It’s taken a while, but my complete list of seeds (plus a few tubers, bulbils, etc) collected in 2020 is now ready. It’s longer than ever, with over 70 species listed. As usual, I don’t charge for seeds, but am open to swaps (see my Wish list), happy to receive donations and delighted to help out anyone willing to pay it forward by supporting the open source seed community in general.
One of the questions I am asked most often about forest gardening is which plants to start with. I find this a hard question to answer for a number of reasons. One is that the key to a forest garden is diversity, so the answer I really want to give is all of them, which I realise isn’t very helpful. The second is that it’s a very individual matter, depending on the gardener’s climate, site, taste buds and access to plants that can be foraged. For instance, I don’t grow brambles (blackberries), since I know of several spots within cycling distance where I can pick to my heart’s content – but if I couldn’t get them wild I would most certainly grow them.
Despite all that, the question keeps coming up again, so here – with all the caveats above and in no particular order – is my personal top 30, of plants that are productive, easy to source and easy to grow. It might not be the same as yours, but it’s a place to start.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) Very shade tolerant, very reliable and very productive once it gets going, wild garlic is available from February to June and provides a garlic flavour when raw or a bulk vegetable with an oniony taste when cooked. Growing and eating wild garlic
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) There is a huge number of leafy alliums that can be grown in the forest garden, but this traditional one is still one of my favourites. I use the flowers as much as the leaves, cooked as much as raw.
Celery (Apium graveolens) Half way between a herb and a vegetable, hardy celery provides stems, leaves and/or flower shoots at almost any time of year. I never use it on its own but to add flavour and bulk to pot herbs, soups, stews and stir fries. Hardy celery
Sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima) The ancestor of sugar beet, beetroot and chard, sea beet is hardy, nutritious, tasty and productive. I use leaves in autumn, winter and spring, moving to the immature flower heads (steamed and then dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce and lemon juice) in summer. Just remember to let some of them produce seed as it grows better as a biennial than as a perennial. leaf beet https://www.facebook.com/scottishforestgarden/posts/2390524570963352
Giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia) Giant bellflower provides leaves, shoots and roots and has the advantage of being more shade tolerant than most bellflowers.
Fawn lilies (Erythronium) A useful shade-tolerant starchy root crop. The cultivar ‘Pagoda’ is large and productive and very pretty too. Eating dog’s tooth violet
Potato (Solanum tuberosum) Wait, what? Tatties? Yes, spuds are perennial vegetables that grow well in the organic-matter-rich soil of a forest garden (not in deep shade, obviously). Using blight resistant varieties like the Sarpo family and growing new ones from seed allows you to grow them more like a perennial crop, less like an honorary annual.
Alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca) Alpine strawberries are wild strawberries that don’t produce runners. They are thus more manageable and easier to select good varieties from. Will self seed in the garden. Alpine strawberry
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) My favourite soft fruit, and a natural inhabitant of the woodland edge.
Caucasian spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides) A perennial climber with spinach-like leaves and edible shoots.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) Of the many mushrooms that can be grown in a forest garden, shiitake is my favourite – and perhaps the easiest. Shocking shiitake
Apple (Malus domestica) A productive and versatile fruit that keeps well into the winter. I use it for cooking, baking and making dried apple rings. Applemania In Praise of Pruning
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) Of the many carrot relatives with edible young leaf and flower shoots, I perhaps make the most use of sweet cicely, which has a very long cropping season and aniseed-flavoured roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. Sweet cicely
Poppy (Papaver somniferum) A feast for the eye, for the pollinators and for the stomach, poppies produce nutritious, oil-rich seeds and pop up everywhere to fill any temporary space in the garden. Opium poppy
Japanese plum (Prunus salicina) Japanese plum makes the best fruit leather, is absurdly productive and fruits earlier than traditional domestica plums. Japanese plums
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) Another one that you might not expect in the forest garden, parsnips self-seed around the place and produce a crop with very little effort. Self-seeded parsnips
Rhubarb (Rheum) A very well-known perennial vegetable, rhubarb has both more species and more uses than it is traditionally given credit for. rhubarb
Currants (Ribes) Forced to choose between the different currants. I’d probably go for red/white currant, which becomes sweet enough to eat off the stem if protected from birds by netting, and is a secret ingredient in many jams with its high pectin content. Currants
Sorrel (Rumex) The sharp, lemony taste of sorrel is found in many plants. Forced to choose, I’d go for garden sorrel (R. acetosa) or buckler leaved sorrel (R. scutatus). Or both. Sorrels
Linden (Tilia) Small-leaved lime is my favourite ‘salad tree’. If the growing tips are picked rather than individual leaves it will produce a supply of tender leaves for most of the growing season. Best pruned like a hedge. Lime greens
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) Another self-seeding annual, salsify produces an abundance of artichoke-flavoured flowers. Salsify
Broad bean (Vicia fava) The bean that fits best into the forest garden system, growing in small cleared patches. Broad beans
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) Another source of shoots throughout the growing season, lovage adds an earthy/yeasty/meaty taste to all sorts of dishes. Lovage, actually
Persian garlic (Allium altissimum) As well as being a striking ornamental, Persian garlic is a vigorous plant, producing large clumps of mild, garlic-flavoured bulbs, available outside the wild garlic season and easy to preserve by slicing and drying.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) Nettles can be foraged, but having your own patch allows you to cut them down for repeated harvests. There is even a non-stinging variety!
Udo (Aralia cordata) An enormous herbaceous perennial, udo produces an edible pith for stir fries and salads and shoot tips for tempura or stir fry, or to add depth of flavour to a leaf sauce. The taste is part citrussy, part resiny. Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata
I notice it’s been five years since my last post on perennial kale breeding. Enough time for some progress surely? Happily, yes, and I now have an abundance of seed to share with anyone who wants to join in. I’ve been aiming to produce a range of kales that are mid way between the near-sterile Daubenton’s perennial kale and the traditional biennial kale: that is to say, plants that flower enough to breed from but don’t flower themselves to death. I have been increasing the diversity by crossing all my favourite traditional kales with plants that have these traits.
Not all of the results are finished varieties that I’d want to propagate vegetatively, but all have at least one trait I want to keep in the population. Some of my favourites haven’t flowered yet: these are the ones that I have been able to collect seed from this year. The hands in the pictures are for scale and measure 22 cm. Seeds of all these and a few more are available on my seed list. Please note that they are all open pollinated, so seedlings will show considerable variation – which is part of the fun!
Purple kale tree
This is perhaps my favourite that I have seed for. It is seven years old and still growing strong: the original stem grew to about 10 cm and eventually died, but others have taken its place and it roots itself by layering, Daubenton-style. The leaves are large, tender when young and, of course, purple. Flowering intensity: low. Flowers: white. Some of PKT’s offspring are similar but with even larger leaves and faster growth.
Here is one offspring of PKT that hasn’t flowered yet.
And one that has, imaginatively titled ‘Son of PKT’. It has the same tall growth habit but a leaf shape that might indicate a cross with ‘Cabbagey’ (see below).
This is the most similar to classic Daubenton’s with similar leaves and growth habit, but it flowers every year, with a medium flowering intensity. Not a great kale in itself, but good for breeding off, especially for its strong branching habit and short annual growth which give it a relatively neat, dome-like form.
With deep purple, lobed leaves and a rather straggly growth habit. Hand for scale.
Oak leaf bush
Large, lobed green leaves and a bushy habit. Flowering intensity: high.
Another of the lobed-leaf group, this time looking like it has Ragged Jack in its ancestry. Strongly branching. Flowering intensity: low.
Not in fact a single variety, but one original plant and its nearby offspring, all of which I suspect have a cabbage somewhere in their offspring, giving unexciting but mild leaves. With a very straggly growth habit and moderately high flowering intensity.
Tall, upright ‘kale tree’ growth habit, with somewhat savoyed leaves. Medium flowering intensity.
Big leaf Jack
The flattened winged stems of this variety remind me of Ragged Jack and it has big leaves. Flowering intensity medium-high.
Big green lazy
Not an awful lot to recommend this one, apart from its large leaves. It’s quite susceptible to mildew at this time of year, although the younger leaves that I pick are unaffected. Long, floppy stems that mean that it forms a thicket. Medium flowering intensity.
Nero di Toscana perenne
Three plants arising from a cross between Purple Kale Tree and Nero di Toscana. Need back-crossed a few times to form a true perennial Black Tuscan Kale. All three are very tall, reaching over 2 m in 2 years (too tall in fact – need to breed in shorter internodes). The first flowered strongly this year and, for obvious reasons, this is the one I have seed for. The second flowered very lightly, which would be perfect but unfortunately I only managed to collect a tiny amount of seed. The third (the most NdT-like) has not flowered at all. I have had to give up the site where these were planted but I have taken lots of cuttings, so fingers crossed.
That’s pretty much all the seeds I have added to my online seed list now. This is a good time for sowing seeds that need stratification (winter cold) before germination, which in the forest garden is a lot of them.
New seeds this year include angelica, Manchurian spikenard (a continental version of udo), common storksbill, spignel, evening primrose, orpine, fen nettle and Scottish-grown chamnamul (Pimpinella brachycarpa). As usual they are offered for swaps, donations or the love of plants.
Some plants in the forest garden are just more easy to photograph than others. Aralia spinosa spreads its delicate leaflets in one easy-to-focus plane, while pot marigold works the camera shamelessly. Celery is at the other end of the spectrum. Its sprawling habit makes it hard to get into a single coherent photo, while the fact that it puts on most of its leaf growth in autumn, winter and early spring means that the photography conditions usually consist of low light and wet, difficult-to-focus leaves.
Those of us who don’t show up so well in photographs, however, can still have lots of other excellent qualities, and celery is an indispensable member of the forest garden cast. That growing season means that celery leaves are available when few others are and its flavour is a welcome addition to winter soups and stews. As with most carrot family plants, it’s the young, tender leaf shoots that are best rather than older leaves. In summer the young flower stems can also be used in dishes like stir fry and the seeds, produced in abundance, make a wonderful aromatic spice.
No matter how useful I find celery at present, I think I have only started to explore its potential as a forest garden plant. The celery I’m talking about is not the familiar shop-bought celery with its large, white, crunchy stems. That can be grown in Scotland, but only with lots of care, watering, feeding and mounding, and preferably a polytunnel. I’m talking about the smaller, leafier varieties variously called wild, herb, leaf, cutting or Chinese celery, which are used more as a leafy herb than as a stem vegetable.
Despite their differences, all these varieties are the same species, Apium graveolens. While the chunkier stem celery was clearly developed far south of Scotland, there’s no reason why a bit of selective breeding couldn’t favour the same qualities within a hardier gene pool, more adapted to a forest garden in the North. That’s what I’m working on in my garden, and celery is already responding.
The first step was to source a wide range of genetic sources. This involved navigating a bit of a minefield of names. True wild celery is Apium graveolens var. graveolens or ‘smallage’. It is a plant of wet, salty ground. Seed sold as wild celery is usually probably not true wild celery but one of the leafy cultivated celeries collectively labelled Apium graveolens var. secalinum, as opposed to the thick-stemmed var. dulce. One group of these are the Chinese celeries, also known as kintsai (which is just an old spelling of the Chinese word for celery, qíncài or 芹菜) or Nan Ling celery. Chinese celeries have generally undergone more selection than their Western counterparts. They tend to be more delicate and more colourful, and not quite so hardy. Western secalinum are called herb, leaf or cutting celery. There’s also a Dutch heirloom variety usually marketed as ‘Par-cel’ or occasionally ‘Zwolche Krul’. It’s a dead ringer for curly-leaved parsely – hence the name – and there’s a lot of confusion on the internet as to which it really is.
Having sown a range of these different kinds, I left them to it for a few years to mix up the gene pool. Celery is biennial so there is a new generation every couple of years. Now everything is well mixed, I’m starting to apply some selection pressures. There are a few qualities that I’m selecting for. Size and vigour are important of course. For stem qualities I’m looking for thickness and solidity. Some stems are hollow while others are fleshy all the way through. A few plants seem to have a degree of perenniality, surviving and growing again after flowering. Hardiness and general adaptation to my garden conditions are selected for by the environment.
You can see some of the variation here, in the range of leaf lengths, thicknesses, colours and solidity. No prizes for guessing which is my favourite one so far.
I haven’t tried selecting for a thickened hypocotl or stem base yet, but that would be the route to an equivalent of celeriac, the bulbous Apium graveolens var. rapaceum.
Although celery is ancestrally a marsh plant mine seem happy in all parts of the garden, including in a moderate amount of shade. In contrast to the traditional celery it needs next to no special care.
I have set dates for a couple of Introduction to Forest Gardening courses in the next few months. These are the only courses that I’ll have time to do this year.
The one-day course will cover all the basics that you need to start forest gardening, including designing, planting, looking after, harvesting, cooking and eating from your garden. It should be particularly relevant to those growing in an allotment, small garden or community setting. It will cost £50 and will be on the dates below. I can take a maximum of 8 people on each, so please book in advance. You can book by clicking on the booking link below. If you would like to come but really can’t afford the fee, email me.
The Claytonias are a very useful group in the forest garden, being very palatable species whose natural habitat is woodland.
Claytonia perfoliata, miners’ lettuce, is unusual in the genus in that it is an annual rather than a perennial. It is often grown in greenhouses in Britain as a winter salad, but it is much less commonly found grown outside. It can be difficult to get established as a self-sustaining, self-seeding population, but once you manage it makes an excellent early salad that maintains itself with little fuss. Getting a locally adapted strain might be the key to success: I spent a long time trying it with little luck until I found a population self-seeding itself in the nearby university car park, prospering despite the chemical warfare waged against it by the university’s estates department. Seeds from these plants germinate earlier and grow more vigorously than any that I have ever bought from the seed trade.
Miners’ lettuce is mild-flavoured and succulent so it makes an excellent bulk ingredient for salads. All parts are edible, including the leaves, stems and the unusual-looking large fleshy bract around the flowers. They can also be cooked, for instance in stir fries. In my garden some plants germinate in autumn and are available in small quantities through the winter. Others germinate in early spring and by March I have a good stand of it. It will grow in the open or in partial shade and likes a well-watered soil. It is rich in vitamin C: the name comes from its use against scurvy by gold miners in California’s gold rush. There are two closely related species: C. parviflora and the deep red C. rubra. I can’t find any information on the edibility of these but I’m sure they would be worth investigating: C. rubra in particular would look very striking in a salad.
Claytonia sibirica, pink purslane, is a perennial equivalent of miners’ lettuce. It is widely naturalised in Scotland, to the extent that there are locally named varieties, such as the white-flowered Stewarton flower found in north Ayrshire. It tends to form an extensive carpet in both broadleaf and coniferous woods: this looks spectacular when it flowers. In the forest garden it can be used in the shady areas under crop trees. The flavour is stronger than that of miners’ lettuce – something like raw beetroot.
Other species listed in the literature as having edible leaves include acutifolia, caroliniana, exigua, lanceolata, megarhiza, scammaniana, tuberosa, umbellata and virginica.
Finally, a number of species have edible roots, which go by the name of fairy spuds. Species include acutifolia, caroliniana, lanceolata, megarhiza, tuberosa, umbellata and virginica I haven’t managed to grow or try any of these yet but forager Euell Gibbons described C. virginica roots as tasting like sweet chestnuts when cooked.
I was being a bit of a pig in the allotment recently. Wild boar are one species that definitely didn’t get the memo about no-dig gardening. They have worked out one essential fact about the winter forest: the ground is where all the good stuff is. Their rootling behaviour – essentially ploughing up the ground looking for hidden bounty – looks destructive, and in some ways it is. Where densities are high they can cause an 80-95% reduction in herbaceous cover and the local extinction of some species. In other ways, their activity aids the health of the forest. Like any sensible pig, they prefer to target abundant species where they can be sure that all that work will be rewarded (you try digging up the earth with your nose, after all). As such they preferentially target plants with imperialistic tendencies, such as bracken and willowherb rhizomes or carpeting bulbs such as bluebells. This knocks back these aggressive spreaders, making space for a greater variety of species, and a number of studies have shown that over the long term species diversity is higher in areas with wild boar than in those without.
Similarly, in the forest garden, there are some crops where a good rootle is the only way to harvest them at some times of year, and the resulting soil disturbance helps to make room for a range of self-seeding species that tend to get crowded out in entirely undisturbed, perennial communities.
One of these is turnip-rooted chervil, or plain root chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum), a biennial root vegetable in the carrot family. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s probably because it has a few oddities in its life cycle which mean that it has never been cultivated widely. The first of these is that the seed needs stratification (winter cold) in order to germinate, and loses its viability very quickly in dry conditions (like seed packets). This means that fresh seed needs to be collected every year and sown very soon after, in the autumn. This makes growing it in rows in a crop rotation quite awkward. One option is to simply allow it to self-seed around the garden, which it does very readily and which eliminates all the worries about sowing and stratifying.
The second problem is that it sprouts early and dies back early, generally at the first hint of dryness. When it dies back it does so without leaving a trace of where it is. This isn’t a problem in labelled rows, but definitely is when the roots have planted themselves randomly around the place. It isn’t helped by the fact that many people reckon the the flavour of new roots is poor compared to ones that have sat in the ground for a few months in cold conditions.
All this leads to two main strategies for growing root chervil. The first is to sow it in annual beds in autumn, well marked and labelled. It starts to germinate here in early March, well before most crops. It then dies down by June, giving room for another crop, perhaps something like oriental greens which benefit from a late sowing so as not to run straight to seed. Finally it can be harvested over the winter. Some gardeners report problems with rodents getting at the stored roots, in which case a month in the fridge is also enough to improve the flavour. I find that chervil roots have a starchy, chestnut-like flavour that I enjoy a lot.
The other option is to let the plants take care of the sowing themselves, but this means that you are likely to have very little idea of where exactly they are by the time you want them. Until, that is, the roots have to give themselves away in order to grow for the new season. This is when you can harvest a great delicacy. A quick rootle will give you a pile of roots with young growth attached. There is no need to separate these as both parts are edible, just wash them well. By this time the flavour of the root has changed completely. The starch has been broken down into sugars, mobilised for growth, and the taste is now somewhat carroty and very sweet. It is impossible to get them out without a degree of soil disturbance, but, as the wild boar demonstrate, that is not entirely a bad thing in the forest garden.
Whenever you dig them up, it is worth keeping the best roots to transplant to another bed for seed production. The roots show a lot of variability, in size, length and form. The default seems to be a round shape, presumably explaining the ‘turnip-rooted’ part of the name, but a proportion have an elongated, carrot-like shape which seems to be associated with higher yields. Given that you are likely to have to maintain your own seed line if you want to grow this vegetable at all, you might as well take the opportunity to improve the stock and adapt it to your own conditions as you go.
Sprouting roots with the best separated out for replanting
I am always astonished at what a vigorous shoot comes out of a little chervil root. From a root usually no more than a few centimetres long they throw up seed stems over three metres tall. These can be very dense and with little leaf, so most of the nutrients required must be coming out from the root. This matches with the starchy flavour and a dry weight that is about 40% of it’s fresh weight. Chervil roots are clearly very dense nutrient stores. As such they could be seen as contributing to nutrient storage in the system as a whole. I am never too worried about surplus chervil roots that pop up and run to seed in unexpected areas of the garden: they are easily pulled out and put on the compost heap and don’t seem to bother the plants around them excessively as they are running on stores.
Root chervil seed heads against a bright Aberdeen sky
The leaves are all off the trees now and autumn is shading gently but firmly into winter, but there is still plenty happening in the forest garden. Low light and wet plants make photography difficult, but a friend with a better camera and better skills than me recently took some shots, which prompted me to write a round-up post.
Photos by Julian Maunder
It’s counter-intuitive if you are used to an annual garden, but autumn is a major sowing and germination time in both nature and the forest garden. Many seeds require stratification, or a period of cold, to germinate, and the easiest way to achieve this is to sow in autumn and let nature take its course. Other plants are self-sowing and coming up in autumn, taking a punt on managing to survive the winter and seed early. A mild autumn can be a really productive period with such plants: I’ve particularly enjoyed having copious supplies of rocket this November. I wonder if, after many generations of self-sowing, rocket is becoming hardier in my garden? Last winter – by no means a mild one – was the first time a plant survived the whole winter through and managed to seed in the spring. It is the offspring of this plant that are growing so vigorously in the cool weather now.
I was also very pleased to see miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) self-seeding freely. It has been a bit frustrating watching this species thrive in unexpected places like the nearby university car park while taking a long time to really get established in my allotment. It is a really nice, mild salad crop, so I’m sure the wait will be worth it.
I particularly like getting biennial carrot family members established as self-seeding populations in the garden These are often quite difficult to grow each year from seed, having often short-lived seed with demanding stratification requirements and vulnerability to various diseases that are ingrained in our long-established allotment site. Saving seed, or allowing plants to self seed, is the only way to really guarantee fresh, viable seed. Parsnips, coriander, fennel, celery, angelica, alexanders and turnip-rooted chervil all self-seed this way. Of these, autumn is a particularly productive time for the celery and alexanders. I’m also getting there with Hamburg parsley, a variety of parsley that produces an edible root.
Seeds of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) can be put in a pepper grinder and used as a spice
Angelica (Angelica archangelica) showing a wonderful deep red at the base
Another pair of related plants providing both food and colour at this time of year are the pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) and chop suey greens or shungiku (Chrysanthemum coronarium). Both are producing cheerful yellow and orange flowers against the gloom, and the flower shoots of both can be used in stir fries. With the marigolds I use them flower bud and all, but the bud of the shungiku is very bitter so I remove it.
The wood mallow is also still going strong, providing edible leaves and flowers, and the little seed-heads known as ‘cheeses’. When you add in the kale, the leeks and the veritable treasury of root crops still to be dug up, winter may be coming but that is no cause for the forest gardener to worry.
It’s that time of year again, when every time I go down to the garden I come back with a pocket full of seeds. I’m going to take a slightly different approach this year to what I usually do. I normally wait until I have got all the year’s seeds in, then make up my trade list. The trouble with this is that by the time the last seeds are ready, the earliest ones have been in store for over six months and in some cases have already missed their ideal sowing time, so this year I am simply going to list seeds as I pick them.
One of my motivations for seed saving is that I find a lot of species, especially those in the carrot family, difficult to grow from bought seed. This applies not only to forest garden exotics but to well established crops like parsnips. I know I’m not the only one and I’m convinced that this is the reason why some crops like turnip-rooted chervil and Hamburg parsley aren’t more popular, despite how delicious they are. I’m hoping that this approach will help other people around that barrier.