My small ‘forest’ garden

I have to confess that, for a while, I was confused about the term ‘forest garden’.  Is my garden, I wondered, properly a ‘forest garden’?  Or is it just a vegetable patch?  Gradually, by following the work of people like Anni Kelsey, I’ve come to know that the term refers to a way of gardening, and not to gardening in some sort of woodland.  Jake over at Forest Garden Wales, posted this succinct summary of how the term can apply even to a small garden.  I thought I’d use his five principles of a forest garden to review my own small garden.

First, Jake explains that a forest garden ‘mimics’ a forest edge, rather than being situated in a forest.  My back garden certainly does a good job of mimicking a woodland edge.  Sitting beneath mature trees, it both benefits from, and is limited by, their shade.

Back garden beneath mature trees

Back garden beneath mature trees

The front garden sits beside a mature hedge, and in the centre we have planted a small edible cherry (Stella) which was a gift from friends.  As it grows, it too will create its own edge, casting shade, capturing water, and feeding and housing birds (and hopefully us).

Front garden

Front garden

The garden is productive, with a range of edible green vegetables, and fruit such as alpine strawberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants.  It is also productive for wildlife (we often share the same plants, such as cabbage), with nectar rich plants grown alongside the edibles.

Verbena and hablitzia using height

Verbena and hablitzia using height

It is multi-layered.   For example, tree cabbage and hablitzia tamnoides use vertical height, and the raspberries make the most of the heat from the back wall.

Hablitzia climbing back wall next to raspberries

Hablitzia climbing back wall next to raspberries

Ground cover sits beneath the taller plants, such as parsley and lambs lettuce beneath the tree cabbage, and Siberian purslane and lamium (nectar) beneath the kale. 

Kale with Siberian purslane, lamium, lambs lettuce

Kale with Siberian purslane, lamium, lambs lettuce

Tree cabbage with parsley

Tree cabbage with parsley

Comfrey nestles in amongst the raspberries, providing biomass and fertility for sustainability.  I also grow yarrow, lemon balm, and red clover as mineral accumulators that I can simply chop and drop on the ground as nutritious mulch.

Comfrey with raspberries

Comfrey with raspberries

It is lower maintenance than an annual vegetable garden, as I don’t dig the soil.  This is also ‘lower maintenance’ for the wildlife and soil organisms, who are allowed to get on with what they do largely undisturbed by an interfering human.  By increasing the range of edible perennials that I  grow, plants are able to get their root systems established and can ride out more extreme weather conditions.  I mulch with horse manure, home made compost, and leaf mould to feed the soil, trusting the worms to dig it all in for me.  This all means that I can concentrate my efforts on learning how to actually harvest and cook the food that I grow, an aspect that can get forgotten.

So is my garden properly a ‘forest garden’?  I think I can probably say that it is.

 

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Greenhouse – a year on

It was around this time last year that our new greenhouse arrived.  Now that we’ve come a full year’s cycle, I’ve been thinking about what’s worked and what hasn’t.  I wanted a greenhouse for two reasons: (i) to safely raise perennial and annual plants from seed (so I can be sure that no chemicals or pesticides have been used); and (ii) to provide an all year round productive space.

For the first half of the year, the greenhouse did a really good job of safely raising seedlings.  I managed to grow a good range of perennial plants, including sea beet, Caucasian spinach, good king henry, kale, garlic chives, wild rocket, and lovage.

Seedlings in greenhouse Summer 2018

Seedlings in greenhouse Summer 2018

I grew annuals including tomatoes, salad greens, kale, French marigolds, snapdragons, basil, parsley, and more.

Plants in greenhouse Summer 2018

Plants in greenhouse Summer 2018

I was determined to use peat-free compost.  Finding a good one isn’t easy, but I used Sylvagrow with added John Innes, and it performed well.  It isn’t available locally, so I had it delivered from an online supplier.  This obviously bumps up the cost quite a bit,  so I just used it for seed sowing and raising seedlings.  For my salad troughs, which require a lot more compost, I used veggie soil from a local supplier.  It is peat free and cheap, but isn’t actually a potting compost.

As the year went on, I started to encounter problems.  The first was the number of plastic compost bags which I ended up accruing.  I don’t throw them away as I prefer to reuse things rather than ‘landfill’ them (especially plastic).  But there is a limit to how many empty compost bags I can actually use.  So I need to find a growing medium that doesn’t proliferate plastic bags.  The only way that I can think of to do this is by making my own.

The second problem was that a load of compost fly arrived with the veggie soil.  Compost fly are not a nuisance for mature plants, but unfortunately their little grubs feast on seedling roots.  Once the compost fly arrived, the seedlings stopped growing.

A third problem, which is related to the relatively dark situation of the greenhouse as well as my ineptitude in keeping things too damp, was the arrival of powdery mildew.  This particularly liked the chard and kale baby leaves.

For this year, then, my objectives are to learn: (i) how to make my own greenhouse growing medium; (ii) how to manage pests in the greenhouse – specifically compost fly and powdery mildew.  The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a problem here.  If I’m putting the compost fly and mildew back into the compost (erm – yes, I am), then my home-made compost will not be a pest free growing medium for the greenhouse.  I’ve already had a go at making potting medium from home made compost, leaf mould, sand, blood fish and bone, and garden soil.  I can see from the arrival of enthusiastic volunteer seedlings that I don’t kill the seeds in my compost.  I also found a slug under a pot.  That explains the vanishing remains of seedlings that were already struggling.

In summary, the problems that I face if I use my own growing medium include slugs, seeds, compost fly, and powdery mildew.

Things that I intend to try to address these problems are:-

  1. Turn my compost every month to heat it up and kill the seeds.  This is a pity, because I actually delight in ‘volunteers’ in the garden.  An alternative is to create the compost and pot it up, let the seedlings grow, and ‘hoe’ them off before sowing the stuff I actually intended to grow.    
  2. Check under pots for slugs regularly.  Put down something they might love to hide under, and check that regularly.  Put ‘bait’ in there, such as a large cabbage leaf.
  3. Grow the things that aren’t susceptible to powdery mildew, such as oriental greens.
  4. Don’t overwater in winter, don’t underwater in summer, and don’t water foliage.
  5. Clean greenhouse and pots thoroughly to remove mould spores.
  6. Try biological control for compost fly, including carnivorous plants.
  7. Try sowing seed into leaf mould (do compost fly lay eggs in leaf mould?)

I’m learning the hard way that a greenhouse is a micro-environment which is more susceptible to pests and diseases, as it is a closed system rather than an open eco-system.  There are  fewer natural predators, and the air and sun can’t get at the plants freely.  Trying to manage without commercial potting compost, and particularly without peat-free compost, makes a difficult task even more tricky.  But that is no reason not to try.

Your small garden can be a forest garden — from Forest Garden Wales

Quote

A really useful and succinct blog about why ‘forest’ gardening applies to small domestic gardens, and what the features and advantages of this approach are:-

The term “forest garden” can be misleading. It’s neither forest-sized nor a forest, so rest assured that your small garden can be transformed into a forest garden. source https://www.forestgarden.wales/blog/small-forest-garden/

via Blog: Your small garden can be a forest garden #ForestGarden #GdnBloggers #SmallGarden — Forest Garden Wales

Mini meadow

In the depths of this noticeably mild winter (I still have caterpillars on the brassicas), thoughts turn towards Spring.  Mine do, at any rate.  Looking back over the last year, one of the things that delights and intrigues me is my lawn’s ability to turn into a mini meadow.  John Lewis-Stempel, in his wonderful book Meadowland, describes a lawn as a ‘meadow in captivity’.  With our lawn, we are letting the meadow out.  Our approach to lawn-mowing is inconsistent, to say the least.  We (the royal ‘we’ – I don’t touch the lawnmower) mow about once a month on average, and sometimes less frequently.  This has created space for a range of wildflowers to colonise our ‘lawn’, which consequently is usually busy with bees and other pollinators.  Here are a few of these plants that I managed to photograph this year.  OK, so the bulbs had help from me.  But everything else moved in by itself.  Any ideas what the tiny blue flower is?

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Comfrey, the plant miner

“Once you’ve got it in your garden, you’ll always have it.”  So said the grower who gave me my first comfrey plant, nearly a decade ago, from her own garden.  I planted it anyway, possibly irresponsibly, in a corner of the rented garden which provided the first home for my edible growing.  In due course, we moved away taking my precious compost with us, neatly bagged up, to start our new compost heap.  Sadly, the comfrey  was forgotten in the general chaos of moving.  All was not lost however.  We are good friends with the neighbours of that property, who had taken the opportunity to take a cutting before the property was reoccupied, which they then established in their own garden.  When I bemoaned my lack of foresight in leaving the comfrey behind, they brought a carrier bag of the stuff, taken from their own garden.  It soon took root, and since then, I’ve potted up seedlings from my own garden to pass onto other friends.  This is a plant of great generosity that can be passed on, and on.

It has taken a while to find the right home for my comfrey, but for now it is fighting it out with the raspberries against the back wall.  It gets sun there, so it can make beautiful purple flowers which bees love so much.

Comfrey first emerging

Comfrey first emerging

This was its first emergence after being planted in that position.  It grew and flowered, and I harvested the leaves which I made into a very smelly comfrey tea (by adding them to water and waiting 2-3 weeks).  Undaunted, it grew on again.

Comfrey second growth of the year

Comfrey second growth of the year

I harvested another fat crop of leaves which I simply layered directly into the compost heap at turning time.

This generous, forgiving plant is one of the great plant miners, its deep roots tapping mineral resources and bringing them up into its floppy, hairy leaves.  According to Garden Organic, it contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are essential for plants.  This ability to mine resources from the surrounding rocks and stones (that’s magic – isn’t it?) and deposit them in its leaves can help me to improve my soil’s fertility.

I hope I do always have it in my garden.  I just hope my ex-landlords feel the same.

Groundings 3 – Bob Bin

This year I bought a third black dalek compost bin.  You see, a girl can’t have too many compost bins.  This one I have christened Bob, because he’s for horse manure.  I’ve been making my own compost for years, but things don’t grow spectacularly and I think it is because I need to improve soil fertility.  So earlier this year we stuck a notice on Facebook asking for well rotted manure.  An obliging horse owner replied and said he had bags of the stuff.  Fifteen bags.  I had a lovely afternoon spreading manure on the beds to celebrate passing my PhD viva.  Only it was still a little bit – well, smelly.  I’m sure the plants didn’t mind too much (I can’t say the same for the neighbours) but ideally it would be a bit better rotted.  So I looked up how to compost horse manure, and found this detailed article.  In essence (lots of essence) you layer up horse manure with carbon rich material such as leaves and paper.

I was getting behind on my admin, so this gave me a reason to get lots of shredding done.  I was destroying old financial papers.  Making compost with them is a satisfying redefinition of ‘value’.  My neighbours gave me sacks of shredded leaves.  Mr Horse Owner donated ten more bags of the brown stuff.  Everyone was delighted to be giving me what is otherwise a ‘problem’ for them to dispose of.  And then Bob the Bin arrived.  My stage was set.

Manure compost bin

Manure compost bin

I lay sheets of thick cardboard at ground level, then alternated layers of manure, leaves, and shredded paper.  The above article says to turn the heap often, so I’m due to get out there this week, give it all a good mix up, and see how its doing.  The idea is to keep it hot.  When it stops getting hot, it is done.  So there’s a job to keep me warm this winter.

Groundings 2 – Leaf mould

I’ve been trying to make leaf mould for years.  I used to shove the leaves into black plastic sacks and punch holes in the bags.   A year or two later, I opened the bag hopefully, and found … leaves.  Only one of my leaf bags actually turned into leaf mould.  This was disappointing, because the one thing that we have literally bags of is leaves.

Leafy lawn

Leafy lawn

Our garden sits beneath a retaining wall, and on top of that are mature trees:

Mature beech trees above back garden

Mature beech trees above back garden

So we have a plentiful soil improvement resource right on our back doorstep.  Where the leaves fall on the beds, I let them be.  Perfect mulch, nature’s own way.  Where they fall on the ‘path’ at the back, they are also allowed to stay.  They break down slowly, providing a walking surface over the winter, just like a woodland path.  The leaves on the lawn and on the paving get swept into piles and then sucked and munched with the leaf vacuum.  Sweeping first means the vacuuming takes no time, and uses less electricity.  Munched leaves break down much more easily, especially as our leaves are mostly beech which breaks down very slowly.

The leaf mould breakthrough came when we made a proper bin (in the middle-front of the top picture).  It is ridiculously simple – just some wire mesh in a circle, held up by garden canes and fastened with wire.  We built this bin a year or two ago, and this year we dug out three good-sized compost bags of lovely crumbly leaf mould.  (I never throw away a compost bag.  You would not believe how many compost bags I have.)   Having emptied the bin, I started filling it again.

Leaf mould makes a great peat substitute for homemade compost, which I’ve been making for the first time this year.  I’ll write about this some other time.  I’ll also write about my other use for leaves in my third (yes, third) black dalek compost bin.  My brilliant neighbours also deposit bags of their leaves over the fence for me, and I am taking it as a personal challenge to use all the leaves from both gardens.  Leaf no waste.