More of us are growing our own food as we want to know the origin of what is on our plate whilst improving our health and wellbeing. Considering, that just in urban areas, there are an estimated 800 million of us, growing vegetables in anything from pots through to allotments, we can make a vital contribution to our food supply. 

Apple blossom
Apple blossom in the food forest

The advantage of producing food on a smaller scale, is that it enables us to be more inventive with what and how we grow.  The Forest Garden is intriguing as it is described as a low maintenance technique that enables wildlife as well as crops to flourish. Not surprisingly it is gaining worldwide popularity, though until relatively recently it has escaped the attention of traditional academic research.

Fiddlehead fern
Fiddlehead fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, – delicious when eaten small with melted butter

Through my research I visited and spoke to different British Forest Gardeners; I was so inspired by them and this idea, that I created one at home. So just what are they? They mimic a young woodland containing on average 64 plant species that have either edible, medicinal or practical uses or any combination of the three. 

Forest gardens replicate forest glades .. in this case a lawn.
Forest gardens are based around forest glades .. or a lawn in this case!

The secret to finding space for so many plants, is to grow them in layers. At the top is the fruit/nut tree which is typically a local apple variety. The key to low maintenance systems, is to use plants that you know are adapted to your space so it will thrive and less time needs to be spent getting them to establish. Moving down to the second layer we find shrubs and fruit bushes typically blackcurrants and raspberries. The third layer is for herbs, and perennial vegetables.

Globe artichoke
Globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus, love food forest situations

This includes Good King Henry, the temperate version of quinoa and perennial spinach. The fourth level is for root crops such as horseradish. These are surrounded by the fifth level of ground covering/spreading crops that protect the soil from erosion as well as feeding us. Typically, these are strawberries. The final sixth layer is for climbers which spread throughout the other layers and includes blackberries, hops and grapes.

Juneberry blossom
Juneberry blossom, Amelanchier alnifolia, in a Forest Garden

Stacking our plants to make the most of our space, seems so obvious it is surprising that we haven’t thought of it before. Well actually we have. Robert Hart who founded the of temperate Forest Garden in the UK 1980’s based his method on tropical multi-layered tree based growing techniques that are over 12,000 years old. The Mayans’s used these forests to gathered pods from the vanilla orchids within them. What is interesting about the Forest Garden is that we are combining the new and the old.

Medlar flower
Medlar flower, Mespulis germanica,
in a Forest Garden

Forest Gardens, like its predecessor contains predominately perennial crops.  The advantage here is that perennials only need planting once, though they provide you with crops for several years. In contrast, globally we rely on just four annual crops for our daily needs: rice, wheat, maize and potatoes. As their name suggests, with an annual crop, you get one harvest in a year, before the plant dies. If you want more food you need to re-sow the following year increasing the risk of damaging the soil and consequently the environment. But, if we look for alternative food we can broaden our diet as well as find more sustainable food growing methods.

Oregan grape
Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, is great in forest gardens

So what else do we know about British forest gardens? Well they are typically grown on sloping land, previously considered to be of little agricultural value – you wouldn’t grow cereals on them. This goes to show that with a little imagination you can grow food almost anywhere. They also contain both native and exotic plants, enabling us to have a journey through taste and time, whilst exploring different cultural plant uses. It also helps that forest

Rosa Rugosa
Rosa rugosa

gardeners are more experimental than most in what they eat, supplementing their diet with foraging for ‘wild plants’ including what are considered weeds such as three-corned leeks, which can be used as a garlic substitute and ground-elder, which was introduced by the Romans as a delicacy. Forest Gardens also contain many common garden plants, which many of us didn’t realise were edible. Examples are the Fushia’s whose berries were prized the Incas and day lillies whose edible flowers and leaves are used in Asian cuisine.

Spider on underside of buddleja leaf
Spider on underside of buddleja leaf

So, the forest garden shows that exploring different cultures and ancient techniques could provide solutions to ideas to our modern food conundrums. 

I began my forest garden exploration in 2014 and I have learnt a lot over the years. Over the coming months my forest garden and I will be entering a new phase as I gently reshape it in a way that works better for me, the plants and the wildlife within it. I look forward to you joining me on this journey.

Emma Dolphin

Forest Garden Footnote

I find it interesting that many of the plants Emma mentions in this article are commonly found in UK gardens. So many of us have the start of a forest garden without even knowing it. The next step could be to expand your own forest garden and have a food forest ton your doorstep.

There’s more on forest gardens and Robert Hart on wikipedia and my own article on Food Forests here

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