Designing the allotment plot

I’ve been working through the design section of the forest gardening course that I’m following with Forest Garden Wales. In this post, I’ll reflect on the design decisions that I’ve been making as I’ve developed the allotment plot.

One of the first questions that I asked myself was, what did I want to use the plot for? I already have a garden which I’ve been writing about on this blog. What does the plot offer that is different? First, it is further from the house, so not instantly accessible. I can’t pop out and snip a herb or two at mealtimes. So the plot needs to grow things that I can manage and harvest less frequently. This rules out things that need a lot of watering or daily harvesting. Second, it is in full sun with an almost ideal aspect and lots of light, unlike my garden. Third, the growing area is provided by deep raised beds with friable soil. This is perfect for root or tuber crops, which also lend themselves to infrequent harvest. My garden, which has low light and shallow soil mostly grows greens and herbs. What I don’t have is carbohydrate, or root crops. This gives me a focus for the plot.

Rather than growing mostly annual vegetables, I decided that I wanted to continue my experiment with perennial edibles, finding new crops that will suit the growing conditions in an increasingly unstable climate. I also want the space to be shared with wildlife, in the same way that my garden is. This has informed my plants ‘wish list’.

In terms of layout, the planning process was like one of those games where you shove squares around until they all fit in. I had a rectangular plot, 426cm by 452cm, in which I had to fit raised beds that were 100cm by 120cm. I drew various sketch plans to work out how to get the most growing space into the available area, whilst leaving room to access the beds and keep back the bramble and bindweed. I allowed for the room that plants take up when they overhang the edges. I have also allowed for wildflower plants to grow around the edges, and for flowers in pots. Here is my final sketch map:

Sketch map of plot (right) and layout of two of the beds (left)

And this is what it looks like now that it is built and filled:

Plot built with raised beds filled

The beds are orientated to make the most of the light, and to minimise plants casting shade on each other. Having said that, I do wonder whether there might be a need for some shade at times, and this might be a future consideration. In a plot of this size, trees are not an option, which does give me more flexibility to move things around later.

In my next post, I’ll share my plants ‘wish list’, the plants that I have decided to try growing in this space, and my reasons for choosing them.

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Observing the Plot

Last week I promised to share my observations of the new allotment plot. As prompts, I used some of the notes and a handy checklist from the Forest Gardening Wales course. The idea of taking a really good look at the plot and its wider situation is to help with planning how I structure the site, what I grow, and how I maintain the plot and its fertility.

On a sunny but windy morning, I stood facing the plot and took a compass bearing on my phone. I then felt for the wind to judge where it was coming from. I looked down towards the wood ahead of me to observe which way the trees were blowing. You can see the beans leaning over to the right.

Adjacent wood, with beans leaning to show prevailing wind direction
Adjacent wood, with beans leaning to show prevailing wind direction

Sure enough, when I looked up the prevailing winds for the area, it blows from West to East. This bears out my experience that the wind blows down the valley, thus driving across from the back of the plot to the front. Looking to the back of the plot, there is an area of trees and wild thicket which will protect us from this prevailing wind. The thicket contains bramble and bindweed, and I’ve left a 60cm margin at the back of the plot to enable me to keep this from creeping into the raised beds.

Wild area and tree protection to provide wind shelter
Wild area and tree protection to provide wind shelter

I drew a simple sketch map to plot the compass bearing, the sun and light direction, the wind direction, and adjacent features.

Sketch map
Sketch map

Water is available for irrigation from a tap on the site, using a watering can. The canal is nearby, therefore good habitat for amphibians and insects. I already met a toad when we moved an old carpet that had been dumped on the plot. It did occur to me that frogs and toads might struggle to get up to my raised beds, and I toyed with the idea of making ramps and bridges for them – if there is room without making a trip hazard for humans.

Adjacent canal, facing the direction of the light
Adjacent canal, facing the direction of the light

The climate tends to be either wet and windy, or hot and dry for long spells. Plants need to be resilient and multi-talented, making native wild perennial plants a good choice. They also need less monitoring, which is appropriate given that we are not constantly walking past in the way that we are in the garden.

Existing plants on the site include borage, chamomile and buckwheat which hopefully will seed into the ground and make good insectary plants. There are also potential ‘living path’ plants like pineapple weed, plantain, clover and dock. I don’t intend to put any path material down, but simply tread down the pathways. I will allow vegetation to grow up the sides of the raised beds, providing cover for wildlife such as the toads.

Living path plants - clover, plantain, buckwheat, dandelion
Living path plants – clover, plantain, buckwheat, dandelion

Thinking about pollution, there is plenty of noise as the plot is directly opposite a primary school. There is noise and also rather pungent smells from the adjacent water and sewerage works. I’m thinking of growing sweet peas and honeysuckle to help with the smell. The noise is more of a problem.

Nearby are numerous fertility plants, including nettles, comfrey and dock. These can be chopped into buckets of water kept on site, or simply chopped and used as mulch. Doing the former would rather add to the smell problem, so the latter might be preferable. The adjacent wood will be good for fallen woody and leafy material for structures and leaf mould.

In my next post I’ll share how these observations translated into a loose plan for the plot.

Forest plotting?

I wrote recently about the course I am following from Forest Garden Wales. What I didn’t tell you was that I received an email on the day that I started the course from a local allotment group. I had contacted them during lockdown to ask for a growing space. The email told me that there was a small plot available, if I wanted it. It is ‘quite a project’ I was told.

It made me think about whether I could use the project as a kind of practical assignment to work through Jake’s course. Can I apply Forest Gardening principles to a tiny allotment plot? Here is the space as it looked when I saw it at the beginning of September this year.

It is not a straighforward space. It is on the site of an old dump for canal dredging works, and the soil contains high levels of lead. It is therefore kept locked up underneath a membrane, which we must keep intact.

We need to create a growing space by building up, using high raised beds. The picture below shows how this has been done on our neighbouring plot.

Talking of neighbours, on our first visit I met one of the residents:

It was clinging to a patch of wildflowers that I can’t bear to remove just yet …

I have been working through the planning and observation section of Jake’s course, and for my next post I’ll share some of the observations that I’ve taken. His course is really easy to follow, and breaks things down into small, manageable chunks. He also makes some useful resources available, like a handy checklist for observations. He’s listed some very useful web resources too. I’m looking forward to sharing my observations, plotting and planning in future posts.

Backyard Forest Course

I’ve just started following Jake’s course on how to create a backyard forest. He is taking forest gardening principles and showing how you can apply them to a small (or any size) garden. It is friendly, accessible, and easy to follow a bit at a time, with a few minutes here and there. The definition that Jake gives for a ‘forest garden’ is simply “growing edible crops in a wildlife garden”. That really does put in a nutshell for me what it’s all about.

His course shows an image of my own front garden, which has changed a bit! Here’s one that I took this August.

my front garden in August
August front garden

August abundance from a small forest garden

This picture was taken a week ago and shows how abundant a tiny front garden can be if you give it a chance.  This was once a small lawn.  We started creating a garden here in 2014, and gradually dug out all the lawn and replaced it with plants.  It is now a thriving forest garden, in a space about the size of two car parking places.

P1040118 Front compressed size.JPG

There are herbs, blackcurrants, a small cherry tree, strawberries and wild strawberries, perennial leafy vegetables including Daubenton’s kale, sea beet, wild chicory and welsh onion, wild flowers, herbaceous perennial flowers, and annual runner beans.  It buzzes with insects, and provides us with vegetables and herbs every day.

Review of ‘The Garden of Equal Delights’

Finally some good news!  Anni Kelsey’s new book, The Garden of Equal Delights, was published yesterday.

Picture

This is a book about how to be a forest gardener. It is not a ‘how to’ garden book. The emphasis is on being and becoming, rather than doing. Anni shows us that forest gardening is a different type of gardening from the horticultural norm; one which requires a different type of gardener. Her book shows how the garden and gardener can grow together in a process of co-creativity in which an abundant ecosystem emerges. The job of the forest gardener, suggests Anni, is largely one of learning to keep out of the way; to sit on ones hands. To watch, and wait, and learn from the garden about how it wants to grow. The gardener may then make gentle, informed interventions – a nudge here, a suggestion there – without being wedded to the outcome. But this isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds; it takes practice. By telling the story of her own garden, Anni shows us how she developed this practice.

The book first reminds us what a forest garden is. Anni explains how it is a different type of garden – a self-supporting ecosystem. The main chapters then suggest what kind of ‘tasks’ this type of garden requires. Anni gives some practical examples of observations from her own forest gardens, and the subsequent actions (or rather non-actions) that she took. From these, she unfurls a set of principles that can be used by other gardeners to reflect on their relationship with their gardens. These principles were developed through watching her own garden and listening to her internal dialogue with it. The work of the forest gardener, she suggests, shifts from traditional tasks of digging and weeding, to more observational ‘tasks’ of watching, waiting, and learning how the garden develops as an ecosystem. She acknowledges that watching and waiting can be uncomfortable, as the gardener gives up their enculturated urges to tidy or weed and lets the garden run rampant. The gardener allows this to happen. Their job is to watch carefully as an ecosystem slowly develops that no longer requires pest management, weeding, or added fertility. Only once the forest gardener begins to understand this ecosystem, and the many interactions occurring within it, can they begin to gently intervene. They may make introductions to increase biodiversity – and then stand back and watch rather than trying to control what happens next. This is a patient, absorbed quality of watching with no agenda other than noticing what is going on. Anni shows us how she evolved this gentle, watchful role in her own garden, and how she learned to delight in its complexity and abundance. Her development of the gardener’s role into one of appreciation and humility brought her to a transformational understanding of her place in the world, and perhaps our place in the world. Slowly, gently, the garden changed the gardener.

now is the unfolding of forever

I reviewed this book for Anni last year. It is a beautiful and important exploration of the development of a relationship between the forest gardener and the forest garden. It is good to see it come to fruition.

gardens of delight

My labour of love writing ‘ the garden of equal delights’  is about to come to fruition and I have gathered a few quotes together to give you a flavour of what you will find within:

a forest garden

“A forest garden is like no other garden. As well as food harvests and many tangible benefits for the land and local ecology, forest gardening presents the gardener with an opportunity to find a new relationship with the natural world, to see, feel and think differently; even to live differently.  

A forest garden is a beautiful, fertile, healthy and abundant edible landscape. It is first conceived in the gardener’s imagination, it gestates in our planning and planting and then one day it is ready to grow. But we don’t plant a forest garden and then garden it just as if it was a ‘normal’ horticultural garden. We garden it differently…

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What work and time are needed in a forest garden? — gardens of delight

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Anni believes a lot of the ‘work’ of the forest gardener is in taking time to get to know the  garden:

As mentioned in the previous post I have recently both read and heard claims that a forest garden (a) needs intensive management and (b) does not need any management. Either way there seems to be a lot of interest in finding an answer to the question of whether or not a forest garden is a […]

via What work and time are needed in a forest garden? — gardens of delight

forest gardens are amazing but they are not a panacea — gardens of delight

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In this post on Gardens of Delight, Anni Kelsey makes the point that forest gardens feed not just us, but the wildlife that make it a self-sustaining ecosystem:-

And I will repeat it with emphasis – forest gardens are amazing but they are not a panacea. I could not be a bigger fan of forest gardens and forest gardening and it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that forest gardening has profoundly changed my life. Forest gardens are beautiful, vibrant, healthy and abundant […]

via forest gardens are amazing but they are not a panacea — gardens of delight

Claytonias – miner’s lettuce, wood purslanes and spring beauties — Of Plums and Pignuts

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I have started to establish both pink purslane and miners’ lettuce in my garden.  Here’s a timely article on these useful edible shade-loving ground cover plants from Of Plums and Pignuts blog:

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 […]

via Claytonias – miner’s lettuce, wood purslanes and spring beauties — Of Plums and Pignuts