April 3

Forest Gardening – How To Grow A Garden So Pretty You Could Eat It

Forest Fruits – The Easy Way To Get Free Food From An Urban Garden?

What Is Forest Gardening?

eastyondertonI first came across the idea of Forest Gardening a few years ago when I read this article about Lia Leendertz’s back garden.  The idea comes from agriculture, but not agriculture as we usually know it – vast, mono-cultured fields in neat rows divided by bare earth.  No, a forest garden is based on those diagrams of the rainforest I remember drawing back in S2 Geography. On one patch of earth you will find a canopy of tall, spreading plants, with shorter trees beneath them, and shrubs beneath those. Under the shrubs will be low-growers, and crawling up through them all will be the climbers.

640px-Forgard2-003Forest gardening aims to recreate that way of using a patch of soil but with every plant producing a crop of one kind or another – so the canopy might be fruit trees, the shrubs might be currant bushes, underplanted with herbs and perennial vegetables like rhubarb.  Under the herbs could be alpine strawberries keeping the ground covered densely enough that annual weeds can’t settle there.  And climbing up through them all would be beans, peas and squashes.

Gardner-vintage-image-Graphics-FairyTraditional gardening is about patrolling boundaries – the right plants in the right beds, bare earth for easy weeding between the plants, plants in neat rows so you can run a hoe quickly between them, insects and pernicious weeds sprayed firmly away… Forest gardening is about directing growth and otherwise letting plants do their thing naturally.  There is no digging (breaks down the soil structure), no weeding (your ground-cover plants deal with that), and no pesticides because the micro-system you create keeps itself in balance.  Uh-huh – and if you believe that….

An Accidental Forest Garden

Tartan Boy ClimbingI kind of do believe that, and here’s why – my ornamental garden in my old house accidentally became a forest garden. Not because I understood the theory but because I am really greedy. Every time I went near a garden centre I brought more plants home and had to squeeze them in under the existing shrubs and trees with which I had already (over) planted the garden.  I did weed a lot, because the ground cover plants didn’t so much catch my eye and I never planted them. Big mistake.  But I never removed pests because the birds and beneficial insects did that for me.  And I mulched it once a year and did no digging or fertilising or other feeding. It was a pleasure to be in – a slightly wild little clearing all to ourselves. So, yes, I think it might be possible to have a garden that more or less takes care of itself.  Maybe. Is it possible for it to also look presentable? Well, presentable is quite a subjective word…

Can I Turn An Urban Yard Into A Productive Forest Garden?

download (3)That garden is history and I am now working with this.  Not such a paradise, huh? Our new ‘garden’ consisted of a rectangular bed mulched with pebbles and surrounded by old cement paving slabs. In our first year we dug up the slabs that made up most of the ‘garden’, and the layer of shale below them, and the closely packed bricks below that. We used the bricks to edge beds and a tiny lawn, and the pebbles to make a path.  The shale we mostly dumped.  The soil beneath was dead so we added a lot of topsoil and compost. The two thirsty conifers we chopped down to make way for a path.

imagesI say ‘we’ like I am CEO of Tartan Horticultural Enterprises, with a team of diggers on board.  I actually mean me.  I did all the digging myself.  I hauled buckets of shale and smashed up big cement slabs. And then I ran out of enthusiasm… For two years. But I am back up to full steam again and ready to finish planting my garden.  I want the Tartan Weans to have somewhere fun to play without worrying about stepping on the plants. I want an outside space that looks lovely so we can enjoy sitting in it.  I want my neighbours to enjoy walking past it on their way in and out the building.  But I also want it to save us some money by growing produce. Is that too much to ask of a concrete box 7 by 3 metres?

Retro-Kids-Gardening-GraphicsFairy2Well, I think Forest Gardening could be the perfect solution for tiny urban gardens like mine, (grown by greedy, erratic, lazy gardeners like me).  Granted, it won’t provide the same high yields as if I filled it with raised beds and used them to grow neat rows of carrots and cabbages. But it might give me the kind of child-friendly, pretty garden I want with the additional benefit of some food we would otherwise have to pay for – without becoming a chore I resent. Watch this space…

Want to explore the idea yourself? Here are some good starting points.

Want something more hardcore than the Forest-Lite approach to urban gardens I am dabbling with? One couple’s journey from empty field to productive forest garden is described here. Or read about how one family turned their average urban backyard into a forest garden in a year here.

perennial vegI have no trouble understanding the idea of permanent plantings for fruit and herbs – an apple tree, some raspberry canes, rhubarb, sage and rosemary, and so on – but the idea of veg that doesn’t need to be sown each year is more unfamiliar to me. An introduction to Anni Kelsey’s perennial veg garden is available here or you can delve into Anni’s own blog about her garden at Anni’s VeggiesBackyard Larder has a good list of perennial vegetables to get you thinking. Or you could splash out on this book, as I am (unthriftily) considering doing…


HandNoticeVintage-GraphicsFairyClick here to download this week’s Thrifty Habits Planner.


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September 17

Make Thrifty Use Of Your Garden Trimmings: A Herbal Wreath For Christmas And Beyond

Herbs:  The Frugal Gardener’s Go-To Plants

Gardner-vintage-imageHerbs – as long as you don’t have to buy them – are one of the big players in thrifty cooking, adding flavour to cheap ingredients.  They are also big players in the garden – happy in average soil, content in containers on balcony or windowsill,  cheap to purchase as young plants, providing colour and shape year-round and bringing the garden alive with bees and butterflies.  They definitely satisfy my Tartan Thrifty Ground Rules.

IMG_2251Shrubby herbs (bay, rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender) require very little maintenance – a trim in spring and autumn keeps them in shape and provides lots of flavourful young leaf growth.  I have just trimmed mine and am left with huge bunches of bay, rosemary, sage and thyme – which are definitely NOT going on the compost heap!  I am going to dry them for use in the winter kitchen – and at the same time create a festive wreath to decorate in December.

How To Turn Your Garden Trimmings Into A Thrifty Herbal Wreath

IMG_2244To start you need a twiggy wreath base.  I have been using mine for years so consider this an investment buy.  Better still, if you have larger twig and branch trimmings from your garden make your own using this instructional from moderncountrystyle.

IMG_2253Take your first stem of rosemary and push the stalk into the base.  Push in a second about an inch along and bend it over the first to hold it in place.  Push in a third just past their meeting point and bend it over the second.  Keep going, weaving the stems together for a neat finish.  Don’t worry about making it perfect – a bit of imperfection adds to the charm.  When the circle is complete, use smaller stems to criss-cross over any unruly stems.

Next weave bay stems into the outside of the base.  I started with two stems crossing each other in opposite directions at the top.  (And cheated by tying them down at the back with a piece of string.)

IMG_2259Now, fill the centre of the wreath with sage.  I find this less easy to weave with as its stems are softer than the other two herbs.  I use shorter stems and simply poke them in randomly to fill the space. I finish off with little bunches of thyme pushed straight into the base.  Alternatively, you could bundle all your herbs into little bouquets garnis and tie these all over your wreath.  It depends how you like to use your herbs in the kitchen as much as on how your want it to look.  At this stage the wreath looks messy.  That’s fine because as it dries it will shrink inwards.

IMG_2261Finally tie a piece of string across the back of your wreath and hang it, face down, somewhere dark and dry.  I have mine above the boiler to speed the drying process.  Drying it upside down will avoid a droopy look to your finished wreath.

That’t it.  Come December you can take out your fragrant wreath and decorate it with ribbons, baubles – whatever takes your fancy.  And in January, ditch the decorations and hang up the wreath in your kitchen to keep you in dried herbs right through to the spring.  Not bad for garden waste!

June 12

Grow Something: Pea Shoots On The Kitchen Windowsill

IMG_9619It’s been a month since I introduced the Grow Something habit.  I decided to start with pea shoots.  A bag of supermaket pea shoots costs at least a pound.  A bag of  seed peas specially bred for shoots cost me just over two quid.  They contain enough peas to keep us in shoots for years.  And they claim to give fast results – first harvest in just 3 weeks.  (Actually, according to Vertical Veg, I didn’t even need to buy special seed peas –  cooking peas are fine.  When my special peas from the gardening centre finally run out, I will raid the kitchen cupboard.)

I’m going to level with you:  I wasn’t full of hope.  If pea shoots cost that much to buy,  I figured, surely it’s because they are tricky to grow?

IMG_9465Tiny Tartan did all the work.  We started by filling a seed tray with compost (any container a couple of inches deep will do).  Tiny Tartan sprinkled peas on the surface of the compost and then covered them with a second layer.  Then he watered them and put them on the not-very-sunny kitchen windowsill. In a matter of days he could see green shoots cautiously lifting the surface of the compost, then poking through, before gradually unfurling their first little seed leaves.  He took great pleasure in checking their progress and watering them every day.

IMG_9626After three weeks the shoots were 6 inches tall and ready to eat.  Tiny Tartan took a little bit of persuading at this point but eventually agreed to chop the tops off them if we left the rest behind for him to keep growing.  (Which is fine:  they will continue to produce tips for us to harvest for several more weeks.)

IMG_9625We cooked a batch of gnocchi and flaked some lemon and parsley smoked mackerel fillets from Aldi.  Then we tossed the gnocchi and fish with chives from the garden, butter and a generous handful of oatmeal before we added the pea shoots.IMG_9630  Boiled potatoes tossed with butter and oatmeal is a traditional Scottish accompaniment for fish.  Sounds odd, tastes awesome.   Try them with whole smoked mackerel and a green salad.  We were too impatient to wait for potatoes to boil, hence the gnocchi.   It was delicious.  Tiny Tartan  was very proud of himself for having grown the whole family’s dinner.

May 16

Grow Something – It Saves Money.  Doesn’t It?

When I was six months pregnant with Tartan Boy we moved house.  The next day Tartan Dad woke to find me and Tartan Bump carving out beds from the lawn with a trowel and hastily unpacked carving knife.  The nesting instinct takes us all in different ways, I told him.  Anyway, growing our own will save us money.  Won’t it?

fruit-straweberries-beetons-graphicsfairy005aBy the time we moved out I had a herb garden, salad beds, gooseberry bushes and currants of every hue.  I had a raspberry cage: not one berry ever escaped but  birds and squirrels regularly broke in.  I grew beans and beats, peas and potatoes.  Courgettes and rhubarb constantly battled to expand their territories.  We had a strawberry bed and an evil bramble plant (Bedford Giant:  the clue was in the name).  It required SAS intervention to remove it when we began to feel like we were living in The Sleeping Beauty but the fruit was nice and nearly as big as the thorns.

I loved my garden and regret not one moment that I spent in it and on it.  The money I spent on it is another matter entirely.

I am not convinced growing our own saved us much money. Some things didn’t grow: trial and error is an inevitable part of gardening.  That’s fine because learning was part of what I was paying for when I started gardening.  But if cheap food is your aim, onions grown by a farmer who knows his onions (sorry) are cheaper than taking three summers to work out why your garden is the wrong place to grow them.  And no matter how easily I grew carrots or main crop potatoes in my garden, they never worked out cheaper than the economy ones in the supermarket.

On the other hand, buying new potatoes was never as delicious as digging them up and eating them within the hour.  Ditto broad beans and sugar snap peas.  Tiny, sweet,perky courgettes straight off the bush are a different vegetable from the supermarkets’ fat, flaccid torpedoes.   Any vegetable whose sugars turn rapidly to starch as soon as they are picked is going to taste much better straight from your garden.  So home-grown can be better value, even if not cheaper, than shop-bought.  And when it comes to produce money could not buy you in the shops, home-grown is priceless.

Then there are the crops which remain cheaper to grow than to buy:  for the cost of one bag of prepared salad leaves, for example, I can grow a whole summer’s worth from seed. And there are other benefits to gardening.  Creating a nice outdoor space to relax in.  Giving your children the opportunity to learn about the natural world, to understand where food comes from. Exercising outdoors.  Feeling connected to the great cycle of life.  Attracting wildlife.  A creative outlet.  Something to do of an evening.  All of these things are worth paying for – but you need to be clear about how much they are worth to you.  And budget accordingly.

So here I am, 11 years on.  My big garden has been replaced by a tiny urban garden and a balcony.  My convenient bump has been replaced by two busy boys.  I no longer have the time or the space or the money for extravagant gardening experiments:  everything I grow has to bring us pleasure or save us money.  And in spite of all the money I wasted (?) on my last garden, I do believe it is possible to Grow Something and save money.   This time, though, I will be sticking to my own Ground Rules to get the best return for my money and time.  What will you be growing this year? The Tartan Thrifty Ground Rules