Archive for May, 2013

Forest Garden – a Key to Success

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

It’s always interesting to go back to a place which I’ve had a part in designing to see how it’s developing. Three and a half years ago I gave some advice to Bryony Huntley on her forest garden. Now it’s part of the Permaculture Association’s LAND network of permaculture sites open to the public and last weekend Bryony held an open day there. I gave a talk at the day and Bryony showed us round the garden.

Entering the forest garden.

The first thing to do when establishing a forest garden is to plant the trees. Usually all of them go in in the first year. As long as they’re planted at the right spacing there’s not much that can go wrong. But the question remains of how to deal with the ground layer. When the planting is completed it will be completely planted up with perennial vegetables and ground cover plants. But it’s never possible to get enough plants together to do the job all at once. The quantity required would be astronomic. One of the keys to success in establishing a forest garden is how you go about planting up the ground layer.
The way not to do it is to scatter herb and shrub plants about the garden, each one isolated in a sea of grass. They suffer from competition from the grass and make it difficult to cut the grass, either with a scythe or by machine. The secret of success is to plant up a small area each year, with the plants at a close enough spacing that, once the mulch has decomposed, they can form a closed canopy and suppress unwanted plants such as grass. The rest of the area can be kept in order by cutting the grass between the trees. This way the number of plants you need to propagate each year is manageable.

This part of the forest garden so far only contains wide-spaced fruit trees and the original grass.

Bryony hasn’t started planting up the ground layer yet. But she is trying out various plants to see how well they grow in her local conditions and growing some annual vegetables. She does this in the boxes you can see in the picture. They enable her to grow her crops without too much ground preparation and with some protection from invading grass etc. Wisely, she has concentrated most of them in one part of the garden. This avoids the problem of fiddly bits of grass to be mown. One of the wwoofers who’s been working there told me that in her opinion it would have been even better to locate all of the boxes in one area. It would make the work that much easier.

The boxes. The plant in the foreground is skirrett, a perennial root vegetable.

Before planting the trees Bryony had to put up a deer fence right round the forest garden. There’s a strong local population of deer and without the fence you couldn’t grow anything there, tree, shrub or herbaceous, with any likelihood that it would survive.

The willow windbreak in the background.

She also planted a windbreak of willow. This was essential too as without it the garden would have been severely exposed to the south west winds. The windbreak is already becoming very tall and competitive so she plans to start coppicing it. It’s made up of several lines of willow, so it’s possible to coppice half of it, leaving the other half to provide shelter till the first part has regrown, and then the second part can be coppiced. She has someone growing willow on another part of her land who will take the harvested material: all part of the integrated system she’s building up on Westfield Farm.

If you want to learn how to design a forest garden why not come on our Permaculture Design Course, 16th-28th June? The teacher for this subject is Caroline Aitken, co-author with Martin Crawford of the forthcoming Food from your Forest Garden. Click here for details.

Permaculture Design for Self-Reliance

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

As well as teaching permaculture design I practice as a designer and last week I started a particularly interesting job. You may well have heard of Mark Boyle, the Moneyless Man, famous for living some years without using money at all. Having learnt a great deal from that experience he’s now embarking, with his companions, Shaun Chamberlin and Jess Pasteiner, on the next stage in his quest for a truly sustainable way of life, an ecological smallholding.


Shaun, Jess and Mark on their plot.

The land is one of three small plots at Greenham Reach in Devon, made available to new smallholders by the Ecological Land Cooperative after a heroic battle through the planning system – but that’s the subject of another blog post . Mark, Jess and Shaun chose the flattest of the three plots. It’s not the most beautiful but it is the best suited to their purposes.


This plot is lovely but not so practical from their point of view.

Reading the Landscape
I went down there for a site visit with them and when I first looked in through the gate I thought I must have come to the wrong place. The field was dotted with rushes, an indicator of poor drainage. Surely no-one would have bought land like this for smallholding? But it was the right place, and after a good walk round I began to get a better idea of why the rushes are there. One clue was on the boundary of one of the other plots, which is also rushy. The rushes stop exactly on the boundary fence and the neighbouring field is completely free of them. A change in natural conditions couldn’t coincide so precisely with a straight fence. The rushes must be due to bad land management by the previous occupier.


The rushes stop right on the boundary.

Later we dug a couple of soil pits and found that the top layer of soil is severely compacted but below that there was well-structured soil with no trace of impeded drainage. The compaction was clearly due to excessive grazing of the land in wet weather. Nonetheless, the rushes are denser in some areas than others and one part of the plot is virtually free of them. Even though the compaction problem can easily be relieved by subsoiling, the rush free area nonetheless indicates the soil which is most likely to be free of compaction and the best place for annual crops. So I carefully mapped it out and it will be one of the factors which decides what goes where in the design.

Self-Reliant Smallholding
In this case the annual crops don’t only include vegetables. One aim of the three is to provide as much of their own needs as practicable from the land itself. Most smallholders grow all their own vegetables and fruit, keep a few poultry and perhaps other animals for meat and milk. But if you look at what we actually eat, where the majority of our calories come from grains play a big part, often providing more than all other foods put together. So the trio are seriously considering growing small-scale cereals.
There are various challenges to be met. One is birds. I have known people grow half an acre of barley or wheat in an area with a high song bird population only for every grain to be eaten up by our feathered friends. On a larger scale the birds will eat the same amount of grain but it will only be a small fraction of the total yield. Birds seem to be a problem in some areas but not in others. The future will tell whether they are at Greenham Reach.
Another challenge is doing all the work by hand. Providing for their own needs means being as self-sufficient as possible in fuel, so they don’t plan to have a tractor. Nor are they going to keep draft animals. Actually the amount of land needed to provide grain for three people is very small, so adapting no-dig gardening methods to grain production should be feasible. But the smaller the area the greater the bird problem.
The key to success in a project like this is not to try and do everything at once. Part of my task as designer will be to work out an implementation plan which shows the sequence in which different tasks should be done. Embarking on growing cereals will come some years down the line. Their first task is to build their house. As for the rest of it, I think I’d better wait till I’ve drawn up the design before I start going into more details.

If you want to learn more about permaculture design why not come on our Permaculture Design Course 16th-28th June? I will take you through the process step by step and you will have the experience of doing a design as part of a group with my guidance. That experience is the part of permaculture you can’t get from books.

Mulching in the Garden: Essential Permaculture?

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

“What, no mulch?” is a question I’ve been asked a couple of times by students of permaculture who’ve seen my garden or a picture of it. Well, I do use mulch but not always or everywhere.
Permaculture started in Australia and when it first came over here people accepted the whole package, including zero tolerance of bare soil, which in the garden means mulching. But they obviously don’t have the same slug problem in Australia as we do in Britain. Mulch makes the ideal cover for slugs and it’s easy enough to lose whole crops to our slimy friends even without it. All the advantages of mulch – saving water, suppressing weeds, protecting the soil, encouraging soil life – can be outweighed by the slug factor if it means the difference between vegetables and no vegetables.
Charles Dowding, the famous no-dig gardener, started out following Ruth Stout, the equally famous North American gardener, who used masses of mulch in her no-dig garden. Very soon he realised that you can’t do that here in Britain. He evolved a policy of only ever mulching with compost. In fact he took it a step further than that and now only mulches in the autumn. This goes against conventional wisdom, which says that all the mineral nutrients will be leached out of it over winter. But Charles is adamant that his soil is so full of humus, so teeming with life, that the nutrients are taken up and held in biological form till the beginning of the growing season in spring.
I haven’t quite got the nerve to follow Charles in putting on compost in autumn, but I do tend towards mulching only with compost. As much of my garden as possible gets a 5cm (2”) covering of compost each year, often put down between the growing plants. But there are exceptions.

My runner beans go in with a mulch of composted horse manure.

One is when I use manure rather than garden compost. If you leave manure on the surface with no covering it doesn’t incorporate into the soil in the way that garden compost does. It just dries up into inert chips and you can see it still sitting there at the end of the growing season. So it needs a second layer to keep it moist. This spring I’m using reeds, which I collect from my former field, now a nature reserve, where the reeds are cut as part of the habitat maintenance.


The runner beans get their layer of reeds.

The other is in dry weather, when conserving moisture is more important than usual and slugs less so. At the moment there are few of them around and the weather seems set dry, so before mulching I water well. This means 20-30li/m2 (4-6gal/sq yd) according to how dry the soil is. Both the beds illustrated here had that first. Then on goes the mulch. Sometimes this is a layer of paper topped off with reeds but if compost is needed anyway, as you see here, that makes the lower layer.


A polyculture, mainly broad beans, gets the same treatment as the runners: manure…


…and reeds.

But at the first sign of a slug or a definite change in the weather – the top layer of reeds will come off in a flash.

If you want to know more about mulching, we teach it on all our courses. See the menu at top left.

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor