The Triangle Community Garden
Community gardens are special places. They bring together people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds working towards a shared goal. My local community garden – the Triangle Community Garden – has been a thriving public space for the past 16 years. Over this time it has expanded to include several social therapeutic horticultural and health/well-being projects for people with learning disabilities, two allotment plots with a new polytunnel and a developing forest garden site.
The forest garden site at the beginning of the clearing process
Forest gardens are productive, self-sustaining areas which are modelled on the structure of natural woodland. They include a wide range of plants grown together in ways which are mutually beneficial. Forest garden plants might produce food, medicine, dyes, wood or cloth. Many also play a supportive role by fixing nitrogen or raising nutrients in the soil, by providing structure for climbing plants or by adding weed-suppressing ground cover.
Volunteers preparing the ground and planting
Our forest garden is still in its infancy. Over the last few years the perennial weeds have been partially cleared, mulch laid and the canopy layer (of trees and larger shrubs) has been planted. The next stage is to start adding the herbaceous perennial and ground cover planting, whilst ensuring that canopy layer continues to thrive. As a member of the garden committee, I’ve been privileged to be involved in some of the planning and planting. The potential for creating a rich eco-system with real practical and environmental benefits makes this a hugely exciting project.
Shrub layer developing
Regular readers will know that there’s nothing gardening-related that inspires me more than planting which is productive, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound. Forest gardening fulfils all these criteria, as woodland is as beautiful in its own way as any designed border. Learning more about this method of gardening has been fascinating. A good place to start is Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden and I also regularly use the Plants For a Future Database for information on practical uses of individual plants.
So far the canopy layer includes Apricot ‘Tomcot’ and ‘Orange Summer’, Apple ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, Damson ‘Shropshire Prune’, Plum ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’, Quince ‘Leskovac’, Asian Pear ‘Kumoi’, Strawberry Tree, Autumn Olive, Loquat, Hazel, American Elder, Judas Tree, Cornus Kousa, Italian Alder and Almond. The shrub layer so far includes Pineapple Guava, Chokeberry, Honeyberry, Red, Black, Pink, White and Buffalo Currant, Fuchsia, Goji, Chilean Guava, Goumi and a Rosa rugosa hedge.
Some plants are doing well and others have proved less successful, like the Chilean Guava which has succumbed to the cold and died (unlike my plants half a mile away which generally tolerate winter temperatures, but they are in a more sheltered position). The future of the Goji berry is also undecided as it has turned out to be too vigorous (a polite way of saying it’s a right thug) and needs either controlling or removing this year.
Our American elder
Asian Pear, US Elderberry, Goumi and Chokeberry were all new to me this year – here’s a little on why they earn their places in a forest garden…
American Elder (Sambucus canadensis) is a slowly suckering shrub. Each stem lasts several years and then dies back to be replaced by a new one. I’ve grown European Elder for its flowers – nothing encapsulates spring better than the first glass of elderflower cordial. But the flowering window is only around a fortnight and then they’re gone. With the American Elder, flowering lasts from July to November in the UK for cordial, wine or champagne all summer and autumn long.
The Asian Pear derives from two Asiatic species – Pyrus pyrifolia and Pyrus ussuriensis. ‘Kumoi’ is a pyrifolia with golden fruit which taste sweet and store well. Asian pears are normally shaped more like an apple than a pear and have a crunchy texture.
Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora) originates from woodland areas of Japan. It has cherry-sized fruits which ripen in August and are best used in jams and fruit leathers. The shrub is also good for the bees and is a nitrogen-fixing.
Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum) has berries which are similar to blackcurrants. They taste like a spicy blackcurrant and can be used fresh or cooked. Yields are lower than blackcurrants, but they have aromatic yellow flowers in spring, encourage bees into the garden and the leaves can be used in teas.
Gardens to Visit
Many forest garden plants are suitable for domestic gardens and will increase general productivity. But few gardens have enough space to create a dedicated forest garden – so if you would like to visit a forest garden, you could try…
The Agroforestry Research Trust – Martin Crawford’s 22 year old, 2 acre forest garden in Dartington, Devon. Forest garden courses are also on offer.
Littlehempston Forest Garden in Devon – the new Agroforestry Research Trust site, started in 2011 and covering 11 acres with 2 forest gardens.
Edible Landscapes London in Finsbury Park – these beautiful gardens grow over 200 edible species to propagate and give to community gardens around London. They offer forest gardening courses too.
RISC Roof Garden in Reading – designed in 2002, this edible garden is used for educational and research purposes
Old Sleningford Farm near Ripon – a 2 acre forest garden begun in 2004. The farm runs courses and events as well as organising group visits. Individuals are welcome on workdays.
The Forest Garden at the Centre for Alternative Technology in the foothills of Snowdonia – an amazing place which inspired my love of the environment on a visit back in primary school.
Beginning the canopy layer
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Do you have forest garden plants in your garden or perhaps you volunteer in a community garden with edible plants? If so, I’d love to hear which plants are your favourites and any issues you’ve had with different plants. Do leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you. Thanks 🙂