Dartington Forest Garden

forest garden layers
Forest garden layers at Dartington

The forest garden at Dartington was created over the last 24 years by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART).  A forest garden uses useful plants to mimic the layers of a natural woodland to create a stable ecosystem.  It is a popular theme in temperate climate permaculture.  The picture above illustrates the forest garden layers at the edge of the garden by the carpark, including unseen roots (of mashua and japanese yam).  The timing of our holiday was timed around the ability to participate on one of the tours that Martin runs periodically through the year.  It also had to be outside of the peak season on Skye.  I didn’t always catch the latin names of the plants during the tour, so in general I have used the common names that Martin used.  When he did give the latin names I realise that I have probably been mispronouncing them all these years, having mainly learnt them from books!

lollypop alder
Italian alder trees with lower branches removed

The canopy layer is mainly made up of italian alder trees which have had their lower branches removed in order to let more light through.  Even so the garden was much more shady than Sagara’s garden, feeling much more like a woodland with clearings, rather than a field with trees.  Martin has not used soil landscaping to create microclimates, explaining that as his plot sloped south and was sheltered at the start by a wood to the west it had not been necessary.

Having already visited Sagara’s garden many of the plants were familiar to us already, although Martin’s trees were considerably bigger.  He stressed the importance of plotting the area and planting spacing based on mature tree sizes since all the layers will require light to be productive.  Clearings form suntraps that enable Martin to grow even quite tender fruit like persimmon.  It has been a hot year this summer following a cold winter, and many of the fruit are a couple of weeks early, and some that don’t always ripen are doing well.

False strawberry groundcover

Much of the ground under the trees was clear of plants, being covered by leaf mulch.  In the spring there are more bulbs in growth such as wild garlic.  The main spreading ground cover Martin had visible at the time we came was false strawberry.  This has a yellow flower, and although it does set some little red strawberry like fruit, they are disappointingly tasteless.  The false strawberry has the advantage of being evergreen, so protecting the soil year round.  Other shade loving ground covers included Hosta, and fiddlehead fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) both of which I fancy growing.  There was also mint, ground covering raspberries and japanese wineberry, with comfrey and turkish rocket in the sunny spots.  Martin said that turkish rocket was one of the few plants that could happily compete with comfrey.  Other ground layer plants included more of the japanese spring vegetables, solomons seal and japanese ginger, which is harvested by cutting the growing shoots rather than digging it up.  The main weed that Martin gets seeding in the garden is Ash trees.  Sadly this may not be the case for much longer, since the ash dieback has spread to the county.

hosta and fern
Hosta and fiddlehead fern thrive in the shade


Martin talked about the importance of soil mycellium (fungal networks)  in sharing the nutrients about the wood.  They also can spread warnings amongst the plants.  If one plant is stressed or attacked by pests it releases chemicals that, transmitted by the mycellium, stimulate other plants to increase their own chemical defences.  Martin said that generally it isn’t neccessary to innoculate the soil.  As long as it wasn’t disturbed, the fungi would already be in the soil, particularly close to existing trees.  It is however possible to buy edible fungi spawn to encourage more edible fungi in your forest garden, and he also showed us an oyster mushroom log that he had stimulated to fruit before we came.  It is possible to have a number of logs that are ready to produce mushrooms and trigger them in turn so as to have a continuous supply of mushrooms.  I have tried unsuccessfully to grow mushrooms on newspaper ‘logs’.  I think that because I wrapped them in bin liners to keep them damp the spawn was suffocated, so I may have another go.

Martin Crawford
Martin Crawford at Dartington


There are a number of trees that Martin grows for leaf crops, either as salad greens or as cooked vegetables.  One that I recently got is Toona sinensis or toon tree (visible as tall shrub layer in top photo).  This has leaves that when young, are eaten as a vegetable in china.  We tried a little leaf, and it tastes rather like an aromatic onion.  Salad leaves include small leaved lime (tilia cordata), which has quite pleasant mild tasting young leaves, beech (fagus sylvatica), which I always find a bit tough even when young, and white mulberry.  We tried the leaves of the latter, and again I found it a bit tough, although not unpleasant in flavour.  It may have been better when younger, or cooked though.  Martin pollards all these trees to keep a supply of young leaves in easy reach, but out of reach of browsing deer.

mulberry leaves
White mulberry leaves (at left)

Other interesting shrubs included relatives of the common bog myrtle, which itself has edible leaves used like bay leaves.  The wax myrtle has similar uses for the leaves and also the berries have a waxy coating that can be melted off and used in candles and sealing etc.  These are nitrogen fixing in boggy ground, so may be ideal in certain areas of my field!  I do have the wax myrtle on my list of ‘wants’, although I am having difficulty in getting seed to germinate.  You need male and female plants to set berries.  I do have some bog myrtle down by the river, although am not sure whether they are male or female.  It is useful if caught by midges, since they don’t like it’s aromatic foliage.

wax myrtle
Not that great a picture of wax myrtle!

Another nitrogen fixing tree is the judas tree.  We did see this at EDFG, but didn’t know what it was.  Martin had a good sized tree which I asked about.   Prior to arriving at Dartington, we saw another in a green space where we had our picnic lunch.  It has distinctive heart shaped leaves.  Apparently the flowers are edible and come out before any of the foliage on bare branches.  I collected some seedpods from the one we saw at our picnic spot, so I may see if I can get some seed to germinate.

We tried some sechuan pepper seeds, they are very peppery and made my lips and tongue numb for a few minutes.  Apparently this doesn’t happen with the dried fruit, which can be mixed with salt and ground together for salt and pepper seasoning.  I quite fancy trying to grow this.  Apparently there are lots of similar shrubs all called sechuan pepper, so I’ll have to check with Martin the one that he uses!  Nepalese pepper is quite similar, but ripens later, so is less likely to be suitable on Skye.

An interesting edible that I didn’t remember from my reading is the Trachycarpus ‘palm tree’.  Apparently it has huge flowers that can be used like cauliflower.  I know this will grow locally here on Skye, and I did have a couple but gave them away since I wasn’t sure where to put them.  I sort of regret that now!

Trees that I forgot to mention from EDFG that we also saw in the Dartington garden were alternative haws.  There are several plants closely related to our native hawthorne that have bigger and nicer berries.   I have one, Crataegus arnoldiana, although it hasn’t flowered for me yet.  Martin had several haws which we were able to sample the fruit of.  I have ordered seeds of lots of different varieties from the ART to try and grow this year.  If I find one that does well for me, I may be able to graft it on to the common hawthornes.

There was a clear area under a huge pine tree that Martin sometimes uses as an outdoor classroom.  He says it is important not to forget the people in the garden and have a space for them to use.  It was impressive that the huge tree had been grown by Martin from seed (as were most of the more unusual trees we saw).  He talked about harvesting resin from the tree and the uses it has (turpentine, rosin etc.).

edible pond
Edible pond area

A pond area was also planted with edible plants: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia – has edible tubers), mint (needs no explanation) and Houttuynia Cordata.  This last we tried a leaf of.  It has a strange fishy orange taste that I wasn’t too keen on but some others liked.  It is a popular vegetable with fish in china.  A little research reveals that in some climates it can be invasive, but I don’t think I’ll bother with it, although I do fancy developing an edible pond/bog area below the barn!

In summary, this was a truly inspirational visit again.  Such a treat for me to meet Martin Crawford who has done so much for the development of agroforestry in the UK and internationally.

13 thoughts on “Dartington Forest Garden

    1. Certainly a contrast to my trees still! The idea is to create a low input (once established) system. Martin just mows the paths now and ‘weeding’ is simply cutting the unwanted plants to knock them back and stop seeding. Most work is harvesting!

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  1. I used to have a japanese quince (chaenomeles japonica) in Solihull. It came with the house and had lovely scarlet flowers followed by hard aromatic fruit. I did make jelly with them once or twice, once I realised they actually were edible. In the UK they are grown for their flowers of different colours and are very hardy (I’ve seen them grown around here but haven’t got one yet). Cydonia oblonga is the true quince and I have never grown it. I think it is a mediterranean tree so prefers hotter summers. I could have tried it in Solihull, but would be a waste of effort here. They have sparse blossom like large apple blossom and fruit that looks like a pear again used mainly for cooking I think although I’ve not had any experience of it.


  2. thank you for this post it is very interesting, so much I can’t take it all in now so I will be back for further visit, probably 2 or 3 times, I have heard a lot about forest gardening and read quite a bit but without tall trees it needs adapting, and as our climate is so different from most of the UK,
    I can see why you wanted to visit, well worth it, Frances

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    1. In a smaller/windier place you can omit the canopy layer. We need to make sure there
      are plenty of windbreak trees and not too much shade, since we get less (strong) sun anyhow.
      I’ve just found it fascinating over the years how many edible plants we only appreciate as ornamentals. Writing it up as a ‘blog post helps to get what I learnt clearer in my mind.

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      1. planting a windbreak and planting a hedge are 2 different things I now know but didn’t when I started here, I have also found that planting closer than suggested plant spacing in my garden has plants growing better, they like the company,

        I too have become interested in how many of the plants that I am already growing are edible not only to wildlife but me too! though I am also finding that edible is not the same as tasty! it is a steep learning curve as all gardening is but an extremely interesting one,



  3. Yes edible is not necessarily the same as tasty, or indeed nutritious! Some of the edible haws I tried were however, at least as tasty as any apple I’ve had (I just wish I could remember which is which) and the elaeagnus were also really nice, acid and sweet. Some things I’ve tried are less nice, or even unpleasant, and of course you should always be wary when trying new foods in case they just don’t agree with you. I think I could grow to like some of them in small quantites especially if they grow well for me.
    One row of hedge is definately not the same as a windbreak, or at least is not likely to even be a hedge without some protection! Interesting thst you find plants grow better at closer spacing. Is this a shelter effect do you think, or root/fungal networks?


    1. I think the shelter effect is definately part of it, also when they are closer there is less room for tough grasses and weeds to grow around and between them, I do not know what is happening under ground but very possibly there could be interaction there,
      most of my hedges are double but it has taken over a decade for them to get going and some just died,
      because I didn’t know much about gardening, I used to follow the books, not any more, I refer to some for reference but then adapt using my previous experience of what works for my garden’s situation,
      yesterday I followed the link to agroforestry, it is an interesting site with a lot on it, needs some repeat visits, thanks for sharing,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve bought quite a few plants and seeds from Martin at ART over the years. They’ve always been good plants, but not always survived with me. Also the postage tends to add quite a bit on….
        I don’t think plants read books, probably just as well, or nothing would grow for us!


    1. It was great! This article didn’t really do it justice because I skipped over most of the trees that I’d already seen at EDFG. I’d love to have been able to visit Martin’s other sites as well (have you seen the pictures of his greenhouse?) but we just didn’t have time.


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