One reason I started researching for Forest Gardening in Practice was to work out how to retrofit an existing patch of land with trees and shrubs and turn it into an edible polyculture. Seven years later I think I am beginning to get somewhere. So here is an account of my first experiment, literally on my back doorstep. Two years ago this part of our kitchen garden was overrun with nettles and other volunteers. I am optimistic that this summer we will have turned it into a productive and pretty patch near the garden gate.
The hazel is well established and produces a wealth of nuts most years on the spreading branches. The side effect is a lot of shade underneath, which was mostly colonised by nettles, yellow archangel and a form of chicory. The chicory is rampant in this garden if left to itself and I found it completely inedible when I tried. I decided to rein it in and create a shade guild underneath the hazel, as part of my retrofitting experiment.
Last pring, in preparation I forked out the nettles and a profusion of chicory roots. I decided to leave the yellow archangel in the corner it had made for itself, as I quite like its yellow flowers and variegated leaves. It's not particularly tasty, but it has its uses in keeping the nettles out of this area.
Next I moved four rhubarb plants from a different part of the land, where comfrey and nettle always seemed to get the better of them. They are now thriving in their new location at the South side of the hazel - showing their tips over a month earlier than in their previous location. I then planted a selection of hostas in the more shaded areas behind the rhubarb. They took well after their late spring planting last year, and I eagerly waiting to see if and how much they spread this year.
This winter I decided to take off the lowest of the hazel branches for better access. New additions this spring are lemon balm and Salvia turkestanica, planted in a defenisve line against intruding grass and any lingering chicory. I love the Salvia – its flowers look almost like snapdragons and have a remarkable smell that is both lemony and resinous. I added a bunch of Peruvian Lily (Alstromeria sp) rhizomes as well. Some species of Alstromeria are meant to be edible, while others are reported to be toxic, so I won’t take my chances with this particular one until I am certain what it is. Meanwhile there are at least the flowers to enjoy.
The final flourish is the Japanese ginger which I acclimatised in a pot outside my front door for a couple of years, and am now convinced that with a little winter protection it will make its way out in the garden. The leaves have a mild gingery flavour that is lovely in stir fries and salads. I look forward to finding out how the guild fares this year, and will keep a beady eye out for reappearing chicory and nettles.
NB: What looks like randomly tipped containers is actually part of the design, with one rhubarb plant being forced for early cropping under the blue barrel and the Japanese ginger sheltered under the white bucket.