Canalside Community Food have long been supplying their members with fresh vegetables as a CSA. Around five years ago they decided to add fruit to the shares. They didn’t want to plant a normal organic orchard, which would be sprayed regularly with approved fungicides. One alternative is the probiotic approach, in which the orchard may still be a monoculture of apples but is treated with various preparations which encourage positive health, rather than chemicals which kill disease organisms. This is the approach taken at Ragmans Farm, which I described in a recent post. At Canalside they decided to go down a different route and plant a forest garden, whose diversity would keep pests and diseases to acceptable levels. Forest gardens are almost always small-scale and domestic, so this commercial scale one is something of an experiment.
The fruit team at Canalside: Ellie Brown, Amy Willoughby, Tom Ingall and Gareth Davies – all work part time on the fruit.
I was a member of a group they got together to design the forest garden. We decided that no species of tree fruit would form more than 25% of the total and the trees would be interspersed with soft fruit, with perennial vegetables and ground cover plants below. We also decided to lay it out in straight rows rather than the naturalistic layout which is more usual for a forest garden. We felt this was much more practical for a large area (1 acre/0.4ha) where various people would be working, including volunteers who might not be familiar with the garden. It means that each tree is easy to identify securely and unambiguously: you can ask someone to go and harvest tree 4 in row 3 and be pretty sure they’d get the right one.
Straight lines may not look so attractive but they are efficient.
A couple of weeks ago, at the height of the apple season, I went back there to see how the design has worked out in practice.
The trees are yielding well. At four years old they’re not yet up to full bearing and to fill the gap the fruit team are also picking trees in people’s home gardens which would otherwise be neglected and go to waste. As for the health of the trees, there was a little scab and the odd codlin moth. But a low level of pests and diseases, rather than a total abscence, is the aim in a forest garden. Pest and disease levels are aided by the fact that there are no other orchards in the area which could act as a reservoir for infection.
Extra fruit for the short term.
One of the great advantages of being a CSA is that the customers are largely aware people who don’t expect the visual perfection which you get in a supermarket. If it’s necessary to explain why there’s the odd blemish and why this isn’t a bad thing, the direct relationship between producer and consumer makes this easy. On the other hand the policy of having no more than 25% of one species means that there are some unusual trees included to give the necessary diversity. So you also need to explain to people what you do with medlars, for example.
As for the soft fruit, some kinds have done better than others. The one that’s bearing most at the moment is not a planted crop but the wild blackberries in the windbreak hedge, and the fruit team were picking them avidly while I was there. Well, so was I but I ate all that I picked!
Foraging for sale!
The one part of the forest garden which hasn’t really taken off is the ground layer. There’s a narrow strip of mulch under the rows of trees but the majority of the area is still grass and has to be mown regularly. A few clumps of ground cover plants have been planted in the mulched strips but these plantings are isolated from each other and the plant spacing is too wide for them to give good ground cover.
Alpine strawberries make a good ground cover but these have been planted too far apart.
My advice in this situation – in any forest garden come to that – is to establish the ground layer progressively:
- first plant the trees and shrubs
- each spring put down a black plastic mulch on a limited area of the forest garden
- during that growing season propagate ground cover plants to fill that area – the size of the mulched area is determined by the number of ground cover plants you can propagate in that year
- in autumn take up the black plastic and plant the ground cover plants – if there aren’t enough plants, plant a smaller area – never be tempted to plant them further apart than the ideal spacing
- put a woodchip mulch down between the plants – by the time this rots down the plants will have formed a closed canopy and will suppress anything else which tries to grow there
This is how Martin Crawford established his one hectare forest garden. But I wonder whether the Canalside team will find it worthwhile. The ground layer isn’t a major producer of marketable food, as the shrubs and trees are, and establishing it would take a lot of work and some expense. It may be more appropriate for them to leave it as a mixed orchard. In fact, while I was there I noticed that they didn’t refer to it as ‘the forest garden’ but as ‘the orchard’. That’s not a coincidence.
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