Cornwall brings both challenges and opportunities when creating a garden. As a result some of the UK’s most inspiring and adventurous gardens can be found here, often in the most unlikely situations such as on the cliffs at the Minnack Theatre at Porthcurno and on St Michael’s Mount off Marazion.
View of the forest garden in 2010
But most surprisingly of all perhaps is to find an edible forest garden planted on reclaimed sand dunes. I have had a passionate interest in edible forest gardens for some years now having created my first in a small back garden in Buckinghamshire whilst studying horticulture at Hughenden Manor. Now on our small farm in an exposed part of Cornwall I am in the throes of planting another. It is always good to compare strategies with other people in similarly challenging conditions, so I was fascinated to learn that Raymond Yarwood has achieved the seemingly impossible and created a forest garden on reclaimed sand dunes at his home in Phillack. An area described in the official Soil Survey, as ‘Land with extremely severe limitations that cannot be rectified’. So it was with great excitement and a certain degree of disbelief that I visited Raymond and his wife Sylvia to witness this miracle for myself.
I met Raymond outside his cottage and he took me on a quick tour of his garden straight away. At first glance I was unaware of the sand beneath our feet. It looked like any other forest garden. Only when he pointed out some newly planted shrubs did I notice the piles of recently dug sand beside them.
The site before it became a forest garden
What is an edible forest garden?
For anyone who is not familiar with the concept of edible forest gardens, these can be spaces of any size that have one thing in common. They are planted in layers with plants that have some part of them that is either edible or contributes to the welfare of the garden. There is a canopy layer – usually sparsely planted to maximise on light, with an under-storey of shorter trees and shrubs, followed by a ground cover layer and a number of plants falling between these categories such as climbers.
The advantages of this way of gardening are many: a symbiotic relationship between plants, high productivity, low maintenance (once established), attractive to beneficial insects and other wildlife and last but not least, tolerant of climate change. If this wasn’t reason enough to create your own forest garden, it is also a beautiful, nurturing environment in which to spend time and easily adapted to accommodate individual requirements, such as medicinal herbs.
The garden on the dunes
Having toured the four levels of the garden we then went inside so Raymond could show me his presentation on the creation of this unique garden. A tale he has told many times, to many groups, all of which I am sure, marvelled, just as I did, at what has been achieved here.
How it was done
The project started in 1982 when Raymond became increasingly aware of the dangers of relying on the by-products of the oil industry (fertilisers and agro-machinery dependent on diesel) to produce our food. Not only were oil prices escalating, but the legacy of industrialised agriculture was depleting the soil and poisoning our water supplies. So he looked to permaculture and the organic movement for answers before reading Robert Hart’s ground-breaking book Forest Gardening.
Initially Raymond used washed-up seaweed to provide fertility and compost, transported via a converted golf trolley. But it soon became apparent the seaweed had become contaminated with oil, probably from ships washing out their tanks at sea. So an alternative had to be found and he turned to Mel Bartholomew’s book, Square foot gardening for inspiration. As a result he now relies on home produced compost, aided by a couple of hens and a few additional ingenious solutions.
Sea Buckthorn in fruit
The first is a basic principle of forest gardening, ie the intermixing of trees and shrubs that are nitrogen fixers and provide fertility to nearby plants.
The second, more recent development, is the addition of mycorrhisal fungi to the roots of plants when putting them into the ground. These seek out nutrients and water providing the plant with just what it needs when it needs it and can be obtained from garden centres and nurseries as Rootgrow. A perfect example of symbiosis.
The other way to improve your chances of success in such a challenging environment is to choose plants that are naturally adapted to these conditions such as Prunus maritima – Beach Plum and the rare Pinus torreyana – Torrey Pine.
Windbreaks are an important feature of any coastal garden and these are a mix of pines and tall shrubs, Eleagnus ebbingei and Hippophae rhamnoides – Sea Buckthorn. Both the latter have the added advantage of being nitrogen-fixing.
This garden holds many surprises. In addition to coastal plants, there is also an assortment of fruit trees, nut trees and productive shrubs – thanks to the nitrogen fixers, mycorrhissal fungi and home produced compost. As if this wasn’t surprising enough, tucked away there are some more exotic specimens such as Fejoia sellowiana – Pineapple Guava, Eriobotrya japonica – Japanese Loquats and Zanthosylum simulans – Szechuan Pepper bush.
Forest gardens provide more than just fruit and nut crops.
The exposed top level has an abundance of mediterranean herbs
On the top most exposed level of the garden, a selection of herbs is thriving despite their challenging sandy situation. On a lower level, growing as a ground cover between a mix of apricot, pear, plum and apple trees are plants such as Smyrium olusatrum – Alexanders. Perfectly suited to a coastal location the spring stems can be cut and boiled for 6-8 minutes then served with butter and black pepper and are, I’m assured, often compared to asparagus.
30 different salad leaves picked at the winter solstice
Convinced by the nutritional benefits of green leafy vegetables, a twice-daily salad is an important feature of their lives and Raymond proudly showed me a photograph of 30 different perennial salad leaves that he picked at the winter solstice in 2011. An excellent source of minerals, they also provide ALA a precursor of DHA and EPA, constituents of the essential fatty acid Omega 3. Purslane is a particularly rich source. There is some evidence that ALA may be converted into DHA and EPA in some vegetarians and vegans.
Minerals from salt water
Being widely read on all features of forest gardening, Raymond was very aware of the depletion of minerals in our soil that has been so overworked since the introduction of industrialised farming following the Second World War. The solution, literally, was a short walk away – seawater. This holds a complete profile of the requisite 90 minerals and when diluted appropriately, very beneficial both for the plants and the creatures that consume them – which of course includes us. Raymond creates his own solution using Himalayan pink salt.
Before going outside for a more detailed tour of his garden, I was treated to a tasting some of their excellent preserves from various combinations of fruits such as the rosehips of Rosa rugosa, apples, berries of Sea buckthorn etc.
The large rose hips from Rosa rugosa
I came away wondering what other things, popularly dismissed as impossible, if approached with a combination of knowledge and ingenuity, might be overcome.
So now armed with lots of additional ideas for my own young forest garden, I am now convinced, if Raymond’s garden can flourish on sand dunes exposed to the rigours of Atlantic winds, then there is no excuse in our exposed location, up beyond Black Rock.
There is something about Cornwall that seems to attract, free thinking, inspirational people and Raymond and Sylvia are yet another example of people achieving extraordinary things.
For more information do visit Raymond’s website www.towansforestgarden.co.uk and try and catch one of his talks where you too may be treated to a taste of a forest garden.
Salad with edible flowers and rose petals from Rosa rugosa
A daily supply of fresh leaves for salads throughout the year
Sea Buckthorn berries used in combination with apples or grapes to make fruit juices and fruit leathers
Sea Buckthorn berry jam
Martin Crawford, Creating a Forest Garden pub Green Books
Martin Crawford, How to Grow Perennial Vegetables, Green Books
Robert A de J Hart, Forest Gardening, Green Earth Books
Alys Fowler, The Edible Garden, BBC Books
Mark Diacono, A Taste of the Unexpected, Quadrille Publishing Ltd
Mel Bartholomew, All New Square Food Gardening, Cool Springs Press
Maynard Murray, MD, Sea Energy Agriculture, Acres USA
Charles Walters, Fertility from the Ocean Deep, Acres USA