Sep 6, 2008

Forest Gardening in Totnes

There was a course ( that was offered at the Agroforestry Research Trust Center in Devon, England that I had been interested in for a long time and recently went to. It was geared towards teaching you what a forest garden is, and how to design, put together and maintain one. Martin Crawford was the teacher and has been following the ways of permaculture for a long time.

Martins definition of a forest garden is: a garden modelled on natural woodland, the climax vegetation of temperate climate regions, utilising plants of direct and indirect benefit to people- often edible plants. Forest gardens are long-term biologically sustainable systems for growing food and other products for a household or commercially.

These types of gardens have been around a long time, specifically being practiced in India, Africa and China. I learned that you can put together a garden with the same principles of a wild woodland, through several layers of vegetation, such as canopy trees, small trees, large and small shrubs, herbaceous perennials, climbers and vines, and ground covers and creepers. These are put together in the way that in a natural woodland can create mini-ecosystems which can take care of itself.

This was the entrance to the 2 acre forest garden, which was on site of the course, and is a 13 year old established garden. The idea is to have it be where you get the maximum output for minimum input by creating these ecosystems.

There are many types of things to harvest from a forest garden, such as the obvious-

fruit, nuts, seeds, vegetables, herbs, spices, honey

to the not so obvious- mushrooms, fuelwood, poles/canes, things to use for binding and tying, dying materials, basketry materials, and medicinal plants.

While taking the course, I realized that a good majority of the plants that were being discussed wouldn't be able to grow back home. So I took notes on all that could be used and picked up some interesting tidbits along the way.

What do you do when your bamboo starts to flower? We know that when they flower, that's it, they will shortly die soon after.... Well, the seeds are edible and are good in salads, and a bamboo cane is best cut after it has had the chance to mature for 3 years because then it will be completely lignified and ready for use elsewhere in the garden. But if you cannot wait, when a bamboo shoot is just starting to push itself out of the ground, they are very tender and are edible and good in salads or stir fries at this stage.

Here is the bamboo seed up close.

Then there is the soapberry plant, Shepherdia canadensis, which you can use to make candles from. Below is what it looks like.

Phormiums get huge here, unlike at home, and are a great textile plant. The fibers in the leaves are very strong and can be used to tie things together or stake some plants.
Just cut the leaf at the base and tear the leaf length wise and it is surprisingly sturdy and strong.

Another idea, which was a theory that i had been wondering myself after studying the meadows at Great Dixter, was that nitrogen fixing trees were planted throughout the forest garden. Alders, which are fast growing, are nitrogen fixers and help get other plants established and growing better. I first noticed this in the meadows at Dixter where a legume was growing in the meadow, another nitrogen fixer, and it seemed the other plants growing right next to it were taller and blooming a bit longer than the others of it's kind. I am eager to try this when planting up a garden in the future. This type of planting could benefit plants that could always use that extra boost......

One idea we have all heard of is that planting things on a south facing wall can be very beneficial for some plants, due to the radiant heat it absorbs during the day and then releases at night. A theory one step further, in a way, is that Martin has planted an apple tree which is being espaliered, which you can see attached to the wires. The theory here is that the hedge behind acts as a South facing wall and gives off heat that it has absorbed during the day benefiting the apple at night. Obviously not as good as a south facing wall but better than nothing right?
Here is an apple tree that has about 7 different cultivars of apple grafted onto one rootstock. This idea excited me because this is a great solution for a small urban garden, where space is usually an issue. The thing that I wonder is you have to be careful with the different types of apples you choose because of early types, late types and the fruit size as well. Would all of these grafts eventually exhaust the rootstock too?
While I really enjoyed the course and found the information useful, I would definitely change it a bit to suit my taste and uses. I do look forward to trying an area in whatever garden I have in the future....