This garden was the first visited on our holiday. It is one of the first forest gardens I’ve visited at all, except in my imagination. Mine is still mainly in the fourth dimension! There used to be one at Ryton organic gardens, but I think they found it too messy so got rid of it.
Sagara has created the East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG) over the last eight years or so. I found out about it through Facebook so that does have some uses! Despite ill health he has created a wonderful space in a bit less than three acres. His vision is of a spiritual foraging retreat, where people can reclaim their souls through browsing in the garden. Certainly there is a tranquil feel throughout the garden. So many of the plants are edible, that we had to repeat a mantra ‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’ because you get used to tasting everything after a few days. There was plenty of wildlife. We saw butterflies and birds, evidence of moles and Sagara says they have a family of hedgehogs as well as pigeons.
The main technique that I took away from the garden was probably the use of earthworks and hedges to create banks that made sheltered, sunny or shady areas and formed microclimates for plants that require different conditions. Fast growing italian alder had been planted around the periphery of the garden. These are now over 25 feet tall so form a screen and give the garden even more of a tranquil enclosed feel. As a nitrogen fixer it also provides nitrogen through soil fungal networks to other plants in the garden. A leylandii hedge screens a simple yet sophisticated composting loo and provides shelter for the herb area and main vegetable production plots, which are closer to the buildings than the more seasonal tree crops. A mowed trackway enables vehicular access around the garden, although separate pedestrian paths meander slightly different routes. I found it quite easy to become disoriented and the garden seemed much bigger than it is. This is also due to the multiple circular clearings and asymmetric free form design. The largest circle had a tall earthbank surmounted by fruiting Elaeagnus bushes and enclosing a beautiful natural swimming pool. Steps go down into it and it is filled from a spring borehole, the water circulating through gravel beds planted with aquatic plants to keep the water clean. Stone alcoves retain the day’s heat to protect the most tender plants here: olives, figs and citrus trees have set fruit this year. There are also Echium and hardy bananas, grapes and palm trees, and a little pointed running alpine strawberry still has fruit ripening.
In the establishment of the garden Sagara had ploughed and seeded the plot with deep rooted plants like chiccory and plantains, before doing the earth moving and planting the larger trees, then smaller trees and shubs. The site is loam over clay, quite flat and a bit liable to frost with cold north winds. He is still planting the ground cover layers, which, because it requires many plants, can be a slow, labour intensive and expensive business. We helped clear an area and plant out some perennial brassica with Sagara.
Over time the garden area should become a net carbon sink as the plants and the soil convert carbon dioxide into more stable wood and humus. At present the garden still has quite an open feel about it, and I would love to go back in a few years to see how it matures. I’m a bit envious of the kinder climate there compared to Skye. My sweet chestnuts are tiny in comparison to Sagara’s. The biggest of mine is only as tall as me, the smallest that survived is only a foot or so after nearly ten years! Sagara’s were probably taller after three years than mine are now and now at six years old are beautiful trees of fifteen feet or so. However, he has already had frosts that damaged the squash plants, and there are no squirrels on Skye.
One of the beds was given over to edible flowers, I wasn’t aware that Gladioli and Dahlia petals are edible, and it was fascinating that each flower was also a slightly different flavour, some sweeter, some more complex. The chinese chive flowers made a lovely addition to our supper with a sweet onion crunch.
New foods I was able to try included the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). This has a very pleasant sweet tart taste. The berries are a little small being a bit smaller than currants, but are borne in profusion along the branches. They are also extremely pretty berries: orangey-red and flecked with gold! We picked about four pounds or so which Sagara is going to use to make a jam with. The spring fruiting Elaeagnus were in blossom and the fragrance is lovely. We also tried sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) berries. These are very fragile, tending to burst as you pick them and are even smaller and more profuse.
The flavour is sharper, more acidic, and Sagara had several different cultivars which all had different flavours; one had a noticable pineapple flavour, and even the unimproved form has a very pleasant mandarin taste. They are very high in vitamin C and often used in juice form, sweetened or blended with other fruit. Both Elaeagnus and sea buckthorn are nitrogen fixing, the sea buckthorn seeming to have a tendency to sucker. Sagara had his first nuts on his bladdernut (Staphylea Pinnata) this year, these are a little small due to the hot summer. Inside a one inch inflated balloon fruit is a single shiny nut. This has a very hard but thin seed coat and a sweet flavour. It is said to be like pistachio.
Other plants I haven’t tried yet that Sagara is growing include several Japanese spring vegetables: Hosta, Udo (Aralia) and Petasites are all garden perennial plants that can be cooked and eaten in the spring, as is american pokeweed (Phytolacca), although I gather this last is also considered to be toxic so take care! One plant we didn’t try was the turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). This was a huge dandelion like plant which is supposed to taste mustardy. I suspect that would not go down too well in our house, although the plants did look lovely and robust, so I may give it a go anyhow! Colourful amaranth seedheads surrounded a large fruiting medlar, and several grapes were ripening up trees and scrambling on the sunny banks. Other perennial vegetables Sagara grows include Sea cabbage and sea kale, perennial kale and walking stick kale, oca, Yacon, mashua, japanese yams, walking onion, artichokes (both sorts) and asparagus. Fruit includes apples, plums and other top fruit as well as sechuan pepper, quince (chaenomeles as well as cydonia) mulberry and kiwi. Nuts include hazel, chestnut, walnut and heartnuts and there are a multitude of other purposeful plants providing fibre, shelter, food or nitrogen fixing. I was particularly interested in the miscanthus grass that Sagara is growing as sheltering hedges. This is like a small thin bamboo and I had been wondering if we are warm enough on Skye for it to do well. It grows up to 2 or 3 metres tall in a year once established, creating shelter and forming woody stems that can be cut since they are renewed each year. This produces a large amount of biomass so it has been planted for biofuels in many parts of the UK.
As a place for people to meet, eat and communicate Sagara has a number of structures through the garden. We were lucky enough to stay in a beautiful yurt tent, although he is in the process of taking the canvas structures down for winter. There are sculptures and statues in various niches in the garden, but the whole thing is a work of art. Such abundance of food now, in contrast to the now sterile seeming horse paddock it replaced. We had a lovely discussion with Sagara about farming and hunter gathering, money and land, spirit and body which I really can’t do justice to here. Overall an inspiring start to the holiday (and it was sunny!).