polyculture eyes

Above all else a forest gardener needs to be in touch with their garden.  My book ‘the garden of equal delights’ is my attempt to discover the essence of the relationship between a forest gardener and their forest garden, and thereby to tease out some fundamental principles to guide that relationship

The key to unlocking these principles in real life is to use your eyes.  I use the phrase ‘watching with polyculture eyes’ to describe what I mean because polyculture eyes are not the same as normal seeing.

“Watching a forest garden or a polyculture is not like watching a conventional vegetable patch or garden: we do not focus on looking for specific things like weeds between the crops, or potential problems, or even the amount of produce we may eventually get. The forest garden is a unity, but it is a complex unity. Every individual thing we see is looked at in the context of how the polyculture as a whole is faring. So we watch in order to soak everything up. We watch with polyculture eyes. Polyculture eyes see everything – just as it is – for the sake of seeing alone. No other purpose or agenda directs their gaze this way or that. Because they have no mandate other than to watch, they are patient, becoming utterly absorbed in, and fascinated by, the smallest of changes, witnessing its growth and change, letting it be what it is.”

“Have you watched your garden as winter closes and spring unfolds and unfurls? Eagerly watched for the earliest, tiniest indications of life returning and pushing green leaves from the soil and from bare brown twigs? Have you ever watched a plant closely enough to know the time it takes for its first leaf to unfurl and what shape that leaf makes? How it arises from a barely visible point and swells to its full size? Have you seen the same leaf you watched being born, dying? Have you seen it wither and change colour and fall to the ground? And then watched it dissolve and disappear?”

“This kind of watching is about letting nature in. It is watching in a ‘being with’ way much more than an ‘observing’ way. To watch like this, seeing everything all year round – this is the watching of polyculture eyes. Watching with polyculture eyes requires us to immerse ourselves in the garden. This is a particular quality of seeing, not a tick list of things seen and duly noted.”

As 2020 tips towards 2021 and as we in the northern hemisphere look forward to lighter days and shorter nights, now is the time to start to take your polyculture eyes out into your garden.  But this is a practise that needs to become habitual, subconsciously gathering natural intelligence (the intelligence of nature) that will, in due time bear the fruit of fresh and deeper insight.  

Forest garden principle: watch and wait.

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trust and the forest gardener

To trust is to feel confident and able to depend on someone or something (my definition).  And control is a clear marker of the loss of trust.  Forest gardening hinges on the forest gardener learning to trust and giving up control.  

“The forest garden needs to have the forest gardener’s trust.”

To give some idea of how this plays out in day to day practice: how do you react to this?

trwyn mochyn apple ripening

But what about this?

this windfall apple has been nibbled – probably by slugs

And this?

the remains of two golden beetroot

Is this stretching things too far for you?

caterpillar amidst plenty of food

And if so …

Taunton Deane kale after the caterpillars have had their fill

Is this more comfortable territory?

ladybird on wild yarrow

Or this?

small tortoiseshell butterfly on sedum flowers

Whatever comes along in the forest garden, nature can handle it.  Sometimes with the forest gardener’s assistance.  But what she doesn’t need is the knee-jerk reaction to ‘deal with’ what some people call ‘pests’

A forest garden is in the process of becoming an ever more sophisticated ecosystem.  She has far more resources than we can ever know about and over time these come into play.  But first the forest gardener has to stop interfering.  They have to learn to watch and to wait.  Learning about how ecosystems work is helpful too because it supports the forest gardener’s understanding and underpins the early stages of building trust in what is happening.

What I learned watching the caterpillars eat the perennial kale is that it regenerates, entirely.  And fast.  Before I discovered this in practice I used to  struggle with the annual appearance of caterpillars.  Years ago I looked for and picked off eggs and removed caterpillars when I saw them.  However one year there were just too many and I resigned myself to watching and waiting even though it looked as though ‘my’ kale was disappearing forever. 

Is the caterpillar, in fact, friend to the kale?

But my fears were unfounded.  The kale came back that year and has done every year since.  There is a balance to be had here, the caterpillars need the kale, and perhaps – who knows? – the kale may equally need the caterpillars.  Being perennial it would keep on branching and growing, branching and growing ad infinitum.  The garden does not have space for that to happen.  After the new leaves appear the old heavy duty centre stalks just drop off the Taunton Deane, and the Daubenton’s kale regenerates along its existing multi branched structure.  Very soon there is no sign that the caterpillars were ever there – except that the wider ecosystem has been enriched by their short lives.

Taunton Deane kale regenerating

Daubenton’s kale growing back

I expect it may have been mice that ate the two largest golden beetroot.  I grew them because of lockdown, using up seeds from years ago.  I’ve never been able to grow them successfully before and was looking forward to the harvest.  Never mind, I had all the smaller ones and delicious they were.  The mice likely became food for local owls and other hunting birds, they all have to eat.  Slugs, wood lice and others are partial to sweetening windfall apples.  No problem.  There are plenty more up aloft on the trees.

I have spent over 14 years in two forest gardens giving up control and learning trust.  It is not easy, but it does bear fruit.  Nature shows the way.  Recognising that although something is being eaten, dying or decaying here, nevertheless something elsewhere is growing and thriving; seeing the cycles of life and death, of beginning and ending –  it all helps.

Learning to stop, to watch and to wait, and thereby to give up control are fundamental to developing an ecological relationship with the forest garden.  This practise led me to understand the ecological principles that underpin the relationship between forest garden and forest gardener.  The many real life examples contained my book ‘the garden of equal delights’ demonstrate how those principles guide practical decision making that weaves the gardener into the fabric of the whole garden ecosystem.  

Principle: Support nature’s transformational magic.

Posted in a forest garden is gardened differently, Forest Gardening, Principles of forest gardening, Relationship with nature, the garden of equal delights | 3 Comments

polyfloral polycultures

For the past year I have been taking photos of every flower that comes out in the garden, in more or less the order that they appear and posting them each month on my other blog – the garden of equal delights in pictures. The result has been both interesting and very attractive! In addition to the monthly posts I have just posted this summary of the year to date, and I wanted it to be available here too. 

Over 150 flowering plants, in polycultures, flowering in every month, providing habitat and food for countless insects, connecting ecosystems – please plant polyfloral polycultures everywhere!

Posted in Borderland Garden, ecosystem, Forest Gardening, the garden of equal delights | Leave a comment

healing for broken places and broken people

We are all, to some extent, broken by our life experiences; and at the same time through our 21st century lifestyles we contribute to the broken-ness of our world.  These are two halves of the same wound.  And because of this repairing this wound can help both broken people and broken places to heal.  There may well be plenty of other ways to do this, but this understanding and experience came to me as an integral part of learning about how to care for my forest garden. 

Wherein lies the healing?

in pausing and in letting go

in watching and waiting

in doing only the minimum

in planting polyfloral polycultures everywhere

in lifecycle gardening

in supporting nature’s transformational magic

in harvesting only enough

in demonstrating appreciation

in welcoming the wild

These are the principles that underpin forest gardening and this is about starting the journey on the polyculture path to the heart of the garden.  On this journey you learn first to do no harm, to walk with reverence and to allow nature to get on with the work of healing herself.  In many places, where she is permitted the freedom nature still has sufficient capacity and intact-ness to begin and carry through her own healing. 

And as the forest gardener as co-operator rather than controller gently and sensitively supports this healing they find that the experience also engenders a personal process of healing.  A process by which nature begins to unravel the person you once were and to re-create you with a greatly heightened sensitivity to the natural world and a transformed understanding of your own – much more humble – place within it.

How I came upon these invaluable insights, and how they can be applied in practical situations is explained in my book the garden of equal delightsIt is for anyone who is serious about learning how to help to heal the world around them.

Posted in a different gardener, Forest Gardening, Principles of forest gardening, Relationship with nature, the garden of equal delights | Leave a comment

Perennial kale breeding

Here is a really interesting post by Alan from The Scottish Forest Garden on the significant and important work he has been doing on breeding perennial kales.

Of Plums and Pignuts

I notice it’s been five years since my last post on perennial kale breeding. Enough time for some progress surely? Happily, yes, and I now have an abundance of seed to share with anyone who wants to join in the fun. I’ve been aiming to produce a range of kales that are mid way between the near-sterile Daubenton’s perennial kale and the traditional biennial kale: that is to say, plants that flower enough to breed from but don’t flower themselves to death. I have been increasing the diversity by crossing all my favourite traditional kales with plants that have these traits.

Not all of the results are finished varieties that I’d want to propagate vegetatively, but all have at least one trait I want to keep in the population. Some of my favourites haven’t flowered yet: these are the ones that I have been able to collect seed from this…

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firmly rooted in mother earth

When I planted my fruit trees I did not pay heed to the conventional gardening advice.  I did not use any compost in the planting holes, I did not stake them or use tree guards.  I left these activities un-done as part of my approach of doing the minimum in the garden; I like to see what happens as a result!

A number of years have now passed and what has happened is that they have grown healthy, strong and stable.  So stable that they were able to stand firm even in the midst of Storm Francis that hit us last week and whipped the garden for two days.  It looks like the wind would whip the leaves from the branches, but the branches themselves are so still!  At the height of the storm I took a couple of videos that I have uploaded to Youtube (this blog only allows me to upload photos).

If you look closely you can see that the small fruit trees (apple sunset, apple Trwyn Mochyn and plum Denbigh) are standing firm even in such a fierce wind whilst the bushes, shrubs and herbaceous plants are blown this way and that.

And I think there is a metaphorical truth to this as well as practical learning – if we as forest gardeners learn to root ourselves deeply into the soil and the ecosystem of which we are part, we will over time develop sufficient depth of insight and trust that even when there are extreme weather events and conditions not experienced before we will be able to hold fast and find appropriate ways to respond and to move forward.

Principle 11: Polyculture learning is slow learning.


Posted in a forest garden is gardened differently, Borderland Garden, forest garden development, Forest Gardening, Fruit trees, Principles of forest gardening | 3 Comments

re-blogged from the food forest project – the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver

Here is some very welcome good news from the food forest project blog – not about forest gardening / food forests, but about the welfare of the wider ecosystems which we are all ultimately  and inextricably linked with.



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15 August 2020 – a brief snapshot

I took the pictures below yesterday in response to a Facebook request by someone who wanted examples to show other people.  They show one part of the garden just as it was and these plants are visible (or invisible) within it.

  • trees: apples, plum, gage, pear, medlar
  • bushes: honeyberry, jostaberry, chuckleberry, blackcurrant, gooseberry
  • perennial vegetables: skirret, Welsh onion, oca, tree onion, perennial leek, Jerusalem artichoke, Taunton Deane kale
  • annual vegetables: peas, runner beans, potatoes, burdock, salsify
  • other fruits: strawberry, rubus tricolour
  • herbs: parsley, fennel, wild marjoram, mint, chives, salad burnet
  • other flowers: rose, mixed summer annuals

Principle: forest gardening is based upon the structure, composition and functioning of a natural woodland including the resultant ecosystem and its emergent properties. In a forest garden biodiversity means health; a living soil and increasing biomass mean increasing fertility, and together health and fertility mean abundance.





Posted in Borderland Garden, ecosystem, forest garden development, Forest Gardening, Fruit, Polycultures, Principles of forest gardening, the garden of equal delights | 1 Comment

hope, expectation, trust

We plant and sow our forest gardens in hope – hope of achieving our various goals, be they biodiversity, abundance, beauty and more.  Nevertheless experience guides our expectations and we understand the likelihood of all manner variability and vulnerability.  And yet, in walking the path of the forest gardener integrating ourselves within the ecosystem of the garden we gain a new sense of trust in nature.

Over time we grow and mature as forest gardeners; bearing our own fruit of understanding, insight, care and compassion which in turn nourish and support increasing sensitivity.  Through sensitivity we experience an ever deepening bond with the garden and all of nature beyond its bounds, and we make more appropriate responses to the variability and vulnerability that time and nature bring …. all of which deepens trust ……

principle: polyculture learning is slow learning.

Posted in a different gardener, Borderland Garden, forest garden development, Forest Gardening, Principles of forest gardening, Relationship with nature, the garden of equal delights | Leave a comment

appreciating abundance

For the whole of July we have eaten fresh fruit every day – berries and currants of every kind and cooked fruit some days.  The cupboards are stacked with blackcurrant, jostaberry and cherry jam, with redcurrant and whitecurrant jelly, and also with my concoction of cherry-redcurrant jam-elly.  I made fruit leathers for the first time this year from white, red and blackcurrants and from jostaberries.  But because I got a bit bored with the drying process and they didn’t entirely dry out I have frozen them to keep them until needed.  There are gooseberries in the freezer too.

In line with the principle of forest gardening, “whether in abundance or not, harvest only enough”, I leave plenty for the birds and other creatures that like to eat fruit………and still the fruit keeps on coming; with the promise of yet more at summer’s end when the tree fruits ripen.

But in this ecological relationship between forest garden and forest gardener should we hold ourselves to do anything in addition to the support we gave to the garden to bear this abundance?  Does the reciprocity embedded in the relationship need or imply anything else?  Do we just take and that is it?  What is an appropriate response?  Can we demonstrate appreciation in any other ways?

Posted in ecosystem, Forest Gardening, Fruit, Principles of forest gardening, Relationship with nature, the garden of equal delights | Leave a comment