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Creating miniature forest gardens?

Posted by on Friday 8 April 2011 in growing | 9 comments

On Wednesday Linda pointed out that my sawing wood avoidance isn’t lazy but “efficient”. Yes, *cough*, efficient, I concur.

I’m trying to be as efficient as possible in the garden this year – both according to that meaning and the conventional one — and from that and some recent reading, I’m thinking of creating two small forest gardens spots in my garden.

For those not familiar with the idea, forest gardening is a way to multicrop one area – growing (usually) edible plants, shrubs and trees at up to seven different levels, from the treetop canopy levels to ground cover and even root veg. You can create them at a forest scale or even just in small container. It’s efficient in terms of space – a variety of potential food from one area – and can be efficient in the not-sawing-really-lazy sense too if most/all of the layers are perennials or self-seeders.

Both spots I’ve thinking about are in raised beds underneath trees – the first underneath a super tall 100 year old silver birch, then second under a recently planted (currently 2 years old) morello cherry. The silver birch would be canopy layer-plus-plus as it’s miles away from anything else. The cherry, which is on semi-dwarf rootstock, will grow to no more than 2.5m-3m tall so is more at the second layer, the “low tree layer”.

The idea is to have a wedge shape if at all possible – the tall things at the back, the short things at the front, so everything gets sufficient light. The trees are, usefully, in just about the right position for this – towards the back of the space (or at least with ample space to the front) and positioned so that they won’t block the sun. (The back of the house, and thus the garden, is east-facing but the southern facing aspect is completely open too so the silver birch bed gets full sun from about 10am until 4pm-5pm in the summer, and the cherry space from dawn until 2pm.)

Both spots are small and both trees will be pretty thirsty, so I probably won’t be able to plant a full set of layers of demanding fruit & veg but I think there is potential for some stuff. Even if I’m not growing huge amounts of anything in particular, as long as it’s not taking me a lot of effort, it seems to be a good use of space – especially as they’re underused/used as a dumping ground as the birch bed (at the top) is used now.

I’ve already started to plant some shrub-layer fruit bushes under the silver birch – some raspberries that’ll hopefully grow to 3ft-4ft tall. I don’t think the bed is deep enough towards the front for root veg but it’ll certainly be fine for herbaceous things — it would make sense to put borage in there (which grew to between 2-3ft last year) because it’s near the chickens who love borage and I’ve got some chard just starting off, which could go in front of that. Finally, I’m not sure I’ll have any spare plants this year but hopefully once my strawberries start multiplying, I could plant some runners as ground cover/to topple over the edge. Borage self-seeds, chard can (can’t it?) and strawberry runners will last a few years before needing swapping out – so that, in theory, sounds like it could be a lazy efficient bed.

There is only about half that space around the cherry tree so I can’t pack it out. I think big berry bushes would overwhelm the space and clash with the lower tree branches but might get away with some shorter fruit bushes – possibly a small blueberry bush (I’ve seen some that are only about 2ft tall), and when I can propagate children from my cranberry & lingonberry bushes, I could include their offspring there too (the cranberry “strands” could flop over the side of the raised bed). I guess I wouldn’t be adding either of those things this year – which would probably be good as it would let the cherry tree get established in the meantime. I wonder if there is anything not resource crazy that I could put in there now… possibly some not-moisture-crazy herbs? Rosemary? Lavender? I have some little lavender plants in the nearby herb bed which could be transplanted without too much disruption and some other rosemary plantlets nearly ready to be planted out too.

One layer I’ve not talked about is climber/vines – which is the seventh layer. If I thought kiwis or grapes would grow well enough this far up north, I’d possibly consider them for climbing up around the silver birch. Is there anything else in that category that would work? I guess I could leave some space for annual vines – “climbing” squash or something but they are very resource intensive. I’m going to make sure the beds are well enhanced with organic matter before I start but it seems silly to overload them straight afterwards.

Has anyone else created any really small scale “forest gardens”? Is there anything to watch for or need to consider? Any suggestions/advice about my initial plant choices?

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Picking fruit trees – what to choose?

Posted by on Tuesday 19 October 2010 in growing | 4 comments

Having missed the window last year, we are keen to get some fruit trees plants this autumn – but it’s not as easy as we thought it would be.

The difficulty is partly, mostly our own fault of course. We could buy misc off-the-shelf trees from a garden centre but since we’ve only really got one shot at trees here, we want to make sure we get it right so are hoping to order custom ones from a niche supplier – ones that will suit our wants (in terms of height & flavour), our soil type and our climate. This is where we need an advanced degree in mathematics to figure it all out.

We’re hoping to plant three apple trees, a cherry tree and a plum tree, and I’m thinking about some raspberry canes or blackcurrant bushes, and maybe something very dwarfed in a pot (possibly the cherry).

The nursery we’re going to order from has 65 varieties of apple, combined with 6 different possible rootstocks – a total of 390 options! Some varieties are good for eating, some for cooking and some for cider making – John wants to eat them & make cider, I want to cook with some (although that’s less of a priority).

The rootstocks will determine whether they’re tall or short, very vigorous or considerable less fruitful. Some only prosper in good soils, some are more forgiving. Some take longer to start fruiting than others. We’ve got to decide where we want to compromise.

Unsurprisingly, the most vigorous ones are the tallest ones – but I think we’ll struggle to harvest anything over 10-12ft from the ground so there seems little point getting one that grows more than 15ft tall. They also don’t usually start fruiting until they’re five or six years old. Conversely, the most dwarf type grow to just 4-6ft and fruit at 2 years – but only produce about 10-15lb of fruit a year, which hardly seems worth bothering with.

Even picking the variety for flavour is a challenge: I don’t eat apples and John doesn’t really know what he likes and what he doesn’t. From the supermarket (not a good place to use as a guide for fruit flavours!), he likes Braeburns but they need warmer climes than we can offer.

So many options! The only thing I know for sure is that we have to order them ASAP!

Anyone got any advice or suggestions? What did you pick and why?

(Photo by iscott)

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