I’ve been away on holiday in the heartland of UK forest gardening: the south-west of England. I was struck how different everything was: picking blackberries along the Bristol-to-Bath cycle path in hot summer weather was strangely disorientating as I always associate brambling with impending autumn. The species were different too: fig trees in suburban gardens, passion fruit scrambling over a graffiti-covered wall in a Bristol alley and I think I spotted a fully laden walnut tree in the fortified grounds of the Palace of the Baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells. Some of the species I’d never even seen before, such as the dewberry (Rubus caesius) sticking out of a roadside hedge.
Above all, though, the whole structure of the natural woodlands was different. They had a tree layer, an understorey of shrubs and young trees, a thick ground layer and climbers over everything, just like the books say. In a few places you could see the young trees making their dash for the light where an old one had fallen over, keeping a continuous supply of new canopy trees.
In Scotland, the structure is often different. In their landmark book The Native Pinewoods of Scotland, Steven and Carlisle noted the saying that “these firr woods shift their stances”, meaning that they moved around because there wasn’t enough light to maintain an understorey layer with young trees in waiting. I think you can learn a lot about the best structure for your forest garden by looking at native woods in the area. The structure of the south-western woods reminded me quite how much the UK information on forest gardening comes largely from an area very different from Scotland and how much we have to take this into account.
In my absence, the forest garden has been busy. I picked a bucket of radish pods and salads last night and some of my favourite fruit species are now ready. More posts soon!