Category Archives: Reflections

A history of failure

When I was nineteen, I worked for a few months at a research station in Upper Michigan by the shores of Lake Superior. Aside from ticks the size of horses, the native biota I remember best are the thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), relatives of raspberries and brambles that I used to gorge myself on during walks through the woods. On finding this species in the sadly-now-defunct Future Foods catalogue, I decided to give it a go and was soon rewarded with healthy, spreading plants. The drawback is that over the last ten years they have yielded not one fruit, nada, but have made a spirited attempt at taking over my whole garden.

Another great disappointment was Elaeagnus x ebbingei. Ken Fern of Plants for a Future raves about this species and, having spent a pleasant May afternoon browsing on its berries in Crystal Palace Park in London, I can see why. Unfortunately my own plant has steadfastly refused to fruit and, having looked carefully round the municipal plantings of Aberdeen, I think the failing is general.

Having put up the list of plants that I grow, I realised that, like drug companies that only publish positive trials, I was missing half the story. In an experiment, negative results are just as valuable as positive ones, so I’ve added another section to my plant list: all the things I’ve ever tried and, one way or another, failed with. I hope it saves you some time with your own experiments.

Foraging in the allotment

The boundary between forest gardening and foraging is a fuzzy one. Picking in a forest garden feels more like a condensed foraging experience than convential harvesting. Perhaps because you are usually picking from the plant without uprooting it. Perhaps because the average harvest run usually takes in a dozen or so species rather than just one or two. Perhaps because of the seasonality of it or because a forest garden just feels so much more like the wild.
On Wednesday I’m off to the Scottish Wild Harvests Association Gathering at Cairn O’Mohr Winery (you have to say it aloud) to explore the subject further – and possibly drink some elderberry wine 🙂

Welsh onion

welsh onion

welsh onion

It’s practically impossible to get a photo of welsh onion flowers without a bee getting in on the act. It’s one of the big pluses of forest gardening that a plant gets to go through all stages of its life cycle, with little lost compared to annual gardening except periods of bare earth and weeding. These stages are generally the ones that support more wildlife and the forest garden is full of bees, beetles and birds.

Welsh onion (Allium fistulosum) is nothing to do with Wales: the name comes from wellisc meaning ‘foreign’ in Old English. It is also known as Japanese bunching onion, which is equally a misnomer as it’s thought to come from China or Siberia. Whatever it says on its passport though, it grows well in Britain and is a very useful allium.

There are two ways of harvesting it. It grows as a clump which slowly gets bigger, so you can lift and divide it, replanting half and using the other half as spring onions or scallions. This is how it’s mostly used in Asian and Jamaican cuisine. Alternatively, you can just pull green leaves off it almost all year round, except when it is flowering or in a hard winter when it dies down. Some people like the leaves chopped into salads but I find the flavour quite strong and only use it for cooking.

Welsh onions put a good deal of energy into producing quite chunky flowers, but this isn’t wasted as you can use the flower heads too. Pick them while they are still young and green and nip out the centre. You will have a shower of tiny flowers that you can use anywhere you would use chopped onion. (But leave a few for the bees.)