My top 30 forest garden plants

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

Kale (Brassica oleracea)
With year-round leaves and delicious, nutritious flower shoots in spring, kale is one of my most reliable pot herbs. Both biennial and perennial varieties are available.
Daubenton’s kale – growing and cooking
Perennial kale breeding

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.

Perennial leeks (Allium porrum)
Complementing annual leeks nicely, perennial leeks can be bred quite easily from traditional annual varieties or grown from bulbils produced by cultivars such as Babington leek.
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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
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Giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia)
Giant bellflower provides leaves, shoots and roots and has the advantage of being more shade tolerant than most bellflowers.

Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
A mild-tasting salad leaf, miner’s lettuce needs some ground disturbance to keep seeding itself. Once established, it will pop up wherever there is a gap.
Claytonias – miner’s lettuce, wood purslanes and spring beauties

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.

Daylily (Hemerocallis)
An easy-to-grow, attractive perennial that likes a sunny spot and produces edible flowers.
Eating daylilies (Hemerocallis)

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

To source any of these, see My seeds or Other suppliers.

Forest garden seeds 2018

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.

My seeds are listed on the Forest Garden Seeds page.

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Parsnip flowers

Leaf sauce

One of the challenges of cooking from the forest garden is using the large amount of leaves, some bland, some quite strongly flavoured, that it produces. Over the years I’ve experimented with various ways of cooking with them, always with the rule that the result must be actively attractive to eat, not merely a way of using up a glut. One of the best is one of the simplest, cooking them together as pot herbs, but I now have a new favourite, leaf sauce!

In short, leaf sauce is a mix of leaves and shoots: steamed, blended and seasoned. Its strength is the opportunity that it gives to blend together lots of different flavours into something very rich and complex. So far the two killer apps I have found for it are pasta and curry, but I’m sure creative chefs could find many more.

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The recipe… well, there is no exact recipe. The keys to making it are flexibility and diversity. It can be made at almost any time of year with whatever is at hand and available in the garden. The leaf sauce year begins in February or, in a cold year, March, with the emergence of the wild garlic and other leafy alliums and the start back into growth (in a mild year it hardly stops) of kale, sea beet and leaf celery. Not far behind these are two members of the dock family, herb patience and monk’s rhubarb.

Soon various spring shoots are starting to come up. Lovage, sweet cicely, alexanders, hogweed and ground elder are all excellent used this way. They are all strong-flavoured members of the carrot family that are somewhat milder when the new leaves are just emerging in spring and summer. Hogweed requires a little care in harvesting. Udo and its relatives are similar, and some members of the daisy family also produce tender leaves in spring, notably salsify and scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica). Young hosta shoots are better used as vegetables but once they unfurl into leaves they can be used in the sauce. Nettles are good to use any time between their emergence and when they start to flower.

The trees also get in on the act. Lime trees in general and small-leaved lime in particular have succulent spring leaves. I’m also trialling toon (Toona sinensis), said to have edible leaves and shoots tasting of onions! Elm leaves aren’t edible, but their seeds are and they are produced in incredible abundance. Climbing up the trees you might find Hablitzia tamnoides, Caucasian climbing spinach.

As we get into summer, the annuals come into play, with more familiar crops such as spinach and mustard. Some crops better known for other parts also have usable leaves, including beetroot, broad beans, peas and radishes, and I’m not even going to try to list all the herbs that can be included.

In autumn, some of the plants that ran to seed and became unpalatable in summer have a second flush of fresh growth, including celery, herb patience and sweet cicely. Nasturtium also starts serious production around this time.

Even in winter there are still abundant ingredients for this dish. The pictures below are from a leaf sauce curry I made in November, with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, apples, broad beans and a vast array of roots, with a sauce from leeks, kale, celery, walking onions, sweet cicely, wasabi (leaves), common mallow and leaf beet.

Recipe (sort of)

  1. Pick a lot of leaves and shoots. They will boil down a lot and leftover sauce is ideal for freezing, so it’s difficult to pick too many. I usually aim for a carrier bag full. Go for a good mix of types for depth of flavour, with a balance of bland and strongly flavoured ones. This is a bit trial and error and you will find out what you like best over time. For curries I usually go for a greater proportion of strongly flavoured ones and for pasta I add more Mediterranean herbs such as oregano.
  2. Wash and drain and coarsely chop the leaves.
  3. Chop and fry an onion. Once the onion goes clear, add garlic and any chopped or ground (not powdered) spices herbs that you like.
  4. Fry a few minutes more. Add powdered spices, stir and fry very briefly. Throw in the leaves and add a little water so that the bottom of the pan is just covered with water. Sprinkle a little salt over the top if desired and put the lid on.
  5. Steam the leaves for 15-20 min, topping up the water if the bottom of the pan ever looks like drying out.
  6. Remove from the heat and liquidise the leaves. I use a small hand-held blender for this.
  7. Now stir in any other flavourings you like, be it stock powder, curry paste, soy sauce, olive oil or whatever. When making curry I tend to get very eclectic as practically any flavour, if used at a level just below where you start to taste it individually, will add to the depth of flavour.

When it comes to combining the sauce with the rest of a dish, such as the chunky ingredients in a curry, I tend to cook them separately and combine them near the end as finished leaf sauce is thick enough to burn very easily on the hob if not stirred regularly. If you want to cook them together for longer it’s better to water it down a bit to avoid sticking.

 

Off foraging, back soon

Work (and blogging) in the forest garden has had to take a back seat for a while as I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of fruit and fungi to be picked out and about. There’s a close relationship between foraging and forest gardening in any case: a lot of the plants I grow in my allotment are ones that I could forage from the wild, given an infinite time and travel budget. Off the top of my head, the native wild plants growing in my forest garden include hogweed, sweet cicely, wild garlic, dittander, garlic mustard, sea beet, Scots lovage, buck’s horn plantain, common and musk mallows, Babington’s leek, Good King Henry, pignut, wild strawberry, various sorrels and wood violet. Oh yes, and raspberries, currants and small-leaved lime. A meal containing all of these would involve a week-long expedition taking in woods, heaths and coast – or five minutes in my allotment.

With every wild plant I have to weigh up whether or not it is worth giving it a place in the forest garden. Pluses are given for plants that I like and that are particularly productive. Minuses are for being too ‘spready’ or too big or for attacking me when I’m minding my own business, as with nettle. There is also the question of whether I have ready access to the plant on my foraging rounds. All these considerations are fairly individual, so the decision will be different for each person. I’m very much given to changing my mind: the latest one that I’m reconsidering is nettle, after talking to Fi Martynoga of the Scottish Wild Harvests Association, who was serving up out-of-season nettle brose at Wooplaw Community Woodland‘s 25th-anniversary bash. Fi has a patch of nettles is her garden that she cuts down several times a year to keep a steady supply of fresh new growth.

One species I’m still definitely leaving for wild foraging is the bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.), a thorny, rumbustious plant that loves to romp around an area, pining dreadfully if it is restricted. I once saw some speeded-up footage of bramble growth on a David Attenborough programme. The briars thrashed around like groping hands; then, finding a purchase with their thorns, they surged forward. Take a look on YouTube and you’ll see why I don’t want them in my garden! We’ve just had the first flush of blackberries in Aberdeen. They are always the nicest so we’ve frozen what we didn’t eat and will make jam with a later batch.

cherry plum

Another fruit I have been picking, literally by the bucketload, is Prunus cerasifera, the cherry plum or myrobalan/mirabelle. I’ve raved about cherry plum before but well, I’m going to do it again. It is a mystery to me how neglected mirabelles are, seeing as how they produce curtains of tasty, juicy fruit and never suffer any disease problems that I have seen. True, any given cherry plum tree can produce fruits that are small, tasteless, sparse, unreliable, perishable or quick to fall from the tree, but equally I have found trees that carry fruit that is large, tasty and lasting, ones which crop reliably and ones which don’t drop their fruit at the first breath of wind. I’m sure it can’t be beyond the efforts of plant breeders to combine all these characteristics in one tree. Indeed there are some named varieties of P. cerasifera, available in the UK from Orange Pippin Trees. Has anyone out there had any experience with any of them?

There is an impromptu breeding experiment going on on a bank near my house, where there are perhaps a hundred cherry plum trees, probably planted with their blossom in mind more than their fruit. Their qualities vary wildly but some are very good indeed. I discovered one this year that has incredibly sweet fruits, even when still partly green. It is yielding so heavily that I picked a bucketful in less than half an hour. Right next to it is a purple variety that has proven itself to be an excellent keeper. I have been growing on seeds from the best varieties that I have picked for a few years now, so if anyone has a field that they aren’t using and would like to do a cherry plum trial orchard, I’m waiting to hear from you.

To add to the plum orgy clearly going on in these parts, cherry plums have evidently been crossing with my Japanese plum tree, Prunus salicina. I’ve been growing on seeds from it and some of them obviously have a variety of cerasifera called Atropurpurea as their pollen parent. Atropurpurea has been bred for deep purple bark and fruit and pink flowers and is unmistakeable. It is a rubbish fruiter unfortunately, but it suggests that other cherry plums will have crossed with the Japanese one too. Since the domestic plum arose as a cross between P. cerasifera and P. spinosa, the native sloe, who knows what will result?

Japanese plums ripening on a window sill

Big Tent

No time for a post about the forest garden this week, but if you’re in Scotland you can come and meet some of the plants for yourself this weekend. They’ll be at the Big Tent festival in Fife, where I’ve put together a display on forest gardening for Reforesting Scotland. Margaret Lear of Plants With Purpose has loaned us some plants and I’ll be bringing a few down myself to make a mock-up of a forest garden (although folk might have to use their imagination a bit on the size of the trees). See you there!

Botanical outing

Last weekend I went down to the local Botanical Gardens and took the opportunity to check the progress of a few species that I’ve been wondering about for the forest garden.

The first was Decaisnea fargesii, also known as blue bean or, a bit more creatively, as blue sausage fruit. It’s a large shrub, maybe 4m or so, so just the right size for an allotment-scale forest garden, and better still it likes light shade. The eponymous sausage fruits are a stunning, almost metallic blue and are filled with a sweet, delicately-flavoured pulp, surrounding an inconvenient number of seeds. The ones in the Botanics looked and felt soft and ripe, so I’d say it’s a promising species for growing up here.

Next up was Sorbus torminalis, the wild service tree. There was a good crop of fruit, but they were much smaller than they are meant to be and rock hard. This is a fruit that is meant to be ‘bletted’ (i.e. stored over winter until they are almost rotting) and to be better after a frost, but these were so unripe that I seriously doubt that they will ever be worth it.

Two other Sorbus species were a different matter. The Sorbus lanata was covered in soft, ripe fruit a centimetre or so in diameter. They were mild-flavoured, sweet and with the pleasant mealy texture that sorbuses have when they aren’t rock hard. Like S torminalis, they are meant to be better after a frost, which I will probably be able to check any day now.

The other was Sorbus wilmottiana or Wilmott’s whitebeam. Sorbus species have the unusual ability to produce seed that is a clone of its parent, which has led to a lot of unusual clonal species scattered around the British Isles. Where a microspecies like this arises it is usually reabsorbed back into the parent species in a generation by interbreeding, but with Sorbus‘ unusual reproductive skills it can hang on indefinitely.

S wilmottiana is one of these rare species, from the Avon Gorge near Bristol. It’s too rare to start feasting on, but its soft, well-sized fruits left me wondering about the possibility of grafting a twig onto a native rowan.

If you have a botanical garden near you, they are a great way to check out what grows well in your area. They may have a good number of the species that you are interested in, all carefully labelled. I’m not encouraging you to go and start eating all their fruit – remember that one of the ways they may raise funds to keep going is by selling seeds – but it might be worth asking them about it. The people who run botanical gardens are, by definition, planty people who might well be interested in what you are doing. Our local one, the Cruickshank Botanical Gardens, has a ‘Friends of” group which allows you to get seed from the gardens every year – I have a small crop of blue sausages coming up from seed I got last year. If nothing else, you can collect that most valuable resource, information. As well as this year’s researches, I know from the Cruickshank that Amelanchier species are delicious, that medlar isn’t worth bothering with, that Camassia leichtlinii thrives in Aberdeen and much more.

Introduction

Ten years ago, I started experimenting with forest garden techniques in my allotment. It’s been a long process. Along the way I’ve discovered a few things not mentioned in the breezier forest garden books, like that most of the UK research has been done in the South West of England and doesn’t necessarily translate to the North East of Scotland, or that a lot of the species described as ‘edible’ are edible only in the technical sense of ‘you can swallow them and not die (quickly)’, or that many of the species extolled will take years of detective work to track down and acquire.

However, I have finally arrived at something that I’m willing to claim as a forest garden: an edible ecosystem to delight the eye, mouth, stomach and heart. An arrangement of useful plants, each in the ecological niche that it likes best – niches created in many cases by the other plants.

I have also realised that I have managed to extend the art in a few small ways. One is by testing what works well in Aberdeen. The situation these days is much better than when I started reading about forest gardens, when practically all the examples were from Australia, but there is still an ongoing need to develop experience in all parts of the country. This is my point in that dataset.

I also think that my forest garden is unusual in its allotment scale. Most forest gardens I have seen or read about have at least a field to play with. I have had to squeeze things in. I’m jealous of course, but I also think that many more people have an allotment or small garden than have a field, so I hope the experience will be useful to others.

My forest garden isn’t finished yet – I don’t think I’m even half way. But I have been asked to share what I have learned and a blog seems perfectly adapted to recording such a messy, ongoing, experimental, evolving process. So here goes…