East Devon Forest Garden

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.

pond in sunset
Enjoying the evening sun by the sheltered pool

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.

colourful amaranth
Colourful amaranth in sunny spot

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.

solar powered shower
Solar powered shower block

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.

sweet chestnut
Sweet chestnut fruiting at 6 years old

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.

autumn olive
Autumn olive fruit

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.

sea buckthorn
Sea buckthorn fruit

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.

japanese spring vegetables
Petasites and Hosta on shady side of earth bank

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.

miscanthus grass
Miscanthus grass surmounts earthworks by trackway

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!).

yurt
Our Yurt next to italian alder edge plants

 

 

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21 thoughts on “East Devon Forest Garden

  1. Thank you, this is a great description of what seems an amazing place! I really like his vision – it resonates so well with what we’re trying to establish.
    I’m relieved (in a roundabout way…) that some other people also have 1ft high trees after a number of years… We have 2 pecans and a few oaks that are literally 1ft high after 6 years. (OK the one pecan got lopped off 2 years ago by a cowboy bobcat driver… no, not me, not that time… but it’s still less that 1cm thick.)
    May our problem trees suddenly find some magic in the soil and start shooting up!

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  2. It was such an inspirational place! For me the two main issues here are the soil (acid and very shallow over rock) and the wind (40 to 90mph for months with short breaks in between!) The first I can’t do much about, and at least the short trees are less likely to be blown down by the second! In time they shelter each other and do grow but you need to be (very) patient and not get despondent. The shallow soil is one reason to go for coppice wood for timber – keeps the height down, although we’re thinking of targetted coppicing, rather than the more traditional block coppicing, so the regrowth can have as much chance as possible.

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  3. I’d love to have visited this forest garden – definitely on my list for the next time I visit the West Country.
    Anyway, your post about the garden has given me food for thought. I probably won’t be able to fit any more trees into my garden after the planting I do this winter but I would love an autumn olive and a Szechuan pepper.
    My soil isn’t quite as difficult as yours, being neutral at least, but thin soil is inevitably going to be a challenge, especially with windy conditions, isn’t it?

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    1. The autumn olive I would rate quite highly, especially since it is a nitrogen fixing plant. The downside is that you will need at least two plants to get fruit, since like some apples they tend to self infertile. I mentioned the other elaeagnus in bloom now – they fruit in spring, which if the only alternative is rhubarb may make a pleasant change.
      If pushed for space I wouldn’t have the pepper. It is amusing, but there are probably more worthwhile things to grow, depending on your priorities of course!
      The wind is more of a problem than anything else here. I’d rather be sheltered and shady than sunny in the wind…..

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      1. I was thinking of the Szechuan pepper so that I could be more self-sufficient in spices. I think the tree gets quite big, though?
        Once I’ve got all this year’s trees in and the final hugel bed, I can start trying out more perennial vegetables to see if they work better in my soil than annual ones. Then if that doesn’t work, I can revisit the tree situation.
        The autumn olive just looks so pretty and the thought of more autumn colour is quite a draw. Spring fruit is also attractive, though 😊

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      2. Sechuan pepper is a large shrub. Good luck with your perennial veg experiments. Give them a few years (assuming you like them of course) as they will generally get better with age.

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  4. I have stayed with Addy too and nibbled on a szechuan pepper from a magnificient tree in their field – wow it was potent! Make sure you like them before struggling to grow them! I prefer Drimys leaves for a pepper substitute.

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  5. as I was reading I was thinking, Devon he has had it easy, then I saw your comment about still small trees and felt better, I sometimes think gardeners that make something from such inhospitaple places should get some recognition for all their effort, and then I read on and read he ploughed it! I’ve never seen a plough on Lewis and Harris, then I read more and it used to be a horse padock, wow all those years of manure! no wonder everything grows so well, it would be hard to fail,
    I think to do something like that you need to chose a garden in a near perfect location with a near perfect soil and he has, I knew nothing of these things when I came to my garden, and have only learnt about the near impossible task I have taken on in recent years since being online,

    Nancy in the land and climate you garden in you have done brilliantly,

    I can imagine it was nice to stay there,

    about soil levels, because of the winter winds I started growing mostly deciduous trees and shrubs, and perennials, a bonus this has given me I had not thought about is by shedding leaves and dying back they are creating their own beautiful humus around them,

    Frances

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    1. Thanks for your encouragement Frances, I always tell people that comment on how lovely and idyllic it is here that Skye comes as a package. Yes we get stunning scenery and tranquility (more than _they_ know), but the seemingly constant rain and wind and shallow soil that only gardeners and farmers appreciate as well as the distance from infrastructure, lack of decent broadband, fragility of phone and electric etc. we happily take as part of living here.
      Yes, Sagara’s field was a horse paddock, but horses can do a lot of damage to the soil by compaction, and graze all but docken and thistles away. A better starting point than my sheep field, but an achievement none the less!
      I too am expecting that over time my soil will grow back. It is one of the carbon building effects of no-dig as well. Although very slow, even peat bog only grows at a mm or so in 10 years. No one ploughs here much (I have seen one in the glen even) I think the fact that my field had been ploughed contributed to it’s shallow soil. I’m sure 1000 years agao there was more!

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      1. according to Bob Flowerdew we are doing the immposible,
        a few years in a potting shed episode of GQT there was a question from South Uist, they asked what climber would be suitable to cover a chain link fence, Bob Flowerdew answered first by saying it was impossible to grow anything in those conditions, (so why did he open his mouth!), Anne Swithenbank who gardens on a hillside in Devon not far from the coast, suggested several annual and deciduous climbers,
        I felt like sending in a photo of my garden for BF,

        so sometimes when I get a bit down about my garden I remind myself that I have (according to BF) done the immposible,

        and so have you,

        Frances

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    1. I don’t think Sagara is very money motivated as long as he has a little for essentials. Without going into too much detail, our visit is more on the lines of a barter – we did some work and brought some food in exchange for his time and the experience of the garden. I believe he is looking into running retreat weeks – possibly the first to help those making the final move to completely plant based diets. My friend AC, working for the vegan society, was able to give him some connections for this.

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  6. Thank you for such a descriptive and interesting post. It looks like you had a wonderful holiday.

    Reading the comments about growing in Devon compared to other places it seems to me that we can learn a lot from other places and people that can be transferred back to our home patches. But every place is unique and we are all brought or bring ourselves to a place to settle; after that our joint task (with that place) is to help it heal and be the best it can be for its own sake and not in comparison with anywhere else.

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    1. Beautifully put Anni. I’m not about to up sticks and move to Devon, lovely though it is! I did enjoy my holiday and took a lot of new information about the plants I went to see back with me. Every garden is as different as it’s custodian, even though they may look alike at first.

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