Creating a Community Forest Garden

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.

beginnings

The forest garden site at the beginning of the clearing process

Forest Gardening

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.

Syrian hawthorn and Buffalo currants.jpg

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.

20161006_134144.jpg

Fruiting hedging

Canopy Layer

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.

American elderberry.jpg

Our American elder

Interesting Plants

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

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.

Asian Pear

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

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

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.

Buffalo currant harvest.JPG

Buffalo currant harvest

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.

forest-garden

Beginning the canopy layer

If you’d like to follow the blog, you can subscribe below:

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

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  🙂

Pumpkin and Apple Season: Two Warming Autumn Soups

Facebook has just reminded me that five years ago I spent the day at the Luton Hoo Pumpkin and Apple Day, retreating from the crowds from time to time to sit on the haystacks and feed my 6 month old daughter. Today I have been in the town square enjoying our community garden Apple Day. We’ve been selling apples, pears, quinces and our juice (made with windfalls and unwanted apples collected from local gardens and orchards), running craft workshops for the children and chatting to Hitchin shoppers about all things apple related.

DSC_0173 (2).JPG

Some of the varieties that have been available for shoppers to try and buy today

Within a couple of hours many of the apple varieties had sold out

Throughout October our house has had an underlying scent of apples – cooking apples stewing, crab apples boiling for jelly and cupboards full of apple boxes stored for eating or cooking later in the year. Our recently harvested quinces have added to the aroma and at the Stotfold Steam Fair last weekend we bought a mammoth pumpkin from a local grower. This has pleased the kids no end as last year I was late to the shops and we ended up celebrating Hallowe’en with a carved watermelon (on the grounds that any cucurbit was better than no cucurbit!)

dsc_0048-3

You’d never have known that our Hallowe’en cat (designed by my son) was carved out of a watermelon!

There’s no doubt that October brings the excitement of the autumn harvest and related festivities, but it also brings wastage on a grand scale as much of the pumpkin flesh removed prior to carving goes straight in the bin. Sara Venn, co-founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, highlighted this waste at the beginning of the week in her article ‘Please don’t play with your food…’ with the appalling figure that 80,000 tonnes of pumpkin flesh went to landfill in 2014. She has been blogging with pumpkin recipes all week and has asked readers and fellow bloggers to add their recipes and ideas to the mix. So here are some pumpkin soup recipes with a bit of apple thrown in for good measure. The spices in the first soup and sweetness of the apple in the second help to add flavour to commercial Hallowe’en pumpkins bred for size and colour, not for taste. The soups are based on recipes in the Luton Hoo ‘Pumpkin and Apple Gala Cookbook’, bought from the Apple and Pumpkin Day five years ago and much used since…

IMG_20161014_145708.JPG

Savoury and sweet – this cookbook has recipes for the whole family to enjoy…

 

Pumpkin, Prawn and Coconut Soup

Ingredients

400ml can coconut milk

1 lemongrass stalk or several leaves, bruised

2 tsps Thai green curry paste

4 Kaffir lime leaves

500ml hot chicken stock

1 tbsp nam pla fish sauce

About 500g peeled pumpkin flesh, chopped

250g pack MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) prawns

Juice of 1 lime

1 chilli, deseeded and chopped

A bunch of shredded spring onions or chopped chives

Method

Add the coconut milk, Kaffri lime leaves and lemon grass to a pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the Thai green curry paste and hot stock. Stir gently until the paste has dissolved.

Add the pumpkin and simmer until tender (10-12 minutes). Add the prawns and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove the lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaves. Add lime juice and fish sauce to taste.

Serve topped with shredded spring onions/chives and chilli.

DSC_0184 (2).JPG

Regular readers will know I am a Thai food lover. I love growing Thai veg and herbs and this soup used our lemongrass and Thai lime leaves as well as the pumpkin

 

 

Roast Pumpkin and Bramley Apple Soup

Ingredients

1 large pumpkin

2 tbsp olive oil

25g butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 small Bramley ( or other cooking) apple, peeled and chopped

700ml vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Cut pumpkin into quarters, scoop out seeds (rinse and save), brush flesh with olive oil and roast for 25 minutes at 180ºc or until flesh is soft. Once cool, scoop flesh out of skin.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the onion. Soften for 10 minutes without browning. Add stock and pumpkin flesh. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the apple and simmer for a further 5 minutes until tender.

Blend the soup, add salt and pepper to taste and serve with natural yoghurt and ground black pepper.

DSC_0183 (2).JPG

A wholesome warming soup for cold autumn evenings

 

As a tasty extra treat, the discarded pumpkin seeds can be toasted for 20-25 minutes at 180ºc spread out on an oiled baking tray. Remove from oven when toasted. Toss in seasoning and herbs or spices to taste (we used salt, pepper, cumin and paprika) and scoff as a pre-dinner snack.

DSC_0179.JPG

Toasted pumpkin seeds – no waste – great taste

The pumpkin and apple harvest adds a sparkle to October meals – there are so many delicious ways to make the most of these hearty ingredients

dsc_4811-2

My two little helpers enjoying the apple tunnel in a local orchard

For more apple recipes, try some tasty Apple and Cinnamon Butter, Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers or our family favourite Rhubarb and Apple Sponge.

If you have other cucurbits to use up, try Stuffed Summer Squash, Courgette and Chilli Cornbread or Courgette Tea Bread.

I’d love to hear about other favourite pumpkin and apple recipes – with all that pumpkin flesh going spare in the next few weeks, every delicious recipe counts. And if you’d like to explore more recipes with me, you can follow the blog below:

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Grow your way to happiness…

It’s not been the easiest time in my life, but the past 5 years have been the making of me – mentally and physically. I’ve been a full-time mum for 7 years, having left the teaching profession to focus on being with the kids in their formative years. I’ve loved being at home, but have also had to deal with illness, culminating in a diagnosis of coeliac disease. Compared to what many people have to cope with it hasn’t been too bad, but it has still required a change of mindset and re-education where food and cooking is concerned.

During this time gardening has been a really positive force in my life and has inspired me to follow a new direction – training as a garden designer and setting up as a gardening blogger and writer. I’ve also become involved in several community garden projects including The Wynd Garden, The ‘In Bloom’ Garden and The International Garden Cities Garden in Letchworth, and the Triangle Community Garden in Hitchin. Through my volunteering I’ve seen how gardening can help people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to develop confidence, overcome problems and enjoy a meaningful relationship with the natural world.

I’ve recently had an article published in Free-From Heaven (a great magazine with endless lovely healthy recipes and stories) and hope it might help others to grow their way to happiness. I’m not sure I’m a prolific gardener and I don’t spend much time crimping pasties, but apart from that it’s all true!

The full text is reproduced below the image – do leave me a comment below with feedback and let me know how gardening/cooking has influenced your life. Thanks.

Free From Article.jpg

My Free-From Life…

Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be up at dawn, exploring the natural world at its most active, listening to the dawn chorus and engaging with the day in its infancy. In reality most mornings I struggled to rise for work, or in the early days of motherhood, to soothe night-time toddler traumas. And much as I loved interacting with my kids, games, for me, were generally conducted from the sofa rather than the floor.

Then five years ago I was diagnosed with coeliac disease, like my father five years previously and slowly I began to understand the reasons why my expectations so far exceeded my abilities. I was tested because of my family history and registered positive in both the blood test and a biopsy. Initially we thought I was asymptomatic, but after a year on a gluten-free diet I realised other people didn’t try harder than me to get out of bed in the morning – they just had more energy than I did. My general health and energy levels, which I’d never thought of questioning, improved rapidly.

Over the past five years I’ve rearranged my life around new rules. I generally choose not to eat out as I’m extremely sensitive to gluten and have had a couple of bad experiences in the past, so as a full-time mum I turned to my house and garden, to growing, harvesting and cooking my own food as a way of regaining control of my life. Using my gradually developing energies, I learned to create the kind of food I feared I’d be missing now eating out was off the menu.

Initially I used the garden to provide ingredients for my cooking, but it quickly became something greater, an inspiration, an education and a growing passion. My garden became a haven, somewhere I felt comfortable, but also somewhere I was finally able to develop my relationship with the natural world. I started laying the first border into the grass at a stage where I could only manage an hour’s digging before retreating to bed, then laid paths, developed flower borders, nature areas and set up a productive, although small, fruit cage and three vegetable beds. As a family space, the garden gives us a base for finding essential oddments for craft activities, gardening with the children (as I write, they have a thriving bed filled with carrots, oca and enthusiastic nasturtiums) and a willow den, which my father and I built using willow whips, and which now can entirely absorb passing small children into its frondy interior in summer games of hide-and-seek.

Produce from the garden has been an inspiration in my cooking. As I’ve begun to master gluten-free cakes, biscuits and a variety of different pastries, the garden has provided. It has offered vegetables for Cornish pasties, raspberries and alpine strawberries for adding magic to cupcakes with the kids and baskets of fruit which my husband carefully transforms into jellies, jams and chutneys to see us through the winter. As my confidence in gluten-free cooking has grown, I have begun to create more ambitious foods. Birthdays now always mean a big gluten-free cake – anything from rainbow cakes to flower garden cakes and even an entirely gluten-free gingerbread house! Most normal recipes need a little alteration, but we think my cakes and biscuits are generally pretty similar to gluten alternatives.

Bread is the latest challenge – one of our New Year’s resolutions for 2016. Soda bread has been very successful, especially when eaten on the day it’s made – with a homemade soup based on seasonal vegetables from the garden. My first focaccia attempt would have been extremely useful as a building material, but had little culinary merit. Since then I’ve experimented with different flours, psyllium husks and flax seeds. The results are slowly improving and I’m hopeful that a soft, tasty loaf with plenty of added fibre is just around the corner. Perfect to spread with home-grown jam or to make into a cheese and mayonnaise sandwich, with salad freshly picked from the garden.

I no longer feel the need to rise at dawn because I now engage with the world in a more immediate way. I’m out there, doing what I love, greeting the days with renewed energy, grateful for my new life and my good health.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please do follow the blog below:

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

If you’d like to get involved with volunteering in your local area there are many community gardens throughout the UK. The BBC has a list of local gardening projects, the RHS runs the Britain in Bloom and It’s your Neighbourhood projects which offer local volunteering opportunities and the social and therapeutic gardening charity Thrive also has four community gardens around the country supported by local volunteers.

With thanks to my friends and family for their support and to all the garden volunteers who give so much and make so much of a difference.