Year 1 – 2011 – Phase 1
The forest garden area was the first part of the garden to be implemented, beginning in February 2011.
We rearranged some of the fruit bushes – e.g. blackcurrant bushes were moved out from the shade of the forest edge, and replaced with redcurrants which are more shade tolerant – and created our fruit hedge with existing and donated bushes and canes. Then we planted an apple tree (rescued from the bulldozers on another site) with plenty of compost, and a manure dressing.
Through foul rainstorms, compost was manually wheeled up the plot to level the sloping land in an attempt to improve rainwater and nutrient retention. The use of generous compost created a deep topsoil which is important to hold available calcium for the fruit trees, without it calcium naturally leaches from this soil type, down and out of reach of most plants. We also planned mineral accumulators in the planting system to make more calcium available in a self-sustaining way.
We sprinkled the ground with fresh horse manure and then lay strong, overlapping (flattened) cardboard boxes over the ground, weeds and all. Slits were made in the cardboard to work around the shrubs and trees. In even more foul rain (every week, honestly) compost was wheeled up the plot and spread thickly (10-20cm) over the top of the cardboard. This was done over several work afternoons spanning 5 weeks. Not doing everything in one go has its benefits: you notice plants that you want to save (for example we spotted bulbs and a couple of foxgloves which could be saved for use in the planting scheme), and invertebrates using the turf or soil had time to move out of the covered areas. Garden make-overs have their attractions but amount to destruction and sterilisation since many helpful invertebrates like ground beetles are found in the roots of the existing herbaceous layer which often get thrown into a skip and removed from the site.
Likely pathways around the trees and bushes for harvesting were marked out with pegs and strings to test if people would follow them and see if they ‘worked’.
Next step was to sow nitrogen-fixing and soil improving plants for the spring until we could start to fill-in the herbaceous layer later. However, the torrential rain turned into dramatic drought conditions as soon as March got underway. We had no more water left to spare on the relocated shrubs so they had to take their chances with mulch as their only hope. And the seeds we sowed languished in drying compost. Startlingly, of all the seeds sown, the lupins toughed it out and flowered in late spring/early summer; the clovers took heart during the long and ridiculously wet summer months which followed (unrelenting cold monsoon rain), and the borage came last in late summer.
Seeds sown for soil conditioning/nitrogen-fixing/ mineral accumulation/bee forage:
- Lupin (yellow sweet)
- White clover
- Red clover
- Lucerne clover
The job of the soil conditioning plants we sowed was important, and coupled with such strange weather, planting much of the herb layer was delayed.
(In the spring)
- Nasturtiums (around the apple trees)
(In the autumn)
- Alpine strawberries
- Lemon balm
Volunteer plants (that turned-up to the party uninvited but were welcome):
- Sweet violets
- Wild poppies
- Poppy cultivars
- Chinese lanterns
- Artemesia spp.
- 2 Sunchoke/Jerusalem artichokes
- 1 garden strawberry
- White deadnettle
We started the cardboard mulch in late winter/early spring instead of in the autumn, which minimised the time for stifling the grasses and lessened its effectiveness. The couch grass was not weakened enough and worked its way through the cardboard in many places, which in turn meant that we needed to weed the area – not the ideal situation for a forest garden. However, on the up side, the deep compost and the fact that the cardboard had proved an obstacle to finding the way out often made it very easy to pull up. In a perfect world we would have mulched with several layers of cardboard in late summer until planting time in March – this still would have involved the first phase of seeding soil conditioning plants. This shows that mulching can reduce but not remove the need to weed if it is not carefully planned.
Due to the drought and early spring warmth there was an overpopulation of several types of caterpillar – one called the tent caterpillar – which attacked our two apple trees before the birds were nesting and foraging to balance things out. These munched through most of the blossom and spring leaf, and although they survived and came into leaf again, this put a stress on the plants in addition to water shortage which meant no apples were produced.
The plum tree (previously of unknown identity) actually produced around a dozen fruits which no-one remembered it ever doing (hence no-one knowing what kind of fruit tree it was!), and it put on a spurt of growth in some upper branches which were summer pruned. This was taken as a response to the increased soil fertility, and encouraged the thought that given a different spring start, the apple trees might also have responded.
Our neighbour observed the high number of small frogs on the plot. This was probably a response to the wet summer, but the continual groundcover in the forest garden provided them with both habitat and forage. Foraging frogs are good news since they eat slugs and other pests.