Plants for a future: The Fern’s field

I’ve wanted to visit the field in Cornwall ever since reading Ken Fern’s book ‘Plants for a future’.  I found it so inspirational and it resonated so well with me.  ‘If only carrots grew on trees’ was the starting point for Ken, and he and Addy have made it a life’s work to try out as many useful and edible perennial plants on their land in Cornwall as will grow there.  They also publish Ken’s databases on temperate and tropical plants online.  I had a little confusion between the field, and the ‘plants for a future’ database which I have also found online.  Addy explained that they had set up the charity to promote the work they were doing on the land and support information dissemination.  Being a charity made it easier to get funding.  After a while the then trustees decided to concentrate on the information side and have largely severed ties with the land project.  Ken now maintains his own databases, but they get no financial support from the charity.

interesting and useful
Edible and Useful Plants for a Future

The field is a 28 acre site almost on the coast of south Cornwall near Lostwithiel.  When the Ferns acquired it it was a windswept field.  Now about thirty years on it is a mature woodland.  Half of the site was planted with native trees with the help of a forestry grant (“mainly a Nature reserve to give something back to Nature” says Addy), and the rest is experimental planting, orchards, soft fruit and vegetable plantings. Some of the experimental planting is used by members of the land club which is made up of volunteers who have worked on the field (see the link to the field for more information).  Addy kindly gave us a quick site tour pointing out some of the interesting plants.  There were so many useful tips that I gained from Addy as to the growth and harvest of the different crops: edible, medicinal and otherwise useful. For example the Japanese heartnut fruit ripen earlier and so may be worth a try in Skye rather than Walnut. I was so excited I forgot to take any pictures and had to go round myself later, getting pretty lost in the process!  The trees are so tall that you have no long distance markers, so it is quite easy to get disorientated.  An electricity line bisects the site which is a useful landmark.  Unfortunately the weather had turned slightly damp, so the light was not so good for photography.

sunny clearing
Sun loving shrubs at edge of clearing

Addy said that the apples were generally ripening this year about two weeks early, which had thrown out her normal harvest plans.  There were too many apples for her to harvest them all, so we were concentrating on the ones that would be the most useful to her.  Also importantly her favourite apple, which had memories connected to her mother, which although not doing well every year, had a good crop this year.  Between us, with a ladder and Addy climbing the trees, we were able to get almost all the apples from the selected trees.  They were then graded and packed away in boxes so they can be used or stored as appropriate.  Addy said that they didn’t bother trying to sell the surplus any more, since the apples weren’t perfect enough for retail.  We spent a peaceful night in the orchard, listening to the occasional thump of apples falling.  We had tried to make sure we didn’t pitch our tent directly under a tree!

compost heaps
Ginormous compost heaps

There were two orchard areas, one between fruit and vegetable cages, which seemed to be managed more intensively, and one further away near the woodland.  The garden areas need to be fully fenced against deer, and other productive plants on the site had ingenious armouring as well.  Even the monkey puzzles had been attacked!

deer defences
Deer and rabbit guards

I noticed that one of the sea buckthorn had been pollarded, which would be one way of keeping the fruit in picking height.  We did try some barberry fruit, but they were rather sharp, although still a bit underripe.  I’m rather anti-berberis, having had a few as ornamentals in my previous garden.  I remember the prickles had a habit of going perpendicularly into my fingers and snapping off, being very difficult to remove again.

big haws
The haws in front were about one inch diameter

There were at least three different sorts of fruiting haw.  One was not then ripe (so would probably not ripen at all well on Skye) one was refreshing and substantial-tasting like an apple, and one was sweeter and juicy, more like a soft fruit, almost a cherry.

fig on building
Fig on corner of shed

A kiwi vine had completely swamped the tree it was trained up, and other climbers such as grapes and figs grew against the buildings.  One fruit I am interested in is the plum yew cephalotaxus.  Unfortunately it was not quite ripe, so we were unable to try it.  The hot summer had made the fruit smaller than usual.

plum yew fruit
Plum Yew fruit not yet ripe

A particularly fragrant eleagnus scented the air by the pathways, and I was happy to spot a decaisnea fargesii, blue bean tree, in full fruiting glory.  The fruit look fascinating, and have a most peculiar feel, giving substance to another name of ‘dead mens fingers’.  They are in the same family as Akebia.  The fruit itself was lovely and ripe, sweet pulp inside a leathery skin.  I wonder if the skin is edible as well like akebia is (used as a bitter vegetable in japan).  We tried to do some research online on the train for edible uses in its native range (Nepal and Indian himalayas) but didn’t come up with any details.  The seeds have a thick jelly coating that cling to them.  AC and I shared a pod on the train, and I now have a quantity of seeds to try and germinate!  Actually I kept seed from many of the fruit we tried on the holiday.  Quite often fresh seed will germinate better.  Mostly I know what they are, but I’m not sure which of the haws is which, although they would all be worth growing out as trees if they germinate.

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The facilities at the field are somewhat basic.  Although we made use of the power to charge up the car, there is no flush toilet.  Like Sagara, the Ferns have a composting toilet, albeit a rather more basic one away in the woods.  They are hoping to improve the facilities in order to offer courses at the field and to this end have set up a fund raiser to enable more user friendly facilities to be installed and improvements to the shed for a classroom (see information here).  This has now gone live (as of November) so please consider donating to this worthwhile endeavour to enable sharing of their knowledge to more people in the future.  You can donate online here