Some interesting forest gardens around the UK
Graham Bell’s Forest Garden, Scottish Borders
Nancy and Graham Bell planted their forest garden in the Scottish borders in 1990, making it one of the oldest forest gardens in the UK. They began the garden by creating randomly curvy raised beds on the grass and linked these with paths. Over the years the garden has been planted with many interesting edible species and matured into a beautiful and productive space.
The garden is multi layered and multi functional with alders, apples, cedar, birch, walnut, butternut, hazel, oak, rowan, chestnut and whitebeam in the top canopy layer. Beneath that is the understorey of amelanchiers, apples, cherry, gages, hazel, juniper, laburnum, medlar, plum, pear, quince, Russian olive, elder and willow. The shrub layer includes alder buckthorn, buddleia, currants, forsythia, goji berry, gooseberry, holly, jostaberry, mahonia, raspberries and roses. Beneath these are a groundcover including alpine strawberries, mints, onions, annual root crops, flowering bulbs, borage, comfrey, and mallow. All these layers are then tied together with climbers including blackberry, edible honeysuckles, grapes, hops, wineberry, morning glory, passion fruit, roses and tayberry.
Such a wide assortment of trees and plants means that more than twenty five years the garden is a robust and well balanced system that produces large amounts of produce each year (1.25 tonnes in 2015).
Maddy and Tim Harland’s Forest Garden, Hampshire
Maddy and Tim Harland publish permaculture books and Permaculture Magazine. At home in Hampshire they have a twenty five year old forest garden that they planted on a former agricultural field at the end of their garden. It had been used for intensive crop production for years and the soil was in poor condition.
Robert Hart’s vision was their guiding light in those early years and they also took inspiration from local woodlands of beech and ash with hazel and wild currants beneath and a mass of wild flowers on the woodland floor. They used this model as a template for their own garden, replacing some of the woodland species with trees and plants that would be more useful to them and their young family.
“We chose a wide range of edible plants and tried to fit as many as possible into the available space. We also selected some for their beauty as we both feel our garden should have an aesthetic quality rather than just being functional.”
The Harland’s approach was to heal the soil first before planting many of their long term trees and bushes. In their words with “soil like an open wound” they “covered it with a dressing of native wild flowers to give it a chance to heal”.
The tree planting that followed included apple, Asian pear, cherry plum, Chinese dogwood, damson, elder, fig, gage, quince, medlar, mulberry, Nepalese pepper, peach, pear, plum, Saskatoon, Siberian pea tree, Szechuan pepper, walnut, wild cherry, wild service tree. Beneath this can be found bamboo, currants, goji berry, gooseberry, wineberry, juneberry, mahonia, roses, Russian olive and Worcesterberry. The ground cover comprises marjoram, mint, Nepalese raspberry, nettle wild flowers and wild strawberry.
Working with their forest garden for 25 years Maddy has found that people connect with the forest garden idea on an almost subconscious level and that it speaks to something deep within us. “We have gone from an abused and empty field with barely any soil to an oasis of wildlife that feeds our bodies and souls every day of the year. Every year the yield increases as does the biodiversity.
Agro-forestry Research Trust Garden, Devon
This garden was established in 1994 by Martin Crawford on the Dartington Estate in South Devon. In a 2 acre field a demonstration forest garden has been planted comprising many different levels of trees, shrubs and ground covers, all coexisting and producing useful products such as fruits, nuts, medicinal products etc.
The forest garden is self-sustaining, containing a very diverse number of species and thus very resilient to pests, diseases and the vagaries of the climate. It provides a wide variety of fruits, nuts, edible leaves, medicinal plants, poles, fibres for tying etc.
It is self-fertilising by the use of specific plants which supply nutrients: nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs (particularly Alders and Elaeagnus) which can utilise nitrogen directly from the air and make it available to other plants; and dynamic accumulators (particularly coltsfoot, comfrey, sorrel) – deep-rooting plants which tap phosphate and potash sources deep in the subsoil, raise them into the topsoil layer and make them available to other plants.
Around 140 different species of tree and shrub crops has been used to form the ‘canopy’ layer of tallest trees and shrubs. These range from common species like apples, pears and plums, to less common ones like azaroles, chinkapins, cornelian cherries, highbush cranberries, honey locusts, Japanese pepper trees, medlars, mulberries, persimmons, quinces, strawberry trees, and sweet chestnuts. An area of basketry willows has been planted in a wet area of the site.
Shrubs of varying sizes occupy much of the space beneath trees, including the more common bush fruits (currants and berries) and others such as barberries, elaeagnus, Japanese bitter oranges, Oregon grapes, plum yews, and serviceberries. Many of the understorey shrubs are nitrogen-fixers.
In the latter years of planting, the grass ground cover has gradually been replaced with other ground cover species of use. The main species used for ground cover include: bamboos, especially dwarf species; carpeting species of rubus (blackberry family), gaultheria; herbs; deep rooting perennials such as comfrey.
The Towans Forest Garden, Cornwall
The Towans is an ongoing project to restore a plot of land described as “land with extremely severe limitations that cannot be rectified” in the official soil survey of 1979. Started in 1982, the project follows the principles of permaculture and uses the techniques of agroforestry to maximise the production of food on the land.
Raymond and Sylvia Yarwood have lived here since 1975. They are forest garden pioneers from the Robert Hart era who have established a great range of plants in a challenging environment. The first priority was to establish a substantial windbreak and to use plants adapted to the sand dune conditions. Eventually conditions became suitable for a wider range of forest garden plants including:
Trees – almond, apples, apricots, Californian beach plums, sweet hawthorns, damson, fig, pears, persimmon, pineapple guava, plums, Oregon grape, stag’s horn sumach, strawberry guava, Torrey pine, small leafed lime, medlar.
Shrubs – barberry species, chokeberry aronia, cobnuts, blackcurrant, redcurrant, white current, buffalo currant, eleagnus species, gooseberry, honeyberry, Japanese quince, Japanese wineberry, jostaberry, Nanking cherry, beach rose, sand cherry, saltbush, sea buckthorn species.
Herbaceous – alexanders, aquilegia, bladder campion, buckshorn plantain, Chinese mugwort, cotton lavender, fennel, hogweed, lavender, mallows, marjoram, rock samphire, rosemary, rue, sage, scurvy grass, sea beet, sunberry, tree mallow, wild cabbage, wild radish.
Climbers – sunberry, loganberry, kiwi fruit.
Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) Roof Garden, Reading
This is an exceptional and unusual forest garden on the roof of a community organisation in the centre of Reading.
“The garden is now so much part of RISC’s identity that it is easy to forget that it was a leap into the unknown… could fruit and nut trees grow on a foot of soil, would the structure take the weight, how could we integrate it into our education work… ? We should have trusted in nature. The garden gradually revealed its secrets – the countless stories embedded in the plants and hard landscaping that attract visitors from far and wide.”
Explaining the intention behind the planting scheme, Dave Richards says:
“Our centre works with schools and community groups to raise the profile of global issues such as sustainability, human rights and social justice. We wanted the garden to make a link with that which gave birth to the theme of ‘global education; plants with a purpose.”
Even though the garden is small and constrained by the weight of soil that can be laid onto the roof it is home to plants from every continent most of which are edible and many having other uses as well. They include sweet cherry, peach, hawthorn, chokeberry, wineberry, lemon, loquat, chocolate vine, Japanese stauntonia, bamboo, aloe vera, marsh mallow, Welsh onion, yam, Babington’s leek, fennel, good King Henry, sea kale, mint, ground nut, sunflower, chilli, nasturtium and oca.
In line with RISC’s mission the garden is frequently used as what Dave Richards calls a “learnscape”. “A place where pupils could spend time exploring all the subjects of the curriculum within the context and setting of a human-made landscape that is inspired by nature.
Karuna Forest Garden, Shropshire
Karuna Forest Garden is home to Janta and Meerav Wheelhouse. It covers 18 acres on top of the Long Mynd in south Shropshire at an altitude of 300 metres. Their vision is that they “want to live in a forest that provides everything – food, shelter, energy, medicine and all the other necessities of life. Above all we wanted to create a truly healthy place with a cleansing, healthy energy”.
After arriving in 2006 the couple planted nine acres with over 50 species. More have been added every year and there are now over 10,000 trees on site. The edible plantings of fruit and nut trees, edible shrubs and ground covers have been planted on the edges of the main blocks of woodland so that the forest garden emerges from the forest in a natural way.
The couple host forest garden and permaculture courses on the site.
Anni Kelsey’s Borderland Garden, Powys, Wales
Reading about Robert Hart’s forest garden vision online kindled a strong desire in Anni to grow her own forest garden. A desire heightened by attending a course with Martin Crawford in Devon and reading Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s books. Being confined to a ‘normal’ sized garden in suburban Telford meant that many of the large trees and shrubs favoured for forest gardens were too big for the garden. She decided to concentrate on the lower layers of a forest garden and in particular to explore as many perennial vegetables as she could find. The results of that quest and the resulting edible garden are written up in her book ‘Edible Perennial Gardening’. Happily she found out that the forest garden concept can easily be adapted to small patches of land which means it is possible for anyone with even a small garden to grow a forest garden.
Anni moved house in 2013 to a new garden just across the Welsh border and has been planting it up with a range of perennial vegetables, shrubs and small trees. It is on top of a hill at 1000 feet above sea level and exposed to wind and rain, nevertheless the plants have adapted and the forest garden is abundant and thriving.
Anni’s garden has attracted a lot of interest from other people who want to grow food differently in their own back gardens.
Simon Miles and the forest garden at Falmouth, Cornwall – sells trees and plants as well
Alan Carter, Aberdeen
Edible Forest Garden (also) on reclaimed sand dunes in Cornwall
Old Sleningford Farm in Ripon, North Yorkshire
Edible Landscapes London, FInsbury Park, London