Last weekend I went on the forest garden course with Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust in Dartington, Devon. I arrived a little stressed following a busy week of work, some poor sleep and a tricky journey down (bizarre route chosen by the sat nav – can sat navs go senile? Mine’s making some strange decisions lately). Martin welcomed us all with tea and biscuits. Introducing ourselves, I met a lady from the south of France who had driven there despite the French strikers blocading the ferry ports and cutting off the petrol supply. She had no idea if she could get fuel to travel home. I stopped moaning about my strenuous 3 hour drive! There were also people from Belgium, Croatia and various parts of the UK, and all of them lovely, several of them to become friends over the weekend.
After an hour’s introductory talk, we went up to the garden. Now I’ve been there before on a tour, and it has an effect on me that I spend much of my life seeking. After a couple of minutes, the outside world faded and the universe consisted of greenery and birdsong. My blood pressure went down, and I relaxed and became present in that moment. It’s bliss. I could put up a tent and stay there – particularly since I’d hardly have to venture out for food because almost everything you can see is edible.
You need a real change of mindset, and probably several visits, to appreciate what you are seeing in the forest garden. There are some weeds – creeping buttercup and couch, even bindweed – the plants jostle with each other, mint fighting with lemon balm, and there are fruit bushes untrained and unpruned. It’s easy to assume that it’s a neglectful, inexact, easy kind of gardening, especially when Martin explains how little maintenance time it needs (6 hours weeding per month for 2 acres – I spend more than that on just my veg patch!). A clue to its real nature comes from hearing Martin talk, reeling off Latin names and plant properties and cultivation details without a second’s thought. A second clue comes from a visit to his 17 acre nursery. There, hundreds of plants are being propagated, fed by self-watering systems from a reservoir run by solar-powered pumps. The person who set all that up is a very exacting engineer. Martin runs all of this, along with the forest garden and a 4 acre nut orchard, plus teaching and writing books, with just one member of staff and some volunteer help. You put all of this together and what you have is someone with vast knowledge and experience, who scarcely ever wastes a moment of his time doing something pointless or doomed to failure, and who never looks rushed.
There is so much more going on in the forest garden than meets the eye. It is designed for efficiency of energy input from the word go. It is also a beautifully balanced ecosystem. I was not bitten by an insect over the 3 days I was there, because there are so many bats and other predators. The fruit is not netted from the birds. The whole place is alive with bees and other pollinators. The plants glow with health. And there is delicious stuff to eat everywhere you look. My idea of heaven would look a lot like Martin’s forest garden, although it may be more tropical, with chocolate trees! (Martin has this covered with the subtropical forest garden he is building in a greenhouse.)
The main forest garden is over 20 years old, with full-grown trees and 10 metre high bamboo, but even more interesting was the visit to the new, small forest garden, about the same size as my own. I was reassured to find that it looks very much like mine, with weed-proof membrane, bark mulch and fruit trees, with perennial plants beginning to be planted and annual veg being grown in temporary beds before the trees establish and shade them out.
I came home with renewed inspiration and much more knowledge to create my own forest garden. I shall return to Dartington though, whenever I can, because we only just scratched the surface of Martin’s knowledge of plants, because there’s only so much you can learn about it from books, and because going there is thoroughly good for the soul.
(These last two pictures are of my own forest garden, still in its early days)