Tag Archives: gardening

Salsify

Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is a member of the daisy family traditionally grown as a root vegetable, but I find its uses in the forest garden are much more varied than that. Its natural habitat is by the sea and it won’t grow in deep shade, but it seems very happy to seed itself around the more open parts of the garden. It’s a biennial and dies after its seeding year, but it self seeds so effectively that once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. The seedlings are very tolerant of being transplanted, which is handy if you want to do a bit of rearranging it from where it has offered to grow. On top of their edible uses their deep tap roots mean that they probably act as dynamic accumulators, bringing nutrients up from deeper in the soil.

The leaves of salsify make a handy early salad and a component of forest garden spinach, but my favourite part is definitely the flower buds. I pick them just as they are about to open (or even a little after), put them in boiling water and cook for a couple of minutes. I then drain them and add a little oil, lemon juice and salt. They taste a bit like artichoke hearts and make a nice side dish, especially with a mezze-type meal.

One slightly alarming feature of salsify is the gush of milky latex from its stem when you break it. If this is allowed to get on anything else it turns brown and clarts it irremovably. Fortunately it washes off very easily while still wet and doesn’t produce any more after the first rush, so I simply gather a handful at a time then wash the ends under the allotment tap before I put it into anything.

So long as you keep it picked, salsify has a long productive season, but if you stop picking it will successfully set seed and stop flowering. It makes a large, dandelion-like seed head with substantial seeds. These can be harvested for sprouting or for seeding into new parts of the garden.

VERB – to spinach

Spinach used to be a noun, a particular plant, Spinacia oleracea: a pleasure to eat but a pain to grow, requiring lots of feeding and watering and running to seed the minute you look at it. Now, in the forest garden, it has become a verb, a way of cooking, something you do with a great variety of leaves.

Here’s my spinach recipe. Gather a mixture of wild garlic (Allium ursinum), leaf beet (Beta vulgaris), perennial kale (Brassica oleracea ramosa), red mustard (Brassica juncea), hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolata), Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), pea (Pisum sativum), Hosta and mallow (Malva sylvestris) leaves. Give them a quick wash and chop roughly.

Now fry an onion and some garlic (or any of the other alliums from the forest garden, but I won’t go there just now) in a large pan. Then throw the leaves on top, sprinkle on a little salt, cover and cook slowly. The jucier leaves will cook in their own juice if there is still some water clinging to the leaves, but with the others you will need to add a tiny bit of water.

To my taste, the result is simple but delicious. I also love the texture. Frozen spinach from the shops goes to a horrible mush, but the large leaf size in this recipe gives it a firmness and integrity.

If the taste isn’t enough, spinach is, as your mum no doubt told you, very good for you. Apparently spinach got its near supernatural reputation for iron content and strengthening properties (think Popeye) when an early table of the nutrient content of different foods accidentally slipped a decimal place, giving spinach ten times the iron content that it really has. None the less, all green, leafy vegetables do contain plenty of iron and also high levels of protein. On top of that, they encourage the growth of Lactobacillus in the gut, the beneficial bacteria that some people spend a fortune ingesting in ‘probiotic’ yoghurts and such.

I quite enjoy a dollop of ‘green’ as a side dish in any meal, but there are lots of other ways to use it, such as spanakopita, lasagna or spinach, feta and dill filo triangles. It seems to have a bit of an affinity with chickpeas, as in many Mediterranean recipes.

Many of the above species are natural shade plants, but even those which aren’t can benefit from some shade. Leaf beet naturally grows in the open, but shade leads it to produce larger, more tender leaves, so I layer it under the apple tree. It isn’t a perennial but self seeds so reliably that it doesn’t really matter.

Forest garden wildlife

Cuteness overload in the allotment today. The baby wrens have just fledged and are bombing about the place like tiny balls of fluff, each with a tiny stub of a tail sticking bolt upright at the back in the way that wrens have. They are unfortunately far too small and fast for me to get a photo of, but it set me thinking of some of the other wildlife that has been seen in the forest garden over the years.

Birds easily top the vertebrate list, such as the robin that follows me around hoping for worms* or the crowds of starlings that hang out in a nearby cypress, swooping down in a continuous feed to take a turn bathing in the pond. They flit down lightly, splash around madly creating a mini fountain in the pond and then flap back up labouriously on wet wings. Sometimes however, all the birds fall silent and scurry for cover. That is when you look around for the sparrowhawk. One time when I was working in the garden I heard what can only be described as a feathery thump behind me and looked around just in time to see the hawk heading off with a small bird in its claws.

(*Supposedly robins first developed the habit of following large mammals about due to pigs, which dig up large numbers of worms and grubs as they rootle around. To them, a gardener is just a pig standing up.)

Mammals are usually harder to see. We had a young fox coming into the allotments earlier in the year. Andy, our local photographer, eventually got a picture of it but it had us guessing for weeks. One of the most noticeable signs of its presence was the fact that it really loved digging up my woodchip paths, presumably looking for grubs underneath to eat. It also left tooth marks on the floor of the beehive. Other mammals are more obvious, such as the young hedgehog that I found ambling down the path one day.

I pile twigs and branches up in a ‘habitat pile’ for hedgehogs to hibernate in, so it’s possible that this one came from there. Other mammals that can be seen in the allotment include the occasional squirrel and bats flitting overhead at night. While a lot of the wildlife is obviously coming in from the surroundings, it is very noticeable that the forest garden always has a lot more bird and insect life than the surrounding allotments. Wildlife seems to be another of the things that come for free with a forest garden.

The morel of the story

I got a pile of beech logs from my work recently (we were cutting back branches from a road to allow a wind turbine to be driven down it) so I went straight to Ann Miller’s Speciality Mushrooms to get some shiitake spawn. I’ve written before about inoculating with shiitake, but this time I also bought some ink cap and morel spawn, both of which live on organic matter in the soil.

logs and shiitake spawn

The ink cap spawn went in a cold compost heap under a fruit tree. If the heap is too fresh then the heat that it generates will kill the fungus, but I built this one a couple of years ago, so it should be fine. I pulled off the loose layers on the top, mixed the spawn into the top 10 cm and then capped the heap off with a bit of soil.

The morel has slightly more exacting requirements. Some books say to plant it on an old fire site, some that it likes the leaf mould under ash trees (one way or another, it likes ashes). I didn’t want to build a fire in the forest garden, but we have a wood stove, so I have plenty of ash. I dug up the wild garlic from a small patch under the Japanese plum, mixed some wood ash, mature compost and 2-year-old leaf mould into the soil and added the morel spawn. Then I topped it off with some more leaves to keep the moisture in and replanted the wild garlic. By the time the morels fruit the wild garlic should have died down.

Only time will tell if it has worked: I’ll let you know.

Feeding the forest garden – part 1

Not all the plants in the forest garden are there to feed me. Some are there to feed the garden itself.

The main two types of plant I have planted for this purpose are the nitrogen fixers and the dynamic accumulators. There’s a third kind too, but if it’s there it wasn’t put there by me.

Nitrogen fixers are the simplest. They are plants that, unlike most, can pull nitrogen, the main component of fertiliser, directly out of the air rather than needing it supplied as soluble nitrates by other organisms, such as gardeners. To be completely accurate, they don’t do it themselves either, but co-operate with bacteria in their roots which do the job for them. Most of these plants are legumes, in the pea and bean family. Worldwide, legumes come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny herbs to mighty trees. Native British legumes are a bit deficient at the mighty-tree end of the scale, but we have a wealth of smaller ones.

lupins

The largest legume you’ll usually see in Scotland is Laburnum, better known as a bright yellow street tree than as a nitrogen-fixing powerhouse. I haven’t got one in my own forest garden but Graham Bell has several in his rather larger one, feeding the rest of the system through a steady stream of cuttings. The only leguminous tree I have myself is a Siberian pea tree (Caragana arborescens), which is a relatively new addition that is yet to seed. When it does, I am fascinated by the idea of seed described as being very similar to lentils growing on a tree.

Down at shrub level, legumes are an essential component of the Scottish landscape: the furze and whins that turn whole hillsides a mad yellow and fill the air with intoxicating coconut-vanilla scent. In the forest garden, I draw the line at gorse (Ulex europaea) due to its extreme spikiness, but make a place for broom (Cytisus scoparius).

In the herbaceous range, the familiar peas and beans give a yield at the same time as fixing nitrogen. This year, I’m also trying a variety of white lupin (Lupinus albus). The drawback is that none of them are shade tolerant so they cannot be stacked in with other species. This niche is taken by various other, mostly smaller members of the family. I have an assortment, including an everlasting sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) growing in about my raspberries. It provides occasional pea shoots for a stir fry as well as fixing nitrogen. In the ground layer under the fruit trees I have wood vetch (Vicia sylvatica), which is there purely as a nitrogen fixer.

Dynamic accumulators don’t have any supernatural nutrient-fixing powers, but move nutrients around in ways extremely useful to the gardener. The king of them all is undoubtedly Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum), which is also widely used by organic gardeners to provide organic feeds. The beauty of comfrey is that it is extremely deep-rooting. Not only does this mean that it can safely be planted under fruit trees without competing too much with their roots, but it allows comfrey to scavenge nutrients, especially potassium, from deep in the soil where they would otherwise slowly be leached out and lost to the system. This really illustrates the beauty of forest gardening for me: the way the system really fills the available space.

The third kind of organism that feeds the forest garden is not a plant at all but a class of fungi called mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae have a symbiosis with tree roots, exchanging nutrients like nitrogen for sugars made by the tree. In a typical forest, one tree will have several species of mycorrhizae and each fungus will have several client trees, meaning that the entire ecosystem is interlinked in a global trading network. Fungi are the dark matter of ecosystems – they influence everything but it is very difficult to detect them – so it is unknown whether or how quickly a mycorrhizal net gets established in a forest garden, but is a real possibility that a mature forest garden has this invisible trading web moving nutrients around to where they are needed most.

Tomorrow the world!

By now, the number of forest garden species I have has seriously outgrown my allotment and space is becoming a real issue, particularly in the canopy layer.

Luckily this threat is also an opportunity and I am finding lots of places to plant what I think of as an ‘extended forest garden’. Closest to home, I am fortunate enough to live on a housing estate where there is lots of green open space. We have a lot of mature trees, the legacy of the houses having been built in the grounds of what was once a country estate on the edge of Aberdeen. Over the last two years a series of storms have taken down a whole lot of these trees, creating a need to plant the next generation. I have been out there with my spade, making sure that the new trees are productive ones.

I have been trying to plant trees on this estate for some time, but finding that the combination of vandals and Council grass-cutters is a difficult one. The solution that now seems to be working is to put a serious stake and a wire tree guard on the trees, then a tree shelter inside that. Council workers work round them like any other, official, tree and vandals seem content to put a few dents in the shelters, which I can always straighten out. The tree shelter protects the tree from Council sprayers.

So far I’ve put in 25 trees, including small-leaved lime (for salad leaves), hazel, cherry, domestic plum, Japanese plum, cherry plum, apple, juneberry (Amelanchier), handkerchief tree (Cornus kousa) and Pinus cembra, the tree that pine kernels come from.

Most of them I have grown from seed, including the cherries, which came from seed gathered from prolifically fruiting cherries on the Black Isle by a member of Reforesting Scotland. Similarly, the cherry plums come from particularly nice selections from the many trees growing around this area.

I’ve also managed to spread trees by donating them. The local Botanic Gardens were delighted to take a Japanese plum (Prunus salicina) and a rare intergeneric cross x Sorbocrataegus ‘Ivan’s Belle’, and the local park took half a dozen of my seed-grown trees.

For the shrub layer, I have pioneered the fruiting hedge on my housing estate. I find that a row or currants (red, white, black and buffalo), gooseberries and wild raspberries can be cut as an urban hedge and still fruit quite prolifically. The raspberries have to be wild raspberries as cultivated ones grow too tall and don’t respond well to being cut back. It’s not the traditional way of pruning these fruit and I’m sure yields aren’t as high as they might be, but it gets them into the city landscape. I’ve also managed to sneak a few into shrub beds where they can express themselves more fully. Several other people have taken up the idea and fruiting hedges are slowly spreading around the whole estate.

The ground layer is the hardest to guerilla garden as you have to find somewhere out of the way of Council sprayers and strimmers. Fortunately the local park is going a little wild in places, so I’ve managed to plant out wild garlic, wild strawberries wood violets and a selection of others in the shady parts.

Six legs good

plum blossom

The Japanese plum is in extravagant, exuberant blossom at the moment, so it seemed a good time to take an inventory of the pollinators in the garden. Some were surprising: a wasp with its snout deep in a flower; a shiny, blue-black fly. Others were more expected: a perfect little hoverfly; a bumblebee of some sort.

plum blossom - waspplum blossom - flyplum blossom - hoverflyplum blossom - bumble bee

Perhaps the most surprising thing, however, was the complete lack of honeybees, given that there is an entire hive of the critters sitting just a few metres away. There’s been a lot in the media recently about the importance of honey bees for fruit pollination and some people take hives into their orchards specially for the purpose, but the little slackers don’t seem to be doing me any good. They are bringing home bucketloads of nectar and pollen from somewhere though, so perhaps the reason for their neglect is that they have simply found something better somewhere else. Never mind. Here’s a beautiful bee picture anyway.

honeybee
Pictures thanks to Andy Coventry.

Germination and determination

Spring is an anxious time in the seed frame, interspersed with small moments of triumph.

One area where forest gardening is definitely trickier than annual agriculture is in raising plants from seed. Annual crops have been bred not to hang about when it comes to germinating; mostly they just need a little warmth and a little moisture and off they go. The seeds of perennials are often more cautious creatures; they want to be sure that the time is just right before they will consider coming out to play and they may have very exacting requirements that must be met before they do.

Most simply, many seeds need a period of cold (known as ‘stratification’) before they will then respond to heat by germinating. You can see their logic: they want to be sure that they are germinating in spring and not in autumn. Some take it further and need a period of warmth, then cold, then warmth again. Some are even more complicated, virtually guaranteeing that the gardener will panic and leave them in the one place where they will definitely never germinate: in the packet.

I can’t say I’ve ever really, properly got the hang of growing perennial seeds. Mostly I sow them in pots or seed trays in a greenhouse in time for them to experience a winter’s cold, with mixed results. Last year was a bit of a disaster. I spent lots of money on seeds from the Agroforestry Research Trust and put them in poly bags with damp sand in the fridge, as many books will tell you to, for the amount of time specified for each species. In April I took them out and spread the sand on top of compost in seed trays in the greenhouse. Very little grew.

I think the problem may have been the seeds rotting in the sand and possibly drying out in the compost. This year I have taken a different approach, putting them right from the start in a container where they could grow happily, which will seal up and retain moisture and which converts instantly to a seed tray with built in water tray. This miracle of technology is called a margarine tub.

First I drill some holes in the bottom of the tub, to allow water to drain out. I almost fill it with a good peat-free compost (using rubbishy, cheap compost has cost me a lot of seeds in the past I think, as it dries out so easily), sow the seeds and then cover them with vermiculite and/or sand depending on how big they are. Then the lid goes on and they go in the fridge. Ones which need some heat first have the lid put underneath as a water tray and go in a heated propagator or on the window sill. I’m also giving up on the greenhouse in favour of a more gentle spring heat on the windowsills.

So far the results have been promising. Only a few have actually germinated so far, but you would expect that and all the seeds look healthy and vital.

In the past I have found out that record keeping is as big an issue with seeds as the kit that you use. I’m not one of nature’s record-keepers and I’ve already managed to lose track of which of my seed potatoes are earlies and which are maincrop as I mysteriously forgot to note which varieties were which when I set them up for chitting. The useful thing about the margarine tubs is the ease with which you can write on them. I write each a label but also write the name on the tub. When they go in the fridge, each tub gets its release date written on the front in large digits.

Where the stratification requirements of a seed would leave it germinating half way through the summer I am leaving it in the packet for the time being. These are generally the ones which would naturally drop their seeds around August and then experience late summer warmth, winter cold and spring warmth. If they don’t get the autumn warmth they go into quite deep dormancy and this is the state that you get a lot of tree seeds in from seed companies. The simplest thing seems to be just to wait for their natural seed fall time to come round again and put them in their tubs at that point.

Seeds that have sprouted so far with me this year include Japanese and cherry plums, Crataegus succulenta (an edible hawthorn, with a very promising Latin name I think!), Allium sphaerocephalon (round-headed leek), Chaerophyllum bulbosum (turnip-rooted chervil) and Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed).

Hamburg parsley seeds

After about a fortnight of Aberdeenshire being the warmest place in the UK, I finally got out and got some seeds into the ground in the annual garden: leeks, parsnips, turnips, broad beans and peas. I resisted the temptation to put some potatoes in as I’m sure things will return to normal soon. The forest garden doesn’t require much sowing of course, but there are a few annual veg that will take a bit of shade and find a useful place in the forest garden. One of these is Hamburg parsley (Petroselenium crispum tuberosum) which, as its name completely fails to suggest, is a root vegetable.

The overall look of Hamburg parsley, and indeed the taste, is very close to parsnip, but the Hamburg parsley will grow happily in the shade of an apple tree and is generally ready to use before parsnip is.

(That said, I’m interested in growing parsnip itself as a self-seeder in the forest garden. I once took over an abandoned veg patch which had become overgrown with willowherb, which isn’t a tree but still makes quite a forest. The parsnip had self sown all over the place and I got a good harvest of large, well-shaped roots. So I’m letting a few of my parsnips run to seed this year to see what happens.)

Last year, I grew on a few Hamburgs for seed and was rewarded with a sack full of the stuff. I took some to the seed swap at the Permaculture Scotland meeting yesterday but still have oodles, so if you live in the UK and would like to give it a try, just leave a comment or drop me an email and I’ll mail you some.

It’s Spring!

Ground frozen all one week, T-shirt weather the next. What’s a poor plant supposed to think? Well, a lot of forest garden regulars are hardy creatures and have decided to think that it’s spring already. The Japanese plum has started to blossom – fully five weeks before it did last year.

plum blossom

However, spring always comes early to the forest gardener and quite a number of early species are now into production. The first leaves of wild garlic (Allium ursinum) have spiked up through the soil and unfurled. The alliums are obviously a competitive family, because the chives, welsh onions and tree onions (A schoenoprasum, fistulosum and cepa proliferum) are all not far behind.

A perennial relative of spinach, with the splendidly silly name of Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), has been sending up tentative leaves for a couple of weeks now, as has Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis), which has unpleasantly strong-flavoured leaves later in the year but is sweet and mild when young. Sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima) seems to come in both perennial and biennial strains – both are starting into new growth. It’s probably my favourite ‘spinach’ after spinach itself and is almost embarrassingly easy to grow.

While all these leaves are probably best cooked, salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is a salad leaf. As a root vegetable, it is known as ‘vegetable oyster’ but to me this is the least interesting part of the plant. In summer, I’ll steam the flower buds which taste quite like globe artichoke and once the flowers open they’ll go into salads, but at this time of year it is the young leaves I’m interested in. While later on they will become tough and bitter they are now juicy and sweet and already being produced in enough quantity to make them the basis of a salad.

Finally there are two plants that I don’t encourage in the forest garden but which make very fine greens if you know how to cook them. Nettles grow anywhere but the ones from shade are the best for eating; ground elder mystified me for years as to why anyone would eat it, till I discovered that it is a gourmet dish if you pick the youngest, hardly-even-unfurled leaves and fry them in olive oil. Which makes sense for a plant introduced to Britain by Italians.