Forest Gardening: Establishing the Ground Layer


The forest garden at the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon UKWorking our way down from the top storey, the final two layers of a forest garden are the herbaceous perennial layer and the root zone, the rhizosphere, plus the climbers.  

I do not plant many roots mainly because I do not want to dig up much of my forest garden. I prefer it to be a semi wild zone that I wander through and harvest at above ground level. Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust suggests you can grow useful roots like liquorice (Glycyrrhiza spp) and the barberries (Berberis spp) whose roots provide a good dye and medicinal products. The tincture of the latter can be used as a powerful cleansing tonic. I grow horseradish, a feisty root enjoyed in a creamy sauce with roast beef and in Japanese cookery.  

Herbaceous Perennials

Perhaps the herbaceous perennials are easier to identify and plant. The most popular are herbs that provide ground cover layer by self-seeding or spreading. These may include comfreys (Symphytum spp), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), mints (Mentha spp), sage (Salvia officinalis), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). I personally wouldn’t plant Tansy in my garden. It self seeds madly all over my garden and unlike lemon balm I can’t pick the leaves as a herbal tea. The others spread nicely and crowd out potential weeds.  

The comfreys are a different matter. I plant them beneath the fruit trees. They form a circle around the trunks and outgrow any weeds. Their powerful roots are dynamic accumulators, drawing valuable minerals up from the subsoil. When they flower I cut them down with a hand scythe. The leaves fertilise the trees, very useful when the fruits are setting. Comfrey is the best living mulch I know. I also find it useful as a natural barrier between the veggie patch and the wildflower meadow, preventing flowers and grasses from seeding too much into the wood chip paths. 

Other ground cover plants that can be used are any medicinal or useful plants that grow well in your soil. My garden loves pink purslane, a pretty little herb that has an edible leaf that has an earthy taste of peas. The Romans brought it to Britain but most people have forgotten that it is a useful edible. It also does well in shady spots. Other plants popular amongst permaculturists are the carpeting brambles (e.g. Rubus calycinoides and R. tricolor). I have tried to establish these on my calcareous soil, but the glossy leaves and vigorous bushes I might find in other soil types have so far struggled. The fruits are not that tasty either, but they do look good. Rubus calycinoides 

Perennial Kales 

What has worked for me are the perennial kales. I was given a few cuttings from friends in Wales. All you have to do is simply root them in a pot of soil and plant out when established. They love to grow! They make a tasty green when all else is bitten by frost. Be warned though pigeons love them and will strip them bare, though so far they have always recovered. There are many variations of the perennial kale theme. I have just acquired an asparagus kale from Rod Everett at the Middlewood Trust near the Lake District. It grows prolifically and self seeds very successfully on Rod’s clay soil. I hope it will like our drier conditions.  

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