One of the questions I am asked most often about forest gardening is which plants to start with. I find this a hard question to answer for a number of reasons. One is that the key to a forest garden is diversity, so the answer I really want to give is all of them, which I realise isn’t very helpful. The second is that it’s a very individual matter, depending on the gardener’s climate, site, taste buds and access to plants that can be foraged. For instance, I don’t grow brambles (blackberries), since I know of several spots within cycling distance where I can pick to my heart’s content – but if I couldn’t get them wild I would most certainly grow them.
Despite all that, the question keeps coming up again, so here – with all the caveats above and in no particular order – is my personal top 30, of plants that are productive, easy to source and easy to grow. It might not be the same as yours, but it’s a place to start.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)
Very shade tolerant, very reliable and very productive once it gets going, wild garlic is available from February to June and provides a garlic flavour when raw or a bulk vegetable with an oniony taste when cooked.
Growing and eating wild garlic
Kale (Brassica oleracea)
With year-round leaves and delicious, nutritious flower shoots in spring, kale is one of my most reliable pot herbs. Both biennial and perennial varieties are available.
Daubenton’s kale – growing and cooking
Perennial kale breeding
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
There is a huge number of leafy alliums that can be grown in the forest garden, but this traditional one is still one of my favourites. I use the flowers as much as the leaves, cooked as much as raw.
Perennial leeks (Allium porrum)
Complementing annual leeks nicely, perennial leeks can be bred quite easily from traditional annual varieties or grown from bulbils produced by cultivars such as Babington leek.
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.
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.
Giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia)
Giant bellflower provides leaves, shoots and roots and has the advantage of being more shade tolerant than most bellflowers.
Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
A mild-tasting salad leaf, miner’s lettuce needs some ground disturbance to keep seeding itself. Once established, it will pop up wherever there is a gap.
Claytonias – miner’s lettuce, wood purslanes and spring beauties
Fawn lilies (Erythronium)
A useful shade-tolerant starchy root crop. The cultivar ‘Pagoda’ is large and productive and very pretty too.
Eating dog’s tooth violet
Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
Wait, what? Tatties? Yes, spuds are perennial vegetables that grow well in the organic-matter-rich soil of a forest garden (not in deep shade, obviously). Using blight resistant varieties like the Sarpo family and growing new ones from seed allows you to grow them more like a perennial crop, less like an honorary annual.
Alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Alpine strawberries are wild strawberries that don’t produce runners. They are thus more manageable and easier to select good varieties from. Will self seed in the garden.
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.
An easy-to-grow, attractive perennial that likes a sunny spot and produces edible flowers.
Eating daylilies (Hemerocallis)
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Of the many mushrooms that can be grown in a forest garden, shiitake is my favourite – and perhaps the easiest.
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.
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.
Japanese plum (Prunus salicina)
Japanese plum makes the best fruit leather, is absurdly productive and fruits earlier than traditional domestica 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.
A very well-known perennial vegetable, rhubarb has both more species and more uses than it is traditionally given credit for.
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.
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.
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.
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)
Another self-seeding annual, salsify produces an abundance of artichoke-flavoured flowers.
Broad bean (Vicia fava)
The bean that fits best into the forest garden system, growing in small cleared patches.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Another source of shoots throughout the growing season, lovage adds an earthy/yeasty/meaty taste to all sorts of dishes.
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
I have set dates for a couple of Introduction to Forest Gardening courses in the next few months. These are the only courses that I’ll have time to do this year.
The one-day course will cover all the basics that you need to start forest gardening, including designing, planting, looking after, harvesting, cooking and eating from your garden. It should be particularly relevant to those growing in an allotment, small garden or community setting. It will cost £50 and will be on the dates below. I can take a maximum of 8 people on each, so please book in advance. You can book by clicking on the booking link below. If you would like to come but really can’t afford the fee, email me.
Saturday 27th July 11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Tuesday 8th October 11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
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!
There is one kind of plant that really doesn’t belong in a forest garden, and that is grass. When I got my allotment, it had the traditional layout of bare soil beds with raised grass paths between them. The old boys actually seem to enjoy maintaining these structures, mowing the tops to perfection and deploying a range of implements that a hairdresser would be proud of to keep the sides in trim. If this is neglected for even a short while, the grass flops over the sides, first making a perfect habitat for slugs then starting to grow into the beds.
I decided that no matter how much work it took to replace the paths with something more sensible, it couldn’t be more work than keeping the things. The turves were dug up and piled, upside-down, to compost. I now have three main walking surfaces in the garden. The short stretch that bears the most traffic is slabbed. The other main paths are all woodchip and across some of the beds I have walking boards.
Woodchip is a great path material for several reasons. It is particularly high in carbon which makes it a very infertile medium. Woodchip should never be dug into the soil or, in my opinion, used as a mulch on top of beds, since the soil bacteria pull nitrogen out of the soil to help them break down the carbon, robbing your plants of essential fertiliser. Using it on paths turns its downside into a virtue. If plants do seed into a bed of woodchip, its soft, granular nature means that it is very easy to hoe them off. If you have ever tried to hoe gravel you will understand what a benefit this is. Finally, it is usually a cheap, easily available material. We just get the City Council, who produce mounds of the stuff and are delighted to get rid of it, to drop us off a heap every year. This year’s load turned up last week.
To make the woodchip paths, I dug out about a foot of soil and used it to build up the beds. I lined the bottom of the trenches with any cardboard and bits of old board that I could scavenge, but didn’t worry about this where nothing came to hand. Then I simply filled them with as much woodchip as I could lay my hands on. They have to be hoed in the spring and topped up about once a year, but neither job is urgent and they can be done whenever there is time.
As well as being much less work, woodchip paths are far more robust than grass ones, something I’m appreciating in the current wet weather as the grass paths are trampled to mud while the woodchip ones show no ill effects at all.
Walking boards are even simpler. I only really use them in the annual parts of the garden as there is no problem in stepping on the soil in the perennial parts. They are simply boards laid down on top of the soil to make a path. They serve two main purposes: stopping soil compaction and acting as slug traps. If you turn over any piece of wood lying on the ground you’ll see what I mean: the slugs retire there during the day and can be collected easily. The boards also provide habitat for beetles and centipedes which eat slugs and their eggs, so the slimy molluscs get a double whammy.
Here’s the end result. The forest garden has been thoroughly put to bed for the winter, with a mulch of leaves on the growing areas and a new layer of woodchip on the paths.
I’ve learned a lot of things in the course of trying out permaculture and forest gardening. Some of them I’ve then had to unlearn again. Here are my top four forest gardening myths.
Practically every forest gardening book you can find will tell you that you need ground covers: plants whose main function is to cover the soil. They are usually aggressive spreaders like mint and tansy that also attract insects and are said to benefit the garden in some rather intangible way through the aromatic substances they release. Sometimes they can be plants like Rubus pentalobus, a bramble relative that carpets the ground thickly and produces a token yield of small fruits.
I can see where the ground cover idea came from. If you have a large area and are mostly interested in the tree and shrub products, then perhaps all you want from a ground layer plant is that it will outcompete the weeds and save you some work (raising some interesting questions about how you define a ‘weed’). But in a smaller area there is absolutely no point to ground covers: you want to fill the whole ground layer with productive plants and fertility-builders.
In my experience ground covers are completely unnecessary for attracting wildlife: the whole point of a forest garden is that the productive plants get to go through their entire annual cycle of growing and flowering and most of them are excellent wildlife plants in their own right. I am also a firm unbeliever in magic ingredients like aromatics in ecosystems: the only magic ingredient is diversity.
Straight lines are bad
Funky, curvy lines almost seem to be a defining feature and article of faith of permaculture, which is the route by which a lot of people come into forest gardening. However, at the risk of sounding very… well… straight, I have to say that there’s a lot to be said for planting in straight lines. One reason is that it makes hoeing much easier. There isn’t a lot of weeding to be done in a forest garden, but there’s still some, and running a hoe down between rows is by far the easiest way to do it. It also helps you to avoid hoeing down your crop plants. A lot of perennial vegetables die down during winter and it is very disheartening to slice the tops off them just as they should be bursting into new growth. Having them in straight lines helps you remember at least generally where they should be.
Another reason for hoeing is that sometimes you want to thin out your plants, particularly with the self-seeders. I neglected to hoe lines through my leaf beet this year and was rewarded with a patch of scrawny plants that were more interested in producing stem and racing each other for the light than they were in producing fat, juicy leaves for me to eat.
Finally, straight lines make for good access. Mandala beds may look great when they are first laid out, but regrettably a New-York-style grid is probably the best compromise between getting round the garden, getting access to individual beds and not taking up too much space that you can get.
A mature forest garden is often said to be a ‘no-work’ system. If only! However, there is a kernel of truth in this one. There is far, far less work involved in digging and weeding a well-planned forest garden than there is in an annual veg plot. However, there tends to be more work in the harvesting. With annual vegetables you generally lift the whole plant; in a forest garden you pull bits off it, which takes more time.
I would change ‘no work’ to ‘better work’, as I don’t know many people who prefer weeding to harvesting. Perhaps the biggest advantage in work terms is that the the work schedule in a forest garden is much more forgiving. In the veg plot, you generally have to weed those seedlings NOW or you’ll lose them. In the forest garden you can usually leave a task till mañana, or indeed next month, with little harm done.
Bare soil is the devil’s work
A quick walk round any forest should be enough to dispel this one. You certainly want to keep soil disturbance to a minimum and only those who like thankless work would try to maintain areas of bare soil for the sake of it, but there is no need to obsessively try to cover every square inch with ground covers and mulch. Woodchip is for the paths and the paths only and other, more nitrogen-rich mulches are a useful bonus if you can get them – a way of adding fertility to the soil – not a requirement.
Yay! My favourite salad flower started producing today. It’s peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), but since that’s a bit of a mouthful we usually call it salad bluebell. (Campanulas are called bluebells in Scotland. The plant that they call bluebell in England is pretty poisonous. This is why Latin names are so good!) It has a mild taste and the flowers are large and produced in abundance between now and the first frost. This means that it can be used as a bulk salad ingredient, so from this time of year our salads generally turn blue.
The whole Campanula genus is edible and further south I’m told that C versicolor tastes nicest, but persicifolia is thoroughly hardy and thrives in Aberdeen, which is what I look for in a plant.
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, with thanks to Pixeltoo.
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.)
I like to have a few patches of legumes scattered through the perennial crops in the forest garden, as they have bacteria-filled nodules on their roots that fix nitrogen direct from the atmosphere, so they feed the system at the same time as producing a crop. I’ve got peas (Pisum sativum) and the perennial pea Lathyrus latifolius planted with the raspberries – both as experiments – this year and a few native vetches scattered around. Broad beans (Vicia faba) are so productive and reliable that you really can’t go wrong with them. One very useful discovery this year is that the leaves as well as the beans are edible and nice.
I bit the bullet and started thinning out the apples and Victoria plums today. Fruit trees sometimes set more fruit than they really have the resources to ripen, leading to smaller individual fruit and exhausted trees, so while the fruits are still small it can be a good idea to thin them out a bit, which also gives a chance to remove ones which look diseased or deformed before the tree has invested much in them. The Vicky plum in particular has just been wildly over-ambitious this year, setting enough fruit to break the tree, so I took almost half of them off. I always leave this task a bit late as it just feels wrong to be taking unripe fruit off, but my experience is that it really does help.
The yellow day lilies (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) are in full bloom at the moment. The day lilies (Hemerocallis) are a very useful group. Some have edible tubers but the flowers are the stars. They go well (and pretty spectacularly) in salads, but I like the taste best in stir fries or soups. The Chinese use them to thicken soups and stews: you can see big bags of ‘lily flowers’ in Chinese supermarkets (but beware, some true lilies are poisonous – the perils of common names). They keep this property when dried, which they do pretty well themselves on the plant. Once dry they keep forever.
They yellow day lilies are always the first into flower with me: if you grow a range of species and varieties you can have fresh flowers for two or three months.