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Posted on Tue 30th April, 10:12pm by Sophie L

St Helen's Forest Garden is one of our current projects which combines both practical conservation and an interest in food. Only recently we acquired the lease for the land and can now get the project underway!

The project is based on the idea of permaculture - the creation of a sustainable, agriculturally-productive garden following food growing methods inspired by ancient traditional techniques. Permaculture (derived from the words ‘permanent agriculture’) focuses its attention on the ethical farming of land, taking into consideration the Earth’s finite resources and the ways in which we can grow food following nature’s patterns. Taking it back in time to our simple and humble roots before monocultures, the overuse of fertilisers and overworked land that we have today; we can practise a more sustainable, wildlife and environmentally friendly approach. More than just an agricultural concept, it also incorporates an attitude towards community – bringing people together, whilst teaching and learning fundamental skills in agriculture and self-sufficiency (knowledge that is being lost as we increasingly rely on supermarkets and genetically-modified foods).

Forest Ecology

What is exciting about the forest garden is its interesting design based on the natural landscape and structure of a woodland. What appears to be a random jumble of trees and plants that make up a forest, is actually an intricate arrangement of niche habitats specifically growing in particular areas to suit their needs. The tallest trees dominate, with all the smaller trees, shrubs and vegetation choosing their habitat accordingly under the canopy’s shade. And so as each of these plants are effected by each other (competing for space vertically and horizontally, nutrients in the soil, light) layers are created, and a structure is formed. Forest gardening mimics these elements of forest ecology by carefully organising an assortment of crops (known as companion planting). Arranging the garden vegetation by order of size and their successful pairing alongside other particular plants, we can maintain a multi-layered garden which follows the structure of forest succession. This might comprise of: large fruit trees functioning as the canopy; small fruit trees functioning as the low tree layer; shrubs beneath such as berry bushes; herbaceous plants, beets and herbs, alongside; next, root vegetables creating the rhizosphere; ground-cover fruits such as strawberries covering the soil surface; and finally climbers and vines that would make up the vertical layer of the garden.

Why a forest in favour of a field?

What particularly makes a forest an excellent location for small-scale farming, is it’s self-sufficiency and requirement of little maintenance.  A forest is an eco-system inhabited with wildlife and rich with nutrients. The ground of a forest is made-up of all the fallen leaves and dead organic matter from the trees and vegetation (the detritus and humus) which are packed with minerals and nutrients (such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen) which absorbs into the soil as they decay. The result is a rich and fertile soil – an important factor in farming! Additionally wildlife can aid rather than be a hindrance to crops, for example the encouragement of predators such as ladybirds to the gardening plot can be a solution to controlling pests such as aphids; wasps will eat pests whilst themselves only feeding on nectar; and pigs and chickens will eat fruit fly larvae in fallen fruit. This way, we can utilise nature rather than harmful chemicals.

The St. Helen’s Project

The vision for this area of land, is to create a community supported learning resource for tomorrow’s food growers.

The aims:
• Conserving food plant heritage
• Pioneering food plant futures
• Creating pathways to ‘green enterprise’
• Promoting awareness of food ecology

Our initial objectives in planning the project include:
• Community engagement
• Site cleanup and security
• Raise community finance
• Establish income streams

Phase 2 Objectives:
• Develop self employment and cooperative enterprise training
• Plant production and community composting enterprise development

At this stage we are also thinking about the finer details of governance of the garden, insurance, and forest garden investors and sponsors. We’re feeling very positive about the project and hope to get many people involved. If you would be interested in becoming a Forest Garden volunteer or trainee – please get in touch with us!