wild flowers and more wild flowers

Jake Rayson of Forest Garden Wales has recently posted a wonderful online video on the subject of wild flowers, accessible here on his Backyard Forest Youtube channel.   Wild flowers provide shelter, habitat and food for all manner of wildlife and proving plenty of wild biomass and biodiversity is the best way to support and enhance a healthy localised ecosystem in the garden.  Jake’s enthusiasm is infectious and he has a great deal of interesting information as well.  Do check out the video.

As an example of wild flowers that can easily live in a forest garden I have just published a post over on my other blog (because most of my relevant pictures are stored on that site and not this one).  I found 19 pictures and remembered a further 31 wild plants making a total of 50 for last year – and there may well have been more than that.

Jake emphasises – and I totally agree – that the forest gardener is gardening for all of life.

“But the forest gardener is operating from a different paradigm and is endeavouring to support an ecosystem. In this ecosystem everything has a function and is an integral part of a single complex unity. The forest gardener is learning not to just turn a blind eye to the wild plants (the weeds), but is beginning to appreciate their value as living beings contributing to the forest garden and having their own purpose and place within this world. This does not mean that every wild plant that arrives in the forest garden should stay indefinitely, but it definitely does mean that they should not automatically be removed without a second thought. In time the forest gardener will recognise the wild plant as a gift, an opportunity, a delight, as beautiful and as an intrinsic part of this place.”
the garden of equal delights page 42-3

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Britain’s national parks

I thought this would be of interest to readers – it is a 100 second film about national parks showing the percentage of land devoted to different uses.

UK National Parks in 100 Seconds – YouTube


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Latvian soup peas

There is space in my garden to grow some annual plants amongst the trees, bushes, and herbaceous perennials and every year I grow different a number of annual nitrogen fixers – some ornamental like sweet peas and others edible like field beans, runner beans and different varieties of peas.  Last year I grew Latvian soup peas purchased from The Real Seed Company.  Their website describes them thus:

“The Latvian pea is again very productive and tall growing, so needs sturdy supports. It has really beautiful tan seeds speckled with a darker brown, obviously great for use in soups, but also good in other dishes that use dried pulses.”

I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree!  They were easy to grow and had beautiful flowers** which attracted pollinating insects.  A number of neighbours asked about them, thinking they were a variety of decorative sweet pea.  The plants were productive and the peas were easy to dry and store. 

I started one batch indoors in early spring and planted another directly into the ground in early summer.  I planted them in clumps in between some establishing shrubs (guelder rose, wayfaring tree and Japanese wineberry) with the individual pea plants just a few inches apart.  Despite being in close proximity to their shrubby neighbours they grew tall and I trained them up wigwams of sticks.  However the summer gales we had blew them over, but that didn’t stop them growing or prevent the pods from ripening. 

You can eat them as conventional peas, either raw or cooked, but they are rather starchy and this is not their intended use.  The weather at the end of summer was warm and dry enough for many of the pods to dry on the vine, but after picking I let them dry in a warm sunny room for a few weeks to make sure.  One of our grandchildren was very happy to spend time with me shelling the dry peas.   

Despite all the pods looking absolutely dry on the outside, on opening them up some peas had gone a bit mouldy.  We discarded these and put the other peas from these pods (which looked fine) to one side for planting next year.  The remaining shelled peas from wholly good pods were saved in a jam jar – just the one!  The jar has been in a cupboard from late summer to last week.  A few peas had gone black, but most were fine, although I suspect that had they been stored much longer more might have deteriorated.

I made hummus with them in the summer and this week my partner has used them to make soup and a masala dish to accompany a vegetable curry.  The soup recipe was previously used to make a pea, mushroom and vegetable soup using (Hodmedods) red fox carlin peas.  In this recipe the red fox carlin peas make a wonderfully dark coloured and deep flavoured soup.  The Latvian peas in the same recipe made a good soup, but it wasn’t as nice as the carlin peas.  However that might have been my fault because I let the Latvian peas boil over all over the cooker, in the process losing a lot of valuable cooking liquid that should have gone into the soup mix and we had to top up with water instead.  The masala recipe had too much turmeric in it, which was a bit disappointing, but we just mixed the masala in with a veg curry and that was okay.

It is interesting to note that the colour of the cooked peas is very different to their dried colour, but it is very similar to the lovely deep red that provides a lovely contrasting colour to pink in the flower.

For years I have accepted and in hope grown runner bean plants from a kind friend who raises more than he needs, but every year I am disappointed.  I love runner beans but they don’t love my garden, so I shall take advantage of space saved and also look for other nooks to put as many Latvian soup peas in as possible.

Principle: Everything the forest gardener does takes full account of the whole of the forest garden ecosystem – what has happened, what is happening and what they intend for the future.

**Note: For some reason WordPress is not letting me upload photos to this post.  I have managed to put some on Facebook though.

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polyculture learning part 2

Yesterday I published a post about ‘polyculture learning’; this is a follow up with some lovely examples of other forest gardeners who each have their own individual styles and ways of learning.  These examples are from people or online communities that I follow and are in no particular order.  If you know of other inspiring people – or if you are one don’t let modesty overwhelm you – and please let me know!

Nathan posted on Facebook’s Forest Garden UK group the other day a series of photos of edible perennials – aster glehnii, nodding onion, variegated ground elder, akebia quinata and allium pskemense, all of which are interesting and unusual edible perennial plants.  Clearly Nathan has been doing his own research, both theoretical and practical.

Stephen Barstow is the author of ‘Around the World in 80 Plants’ which is an exhaustively researched, thorough and interesting read about edible perennials.  He lives in Norway and has a huge range of edible plants growing there; his website is as comprehensive as you can get.  He has a particular interest in plants that are what he calls ‘edimentals’ – that is both edible and ornamental.  Enjoy!

Alison Tindale is the author of the Backyard Larder blog and shop for perennial vegetables.  She too has done exhaustive theoretical and practical research which she shares in the form of highly practical and informative posts about all kinds of perennial vegetables.  Recent topics include roasting Chinese artichoke and related tubers, and making yacon syrup.

The Plants for a Future website is the product of decades of patient work by Ken and Addy Fern (since 1989) accumulating information on the huge range of plants (1500 species) that are edible or useful in other ways such as medicines.  An absolute must for every forest gardener.

Carole blogs about her small forest garden at her Yorkshire home and her newly acquired allotment.  She is very adept at observing and interpreting what nature is doing and how she needs to respond such as this very thoughtful post about her allotment.

Jonathan lives in southern France and is in the process of setting up the Sombrun Forest Garden Project.  This is a really interesting project and his blog is detailed and informative.

Jake Rayson is at Forest Garden Wales.  He is full of enthusiasm for all things forest garden and is busy sharing his ever growing knowledge with the wider world.  Check out his online course and Youtube Channel.  He is also putting together a comprehensive photo gallery of forest garden plants as a resource for the wider forest gardening community.

Although we have a common interest in forest gardens and forest gardening, we are all very different as individuals.  However this diversity gives us tremendous potential – as individuals within the group (all part of the ‘ecosystem of forest gardening’ if you like) – potential to follow the particular aspects of this very broad topic which attract our interest and in so doing push out the boundaries of the knowledge for the whole group.

Forest garden principle: polyculture learning is slow learning.


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polyculture learning

Recently I have published number of posts on topics such as ‘polyculture eyes’, trust, and welcoming the wild.  However that is not to say that forest gardening is all or only about allowing nature to have a free for all in the garden, nor that there is nothing for the forest gardener to actually do, or no other knowledge to gain in support of the whole venture.

Because alongside developing a relaxed and trusting relationship with the forest garden the forest gardener also needs to learn a great deal of conventional information as well.  This includes elements of botany, soil science, ecology, forestry, herbalism, foraging, mycology, traditional cookery and food preservation skills, and potentially much more besides.  These things are important because they provide the foundations upon which to form a mature understanding of how the ecosystem as a whole is functioning and of how effectively you as the forest gardener are learning to integrate within that ecosystem. 

Had we been born as indigenous peoples living in a remote and wild place, we would from earliest childhood have learned from our family and community everything about the wild nature that surrounded us.  Having been inextricably interwoven with our environment from the outset we would know what was edible and how to eat it, what could heal and what could harm.  We would understand the meaning of different cloud formations, know the calls of animals and birds, and so much more besides.  However as 21st century modern humans we lack vast amounts of knowledge and need to learn it if we are to learn to actualise the enormous potential of forest gardening.

As well as learning factual information from books, online resources, family, and community a forest gardener also needs to develop a quantitative (measurable) understanding of what is happening in their garden.  Knowing (as opposed to guessing) things like:

  • How many plants are performing what ecosystem functions and where there are gaps
  • Which plants are thriving and which are not
  • How much produce the garden is yielding
  • The weather and its impact
  • What insects, amphibians, mammals and other creatures are visiting or living in the garden
  • Which new (or newly available) plants, trees or seeds could be integrated into the garden
  • And probably more ….!

A forest gardener who is learning both the underpinning science and closely observing their garden is the forest gardener who is well prepared to interpret what these things mean in this context and to make their own informed decisions about what to do (or not to do) next.

I know this all sounds like a tall order, but don’t let it daunt you.  There is no hurry, polyculture learning is slow learning and there is all the time in the world.  And remember that the old absolutes no longer apply, each forest gardener and forest garden are unique and every decision to be made depends on the context not on a rule book.

“Forest gardening is immersion in how nature operates, immersion in nature itself to learn from personal experience. The forest gardener becomes increasingly adept at seeing the garden as a whole and also of weighing up the different roles and contributions of each part. The nitty-gritty of making decisions rests on these abilities.”

“Nothing is set in stone and the forest gardener decides in a deeply reflective and respectful manner. Every gardener will make their own decisions. This is as it should be; it is how things work in this different world. There is no right and no wrong, just things as they are and the way forward opening up afresh all the time.”

The garden of equal delights page 78

Principle: polyculture learning is slow learning.

Posted in ecosystem, forest garden development, Forest Gardening, Indigenous wisdom and practice, Polyculture learning, Principles of forest gardening, Relationship with nature, the garden of equal delights | 2 Comments

where is the wild?

The unchallenged perception we have all grown up with is to see nature on one ‘side’ and people on the other ‘side’; meaning that the ‘natural world’ is that remnant which is not under the jurisdiction or control of people.  However there is a growing recognition that we need the natural world and conversely (and maybe seemingly paradoxically) that the natural world actually needs us.

Gardens are places where the natural world and people meet and interact, but there are degrees of meeting and of interaction.  At one end there is strict control – I am thinking of the superb but very regimented floral displays in our local park.  They have their own beauty, but they are completely artificial and can only be maintained by keeping strict control and lots of hard work.  The opposite is what many people would regard as a ‘neglected’ garden where ‘weeds’ ‘run riot’, where brambles proliferate, dandelions bloom freely and the nettles grow tall.  Yet nettles, brambles and dandelions are all valuable food plants for insects and play a vital role in keeping our wild ecosystems intact.

In between these extremes, less formal gardening styles, and the new-ish trend of leaving some space at the margins or edges for wildlings is not enough.  We need to move to a place where we value and welcome the wild in all its aspects as our vital co-creator.

So where is the wild?”

“The wild is away from here, far away, or so we think. We may think that we rarely encounter the wild, and certainly I have never seen a wild tiger or elephant or shark or polar bear or any other exotic wild animal in their natural habitat. But I have seen a worm.”

“There are no tame worms. There are no tame spiders or blackbirds, or frogs, beetles and hedgehogs. Although some of their cousins are caged animals in zoos and parks and also laboratories of course. The wild is everywhere… in the soil, in the air, the wind, the rain, in the water, in every being in the garden. The wild is in weather, in the cold frosty, freezing blizzards of winter, in the torrents of rain turning the ground to a mud bath and flooding homes and businesses, in the gales blowing trees over. This weather we can easily recognise as wild, but equally wild is the mild warmth of spring, the full-bodied hug of summer and in the clear and mellow autumn days. It may be more apparent sometimes than others but the weather is always wild and is always determining our welfare.”

“We cannot survive without everything the wild is and does.”

the garden of equal delights p147-148

To effect beneficial changes on a sufficiently large scale in our gardens and the landscapes beyond we need radically changed hearts and minds.  Given that for centuries, or even millennia we have seen nature as an adversary and that this relationship is deeply imprinted within our psyches there is often huge resistance to change.

So how can we come to an integration or a meeting point between gardens that are subject to human control and domination and the those we consider to be neglected?  Given that many of us find gardening immensely pleasurable and rewarding how can we find a way to use our own pleasure in participating with the landscape to bring about greater benefit to both us and the wider world?

One way is to plant a forest garden.

“A forest garden is both a planned landscape and a functioning ecosystem that takes its composition, form and structure from a natural woodland. It is a naturalistic landscape, but not an entirely natural or wild one. Humans are an integral part of a forest garden but they must accept and learn their own place within the ecosystem.”

The prime attribute of a forest garden is that it is (intended to be) an ecosystem; and simply put that means that nature is largely in charge.  Which in turn means that the gardener is not.  The forest gardener is asked to integrate themselves within the ecosystem, rather than to maintain their distance from the apex of a self imagined place of control and importance.  We humans are not separate, we are an integral part of our ecosystems and we need to find out what that means and how to live accordingly.  This means that a forest garden is asking the forest gardener to be a very different gardener who gardens differently to anything they have ever done in the past.

A forest garden is not a natural assembly of plants, rather it is a contrived selection of plants chosen to play a range of different functions (fill a number of ecological niches) in the garden.  Once planted the garden ecosystem is open to whatever influences and visitors come by – new plant and animal members of the fledgling ecosystem bring additional biodiversity, fill more ecological niches, and thereby start to increase the health, fertility, and resilience of the garden.  New plants that just arrive will be largely wild natives (known to many as ‘weeds’), but which are often far more valuable to the garden ecosystem than many that were initially chosen.  It is now time to see that a healthy and functioning ecology cannot be sustained amongst isolated fortress gardens, we need to let go and let nature in.  In time natural processes come to predominate and the forest gardener becomes used to their new role as nature’s true partner and not her manager.

The old gardening tasks of composting, ‘weeding’, dead heading and more become unnecessary.  ‘Pest’ control is a thing of the past, protecting crops is not necessary.  This all adds up to a very different experience for the gardener.  It is challenging, vital and in many ways extra-ordinary (outside of the ordinary).  It is not the wild, but it has significant elements of the wild, it is not controlled, but it has human participation that is gentle, wise, and appropriate.  It is a place of coming together, of healing and of hope.

This will, I know, not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’.  We are all different, we have our own views and hopes, but for people who want to find a wilder and more natural side to their own self and to experience the exhilaration of letting go of control this path offers a unique opportunity to do just that.  This is not about redrawing the line between us and nature – it is about rubbing it out entirely.  We are nature and nature is us.  We are life and we need to support all of life.

Learning these things takes time – it is a journey.  I call it the polyculture path to the heart of the garden, and you can read much  more about it in my book ‘the garden of equal delights‘.

Principle: welcome the wild.



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Masanobu Fukuoka – an appreciation

Masanobu Fukuoka (1913 – 2008) was a Japanese farmer who dedicated his life to finding a natural way of farming, looking always for simplicity and for tasks he could leave not done.  His life’s work was to develop a way of farming that he called ‘natural farming’ and which principally consisted of always doing the least that he could.  He wrote several incredibly influential books about his life and work – The One Straw Revolution, Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy and Sowing Seeds in the Desert.  As he explains:

“I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier instead of harder. ‘How about not doing this? How about not doing that? – that was my way of thinking. When you get right down to it there are few agricultural practices which are really necessary.” Masanobu Fukuoka

What has this to do with forest gardening?  I read ‘One Straw Revolution’ in the early days of my experimentation with forest gardening and it had an enormous impact on me, as I explained in ‘the garden of equal delights’:

“The quote above is the simplest and most profound and valuable piece of advice that I have had from anywhere. This advice is absolutely fundamental to everything I have learned from and about my garden from that day forward. I feel a huge debt of gratitude to Fukuoka for his book One Straw Revolution and his insightful, respectful and wise ways of growing food. The principle of non-action is derived entirely from my experience of following this gentle advice which has been in my mind, my heart and my practice continually. It is deceptive in its simplicity and an outright confrontation to us humans who love to do, to be busy, to implement and by all these means to control.”

And many others revere Fukuoka and his work – One Straw Revolution was translated into 20 languages and has sold more than one million copies – and rightly so.  Fukuoka attained his goal.  Without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides, with minimal interventions and growing rice in dry ground he achieved harvests at least comparable to conventional farmers in his region. 

Fukuoka was a philosopher as well as a farmer with penetrating insight into many things.  His deceptively simple message is one we all need to hear and to heed, because it is by going back to the fundamentals and thinking deeply about them that we can almost stumble upon insights that are relevant here and now.  

Forest gardening principle: When you have to do something, only do the minimum.

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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 | 4 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!

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