I was on holiday in France in mid June and had sat down in the shade at the camp site to write about forest gardens, and in particular, the ‘model’ of a natural woodland from which forest gardening takes its inspiration. Settling into my chair and looking around I realised that I was sitting beside just such a woodland and that it was the first time I had ever actually seen one.
The tallest trees were oaks, growing in a scattered, random fashion – not according to any human design or purpose. Growing amidst them, mainly smaller, but with some full height specimens were sweet chestnut trees.
Most of the chestnuts, however, were small to medium height and there were many seedling trees – both chestnut and oak – at the edge.
There were alders too – a nitrogen fixing tree that contributes to the fertility of a natural woodland. I was delighted to find these as an example of nature making provision for the needs of the other trees and plants here.
Ferns and brambles romped around the hedges with a type of goose grass (cleavers) growing between them.
The ground was closely covered with a mixture of plants – ivy, grassses, clove root, violets, buttercups, dandelion, nettles, docks and other plants I was not able to indentify.
Honeysuckle, abundant in the local roadside verges and hedgerows, was growing over old tree stumps and was happily in flower at the time!
These edge plants will no doubt, have been kept in check by the campsite owners over the decades to ensure the camping pitches remain clear and tidy, but I think it is unlikely that the species present will have been changed by people over that time.
I took photographs of everything, but the sun was very strong and with the trees and plants all intermingling I am not sure how clearly they show the detail of what I could see.
Earlier that morning I had watched a baby rabbit grazing and all day the birdsong had been enchanting. Bats had flown around the night before and there was a constant procession of bees, butterflies, day flying moths, dragonflies, hoverflies and other insects. An anthill lay close to my chair.
We had driven from north to south and part way back again through this area and knew that for an hour or so in both directions there lay vast expanses of prairie like fields with their grain already harvested or on the point of being harvested. A grain processing plant with its own railway line lay half a mile down the road and the sound of it was clearly audible most of the time.
France was experiencing a heatwave and had had a drought for months. I had seen a dried up river bed further south a few days before.
Driving through this countryside had felt like passing through a desert and yet here, in a quiet corner, named after a local bishop of many, many centuries ago lay this peaceful and virtually undisturbed woodland oasis. Isolated it may have been, but clearly it was thriving even during stressful times.
The natural woodland ‘model’ for forest gardens is described as a multi layered forest or woodland having the following characteristics:
- Tall trees – in this case oaks and some chestnuts
- Medium height trees – chestnuts and alder
- A shrubby layer – brambles and ferns
- Herbaceous ground cover – ivy, dandelion, grasses, violets, clove root, docks, nettles etc
- Climbing and scrambling plants going between the layers – ivy, goosegrass, honeysuckle
- And also a root zone which will in this case include deep rooted dandelions and docks
In such conditions of diverse trees and plants animal biodiversity will also flourish – says the theory – and here there was to me a surprising amount of diversity for such an isolated patch.
In theory an ecosystem such as this is self sustaining – able to renew its own fertility and again this little woodland, isolated from other sources of plant and animal life has been doing this successfully for a long time.
I looked online for further information on the history of this little wood – les Bois de Saint Hilaire at Chalandray, west of Poitiers, but was not able to find anything and I offer my observations and conclusions as they appeared to me that lovely sunny day.