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Editorial - December 2009

Forest Gardening – the adventure begins

I am often asked what Permaculture courses are like.  As I and my husband recently enrolled on a specialist course to learn more about Forest Gardening, I thought it might help to answer that question if I share our experiences of the learning process, and how we put the skills into practice in our own garden.

As we headed for Hertfordshire on 6th of November, we left behind the seemingly endless rain of mid Wales, and emerged, sleepily, from our overnight stop, in rural Ardeley village, in crisp sunshine under a clear blue sky.  Church Farm is a delightful 175 acres of mixed organic ‘agrarian renaissance’, run by a dedicated team supported by interns eager to gain experience. Patrick Whitefield advised on farm design, and the team now want to establish a Forest Garden within the 6 acres used for market gardening.

Claire White, experienced Permaculture designer, is running the 6 day course for Church Farm, and participants travelled from a wide area to attend the launch session on 7th November – the first of a course that will take us through the whole process of designing and implementing a forest garden on the site over six months.

Some people on the course had no Permaculture or even gardening experience. Others had been interested readers or students of Permaculture.  Gradually Claire drew out from all of us our ideas about Permaculture and what forest gardening is.

Our first major task was to take a silent walk through an area of old, established deciduous woodland at Church Farm.  It was a beautiful day for an observation exercise, and at least easy to gauge direction in such conditions.  We were asked to do this alone and not discuss till we returned to the lecture room.  On the way back we had a look at the proposed forest garden site.

After the break, Claire invited our observations on what we had seen in natural woodland, and gradually she used our responses to build a complex picture of the plant communities,  ecosystems, stacking and succession that we had seen.

This knowledge and observation is key to understanding how to plant a forest garden that will mimic natural systems, yet produce the kinds of crops we want, with the minimum of input.

We saw that nature provides a self-regulating, self-mulching, self-watering system that we can use to our advantage.  We discussed how plant guilds are made up of communities of plants that support and interact with one another.  We had seen how biodiversity is greatest around the edges of a habitat, and we discussed ways of utilising the opportunities presented by edges and how to maximise boundaries.

In the afternoon, after a delicious farm-produced lunch – from the Church Farm Café, we watched some short films that highlighted the rapid changes in farming practice since the 1930s, and talked about how agriculture cannot go backwards, but needs to develop entirely new ways of producing food which are sustainable in a future of climate change, struggling to cope with the oil downturn.

Then it was back to the site for a practical experience with sheet mulching (see article on Sheet Mulching on this website for details).  Church Farm has ample supplies of cardboard from its office and farm shop activities, so we used this and straw to sheet mulch around the fruit trees that had already been planted, forming the nucleus of the new forest garden.

During the sessions, ethics and key principles of Permaculture were introduced in a very natural way, and the whole day seemed both effortless and stimulating.  As we set off in various directions, some more local, us back to Wales, and a party of students from North London who had cycled from Stevenage station, we had plenty to talk about, and enthusiasm was running high for the next session in early December.

We had some ideas about our own forest garden before the course, and now we revised some of these in the light of what we had learned. We had new ideas for plant varieties we can use, and feel more confident about ordering the right sort of fruit and nut trees, fruit bushes and perennial vegetables and herbs we might like to grow.  Our hope is that, while we learn over the next six months, we can move part of our own plot further towards becoming a proper forest garden, and then share that knowledge with others in mid Wales.

Next month we will be surveying the site in detail at Church Farm, sowing seeds for ground cover, mulching, and identifying the needs of the farm in the design of the forest garden. I’ll also be reporting on what varieties we have selected as suitable for a rocky mountain garden in Radnorshire, and what we have achieved so far on our own patch.


For information on Church Farm, visit:

Roz Brown

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