One of the questions I am asked most often about forest gardening is which plants to start with. I find this a hard question to answer for a number of reasons. One is that the key to a forest garden is diversity, so the answer I really want to give is all of them, which I realise isn’t very helpful. The second is that it’s a very individual matter, depending on the gardener’s climate, site, taste buds and access to plants that can be foraged. For instance, I don’t grow brambles (blackberries), since I know of several spots within cycling distance where I can pick to my heart’s content – but if I couldn’t get them wild I would most certainly grow them.
Despite all that, the question keeps coming up again, so here – with all the caveats above and in no particular order – is my personal top 30, of plants that are productive, easy to source and easy to grow. It might not be the same as yours, but it’s a place to start.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)
Very shade tolerant, very reliable and very productive once it gets going, wild garlic is available from February to June and provides a garlic flavour when raw or a bulk vegetable with an oniony taste when cooked.
Growing and eating wild garlic
Kale (Brassica oleracea)
With year-round leaves and delicious, nutritious flower shoots in spring, kale is one of my most reliable pot herbs. Both biennial and perennial varieties are available.
Daubenton’s kale – growing and cooking
Perennial kale breeding
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
There is a huge number of leafy alliums that can be grown in the forest garden, but this traditional one is still one of my favourites. I use the flowers as much as the leaves, cooked as much as raw.
Perennial leeks (Allium porrum)
Complementing annual leeks nicely, perennial leeks can be bred quite easily from traditional annual varieties or grown from bulbils produced by cultivars such as Babington leek.
Celery (Apium graveolens)
Half way between a herb and a vegetable, hardy celery provides stems, leaves and/or flower shoots at almost any time of year. I never use it on its own but to add flavour and bulk to pot herbs, soups, stews and stir fries.
Sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima)
The ancestor of sugar beet, beetroot and chard, sea beet is hardy, nutritious, tasty and productive. I use leaves in autumn, winter and spring, moving to the immature flower heads (steamed and then dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce and lemon juice) in summer. Just remember to let some of them produce seed as it grows better as a biennial than as a perennial.
Giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia)
Giant bellflower provides leaves, shoots and roots and has the advantage of being more shade tolerant than most bellflowers.
Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
A mild-tasting salad leaf, miner’s lettuce needs some ground disturbance to keep seeding itself. Once established, it will pop up wherever there is a gap.
Claytonias – miner’s lettuce, wood purslanes and spring beauties
Fawn lilies (Erythronium)
A useful shade-tolerant starchy root crop. The cultivar ‘Pagoda’ is large and productive and very pretty too.
Eating dog’s tooth violet
Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
Wait, what? Tatties? Yes, spuds are perennial vegetables that grow well in the organic-matter-rich soil of a forest garden (not in deep shade, obviously). Using blight resistant varieties like the Sarpo family and growing new ones from seed allows you to grow them more like a perennial crop, less like an honorary annual.
Alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Alpine strawberries are wild strawberries that don’t produce runners. They are thus more manageable and easier to select good varieties from. Will self seed in the garden.
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
My favourite soft fruit, and a natural inhabitant of the woodland edge.
Caucasian spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)
A perennial climber with spinach-like leaves and edible shoots.
An easy-to-grow, attractive perennial that likes a sunny spot and produces edible flowers.
Eating daylilies (Hemerocallis)
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Of the many mushrooms that can be grown in a forest garden, shiitake is my favourite – and perhaps the easiest.
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
Of the many carrot relatives with edible young leaf and flower shoots, I perhaps make the most use of sweet cicely, which has a very long cropping season and aniseed-flavoured roots, leaves, flowers and seeds.
Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
A feast for the eye, for the pollinators and for the stomach, poppies produce nutritious, oil-rich seeds and pop up everywhere to fill any temporary space in the garden.
Japanese plum (Prunus salicina)
Japanese plum makes the best fruit leather, is absurdly productive and fruits earlier than traditional domestica plums.
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)
Another one that you might not expect in the forest garden, parsnips self-seed around the place and produce a crop with very little effort.
A very well-known perennial vegetable, rhubarb has both more species and more uses than it is traditionally given credit for.
Forced to choose between the different currants. I’d probably go for red/white currant, which becomes sweet enough to eat off the stem if protected from birds by netting, and is a secret ingredient in many jams with its high pectin content.
The sharp, lemony taste of sorrel is found in many plants. Forced to choose, I’d go for garden sorrel (R. acetosa) or buckler leaved sorrel (R. scutatus). Or both.
Small-leaved lime is my favourite ‘salad tree’. If the growing tips are picked rather than individual leaves it will produce a supply of tender leaves for most of the growing season. Best pruned like a hedge.
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)
Another self-seeding annual, salsify produces an abundance of artichoke-flavoured flowers.
Broad bean (Vicia fava)
The bean that fits best into the forest garden system, growing in small cleared patches.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Another source of shoots throughout the growing season, lovage adds an earthy/yeasty/meaty taste to all sorts of dishes.
Persian garlic (Allium altissimum)
As well as being a striking ornamental, Persian garlic is a vigorous plant, producing large clumps of mild, garlic-flavoured bulbs, available outside the wild garlic season and easy to preserve by slicing and drying.
Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Nettles can be foraged, but having your own patch allows you to cut them down for repeated harvests. There is even a non-stinging variety!
Udo (Aralia cordata)
An enormous herbaceous perennial, udo produces an edible pith for stir fries and salads and shoot tips for tempura or stir fry, or to add depth of flavour to a leaf sauce. The taste is part citrussy, part resiny.
Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata