An edible forest
It’s growing plants the natural way. Charlotte Philcox tells us how to create our own ‘forest garden’.
Gardening can sometimes seem like one colossal battle. Neat borders come at a cost, yet if you stop to think about it, attempting to keep your soil as spotless, weed free and groomed as a posh stately home carpet can turn gardening into housework on a grand scale, rather than an enjoyable activity. That’s why most of the time I prefer trying to work with, rather than against, nature.
It’s rare that unless you include deserts, or toxic waste sites you’ll find anywhere in the wild with permanently bare soil. Left to their own devices, plants will rapidly colonise empty ground, acting like a kind of ‘sticking plaster’ which protects it from erosion and damage. And every last leaf and bit of decaying matter will eventually be recycled, returning nutrients to the plants – just as they are in a forest.
Taking nature as a model can help create a healthy garden ecosystem while also reducing your workload. But I’m not for one second suggesting you sit back and do nothing. I’ve seen many an allotment where the ‘let it all hang out’ approach has been adopted with pretty uninspiring results. Mind you, the nettles usually do well.
For years, I’ve been fascinated by the no-dig, low maintenance approach of people such as Japanese philosopher-farmer Masanobu Fukuoka and the late Robert Hart, whose Shropshire forest garden inspired a whole new generation of gardeners.
Forest gardening is a method of growing mainly edible plants, modelled on the way trees, shrubs and perennials grow together in young, natural woodland. It takes careful planning and a little work to set up, but once the initial plantings have been made, there is no digging involved. Maintenance is easy too, as with the use of deep mulches, weeds are fewer and easy to extract.
The edible crops are grown in a series of vertical ‘layers’, consisting of trees, shrubs, soft fruit, shrubby plants, herbaceous perennials, climbers, ground cover plants, nitrogen fixers, roots, ground cover and some annuals, and should produce a varied harvest.
A simple forest garden can be established on a patch of lawn in a few hours. If planned well, it will provide you with an attractive area, a useful harvest, healthy soil and plants, habitat for wildlife, and a vastly reduced workload. What more could a gardener want?
How to make a forest garden
1 Start by planting the fruit trees, just as you would in an ordinary garden. Allowing plenty of space for this is really important, as if planted too close together, they will eventually shade out the crops grown between them. In a small space, it’s best to use trees on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks.
2 Remove all perennial weeds from the area, and cut the grass short, leaving the clippings on the ground.
3 Scatter a layer of raw compost material (to feed the worms) and several handfuls of seaweed meal and/or bonemeal.
4 Cover the area with a single layer of thick brown cardboard, overlapping by about 30cm. This will be easier to do if you give the card a quick dunk in a water butt first. Large, flattened out cardboard boxes work best.
5 Now spread a layer of farmyard manure across the surface of the cardboard. This can be well-rotted or fairly fresh, and is best spread about 15cm deep. Partially made compost also works well, and if you have nothing else, you can use commercial peat-free potting compost.
6 Add a 15-20 cm deep layer of straw, partially rotted leaf soil or dried bracken, and soak the lot with water. Straw from non-organic farms often contains residues of weedkillers and pesticides, so it’s a good idea to buy your straw bales well in advance, and leave them outside for up to a year before use.
Note: Make sure none of the mulch material touches the trunks of your trees, to discourage rooting from above the graft union, or rotting.
After about three weeks, the mulch will have settled, and you can start planting your shrubs and perennials. To do this, simply open up ‘planting pockets’ by pulling back the straw and manure, and filling these spaces with good topsoil and/or well-rotted garden compost. You can plant straight into these, without any risk of the manure scorching the roots.
It’s surprising how quickly the mulch will break down, so you’ll need to top it up regularly with grass cuttings, comfrey leaves, or shredded plant material. The idea is to eventually carpet the ground area with a living mulch of plants – and of course, to harvest your crops.
Some unusual edible plants for the forest garden
Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum): A perennial climber with orangey-red flowers, and edible nasturtium-like leaves. The tubers are eaten like carrots or parsnips.
Buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum): A shrub, usually grown for its fragrant yellow flowers. The spicy, blackcurrant-like fruit were a staple for the native North American plains people.
Skirret (Sium sisarum): Popular in the Middle Ages, this multi-rooted European perennial crop tastes a little like a parsnip.
He has written what for me are the ultimate books on the subject. ‘Creating a Forest Garden: working with nature to create edible crops’ (Green Books, 2010, £30) is extremely thorough and beautifully illustrated. If you’d like something a little more compact, his recent ‘How to Grow Perennial Vegetables: low-maintenance, low-impact vegetable gardening’ (Green Books, 2012, £14.99) is just as good.
For more information about the Agroforestry Trust, which is based in Dartington, Devon, visit www.agroforestry.co.uk
Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘The One-Straw Revolution’ is published by The Other India Press, Mapusa 403 507 Goa, India. It has challenged thousands of readers to rethink their attitudes towards food and farming, and the way we live today.