It’s been a long winter since the first fit. A winter in which a lot hasn’t been happening. Some folk haven’t been going to work and others haven’t been working at all. Passengers haven’t been getting on the buses that continue to sail empty through our town. And the ambitious winter planting programme that we gleefully devised last year, was beset by a series of delays. However, we have not been idle. We have been spending a lot of time learning, planning and collecting cardboard.
Cardboard? Yes, cardboard. We decided from the very beginning that we would adopt the no-dig approach of Charles Dowding. Then obvious attraction is in the name: no dig means no sweat, no aches and pains, no exhaustion, no endless hours of making seemingly no progress. But there are also very strong positive reasons for using this approach, especially in a forest garden. As I said last September, forest gardening is the imitation of nature. Have you ever seen Nature, with a spade in its hand , digging itself with sweat rolling down its clouds? No, but with only half an eye open you’ll have seen the leaves fall in autumn and the plants dying back and giving themselves to the soil. The animals play their part too, though there are very good reasons for using those little blue bags and taking them home with you. Digging, it is said, loosens the soil. It certainly does, and it also loosens the millions of dormant weed seeds that lie below the surface and chops up the roots of perennial weeds with the same effect as pruning a tree: encouraging fresh growth. Nature doesn’t seem to need to loosen the soil. What it does is to mulch, mulch and mulch again. So that is what we have been doing over the winter.
You can think of it as a kind of lasagne. First we put down cardboard, three layers of it, the thicker the better, and overlapping at the edges. This is to keep down the grass and weeds. Next we add a generous layer of woodchip. This is light biomass which itself will rot down quite quickly. The next layer is seaweed, an excellent source of nutrition. And to top it off, we add compost, rich, black, Discovery compost from Dundee. The cardboard has come from many places (thank you if you have donated), but the bulk has been from Fife Cycle Centre, where they are selling bikes as fast as they can get them, and each one comes in its own strong, thick cardboard box, ideal for mulching. The woodchip has come from Ian the tree surgeon, who would have to find some other way to dispose of it if he wasn’t delivering it to us. We harvested the seaweed ourselves, from the beach behind Harbour Road, transporting it to the garden in the Plantmobile. And the compost has come from the good people of Dundee, who sort their rubbish and put all the kitchen and garden waste in their brown bins. All four materials are sourced locally and three come from waste, which would otherwise go into useless and harmful landfill, while the fourth comes from the endless bounty of the sea, renewing itself with every tide.
And other things have been going on too. Janice has taken an online forest gardening course and massively expanded her knowledge of the plants to use and how to combine them into guilds, as well as design principles and many other challenging points. We owe her a lot because she has made most of the choices of plants and where to put them, as well as the network of narrow paths that are starting to give the garden its shape. And we have started to plant. From the prize medlar tree to the tiny shoots of rhubarb, the forest garden plants are beginning to assert their presence in their new home. We are looking forward to watching them grow and interact.
Interact? I mentioned combining plants into guilds. A guild is a grouping a plants, trees, animals, insects, and other components that work together to help ensure their health and productivity. All of these elements interact in ways that are not possible in conventional monoculture. The difficult part is knowing which combinations work best together: probably the steepest of our learning curves. And that brings us back to the edge. The edge is where the diverse elements interact, in human culture as well as in permaculture; it is the place where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts and we will be watching it very closely as the garden grows. If you would like to watch with us – and help us with our work – please get in touch with PLANT Volunteer Coordinator, Ali Butler, at firstname.lastname@example.org.