The garden of delights
my edible perennial paradise
Everything that I do and understand about my garden changed radically when I discovered forest gardening in 2005. I was amazed to learn that there was a way of gardening that meant I would have less work to do which would save me time, whilst at the same time giving me something to eat all year round and which would also be attractive and hospitable to wildlife.
There are three key factors to making such a garden:
- a layered structure
- perennial edible and functional plants – otherwise known as an ecological guild or a polyculture
- simulating and then facilitating an ecosystem
A forest garden captures the maximum sunlight by making use of trees, bushes, shrubs and herbaceous plants growing close together in layers – as you might find on the edge of a woodland. It depends on the space available but the crucial thing is to make use of what you have choosing from
- a tall tree canopy
- medium height trees, bushes, shrubs
- herbaceous plants up to about 3 feet tall
- lower level / ground cover plants
- root crops and plants with deep penetrating roots
- a climbing layer
Polycultures of perennial edible and functional plants
- perennial vegetables
- plants to attract bees and other pollinators
- plants to host a range of insects that keep ‘pests’ at bay
- plants to fix nitrogen
- plants to draw up minerals from lower layers of soil and make them available to the
I tend to use the word polyculture to describe this way of planting. There are innumerable possibilities for combining plants with the different functions listed above into a polyculture so I will give some examples based on my own garden in Wales. This is on an exposed somewhat wet and windy site with heavy clay soil and a lot of stones! The plants that grow here do so without complaint (or I wouldn’t have them) and look after themselves year on year. In other parts of the country with different weather and soil etc you can choose plants that are suited to those conditions.
My garden is not large and my polycultures are clustered round a range of small fruit trees and bushes. My basic ‘template’ for this is to include the following plants:
- fruit trees – apple, pear, plum, gage, cherry
- fruit bushes – red, white and blackcurrants, jostaberry, gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, wineberry
- perennial green vegetables such as Daubenton’s kale, Taunton Deane kale, good King Henry
- self seeding leafy greens – lamb’s lettuce, land cress
- deep rooted and tuberous perennial vegetables – skirret, scorzonera, salsify, oca, Jerusalem artichoke, Chinese artichoke
- alliums (onions) – chives, Welsh onions, garlic chives, garlic, perennial leeks
- herbs – lavender, fennel, sweet cicely, parsley, wild marjoram, thyme, germander, catmint, yarrow, self heal
- perennial and self seeding flowers – calendula, love in a mist, cowslips, forget me nots, poppies, creeping Jenny, lady’s mantle, nasturtiums
- nitrogen fixing plants – annual peas and beans, perennial earth nut pea and vetches
- climbing plants – blue sausage fruit, akebia quinata, Caucasian spinach.
This can be as simple or as complicated as you like – from one small fruit tree with chives, lamb’s lettuce, good King Henry, thyme, calendula and dwarf peas planted beneath it – to the twenty two small trees I have with all of the above and more.
The pictures below show what this looks like in practice:
This spring time photograph shows a whitecurrant in flower that sent on to bear several pounds of fruit. There is a gooseberry bush and sweet cicely to the right and a mixture of lavender, fennel, forget me not, mint, salsify, dandelion and land cress (yellow flowers) in front of the bushes. There are literally thousands of tiny flowers blooming in the garden from spring through to late summer and these are crucial to making it a haven for bees and other pollinators. The closely packed vegetation also means the ground is shaded and protected from what sun there is (!) and also from heavy rain. There is also plenty of habitat for beneficial insects like spiders and beetles.
Jerusalem artichokes at the back with a mixture of early summer flowering plants – self sown foxgloves, astrantia (because I like it), mint for the kitchen and thyme for the bees.
This is a Welsh apple tree – Trwyn Mochyn – taken in late summer and surrounded by annual self seeding nasturtiums that virtually engulf it, there are also a range of alliums and herbs that have been temporarily engulfed – but not harmed by the nasturtiums.
Taunton Deane kale – a hardy kale that grows large but is easy to care for, ie it looks after itself!
A wider view of the polyculture patches showing how all the plants mix in together and grow very enthusiastically.
This garden is indeed very low maintenance – I cut back some of the plants that die back in the late autumn, but leave a lot for their seeds and structure for over wintering birds and insects and then do another round just before the spring bursts out. In between I cut back or take out any plants that are not working with the rest, but much more time is occupied by harvesting the produce!
From early spring onwards there are so many bees in the garden that it seems to buzz most of the day, there are butterflies a-plenty and all sorts of insects that I cannot identify but which are all an integral part of this local ecosystem. Birds nest in the hedges and feed from the bushes and plants, there are hedgehogs, mice, shrews, rabbits, frogs (even when there was no pond) and although they are present the slugs are not a problem and I don’t need to take any action to keep their numbers down.
When I began this style of gardening I was able to complete the ‘normal’ gardening tasks without a problem but as time has gone by I find I have much less energy and stamina than before and would not be able to garden as I once did, even if I wanted to. However I love doing things this way, it makes my life enjoyable and puts good healthy food on the table whilst also benefitting the local wildlife and looking lovely too. What more can I ask for?
More detailed information about the method of growing edible polycultures can be found both in my book “Edible Perennial Gardening” and on my blog “gardens of delight”. I am also happy to answer any gardener’s individual questions sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two other interesting websites are Incredible Vegetables run by Mandy Barber and Julien Skinner in Devon and The Backyard Larder by Alison Tinsdale. Both of these have information about all sorts of unusual and perennial vegetables and also sell them. http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk