The forest garden in Devon ‘with an air of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory’

Mark Diacono on Martin Crawford, the man who inspired him for decades.

Twenty years ago, an acquaintance said that I might be interested in “this guy who plants like a forest, only it’s food.” I surfed the Internet, tracked him down and persuaded him to let me visit him. The next day I spent with Martin Crawford completely changed my gardening mindset.

He explained that it was a forest garden. Instead of following the traditional horticultural approach with annual vegetables planted in rows and grown in an almost two-dimensional format, the woodland garden is designed to mimic natural woodland, planned and planted in integrated tiers, starting with a canopy with smaller plants underneath. . trees, shrubs, and herbaceous tiers flourished alongside groundcover and underground crops, each tied with vines.

The emphasis on perennials ensures resilience and a long productive season: after the first year, the deep root system of perennials means they are less susceptible to drought or flooding than annuals, and many become productive early in the year.

Developing plants that enrich the soil and nourish productive plants is an integral part of this approach: mineral accumulators such as comfrey are deeply rooted, extracting nutrients and other micronutrients from the bottom of the soil profile so that they become available in the topsoil when they are leaves are cut; nitrogen fixers such as clover and autumn olive (Loch umbrellas) take nitrogen from the air and make it available to neighboring plants through their root system or leaf fall. It supports fertility naturally. Many also attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to help maintain an ecological balance.

With all this performance talk, let’s not forget that woodland garden design is a lot like traditional ornamental garden design – landscaping for visual appeal; seasonal interest; sensitivity to appearance, soil type, etc. – always maximizing flavor, variety, wildlife value, and including plants that improve soil health.

Although we walked around the new project – mostly young plants, a few years maximum in the ground – I knew that was how I wanted to grow, and I planted a quarter-acre woodland garden on my old backyard, Otter Farm.

It included walnuts among the canopy, Asian pears and medlar under them, Sichuan pepper and josta berries in the shrub, rhubarb and artichokes among the herbaceous plants, Moroccan mint and Nepalese raspberry provide ground cover, yacon, oca and mashua give me underground crops. , and creepers such as kiwi and akebia. At first it took time and effort. Ground cover – using thick cardboard to mulch any weeds and grass, if needed, before planting – is key, but do it right and you’ll have a clean base to build on.

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Forests are the natural vegetation of much of the country, meaning that once created forest gardens are in harmony with the trajectory of nature and achieve natural balance with limited care. The combination of ground cover and perennial plantings eliminates the usual garden cycle of sowing, loosening and watering, which takes so much time from the gardener.

These principles easily apply to smaller spaces as well. I have designed urban forest gardens at home and use the same principles in my own garden. The key is to eliminate the canopy layer that could otherwise dominate and steal light, and plant trees on dwarf rootstocks or use them as fans, cordons, trellises and lashes so that a wide range of fruits and nuts can be grown and also maximized. productivity. the amount of light reaching the lower layers.

Martin’s Forest Garden now looks and feels like a varied woodland with paths and clearings interspersed throughout. It has the spirit of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: in the summer you can reach for a pear or an apricot; in autumn, Szechuan peppers and walnuts hang from the trees; early spring brings sweet cecelia and Solomon’s seal shoots. The scents abound, and even on its two acres, current work is minimal.

Martin teaches courses (, hosts open houses at his office in South Devon and his forest gardening books are essential volumes. If you want to see a young woodland garden take off, visit RHS Rosemoor, Devon, where a brilliant team is designing a woodland garden that serves as a transition between more formal areas and the gorgeous woodland that Rosemoor sits in.

Mark Diacono grows edibles, both common and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon ( His latest book is From Scratch: Ferment (Quadrille, £12.99).

Mark Diacono on the beautiful and unbridled pleasure of the comfrey.

Our local self-growing expert Mark Diacono gives his tips for a surprisingly easy hazelnut.

Food writer Mark Diacono shares his tips on how to grow cucumbers and talks about three of his favorite varieties to try.

Mark Diacono explains why mint is good for even terminally incompetent enthusiastic gardeners.

“Growing plants specifically to harvest their roots takes faith, patience and nerves,” explains Mark Diacono, “but it’s worth it.”

Point one: these are not artichokes and they are not from Jerusalem, says Mark Diacono.

Mark Diacono has planted dozens of orchards – he shares his wisdom on how to do it.

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