On the Rowhedge water front I have been helping to create two edible gardens. When I first suggested doing this I was met with a lot of confused faces. The reason for this is that most people, when they think of edible gardens, they think of allotments. In their minds they were envisioning rows of onions and carrots like you see on many an allotment plot. This was not what I had in mind and now the beds are beginning to develop I hope the doubters are beginning to come round to the idea of ornamental edible gardens.
Around ten years ago I came across the idea of ‘Forest Gardening’ when researching about farming for the future as part of a course I was delivering. The way we farm today is totally reliant on oil. The fields are ploughed and harvested by machinery run on diesel. Plant husbandry on a massive scale requires pesticides and fertilisers that are all compounds that are produced using hydrocarbons that also come from the oil industries. In fact, every step of food production right through to packaging and transport to the supermarket shelves relies on oil. The problem for the future is that oil is a finite resource and will one day run out. Forest gardening may be one way of producing food in a more sustainable way, keeping us fed well into the future.
The basic principle of forest gardening is to take the natural ecosystem of a forest but manipulate it so that all of the plants in the habitat provide something useful. Think about it for a moment. Forests grow and thrive without any input from man. No pesticides or fertilisers are needed to maintain them. If we could produce food in the same way then we could massively reduce our reliance on oil to produce our food.
Finding out about this way of growing was a revelation for me. I wanted to get involved. I went on training courses, watched videos on Youtube and read as many books I could find on the subject. The only problem I had was that I didn’t have a field in which to plant one. This didn’t stop me though. I experimented in the school garden and at home. I can’t call them forest gardens as there is a lack of trees due to the size of space I had available. I like to call them edible gardens, which was actually the name of a BBC series with Alys Fowler, showing that I was not the only one growing plants in this way. In fact there are many gardeners around the country doing very similar things, particularly as part of the Transition Town movement. Edibles can be found in many towns and cities across the country where there were once the traditional flower beds.
You don’t need to be a horticultural expert to have a go. Anyone can do it. All you need to do is think about what you like to eat then buy your plants and get them in the ground. I have begun an arch of self-fertile hardy hairy kiwi fruit. I could have used apple trees, runner beans or roses. Remember roses are actually edible. The flowers are tasty sweet, the leaves make a refreshing tea and the rosehips are packed full of Vitamin C. The runner beans are great too as they fix nitrogen into the soil. They are also perennial as long as you give them a little protection from the frost by mulching at the end of the growing season. Dotted around the garden are herbs mixed with fruit bushes and edible flowers that attract beneficial insects that are the predators of pest species. I love ornamental grasses and they are brilliant for overwintering insects such as ladybirds, as they can bury themselves in the dense foliage until spring, then get to work eating the aphids before they can become too much of a problem. Another good plant in an edible garden is the New Zealand Flax. I use the fibres from the leaves as ties when securing plants such as climbers to their supportive structures and they are give a great texture to the garden. There are many edible flowers I use but I also use non-edible flowers as well. As long as they bring in the beneficial insects such as hover flies I am happy and they look amazing too. One of my favourite plants in my garden is Allium hookeri ‘zorami’ which is a perennial allium. I harvest the leaves to add an onion flavour to salads or stir fries. It flowers right into December and is always full of bees in summer.
Why not have a go yourself this year, or get planning for the future. My top tip would be to think about more unusual plants that you cannot find in the supermarkets such as Kohl Rabi, or fruits that can be very expensive in the shops. Once you start you will not be able to stop planting more and more new exotic varieties. There are some other key aspects to growing food in this way that you should know about and I will talk about in later blogs.
If you want to find some more unusual plants then take a look at Paul Barney’s nursery, edulis.co.uk. Another good place to go is Martin Crawford’s website, agroforestry.co.uk. Martin’s book, ‘Creating a Forest Garden’, has been my horticultural bible since it was first published in 2010.