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Letter from a forest garden

Small is not just possible, small is inevitable. Creating autonomous control of our economics requires people to be able to create. And that means within the resources they have. Graham Bell asks, where better to start than a forest garden?

The first and most fundamental ways of meeting human needs are the provision of clean drinking water and adequate food. In the northerly climate we enjoy, heat and light also become important, especially through the long winter months. Those who understand the power of forests to cleanse and make our environments sustainable are also passionate about the wider applications of forestry to provide human needs. Out of this desire springs the thousand huts campaign; a laudable attempt to recognise the right of all people to rest and play and have adequate accommodation. In a country like Scotland where so much of our population, industry, business, education and (that principal recreation) shopping is focused on the central belt, then clearly the countryside leaves us much room for huts, for gardens, for productive forests, for the right to live freely.

In 1988, Nancy and I headed north from London seeking a safe and pleasant place to live with our baby daughter, Ruby. For the record, she is now 25 and has her own child, and our son Sandy, born at home in Coldstream, is now 23. Both of them grew up in our garden and love it. During that time we have done up buildings, run businesses, taught permaculture on four continents and (perhaps most significantly of all) created a forest garden which is now 23 years old.

60-leaf salad
Last year our garden, which measures less than one quarter of an acre, had produced one tonne of food by early October. That was probably the peak, but winter crops were still to be harvested. You can see the details of what we have cropped on our website. Suffice it to say that we crop throughout the year from a range of dozens of different food plants. For example, in the spring we estimated there were 60 species of plant at that time which could yield salad crops.

Perennial crops dominate the overall weight of the yield. There are at least 150 trees in this garden. Apples, pears, plums, and cherries – but also quinces and medlars at the exotic end of the scale – are the principal fruiting species. In between is a range of nut trees, including hazel, black walnut, Persian walnut, butternut and Japanese heartnut and sweet chestnuts. In between these are sacrificial trees: birches, alders, willows, rowan, whitebeam, holly, juniper, elder, magnolia, Russian olive, laburnum, chokeberries and a few other ornamentals. What these trees offer between them is habitat for birds and invertebrates, and firewood when coppiced or pollarded. Some of them are nitrogen fixing, all of them offer a value for creating compost, and their flowers attract insects. Some of them have useful berries.

So what you see is that there is a massive, really diverse range in a very small space. In between these larger perennials there is space for a shrub layer. This comprises red, white and black currants, gooseberries, Worcester berries (a north American Rubus), jostaberries (one of a wealth of hybrid berries, here gooseberry x blackcurrant) [1], and raspberries (both summer and autumn) all of which have a high yield for no more work than a winter pruning and picking the fruit. Alongside these are broom, gorse, Spiraea, Mahonia, Kerria, dogwood, alder buckthorn, and a few other variations on the theme all of which add to soil fertility, attract insects, and in some cases produce fruit or materials for basketry if you are that way inclined.

Within the framework of all the perennials there is space for annual plants, and we grow a wide range of root crops, leaves, peas and beans, brassicas, hardy salads, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Below this layer is the ground cover which includes alpine and the more popular commercial varieties of strawberry and more flowering plants, such as periwinkle and clovers. Amongst these is a fantastic place to grow wonderful courgettes and pumpkins or more exotic squashes if you prefer. Below the soil, a large range of biota are at work – from earthworms through to many species of fungi whose mycelium we believe are vital to soil fertility. Once you have created your framework then you can find things which grow up from soil level to the treetops including roses, honeysuckle, blackberries, loganberries and Japanese dewberry, all of which have an edible yield.


After the harvest
Some days you could feel worn out just picking stuff. The reality is that the bulk of the harvest comes between June and October or, in a year like 2013, with a late spring, nothing really gets going until July. As a result, the remaining eight months are relatively low yielding. So it becomes very important to get good at preserving food, and there are lots of ways of doing this. Again you can see a detailed mind map of how to do this on our website.

It is useful to consider some examples. We have one chest freezer full of soft fruit by July and in the freezer room we dry apple rings and store marrows and pumpkins, which keep till May. Jams, jellies and chutneys, pickles and fruit cheeses go into jars. We dry fruit leather in the slow oven of our Rayburn. Plums and pears may go into Kilner jars. Our sun-dried tomatoes (okay sunshine from a few million years ago via the Rayburn) also get bottled. There are lots of wild things in the garden which provide us with, for example, wild garlic pesto, rosehip syrup, elderflower champagne and salads every month of the year when it is not snowing.

Of course, when you grow more than a tonne of food and there are only two of you in the house, you also share some of this food with family and friends. We feed visitors on open days and have provided for permaculture events, feeding up to 100 people a day half a dozen times last year. I am also investigating passing on surplus to food banks. To me it seems criminal that within a supposedly civilised and well-off
country, 40,000 people were homeless last night when we had 25,000 empty houses; and that 30 per cent of people bought food on credit last year, and in Hawick alone 75 people have recourse to the food bank.

The solution is simple. If you took all the people and all the sheep out of Scotland, what would you end up with? Forest. We have demonstrated that a forest can be created in less than half a lifetime. It can be massively abundant. In all sorts of ways.

Our garden harbours 35 species of nesting bird, another 35 species come for their lunch – 20 come for their holidays. The joy of looking out of my window and seeing a woodpecker cracking hazelnuts in its holes in the black walnut tree, or watching a collared dove in the rain pottering about on the roof below, or hearing the tawny owl call on its flight beneath our bedroom window in the dawn – these are all things that make me feel glad to be alive. But critically, they are also the things that keep our food production system healthy. Most gardening books will tell you that aphids are a problem. Actually you have a problem if you don’t have aphids – what will the blue-tits eat? All creation has a right to be in our garden and by approaching it as creating habitat we are simply trying to keep it in balance, so it looks after itself.

This tonne of food takes less than two days a week to produce. We import as little as we can: some straw, some spent mushroom compost and a
little farmyard manure. We buy in some seed but save as much of our own seed as we can. I should point out that apart from the food, we also produce all our own firewood and run a plant nursery selling hundreds of trees and plants every year.

If you want to check this out and see how you could do the same, join us on one of our courses or open days all of which are available to book on our website. Can I commend you to make every garden and woodland you find as productive as this? These will become our food banks of the future. Together we are strong.

This article was first published in ISSUE 49 Reforesting Scotland SPRING/SUMMER 2014

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