Rachel gets a taste for forest gardening

23 Feb 2016
Rachel gets a taste for forest gardening

Last weekend I attended a one-day course called “A Taste of Forest Gardening” led by Jo Homan, of Edible Landscapes London.

This was a fascinating introduction to a permaculture approach to growing food. We learned the basic structure, science and philosophy behind forest gardening, munched on some of the forest garden produce and then met the plants in person at the forest garden site in Finsbury Park.

Modelled on natural woodland, more specifically the edges of a forest, vegetation is arranged in seven layers:

  1. the top layer being the canopy - tall, light-demanding trees e.g fruit & nut trees
  2. the second layer is short, shade tolerant trees , like autumn olive or elderberry trees
  3. the third layer is the shrub level. These could be berry bushes.
  4. the fourth are herbaceous plants like horseradish, wild garlic and chicory
  5. the fifth is comprised of plants that spread horizontally and provide ground cover, like wild strawberries and violets
  6. the sixth layer is the vertical layer, comprising climbers and creepers e.g. grapes, hops, climbing beans
  7. and the seventh layer is the root layer below ground

Forest gardens are diverse ecosystems that mimic and harness the natural systems of a forest, requiring very little input of resources or effort. You can ditch your compost heap and forget about turning the soil because this is “no dig” farming, where all you need to do is spread mulch and let the micro beasts in the soil do the work of taking it downwards into the soil.

Going along with the low-impact approach is to choose plants that are perennial – they have a long life cycle so you don’t have to sow new seeds every year. This less energy and resource intensive as they don’t have to start from scratch every year.

I learned it’s important to have the right mix of different plants to deliver a range of “services” for the rest of the group of plants. These included nitrogen-fixing plants and mineral accumulators (these are usually plants we perceive as weeds – like comfrey, nettles & dandelions) who have deep tap roots capable of drawing up micronutrients that other plants can’t access.

Veg Boxes

Jo served us a wholesome lunch of soup, salad and various pestos and pickles made from forest garden produce. I ate a few plants that I had never tried before, in fact, that I never knew existed, like saltbush (salty!), three cornered leek (oniony!), and Siberian purslane, which has a rich earthy flavour, a bit like spinach.

It was really great to be introduced to these new things. As someone that runs a local veg box scheme, I’m always impressed by the broad range of plant varieties our organics farms supply to us but Jo has introduced me to a whole new realm!

Rachel gets a taste for forest gardening

Next up was a visit to Jo’s forest garden site in Finsbury Park where we discovered that they have 200 species of edible plant on the site. There are 300,00 known species of plant on this earth, yet conventional farming relies on just 20 species to provide 90% of the world’s food needs. And only 8% of the world’s soils are actually suitable for growing these plants. Forest gardens grow a greater range of species, that are compatible with the soil and climate so that they can thrive with little human intervention.

The exciting part for you is that these forest leaves could soon be making their way into Crop Drop’s veg bags in the form of “Forest Salad” so that the people of Haringey can eat salad produced in Haringey! It would make for a more sustainable salad bag not just in the way they’re grown but also because they’ll be delivered by bike to our warehouse just two miles away.

Forest GardeningHowever, before we start supplying salad bags, we need to ensure the produce is safe to eat so Jo‘s in the process of having the leaves and soil tested for various pollutants. Once we get the results we will start a trial period where we’ll be testing the forest salad out on Crop Droppers to see what combinations of leaves they like.

So watch this space for forest salad coming soon. And if you’re interested in learning more about this radical form of food growing, visit http://www.ediblelandscapeslondon.org.uk/theTraining