The Claytonias are a very useful group in the forest garden, being very palatable species whose natural habitat is woodland. Claytonia perfoliata, miners’ lettuce, is unusual in the genus in that it is an annual rather than a perennial. It is often grown in greenhouses in Britain as a winter salad, but it is much […]
“Right plant, right place” is a popular design mantra. But who’s in a better position to find the right place than the plants themselves? And why don’t we just let them? (Above:) A new book from Princeton Architectural Press, The Gardener Says, quotes one of my essays about a favorite topic: nurturing native plants that…
There has been a pungent smell in the air of late as I’ve been walking alongside fields of pasture. The farmers are clearly telling me that it is time to get mucky. It is time to actually use some of the compost and manure that I spent last year preparing. It is also gorgeous weather for getting out in the garden. Rather too gorgeous for the time of year. Whilst I’m enjoying it, I am supressing a sense of unease. Spreading compost is one way to alleviate this. It is good for me, in that the exercise and fresh air that it entails is good for managing anxiety. And it is good for the garden, because it improves soil structure by adding compost, and keeps the soil covered by mulching with manure. These are two of the most important things that you can do to make your garden more resilient to climate change, according to Kim Stoddart’s article The Extreme Gardener in the Autumn/Winter 2018 Garden Organic magazine.
The first thing that I saw when I unfolded the top of the green canvas bag in which my homemade compost is stored was a purple crocus protruding out of the compost, in full flower. The first job, then, was to find a more suitable home for the enterprising little corm. I hope it may be happier in the Spring border, although I have to say, it was doing splendidly in its compost bag.
I picked out some of the twiggier material from my compost and used it to mulch my path at the back. Then I shovelled compost into a trug and trotted round the garden, patting handfuls in place around my perennial edibles. I am prioritising the perennials, as they need the sustenance and protection, and are the best bet for a climate change resilient garden says Kim Stoddart. She explains that these plants get their roots right down into the subsoil to find water and nutrients, and have evolved to last longer and therefore have greater resilience.
Next, I delved into Bob Bin. The manure was lovely and buttery, soft and malleable and teeming with worm life. There was no smell (unlike the farmers’ pastures) and it was frankly a pleasure to work with.
I used it to mulch over the compost that I’d just spread, patting it down firmly. Sadly, this won’t discourage the blackbirds who love to dig in it for the worms, chucking clumps of manure out onto the surrounding paths. It doesn’t discourage cats either. As you will notice from the photos, I’m working on that one.
It was also a good opportunity to take stock of the garden. I moved some garlic chives which had been a little bit jammed in last year. I mulched them in, and hopefully they will reward me with big juicy clumps of garlicky leaves to munch. More pungent smells.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I grew annuals including tomatoes, salad greens, kale, French marigolds, snapdragons, basil, parsley, and more.
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:-
- 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.
- 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.
- Grow the things that aren’t susceptible to powdery mildew, such as oriental greens.
- Don’t overwater in winter, don’t underwater in summer, and don’t water foliage.
- Clean greenhouse and pots thoroughly to remove mould spores.
- Try biological control for compost fly, including carnivorous plants.
- 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.
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/
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?