Autumn Foraging In The RHS Forest Garden

“The mushrooms have arrived!” It was the cry everyone wanted to hear this afternoon as we finished arranging the forest garden plants and laying the woodland mulch. For the last couple of days the team, led by award-winning designer Jon Davies, have been creating an exciting forest garden installation at the RHS Autumn Show in the Lindley and Lawrence Halls, London. By tomorrow evening it will be completed for the preview and then the main show on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th October, when we’re all looking forward to chatting to visitors about the garden and its fascinating plants.

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The forest logs will harbour oyster and shittake mushrooms

The exhibit showcases the sustainable method of forest gardening – creating a self-supporting ecosystem based on natural woodland. Every plant has a role to play, either as a food source, for timber, medicine, material or providing support for other plants, by fixing nitrogen in the soil, creating shade or as ground cover to suppress weeds. In this way, the garden will be largely self-maintaining, lessening the need for human intervention and creating a diverse and resilient ecosystem. Forest gardens can be large areas, such as Martin Crawford’s seminal garden in Dartington, Totnes, but they can also be much more modest affairs like the one at the show, suitable for rural or urban areas in community spaces and private gardens.

One of the things I find fascinating about forest gardens is the way they combine a wide range of plants from across the world to create sustainable ecosystems. From Chilean wineberry (Aristotelia chilensis) to sausage vine (Holboellia coriacea) and society garlic (Tulbaghia violacae), the RHS Forest Garden celebrates exciting plants with a variety of uses. The garden has several areas with different growing conditions from the woodland floor, to a pond and boggy area, a woodland clearing and an open glade.

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Crab apples create so much colour and interest at this time of year

On entering the garden my eye is first drawn to the canopy of the magnificent forest pansy (Cercis canadensis) with its vibrant yellow cordate leaves. But difficult as it is to ignore the stunning autumn colours above, the woodland floor offers equally inspiring botanical beauties, just in miniature form. Ever since seeing them in Jon’s Hampton Court Forest Garden, I’ve been noticing and appreciating clover leaves wherever I’ve seen them and this garden includes some delicate purple and red forms of Trifolium repens which encourage the visitor to engage with the detail on the forest floor.

The journey through to the clearing leads past the pond area with a range of hosta, sedum and mint (all with edible leaves) and the umbels of skirret (Sium sisarum) with its sweet-tasting roots. Out of the water rise the impressive spathes of arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) in front of the fabulous red leaves of Viburnum dilatatum with its edible fruit and foliage.

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Creating the woodland clearing

Inside the clearing, the logs support a range of fungi including oyster and shittake mushrooms. The canopy is created by hazels, crab apples and hops, sausage vines and kiwi trailing up and over the wooden supports. This area has a lovely relaxing feel and creates a calm space in the heart of the garden.

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Hops (Humulus lupulus) festoon the woodland supports

On the far side of the forest garden, in a more open area, plants like the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), myrtle (Myrtus communis), sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) and the purple-leaved Japanese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) thrive. In this area, more unusual understorey edibles like yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga) offer opportunities for new taste sensations, whilst traditional ornamental shrubs like Mahonia aquifolium, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) remind us of the multi-functional nature of many of our garden plants.

It’s exciting that this year’s RHS Autumn Show has a garden of this nature at its heart, surrounded by organisations like the Permaculture Association, Pennard Plants (with its engaging display of edibles) and the Rabbit Pop-up Food Stall offering seasonally inspired food and drink made from sustainable and wild British ingredients. It also fits in well with current national initiatives such as the launch, this weekend, of the National Forest Garden Scheme (NFGS) which aims to bring us individually, and in our communities, to a new level of harmony and well-being through planting, eating from, and enjoying Forest Gardens. In our changing world, forest gardens, with their mix of sustainable methods and diversity of plant species, offer a real opportunity to work with the land, promote biodiversity and widen the range of edibles upon which we all rely.

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Slideshow of the finished garden

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London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

Sitting on top of the flowery mound with my bare feet in the chamomile I could be on a woodland hilltop, but beyond the medlar and hawthorn the bustle of Hampton Court Flower Show is just visible. What Jon Davies and Andreas Christodoulou of Future Gardens have achieved with London Glades is a space which excites the senses whilst calming the soul. Designed for a client who wants to re-engage with nature in a beautiful and wild setting, this garden creates a quiet sanctuary in busy urban surroundings. Almost every plant is edible and most are perennial and low maintenance, relying on the surrounding ecosystem for support.

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The fresh, green woodland in dappled shade

Jon told me they were inspired by Martin Crawford‘s forest garden in Devon and also the permaculture practised by Masanoba Fukuoka in Japan. London Glades feels like a botanical library of fascinating plants in a magical setting – from the shady planting of shuttlecock ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) with their edible newly-emerged fronds to the hilltop grasses and meadow flowers which were attracting the damselflies and hoverflies; the whole garden has a sense of being in the moment. Jon has purposely introduced some plants which are not at their best – some have gone over, others are not yet flowering, which creates credibility in a garden that values food production – from roots, leaves, buds and fruits as well as flowers – equally with aesthetics.

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The damselflies enjoying the garden as much as I am

The raised areas of the garden are constructed in the German tradition of ‘hugelkultur’ which roughly translates as ‘mound culture’. This involves creating mounds of wood and green waste covered with top soil to mirror the components of the woodland environment. As the material decays it creates a consistent long-term supply of nutrients for the plants which last for twenty years or longer. Heat is created by decomposition, allowing a longer growing season and as the wood breaks down, soil aeration is improved, thus removing the need to dig the beds. Water is absorbed by the mounds and released in drier periods, so irrigation should not be required, except in long periods of drought and they also sequester carbon from the atmosphere. So the ‘hugelkultur’ element of the garden works alongside the creation of a self-sustaining plant ecosystem to minimise the need for human intervention whilst maximising the environmental benefits.

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An example of hugelkultur to show how the mounds were constructed

The detail in the garden is magnificent and deserving of the Gold Medal it achieved. The spreading canopy of limes, crab apples and quince creates dappled shade under which the edible crops of horseradish, strawberries, fuchsia, bettony, skirret, masterwort and wineberries are thriving.

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Lush shady planting

On the mound, lychnis, monarda, oregano, rosemary, mint and chamomile add their aroma to the heady mix of damp woodland and warm hilltop scents.

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The mound is a peaceful and productive place to relax

Swales (carefully positioned ditches) collect water for the garden and are filled with moisture loving plants and logs growing shiitake mushrooms. Around the boundary of the garden is an edible hedge, providing berries and fruit for the client and food and habitat for wildlife. But it was the ground cover that drew me into the garden with an almost reverent feeling as I walked barefoot across the alternative lawn of heath pearlwort (Sagina subulata).

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The garden is cool and soft underfoot

This delightful evergreen carpet can withstand fairly heavy footfall, tolerates drought or moist conditions, has tiny white flowers in later spring and early summer, and feels soft and springy beneath the feet. Around the margins, a tapestry of other intricate ground cover plants like Leptinella squalida with its tiny fern-like fingers, succulent white stonecrop, red clover and low-growing thymes provide miniature vignettes in which the higher planting layers recede, leaving only the magnified colours and textures of the forest floor.

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Fascinating detail on the woodland floor

The dense matrix of planting in London Glades gives the garden a vibrant energy. The visitor is encouraged to move lightly around the space, stopping to sit and relax on one of the large smooth boulders, the only non-plant material in the garden. As I sat, I considered the other reason I felt at home in this garden – there is clearly an educational mission behind London Glades – to show an alternative to the traditional kitchen garden, to showcase how forest gardening can provide sustainable, wildly beautiful, productive spaces in an urban setting, and to offer an alternative way for gardens to connect us with the landscape.

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‘Taunton Deane’ perennial kale just below the mound

The message is conveyed subtly – at first glance the garden could appear to be a traditional woodland with just a few rhubarb and kale plants visible to the casual observer. However, London Glades offers practical ways to suit forest gardening to small, urban plots, using readily available plants and ingenious, yet traditional methods of landscaping and planting like ‘Hugelkultur’ and swales. Jon is hoping to relocate elements of the garden to Mind charity in Harringay, where it will no doubt continue to provide a peaceful environment and an educational resource.

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The winding path through London Glades

Owning a garden like London Glades would certainly be an education, but it would be a gentle, life-affirming way to engage with the land and the sustainable, low-maintenance approach would allow the client to develop their stewardship of their garden. I like this soft approach to learning and have followed similar lines in my own ‘hidden allotment‘ front garden which uses similar plants to my neighbours’ gardens and appears to follow traditional ornamental design, but incorporates many edibles which forest gardener Stephen Barstow would call ‘edimentals’. Jon explained that clients would receive a bespoke book with the initial chapters explaining the thinking behind forest gardening and the second half offering recipes to help with harvesting and using the ‘gourmet’ ingredients which would be available in the garden throughout the year.

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The beautiful, wood-bound guide book

This would be an invaluable resource in a process of learning about the plants and how to make use of them. London Glades takes you on an edible journey of discovery through different habitats and plant ecosystems. The stewardship of such a garden would be certainly be an inspiring and fulfilling adventure.

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Soft pink monarda creates a gentle atmosphere in the understorey

If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court over the next few days and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs, do subscribe below…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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  🙂