Author Archives: Alan

Growing and eating silverweed

Silverweed has a long history as a cultivated crop. It was sufficiently important, in the landscape-scale agro-ecology of the pre-colonial Pacific North West, that access to good patches was controlled by law. Closer to home, Alexander Carmichael says in the notes to the Carmina Gadelica that silverweed root (brisgean) was much used in the Gàidhealtachd before the potato was introduced. He says that it could be traded, ‘quantity for quantity’ with corn and meal, suggesting that it was equally valued nutritionally. It was considered palatable and nutritious and eaten boiled or roasted or dried and ground into meal for bread and porridge. I mostly eat it boiled and find that it has a rich, creamy taste and texture.

One eye-catching claim made by Carmichael is that at Lag nan Tanchasg in Paible, North Uist, ‘a man could sustain himself on a square of ground of his own length’ by growing silverweed. Unfortunately he makes no mention of cultivation methods, but I suspect that he is talking about a lazy bed system, in which a raised bed is heavily mulched with seaweed. This would make sense both as a way of growing heavy yields of, well, anything, on Uist (and was later used there for growing potatoes), and also because silverweed is well adapted to growing on the seashore and is often found there. Like many species adapted to growing on shifting sediments, it spreads strongly via runners, which help it to bind the soil together and adapt quickly to disturbance. It’s a habit which has helped it adapt to other, novel habitats, such as the frequently-disturbed, heavily-salted margins of roads.

Variation between clones: silverweed…

…and not-so-silver weed

It’s also a habit which makes it, as anyone who has tried will know, difficult to replicate past cultivation methods in an ordinary garden. It will take over any veg bed it is planted in in short order. It will also naturalise happily in grass, but then it becomes very difficult to dig out the starchy roots which are its main edible part. A further complication, if anyone was really serious about adapting this plant to cultivation, is that it’s hard to maintain and breed separate lines of a plant that is hard to contain as an individual even in a pot, never mind in a patch of soil.

This might explain why, despite having been interested in silverweed ever since I first tasted its roots, I haven’t made much progress in fitting it into my garden. However, I did make one useful discovery recently which should make the task somewhat easier. I have a number of individual clones, collected from around the country, which I keep separate by growing in buckets (escaping from a bucket is nothing to this Houdini among plants, but you can thwart it by winding its runners around inside the rim of the bucket, making sure they never touch the ground). One winter I tipped out one of these buckets, and discovered that the thickened roots had almost all formed right at the bottom – making it easy to nip off the best ones to eat. I then put some compost in the bottom before putting the whole mass back in on top. They respond well to this treatment, and also become more willing to produce seeds, which I plan to use to start new pot-colonies.

brisgean
seeds

It’s not really in the spirit of forest gardening, in which the plants are meant to be more integrated than this. It’s also a challenge with other shifting-sediment plants like asparagus, which rely on their environment to deal with competitors and are intolerant of any competition. However, I can picture an analogue of the lazy bed, with a well-edged raised bed, regularly topped up with the abundant compost produced by a forest garden. This wouldn’t have the bottom-of-the-bucket effect but would probably create a soil loose enough to be dug easily.

Incidentally, I haven’t been following my usual practice of giving Latin names alongside the English ones in this post. This is because the naming of silverweed is, frankly, a mess. It’s an aggregate species which can be divided into many or lumped into one according to taste and fashion, and systematists can’t even agree on which genus to place it in. It is (probably) called Potenialla anserina today, but the genus name Argentina is also commonly used.

Silverweed flowers by S. Rae from Scotland, UK, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Honey under ground
Silverweed of spring.

Honey and condiment
Whisked whey of summer.

Honey and fruitage
Carrot of autumn.

Honey and crunching
Nuts of winter
Between Feast of Andrew
And Christmastide.

Carmina Gadelica, from translation edited by CJ Moore, Floris Books 1992 p366. Thanks to Alison Tindale of the Backyard Larder for putting me on to this reference.

Saltbush (Atriplex halimus)

I first came across saltbush (Atriplex halimus) at the Plants for a Future site down in Cornwall. I loved the salty taste of the leaves and spent many years trying to establish it in Aberdeen. Unfortunately we are on the edge of its range here and I lost a succession of plants, usually over winter. I think I have finally cracked it though, as my latest plant has survived many years, including temperatures down to -11°C this winter. In common with many Mediterranean plants, its real enemy is not so much winter cold as winter wet, so the key to survival is giving it a really well-drained spot. I have mine at the apex of a raised bed, sheltered from the rising sun in winter to minimise frost damage. Planting early in the growing season helps to give the plant the best root development by the time winter comes. If you acquire a plant in late summer, autumn or winter, keep it inside until you can plant it out in spring.

You might want to grow saltbush even if you weren’t interested in eating it, as it’s a very attractive plant. It eventually grows to be a small shrub with silvery-grey leaves. These leaves are the edible part, with a salty tang that is nice mixed into a salad. The saltiness of the leaves does seem to vary with the time of year and the amount of salt in the soil – at least it seemed to me that they were saltier after I mulched my plant with seaweed one year. The best way to pick the leaves is to nip out whole growing tips. This gives you the tenderest leaves and encourages the production of more. It also helps to keep the plant compact and stop it getting leggy. A cultivar called ‘Cascais’ is worth getting hold of as it has larger leaves and shorter internodes than the wild type, giving you more leaf and less stem.

One advantage of saltbush is that it is very easy to grow from cuttings, which means that you can take a backup copy, as it were, if you’re worried about losing your main plant over winter. In the UK, I can send a cutting to anyone interested in giving it a go – see my seed list for details.

My top 30 forest garden plants

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.
www.facebook.com/scottishforestgarden/posts/2767925186556620

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.
Hardy celery

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.
leaf beet
https://www.facebook.com/scottishforestgarden/posts/2390524570963352

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.
Alpine strawberry

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.

Daylily (Hemerocallis)
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.
Shocking shiitake

Apple (Malus domestica)
A productive and versatile fruit that keeps well into the winter. I use it for cooking, baking and making dried apple rings.
Applemania
In Praise of Pruning

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.
Sweet cicely

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.
Opium poppy

Japanese plum (Prunus salicina)
Japanese plum makes the best fruit leather, is absurdly productive and fruits earlier than traditional domestica plums.
Japanese 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.
Self-seeded parsnips

Rhubarb (Rheum)
A very well-known perennial vegetable, rhubarb has both more species and more uses than it is traditionally given credit for.
rhubarb

Currants (Ribes)
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.
Currants

Sorrel (Rumex)
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.
Sorrels

Linden (Tilia)
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.
Lime greens

Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)
Another self-seeding annual, salsify produces an abundance of artichoke-flavoured flowers.
Salsify

Broad bean (Vicia fava)
The bean that fits best into the forest garden system, growing in small cleared patches.
Broad beans

Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Another source of shoots throughout the growing season, lovage adds an earthy/yeasty/meaty taste to all sorts of dishes.
Lovage, actually

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

To source any of these, see My seeds or Other suppliers.

Seed list 2019/20

That’s pretty much all the seeds I have added to my online seed list now. This is a good time for sowing seeds that need stratification (winter cold) before germination, which in the forest garden is a lot of them.
New seeds this year include angelica, Manchurian spikenard (a continental version of udo), common storksbill, spignel, evening primrose, orpine, fen nettle and Scottish-grown chamnamul (Pimpinella brachycarpa). As usual they are offered for swaps, donations or the love of plants.
One new thing I have done this year is add codes to the plant listings which should save me spending ages hunting for them. Please quote Latin names with the code. The list is at https://foodforest.garden/forest-garden-seeds/

20190820_111233

Common storksbill, Erodium cicutarium

Hardy celery

Some plants in the forest garden are just more easy to photograph than others. Aralia spinosa spreads its delicate leaflets in one easy-to-focus plane, while pot marigold works the camera shamelessly. Celery is at the other end of the spectrum. Its sprawling habit makes it hard to get into a single coherent photo, while the fact that it puts on most of its leaf growth in autumn, winter and early spring means that the photography conditions usually consist of low light and wet, difficult-to-focus leaves.
20191031_130639
Those of us who don’t show up so well in photographs, however, can still have lots of other excellent qualities, and celery is an indispensable member of the forest garden cast. That growing season means that celery leaves are available when few others are and its flavour is a welcome addition to winter soups and stews. As with most carrot family plants, it’s the young, tender leaf shoots that are best rather than older leaves. In summer the young flower stems can also be used in dishes like stir fry and the seeds, produced in abundance, make a wonderful aromatic spice.
No matter how useful I find celery at present, I think I have only started to explore its potential as a forest garden plant. The celery I’m talking about is not the familiar shop-bought celery with its large, white, crunchy stems. That can be grown in Scotland, but only with lots of care, watering, feeding and mounding, and preferably a polytunnel. I’m talking about the smaller, leafier varieties variously called wild, herb, leaf, cutting or Chinese celery, which are used more as a leafy herb than as a stem vegetable.
Despite their differences, all these varieties are the same species, Apium graveolens. While the chunkier stem celery was clearly developed far south of Scotland, there’s no reason why a bit of selective breeding couldn’t favour the same qualities within a hardier gene pool, more adapted to a forest garden in the North. That’s what I’m working on in my garden, and celery is already responding.
The first step was to source a wide range of genetic sources. This involved navigating a bit of a minefield of names. True wild celery is Apium graveolens var. graveolens or ‘smallage’. It is a plant of wet, salty ground. Seed sold as wild celery is usually probably not true wild celery but one of the leafy cultivated celeries collectively labelled Apium graveolens var. secalinum, as opposed to the thick-stemmed var. dulce. One group of these are the Chinese celeries, also known as kintsai (which is just an old spelling of the Chinese word for celery, qíncài or 芹菜) or Nan Ling celery. Chinese celeries have generally undergone more selection than their Western counterparts. They tend to be more delicate and more colourful, and not quite so hardy. Western secalinum are called herb, leaf or cutting celery. There’s also a Dutch heirloom variety usually marketed as ‘Par-cel’ or occasionally ‘Zwolche Krul’. It’s a dead ringer for curly-leaved parsely – hence the name – and there’s a lot of confusion on the internet as to which it really is.


Having sown a range of these different kinds, I left them to it for a few years to mix up the gene pool. Celery is biennial so there is a new generation every couple of years. Now everything is well mixed, I’m starting to apply some selection pressures. There are a few qualities that I’m selecting for. Size and vigour are important of course. For stem qualities I’m looking for thickness and solidity. Some stems are hollow while others are fleshy all the way through. A few plants seem to have a degree of perenniality, surviving and growing again after flowering. Hardiness and general adaptation to my garden conditions are selected for by the environment.
You can see some of the variation here, in the range of leaf lengths, thicknesses, colours and solidity. No prizes for guessing which is my favourite one so far.
_MG_6365celery comparison
I haven’t tried selecting for a thickened hypocotl or stem base yet, but that would be the route to an equivalent of celeriac, the bulbous Apium graveolens var. rapaceum.
Although celery is ancestrally a marsh plant mine seem happy in all parts of the garden, including in a moderate amount of shade. In contrast to the traditional celery it needs next to no special care.

Forest garden courses 2019

I have set dates for a couple of Introduction to Forest Gardening courses in the next few months. These are the only courses that I’ll have time to do this year.
Day courses
The one-day course will cover all the basics that you need to start forest gardening, including designing, planting, looking after, harvesting, cooking and eating from your garden. It should be particularly relevant to those growing in an allotment, small garden or community setting. It will cost £50 and will be on the dates below. I can take a maximum of 8 people on each, so please book in advance. You can book by clicking on the booking link below. If you would like to come but really can’t afford the fee, email me.
Saturday 27th July  11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Tuesday 8th October 11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Accommodation
If you need to stay over in Aberdeen for any course I can put one person up in my spare room (two if they are willing to share a small bed). First come, first served!
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