My food forest garden (September 2021)

For the freelancer, gardening is a great hobby. Fitting smoothly into those shorter between-jobs moments, it also allows for panic-growing when the longer ones hit.

Jam making – Fi Darby

However, I have to be honest here and admit that the, ‘If I can’t afford to buy food, I’ll have to grow it!‘ approach is all very well but only (in my garden) if you can live comfortably on blueberries, spinach, and chives.

Which is why I am fast becoming a rather unconventional gardener.

Here’s an example. This morning my gardening (short between-jobs moment) consisted of the following:

  • Fishing out mysterious pieces of plastic from the compost bin
  • Discovering sprouted avocados in the compost bin (and replanting them)
  • Cutting up an old pair of leggings to use as garden ties
  • Creating a veg box cat barrier with home-grown bamboo canes
  • Tying cut-up leggings pieces to the tops of the canes to protect my eyes
  • Watering the tomatoes with my own wee (indoor potty not outdoor squatty)
  • Watering the courgettes with worm urine (I think) from the wormery
  • Feeding chopped slugs to a hidden slow worm (Joe is our second rescue slow worm)
  • Politely introducing Joe to Flo (rescue slow worm one)

I did sow a few seeds as well but I’m not sure it’s the right time for either broad beans or chard. We’ll see soon enough. If nothing else, the slugs will be grateful for a bit more sustenance, as will Joe and Flo if the slugs get fat enough.

For the last fourteen years I’ve been planting to feed the slugs not me.

To say mine is a slug-ridden garden would be an understatement. I’ve lost count of the harvests I’ve lost to the squidgy blighters (often several harvests in one year). I’ve tried all the usual remedies plus a few more unusual ones but have recently come to a rather obvious conclusion.

I’ve been (not) growing the wrong plants.

Blueberry harvest – Fi Darby

Since lockdown one I’ve been reading about permaculture and polyculture, which are both ways of working with the land instead of against it. Although I find the principles of both of these appealing, it is the related concept of a food forest garden that has sent me into action.

Lucky enough to already have a couple of decent sized trees in my small urban garden (think terraced allotment), I’ve been planting some more as well as some additional food layers. Some of these are in raised boxes, others in the ground.

A food forest mimics a real forest, and allows plants to thrive in interrelated layers. Chosen carefully, all these layers can provide food plus some other useful yields.

  • The canopy layer – taller trees – wood, leaves (soil), nitrogen
  • The sub-canopy layer – shorter trees – wood, leaves (soil), nitrogen
  • The shrub layer – bushes – medicinal plants, leaves (soil), nitrogen
  • The herbaceous layer – weed suppressant, herbs, leaves (soil), nitrogen
  • The underground layer – fungi, rhizomes, root crops, soil superhighways
  • The vertical layer – climbing plants – fibres, leaves (soil), nitrogen

One of the best things about a food forest is that the slugs can be your friend.

I’ll be honest here and admit that the slugs are still annoying me but, whilst I do take measures (not chemical) to ‘deter’ them in other areas of the garden, in the (growing number of) food forest areas, I do my best to let them get on with the useful job of turning all those fallen leaves into bountiful soil.

Crab apple blossom – Fi Darby

It’s still early days for my food forest venture but I’m one year in and pleased with the results so far. Not everything is new or as yet useful but, in just one small area I have:

  • Large tree – paperbark maple – kindling (bark), perhaps maple syrup
  • Smaller trees – hazel (nuts), crab apple (natural pectin to set jam), ceanothus (wood)
  • Shrubs – gooseberry, blackcurrant, red currant, choke berry, treacle berry
  • Herbaceous – ransoms (wild garlic), mint, lavender
  • Climbing – kiwi fruit, grape, honeysuckle (basket weaving, medicinal)

Most of the plants are quite new so harvests are still limited (or non-existent) but I have cooked with the ransoms (tasty), made jam with the crab apples (very satisfying), preserved the vine leaves (still in the jar), and tasted the treacle berries (really not that nice!)

On Saturday I’m visiting the Agroforestry Research Trust forest garden at Dartington. To say I’m excited would be an understatement!

Gardening and freelance writing have helped me redefine my ideas around the concept of productivity. My life is no longer just about my job but far more about making a living, whatever that might look like.


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