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

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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