My back garden is a productive, organic, kitchen garden with substantial amounts of perennial vegetables, some annual vegetables and five dwarfing fruit trees. The fruit trees are kept pruned and spaced widely to allow the maximum amount of light to reach the vegetables below and have a decent fruit crop. It is not really a shaded garden, though the allotment is much sunnier as evidenced by the bigger onions and leeks I can grow there, and no plants form anything like a canopy.
So why then do I keep referring to it, and the techniques I use, as forest gardening? What keeps drawing me back to this quite seductive but impractical idea, in the urban context? Well, simply I am using techniques I have learnt from forest gardening gurus like Martin Crawford and Geoff Lawton but I am applying them and fixing them at an early stage of development, very much (apart from the fruit trees) at the herbaceous stage.
My garden looks more like a classical organic garden, like (though not as good as) something that Bob Flowerdew would design, so aren’t I satisfied with just calling what I do an organic fruit and vegetable garden? I have the greatest respect for organic gardeners, but my influences don’t stop there. Sustainable organic gardening has moved on apace, delving deeper into the ecology of gardening and soil. The techniques for establishing forest gardens, building soil by growing and mulching with annual nitrogen fixers, then perennial support plants to chop and drop around young fruit trees, are sound and create good soil to start the cycle of nutrients in your garden.
I simply build that soil and stop there, maintaining that soil with annual and perennial nitrogen fixers which I either mulch the soil with (overwinter) or compost with my hedge clippings (both nitrogen fixing and non nitrogen fixing hedging plants) and vegetable tops.
What particular techniques do I utilise that are specifically forest gardening techniques?
My back garden has plants that fruit under other plants (and other plants beneath them). My cherry tree has beneath it two blackcurrant bushes, a good king henry plant (a perennial spinach type plant) and two comfrey plants. Further out near the drip line (the outer edge of the canopy) there are productive perennial salad crops like sorrel, garlic chives, egyptian onions and wild rocket. Pretty much three vertical layers: tree, bush and herbaceous.
2. Support Plants.
I use up much of my precious garden space to grow support plants. These have little or no productive value to me apart from the effect they have on the soil, or the growth of other more productive plants. Because we are eating our veggies nutrients are lost from the soil. Those nutrients need replacing and we do this by adding organic matter. That organic matter is then eaten by microbes which die and release nutrients in the soil for your plants. I deviate from forest gardening here in the sense that I compost most of the support plant prunings before applying it to the soil. I do this because compost, even quite rough compost, boosts my plants really quickly so I have two compost heaps on the go (one maturing and one being added to). Forest gardening prefers mulching and chop and drop, probably because of the large scale of forest gardens and because that is what happens in nature, plant matter falls and rots in situ.
Support plants are very often nitrogen fixing trees/shrubs, such as alder, black locust, eleagnus ebbingei, but they also include annual and perennial nitrogen fixers such as field beans and clovers. Non nitrogen fixing plants are also used, such as comfrey which mines deep for nutrients. In my own garden I also grow non nitrogen fixing hedging (which if I could start again I would have chosen nitrogen fixers), the prunings of which are composted.
3. Perennial Veg.
Obviously fruit and nut trees are perennials but what is less known about forest gardens is that they have perennial vegetables in the herbaceous layer. This is for two reasons: one, that perennial veg often tolerates more shade than annuals (which don’t at all), and two, a forest garden should maintain itself with only minimal work from human beings. So the never ending sowing, thinning, watering and feeding of annuals is inappropriate in a forest garden. I grow tree kales, nine star perennial broccoli, kailaan (chinese broccoli), babbington leek, sweet leek, welsh onion, japanese bunching onion, garlic chives, garlic, rock samphire and skirret (amongst others) all of which are perennial plants.
I do deviate from forest gardening here because I also grow peas, squashes and tomatoes, mostly because gardening is not worth doing without them!
4. Closed Loop Fertility.
Forests look after themselves, they don’t require fertilising or manuring. They don’t need human help at all and their ecologies don’t crash every now and again because of a lack of inputs. Because we are growing vegetables, though in a kitchen garden, the fertility required is much higher than maintaining a forest garden. If we don’t add compost or other inputs our veg productivity will crash. I do however grow all my own compost on my own land, setting aside half of the land to these support plants. The vigor of my support plants is exploited for the benefit of my vegetables and fruit. That many of my support plants are nitrogen fixers helps here, as well as peeing on the compost heap and composting all compostable waste from the house. I don’t mean human waste though, as this is a step too far for the urban environment.
There is one area I deviate from here and that is I buy potting compost for my annual seedlings, because sowing seed is so precarious even with the right kit. This is another way annuals are so resource hungry.
The above characteristics together are intrinsic signifiers of forest gardening. If you add ‘succession through to closed canopy’ you would pretty much have the whole forest gardening caboodle. Now I don’t do the closed canopy thing but everything else I do. I’m really into this style of gardening but it is a bit silly calling yourself something you’re not. It doesn’t look like a forest and it won’t be allowed to grow into one therefore it isn’t and shouldn’t be called a forest garden. But I feel I’m part of a movement and I wish someone would come up with a cool name for small, urban, sustainable and perennial vegetable gardening, I can’t be the only one doing it!
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