Making The Most Of My Frugal “Forest Floor”
I have reached the end of planting my little forest garden – the canopy and shrub layers are in and its time to make the ground multi-task for me by squeezing in low-growing plants beneath them and sending climbers up through them.
A climber clinging to the wall of your home could become the biggest plant in the garden. So I want mine to deliver in looks as well as taste. Runner beans and climbing french beans have flowers not unlike a sweet pea (not terribly surprisingly) and I have hedged my bets by planting Cosse Violette and regular red-flowered runner beans for a nice mix of flower colours. I have done the same with peas, mixing regular white-flowered sugar snaps with port-purple Shiraz mange tout.
The beans will grow over one of my two arches. Over the second arch I am growing a decorative bramble. What I actually want is a grape vine. This is because what I really want is to live in a little cottage somewhere mediterranean. Facing up to the fact that I live in a cool and rainy city I gave up on the grapes. A vine would certainly grow here, and produce lovely leaves. I am not convinced it would produce sweet fruit that we can eat raw. And cooked grapes don’t float my boat. So instead I planted an Oregon Thornless blackberry. This also produces pretty leaves not entirely unlike a grape vine in shape, which turn a lovely colour in autumn. If I screw my eyes up till everything goes blurry I might be able to imagine that the purple fruits hanging from the arch are grapes. I may even try making a traditional bramble wine with them! And we will be able to eat them raw – sweet but with a hint of mouth-puckering sourness. The taste of my childhood autumns.
Having been sensible about grapes I have thrown caution to the wind, rain and short Scottish summers and purchased a mini kiwi fruit vine that will grow grape-sized, smooth-skinned little kiwi fruit. (Possibly.) This is partly because we like proper fuzzy kiwi fruit and there is no way I would manage to grow them here and partly because I am just intrigued to find out if they taste good.
I am treating it like a clematis, planted in the shade at the back of my herbs with the balcony rails to twine up and over-run in time. In my head it is going to be just like the terrace of my imaginary mediterranean cottage, twined with white grapes. At present it has three tiny little green marbles clinging gamely to its skinny branches so I am hopeful of at least a couple of fruit this year.
My newly-planted trees I took pity on – I will give them a couple of years to settle in before I use them to host climbing and twining plants. Seems only fair.
I have my doubts about how much money growing your own vegetables can save you but no such doubts about herbs. There is no thrifty foodstuff so humble that herbs can’t make it taste fabulous. It’s a waste of money, if you have any bare earth at all, not to grow herbs. We had all the regulars – bay, rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, chives – already. (Yes, some of those are shrubs – I don’t quite get how this bit of forest gardening works…) This year I have added coriander in the balcony baskets, tarragon in a pot and lovage. By next year we are also hoping to have Sweet Cicely, a pretty, ferny-leaved little plant with mild aniseed-flavoured leaves that is excellent with gooseberries and rhubarb or chopped into egg dishes, and which self-seeds in shady corners. What I have right now is Sweet Cicely seeds. I have sprinkled them around to see where the little plants grow most happily but they will need a winter in the ground to stimulate them into growth next spring.
Lovage is a herb I cannot recommend strongly enough. It grows to about a metre tall and is content in less sunny areas than the mediterranean herbs. Mine is tucked in behind the rhubarb. It looks a bit like a giant celery and has a lovely lemony-celery-curry-something-else-I-can’t-put-a-finger-on flavour. It makes cheap ingredients taste amazing and requires no maintenance at all. You don’t get much from it in its first year but from the following year on it is your dependable garden friend, always there when you need help in the thrifty kitchen.
Other Herbaceous Plants
Strawberries: they taste delicious, are just the right size to pop into a lunch box as a treat, are easy to grow and they make lots of little baby plants for free. How thrifty is that? But I know from experience that, without netting, they will all be eaten by birds. And by the slugs and snails which regard my garden as their fridge. As a compromise I have planted trailing strawberries with bright pink flowers in the sides of my balcony baskets. I am hoping they will be inaccessible to the snails and too close to the humans for the birds. I suspect I might be kidding myself on both counts… I have gone for tiny plug plants because they are cheaper and easier to insert into the sides of a coir growing basket. By the end of the summer, hopefully, they will have bushed out.
I already had a rhubarb plant. It was not happy where it was so I have moved it. This makes it difficult for me to persuade you that rhubarb is the world’s easiest plant to grow and will produce tasty stems pretty much anywhere you plant it. All I can say is that other people seem to be able to grow rhubarb pretty much anywhere they plant it… The moral of that story is make sure it gets a little light but don’t waste a prime position on it. And avoid the kind of stony soil I planted mine in originally. I have stuck it towards the back of a bed so it can provide a lush, dramatic background to other plants. If it grows this time.
Annual plants – like salad leaves, courgettes, tomatoes, etc – are the mainstay of a traditional kitchen garden but annuals grow less happily in a forest garden. They need space and sunshine and forest gardening limits both for low-growing plants. So as a compromise I planted trailing cherry tomatoes and peppers, salad leaves, annual herbs and baby carrots in my balcony baskets and containers. Then I went nuts and planted annuals in among my newly planted shrubs anyway by sprinkling a mixture of seeds. Here’s my excuse: the seeds together came to only a few pounds. If I get enough to make five salads out of all that I will at least have covered my costs. And they will cover the ground to keep weeds in check while I wait for the perennial plants to spread out.
Alpine strawberries. You start with just one, cheap plant – and then lots of little plants appear on wiry little runners around it. The next year they grow their own runners. Within three years they are everywhere. Their little leaves stop stray weed seeds finding their way to the earth beneath. Their pretty little white and yellow flowers brighten even the dullest corners of the garden all summer long. And each plant produces handfuls of tiny, sherbety fruits. If fairies grew strawberries, this is what they would grow.
The thrifty trick is to buy just a few plants, make a little hole in the ground, and pop a plant in its pot into the hole. It will draw moisture from the soil so you can ignore it unless you have a drought. By the end of the summer it will have put out little runners in the soil around it. Next spring, snip the stems attaching it to the runners, lift it and replant it elsewhere in the garden. You can’t keep this up indefinitely but each potted plant should manage a couple of summers before it needs to be removed from its pot and planted properly. Thriftier still is to beg some stray runners from a gardener who already has them.
I am ahead of the game with alpine strawberries, having stuck in a couple two years ago. They are the only officially ground-covering plant I plan to grow in the hope that they will draw all the other bits of planting together and unify the look of the garden. That’s just a cover story: they are the only ground-cover plant I plan to grow because we love eating their dinky fruit. Simple as.
So am I living in a lush forest festooned with frugal fruit and veg? Not yet but I have moderately high hopes for next year. As for this year… I have a garden that looks nice, that came in (just) within the budget I had set for a decorative garden, but with the distinct potential to give us a steady drip feed of food to supplement our grocery budget. That’s good enough for me.
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