Photographs: Charles Francis
The Forest Garden
September 2014: A conversation with owner Simon Miles
What is a forest garden?
In a forest garden, all the different plants interact with each other. Some are edible, some medicinal, and others are generating nitrogen for other plants. Forest gardening is a layered system, starting with large trees like chestnuts, then smaller trees — hazels, willow, pear — bushes such as redcurrants, herbs and woody plants, climbers, root crops, and ground cover. I have two acres here, but the principle can be executed in a small back garden.
Corylus maxima ‘Kentish Cob’
Apple ‘Sops in Wine’
What gave you the idea of creating your own forest garden?
I am a herbalist, and my original plan was to grow medicinal herbs — but I was unable to proceed due to European legislation requiring a licence for each herb. Then I saw a TV programme called A Farm for the Future, about how we’re going to cope when oil gets too expensive. I was invited to go on a field trip to two of the locations in the documentary, one of which was a forest garden. I returned home saying: “I want to do this”. I was interested in the principles of this way of growing — but the eureka moment was standing in a forest garden having my first ripe plum. I’d never had one before that hadn’t come from a supermarket. That’s what it’s all about: having that fresh taste in your mouth.
How did you decide what to plant?
I scoured the country putting together different people’s expertise to help me create the garden, and I chose plants which I have been inspired by, which suit the land I have here, or which taste nice. One of the first things I bought was a big Italian alder, which is now in its fifth summer and growing about four feet a year. It is a nitrogen generator, a windbreak and a host for climbers — in this case, kiwi. The lower branches of the alder are the framework to support the kiwi.
What other examples are there in the garden of plants working in harmony?
The mulberry tree grows alongside Hypericum perforatum, which attracts bees and is medicinal — the yellow flower is used in treating depression — and comfrey.
Mulberry (Morus ‘Illinois Everbearing’) with Hypericum perforatum
The roots of the comfrey go down much deeper than the mulberry, and bring up nutrients which are then available to the tree. This year, I planted a vine, which will grow up a sweet chestnut tree.
Can you describe some of the more unusual plants grown in the garden?
Akebia is a runner bean-like fruit which, when you break it in half, tastes like chocolate, and yacon is a fruit which first came over from South America at the same time as sweet potatoes.
Why is forest gardening such a good idea?
The working man’s garden used to contain a lot of medicinal plants because he didn’t have enough money to buy them. That knowledge was handed down for generations, but now we’re opting out of nature.
Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
An orangutan can recognise 400 good things to eat: we’re limited to 30 fruit and veg from the supermarket, selected for their shelf life and their appearance. Coming here gives people the chance to get in touch with nature, and taste and smell the countryside.
How can potential forest gardeners find out more?
I’m doing a tour in September, when I’ll be using the garden to discuss the general principles of forest gardening, and looking at what’s growing and what’s ready for harvesting. I did my first tour in July; many of the people who came were interested in having their own forest garden. There was a little girl of about eight who tasted everything! In September, people will be able to see how productive the garden has been. I’m really pleased with the number of mulberries this year: there are too many to count.
And the blackcurrant has been so heavily laden: by mid-July I had made 18 jars of jam.
There will be a chance to taste some of the things that have been made this summer, not just blackcurrant jam, but lemon balm cordial, lavender jelly, and possibly crab apple jelly. Ideally, what I want is for people to get enthused, look at food production in a different way, and buy something that will suit their garden, whether it’s a blackcurrant or a bamboo.
Bamboo (Phyllostachys inflexa)
It will be a chance to stimulate your palate with tastes you’re not familiar with. I can’t think of anything nicer than having friends round, walking round your garden and picking some nice things to eat. And this is a lovely place: there is an energy here, a feeling of peace and quiet.
What are your plans for the future?
Plants will be on sale here from next month, and people can also buy through the new Forest Garden website. I hope next year we’ll be open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays: we have planning permission to put up a building for refreshments. I plan to do several workshops a year, on both forest gardening and on making herbal remedies.