Coming down from the top floor, the last two layers of a forest garden are the perennial herbaceous layer and the root zone, the rhizosphere, as well as the vines.
I don’t plant a lot of roots mainly because I don’t want to dig up a lot of my forest garden. I prefer this to be a semi-wild area that I walk around and harvest above ground level. Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust suggests that you can grow useful roots like licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp) and barberry (Berberis spp), the roots of which provide good coloring and medicinal products. The tincture of the latter can be used as a powerful cleansing tonic. I grow horseradish, a fiery root popular in a creamy sauce with roast beef and in Japanese cuisine.
Perhaps herbaceous perennials are easier to identify and plant. The most popular are the herbs that provide a layer of soil cover by self-seeding or spreading. These can include consoudes (Symphytum spp), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), mints (Mentha spp), sage (Salvia officinalis) and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). Personally, I would not plant tansy in my garden. It self-sows madly all over my garden and unlike lemon balm, I cannot pluck the leaves for herbal tea. The rest spread well and crowd out potential weeds.
The consoudes are another matter. I plant them under the fruit trees. They form a circle around the trunks and repel weeds. Their powerful roots are dynamic accumulators, pulling precious minerals from the subsoil. When they bloom, I cut them with a hand scythe. The leaves fertilize the trees, very useful during fruit set. Comfrey is the best living mulch I know of. I also find it useful as a natural barrier between the vegetable garden and the wildflower meadow, preventing flowers and herbs from over-sowing in wood chip paths.
Other ground cover plants that can be used are all medicinal or beneficial plants that grow well in your soil. My garden loves pink purslane, a pretty little herb that has an edible leaf that has an earthy pea taste. The Romans brought it to Britain, but most people have forgotten that it is a useful edible. It also does well in shady places. Other popular plants among permaculturalists are carpet brambles (eg. Rubus calycinoids and R. tricolor). I have tried establishing them on my chalky soil, but the glossy leaves and vigorous bushes that I might find in other types of soil have so far struggled. The fruit isn’t that tasty either, but it looks good.
What worked for me were the perennial cabbages. I have received a few cuttings from friends in Wales. All you need to do is just root them in a pot of soil and plant them once established. They love to grow up! They make a tasty green when everything else is bitten by the frost. Be warned that the pigeons adore them and will bar them, although so far they have still recovered. There are many variations of the perennial kale theme. I just bought an Asparagus Kale from Rod Everett at the Middlewood Trust near the Lake District. It grows prolifically and self-seeds with great success on Rod’s clay soil. Hope he likes our drier conditions.
Finally, there are the climbers. In a sunny site, you can grow grapes and kiwis in the trees. I have a self-fertile kiwi fruit, but it grows on an existing structure: the kid’s swing that no longer exists (until at least the grandchildren arrive one day!).
What I also grow is a hybrid bramble that has succulent fruit twice the size of a hedge blackberry. As with all blackberries, you have to be careful because it loves to drop its canes to the ground and root as much as possible. I also grow other less vigorous hybrid berries in fruit trees, such as Oregon grapes, blackberries, bilberries, and bilberries. I particularly like blueberries. They are delicious, like big, juicy raspberries, and require virtually no work. It is sufficient to prune the dead wood once it has fruited.
Finally, while I garden on chalk, the species of limestone lands thrive: marjoram, knapweed, scabious, cranesbill and silenus, and many others, all self-seed and bring a multitude of flowers from spring to September. , just when I want the beneficial insects to benefit the garden; to pollinate fruit flowers and eat pests on fruit trees and in the vegetable garden. The insects also attract bats which usefully feed on carpocapses, the scourge of fruit growers. Since the garden was established (at the beginning it was different, but that’s a story for another time) I have never had a problem with pests on fruit trees and my system is completely organic, no pulverized and semi-wild. I’m sure it’s because I work with nature in true permaculture fashion and have established a high level of biodiversity in the garden.
I will write about some of the ways you can do this in future blogs as well.
Plant small areas
My advice on establishing the soil layer is not to be too ambitious. Make your life easier by mulching small areas and planting them densely. Don’t bite more than you can chew!
If you have a lot of bare soil, seed your native wildflowers which love your soil type and climate. You can always mulch them later if you want to and trade them in for more herbal and edible plants. If you garden this way, you will first establish good ground cover and a habitat for friendly insects and reptiles that will control pests.
Following: Use the principles of forest gardening in a small urban space.
Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine – inspiration for a sustainable lifestyle – a practical magazine read all over the world – download a FREE sample today!