A year in the life of a forest garden

Volunteers at first tree planting eventLast November a group of more than 20 volunteers started to plant out what will eventually become Birmingham's largest cultivated forest garden. We planted nitrogen fixing plants like Eleagnus umbellata, an attractive fruit bearing shrub, and Alnus cordata, a pioneer tree related to the Birch, as well as useful fibrous plants such as Phormium tenax, the leaves of which can be used to support other trees when staking. A month later we came together again to plant the fruit trees – apples, pears, plums, cherries, cherry plums, and currants amongst many others.

Volunteer and permaculture designer Adam McCuskerSince then myself and our other committee members have been working with smaller teams of volunteers to cultivate areas of the garden; mulching with straw and wood chip, as well as feeding the soil with nettle and comfrey tea. We have also been producing compost in our hot bin, building the polytunnel, maintaining the extensive network of footpaths by weeding and topping up with woodchip, and planting out the shrub and herbaceous layers of the first sections of the site to be developed.

We have introduced some well known plants including rosemary, sage, oregano and rhubarb, and some lesser knowns – Caragana arborescens for instance, a siberian pea tree that both fixes nitrogen in the soil and produces edible pea pods while being great for bees.

The firThe forest gardenst full year of cultivation has thrown up numerous challenges. For instance, how do you keep fledgling plants hydrated during a summer drought when you can only get to the site once or twice a week? Well, you need help from your surrounding community. Allotment holder, Amel and her family, for instance, gladly offered to help in our time of need. And how do you put up a polytunnel? Well, the only way to find out is to just go ahead and try it. It turns out it's not as hard as you might think. What is difficult is stopping the elusive vandals sporadically destroying parts of the site in seemingly random acts of spite. Not to dwell on the negatives, but humans can be both malicious and kind in equal measure – the forest garden has taught me this over and above simply how to grow food.  

What is a forest garden?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, a forest garden is a designed agronomic system based on trees, shrubs and perennial plants. These are mixed in such a way as to mimic the structure of a natural forest – thYoung volunteers mulching treese most stable and sustainable type of ecosystem in this climate. Projects like ours are essential stepping stones to a more regenerative, abundant social system. Forest gardens welcome wildlife, absorb CO2, and provide healthy spaces in which people can find fleeting moments of tranquility.

Testament to this are the children who have regularly visited our site with the Community Environmental Trust. Up to 15 children of varying ages helped to mulch trees, create natural fertilisers, and plant out seedlings. They loved visiting the garden, finding a safe space in which to play, learn and socialise.

MP Liam Bryne with committee members Andrew Walton and Rob TillingWe have also welcomed a number of offenders carrying out their unpaid work orders with Birmingham's Community Rehabilitation Company. They have helped to rehabilitate themselves, some more enthusiastically than others, by keeping the site maintained; mowing grass, trimming hedges and clearing away rubbish on a regular basis.

In September, we were visited by Hodge Hill MP, Liam Byrne. He walked around the site to learn more about polycultures and perennial plants, while also discussing the future of food production. We hope that he was inspired by what he saw; a project still in the early stages of development but with the potential to positively impact on the local area – whether that's by improving biodoversity, community relations or people's general health.

What next?Map of the forest garden

Looking forward, we are now developing the polytunnel in readiness for seed sowing and plant propagation. Myself and a number of designers will also continue to develop our ideas for other parts of the site, taking into account factors such as light and shade conditions, wind exposure, drainage, and the soil structure. As treasurer for the project, I will also be exploring how we continue to fund it, given that we have ongoing rent costs to cover and essential project materials to buy.

With a young son now cheerily occupying my time and ongoing work commitments, I also have to consider how I'm going to make the best use of my limited time – perhaps the biggest challenge of all for those of us committed to voluntary community work. Apologies to anybody whose project I have yet to go and see!

If you would like to visit Bordesley Green Forest Garden or become a regular volunteer please contact me by email at acwalton@hotmail.co.uk

Andrew Walton

Andrew Walton is the project co-ordinator for Bordesley Green Forest Garden. He has a Certificate in Permaculture Design and is now studying towards his RHS Level 2 Certificate in Practical Horticulture at Birmingham's Botanical Gardens.


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