Do you need a forest to have a forest garden?


No! Forest gardening doesn’t mean a garden in a forest, nor even putting forest plants into a garden. It is about growing edible and useful plants, using the way forests grow as a model. The picture shows an urban forest garden bed being created in the middle of Dundee. Think about a wood or forest you know. It will have its canopy layer – that is the tallest trees. Just below the tree tops will be a layer of tall shrubs or small trees – this is called the understorey. The next layer is the shrub layer – small to medium bushes. Towards the edge of the woodland, and sometimes within it, there will be a layer of tall perennial plants and in most woods, a ground layer of spreading or creeping herbaceous plants. Leaf mould and composted woody material or bark lie on the ground and build up annually. Fungi colonise it. Below ground is the rhizosphere, or root layer: deep roots bringing nutrients from the mineral layer of the soil, starchy roots and tubers, bulbs and the anchoring roots of trees and shrubs.

In a forest garden, you create the same layers, but using plants that provide food, firewood, medicine or have other uses, and choosing the ones that are the right size for the site. In a big garden, the canopy layer may be nitrogen-fixing alders, heritage pears, walnuts, birches for birch sap or the versatile rowan tree for berries. In a small raised bed, the canopy may be an apple or two on dwarfing rootstock. The same apple trees, along with damsons, plums, saskatoons or hazels, could be the understorey in a big garden. whereas the wee bed might have a couple of Jostaberries and a broom for nitrogen fixing and broom-bud salad.

Many soft fruits can make up the shrub layer – from brambles to gooseberries, currants, hardy fuchsias and autumn raspberries (summer ones can be used but need something to be trained onto). Where there is enough light, shrubby herbs like winter savory or rosemary can be established, too. If the soil is a bit acidic, blueberries will thrive. Mixing species together ensures that something will always give you a crop, and there is less risk of losing the lot to birds and small mammals.

For the forest garden, or forest bed, good ground cover and eliminating non-useful coarse weeds like dock is essential. I permit a certain amount of ground elder to remain, because it tastes good, and a clump of nettles which, along with comfrey, are dynamic accumulators – feeding the soil with nutrients from below ground. These are regarded as tall perennials – I also find fennel, salad burnet and wild oregano do well in this crowded but productive setting. Skirret and burdock are perennial root vegetables occupying the tall perennial and the rootzone layers. Underneath, try wild strawberries and sweet woodruff for heavy shade, Roman chamomile and buckler-leaf sorrel for the edges, opposite-leaved golden saxifrage for wet areas. Mints are good ground cover as well – pennyroyal is not a culinary mint but smells wonderful and bees love the flowers.

There should be scope for patches of self-seeded annuals for wildlife in bigger forest garden beds – poached egg plants, nasturtiums (edible flowers) and Calendula all seem to work well. And finally, if your canopy trees are tall enough, you can grow hops, vines or other useful climbers up them. There really is a massive choice of plants to use. Martin Crawford’s excellent book, Creating a Forest Garden (ISBN 9781900322621) will take you on a deeper journey, but be careful to choose plants that will really be of use to you and that will do well in your climate and soil. My suggestions all work in my bit of Central Scotland.

Is it hard work? Using sheet mulch and leaf-mould will reduce initial weeding. For a few years you will be adjusting, adding, taking away or moving plants that don’t suit as well as you’d hoped. Some may be useful but need keeping in check – I have to put reins on the apple mint and burdock especially. But soon there will be very little to do; the space fills and there is simply no room for unwanted invaders! My advice? Start small and expand!

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Salad Days – Seasonally

Don’t get me wrong, I like lettuce. And rocket. I grow prodigious amounts of both, and eat most of it. It’s just that if there is none, I am never lost for salad ingredients. And when there is, I augment the tender crispness of lettuce and the bite of rocket with a host of other favourite ingredients from the garden and hedgerow.

Sorrel on chopping board, image from

In spring and early summer, there is a wide choice of tender green leaves. Garlic Mustard, with big heart-shaped leaves, appears early obligingly self-sown in odd corners of the garden. Mildly garlicky, with a gentle bite of mustard. Our accidental pole of a lime tree (kept as a pole because there’s no room for a tree) produces the most succulent unfurling leaves before any lettuce is ready. Young shoots of Bishopsweed transfer from the weeding bucket to the plate via a good wash. Then the Sorrel family – Common and Buckler-leaf – provide sharp, lemony, bulky leaves – shred them to mix that sharpness through the salad. Sweet Cicely for a hint of aniseed. Rampion, an edible Campanula, produces a mass of tender leaves. Claytonia, or Miners’ Lettuce, which I’ve picked right through winter from the greenhouse bed, is joined by its cousin the Pink Purslane. New leaves of Wood Sorrel, looking like clover but with delicate white flowers, are found in the woods. It’s a refreshing appetiser when nibbled on a walk. For crunchy, succulent foliage, try the long linear leaves of Bucks Horn Plantain – branched at the ends like antlers. Or the round, slightly bitter but always tender leaves of Orpine, a native Sedum whose flowers bring out bees and butterflies in late summer.

As summer progresses, I add sweetly aromatic herbs to the salad bowl, chopping them finely to disperse the subtle aroma and flavour. My favourites are Golden Marjoram, Lemon Balm and Mint – but not just any mint. One of the citrus varieties – Orange, Lime or Lemon Mint, or Basil Mint, or best of all Eau de Cologne Mint. A little goes a long way! Basil itself, of course, contributes a domineering flavour, good with tomatoes. Judicious amounts of Chervil, Summer Savory or Dill with its cucumber tones can all be added. Salad Burnet or young Borage leaves taste similar.

Yellow Primroses, Ramsons from the woods and Cornflower petals are the first edible flowers to be added; later blue comes from borage flowers. Wild Pansies, bright orange Calendula, sweet white petals from my Jacobite Rose and gaudy Nasturtiums taste as good as they look. If I can stand to sacrifice them, I’ll eat Hemerocallis (Day Lily) flowers too, and the ones from my Clove Pinks.

Wild Strawberry

By now, wild strawberries are getting scattered over the salad bowl, and as summer wears towards autumn, fruit starts to dominate. Anything goes. Whole raspberries, blaeberries and whitecurrants; chopped red gooseberries; peaches and grapes from the greenhouses; brambles and elderberries and onwards till I am confronted by the autumn apple mountain – a source of material for my less frequent winter salads.

Nuts go well with apples; wild hazelnuts and walnuts from my neighbours’ tree, well-chopped. Now I will use the pickled ash keys I made in June and other preserves to spice up a winter salad. Greens come from the greenhouse – hardy winter Lamb’s Lettuce, Claytonia and hot Land Cress. Dried fruit, whether home-dried wild strawberries or conventional shop ones, I add liberally.

Salad Days may be over, but salads go on even in the depths of winter, till spring comes round again.

Plants for Bees (& Beekeepers!)

Bees are the most important pollinators of food crops in the world.

Native bees (bumble, carder and mountain bees) are most effective, while the honeybee is a source not only of pollination, but of honey, wax and a wide range of medicinal and cosmetic products. Honeybees have had a hard time, between varroa mites, pesticides and viruses, and loss of wild habitat has affected the natives.

It’s not surprising that so many people who love gardens and flowers love bees. Many, like ourselves, are beekeepers. Gardeners and beekeepers have become pivotal, in both ecology and economy.

There is a favourite saying of mine: “No bees, no honey; no work, no money”. But more to the point, no bees, no pollination; no pollination, no crops. And no crops, no…..? Yes. We are dependent on them.

By growing nectar plants to attract bumblebees, ensure a good honey crop from your own bees or just to enjoy the summery drone of insects in the garden, you’ll benefit all species – and get great fruit and bean crops to boot!

For long-tongued bumblebees we recommend BergamotComfreyHemp AgrimonySagePurple Knapweed and Valerian.

For honeybees and short-tongued bees grow HyssopMintLemon Balm (said to stop honeybees from swarming!), MeadowsweetMeadow Cranesbill and Catmint.

For an early source of nectar when the queens start laying, you must have Lungwort and Rosemary; for the important pre-winter nectar grow Purple LoosestrifeGlobe ThistleTeasel and Michaelmas Daisy.

Cotoneaster, apples, pears, non-ornamental cherries and currants (flowering or fruiting) will benefit both bees and birds.

The little-known (and under-used) Agastache family (especially Anise Hyssop and Korean Mint) are magnets for all kinds of bees and create superb colour in the garden as well.

Dealing with Thug Plants

“Let me have about me plants that are thugs…
…deep-rooted plants, that never sleep o’ nights.”

With apologies to Shakespeare, this is my mantra for maintaining an illusion of control over the garden. One gardener’s “invasive” is another’s “good spreader” – and good spreaders are what we favour to provide colour, limit (or eliminate) weeding, create habitats and stand up to both neighbouring thugs and garden pests, and hold their own against pathogens until kingdom come.

Some of my favourite thugs are:

Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata)
This is such good value. Sturdy, upright stems, each one a spire of large yellow flowers in early to midsummer. It obligingly spreads underground to form an impressive, weed-excluding clump.

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Irresistible starry white flowers in midsummer, above a cloud of pretty foliage that just spreads and spreads. I admit, ground elder comes up through it (and what’s wrong with that? very tasty), but the woodruff always wins. As well as being indestructible, it can be used to flavour wine…

Bistort or Pudding Dock (Polygonum bistorta)
Actually most of the Polygonum family make excellent thugs. Bistort gives large edible leaves and tall flower spikes in an incandescent pink. Ground cover understates it!

Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)
Tall clumps of fluffy pink late flowers, which will fill a large space, repel intruders and attract bees and butterflies.

Three-cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum)
Not the alien invader few-flowered leek, but related, with pretty flowers and deceptively winsome edible foliage that pops up anywhere, even in January!

Finally, and masochistically, there is Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), so good for you, productive and delicious that we constantly overlook the fact that it’s taking over Perthshire. Be warned – choose plants to grow above it that are also thugs!

“…yon Petunia has a hot-house-hungry look; she wilts too much, such plants are dangerous…”

(Shakespeare, W: Julius Caesar, Act One, Scene Two – look it up!)

What is a wildlife garden?

We choose their plants with the aim of attracting, feeding or keeping wildlife safe in the garden. But it’s more than choosing the right plants, and more than a handy excuse for not doing any garden maintenance!

Most birds, beasts and bugs would prefer us not to garden at all, but allow nature to fill our plots with a riot of weeds and wilderness. If you’ve got space, you could do worse than part of it to go to the dogs (or the hedgehogs, blackbirds, lizards and bumblebees). But if you still want a garden – at least in part – you will need to be at least a little selective.

You’ll definitely want clumps of stinging nettles – the larval food source of many butterflies and moths, including the small tortoiseshell, red admiral and peacock. You will leave untidy piles of twigs and logs for wrens to nest in and toads to lurk under. Leaves will be left for beetles and centipedes to crawl though, and wet, boggy areas for dragonflies, damselflies and amphibians. You won’t worry too much if (when) it all looks a mess. Even slugs and snails will be a boon for attracting song thrushes.

Don’t worry if plants come up in the wrong place, or run to seed. Many birds will enjoy those apparently dead seed-heads in winter. We have developed a battery of sound ecological excuses for not being tidy gardeners!


  • Seeding plants, such as teasels, milk thistles and wild oregano must be included if you want goldfinches and similar birds. Even plants with tiny seeds, like salad burnet are good and all these look dramatic in winter.
  • Shrubs with berries for fruit-loving birds and mammals. This includes the “spare” fruits on your currants, raspberries and crab apples! Be aware the blackbird will have ALL your cherries – and windfall apples will be very welcome to thrushes, fieldfares and jays.
  • Large-leaved plants, such as bistort, lungwort, elecampane and comfrey for amphibians to hide under.
  • Nectar plants with long flower tubes for butterflies. Orpine, bergamot, valerian and Welsh Onion get many visitors.
  • Evening flowering plants for moths. Try honeysuckle, evening primrose or sweet rocket.
  • Plants with flat flowers for hoverflies, drone flies, and lacewings. Yarrow is a good one, as are tansy and coriander.

Bees deserve a page of their own!