Layers of a Forest Garden

How many layers in a Forest Garden? It depends on what you count!

Layers? What are you talking about? By layers we mean the different growing heights/spaces of the plants in the Forest Garden. Note height can also mean depth particularly when referring to root crops. How many layers will also depend on the size of your growing space, how old your garden is and what kind of plants you’d like to grow.

The seven (nine) layers of Forest Gardens

Most commonly seven layers of a Forest Garden are referred to. We reckon there are nine. Many of the layers will be multipurpose for example fixing nitrogen, good for bees along with providing a food harvest.

The layers also may or may not exactly fit within their height layers for example plants classed as “shrubs” are sometimes taller than small trees, root vegetables have leaves higher than herbaceous plants etc.

I’ve been designing a new logo and wanted to include all the main layers of our Forest Garden enterprise. What do you think?

Our new logo showing the nine layers of a Forest Garden.

Our new logo showing the nine layers of a Forest Garden.

#1 Canopy: The largest of all the trees. They could be large fruit or nut trees, trees for timber or windbreaks.

#2 Low trees: These are usually fruit or nut trees on dwarfing root stock, or coppiced/pollarded to keep the canopy low.

#3 Shrubs: Multi-stemmed fruit bushes, nitrogen fixing plants or indeed herbs that do not die back at the end of the growing season (like rosemary or lavender).

#4 Herbaceous plants: Herbs. Usually perennial vegetables and herbs or self-seeding biennial or annuals. The leaves and stems all die down at the end of the season with no persistent woody stem above ground during winter.

#5 Rhizosphere: Plants primarily grown for their roots and tubers.

#6 Ground cover: Plants that grow horizontally and therefore protect otherwise exposed soil.

#7 Climbers: Plants like vines that grow vertically often up the low tree or canopy layers.

#8 Fungi: Mushrooms either on inoculated logs, tree stumps or specific mushroom “beds”.

#9 Wildlife/Animals: Habitats for your unpaid workers are an essential consideration of forest gardening too – especially if you intend to eat some of their wares like honey.

For those of you wondering which layer is which, I’ve numbered the layers in the image below (not a popup sorry Wen). Hopefully that will help take some of the guesswork out of it for newbie Forest Gardeners.

For those of you guessing which Forest Garden layer is which this guide will help (can you spot the mistake?).

For those of you guessing which Forest Garden layer is which this guide will help (can you spot the mistake?).

If you are fortunate enough to have a pond, lake or other watery area in your forest garden you open up a whole new load of growing possibilities. The layers though will be similar to the ones described above.

Do I have to have all of the layers in my Forest Garden for it to be a Forest Garden? No. Forest Gardening is the concept of using different heights to your advantage and following nature’s lead. You may not have space for a canopy layer (or the neighbours hedge is effectively doing that job), or you only have space for one small fruiting apple so miss out the shrub layer, or your root layer is in containers and your herbs are growing in a vertical garden. It’s about maximising space and yield with the natural forest as your guide.

Read more about Forest Gardens …

Long cold stratification

There was a time when the salad compartments in my refrigerator did hold things to eat. Nowadays they are more likely to contain small cloth bags filled with sand and seed mixtures bound tightly at the top with cotton threaded with a seed label attached. I’ve been stratifying seeds. Tree seeds to be specific and most recently Small leaved lime (Tila cordata) , Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

Seeds from the fridge (stratifying)

straight from the fridge. Note the roots through the canvas - whoops

The thing is they have been in the fridge since June and July last year (2012) and I’d not so much forgotten about them, but wasn’t expecting to see anything until Spring so hadn’t checked. When I went looking for some onions yesterday I was surprised to see many small roots poking their way out the canvas bags.

My first thoughts were “wow that’s so good”. Then I was annoyed that I’d picked them up so clumsily and worried that I may have damaged some of the roots, then concern as I looked at the roots forcing their way through the woven cloth as I wondered how I was going to remove them from the bags to plant them out.

Tilia cordata seeds

Craig inspecting the small-leaved lime seeds

Well, that was last night. Today we found out just how many had started to germinate we’d be able to free from their fake winter climate when we sowed them in their root-trainers. 540 seeds sown! Small-leaved lime and Hornbeam. The Witch-hazel has gone back in the fridge as it was showing no signs of growing yet.

Hanging seed trays

Out of mice reach?

Last year the mice took quite a few of our larger and medium sized seeds out of the root trainer pots as they were all on the ground. So a cunning plan was needed. We’re trying hanging the root trainers from the polytunnel crop-bars.

I hope it works.

Celtic rainforest

Here is a sneak preview of a short digital story Craig put together for a local project…

… and here is the transcript.

Most people have heard of the tropical rainforests that, despite decades of logging, still cover vast swaths of the earth. Fewer people have heard of the much rarer coniferous and broadleaf temperate rainforests that only occur in coastal oceanic-moist climates with an annual precipitation of over 1400mm and a mean annual temperature is between 4 and 12 °C.

A subset of the temperate rainforest is the even rarer celtic rainforest specific to the celtic nations of the Atlantic seaboard area of Europe, and of which Wales has some of the best examples.

It is in remnant form because most of Wales has been farmed for millennium. While we lament, and rightly so, the destruction of the tropical rainforests we must remember that the picturesque patchwork landscape of sheep and cattle farms, hay meadows and coniferous woodland in our beautiful corner of the world is man-made and left to its own devices would revert to the same oak forest ecosystem that colonised the land after the end of the last ice age.

Today the celtic rainforest is found in the land that is too difficult to farm – at the bottom of the deep steep valleys surrounding river tributaries. The welsh for valley – Cwm – is reflected in place names such as Cwm Morgan and here good examples of celtic rainforest can be found. Writing in ‘The Living Landscape‘ author Patrick Whitefield captures the ambiance of these woodlands:

“These valley woods are often dense and jungly. Few sounds from the outside world reach you when you are walking in them and all you can see is woodland. Civilisation can feel far away. Even though you are you know there’s a bare, ordered fieldscape above you on all sides, somehow it feels a bit improbable.”

Our tree Ent

Our tree Ent by the river in the Celtic Rainforest

Indeed it does. Mosses, liverworts, lichens and filmy ferns abound in the celtic rainforest – signs of clean, unpolluted, moisture laden air. Before the industrial revolution, most old welsh trees would have grown to look like one of Tolkien’s Ents and as we leave the hydrocarbon age behind, maybe, they will again.

Summer update

Cercis Canadensis

<3 these tree leaves

So much has happened over the last couple of months it’s difficult to know where to start. Here is a quick list to get you up to speed.

  • The planning team have okayed our plans to put up a polytunnel and we don’t need to apply for planning permission (complicated planning system rules).
  • We have many new workers on the farm – meet the forest garden team here!
  • At the last count we’ve successfully germinated over 6,000 trees. We are looking forward to planting them out later in the year.
  • New potato harvest

    New potato harvest

  • Our veggie patch is looking good for its first year. We had to harvest the potatoes early because of blight, but some neighbours didn’t get a potato harvest at all. Surprisingly (given the lack of early slug patrols) we have had home-grown organic salads most days.
  • All three baby swallows have grown up and successfully left their nest.
  • Many friends have visited which has been wonderful.
  • vegan cupcakes Chocolate and Chai-Latte

    Totally different, totally yummy cupcakes

  • I’ve pretty much mastered baking vegan Chocolate and Chai latte cupcakes
  • Morland has had two bouts of being broody, we may need to think seriously about getting her some fertilised eggs to sit on …
  • Dolphins in Cardigan Bay

    Dolphins in Cardigan Bay

  • On a rare day off we went dolphin watching in New Quay – wonderful!
  • Austrian Scythe

    Cutting hay with an Austrian scythe

  • Oh and, Craig has been on a scything course, bought and Austrian Scythe and been practising by cutting hay on our fields.

Tree nursery – it’s a start!

Between 30,000 and 50,000 – that’s the number of trees Craig thinks we’ll need for the forest gardens according to the back of the envelope calculations he did the other day.

Our growing tree nursery

Our growing tree nursery

It’s a good job we’ve already made a start!

It is a real joy to see our little tree nursery grow. It is amazing just how fast the trees are growing.

I know I mentioned them on the last post, but I am really enjoying the Stone pines (pinus pinea). I love the way they catch and store water with their needles …

Pinus pinea catches and stores water

Pinus pinea catches and stores water

Gingko biloba germinating

Gingko biloba germinating

Now the Ginkgos (Ginkgo biloba) are starting to germinate and vie for my attention too…

Not to mention the Wych elms (Ulmus glabra) which have just the most brilliant leaves ever…

And the Hawthorn berries (Crataegus monogyna) and Beech nuts (Fagus sylvatica) we collected from our hedges last year … all good stuff.

Plenty to keep me busy.

Spring is well and truly here

View from our "office"

View from our "office"

The swallows arrived weeks ago and are happily twittering as they swoop over the fields catching insects to feed to their young. They are a mesmerising distraction from our real work – planting.

We’ve been sowing up literally thousands of different tree seeds; many different types of betula sp. and alnus sp. along with other nitrogren-fixing trees like lupinus arboresus and caragana arborescens, and some crazy experiments just to see what happens like pinus pinea (although perhaps with climate change not so crazy?).

Stone Pine (pinus pinea) germinating

Stone Pine (pinus pinea) germinating

To my great surprise and delight many of the seeds are starting to germinate already. So along with all the sowing we have been pricking out and potting on too. With any luck we will be ready to plant a lot of these young trees this autumn.

Thankfully we have had some glorious weather (in between the rain showers) and I have a (face and hands – it’s not that warm yet!) suntan already! One thing is for sure, I LOVE planting trees :)

Spring wild plant survey 2012

Before we do anything on our land, I want to make sure we know where we are starting from. We will be conducting lots of surveys and feeding our results into any national/international surveys when we can. One such survey is the Wildflower Count organised by Plantlife. It’s actually more of a plant survey rather than just flowers, which is brilliant.

The Plantlife team were totally cool about me doing the “count” on our land (rather than a randomly assigned square somewhere close to our home) and sent me a surveyor pack. With the square decided it was just a matter of setting a date and brushing up on my plant identification skills. I wanted to involve the local community and new friends in the count, so invited people on our Forest Garden facebook page.

Temperate woodland in Spring

We started the survey in the wood near the river

The where’s the path? website is a great tool for mapping the 1km wildflower walk. Our path took us from the very bottom of the land near the river (in the wood) through grassland to the very top; in all a climb of 100 metres! I decided we should walk it in this direction to give everyone a chance to marvel at the beautiful wildflowers while catching their breath! The diversity of landscape also means that we will be conducting the survey a few times to catch the changing of the seasons.

April the 15th arrived and we couldn’t have wished for a better day. It was sunny with a only a small threat of rain – which didn’t arrive. The plant hunting crew were raring to go and, armed with our Reader’s Digest Nature lovers Library of native wild flowers and trees and shrubs of Britain books (pretty much everyone brought one along – it seems it is the preferred book!), we set off.

In total we identified 62 different plants ranging from the very familiar Primrose to a few none of us could identify including the Moschatel and Common twyblade orchid – the fantastic people on i-spot helped identify those (and confirm a few more). Hint: if you are doing to do a survey – take your camera! Most of the plants were in the woodland. I wonder how much that will change over the next surveys … speaking of which, we intend to do the next on on the 10th of June. Follow us on facebook or contact us if you’d like us to remind you closer to the time.

Thank you to everyone that made the day so lovely, hope to see you next time.

Here are just a few of the photos from the day …

Grafting in so many ways (well two)

There are lots of different ways to graft fruiting trees; the type we learnt at Coed Marros was “whip and tongue”. We had to graft for our grafting lesson; there were tree nursery beds to be filled with five year old composted manure.

If you are not familiar with the term “grafting”, it’s a way of joining material from two trees together to get the preferred properties of each tree in the final specimen. Most usually, a favourite fruit is grafted onto the roots of a tree that has the size property you desire, so rather than a huge tree taking up all the space in your garden, a tree grows to dimensions that are more suitable to the space available. Root stock has very dull names like M1, M25, M26, while the fruiting part, the scion, has names that you would recognise from the greengrocer like Braeburn, Cox and Granny Smith. The root stock may also have the disease resistant qualities you need or be hardy for your climate.

By 10:30 about a dozen of us were gathered with spades, forks and an assortment of knives! We’d been told to bring “grafting knives” but from the mix of penknives that were produced, it was evident that very few of us had investigated exactly what a grafting knife is. It’s a knife with a bevel on only one side of the blade. My rather lovely penknife is curved on both sides, so it went back into my pocket.

Whip and tongue graft

Compare my first attempt (top), to the seamless way it should be done

Strategically we were given the trimmings of some root stock to learn on. Wise indeed as it turned out. I’ll create a detailed page about grafting at a later date. Suffice to say, can you guess which is my effort? Yes, of course, the one on the bottom! (I wish). Well it was my first ever attempt.

Chris Evans tree grafting

Thanks Chris for the great training session

Rather than use grafting tape to hold the pieces until they grow together, Chris uses supermarket plastic bags cut into strips. He reckons he can get enough pieces for about 16 grafts with one bag (not bad for 5p – by law the minimum price of a plastic bag in Wales). Thankfully the plastic disguises a multitude of sins and it looked pretty good in the end, although I doubt it would take if it were done for real. More practice needed before I’m let loose on the real thing! Alternatively there are grafting pliers on the market that do the job in one easy snip. I’ll see how I get on.

In return for the grafting lesson we volunteers filled the four new nursery beds. The team at Coed Marros are expanding their tree nursery so that they can increase the biodiversity of the forest when they replace the trees they take out of the plantation and perhaps even have a few spare to sell.

Raised nurse beds for trees

All done!

They prefer to have all of their developing fruit trees growing in one place, so they can easily protect them from rabbits etc. before they plant them into their final position. Raised beds are the answer. The manure that has been composting for five years was a little further into the woods, not a problem when you have a trailer and many hands to help.

By the end of the day all the raised beds had been filled, all the volunteers trained and the dates for the sessions to graft the trees for real confirmed. Although I am assured there isn’t a practical test that we have to pass before we are let loose on the root stock, I’d best get some grafting hours in the meantime nonetheless.

Probably 3500

Haws from our hedges

Haws from our hedges

In truth we didn’t count. We’d ordered a lot of tree seeds online (we are still waiting for a few species to arrive), we’d collected a load of fruit from our hedges and my parents had sent a load of seeds in the post.

Package from Mum and Dad

Package from Mum and Dad, top going clockwise: Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

Earlier this month, with memories of conversations about how cold it was here last year still fresh in our ears, we decided that it was about time we stratified the nuts and seeds that need cold to break their dormancy. We cross referenced the brilliant BTCV guide with Martin Crawford’s excellent “Creating a Forest Garden” book and for the few remaining species that were not covered in either (or where advice was contradictory) we asked Google or managed our risk by splitting the seeds into two (and in once case three) so that we can plant the remaining seeds in 2012. The result by my reckoning is over 3500 tree seeds waiting for a suitably long cold spell to germinate in Spring 2012.

I wonder how many seeds will germinate. I hope a lot. I have everything crossed and have put a call out to the Freecycle community for pots, with any luck we will need thousands.

By the time we come to plant the trees, hopefully in late 2012/13, we should have decided on the best place to plant them. We are so fortunate here, our land ranges from cool river valley to wind swept hillside with everything from dry sun trapped slopes to soggy spring fed wetlands to fire our forest garden imagination. So much fun, can’t wait … just waiting for some snow now …

Planting Willow

We are really eager to plant trees, but also want to observe and get to know the land before we really go ahead and do anything. The thing is we have these ugly agricultural buildings and “kennels” close to our living space that it would be great to simply hide.

One tree species we know we’ll want a lot of is Willow (Salix spp). It is such a brilliant tree. Great for wildlife, basketry, as a windbreak and wood-fuel crop to name just a few uses. So as a hiding tactic Willow was an obvious choice as it is easy to establish, grows quickly, and we can take cuttings from it (next year) if we also want to plant it elsewhere on the land.

The only problem was that willow is generally cut in the Winter. Patience, as they say, is a virtue. As soon as Winter was deemed to have started, we placed our order for 1 foot high willow cuttings.

Willow for basketry

Beautiful Willow for basketry

A few days after they arrived we had planted all 560 stems of mainly Bowles Hybrid but also some beautiful basketry varieties including:

  • Salix triandra – Black Maul
  • Salix daphandoides
  • Salix alba
  • Salix purpurea
  • Salix viminalis

I can’t wait to start experimenting with these colours.

Clearing space for the Willow

Craig clearing space for the Willow

Planting took longer than expected as there was more clearing to do than we originally thought. I’m sure there will be a point where we have found all of the discarded wood, plastic guttering, worn tyres and various bits of farming paraphernalia in the long grass. Pretty much everything that we have found so far has been useful though – even if it’s just to keep other things weighed down.

That’s 561 trees planted now and that makes us very happy.

Our tree Ent

Our tree Ent

Our tree Ent down by the river

(A few days later) We found another way down to the river, much easier than the first way. On the bank is this wonderfully shaggy tree. We immediately decided that this is our beautiful Ent (even though it is growing on the opposite side of the river and therefore not actually on our land). For the life of me I can’t think what kind of tree it is. We’ve been to visit on at least three separate occasions and never have I thought to look at the leaves. There are so many other things to observe. It is covered in moss, there are various types of ferns growing along the branches and lichens abound too. I have never seen a tree like it in the UK!

Looking at this photo again, I suspect it is a Sycamore. Remind me to check the next time we go to the river.

More photos of the Ent on Flickr

Acorn of Old Knobbley

Young Knobbley

Young Knobbley (acorn of Old Knobbley) planted in the Party Field

When we were deciding on the things to pack in the back of our small car to move here, we wanted to include all of our trees. We’d been carting our fruit, acer and other trees about for years. It seemed only fair to let them put their roots down in some welsh soil as soon as we could. Try as we might though, what with all of our “essentials” for those first few weeks here, we couldn’t find the space for them all in the back of our car. There was just one small gap behind the passenger seat. Just about (if I moved the seat forward to a very cramped leg position) enough space to squeeze our very treasured “Young Knobbley” – sapling of Old Knobbley.

So Young Knobbley journeyed with us and lived in its pot under the mobile home for the first two months. I don’t know why we didn’t plant our little oak tree straight away… looking back, I suppose it took us some time to fully feel like we belonged to the land, and then a little longer to make sure it really was “home” – that and we didn’t quite know where to plant such an important tree, and we didn’t want it to be accidentally mown over during the hay-making.

On the 30th of September 2011 the time seemed right. It was a wonderfully sunny day. We set about planting in the middle of the Party Field. What with finding the absolute centre of the triangular field and making sure the hole was filled with the right kind of mycorrhiza and compost, it took us most of the morning! (I hope the other trees we plant don’t take as long) and as you can see we have totally over protected the tree from rabbits (not that we’d seen any) and the southerly wind. This tree WILL survive!

We celebrated the planting of the first tree in the Forest Garden by adding this photo to Apparatjik’s call for 1000 trees to be planted to agreeneryouniverse (and have since received some tracks from another universe for our trouble – incidentally I’m listening to .,,. now )

Young Knobbley as an acorn

Young Knobbley as an acorn

Old Knobbley (2007)

Old Knobbley (2007)

Young Knobbley (as far as we know) is the youngest surviving tree of my favourite old Oak Tree – Old Knobbley. We collected four seeds from this ancient tree on the 13th of October 2007, gathering the acorns from the branches rather than the woodland floor, to ensure that they are the direct prodigy of the knobbly old tree (rather than the many other English Oaks around). Young Knobbley is the only one that germinated.