Visiting Martin Crawfords Agroforestry research trust

We travelled to Dartington, Devon and got a guide tour with Martin Crawford, the founder of Agroforestry research trust.

It was incredibly interesting to meet the author of the books “Creating a forest garden” (the great forest gardening bible), “How to grow perennial vegetables”, “Food from your forest garden” and the latest – just published 3 days ago; “Tree for Gardens, Orchards and Permaculture”.


As we started off, he gave us a brief introduction: “In tropical areas there is a lot of sun, and the plants can grow very densely and still get enough light. Here further north we have to plant more spacious for the plants to get the sun they need to thrive. But it also depends on the plants you use. Annuals demand more energy and sunlight than perennials. They also demand a lot more energy regarding the work you have to put in to get you crops from them. High input, and relatively low output. Perennials as you know, you only have to plant once – they will come back up year after year – and can even multiply, with very little work from your side. Low input, high output. Being Perennials also means they are a lot stronger plants – and strong and wild plants have a lot higher nutrient than annuals. Industrial grown annuals – produced on depleted soil (which is what most of us eat )is even lower in nutrient.”


Then the tour started. He explained to us about the design behind the forest garden. Unlike monoculture, the plants are placed in many layers. This way it produces far more crops pr square meter: you got the the root producing plants, the lowest crawling herbs, the bushes, the climbing plants, the shrubs and the trees and so on. Most of them are edible. Those who are not, are called “system plants” – they have their own function, often as nitrogen fixers – giving nutrients to the crops, or flowering plants giving food for the insects – preferably most part of the year, and then attracting birds who will also feed on any pests in the garden.

Comfrey -seen with pink flowers bottom right corner of picture under – is a typical system plant. Having deep roots bringing up a lot of minerals for the other plants around and it is also an excellent bee / insect plant.DSC03293

This picture shows Bunias orientalis, Turkish Rocket (the one with the yellow flowers above). It is a perennial broccoli-like plant. The immature flowering stems can be used like broccoli while the leaves provide the first and last greens of the season. It can also be cultivated like cardoon and blanched by tying up the leaves.


What´s with the pond? It is very important element in a forest garden. Of course it serves as a ornamental spot, and you can grow your water and moist loving plants here- but also it is a very helpful habitat for frogs – and frogs eat snails. This is of great value when you grow plants like Hostas, and other snail -favorites. A pond have multiple functions in a garden. It brings in a whole new ecosystem!


Aqueleguia – this beautiful common flower with great spreading ability – is edible! Both flowers and leaves. It has a slightly sweet and nutty taste. Great for extraordinary everyday salads. But be a little careful – don´t eat a pure aquilegia salad. It is poisonous in big quantities (We are talking 20 flowers or more on a row – a few won´t harm).


Elaeagnus umbellata olive – one of his favorite berries. Hardy down to – 35! All Elaeagnus / silver berries are edible, but not all of them are tasty. This one is used both shelter and food.


Polygonatum – Solomons seal is another ornamental vegetable. Widely used as a vegetable in Asia. Martin told us about the use of the shoots in spring.


We walked around – The plants looked as they where totally naturalized. Not much controlled growth. The garden has a quite untidy expression. “- I don´t do much weeding. Maybe once a month in summertime. And when I weed, I don´t pull out the roots. I just cut it, and leave it. I don´t want to disturb the soil, which holds the mycelium of fungi. This has a very important function in the forest garden: The mycelium distributes nutrition to all the plants via the roots. Mycelium can reach several kilometers, so with time it has covered the soil of the entire garden. This way I don´t ever have to fertilize! Fertilizing is otherwise another task in the garden that takes a lot of energy and time. You have to build up the garden gradually of course, but when the soil have been left undisturbed for some time the system starts to be self-perpetuating.” He don´t even make compost, but all the branches and leaves that are cut are left to rot on the ground -like in a natural forest, also giving nutrient and material to the soil. This way the garden is not strictly shaped, but he just give the plants he has planted a little more advantages than the rest that appears naturally.


“Many plants get stressed if you try to keep them in one spot. Plants are not a static object, they are alive, and some plants are travelers. Raspberries is an example of this. They will turn sic and give a poor crop if you try to keep them in line. Then you have to replace them after few years. If you let them travel, they will stay healthy and produce a lot more for many many years. Raspberries are designed to thrive on the edge of forests. And forests don´t stay still, they develop and grow, the borders are constantly on the move. So the raspberries travel with them – this is their nature.”


Chaenomeles japonica `Cido´ – Japanese quince, this is a favorite variety because of its big apples, and high nutrition. Also called the Northern lemon.


Then we reached the bamboo. We don´t get bamboo this long and thick in Norway yet. It depends on the temperature. We can grow many of the same varieties as in Cornwall, they will just turn out a lot smaller! We are looking at an example of the phyllostachys. This is so tender, it can be eaten raw. Usually the bamboos are quite bitter, an need to be steamed, but this one is almost not bitter at all. The shot is peeled and cut; we got to taste. Bamboos can grow quite aggressively, and to control them it is a good thing to eat the shoots. In the garden, he harvest around 100 shoots pr year, and also around 80 of the thick stalks are cut down- they are perfect for light constructions.

DSC03306 DSC03308

He also showed us logs with mushroom mycelium implanted, a theme I wrote about a while ago.

A few more plants from the tour before we end..:

The babingtons leek. It is a native to Great Britain, and is growing like a perennial leek! It reproduces itself with small bulbils growing from the flower, and spreading  around. Leaves can be harvested very early in spring and preferably before the flower appear.

Crataegus – Hawthorn – is another tree in the rose family, widely used as a ornamental and with edible berries. In Devon, Marin used the C. mollis and a variety from Syria. He uses the berries to make jams or fruit leather.

A Kiwi from sibir; the hardy Actinidia arguta gives sweet little kiwis in late autumn /early winter. Ther´s a very big bush of this one growing in the botanical garden in Stavanger, Norway. Kiwis are dioecious, so you´ll need at least two plants to get any fruit, one female (who´ll give you the fruit) and one male.

The Kiwi needs something to climb on. Martin planted it under a lime tree; the Tilia platyphyllos. This is cropped to stay small, and the big leaves are very tasty as salad.


Students eager to learn..

He ended the tour, leaving us with some new thoughts: “Carbohydrate rich plants are difficult to grow and be self-sufficient with. They are high energy demanding plants. But what you CAN grow and is shown to be much healthier, is to take out the carbohydrate rich plants from your diet (flour), and replace them with your own greens and protein rich plants (Personally I like those from the Chenopodiaceae family) and oily nuts.”

This entry was published on May 27, 2015 at 10:42 am. It’s filed under Dartington, Devon, Great Britain and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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