Notes from Forest Gardening Course: Part I

It was a cold night camping and my alarm didn’t sound, so I had to get up and leave straight away. No tea or shower but a beautiful walk to Dartington Church Hall, walking briskly.

We spent the first session discussing design techniques. The real value for the group is having the opportunity to learn directly from Martin Crawford’s garden. We took a tour of the trees, discussing their roles, varieties, products, placement and management. A few of the notable and interesting trees included lime, chestnut, szechwan pepper, mulberry, chinese dogwood, bamboo, nepalese pepper and bladdernut. I’m keeping good notes and taking in what I can. Seeing the forest garden first hand is helpful to get a feel for the dimensions and how everything is spaced. It’s unlike any garden I’ve ever seen before. Such incredible diversity.

Later that day, I think of my cousin Elizabeth and her husband Fred Banson, and the beautiful forest garden they are growing near Raleigh, North Carolina. When I visited last Summer, I remember Fred excitedly showing me Martin’s forest gardening book as well as other excellent books informing his homestead design, such as A Pattern Language. I mentioned this trip to Martin. It’s exciting that his experience and knowledge is reaching across continents.

Fred's forest garden in North Carolina
Fred’s forest garden in North Carolina

Our lunch included various products from the forest garden. A rice and quinoa salad, with a range of breads, jams and salad leafs from the garden, which included bamboo shoots. All very fresh and healthy.

Some of the leaves in the forest garden salad
Some of the leaves in the forest garden salad

The afternoon started with a design exercise. We were split into four groups and given a plan view of a site and range of trees. Our task was to come up with a design, putting into practice some of the design principles we have been learning about. Factors such as light, height profile, nitrogen fixation, plant soil preferences and spacing. It’s all very permaculture in process. Although we don’t discuss this explicitly (and Martin hasn’t mentioned the word), it feels most people in the room are experienced permaculture practitioners. It was interesting to see how each group presented very different designs. Martin was able to help us think about what would work well, and those that wouldn’t. I have a tendency towards designing on computers but from this exercise, I can really understand the value in a large scale map, and doing the initial canopy design over several months. There’s a lot to consider and it shouldn’t be rushed.

Designing the main tree layer of a forest garden
Designing the main tree layer of a forest garden

The ground layer

Back to the forest garden for another tour, this time focusing on the ground layer. In general, there are some plants that clump together (e.g. perennial leeks, sorrel) and others that like to move (e.g. mint, strawberry). The ideal situation is to have a good mix of both; covering all ground means that when a perennial dies out, something will move in to cover that space. The garden therefore self-corrects. With a forest garden you will spend the first few years planting things out, but eventually, it becomes a job of management and control, which will include some weeding and then planting out new plants as you desire.

Wild garlic / ramsons, ground ivy, fall strawberry
Wild garlic / ramsons, with ground ivy, fall strawberry and columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)
Japanese butterbur (Petasites japonicus), Solomon’s seals (Polygonatum biflorum) and other plants

Perrenials are generally slower to germinate than annuals and it’s easy to end up with a weedy mess if you’re sowing directly. Oversowing with an annual will reduce this. For example, we saw sorrel and fennel over sown with trefoil, a very cheap nitrogen fixer which will die back after a year; and hosters planted with siberian purslane (Claytonia sibirica). This approach mimics nature, as you find after land has been disrupted, for example, due to a forest fire, annuals are the first to move in, followed by perennials.

Weeding takes place April to July and Martin says he spends around 8 days weeding per year. When he says weeding, it’s not getting down on hands and knees and pulling up individual weeds, it’s more of a walk through the 2 acres with shears, chopping and dropping. The idea is to give the plants you want a competitive advantage. Weeds may be providing useful benefits so there’s no need to clear them unless they are crowding out the plants you want.

So what else did we see on the ground layer? Some plants include: Turkish rhubarb, day lillies (edible flowers, fresh or dried), valerian (popular in Chinese medicine), lovage, solomon’s seal and swiss mint. We also saw various species of raspberry: Groundcover (Rubus pentalobus – very vigorous – you need to define boundaries) and Nepalese raspberry which is less vigorous.