Birchfields Park Forest Garden

Account Shared by Jane Morris, Jane Sweet and El Cockcroft

Conversation Facilitated by Jude Mann

Account Written up by Nickie Bartlett as edited by Janes & El

Birchfields Park Forest Garden was first imagined and planted in 2007. The account of the garden’s beginnings is captured in Tomas Remiarz’s  book of 2017 “Forest Gardening in Practice: An illustrated Practical Guide for Homes, Communities and Enterprises” pages 121 to 125 (also to be made available on NFGS website? If so insert link). Tomas Remiarz wrote in his introduction

Birchfields Park forest garden is an example of a new type of public space, actively managed by its users. Over the last decade the park’s Friends group have created a forest garden that has taught them as much about working with each other, the public, the cities authorities as it has about working with trees, bushes and herbs

The forest garden is set within a public park and is divided into four main quadrants. One person from the original forest garden team takes responsibility for each of the quadrants. The immediate reason for managing the area in this way was to divide up the responsibilities, and reduce conflict and frustration arising from different ideas about the best way to manage the garden. However, it was also recognised that this would provide opportunities to compare and contrast different strategies and techniques over a longer timeframe which was seen as a benefit.

The garden is situated within a public park, managed by Manchester City Council in liaison with the Friends of the Park. The forest garden is managed by a separate group of people who work closely with the Friends of the Park.

In April 2022 we met over zoom with Jane M and Jane S, two of the founding members of the forest garden team and El Cockcroft who joined the team at the start of the pandemic in April 2020. We were interested in updating its story and to learn how this mature garden, one of the first community forest gardens in the UK had kept going for 15 years.

What are your hopes and dreams for the project now?

“A perpetual permanent growing of new woodland, growth that’s much richer than community orchards. An enrichment of the landscape” Jane M

A physical sanctuary area. A productive area and a learning area. Where it’s obvious that things grow, rather than magically appearing in shops. A place where we have the ability to grow trees. Most of us don’t have the space to do that in our gardens and yards or allotments” Jane S

“Continuing to be the flourishing community space that it is. A hot spot for biodiversity. A place where we can enjoy foraging and bee and other wildlife-monitoring. A place where we can come together for special events. A common space that’s available for others because it’s set within our local park.” El Cockcroft. Her daughter Naimh added that she likes the circular “communal” space in the middle of the garden, and the way the plants are arranged around the circle. She likes the edible fruit and she would like there to be even more!

??The overall aim still stands, it was for a public demonstration that this and other forest gardens can thrive in all sorts of spaces. The hope is that they help communities transition into a more productive, food-secure and climate-resilient future and develop healthier relationships with nature and the authorities that manage the land for us all.

We are also in liaison with the local climate action group & the Council… to spread the garden’s influence & create more Orchards & FGs/similar to reduce the pressure on it. Also via Barry & AMOSS to share solutions eg re herbicides…

What keeps people coming back?

The team described members of the local community coming into the forest garden to forage for raspberries and salad leaves, to enjoy the birdlife, butterflies and bees. Occasional seasonal community celebrations are held at the forest garden, for example Wassailing and observing the Solstices. Jane S described bee and bird walks organised by the Friends of the Park which take people through the forest garden. Jane M also described engagement projects that have come and gone over the years, some more successful than others. They had found it difficult to sustain engagement from local schools and childcare providers, reflecting that they had found it difficult to keep local childcare providers consistently involved. However, they now have regular students from Manchester Uni botanical society joining their monthly forest garden days.

Communication has been challenging and particularly so during the pandemic but there was a powerful, resilient “community spirit” during the regular, socially distanced gardening sessions that still took place. The informal meetups at the pub, which helped to generate new ideas, connections and decisions stopped. Some members of the forest gardening group felt unable to engage with the WhatsApp groups and other social media fora. The pandemic has been a really difficult time for the founding members of the group in terms of organising, co-ordinating and keeping the garden going. Sadly, one of the key founding members of the group became ill and died over a year ago and the loss of her skills and friendship has been a real blow for the team.

It was also recognised that a few new people had arrived and stayed during the pandemic. El reflected that she got involved at the beginning of the first lockdown. El brought her 7-year-old daughter along to help, explaining that the garden gave El and her daughter something to do. El explained that her daughter has developed a real love of nature and the garden was a great way to help with the isolation they were experiencing. It became a place of sanctuary for them.

As Eris a ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ scheme volunteer, said the Forest Garden supports health via outdoor activity and biodiversity and it helps the environment.

The Manchester Permaculture Network had been influential and supportive when the garden was first developed. However, this Network has evolved into a looser grouping and there is less support available now. It was also acknowledged that over the years help or support has sometimes come in via the local Network and Birchfields looks forward to more exchange with Hulme Community Garden Centre and the team from Prestwich Clough forest garden, a venture which had evolved out of the Network; also perhaps the Climate Action and Incredible Edible networks.

Learning: Finding ways to communicate and connect with each other really helps to keep each other going through difficult times.

Work within networks and like-minded groups can help bring the wider communities into the garden.

What stage is your garden at now?

Jane M and Jane S explained that the impetus for developing the garden now, is less than it used to be, and it’s more about maintaining the garden. Having said that, Jane S described a new triangular bed that had been put in over the last couple of years which included donated trees of mulberry, loquat, pear and damson suckers. They also described an area they were developing to the east of the garden to provide better shelter including jostaberries, sweet chestnuts and a willow grove developed with a local school. They are developing other plum groves and a mini-orchard on the South side of the Park. Jane M explained that these developments are jointly led by the Friends of the Park and the Forest Garden group in response to the need for  more orchards, plum groves, mini-orchards, fruiting hedges  ‘Incredible Edible’ patches of land and community food growing gardens. Jane S reflected that over time there has been an extension of the forest gardeners influence over other areas of the Park. Also there’s been some blurring and a merging of the roles of Forest Gardeners and the Friends of the Park. Jane M also explained that there is a lot of enthusiasm for ‘Wilding’ at the moment and she wonders if this should be integrated into their thinking and future development in and around the forest garden and the area surrounding the park. This could include local climate action and more ‘Creative Rusholme’ development of tree, bee/pollinators’ and peace trails.

Expansion: There are ongoing issues about gardening in a quiet (not over-looked) public space accessible to all, and in such an inner-city site the planting and garden is for anyone/everyone including wildlife. The gardeners and their partners and allies do not control all that happens in or tends to take place in forest garden. Unfortunately, this includes vandalism, thoughtless trampling of plants, harvesting at inappropriate times and stages of ripeness etcetera. On occasion there has been theft of plants, extreme damage to or removal of branches); as well as many expressions of appreciation and offers of help.  

Learning: Forest gardening within a public park settings especially when the garden is often not over-looked is challenging. More people are needed to take ownership of the garden and help increase public understanding.      

Aspects of its management can influence management of other parts of the Park and be taken on by the Friends or the Council or other local groups or organisations. Forest gardeners are uncertain about the Garden’s future but it is naturalising becoming more self-sustaining.

Queries

  1. feelings plans and evolution within what transitions? At different levels?
  2. Learning for BPFG & Friends of BP or for NFGS &/or parks/public space management

What are you most please or proud about?

“Delighted by the response people give to the space. The amount the Forest Garden is used for people to have picnics and illicit barbeques. People just love to have that slightly wilder space to sit inside and spend time in.” Jane S

I love the way it’s laid out. You can walk into the thick of each quadrant. That wild feeling. I’m proud that it’s helped us through a difficult period through lock down. I’ve learned so much about plants from the gardeners. I love that those doing Duke of Edinburgh’s were able to volunteer in the forest garden and some have been inspired to go on a do more volunteering. It’s resilient and we’ve kept it going for ourselves and biodiversity. I really like the elaeagnus, it’s so multifunctional and I really like all the other medicinal plants” El Cockcroft

“We’re proud of it’s biodiversity, range of plants and range of functions. I like to introduce people to different plants like the silver leafed Elaeagnus ebbignae with its nitrogen fixing, scented flowers and lovely fruit and the wonderful myrobalan/cherry plum [not cherry], and hazel and alder hedges. It’s a very resilient garden”

Aside: Prunus cerasifera is the naturalised plum known by the common names cherry plum or myrobalan plum.

Learning: The forest garden means different things to different people. To some the planting, biodiversity is the most important aspect, while others place more importance on the food/foraging and social functions that the garden enables. All or as many as possible functions need to be taken into account when creating a garden that will be sustained into the future.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about…any other challenges?

Being in a public part is both challenge and a blessing.

Squirrels eat our nuts and though they can be useful in defending our plants, the thorny plants spreading themselves or arriving via bird droppings are a challenge too (wild roses & brambles).

Time is a challenge, knowing what to prioritise when and how to make decisions. We would like better signage, but we’re not sure what to put on the signs and how to keep them safe.

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