Using plants to create a self-sustaining community
By Jayne Alcock, Grounds and Gardens Supervisor at The Walled Gardens of Cannington
When we purchase a plant from our local nursery and then lovingly sink it into a new pot or piece of ground, we often ignore the fact that just like humans, plants grow and thrive in a community. They form an ecosystem, shielding each other from the wind, with their roots penetrating different layers of the soil to gather nutrients.
Forest gardens seek to harness this knowledge about ecosystems, producing useable crops for consumption. This style of gardening has been employed in the tropics for millennia. It mimics a forest with carefully chosen layers of planting from the upper canopy to an understory which tolerates shade. When established it is low- maintenance, self-sustaining and highly productive.
If you fancy trying this here are some ideas on how to build up this layered approach. Firstly plant a ‘canopy’ layer of fruit trees such as apples or pears, perhaps including a few dwarf varieties. Underneath would be a shrub layer featuring your favourite yummy currants and berries. Next comes the herbaceous layer which could include some of your favourite herbs and perennials such as perpetual spinach or rhubarb. You could also include a root layer of vegetables such as carrots, beets, and Jerusalem artichoke.
Beneath the leaves of these could be a layer of plants that are low and spread horizontally such as strawberries or self-seeding nasturtium. If you like a challenge you could consider fungi, their ‘roots’ called mycorrhiza move underground. It is their fruiting bodies called mushrooms that appear above ground and can be good to eat. Finally you could consider a vertical element of vines and climbers including kiwis and grapes.
So if you are looking for a new project or to develop your borders then I would encourage you to think of your plants as needing to work together in unison for a common goal. A good metaphor for many of the challenges we face in modern times.