Yesterday I picked the first leafy harvest for our dinner. The lettuce seedlings, which were given to me by the neighbouring narrowboat resident when he left the mooring, had grown enough to take a few leaves for eating. They are crisp and firm, and likely to overwinter well I think. I also harvested several leaves of the wonderful, fast growing giant red mustard. Those are the red-veined leaves that you can see in the picture. They are also winter hardy.
It is good to come full circle, from building the plot to taking the first harvest.
At its heart, forest gardening is about creating an edible productive ecosystem which encourages wildlife*. This principle requires a change of mindset from traditional gardening. As Anni Kelsey puts it in The Garden of Equal Delights, a forest garden is a different type of garden, and it requires a different type of gardener. She describes how it requires patient watching and waiting to learn about the garden as an ecosystem, to see who and what arrives there, and to notice what parts each plant or creature are playing. I am learning to pay attention, developing a mindful awareness of the space and a willingness to learn from it rather than quickly moving to control it.
This week I’ve been sitting beside the boxes, patiently weeding out grass. As Jake says on his forest gardening course, grass will take over everything if you let it. The soil that we filled the boxes with clearly had a lot of grass seed in it. While the plot is in its infancy, I need to intervene and remove the grass to protect the edible plants while they get established. Once they are big enough, I can protect bare soil with mulch. But for now, I’m sitting there pulling out tiny grass seedlings. It is a pleasant task, with the robin twittering at me. A fellow plot holder passed by and said that it looked like I was practising mindfulness. And indeed he had a point. It is a quiet, absorbing, mindful activity which is strangely soothing.
The badgers are still visiting regularly, evidenced by the digging that is visible on the paths. I’ve been thinking of these creatures, wondering if they will dig in the raised beds, apprehensive of how destructive they might be. Mindfulness, as I understand it, is about paying attention, noticing things without judging them, and learning to accept things just as they are for now. Noticing my thoughts, I realise I’m fighting the badgers. Yet I want to welcome and accept them, just as they are.
In the rainy days that have followed my bout of weeding, my thoughts have been morphing. My plans have been changing. I have come to a decision, which is simply not to grow things that badgers like to eat. Since I made that decision, I’ve realised that it frees me up to grow more of the things that we like to eat, the leafy greens that I never seem to have enough of. It might be boring to grow spinach and its perennial substitutes, but we eat a lot of it. And, as far as I know, badgers don’t go wild for spinach. They probably won’t raid the boxes simply for worms – unless they are very hungry. The boxes will take energy to climb or jump. This would be worth their while if they can smell sweet roots, but not if it’s just more boring old leaves.
By growing leafy vegetables at the plot, I can free up space in my home garden to grow some roots. This would increase diversity in my garden. The plans have now fallen nicely into place, and I am no longer badgered by doubts.
This week I’ve been making my final sowings of the year. I’ve sown two rows of broad beans in each of these two beds below. The furthest bed will be for harvesting, and I will sow more rows in the Spring for successional crops. The nearer bed will probably be cut down before harvest as a green manure. I didn’t have field beans which are traditionally used for cover crops, but I do have plenty broad beans. I can get a small harvest from the plants before I chop them down by nipping off the growing shoots and stir frying them.
The ‘cloches’ were inherited from the adjacent canal boat mooring, and are shop fittings rescued from a skip by the boat owner. They make a handy cloche ‘nursery’ to protect the bean seeds until they have emerged. Otherwise they may be dug up and eaten, as unlike my garden, the plot is not visited every day by humans. This makes it easy pickings for wildlife.
You can also see in this photo a large tub planter which I’ve moved from my garden to the end of the plot. It should be deep enough to grow one oca and some sweet peas, and I can still get around the sides to access the back of the beds. In the foreground, one of the sea beet plants is looking encouragingly leafy, so I have some hope that the plants may produce more leaves from these deep beds.
I have also sown some bulbils of Babington’s Leek to keep the Skirret (wild carrot) company when they arrive.
So for now, everything is sown and planted. The next job is to painstakingly weed out the hundreds of little grass seedlings. I’ve been hoeing, but of course they just root back into the soil. But to protect the plants that I want, I must remove them as grass is a hungry and invasive crop. I want to grow vegetables, not graze sheep. Wish me plenty of patience.
As soon as I knew I may be having an allotment plot, I started to dream about what I would grow there. Initially, prompted by fears of food shortages during the COVID19 lockdown, I planned to grow potatoes and onions. I looked up growing instructions and spacing requirements, and found that with six one metre raised beds, I couldn’t grow many of them. Maybe enough for a week’s worth of meals. So I started to think differently, and instead decided to use the plot to continue my experimentation with growing perennial food crops which are also good for wildlife. Jake’s Forest Gardening course and the allotment both entered my life in the same week, which was a clear shove in that direction. Jake sums up the forest garden design philosophy as ‘growing edible crops with nature’, which is certainly singing my song.
With that in mind, here is my wish list of plants. A key question that I’ve considered in selecting these is ‘what does the plot give me that my garden doesn’t’? Another is ‘what is their role in the local ecosystem?’
Broad beans – because I like them, and don’t have room for them in my garden. They are good for the soil, as they fix nitrogen in their roots, and the tops will add biomass when they have finished cropping. The flowers are good for nectar, and smell good too (remember those sewerage works). I’ve chosen ‘The Sutton’ dwarf variety as it is smaller and more suitable for the boxes.
Oca – this is something of an experiment, given that it isn’t frost hardy. I don’t yet know how sheltered the plot will be in winter. I want to try it because it provides a blight free carbohydrate, it is something new to eat and can’t be bought in the shops. It also provides ground cover. It is my alternative to growing potatoes. It will need protection from frost.
Skirret – or wild carrot. This will provide flowers for insects, and carbohydrate from the sugary root. It is a native wild plant. It will benefit from the deep beds of loose, friable soil, and from the aspect in full sun.
Bunching onion – a companion for the skirret. I plan to grow it as a perennial, harvesting only the tops. It will provide us with a spring onion replacement.
Scorzonera – another root to try, and definitely an experiment.
Blackcurrant – I want to see if this will grow better in a deep bed in full sun. I have one in my garden which doesn’t thrive, but it is in shallow soil and part-shade. I love big juicy blackcurrants! Insects seem to like the flowers too.
Strawberries – to provide ground cover for the blackcurrant, and another plant that doesn’t do well in my garden.
Pignut – a native wildplant which may provide tubers for us (if I can find them) and flowers for insects. You can also eat the foliage, and it provides ground cover.
Welsh Onion – flowers are good for insects, companion for Pignut, there wasn’t room for them in my garden where I have multiple clumps, and I want to try harvesting the bulbs.
Sea beet – this doesn’t grow leafy in my garden, so I’d like to see if it grows better in the plot. It grows tall and will cast shade so I’ve put it at the back of the bed.
Garlic – which I will grow for the greens, rather than the bulbs. Another experiment.
Other roots on my list are chervil root, hamberg parsley, and plain old parsnip. These would be grown annually.
I also have a wish list for companion plants for wildlife, to be grown in pots or encouraged into the ground. I already have (I think) polygonum persicaria (Redshank), horse radish, chamomile and borage. I’ll add more chamomile and borage to encourage them to proliferate (as if they need encouragement). Other plants to grow include calendula, nasturtium (which can tumble down the sides of the boxes), sweet peas (which can grow up them), wild thyme (which can scramble around their feet), and foxglove.
That concludes my wish list. This may need some refinement, given the evidence that I’ve seen recently of a wild visitor to the plot who may uproot my plans. All will be revealed in my next post.
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:
And this is what it looks like now that it is built and 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.
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.
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.
I drew a simple sketch map to plot the compass bearing, the sun and light direction, the wind direction, and adjacent features.
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.
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.
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.
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.