An Edible Forest Garden in Ireland

Greenhouse was constructed with local stones and recycled windows and car windscreens

Forest Garden Conversion in Ireland

By Brian Ragbourn Ph.D

It was not an intention to forego material comforts for a life with no electricity or running water that inspired me to move into a log cabin in Ireland. Rather, there are not many houses near the Irish Master Unit, (Ananda Bharati, Sunrise Farm), and at that time even fewer were for sale. (The situation has changed – there are now several properties in the neighbourhood which are on the market.) The simple lifestyle can be recommended, although courtesy of the sun, wind and rain, the standard mod cons are again becoming part of my life.

I have planted an orchard, which in addition to pears, apples and plums, also produced greengages, mulberries and almonds for the first time this year. There are also several fenced enclosures for soft fruit bushes, plus a greenhouse that has a second storey with sleeping space should anyone want a 24/7 experience of living and breathing with Nature.

My attention is currently focused on planning and planting an edible forest garden, which will comprise trees, shrubs, bushes, plants from around the world that will thrive in this climate zone. Needless to say, the tastiest, most adaptable foreign species were imported long ago. Rhubarb, for instance, was brought to Europe from China via the ancient Silk Road.

Care is needed with selection, however, certain foreign edibles could be a nightmare. Japanese knotweed, the stems of which can be eaten, is so invasive that it could be a full- time job keeping it in check. Better to order single plants, which can then be propagated, from nurseries like the Agroforestry Research Trust (UK) and Fruit and Nut (Ireland) that specialise in exotic cultivars..

Designing a forest garden can either start by planting out trees and shrubs in what is currently a field or meadow. Or alternatively, by clearing an area of trees to establish a glade for planting fruit bushes and other perennials. I am approaching from both ends of the spectrum. I have replaced the gorse on a south-facing slope with an orchard, and have infiltrated a forested area with some shade-tolerant gaultheria shallon and groundcover raspberries. Some damson and apple trees planted in raised beds on a windswept bog land are also thriving well.

Last winter I planted out an elderberry grove consisting of eight different cultivars from Europe and beyond, the Canadian elder will produce flowers throughout the summer due to the absence of an identical tree for pollination. Should this extended supply of elderflowers prove superfluous, it should be straightforward to take a cutting and plant it, as elders are easy to propagate.

The elderberry apparently has a similar vitamin and nutritional content to blueberries, and is considerably easier to grow. This year the blackbirds ate most of the fruit from my blueberry patch, pecking off the berries as they ripened. I would visit early morning only to find that the diminishing supply of green berries never seemed to ripen. Blackbirds also eat some of the raspberries, but as there are plenty enough for all of us it has never troubled me.

The first step in designing a forest garden is to determine which trees and plants can be confidently left to live in harmony with the existing animal and bird population.

My fascination with viewing deer, stoats, hares, red squirrels, pine martens and a wide variety of birds through the windows, and pipistrelle bats fluttering outside at night, tends to encourage a live-and-let-live Hiawatha perspective. Yet cute as they are, deer and hares would gladly strip off the bark and chomp at the branches of some of my newly planted saplings, if given half a chance.

If it is the dharma of a plant species to flower and fruit, then the person who plants it has a certain responsibility, particularly if it is an exotic species in the process of adapting to unfamiliar soil, wind, and rainfall conditions. My fruit saplings are invariably ring-fenced within 4 stakes with mesh wrapped around in the shape of a funnel, to enable the removal of self-seeded flora without undoing the mesh. The wooden stakes rot after some years, by which time the tree trunk and limbs are no longer a delicacy to the deer and hares. Other trees, such as elder, ash and birch may temporarily require simpler protection. Currant bushes, gooseberries, tayberries, groundcover raspberries, gaultheria, elaeagnus etc., can be left unprotected.

When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you

Ring-fencing is time consuming. Where the topsoil is not very deep I sometimes make a dry-stone raised- bed, whereby the process of collecting stones, constructing the four sides of the raised bed, then importing soil, and finally tree planting can take several days, just for one tree. Due to this extensive preparation, the actual planting of the tree is performed with much TLC. (I was surprised to find TLC listed as a word in the dictionary, for those unfamiliar with the expression, it means tender loving care: a useful addition to the vocabulary.)

The TLC which accompanies planting, mulching and pruning strengthens the bond between the planter and the planted. By means of psychogalvanic reflex (PGR) apparatus in conjunction with a polygraph machine it has been possible to monitor subtle variations in plant activity. In 1966 the late Cleve Backster famously sandwiched a leaf of a potted dracaena plant between a pair of electrodes, and recorded a drastic reflex in its electrical resistance which coincided with his intention to burn the leaf with a match. His subsequent research has confirmed that house-plants respond to a wide range of emotional excitements and traumas experienced by their human waterer, even when that person is situated many kilometres away.

This extraordinary biocommunication has been successfully reproduced by numerous researchers, notably, in 1972 by Soviet scientist V.N.Pushkin, and also by Col. John Alexander and staff at the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command headquarters in Washington DC in July 1983.

Most of these laboratory experiments were conducted with potted plants, which typically receive a minute of human attention per day. Imagine what response might occur from a tree that has received an unconditional dose of TLC. I can almost envisage a future scenario in which an orchard behaves like an orchestra in tune with the emotional rhythm and flow of its caretaker?

In addition to potential attunement, mesh protection also provides a cautious level of preparedness should a neighbour’s horse roam onto the land, or a herd of cows break through the fence. Whereas in a pasture, horses and ponies can usefully act as eco-lawnmowers, an established low-maintenance forest garden with plenty of perennials requires no grazing. Were there to be a reduction in human meat-eating brought about by circumstance or choice, this could be the blueprint for future farming.

The Global Garden

Shrii P.R. Sarkar frequently used the garden metaphor; the colourful flowers in the garden representing one human society. A forest garden reflects this in the realms of internationality and its colourful display. This Autumn’s hues of the sugar maples, service tree, and snowberry were particularly pleasing to the eye, and are merely an example of the unfamiliar riot of colour that the forest garden potentially offers. The wide range of fruits ensures a continual stream of different ripening berries throughout the summer, which encourages some interesting combinations in smoothies and jams – a bit like sending the taste buds to another planet.

Last winter the 2kw, Miniwind turbine survived 100mph+ gales

I recently ordered a dozen cobnut trees, and afterwards wondered whether they should be planted in rows, like the damsons, or dotted randomly around like the fruit orchard and the elder grove? Then a flash of inspiration; why not arrange them in a giant Tree of Life configuration, that would be visible from afar? The idea has since crystalised, and I’m all fired up. Roll on December when the trees get delivered.

Another success has been several ponds that were dug out by a mechanical digger. Water boatmen and dragonflies flit around the surface in summertime, and frogs and tadpoles frequent it during the winter and spring. One pond attracted a couple of ducks. At the end of a physically-demanding summer’s day during the pre-running-water era I would often bathe in the stream. Then due to the water being warmer, I later favoured one of the ponds, which had an outlet gully. One visitor thus quipped that whereas some people bought rubber ducks to put in their bathtub, I had real ducks in mine.

Delays enabled improvements to the bathroom design, thus the hare and tortoise

Yields from forest gardens are three to four times higher per acre than for standard agricultural land. Unlike fields and meadows, forest gardens make good utilisation of the vertical dimension. As vegetation grows skywards, a greater proportion of the sun’s energy becomes reflected, refracted and absorbed via chlorophyll and photosynthesis, which promotes the growth of more produce. While the deeper roots of the trees and perennials nitrogen- fix the soil, the foliage and shed wood adds bulk to the soil.

As a farming option, this steady expansion of our planetary surface area would create more space for future generations. So edible forest gardening not only makes maximum utilisation of the Earth’s resources, but maximum utilisation of the Sun’s resources too. That has got to be PROUTistic!

Anybody interested in some practical forest garden experience will be most welcome, please contact