• Kay

International Forest Garden Symposium


Today was a very early start in order for me to fit in my various chores before the symposium started at 9am. The weather was beautiful and I could tell it would be hot later, so I spent ages watering. I have to pay special attention to the seedling trays at the moment because they dry out quickly in the heat. It is a very strange situation for me to be sat inside watching a computer all day, especially when the weather is good. In fact, it feels very odd being inside during the day, full-stop!

However, Patrick, James and Aideen were outside early to work on the box hedge. Patrick and Aideen are cutting and James is spraying with XenTari to protect against the Box Tree Moth caterpillar. By the end of the day they have finished the main hedge, which looks amazing, but they were all sunburnt!

Meanwhile, I was sat inside trying to negotiate an online symposium. As can be imagined, I had to call Aideen in several times to help her tech-phobic mother! James teased me about going back to school, saying “Do you have your book bag and new pencil case ready?”! Despite all of the teasing, I remained glued to the computer screen until after 5pm and it is hard to describe how I feel.

Robert Hart coined the term ‘forest garden’ when he invented this new way of gardening. An edible forest garden is like natural woodland with three layers of vegetation; trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. These layers can provide fruit, nuts, soft fruit, perennial vegetables and herbs. The forest garden is extremely diverse, with almost all plants carefully chosen to meet human needs and the remainder to support the food plants. “It is an attempt to create (to quote Robert Hart) a model life-support systems, which would enable a family or small community to achieve a considerable degree of self-sufficiency in basic necessities throughout the year, while enjoying health-giving exercise in a beautiful, unpolluted and stimulating environment”.

I found today completely absorbing and I felt privileged to be attending such an event. It is a five day symposium comprising of multiple presentations, each followed by live Q&As given by expert practitioners from around the world. It is also attended by many people with expertise and/or interest in forest gardening from around the world. From its small experimental beginnings, forest gardening is now regarded as a major contributor to resolving the climate change crisis.

Today began with Geoff Lawton (Austrailia) who designs permanent perennial food forest systems to regenerate large arid areas throughout the world. We then had Martin Crawford discussing maximising carbon storage in food forests. Then Anne Stobart, Sebastion Pole (Pukka teas), Simon Miles and Jenny Pickup on the subject of Forest Gardens and health, medicinal plants and mental wellbeing. Ricardo Ricarbol on the history and potential of forest garden systems in Chile. Emma Pilgrim on forest gardens and their value to wildlife and people. Then Eva Johansson (Sweden), Frank Gorter, Jelle Fekkes and Louis De Jaeger (Belgium) on food forests on a farm scale. Of particular interest to me, was Steven Heyde’s presentation on the potential of food forestry for historic estates. He pointed out the links between todays forest gardens and historic multi layered orchards and multi-functional landscapes. He believes that historical estates with their mixed operations could be an ideal solution for the future of food production.

At the end of the day my head was full and I went out to my embryo forest garden to clear some areas to plant comfrey, whose deep roots are excellent for carbon storage – Martin Crawford would approve!


Emergency Cranberry Repair


Today was even hotter, so I was outside bright and early giving the tunnel trays a major soaking before I started my symposium for the day. Martin (digger driver) was back for the morning and this time Aideen was driving the dumper, they made a start on the deep section of the pond. Later, Aideen stood in the hole and said that she thinks she would be below the water level, which will be 1.5m deep.

Today’s symposium started with the wonderful Graham Bell, describing the history of his 30 year old forest garden on the Scottish borders. It is amazing to see the authors of so many of the books on my shelves speaking live to me from Aideen’s lap top!

This was followed by a presentation and very lively Q&A by Steven Newman who works in agroforestry research, who along with Dave Jacke, did a fascinating talk clarifying the definition and use of guilds in forest garden design. They had a very sensible, down to earth approach to forest gardening. They both said don’t be frightened to make mistakes and experiment, every environment is different, so just ‘go for it’! This attitude certainly appeals to me.

There was a very helpful presentation on Biochar as a nutrient source in Agroforestry systems which I was really interested in as I’m considering making biochar myself if it is practical. I’m hopefully getting a book on this for my birthday! The remainder of the day was centred around urban forest gardens in UK and abroad for public use in community spaces and even on roofs! There were also discussions on how forest gardens can be used to reclaim degraded/polluted soils.

It was another excellent day and afterwards I spent some time in the polytunnel sorting out the climbers and planting out the aubergines.

However, first I paid a visit to the Forest Garden bed and discovered one arm of my highbush cranberry had been partially snapped…Bella?

I tried to repair it by binding it up with masking tape!


Comfrey Mulch


Each day is dawning hotter than the last and the atmosphere is muggy. This isn’t good for anyone. Patrick is finding it difficult to breathe, Martin and the girls are finding it unbearable to be digging the hole for the pond and it is very hard to keep the polytunnel from drying out.

I am now on day three of the symposium and today was particularly informative. It started with Salah Hammad discussing agroforestry systems as a post disaster aid empowerment tool. This was really inspiring, as the purpose of this work is to get people back on their feet without being dependant on aid, encourage them to continue eating their heritage foods and to keep their farming sustainable and organic.

We then had a presentation by Louise Gehin on the Bec Hellouin forest garden made famous by their book ‘Miraculous Abundance - One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers and Enough Food to Feed the World’. I have this book but haven’t read it yet, I will start tonight! She also discussed her own multi-strata orchard project. This was followed by a brilliant talk by Adolfo Rosati about his research and diverse agroforestry on his Italian farm. Something that came from these talks was the use of livestock to combine with orchards and vine yards etc. to control weeds and pests. This certainly got me thinking about putting Pecky to work and on a serious note, it is a wonderful way to make livestock carbon neutral.

There were talks on edible wood farms that use inoculated logs to produce mushrooms and the wonderful Eric Toensmeier talked about how perennial vegetables are massively important for carbon sequestration, improving nutrition and biodiversity.

The day concluded with everyone agreeing that it was vital to have places in a forest garden for humans to gather and enjoy themselves, like a natural swimming pond, because otherwise the forest garden would be neglected. I think this means we are on the right track at Church Gardens.

At the end of my ‘computer day’, I harvested my existing comfrey which was so tall it had partly fallen over. I took it up to the forest garden bed, chopped it up and spread it over the bare earth that I had weeded. This caused some raised eyebrows, why was I covering the newly weeded areas with weeds? The earth needs the nutrients and I don’t want to leave it bare so I will mulch it.

I then planted out my new comfrey plant and went into the tunnel and planted out more climbers and some chillies.


Pond Excavation Complete…Almost


Before my day of study began, I became distracted by the fruit tree border. Whilst snipping off some dead stalks form the Russian Sage I spotted that some of the giant achilleas, which looked respectable from the front, had spilled out at the back and were blocking the service path. I nipped along the path and attempted to tie them in before I started watering. I will have to spend a lot longer staking and tying in all along the bed because some of the peonies are a bit spread eagled as well…but I do not have time this morning.

The symposium today was enthralling. It started with Wouter Van Ecd, who heads a national foundation for food forests in the Netherlands. The Netherlands appears to be the most advanced country for supporting and funding food forests in the Western world, realising their importance in tackling climate change and food poverty issues. He discussed designing larger scale, rational food forests that offer a real alternative to existing agriculture rather than the more ‘romantic’ forest gardens that we are more familiar with.

We then had a presentation by Xavier San Giorgi about Utopia Island and urban food forest, Rijnvliet. This was about brilliant new housing developments in the Netherlands surrounded by food forest landscaping. Imagine being able to step outside your new house and pick fruit and herbs from the surrounding landscape, what a marvellous idea! I resolved to talk to Patrick about this when he is suggesting planting schemes for his own development projects.

The day’s programme continued in this vein, edible community fruit orchards and diverse orchards in public spaces. This was a really good idea, where more unusual varieties of fruit are planted in a public park, giving people the opportunity to try the fruit to help decide what they would like to grow in their own gardens. There were further talks on pruning apple trees, forest garden education, eco-literacy for schools and the national forest gardening scheme. We then moved on to breeding oaks with low tannin to improve palatability of acorns, research on multi strata food systems around the world and which plants are the best varieties and species for productivity in a forest garden. We finished with a very useful section on ‘Where are all the perennial veg cook books?’ and a film ‘Evergreen Abundance’ about central and southern Chile.

At the end of my forest gardening day, two exciting things occurred. My new range cooker, ordered just after Christmas finally arrived. Unfortunately, despite the 6-month delay, we are still not prepared for its installation so it will have to sit next to the fridge in its massive packaging case for the foreseeable future! I was then called out to the pond to see the completed hole.

It is not entirely finished, there needs adjustment on the beach area, overflow drain and neatening off the plant shelf, but Martin and the digger have done all they can. It looks amazing…Tiggy sat on the edge and she was totally dwarfed by the ponds size. I wish the pond was finished, partly because I know how much more work is still required to get to that stage and partly because I am desperate to swim in it!


My Birthday


Aideen wrote in my card today that I was rather unusual because I wanted to spend my birthday at the last day of the Forest Garden Symposium! I’m probably also unusual because I’m pleased that it has rained all day, which will be good for the onions, garlic and shallots.

I have had a lovely half term, taking part in this completely inspiring symposium. I feel like I’ve travelled around the world and met the authors of many of my favourite books. Today, it was Tomas Remlarx who wrote ‘Forest Gardening in Practice’ and Jerome Osentowski who wrote the brilliant ‘The Forest Garden Greenhouse’, this man has a sleeping platform, hammocks and a shower in his greenhouse!

Today was mainly about cold climate forest gardening ie. How to stop an elk nibbling your young hazel trees! There were speakers from Norway Denmark and the Bavarian Alps. There were also discussions on holding water in the landscape, soil research and finally, the future of forest gardens, linking to the transition town movement. I cannot think of a better way to spend my birthday and now I will have a glass of wine!


20,000 Steps


I got some lovely things for my birthday which included some very comfortable, rather trendy, coral coloured crocs. This is a great, as my customised crocs slip on wet paths and it was only a matter of time before I slipped over. Diane gave me a matching coral ‘Fitbit’…I think she’s trying to get me interested in my fitness again. I didn’t realise that they are also watches and it was agreed that a Fitbit would be much more practical to wear outside than my usual watch. This little gadget also counts steps, so everyone was intrigued to see how many I would do on a normal day in the garden.

I really enjoyed my symposium but I am so relieved to be back in the garden, I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time indoors and sitting in front of a computer is completely alien to me. Today the sun was shining and after the lengthy rain yesterday the garden looked lovely. The delphiniums are starting to bloom, a few roses have opened and there are alliums and irises everywhere.

The wildflower meadow is beginning to meet with Patricks approval, the yellow rattle is doing especially well.

However, the really successful wild flower meadow is the half of the vegetable garden that hasn’t been planted with vegetables yet! This looks amazing because many of last year’s companion plants have self-seeded and are now blooming eg. cornflowers, nigella, borage and Californian poppies and the odd calendula.

Patrick, Diane and Meave spend the morning cutting down the last nut tree scheduled for removal. We will move the stool to the other side of the orchard to form another Polyantha bed feature with the other large nut stool. Therefore, I suspect the nut tree will re-sprout and return to haunt us! Patrick and Diane continue working for the rest of the day, tidying up the tree and then preparing the terrace for grass seed.

I work hard as well, I had bags of compost delivered outside the front door and moved ten 75 litre bags and two 100 litre bags myself (without a barrow) through to the back of the house. I don’t think the fitbit measures compost moving!

I then planted out three root trainers of sweetcorn into the cleared bed and then had to prepare an equally long bed for the remainder. This bed has a lot of lovely nigella and very dark cornflowers growing in it so I retained a border around the edge, rather like leaving a hedgerow to attract polinators! When the middle was clear I then went around my companion plant border and carefully removed the weeds. Finally, I added a couple of barrows of compost.

By this time, it was about 9:30pm and I checked my Fitbit, 20,103 steps which is apparently 3,541 calories and 14.02km! Does this mean I’ve used 3541 calories? If this was true, I would have disappeared by now and I can assure everyone I’ve far from disappeared! I did suspect I did a lot of walking in the day and today wasn’t a bad day, so I suppose this must show I’m reasonably fit.


Visiting Other Gardens


Today was a family day out to celebrate my birthday because I was at the symposium on the actual day. My sister and her partner arrived at 10am to grandad-sit, dog-sit, cat-sit and Pecky-sit and we squeezed into our squeaky car and headed for Kent.

I had chosen two places to visit that were quite close to each other that we have not visited before. The first was Charles Darwin’s house ‘Down House’ and the second was Riverhill Himalayan Gardens. They were both brilliant.

At Down House, we were allowed inside (with very strict Covid limits) and it was incredible to see Darwin’s actual study. The house itself was beautiful, Patrick loved it.

We then went in the garden which had a lovely kitchen garden and greenhouse and I got Meave to photograph me outside the greenhouse.

The only slight disappointment was I had hoped to buy a copy of “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits”, Darwins last and probably greatest work. This was mentioned several times at the symposium last week as an essential book to read, as there is probably nothing more essential to the health of the planet than worms. Sadly, they did not have it, but we found an old copy online that we will order.

Then it was off to Riverhill which has many, wonderful rhododendrons and azaleas and a terraced walled garden that sounded intriguing. It also has incredible views over the weald of Kent. This garden was fantastic and the rhododendrons and azaleas, a favourite of mine, (they were my mum’s favourite plants) did not disappoint. They were massive and as you climbed through the valley garden you felt like you were in the Himalayas! Patrick and the girls kept asking why haven’t we got rhododendrons like this and I had to keep explaining that we do have four rhododendrons and about six azaleas but they are babies, where as these magnificent specimens are more than a hundred years old!

The walled garden was beautifully redesigned in a modern style but we were probably more interested in the extensive greenhouse area (closed to the public) still unrestored and overgrown that we could spy through a gate! McHugh’s cannot resist a ruin!

We had a lovely time and returned in the early evening, there was still enough daylight for me to pot on about 90 polyanthas before it got too dark! It has been an amazing half-term with the wonderful symposium and then visiting these fantastic gardens, I feel very blessed.


Lack of Joined Up Thinking


It is very frustrating how quickly life can turn tables! On Sunday evening, it was very hard to put grandad to bed. He was clearly unsettled. Once in bed, he then buzzed for me at about 1am and then again at 2am. There was obviously an issue with his catheter, but I had to wait until the morning to phone the District Nurses. We finally both went off to sleep at about 3:30am.

I was up quite early because Martin (digger driver), Diane (dumper driver) and Patrick were moving the most recently removed nut stool to its new position. I was needed to help direct operations and guide the dumping of two, three tonne loads of topsoil around its base.

I then returned to the house to check on dad. I opened the door to find dad on the floor in the living room. He had got up on his own (he never normally gets up without me) and become tangled in his night time catheter and fallen! We called an ambulance and made dad comfortable, we were not allowed to move him. Dad seemed remarkably OK, but it was obviously due to extra confusion (probably UTI induced) that he had fallen.

The ambulance came after about one and a half hours and they got dad into a chair, relatively unharmed by the fall. After giving him a full check, the kind paramedics tried to sort out either rapid response or district nurses to come to sort out dad’s catheter to avoid him going to hospital. Then we discovered that dad had been removed from district nurse jurisdiction after his recent hospital admission and had not been re-referred! I was really upset and aghast by this, as it looked like his only option now would be to go to A&E.

The paramedics kept phoning our GP, finally resorting to driving to the Practice to speak to someone. I cannot believe how hospital/GP/Community Care/District nurses are not more effectively linked. All the hassle trying to get dad back on the system delayed a very precious ambulance team from other emergencies!

The ambulance finally left and not long after, a district nurse arrived and replaced the catheter, thank God! They also tested dad for a UTI. We spent the rest of the day keeping a very close eye on grandad until he gets some antibiotics!

After my teaching this evening, Diane calls Aideen and I outside to help with digging over and raking the terrace area prior to seeding with grass. Patrick and Diane have done a magnificent job so far, but the area left to do is the remains of the old hardcore area. It is a horrible, horrible job; every fork into the soil brings up glass and bricks.



Grandad had another fall before bedtime and it is abundantly clear that he has a UTI. With everyone helping, we manage to get him safely to bed and I resolve to call the GP first thing to fast track his antibiotics.

I speak to a very helpful GP this morning and grandad soon has his first antibiotic. However, he is still sounding very confused and is understandably feeling sore and achy from falling over. We decide that he will be better off in bed for the morning and he falls deeply asleep.

It is a beautiful but very hot day. Aideen is trying to attach photos to our new talk which is a time-consuming job but it means she is at hand if the buzzer goes for grandad. Poor Diane continues with preparing the terrace for seeding with grass seed and I try to get some of my backlog of jobs done in the kitchen garden.

I start by tying in my four new David Austin climbing roses on the gazebo in the paradise garden. I’m very excited about these posh, new roses; they are growing well and looking good. I spot some monster docks in the terrace and remove them. I then plant out the remaining two root trainers of sweetcorn into the bed I prepared a couple of days ago.

The roses are beginning to come out in the borders and the peonies are starting to open. There are some particularly striking peach/pink peonies in the field border and I spot the first bloom of my elusive Ixia bulbs in the vine terraces which is exciting because I planted hundreds of these bulbs last year and saw nothing to show for it!

The wild flower meadow is also looking lovelier every day and it is alive with bees, damselflies and butterflies, it is fast becoming my favourite place in the garden. Although, Patrick asked again if he could strim the edge to neaten it up…I keep telling him it’s a ‘Wild’ flower meadow! I check frequently on grandad who continues to sleep soundly, which I think is a good thing. Finally, at about 2:30pm he wakes up and sounds a bit more lucid. I give him another antibiotic and he decides to get up and have his breakfast! I then spend a bit of time in the polytunnel because I still have a lot of things to plant before I start my teaching.

I finish teaching at about 8:40pm but I am dragged outside to help roll the terrace which Patrick, Aideen and Diane have seeded. We drag two of our antique rollers out to the terrace and the girls rig up an ingenious system of rolling the slope. They attach our smallest roller, which is made of concrete and is surprisingly heavy, to a piece of rope and use this to allow it to roll down the slope and then pull it back up. They use Patrick to reposition it each time at the bottom. I push the other roller along the flat bottom section. It is good to see the old equipment being used and it does a good job!


Mushrooms and Strawberries


It is very hot today and the sky is clear. I must confess that this is not my favourite weather. It’s good to have some sun, but I prefer it to be broken up with a bit of cloud and a gentler temperature. If it is relentlessly hot (and I realise that this is not hot in comparison to some countries) it makes it difficult to carry out essential ‘planting out’ jobs. At this time of year, I have thousands of young plants to plant out and they will not thank me for tenderly placing them in a baking hot bed!

Therefore, I choose the ideal job on such a day…planting the mushroom spawn in the mushroom house! this job has been delayed due to the absence of the electrician to fix the electrics in the mushroom house. At present, there is no light or eco heater (to maintain even temperature) but it can’t wait any longer! I open the doors to give myself as much light as possible and I am soon joined by Aideen. I know she’s coming long before she appears because I can hear her sneezing! Aideen gets terrible hay fever and it has been awful in recent days. She was trying to continue work on the terrace but it was too hot so she came to help me.

There are a lot of compromises going on with my mushroom beds this year. I know my compost, although good quality, contains wood shavings and I’m mixing lime into the compost because I couldn’t obtain gypsum. But I did have some success last year, so I haven’t abandoned all hope, I am an optimist after all!

We mix the spawn into the beds in the first 2 to 3 inches of compost and it is only as I’m writing this that I realise that I did not pay attention to where I planted the white or chestnut mushroom spawn! Well that will be another surprise if they come up! We then covered the beds with damp newspaper and shut the doors, reluctantly climbing back out into the sunlight.

I then decided to check if the containers in the fruit cage had dried out and I have a very pleasant surprise. I spot three strawberries gleaming amongst the leaves. I pick the strawberries and it is clear that the strawberries on one side of the cage in particular are laden with fruit waiting to ripen, as are the jostaberries, gooseberries and currants, in fact, everything looks very prolific!

I then go in the polytunnel, one extreme to another! Ironically, this is a good place to go on such a day because it is always hot and potentially dry, so it is managed accordingly. I finish planting out the chillies and peppers, a long overdue job and then I start clearing the cabbages and broccoli from the other end of the bed. Unfortunately, they’ve had a mega aphid attack and soon my legs are covered in green flies, yuk!

I give some of the offending brassicas to Pecky as she will enjoy the leaves and have plenty of entertainment picking off the aphids.

No one seems to want to be on the terrace today and I find Diane painting the pumpkin patch fence, good girl!

I then start teaching and later in the evening whilst letting in a student, I spy the tell-tale, messy, webby damage of box tree moth caterpillars on the organ pipe bed hedge. I knew the caterpillars were in this hedge and I’ve removed quite a few. I had asked the ‘maintenance team’ (the rest of the family) to cut and spray the hedge but they had become distracted by sowing the terrace, unsurprisingly! I sent out an emergency message to the terrace, where Patrick, Diane and Aideen were working (the weather conditions on the terrace are more favourable in the evening). Impressively, they arrived within minutes like a fourth emergency service! Patrick cut the hedge into castellation’s, Diane picked out caterpillars and Aideen sprayed it with Xen Tari, fantastic!

At the end of my teaching, 9pm, I decided to grab the opportunity of cooler conditions to plant out the Nicotiniana around the sweetcorn. It was quite dark when I finished at about 10:15pm and I then put grandad to bed.


Lots of Sunflowers


Today is an unusual day, we are off to visit a dear friend who is also our hairdresser. None of us has had our hair done since long before Christmas so this is a real treat. Before leaving I water the usual things and double check that the nicotiniana I planted in semi-darkness last night look OK.

We have a lovely, relaxing afternoon catching up with our friend and then we return home, taking our lovely, coiffured hair straight back into the garden, held back with grubby hairbands! Never mind!

I decide to plant out all of my sunflowers in the forest garden bed. Although, I planted about 80 different trees/shrubs/perennials in this bed in the Autumn and most of them are doing well, they are still very small. I need to cover the open spaces to protect the soil and supress weeds. Normally, I plant the sunflowers in the polytunnel, but last year I rather overdid things and overwhelmed my cucumbers. This year, I am only allowing sunflowers that have self-seeded in the tunnel. However, I sowed lots of sunflowers, many different varieties and I had the brainwave of adding them to the forest garden bed, as they are food plants and they will make a lovely display. I start by making two crossing, curving lines of poles tied in pairs weaving through the diminutive trees and shrubs in the top section of the bed. I then plant out my 46 sunflowers, they will certainly make an impact if they grow well as potentially, they can be enormous!

I am also hoping to transplant fennel (although this isn’t easy), Jerusalem artichokes and borage and I intend to under-plant with nasturtiums.

I have great plans for my forest garden and I hope to expand it year by year until this half of the orchard is full of food forest plants!


Cucumber Time


We are now at that time of year when it is very difficult to decide what should take priority. When I’m watering in the morning at least 12 urgent jobs will run through my head but I will be lucky if I complete one during the day. Unfortunately, help is limited because there is so much else going on. The terrace, in particular, is greedily swallowing man power. Patrick is determined to level out and seed the entire terrace up to the new outbuilding. This is a good plan because once grassed it can be maintained easily by mowing, however, the task is monumental. Especially as we are still removing barrowfuls of glass, brick, rusty metal etc.

Meanwhile, I have cleared the end of the polytunnel bed in order to move dozens of pots from the central bed so I can plant out the 21 cucumber plants.