forest Gardening Cookbook to really have this idea take off. I'm quite adept at a rhubarb crumble and raspberry jam, but have had little use so far in the kitchen for hosta leaves, solomon seal shoots or daylilies.

Gardeners' World Web User 31/03/2010 at 19:32

hi just startig to grow our own vegs we a small garden with south faceing in ipswich we got some old runing boards can we use them to put veg in they are 10ft long 6inch wide

Gardeners' World Web User 02/04/2010 at 19:56

i also had trouble in my garden with the mice eating my crocus bulbs so i set traps early evening and took them in early morning to avoid catching any little birds and i managed to catch 115 in 3 months so this is a handy tip to help you keep your sweet peas safe

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