Author Archives: Alan

Claytonias – miner's lettuce, wood purslanes and spring beauties

The Claytonias are a very useful group in the forest garden, being very palatable species whose natural habitat is woodland.

Claytonia perfoliata, miners’ lettuce, is unusual in the genus in that it is an annual rather than a perennial. It is often grown in greenhouses in Britain as a winter salad, but it is much less commonly found grown outside. It can be difficult to get established as a self-sustaining, self-seeding population, but once you manage it makes an excellent early salad that maintains itself with little fuss. Getting a locally adapted strain might be the key to success: I spent a long time trying it with little luck until I found a population self-seeding itself in the nearby university car park, prospering despite the chemical warfare waged against it by the university’s estates department. Seeds from these plants germinate earlier and grow more vigorously than any that I have ever bought from the seed trade.

Miners’ lettuce is mild-flavoured and succulent so it makes an excellent bulk ingredient for salads. All parts are edible, including the leaves, stems and the unusual-looking large fleshy bract around the flowers. They can also be cooked, for instance in stir fries. In my garden some plants germinate in autumn and are available in small quantities through the winter. Others germinate in early spring and by March I have a good stand of it. It will grow in the open or in partial shade and likes a well-watered soil. It is rich in vitamin C: the name comes from its use against scurvy by gold miners in California’s gold rush. There are two closely related species: C. parviflora and the deep red C. rubra. I can’t find any information on the edibility of these but I’m sure they would be worth investigating: C. rubra in particular would look very striking in a salad.

Claytonia sibirica, pink purslane, is a perennial equivalent of miners’ lettuce. It is widely naturalised in Scotland, to the extent that there are locally named varieties, such as the white-flowered Stewarton flower found in north Ayrshire. It tends to form an extensive carpet in both broadleaf and coniferous woods: this looks spectacular when it flowers. In the forest garden it can be used in the shady areas under crop trees. The flavour is stronger than that of miners’ lettuce – something like raw beetroot.

Other species listed in the literature as having edible leaves include acutifolia, caroliniana, exigua, lanceolata, megarhiza, scammaniana, tuberosa, umbellata and virginica.
Finally, a number of species have edible roots, which go by the name of fairy spuds. Species include acutifolia, caroliniana, lanceolata, megarhiza, tuberosa, umbellata and virginica I haven’t managed to grow or try any of these yet but forager Euell Gibbons described C. virginica roots as tasting like sweet chestnuts when cooked.

Turnip-rooted chervil

I was being a bit of a pig in the allotment recently. Wild boar are one species that definitely didn’t get the memo about no-dig gardening. They have worked out one essential fact about the winter forest: the ground is where all the good stuff is. Their rootling behaviour – essentially ploughing up the ground looking for hidden bounty – looks destructive, and in some ways it is. Where densities are high they can cause an 80-95% reduction in herbaceous cover and the local extinction of some species. In other ways, their activity aids the health of the forest. Like any sensible pig, they prefer to target abundant species where they can be sure that all that work will be rewarded (you try digging up the earth with your nose, after all). As such they preferentially target plants with imperialistic tendencies, such as bracken and willowherb rhizomes or carpeting bulbs such as bluebells. This knocks back these aggressive spreaders, making space for a greater variety of species, and a number of studies have shown that over the long term species diversity is higher in areas with wild boar than in those without.
Similarly, in the forest garden, there are some crops where a good rootle is the only way to harvest them at some times of year, and the resulting soil disturbance helps to make room for a range of self-seeding species that tend to get crowded out in entirely undisturbed, perennial communities.
One of these is turnip-rooted chervil, or plain root chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum), a biennial root vegetable in the carrot family. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s probably because it has a few oddities in its life cycle which mean that it has never been cultivated widely. The first of these is that the seed needs stratification (winter cold) in order to germinate, and loses its viability very quickly in dry conditions (like seed packets). This means that fresh seed needs to be collected every year and sown very soon after, in the autumn. This makes growing it in rows in a crop rotation quite awkward. One option is to simply allow it to self-seed around the garden, which it does very readily and which eliminates all the worries about sowing and stratifying.
The second problem is that it sprouts early and dies back early, generally at the first hint of dryness. When it dies back it does so without leaving a trace of where it is. This isn’t a problem in labelled rows, but definitely is when the roots have planted themselves randomly around the place. It isn’t helped by the fact that many people reckon the the flavour of new roots is poor compared to ones that have sat in the ground for a few months in cold conditions.
All this leads to two main strategies for growing root chervil. The first is to sow it in annual beds in autumn, well marked and labelled. It starts to germinate here in early March, well before most crops. It then dies down by June, giving room for another crop, perhaps something like oriental greens which benefit from a late sowing so as not to run straight to seed. Finally it can be harvested over the winter. Some gardeners report problems with rodents getting at the stored roots, in which case a month in the fridge is also enough to improve the flavour. I find that chervil roots have a starchy, chestnut-like flavour that I enjoy a lot.
The other option is to let the plants take care of the sowing themselves, but this means that you are likely to have very little idea of where exactly they are by the time you want them. Until, that is, the roots have to give themselves away in order to grow for the new season. This is when you can harvest a great delicacy. A quick rootle will give you a pile of roots with young growth attached. There is no need to separate these as both parts are edible, just wash them well. By this time the flavour of the root has changed completely. The starch has been broken down into sugars, mobilised for growth, and the taste is now somewhat carroty and very sweet. It is impossible to get them out without a degree of soil disturbance, but, as the wild boar demonstrate, that is not entirely a bad thing in the forest garden.
Whenever you dig them up, it is worth keeping the best roots to transplant to another bed for seed production. The roots show a lot of variability, in size, length and form. The default seems to be a round shape, presumably explaining the ‘turnip-rooted’ part of the name, but a proportion have an elongated, carrot-like shape which seems to be associated with higher yields. Given that you are likely to have to maintain your own seed line if you want to grow this vegetable at all, you might as well take the opportunity to improve the stock and adapt it to your own conditions as you go.


Sprouting roots with the best separated out for replanting

I am always astonished at what a vigorous shoot comes out of a little chervil root. From a root usually no more than a few centimetres long they throw up seed stems over three metres tall. These can be very dense and with little leaf, so most of the nutrients required must be coming out from the root. This matches with the starchy flavour and a dry weight that is about 40% of it’s fresh weight. Chervil roots are clearly very dense nutrient stores. As such they could be seen as contributing to nutrient storage in the system as a whole. I am never too worried about surplus chervil roots that pop up and run to seed in unexpected areas of the garden: they are easily pulled out and put on the compost heap and don’t seem to bother the plants around them excessively as they are running on stores.

Root chervil seed heads against a bright Aberdeen sky

There is more on TRC at:

Late autumn harvests 2018

The leaves are all off the trees now and autumn is shading gently but firmly into winter, but there is still plenty happening in the forest garden. Low light and wet plants make photography difficult, but a friend with a better camera and better skills than me recently took some shots, which prompted me to write a round-up post.

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Photos by Julian Maunder

It’s counter-intuitive if you are used to an annual garden, but autumn is a major sowing and germination time in both nature and the forest garden. Many seeds require stratification, or a period of cold, to germinate, and the easiest way to achieve this is to sow in autumn and let nature take its course. Other plants are self-sowing and coming up in autumn, taking a punt on managing to survive the winter and seed early. A mild autumn can be a really productive period with such plants: I’ve particularly enjoyed having copious supplies of rocket this November. I wonder if, after many generations of self-sowing, rocket is becoming hardier in my garden? Last winter – by no means a mild one – was the first time a plant survived the whole winter through and managed to seed in the spring. It is the offspring of this plant that are growing so vigorously in the cool weather now.
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I was also very pleased to see miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) self-seeding freely. It has been a bit frustrating watching this species thrive in unexpected places like the nearby university car park while taking a long time to really get established in my allotment. It is a really nice, mild salad crop, so I’m sure the wait will be worth it.
Miner's lettuce
I particularly like getting biennial carrot family members established as self-seeding populations in the garden These are often quite difficult to grow each year from seed, having often short-lived seed with demanding stratification requirements and vulnerability to various diseases that are ingrained in our long-established allotment site. Saving seed, or allowing plants to self seed, is the only way to really guarantee fresh, viable seed. Parsnips, coriander, fennel, celery, angelica, alexanders and turnip-rooted chervil all self-seed this way. Of these, autumn is a particularly productive time for the celery and alexanders. I’m also getting there with Hamburg parsley, a variety of parsley that produces an edible root.
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Seeds of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) can be put in a pepper grinder and used as a spice

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Angelica (Angelica archangelica) showing a wonderful deep red at the base

Another pair of related plants providing both food and colour at this time of year are the pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) and chop suey greens or shungiku (Chrysanthemum coronarium). Both are producing cheerful yellow and orange flowers against the gloom, and the flower shoots of both can be used in stir fries. With the marigolds I use them flower bud and all, but the bud of the shungiku is very bitter so I remove it.
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Chrysanthemum coronarium

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Calendula officinalis

The wood mallow is also still going strong, providing edible leaves and flowers, and the little seed-heads known as ‘cheeses’. When you add in the kale, the leeks and the veritable treasury of root crops still to be dug up, winter may be coming but that is no cause for the forest gardener to worry.

Forest garden seeds 2018

It’s that time of year again, when every time I go down to the garden I come back with a pocket full of seeds. I’m going to take a slightly different approach this year to what I usually do. I normally wait until I have got all the year’s seeds in, then make up my trade list. The trouble with this is that by the time the last seeds are ready, the earliest ones have been in store for over six months and in some cases have already missed their ideal sowing time, so this year I am simply going to list seeds as I pick them.
One of my motivations for seed saving is that I find a lot of species, especially those in the carrot family, difficult to grow from bought seed. This applies not only to forest garden exotics but to well established crops like parsnips. I know I’m not the only one and I’m convinced that this is the reason why some crops like turnip-rooted chervil and Hamburg parsley aren’t more popular, despite how delicious they are. I’m hoping that this approach will help other people around that barrier.
My seeds are listed on the Forest Garden Seeds page.


Parsnip flowers

Update on forest gardening courses 2018

I’m happy to say that the the first forest gardening course went very well, apart from me almost losing my voice from talking so much! The two participants who made themselves my guinea pigs were great company, and the weather was so good that we didn’t leave the garden once in the whole six hours (thanks to the Kelly kettle).
I’ve now added one more day course and settled on dates and a format for the evening course. This should be all the courses I do this year now (but if a date is booked out or you can’t make any of the dates, email me). A quirk of the booking site that I used meant that booking for the August and September courses closed after the July one, so if you tried to book and were told that there were no tickets, try again!
The full course details now go like this:
Day courses
The one-day course will cover all the basics that you need to start forest gardening. 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 links below. Please note that for the August and September courses the booking site will tell you that there are no tickets for sale until you choose a date.
Sunday 12 August  11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Sunday 9 September  11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Sunday 14 October 11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Evening classes
The evening classes will be more informal, and will be about having a look at whatever crops and tasks are happening in the garden on that date. Over the course of a year, participants should get a full picture of the workings of a forest garden. The cost per evening will be £5. If you are interested in the evening classes please email me at The dates and times are below – note that the times change because it gets dark earlier each time!
Thursday 16 August 19:00 – 20:00
Thursday 13 September 18:00 – 19:00
Thursday 11 October 16:30 – 17:30
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!

Forest gardening courses 2018

After many requests, I have finally organised some official forest gardening courses, based in the garden itself. There are two kinds: a one-day introductory course and a monthly evening course.
Day courses
The one-day course will cover all the basics that you need to start forest gardening. 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. Please note that for the August and September courses the booking site will tell you that there are no tickets for sale until you choose a date.
Sunday 15 July  11:00 – 17:00
Sunday 12 August  11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Sunday 9 September  11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Sunday 14 October 11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Evening classes
The evening classes will be more informal, and will be about having a look at whatever crops and tasks are happening in the garden on that date. Over the course of a year, participants should get a full picture of the workings of a forest garden. The cost per evening will be £5. If you are interested in the evening classes please email me at The dates and times are below – note that the times change because it gets dark earlier each time!
Thursday 16 August 19:00 – 20:00
Thursday 13 September 18:00 – 19:00
Thursday 11 October 16:30 – 17:30
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!

Eating flower stems

At this time of year, flower stems feature on the forest garden menu in a big way. Flower stems have a number of advantages over other parts of the plant. A mature flower stem may be fibrous and tough, but while growing they are generally soft. They are usually quite chunky compared to other stems, which is handy in preparing them. And compared to the rest of the plant, they are often far less loaded with the defensive chemicals that make plants taste bitter or nasty to us. Finally, removing the flower stems can divert the plant’s resources from seeding and into vegetative growth, which is often what we want from it.
Here, from left to right, are a number of flower stems that I picked for an entirely flower-stem-based dinner recently:
Skirret: chunky, carroty and produced in abundance; best to strip the leaves off.
Radish: leaves, stem and flower heads are all good, not just the root.
Alexanders: less strong tasting than the rest of the plant at this stage.
Mint: minty.
Welsh onion and walking onion: stems becoming a little fibrous but dissolve into a sauce with a lovely sweet onion flavour if cut fine; flowers and bulbils still soft enough to use.
Salsify: abundantly produced, with an artichoke flavour’
Udo – disappearing out of the picture!
Leaf beet: chunky with an earthy, asparagus-like taste.
Celery: the leaf rather than the stem variety, but flower stems are soft enough to use.
Turkish rocket: soft and tasty.
There’s a patience dock in there too, with surprisingly sweet stems, but I can’t see it!
edible flower stems

In Praise of Pruning

Forest gardening draws on the way in which nature itself works for many things, from fertility to pest control. Therefore, when it comes to pruning, you might imagine that it would be best to leave aside such artificial practices and instead let trees and shrubs follow their own natural patterns of development. No-work permaculture at its finest!
This was my own assumption when I started forest gardening, but years of experience have taught me, often the hard way, that the opposite is true. Pruning is a very effective intervention that pays back the effort many times in terms of the accessibility, quality and size of your crops. It is also a great way of learning more about your plants and how they develop. With a little practice, you can use your secateurs as a baton to conduct a symphony of growth, flowering and fruiting in your garden.
I use pruning to achieve three main things. The first is access. The secret to a forest garden in its complex, multi-layered structure. This can also be a hazard as you battle your way through branches and wet foliage to get to your food or get poked in the eye bending down to pick from the ground layer. The main principle here is to prevent plants from branching too low down so that you have a clear view and easy access to the plants growing beneath them. You can also make trees and shrubs more robust and so less likely to be dragged down by the weight of their own fruit.
The second is yield. Pruning is your main method for persuading trees to put more energy into fruiting and less into massive amounts of woody growth. It largely isn’t a matter of cutting off growth after it has happened but instead of cutting back to the right buds so that you encourage the kind of growth that will bear fruit. A tree that is investing less in vertical growth will have more to put into fruit and the lighter, sunnier canopy will generally allow better ripening of the fruit. In a forest garden, there is also a knock-on effect in the lower layers. Many plants naturally produce more foliage than they strictly need for photosynthesis in order to shade out the competition and claim a greater share of the available water and nutrients. Creating a lighter crown gives you more light and productivity in your ground layer.
Finally, there is disease. Pruning is an opportunity to cut out diseases like apple canker and to stop them from spreading. A more open, airy plant is also generally less prone to diseases such as mildew that can attack both plant and fruit. A pruning saw is a double-edged sword though. Carelessly carried out or mis-timed pruning can spread infections or create opportunities for diseases to attack. I generally wipe my pruning tools with meths between trees to avoid transferring diseases.
There are three main principles to bear in mind when pruning. Much of the rest flows from these three. The first is that a bud will produce a shoot pointing in the direction that the bud itself is pointing. On a horizontal branch for instance, a bud on the top of the branch will produce vertical growth, buds on the side will grow out horizontally and ones on the bottom will grow down. The second principle is that growing buds suppress the growth of ones further down the shoot. The practical upshot of this is that you can cut a shoot back to a particular bud and this will be the one that will have the most growth. Leaving the end (or apical) bud will give strong extension of the shoot. The third principle is that plants prefer to fruit on some kinds of growth more than on others. The details vary from plant to plant and the biggest differences in pruning strategy are down to this.
Now, with these principles and a pair of secateurs in hand, let’s have a wander around the garden…
Raspberries (Rubus idaeus) are often grown up wire frames that support the canes and prevent them from being dragged down by the weight of the fruit. The downside of this approach is that canes that wander too far from the frame are usually pruned off, preventing the natural spread of the plants. Over time this tends to lead to the loss of the whole stand to disease.
An alternative approach, which I have now adopted for all my rasps, is to shorten the canes somewhat so that they are robust enough to be free standing. Allowing my plants to wander around the garden has allowed me to make some interesting observations. Raspberries are related to brambles (R. fruticosus agg) and while they don’t share the briar’s trait of making roots at the end of their shoots in order to spread through a wood at terrifying speed, they do share its ultimate dream – of getting up into a tree in order to co-opt its structure and reach the sun. The thorns of bramble and raspberry, like rose, both point backwards from the stem. They are as much about helping the plant to get a grip on the plants that it scrambles over as they are about protection – they are little grappling hooks designed to pull the shoots up into a tree.
Grown in the open, raspberry canes grow with a distinctive kink near the top. When they get near a tree, the purpose of this becomes clear: the canes first punch up vertically through the canopy then loop over, hopefully snaring a branch for support. In the open, I generally prune the canes just below this bend. It doesn’t remove too much stem but it seems to be enough to keep them vertical. Under a suitable tree, I just let them get on with it. The pruning is carried out in winter when the plants are dormant. At the same time I remove the previous year’s canes, take out any weak, spindly, damaged or diseased canes and thin out any areas that are too crowded. The old stems make great kindling; new ones go in the compost.
The exception to this pruning strategy is for autumn-fruiting rasps, which have to be cut right down to the ground at the end of every season and which generally need some support once they are grown up.
Brambles or blackberries are like raspberries, except that their shoots are designed to arch over and root at the tip, which makes them something like a cross between creeping buttercup and barbed wire. However, it’s possible to tame a bank of brambles with a little carefully timed pruning. In the middle of summer, when the shoots are growing at their fastest, cut the new stems in half, at the high point of their arc. If you’ve done the same the year before it is easy as you cut them just beyond where they pass the fruiting stems, so it can be done with a hedge trimmer if you have a lot.
The currants (Ribes) nicely illustrate the importance of knowing what kind of wood a plant fruits on. Blackcurrants fruit on new growth so they are pruned by cutting the oldest third of the stems down to ground level every winter, giving a constant supply of new shoots.
Redcurrants, whitecurrants, pinkcurrants (all R. rubrum) and gooseberries (R. uva-crispa) all fruit on old wood, so the pruning strategy for them is completely different. Winter pruning is limited to taking out especially old or diseased branches and any shoots that are crossing or growing up from the base. Then, in early summer, all side shoots are cut back to two buds. Because the plants fruit on older growth this doesn’t remove any fruit, but does change the plant’s priorities from making new growth to producing fruit. Leading shoots can be shortened to create a robust, compact plant that will not be dragged down by the weight of the fruit on it.
Overall, the aim with redcurrants and gooseberries is to produce an open, ‘goblet-shaped’ plant that allows air circulation and resists mildew. They are usually grown on a ‘leg’ (the stem of the goblet), a short section of trunk free from any shoots. This is particularly useful when you have ground layer crop that you want to harvest and also helps to discourage gooseberry sawfly, which emerge from the ground every year and have to get up into the plant in order to strip its leaves.
Apples (and pears)
Apples and pears are pruned in the dormant season, between leaf fall and bud burst. The overall aim of pruning is to produce a robust, compact frame of sturdy branches and short fruiting ‘spurs’ that will support the un-naturally large fruits that we have selected the ancestral apple for. Spurs are side shoots that are kept short (just a few buds). As well as ensuring that the apples are borne close to the main stem this encourages the formation of fruiting buds.
The other main aim is to stop the tree putting all its resources into non-fruiting growth. The rule of thumb here is that vertical stems grow rapidly and produce little fruit while horizontal stems grow slowly and produce lots of fruit. As I said above, you don’t want to have to achieve this by cutting off lots of the wrong kind of growth but rather by pruning back to buds that are going in the direction that you want them to in the first place.
Before you start, it’s important to learn to distinguish fruiting buds (which will break to produce a spray of blossom, followed by fruit) from vegetative buds (which will produce a length of stem). In the photo below you can see some spurs pruned back to the large fruiting buds. The vegetative buds on the side of the stems are much smaller. Before you start pruning, check whether your tree is a spur-bearer, with the fruit buds closer to the base of the shoot, or a tip-bearer, with the fruit buds clustered at the end of the shoot. Spur-bearers are more common.
The first part of the pruning strategy is simple: reduce all vertical shoots to short spurs (or even cut them right back to the branch as they will always tend to want to make vertical growth). The only exception to this is for stems that you want to form the central trunk of the tree in the future. These are generally reduced by about half to keep the tree compact and the stems robust. I generally like to give myself options by keeping a few leading stems at the top of the tree – ones that aren’t needed can be pruned back in the future. Also cut out any diseased wood at this stage.
The second part of the strategy is to create a leading shoot at the end of the branch that will give horizontal growth. Pick a shoot (or two) near the end of the branch and prune it back, by about a third to a half, to a bud on the underside of the shoot. This will grow in the direction it is facing, giving a downward-facing shoot (the tendency of all shoots to curl upwards will translate it into a horizontal one). If all shoots on a branch are trimmed back hard then lots of buds will break, setting you up for a dense tree with lots of vertical growth in the future. The end shoots therefore achieve two aims: they give you a horizontal extension to your branch and they produce chemicals that suppress the growth of the buds further down the branch. The photo below shows the result. Right in the middle you can see a shoot that has been pruned back to a downward facing bud at the start of the year, resulting in a horizontally-growing shoot.
Finally, the side shoots behind the leading stem are your spurs. Here you can take your pick. Traditonally, spurs were cut back to a short stem of approximately five buds, ending again on a downward facing bud. More recent thinking is to do no more cutting back than is needed to avoid congested and crossing spurs. If the fruit buds are clustered at the tips (a tip bearer), this is definitely the option you need. I’m used to the old way, but will try experimenting with the newer recommendations this year.
Plums and cherries
Avoid pruning stone fruit like plums or cherries in wet weather or in winter as this makes them vulnerable to a disease called peach-leaf curl. A sunny day in July is ideal. Plums do not require a lot of pruning – mostly just cut out any diseased branches and any shoots that are growing vertically or towards the centre of the tree. Summer pruning may involve removing some shoots with developing fruit. Don’t worry about this. Plums always set too much fruit anyway. In fact you might want to thin out the developing fruit at this stage to avoid overcrowding, broken branches and exhausted trees.
An alternative to pruning on apples, pears, plums and cherries is festooning – tying down vigorous vertical branches to the hortizontal. This is more work but gives a quick way to achieve a more horizontal structure without removing lots of material and making lots of cuts. I use it, in combination with pruning, on trees that haven’t been pruned for a few years and need some drastic action.
Formative pruning
If you are pruning a newly planted fruit tree, you don’t need to worry about encouraging fruiting as you shouldn’t allow it to fruit anyway in its first year. Instead, this is the time to think about the future structure of the tree. The traditional advice is to cut the leading shoot of a ‘maiden’ (single stemmed) tree at 75cm and then allow the shoots that come from the buds below the cut to develop into the main branches of the tree for a goblet-shaped structure (removing the topmost shoot if it is too dominant). For access to the ground layer, I prefer to have a little more unbranched trunk than this.
Happy pruning!

Winter woes and wonders

It’s been a while since we’ve had a really testing winter in Aberdeen, so in an odd way I am rather enjoying the difficult one we’re having this year – as an opportunity to find out whether more recently acquired plants really are suited to growing in a forest garden in the north. We haven’t had any really deep freezes, but the continual back-and-forth over freezing point that we’ve experienced can be tougher for many plants than straightforward cold.

To start with those that definitely aren’t going to make it, I think I can firmly rule out milk thistle (Silybum marianum) for my garden. It was looking good after December’s frost and snow, but the extended cold seems to have been too much and all four of my plants are now withered husks. I’m also sad to report my mauka (Mirabilis expansa) as missing in action. This Andean root crop is widely described as growing in ‘cold, windy’ conditions at high altitude so it sounded perfect. My plants put on impressive aerial growth in 2016 but produced only small roots. I planted them in various positions around the garden to test out different conditions, but not one of them showed leaf again in 2017.


Pan breid

Some other plants have been putting on growth but are now looking like they are regretting it. Prime among these is alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), a surprisingly hardy plant given its southerly distribution in the wild in Britain. It always starts into growth very early in its second year and never seems to suffer for it. What has been fascinating this year has been the differing trajectories of two different two-year-old plants that flowered and seeded copiously in 2017. One followed this by dropping dead in standard biennial fashion. The other not only clung on to life but sent up a mass of new flowering growth in November and December. This is now being progressively cut back by repeated frosts, but if I had to take a guess I would put my money on it making it through to spring. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this plant to see how far its ambitions for perenniality go.



Another surprisingly hardy plant is globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus Scolymus Group). When I started growing, received wisdom was that cardoon (Cynara cardunculus Cardoon Group), a variety of artichoke selected for stems rather than flowers, was hardier. That’s all very well, but I’ve never found cardoon worth growing and I’ve never met anyone who actually uses it. Fortunately it seems that globe artichoke is just as hardy after all and mine regularly puts on significant growth in the winter, seemingly unworried by getting cut down by frost every now and again.

Of my newer experiments, I’m glad to see that the Chinese mahogany (Toona sinensis) is looking unaffected by the cold. Not that I’m expecting a mahogany crop any time soon, but the tree’s young leaves have a spicy, oniony flavour that I’m looking forward to experimenting with more. My Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) has not only been surviving but growing throughout the winter. I’m very keen to try it once spring comes and I’m not worried about weakening it. Creeping dogwood (Cornus canadensis) is not an entirely new experiment. I’ve lost several that I acquired as plants in past winters. This time I grew one from seed. It survived last year’s mild winter and seems to be looking good for this year’s harsher one, so perhaps I’ll get to try its fruit eventually.


creeping dogwood

The jury is still out on saltbush (Atriplex halimus). I had given up on this species after losing several plants over winter but decided to try again after finding a variety called ‘Cascais’ with larger leaves and shorter internodes – perfect for food production. Winter wet seems to be saltbush’s biggest enemy, so I gave this one a raised position on freely-draining sandy soil and crossed my fingers. So far it has suffered leaf scorch on a number of shoots but there is still a good bit of life in it, so I guess it will depend on what February and March throw at us. One advantage with saltbush is that it roots very easily from cuttings, so I have a backup copy on the kitchen windowsill.

Then we come to the real winter survivors. Land cress is the far easier relative of water cress. It grows throughout the winter and goes perfectly in land cress and potato soup, with the land cress leaves blended into a potato base at the last minute. Leaf celery (Apium graveolens) can be used similarly, and in many other ways besides. I’ll write a separate post about this under-rated vegetable soon. Kale (Brassica oleracea) is another great winter survivor, but I do find that the older perennial kales get the more susceptible they seem to winter cold. This is not only true of Daubenton’s kale but of Pentland Brig, an heirloom variety that has always shown a little bit of a tendency to survive an extra year or two. I’m told that in Florida this variety is genuinely perennial, but some of my three-year-olds are looking a bit touch-and-go this winter.

Salsify (Tragopogon porrofilius) and scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica), two related root crops that can also be used for leaves and flower shoots, are both lasting well. Salsify is a biennial but it often germinates in autumn and then stands the winter. Perhaps the most unexpected winter survivor is wasabi (Wasabia japonica). Wasabi is possibly a little confused in this climate as it dies down and reappears at odd times, but it never seems too troubled by the cold.


Variegated Daubenton’s – not a happy plant

I’m not entirely sure whether winters are getting milder or some plants are simply adapting to my garden. When I first grew leaf beet (Beta vulgaris) it generally died back over winter and only re-emerged come spring. This year many plants have been putting on significant winter growth. I must be on something like my eighth generation of self-seeded plants by now so it wouldn’t surprise me if there had been some selection for the conditions in my garden. I was also absolutely astonished to see a living rocket (Eruca sativa) plant. Rocket usually dies back at the first sign of frost. I’d be utterly delighted if it was getting hardier.

While some plants try to tough out the winter, others sensibly die back and wait it out undergound. While some of these won’t be seen again until May or June, others are more adventurous and quite a number are appearing already. Leading the charge is the onion family, including the chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Siberian chives (A. nutans), prairie onion (A. cernuum), German garlic (A. senescens), welsh onion (A. fistulosum), Sikkim onion (A. sikkimense), wild garlic (A. ursinum) and tree onion (A. x proliferum). They looked like they were regretting their rashness a little last week as blizzards swirled around them, but this is pretty normal behaviour for onions and I don’t think any of them will come to any harm from it. Only the three-cornered leek (A. triquetrum), which grew all through last year’s very mild winter, is looking decidedly unwell – perhaps not surprising for a plant more at home in the Canary Islands.

Then there’s the allium that laughs at winters, the queen of the Scottish vegetable garden, the leek (A. ampeloprasum). I have a range of perennial leeks, including elephant garlic, Babington leek and wild leek ‘Chesil Beach’ (which puts the song ‘Echo Beach’ by Martha and the Muffins into my head each and every time I see it), but perenniality is never far from the surface with leeks and many lines of cultivated, biennial leek occasionally form overwintering bulbs. This seems to me to be a promising route to new perennial varieties. For biennial leeks, I’ve tried many new varieties but nothing seems to beat the traditional ‘Musselburgh’ for winter hardiness and growth.


Wild leek ‘Chesil Beach’. Far away in time.

Other plants already showing a bit of growth include the sour-leaved garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and a very handsome bronze lesser celandine (Ficaria verna). There are even some mushrooms! Jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) and oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) both seem to be unconcerned by winter cold.

With some other plants there’s nothing I can do but wait a little longer to see if they re-emerge from underground hiding this year. One of those that I’ll be most interested in is myoga or Japanese ginger (Zingiber mioga). This survived last winter but failed to produce any of the flowers which are its only edible part. If it makes it this time I’ve promised it a move to a sunnier position.

Finally, I’ll share with you the ingredients of last night’s curry, sourced almost entirely from the forest garden, to show that there’s never a time when you can’t get some sort of meal from it. Harvested that day: leek, potatoes, yacon, celery, salsify, hopniss (Apios americana), sweet cicely roots and leaves, jelly ears, leaf beet, kale, wasabi and alexanders. From stores: oca, beans, neep and apple.


lesser celandine

Seed list 2017

I’ve just posted my list of seeds collected in 2017. Ones that might be of particular interest this year include various crosses between Daubenton’s perennial kale and some of my favourite annual kales, a particuarly nice wild-collected raspberry that I have named ‘Sunset’, and a fabulously varied runner bean grex. Like last year, I’m offering the seeds on a gift economy basis, for swap, donation or pay-it-forward.