Forest garden visiting

I’ve been off travelling again, and this time managed to fit in a visit to Graham Bell and Nancy Woodhead and their forest garden in Coldstream. Graham and Nancy are lovely people and fed us generously, even going so far as to kill the fatted artichoke for us. Apples in the curry is definitely something I’ll try myself and the salad doubled up as an identification quiz. Just as I thought I couldn’t fit in anything else, a cheesecake covered in wild strawberries turned up and I discovered that I could.

Afterwards, we had a walk round their garden, planted 20 years ago on quarter of an acre (0.1 ha) of ground. I was immediately struck by how much the scale of a forest garden affects its form. I manage my ground layer pretty intensively to get a sufficient, continual supply of salads and vegetables. The tree and shrub layer is left very open to allow enough light down to the ground layer to do this. If quarter of an acre of ground was managed like that, you would have vegetables coming out of your ears, so Graham and Nancy’s garden puts much more emphasis on a closed, high forest layer. Graham is a bit of an apple expert, so there is a plethora of species adapted to the Scottish Borders. I was surprised by how much shade some of the apples tolerated. There were a number of trees in the walnut family, including butternut and heartnut. They were too small to be producing much yet (forest gardening can be a long-term project!), but flourishing well enough to encourage me to try planting some out round here as an experiment.

Some of Graham’s planting is for compost rather than directly for food and I was interested in the use of woody species like the nitrogen-fixing legume laburnum as compost providers. The compost heaps mostly seemed to be used to grow fat, happy members of the squash family: courgettes, marrows, pumpkins and squashes. Since my squashes have mostly sulked and rotted in the cold, damp summer this year, I will try that level of pampering myself next year.

One thing I sadly won’t be able to try myself, being in an allotment, is the use of a flock of tiny, white and extremely beautiful ducks to patrol the garden and turn slugs into manure. Between the compost and the ducks, the garden is entirely self-fertilising.

One of the great joys of gardening is of course the swapping of plants and we left with a couple of plants that had particularly impressed us during the meal. One was a white wild strawberry – white so that the birds don’t realise when they are ripe. The other was buckler-leaved sorrel. We use the large-leaved French sorrel almost daily to add a lemony bite to salads: the buckler-leaved one tastes similar but produces masses of smaller, beautifully-shaped leaves that seem ideal for throwing straight into a salad.

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