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Creating a food forest garden for ourselves, our poultry, wildlife and planet - Part One

The concept of a forest garden is nothing new, although the idea that this same bosky retreat could also feed you and your livestock, is. Philosophically this sort of planting was and is about revolt. Even the Victorians found escape in a 'wilderness garden', imbued with romanticism, freedom and in particular, the natural riotousness of the Gothic and the Picturesque. In tandem with contemporary literature of the same genres, these garden styles were diametrically opposed to an ideal of a rigidly structured and wholly captive industrial society. Sadly however,  these wildernesses smacked of artifice and deception, essentially to be viewed rather as a transitory dream of hope than any viable means to an escape. Conversely, in a food forest, we expect both to participate and partake, the little bird has slipped its bonds, as have the big bold Polish below.

Polish chamois roosters in a forest garden

So although the forest garden of today fulfils that same yearning for freedom and symbolic break-out from bean rows and carpet bedding, it also imbues the positive and proactive outcome of taking personal control of nutrition and health. In a forest garden we can be free to grow not only food  for the body (and soul) but also medicine, though I'm with Hippocrates on this, in that I judge the two as interchangeable.

Organic forest garden

Introduction, Influences and Unexpected Consequences


My favourite gardener, other than my grandfather, is Gertrude Jekyll, not always one to consult the genius loci but often, like most horticulturists, to enjoy putting her unique stamp upon the land, albeit a painterly and harmonious one. She, along with my grandfather, a professional and experimental gardener with whom I often worked as a gofer in school holidays, shared so many concepts for the planning of our garden.

Country garden in the making 1940s Britain

In another case of clogs to clogs my grandfather started with a piece of rough pasture in which initially he grew fruit and vegetables. Over time he added an enclosing hedge, a wide walk and perennial border. This accomplished, he threw caution to the winds and armed with a seed catalogue and knowledge of the exotic and tropical gardens in which he had worked, created a beautiful and magical place in which I spent so many happy hours picking fruit and trying to turn petals into perfume. I suppose he set me a challenge when I found this smaller and more derelict relic of an old inn yard, where presumably centuries of horses had been put out to grass before continuing their journey up the coast.

Planning a forest garden

Miss Jekyll's idea of anathema in a garden was bare soil, a difficultly indeed when incorporating poultry into your plan.  This concept had been instilled into me at an early age, mainly  through my championing of the gardening aesthetic of my grandfather, as opposed to the monetary considerations of his clients. My countless visits to the plantsman to fetch 'just one more box of bedding plants'  ended only once we had purchased the exact amount my grandfather had calculated for in the first place. This taught me that bare soil not only looks ugly and unnatural but so do single plants and of all single plants 'bedding out' annuals are the most wretched. The idea of a forest garden to me, is to plant more and to plant closer together. Furthermore, to plant annuals only where they will reseed and form stronger and better plants in following years, as they time their own germination and grow accustomed and accordingly to native temperature and soil conditions.

Wilflowers in a forest garden

Patches of wildflower annuals in clearings in a forest garden add a change in texture, colour and habitat for wildlife, these were actually resident poppies, we just protected them when young and then placed a low fence around them. When growing thickly like this chickens don't often launch themselves into the midst of an unknown planted area. Small chicks or quail may burrow through but with their small feet the damage is limited.

Rose arch in a forest garden


Miss Jekyll always advised on an initial building of what she called the 'carpentry' of a border or garden. This she did with architectural plants and I decided to do with a collection of one of my favourite food plants, the rose. This provides food and medicine, not only for us but also for the poultry and wild birds and also great beauty and nourishment for the soul. Roses, such as the Scotch briars, eglantines, or vigorous ramblers provide a most important dimension for a relatively small garden, height. On the arch (left) is Paul's Lemon Pillar, a climbing Hybrid Tea from 1915 .

Fantails and white roses

and what heights!

rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate'

Gertrude Jekyll believed it was far more difficult to create a natural garden than a formal one, something which might seem paradoxical. However, it is quite logical that to get a forest garden to work within the limitation of a small space, in our case a mere 1000 square metres, is quite an onerous task. It's comparatively simple to grow a kitchen garden made up of lines or squares of fruit, herbs and vegetables but to create a harmonious and productive 'wilderness' is a real challenge.

Cuisse de nymphe rose with bush cricket
I must admit to not having the ruthlessness of neither Gertrude Jekyll nor my grandfather in my ability to prune and weed out overweening plants, I am so overcome with colour and beauty and in the case of roses, their delicious scent that I find it almost impossible to curtail them. The large white rose pictured above the previous paragraph was a cutting I made from either Kiftsgate or 'Sir Cedric Morris' and at the time I photographed it, some two years ago, it covered over 800 square feet. This rose creates a secondary canopy across the orchard and has a further dimension to sight and smell, in the incredible sound of honey bees.

Forest garden with poultry

Roses Sir Cedric Morris and filipes 'Kiftsgate'
The other basic carpentry we provided for our garden was in creating 'rooms' using hedges, mainly of beech and hornbeam. The garden was originally just a field with a cider apple orchard attached, everything was open and exposed and I wanted to create vistas and more intimate enclosed areas. This had the unexpected effect, when combined with the roses, of giving the poultry a point of departure when planning their territories, they actually use these 'lines' to define boundaries between the hen houses!  The picture on the left shows another aspect of the forest garden, in that it is self perpetuating. This rose walk is partly made up of self-set roses or rather the results of cross-pollination between our prolific various white rambler varieties and the resultant fruit-eating of birds.

Planning a forest garden

The hedges were also planted to cut down erosion from the Westerly winds, which blow up from the sea and which can either dry up the clay soil in a hot Summer or cool it down significantly in the Spring. Even Winter in our garden is a couple of degrees warmer than the ambient, due to this planting. From our poultry's point of view, the hedges have multiple advantages. They have made it significantly difficult for airborne predators, provided welcome food (as in the beech leaf eaters below), given shelter and allowed valuable additional space in which our birds can move freely, preen, perch and even roost.

Hens eating beech leaves

Reference Books for Your Library and Two of My Favourite Rose Varieties



Hope you have enjoyed this peek into our garden. Join me next time when I'll look at specific ways we created this garden, unlike Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens, on a very tight budget!

Organic flower border

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All the very best,
Sue
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© 2015 Sue Cross

4 comments:

  1. Another insightful post Sue, thank you.

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    1. Thanks Keyanne, Have just found your comment and it is much appreciated! There should be more on this subject coming shortly. There is great excitement here at the moment, one of my quail began to sit her eggs last night in the greenhouse and is still on them this afternoon as I write this. Keep your fingers crossed. All the very best, Sue

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    1. Aaww thanks for taking the time to tell me that. I enjoy writing these posts, then I send them out to the 'ether' in the hope they will be read and enjoyed by others. Therefore, comments are the icing on the cake! All the very best from sunny Normandie, Sue

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