For all those who have been asking, I have put together a programme of courses on forest gardening for 2022. I’ve tried to offer a bit more variety than the introductions that I have done in previous years – although these are still definitely in the mix.
Introduction to forest gardening
This one day course will introduce the principles and the plants of edible forest gardening. Topics will include how a forest garden works, the forest garden year, forest garden plants, and harvesting and cooking forest garden crops. The course be particularly aimed at those who want to grow in an allotment, small garden or community setting. £40 per person.
Sunday 29th May, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. – booking link Saturday 25th June, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. – cancelled due to covid 🙁 Saturday 6th August 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. – booking link
Beginning a forest garden
This one day course will cover the practical steps involved in starting a new forest garden, including understanding your site, planning your garden, access, starting a nursery bed, ground preparation and plant propagation and acquisition. £40 per person. The October course will be held near Huntly.
Pruning is used in orchards and forest gardens to improve yield, health and access. Getting it right involves understanding the growth patterns of the plant you are pruning, to guide it into putting less of its energy into woody growth and more into fruit. This course will introduce the principles that underpin all pruning, and how they apply to apples, pears, plums, cherries, currants, gooseberries and cane fruit. The main course is two hours but there will be an opportunity in the afternoon for those who want to practice what they have learned to do so in a community orchard. £20 per person.
The format of this course is a bit of an experiment. It is a chance to see (and taste) the development of a forest garden through the year, with forest gardening principles and practice taught in a more informal way over the course of the visits. This course is by donation on the day, with a £5 suggested donation. Barter welcome!
16th May, 6th June, 4th July, 8th August & 5th September, 2-4 p.m. – booking link
All courses will be held in my forest garden in Aberdeen unless otherwise mentioned. They will be cancelled in the event of illness or severe weather and a full refund or transfer to another course will be given. If you want to come on any of the courses but the cost is genuinely a barrier, contact me. If you need to stay in Aberdeen to make attending any of the courses possible, I can put up one person or couple for a night. If you have any symptoms of covid (or anything else contagious and nasty), do not come. I will give you a full refund or you can come on a different course. Further details are in the individual course booking pages.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is the Jeckyll and Hyde of the home garden. It has no neutral qualities, only excellent and abominable ones. On the negative side, they spread aggressively by seed and underground runners, and attack anyone who dares try to weed them out with hypodermic syringes full of irritants. And as the leaves mature, they form microscopic stones called cystoliths that lodge in the kidney to form kidney stones. On the positive side, it is nutritious and tasty, yields fibre and medicine, dries and stores easily, is an important plant for wildlife and accumulates a suite of minerals that makes it one of the best plants around to go in your compost heap.
Fortunately, there is a way to get all of the good qualities of nettle with far fewer of the negative ones. It’s called fen nettle, a subspecies of regular nettle called Urtica dioica galeopsifolia. More on this later…
There is a long tradition of using nettles in Scotland. Bronze Age bog bodies have been recovered wearing clothes made from nettle fibre. St Colmcille, who spread Irish Christianity to Scotland in the sixth century, is reputed to have lived on nettle pottage after learning the recipe from an old woman he encountered cutting the plants. Legend tells that a servant, perhaps with less faith in the wisdom of old women, mixed meat juice into the broth from a hollow spoon that he used to stir it. Samuel Pepys was served nettle porridge on his travels through the Highlands and Sir Walter Scott mentions the practice of forcing nettles under glass in Rob Roy. Anywhere in the world where nettles grow (and that is to say, almost everywhere), there is a tradition of using them. St Colmcille might be given a run for his money as the patron saint of nettle-eating by the Tibetan poet-sage Milarepa, who subsisted on them so much that his skin is said to have turned green!
Nettles have a distinctive, earthy taste that I didn’t like when I first tried them but have grown to love. The part to pick is the tips: roughly 10 cm of growth where they are still soft and break off easily. Wearing gloves helps if you don’t want to be stung. You’ll be glad to hear that even very brief cooking melts the stinging hairs and renders them powerless.
My main use for nettle tops is as a pot herb: they add a depth of flavour to leaf sauce that I look forward to every year. Whole, they are good fried or steamed, either on their own or mixed with other spring shoots, or on top of a pizza. They make a great filling for ravioli or maki. The traditional nettle soup is always worth making, although I tend to round it out with other leaves. Make a potato soup, throw in nettle tops and cook for just a couple of minutes before blending. Miles Irving, the author of Forager recommends instantly chilling the soup in a metal container plunged into cold water to preserve the colour and flavour. Dave Hamilton gives a recipe for nettle haggis on Self Sufficient-ish, while forager and herbalist Monica Wilde uses the seeds.
If you have more nettles than you can use they are easy to dry by spreading them out in a well-ventilated space. The dried tops can be crumbled and stored, to add nettly goodness to soups and stews throughout the year. Dried nettles also make a great tea, and blends well with mint. Fresh ones can be fermented into a refreshing ‘beer’, with no more added ingredients needed than sugar, yeast and a bit of lemon juice.
Nettles are so common that it may be better to forage them than give up space in your garden for them, but there is one big advantage to having your own patch. As shoots grow older they develop harmful cystoliths (hard deposits in the cell walls) and they should not be picked after they begin flowering. You can extend the season by cutting the patch down. It won’t be long before it is producing tender regrowth. This makes nettle one of the best ‘dual use’ food/green-manure crops.
This is where the fen nettle comes in. If you are going to deliberately grow nettles in your garden, wouldn’t it be great to have one that had all the taste, nutritional and wildlife qualities of nettle, without those pesky stings? Well, you can! Fen nettle is a subspecies of stinging nettle that grows in wet places across Europe. Besides having far fewer stinging hairs, it even has, in my experience, a better growth habit for the garden – more upright and less aggressively spreading.
There are two ways to propagate fen nettle, both of which I offer in my seed list. The first is by seed, but here there is a risk that the results will be a cross between fen nettle and wild stinging nettle. All nettle plants that spring up near my fen nettle patch get scrutinised with great suspicion, then either disposed of or transfered to a pot to grow on for further examination! The other method avoids this risk. Those spreading rhizomes which can make nettle such a pest make it incredibly easy to propagate: just dig up a piece and transfer it to a new home.
With the addition of these Chinese quince seeds, that’s the list of the seeds that I have available for sowing in 2022 pretty much complete. Many forest garden seeds need stratification (winter cold). This seems to be in plentiful supply at present, but sowing of these seeds – unless it’s in the fridge – shouldn’t be put off for too much longer.
I now add seeds to the list as they become available, so it’s worth checking back every now and again. I’ve been experimenting with sending out roots and cuttings lately and have added more of these to the list. Unfortunately, for plant health reasons, I can only send these within the UK. As usual, everything is offered on a gift economy basis: this does not mean that they are free, but you can pay, swap or pay forward according to your means.
This seems like a good time of year to post about snowbell (Allium triquetrum, also known as three cornered leek), one of the most useful plants in the forest garden in winter. A strange quirk of nature means that many of the best plants for the Scottish forest garden in the depths of winter come from the Mediterranean region. Native plants have almost all quite sensibly opted to lie dormant at this time of year, making for an abundance of roots but few leaf crops. Mediterranean plants are used to mild (but not entirely frost free) winters and punishing summers, so they have evolved to do most of their growing in winter, saving the summer months for flowering and seeding.
Of course, this means that many Mediterranean plants simply can’t cope with Scottish winters, but a surprising number can, including some familiar crops such as artichoke, wall rocket, king’s spear, red valerian and rosemary, all of which put on significant growth in winter. The general rule of thumb for Mediterranean plants is to give them a good, well-drained soil, since their biggest enemy is winter wet.
Of all these plants, snowbell is the most productive during winter in my garden, producing a significant amount of long, oniony leaves, adaptable enough to go in stir fries or salads, or to accompany leeks, kale, sea beet, radish leaves, Serbian bellflower, celery and wintercress in a welcome dose of ‘green‘. Many alliums start early and I expect wild garlic and chives to be producing before the end of February, but only snowbell grows really strongly in the darkest months around the solstice.
As with most species, locally adapted plants are a definite plus. I got my first plants from Cornwall, and they suffer noticeably in northern Scottish conditions. I then found plants growing locally, with many generations of adaptation to local conditions under their belt. The pictures below show the difference.
One risk with snowbell is that, as its name implies, it looks quite a lot like a white variety of bluebell or wild hyacinth (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), which is poisonous. Once you get your eye (and nose) in, there are many differences, including snowbell’s longer, softer, onion-scented leaves, differing arrangement of flowers and distinctive green lines down the centre of every petal, but it is worth being aware of the danger and, obviously, not to have bluebells in your forest garden.
As with all the articles on this site, this one is about using snowbell in a cultivated space. It is illegal in Scotland to plant any non-native species (including snowbell) in the wild or to allow it to escape from your garden to the wild, so consideration should be given to the potential for this before planting it, even in a garden. The snowbell in my garden has not been difficult to keep contained, but bear in mind that invasiveness varies according to local conditions and this may not be true for you in your country or part of the country. There is also another plant which is similar to and sometimes confused with snowbell. This is few-flowered leek or onion (Allium paradoxum). I would not recommend planting this even in a garden as it is extremely invasive thanks to the mass of bulbils that it produces in place of flowers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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