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.
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!
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:
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
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 email@example.com. 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!
Never mind the Lost Crops of the Incas, skirret (Sium sisarum) seems to be the Lost Crop of the Europeans. Based on my experience, it’s high time it was rediscovered.
Originally from China, skirret was clearly well established in Europe by Roman times. It was a favourite of the Emperor Tiberius, a man who, don’t forget, could have pretty much anything he wanted for his table. He liked it so much that he demanded it as tribute from the Germans. It remained widespread and popular into Tudor times and then… where is it now?
Two crops of European empires may have displaced skirret. The first was the potato. Skirret is a starchy root, a useful staple, but nothing like as productive as the potato (what is?). The second was sugar cane. One of the most striking characteristics of skirret is its sweetness: even the name comes from a Germanic origin meaning ‘sugar root’. Before ubiquitous sweeteners, this would have made it extremely attractive, even to greedy Roman emperors. Whatever the reasons, skirret faded away from gardens, tables and popular consciousness. I’d say that it has several characteristics that make it worth revisiting.
First up, skirret is delicious. It has a floury texture, a little like a potato, due to the high starch levels. Its taste is unique, but vaguely carroty, not surprisingly as it comes from the multi-talented carrot family (Apiaceae). It needs very little cooking. A minute or two’s boiling is enough, or you can briefly pan fry it. Being from Central Scotland, I have of course tried deep-frying it and can report that it makes a passable chip, but scoring higher in taste than texture when cooked this way. Wikipedia has an entertaining section on skirret recipes through the centuries. You might also like to try this recipe from the Backyard Larder Blog for skirret pasties – it also uses several other forest garden staples.
Secondly, skirret is quite easy to grow once you know how. Unlike most of its vegetable relatives it is not a biennial with a single taproot but a perennial that produces a whole shaggy bunch of roots. A dormant skirret plant can therefore be lifted, divided and replanted like any clump-forming perennial. Grown from seed, skirret produces a single ‘crown’: several shoot buds around the base of a stem, with a cluster of roots attached. Grown on, this crown will divide to form a clump made from several crowns. The clumps are easy to tease apart into individual crowns again. A cluster of roots will consist of several that are worth picking and a good number that aren’t, so my harvesting method is to dig up the clump, snip off the roots that are worth having, separate into crowns and replant. This leaves the plant with the maximum amount of resources for a good start the next year.
Thirdly, skirret ought to be an easy crop to improve. The combination of annual seed production and clonal propagation by the division of clumps means that new varieties are easy to produce and then maintain. The plants that I have grown from seed show considerable variation in root number, thickness, length and quality. I’d like to see skirret selected to produce fewer, fatter roots with smoother skin (cleaning skirret is something of a faff as the wrinkled skin tends to hold the dirt and require a good scrubbing).
One drawback to skirret is that the roots can have a woody core which cannot be softened by any amount of cooking and which is not particularly practical to remove. Guides suggest that this is a problem of young plants that goes away on older ones, or that it is caused by a lack of water while growing or that it is under genetic control and varies from one plant to another. My experience suggests that all three are true, which means that a combination of breeding and correct cultivation should be enough to solve the problem.
Starting skirret from crowns may be easy, but to get a crown in the first place you either have to shell out a fair bit of money or you have to start from seed. Skirret is not the easiest to grow from seed as like many of its relatives it needs a period of winter cold (stratification) to encourage it to germinate. If it is anything like most apiaceae the seed will lose viability quite quickly, so it is a good idea to source current-year seed in autumn and start stratifying straight away.
For cultivation, skirret seems to like moist, free-draining soil in full sun. It’s said not to like hot weather but this isn’t a problem that I experience much. I’d advise growing it in rich, well-fertilised soil as a poorly fed skirret will produce thin roots that aren’t worth harvesting. Mature crowns need to be spaced at 30cm or more. Giving it a mulch is a good idea to help keep moisture in and suppress early weed growth. I have mine planted in a bed with compost dug in and a mulch of leaves over the top. It will grow up through the mulch and require little to no weeding as its strong growth suppresses weeds later in the season. Unless you want to try your hand at seed production, remove the flower stems to divert more resources to the roots. Regular watering will help to avoid the dreaded woody core – I have mine planted right next to my water butt so that I have no excuse for forgetting. Skirret can be left in the ground until needed: towards the end of the season, you might want to mark where the plants are as there can be little sign once the leaves die down!
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a phenomenally successful plant. In its native range it grows from Ireland to China and from Africa to Scandinavia. In North America, where it is introduced, it is frankly rather too successful. Unpalatable to native grazers and naturally vigorous, it has become a serious invasive pest. As well as taking up space, it produces chemicals which interfere with the native mycorrhizae and sets a nasty ecological trap for a native butterfly. The caterpillars of some species of garden white butterfly naturally feed on toothwort (Dentaria). Unfortunately, garlic mustard looks very like toothwort and the butterflies are suckered into laying their eggs on it. When the larvae hatch, they are unable to digest the garlic mustard and soon die.
In its native range, garlic mustard (a.k.a. hedge garlic, Jack by the hedge and sauce alone) is much better behaved and an excellent candidate for the forest garden. Every part of it is edible, including roots, leaves, flowers and young seed pods. Flavour-wise, it does what it says on the tin, tasting like a cross between garlic and mustard. The roots are the hottest part, with a horseradish-like bite.
Garlic mustard is quite early to come into leaf and the youngest leaves are the mildest, so it’s a useful winter/spring green. As the year goes on the leaves get hotter and a bit acrid. I use them in salads and as a pot herb and often stick a leaf or two into sandwiches. There are much more imaginative ways to use it than this however. The one upside of the garlic mustard invasion of North America is that people have put some serious effort into finding ways to cook them in an effort to eat the interloper into submission.
Pesto seems to be a favourite, with the oily ingredients acting to balance the mustardiness. One recipe combines the pesto with green lentils and one particularly adventurous one throws in the roots for good measure. Garlic mustard roulade wins my prize for the most beautiful recipe and one person has even pickled the roots which must taste amazing.
Garlic mustard is a biennial, growing lots of leaf in its first year then running to seed in its second. It is a very vigorous seeder, so unless you want to end up feeling like North America, I suggest that you pull up most of the plants in the second year and just leave a few to provide the next generation. Be prepared to treat it as a weed in the rest of the garden and hoe it out ruthlessly if it seeds beyond where you want it. It is shade tolerant, growing in either full or partial shade (under a Victoria plum in my case) and not fussy as to soil.
Rhubarb is the one perennial vegetable that needs no introduction. Everyone must have a patch in the corner of their garden, even if it was planted by their granny and hasn’t been used since. It is long-lived and practically bomb-proof and it just goes on and on.
Most years my rhubarb patch doesn’t see a lot of use. One year I actually managed to set up a barter system with my local shop, swapping rhubarb and courgettes for bread, but then the ownership of the shop changed. More recently our community centre cafe has been using some of it, but I must confess to a bit of a history of neglect.
Fortunately, neglect is exactly what rhubarb thrives on and it points up a general advantage of perennial veg: if you don’t use them then they can store up the resources and become stronger plants. The yield is not totally lost as it is with annual veg.
This year, since so many of the fruits have done badly in the cold spring, I’m taking a little more interest in my rhubarb, so I called my mother, who is, in her own words, a ‘heavy user’ of the stuff. I remember most of her recipes from childhood: rhubarb crumble, rhubarb pies, rhubarb jams, rhubarb chutney and, best of all, a big stick of fresh rhubarb dipped in a bowl of sugar and eaten straight. There was even a surprisingly nice rhubarb wine.
To this day I don’t like crumble, but the rhubarb pies were wonderful, especially when left for a couple of days and served cold, with the rhubarb juices soaked a way into the pastry. However, it was the jam I wanted to try, particularly one of my mum’s specialities, rhubarb and elderflower. Here’s the recipe (adapted a little to cater for my preference for less-sweet jams).
3 kg rhubarb
1.5 kg sugar
10 elder flowers
Juice of 2 lemons
Makes 10 jars
Wash the rhubarb stems and cut off the leaves and the stem bases. Cut them into chunks about 2 cm long (use a sharp knife or you’ll find you don’t get all the way through the skin). Put the chunks into a bowl in layers, adding a little sugar over each layer and putting in the elder flowers head-down before doing the last layer. Pour the rest of the sugar over the top and leave overnight.
The next day you will find that the sugar has drawn the juice out of the rhubarb and the chunks are floating in syrup. Try not to let your children steal too many of these. Take the flowers out and steep them in water to make an instant cordial. Then boil up the jam in the usual way. Between the rhubarb and the lemon, this jam will set well so there is no need to overdo the cooking.
As this is a low-sugar jam, it is best kept in the fridge once opened, but it will store quite happily for years unopened. For better storage once opened, use equal amounts of rhubarb and sugar.
Elder is a tree with so many uses that I’ll have to give it a post of its own some day. It is so abundant that I prefer to forage it rather than have it take up space in my forest garden. I went down to our local park and selected ten choice blossoms; elder flowers have a rather nasty taste if you don’t get them at the right point, so each bloom got a sniff test to make sure it had that heady scent of summer. It’s the ones that look like they are almost over that are usually the best, not the pristine white new ones.
I also found a pleasant bonus while I was investigating the elders: they were full of jelly ear fungi (Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as Jews’ ears in a bit of traditional European prejudice). Jelly ears never found much favour in European cookery (one online description says that eating them is ‘like chewing on a piece of inner tube’) but Chinese cuisine has got a use for them: they are sliced thinly into stir fries to provide a mild flavour and a bit of a crunch. They can even be dried and rehydrated for the purpose.
Rhubarb in the forest garden
The scientific naming of rhubarb is a bit of a mess: you can choose between Rheum rhabarbarum, Rheum x hybridum or Rheum x cultorum. Rheum rhaponticum may refer to cultivated rhubarb or to another, closely related species. There are at least 2 other species of Rheum worth trying: Himalayan rhubarb (R. australe) is said to taste like apple and Chinese rhubarb or da huang (R. palmatum), like gooseberry. I’ve got both on order so I can let you know whether I agree.
Technically, it isn’t the stem of rhubarb that we eat but the petiole, the leaf-stem. The true stem only comes later, when the rhubarb flowers. A persistent myth about rhubarb is that it is poisonous after flowering: perhaps this came about from people trying to eat the flowering stem rather than the petioles. The part that definitely is poisonous is the leaf and there is another myth which says that you shouldn’t put them on the compost heap as they will poison it. In fact the poisonous compound is an acid which quickly breaks down in compost and is then completely harmless. A little-known fact is that you can also eat the flowers of rhubarb.
Rhubarb grows well in a forest garden. It doesn’t like full shade and shouldn’t be grown under another plant, but it is quite happy to be surrounded by taller plants which shade it for parts of the day.
One of the most striking things about growing food with forest gardening is how many flowers end up on your plate. When you think about it though, the stranger thing is perhaps why this part of the plant has been neglected in our cookery for so long (apart from immature flowers like cauliflowers and artichokes). After all, plants are pretty keen on producing them and there is a massive industry dedicated to breeding and growing them for non-edible purposes.
Recently, the balance seems to have shifted and there is a bit of a fashion for eating flowers. There’s a good, comprehensive article on the subject here. However, a lot of this is driven by the search for novelty in fancy restaurants or is based on picking a few flowers off basically ornamental species to decorate a dish. There is a much shorter list of flowers that can really be considered as crops in themselves, either because they are so productive that they are worth growing as the main yield or because they are a by-product of a plant that is cropped for some other part. My short list is: day lilies, bellflowers, salsify, pot marigold, king’s spear, alliums, mallow, courgette, peas, runner bean, nasturtium, dandelion and (maybe) tiger lily and golden currant.
Day lilies, salsify and bellflowers are the three most productive: best fried, steamed and in salads respectively. All three illustrate an important point about eating flowers: the more you pick, the more you have of them. For a plant, a flower is just a means to an end: getting pollinated and producing seeds. Once that has been achieved it rapidly switches its resources to the growing fruit or seed head and stops flowering, but if you frustrate its ambitions it will often keep on trying, sometimes for the rest of the year.
Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are not bulk producers like the last three, but a small patch will produce a lot of flowers over the course of a summer. It is the petals that are used: they add a subtle but interesting flavour and an entirely unsubtle, cheerful colour to practically any dish. Perhaps they are best regarded as a herb. They are equally good raw in a salad or cooked in almost anything and unlike most flowers they keep their colour no matter how much you cook them. On top of this they are famously good for the health of the garden, producing chemicals that kill or repel little parasitic worms called nematodes. This combination of qualities, plus their relative ease of growing, wins them a place in my garden.
The alliums or onions are a group with too many edible species to even list. They are often grown for their leaves or bulbs but the flowers are usually edible too and they are often available when the rest of the plant has either died down or become woody. Chives (A. schoenoprasum) are one that I use a lot. Like all alliums, its flowers are borne on little stems radiating from a central point. The trick to using it is to get your thumbnail into this central point and nip it out, causing an explosion of little pink florets. Chive flowers are mild enough for salads. Wild garlic (A. ursinum) can also be used but has a much stronger, more garlicky flavour. Golden garlic (A. moly) hardly looks like an allium at all, with relatively few flowers per head and those bright yellow. The flowers add a sweet oniony flavour to a salad and the leaves and bulbs can be used too. Round-headed leek (A. sphaerocephalon) has huge, showy balls of edible flowers.
Common mallow has the advantage that it will grow in the shade. It’s an all-round useful plant that I’ve already written about here.
Across in the annual garden, courgettes (or zucchini if you prefer) are already moderately well known, especially frittered. Sometimes the baby courgette is harvested along with the flower but if you’re careful you can break the flower off the end of the fruit before it wilts, allowing you to both have your courgette and eat it(s flower).
Other annual crops that have unexpectedly edible flowers are mangtout peas, sugar snap peas and runner beans. The runners in particular are delicious and mine always produce far more flowers than they are capable of ripening into pods, so a little thinning does no harm at all. Don’t be deceived by appearances though: sweet peas (Lathyrus odorata) are not edible.
Another annual famed for its edible flowers is the nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus – a bit confusingly, Nasturtium as a Latin name refers to water cress, not nasturtiums.) Every part of the nasturtium is edible, with a hot, cress/pepper flavour. In fact they are too strong for me – the only way I like to use them is to pickle the seeds and use them like capers – but if you like a cress flavour then this is the plant for you.
I don’t plant dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) in the forest garden but, as you’d expect, I have them anyway. In fact they’re a fairly low level weed in the forest garden, so in contrast to my zero-tolerance approach in the annual beds I’m fairly lax about pulling them out, happy to make occasional use of the spring leaves and flowers in the meantime. Dandelion flowers should be cooked, preferably in ways that either exploit their bitterness or minimise it with a starchy component. Fritters and bhajis are good, or you could try the spicy fried dandelion recipe I found on a rather good blog by Ciaran Burke in Ireland.
Finally, a couple I haven’t tried yet but have high hopes for. Golden currant (Ribes aureum) has very pretty flowers which are said to be edible. It is closely related to buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum), which grows well here, so I’ve ordered some and expect them to thrive. Then there is tiger lily (Lilium linifolium). I am already growing this for its edible bulbs but I found out recently that the flower is edible too, with some very enthusiastic reports online. On the other hand, Plants for a Future list the pollen as poisonous, which could make eating the flowers a delicate business. More research, as they say, is needed.
I’m passionately fond of raspberries (Rubus idaeus), so it’s a good thing that they are a perfect forest garden crop. Their native habitat is the forest edge and even commercially bred forms do well there. They are also worth mentioning just to show that, alongside the weird and wonderful species I have been writing about, some perfectly respectable, traditional crops grow in forest gardens.
The season is about a month late this year, but my raspberry year usually begins in June with the smaller, wild-type rasps. It’s the most colourful time in the raspberry bowl as I have red ones, yellow ones and even a beautiful apricot-coloured strain that I collected in the wild and have named ‘Sunset’ for the colour change that it goes through. These are the nicest fruits of the year and they mostly go on porridge or straight in the mouth.
A few weeks later the maincrop varieties start producing: I have Glen Ample, which gives superb yields of big juicy fruits with not much loss of flavour compared to wild rasps. These are the ones that go for jam and into the freezer (a great way to eat raspberries is simply to take them out of the freezer, pour some cream over them and let it semi-freeze, then eat). Come September, the autumn-fruiting varieties are ready: I have Autumn Bliss and Allgold. They will last until the first frosts, which last year meant that I had raspberries from June to December.
The secret to raspberries is to keep them well picked. If they are left for long on the cane then the older ones rot and infect the new ones and the canes soon stop producing. When picking, I pick off any berries that are past it: nipping them off and letting them drop to the ground seems to be sufficient. I find raspberry-picking a very pleasant experience compared to the tedium of picking currants. It is almost entirely done by touch: a raspberry is ready when it feels soft and just slips off the receptacle (the fleshy bit in the middle) with a gentle pull. If you have to tug, you leave it; if it squidges, you drop it.
Martin Crawford suggests leaving raspberry canes unstaked and letting them wander where they will. I do some like this but I also find it useful to grow some in the traditional way. This involves growing them in lines with a wire frame that I tie the new canes into and cutting out the old season’s canes once they’ve finished fruiting. It takes a little work but it helps to keep diseases down and makes the fruits very accessible, which I think saves work overall. It also prevents the laden canes from bending to the ground and spoiling the fruit. The autumn varieties are treated differently: they are very vigorous varieties that are cut down completely at the end of the year and then fruit on the first-season canes.
Raspberries are the middle layer in the forest garden so they can have other crops both above and below them. Cultivated varieties don’t like much shade but they do benefit from growing surrounded by trees, presumably because of the shelter. By contrast, my wild type plants have wandered under the plum and still produce a good yield. All my rasps seem completely unbothered by having other crops growing at their base: in various parts of the garden they have their feet amongst wild strawberries, wild garlic, salsify, mallow, wood violet, Solomon’s seal, hedge garlic, cowslips and pignuts.
Forest gardening is all about growing plants in some degree of shade, and plant books and websites will usually give you a helpful indication of whether a plant prefers sun, light shade or deep shade. Less obviously, the same plant can often tolerate a wide range of shade conditions, often becoming almost a different plant in the process. When I get a new plant to experiment with, if at all possible I plant it out in a wide range of shade conditions to see how it fares. Not all shade is the same: morning shade is different from evening shade for instance, so it’s worth experimenting a bit to see what your plant really likes.
I was reminded of another benefit of this approach recently when I found this wild garlic, growing in the most shady part of the garden under the privet hedge that forms my border with one of the gardens that back on to the allotments.
Wild garlic really hates hot sun and most wild garlic round here curled up and died a couple of months ago (which come to think of it, was about the last time we had hot sun). The one in really deep shade, however, has remained in leaf, despite the fact that it has flowered and set seed (you can see the seed heads) on about the same schedule as all the others in the garden. This is quite a common effect of differing shade and you can use it to extend the season of all kinds of plants.