Friday, 18 February 2011

Working with, not against nature....

How to make a forest garden - Patrick Whitefield
I bought this book recently because i started getting interested in a concept called permaculture. I have always enjoyed growing things and have enjoyed having a couple of allotments. The problem with both of the allotments that i had was that i could't spend as much time down there as all the old boys could, and mine started to get a bit overgrown. I didn't mind because the allotment still produced enough food for my needs, however, the allotment police  took a different approach and evicted me.

Because i lived in a flat at the time and had nowhere else to grow stuff, i got interested in foraging instead. I was amazed at how much edible food is growing wild right on our doorsteps. I'm probably more blessed than most living in The Garden of England, but it seemed like every hedgerow was bursting with plums, damsons, and an assortment of nuts and berries. I enjoyed the delights of nettle tea and nettle pesto. We quaffed copious amounts of elderflower cordial, and the sloe gin that we had over Christmas was to die for. The best part of all this was  that nature did the hard work for me. No digging, no weeding, no disappointment, no allotment police. Just a bountiful harvest to be gathered and afternoons spent exploring my local countryside.

So now that i have moved into a house with a garden, how can i bring these two concepts of growing my own food and working with nature together? By creating a forest garden.

It has been said that on average for every 1 calorie of energy in our food, 10 calories of fossil fuel have been spent to produce it. Our modern farming methods (including allotments) are continually  battling against the natural flow of nature and therefore require huge imputs of energy to sustain them. What Patrick Whitefield, and others  before him, are proposing is that we study how nature works and grow food in a way that is in harmony with this process. He uses the edge of a forest as a perfect model. On the edge of a forest or woodland there are the tall trees producing fruit and nuts. The next layer down from this contains smaller trees. Next is shrubs and bushes. Then vegetable matter. He states that if a piece of grassland was left for 20 years in the UK it would over this time return to woodland. This is natures natural tendency, so it will be far better if we work with this and not continually against it. On the  edge of a forest we see that process in action. The forest is growing, and from the tree line to the vegetable layer we see 20 odd years of transition in action.

So how do we take this concept into our garden? By using this layering system. By doing so everything is a lot more mixed together compared to the traditional neat rows of an allotment. This brings in a greater diversity of wildlife and is far more likely to keep diseases and pests away without the need for harmful chemicals. It generally requires minimum effort once it has been planted, and because there is a preference towards perennial plants and self seeders, there isn't the annual toil of digging over the ground. We grow certain plants next door to others because of the mutual benefits they will give to each other. Plants that attract certain insects, and plants that make nutrients only found deeper in the ground available to plants with more shallow root systems. The taller trees provide some shade for the plants beneath them, and reduces the amount of moisture lost from the ground. And the taller trees provide a perfect framework for climbing plants like beans and nasturtiums to grow  up.

In my garden, which is only 7.5m x 4.5m, i am hoping to plant a peach tree, a cherry tree, several apple and pear trees, a grape vine, lots of different fruit bushes like currants, raspberries and gooseberries, and lots of different vegetables, herbs and beneficial flowers.

I'm sure there are loads of other advantages that i have forgotten about, so go and read his book or any of the others that are available on the subject and give it a go. I will start to post some photographs of my garden as i try and turn it into a forest space.

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