Friday, 20 May 2011

forest gardening

BBC Radio 4's Food Programme is amongst the best that they produce.

The 'Climate Change Farm' programme (broadcast on 9 May 2011 and available as a podcast) was particularly timely.
The premise of the programme was that drier springs (we have endured our driest March and April ever) must lead to a re-evaluation of which plants grow best in our changing climate.

The spring drought has meant that seed germination has been poor and that those seedlings that have struggled through have not had optimum conditions during a critical stage in their lives to grow healthily. It has also meant that valuable water resources have been used to nurture plants when the soil should be moist from seasonal rain. This is not a 'one off' and is likely to be part of a continuing pattern - especially for those of us on the dry side of England.

The answer of the 'Forest Gardeners' - theirs is the underpinning philosophy of the 'Climate Change Farm' - is to look to those plants that have a greater resilience than annuals. They choose to grow perennials.

Our own experience as gardeners tells us that changing the balance between annuals and perennials makes sense. Our comfrey and asparagus (both perennials) have continued to crop during the dry weather (even if at a reduced rate) while around them the soil turns to dust. Fruiting bushes and trees also have established deep root systems that provide some insurance against dry conditions. Annual weeds, on the other hand, have been much slower to present a problem this year due to dryness. The programme spoke alluringly of medieval favourites like 'Good King Henry' and of exotics like Szechuan peppers and autumn olives. Humble bamboo was harvested and eaten. They even spoke about the pleasure of eating hostas!!

A Christmas gift this year was Patrick Whitefield's 'How to make a Forest Garden' and my copy is scrawled with notes as I trawled through. He describes the three layers of a forest garden as being trees, shrubs and vegetables and gives practical advice from basic principles through plants and garden design. Unfortunately, it is not blessed with colour photos which would have illustrated his points.

As we sloooowly clear ground on our neglected site, my thoughts move to design and choice of plants.

Forest gardening will be the core of what we hope to achieve.

Footnote: I've added links to the agroforestry research trust and to otter farm - the climate change farm.

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