By Chloe Ward. In Growing up – forest gardening Chloe explained her views on forest gardening, her previous disappointments and her plans to try again. Here she updates us on the new forest garden at the Centre for Alternative Technology, in Wales, which opened in June 2010.

When I last wrote about forest gardening I was sounding a little negative. My first attempt had resulted in some bad experiences where the promise of an easy bounty didn’t materialise. For years afterwards I concentrated on more proven forms of gardening, and the annual veg and orchard fruit were rewarding. But the allure of forest gardening is still strong. Fifteen years on, I am trying again – albeit with a tinge of scepticism.

Planning

Runner Bean ‘Enorma Elite’ climbing among the branches of apple ‘Bramleys Seedling. Photo: Katie Hastings

This time I hope I’ve learnt from my past mistakes. I’ve chosen plants which I know taste nice (from experience, rather than catalogue descriptions), I’ve cleared ALL the weeds before planting and I’ve been very careful not to plant too close together.

A forest garden is a multi-layered garden of edible or otherwise useful plants. This garden is deliberately small to allow for careful observation. The canopy layer is made up of three trees including a mature ‘Bramley’ apple. This has allowed us to cheat time a little – with some planting under the Bramley we now have apples fruiting above gooseberries and blackcurrants, above perennial salads, as well as runner beans entwining up the sunny side of the tree. Forest gardening in action already!

The rest of the garden will take a little longer. The ‘Denbigh’ plum and ‘White Filbert’ hazel were planted in 2009, and are putting on good growth. The shrub layer is becoming defined – consisting of soft fruit bushes, as well as the nitrogen fixer dyers greenwood (Genista tinctoria) and the string plant Phormium tenax. The ground covers are a mix of salads, herbs and edible flowers.

The biggest crop we’ve had (after apples) is Jerusalem artichokes. The tubers survived the severely cold winter and were dug up in March – a large wheel barrow full, from which the CAT restaurant made a tasty soup.

Salads were productive early in the year with pickings of wild garlic, pink purslane (Montia sibirica), Welsh onions, and sorrel. The soft fruit is beginning to produce crops of red, white and blackcurrants, gooseberries, autumn raspberries, wine berries and Alpine strawberries. Next year we look forward to tayberries, blackberries, Rubus tricolour berries and Rosa rogosa hips. One problem I haven’t solved yet is how to protect the fruit from birds – the bushes are not easy to net in a forest garden.

Evaluation

Chives, Chard, The String Plant (Phormium tenax), and Dyer’s Greenwood (Genista tinctoria), in front of apple ‘Bramleys Seedling’. Photo: Katie Hastings

I’m fairly pleased with the choice of plants so far. Though I’m still on the lookout for nice tasting, vigorous ground covers. Pink purslane is the best I’ve found, but it does go bitter after it has flowered. Why can’t there be a perennial as vigorous as lemon balm that tastes like rocket? Of course there are survival reasons why plants prefer not to taste delicious, but if we can breed annuals to have incredibly palatable leaves, then there must be scope for perennials.

The garden is indeed proving to be fairly low maintenance. It has taken much less work than a patch of annual vegetables, but a little more than an herbaceous border. Careful weeding has been necessary while the ground covers establish themselves, and it is becoming important to cut back the growth of some of the stronger plants to prevent the slower growing ones from being swamped. The comfrey patch has been cut and used for mulch on some of the poorer areas of soil and compost has been added to give some selected plants a boost.

So, has the forest garden proved to be a low maintenance, productive and beautiful thing? Yes – so far it has made a good start. I believe my caution has paid off in preventing the familiar problems of perennial weeds, overcrowding and disgusting tasting plants.

It’s early days. A couple of years is nothing in the life of a forest garden, but so far my experiments have given me hope that forest gardening could become a widespread and valuable technique for the more experienced gardener. If you’re the observing, planning, careful type, rather than the plant and think later type, then forest gardening may be for you.

Editor’s note: Forest gardening in the UK owes much to Robert Hart’s pioneering Wenlock Edge project. Sadly, his distinctive forest garden didn’t survive his death, but it lives on in his many books and can be remembered or explored for the first time via a video on YouTube

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 28 (Winter 2011), p16.