Growing Money On Trees, Or How I Turned A Concrete Jungle Into A Tiny Urban Forest Garden: Part 1
Free Food From My Garden: Start At The Top And Work Down
I blogged recently about my plan to get free food from our tiny urban front garden using forest gardening principles to create a pretty and productive garden. When we started turning our concrete jungle into a garden three years ago, my first priority was to create a layout that maximised the space. I wanted a lawn, a herb garden, some fruit and veg beds, a children’s play area, maybe a shed… in a tiny space. Oh, and kerb appeal. And privacy.
I knew careful planning was required so I carefully planned it on paper. And as a result, the garden now feels… two dimensional. A flat space, with no shelter from the sun on hot days. It needs vertical features to increase the sense of space; it needs vertical features to provide the canopy layer that will provide tree fruit, attract birds, give us shade, and provide variation in light level to support lower growing plants, as well as giving support for climbing plants.
So I plant lots of trees, right? Easy!
Not so much. The garden wall is only 3 metres from the flat – I don’t want to plant trees close enough for their roots to damage the building, or plant so many that they block out all sunlight from the plants below. Or from our windows, come to that. So my trees need to go along the garden wall, with enough distance between them to let some light through once they fill out. Realistically, that means two tree. Hardly a forest. Clearly I need other ways of growing up.
Forest Gardening Without A Forest
Vertical Garden Structures
I decided to copy Lia Leendertz, who treats vertical structures in her urban forest garden as tree substitutes. I put in vertical supports in the form of two arches and a couple of obelisks, and will exploit the structures that are already there by training plants on the walls of the building and up the rails of the balcony. This means screwing vine eyes into the walls – I was a little apprehensive about this as I have never drilled into masonry before but apparently it just involves screwing directly into the mortar between the bricks. Tartan Towers will probably still be standing when I am finished…
Buying Fruit Trees
I have now added three trees. (Not two – no self-control!). I want small trees that will give a little privacy, provide fruit for us to use, and also attract birds into the garden by providing them with food and perching space. My original plan was to use fruit trees like plums and apples. But we reckon the pleasure of watching the birds is as important to us as getting food for ourselves. So I chose a rowan and a red-flowered hawthorn to give us berries for jelly and pretty flowers and to attract wildlife, and a naturally dwarf crab apple ‘Laura’ that sits in a tricky corner and will not grow too wide or overly tall. It is already producing pretty pink blossom and will hopefully produce lovely mauve-skinned crab apples. Why sour crab apples instead of a proper eating apple? I reckoned one apple tree would not come close to providing the amount of apples we get through. But a single crab apple tree will keep us in herb, hedgerow, elderberry, sloe and bramble jellies because of the apple’s pectin content. I am still wondering if I could fit in one more eating fruit tree though… As I said, no self-control.
I bought my trees from Mail Order Trees They have a wide range, and in particular a range of trees with short height and narrow spread – very important in my tiny garden. Plants were lifted straight from the ground and dispatched immediately which meant they were much cheaper than pot-grown trees from my nearest garden centre. The trees arrived quickly, packed in impressively sturdy boxes and in excellent condition.
Adding Vertical Structures On The Cheap
I was more thrifty with my arches, getting them for £9.99 in Aldi. That’s significantly cheaper than adding height with another tree, but less thrifty than re-purposing old wood to make my own. In such a small space, though, a visually delicate structure will feel less cluttered. I also bought obelisks – and these, I admit, were a mistake. They came from Aldi so were cheap, and look perfectly nice but there are tall hazel suckers coming up from my corkscrew hazels and I could have cut these out and made simple plant supports with them. Frugal fail.
Laying The Groundwork For Free Food
Getting the soil right is essential if my little spot of earth is to support layers of productive growth above it. And my soil isn’t right yet. Bags and bags of topsoil and the painstaking removal of bricks and shale have done a lot to improve it but it still needs a lot of organic matter. I am currently paying for compost and pelleted chicken manure. At the same time, weekly, we throw out straw and droppings from our guinea pigs’ hutch, not to mention all our vegetable peelings. So we have bought a small worm bin from Argos to make our own compost with this waste. Initially this is a big outlay but should, in a few years, pay for itself in improved yields.
So now my “canopy” is in place. It’s time to turn my attention to choosing shrubs to underplant it with.
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