What we're doing on our patch

We live in Wexford, on the south east coast of Ireland and for day jobs we both work in the music industry. Backstage after a gig one evening through mutual friends, I met nature activist, reformed landscape designer and Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner – Mary Reynolds. We started talking and we haven’t really stopped since…

Mary was working on a book – The Garden Awakening – and she needed help bringing it to fruition. So much of what Mary was talking about resonated with Joe and me. The main idea being that we, as humans, have a responsibility to become guardians of the earth – not mere gardeners, fighting against nature to have a controlled outdoor space – but a garden that works in harmony with the land and nurtures all creatures, rooted and un-rooted, including us humans..

The book is a guide for an alternative way of gardening based on Mary’s own instinctual methods, forest gardening and Masanobu Fukuokas ideas of natural gardening. There is a lot of cross over with permaculture ideas too.

So in 2015 when our eldest daughter went to college to study, it left us with one less horse, a lot less laundry, a fuller fridge and an empty 1/8 acre paddock….we had the perfect spot to start a forest garden from scratch. We all three wanted to bring a design off the page of the book and into reality to see how it would work in Ireland so, with Mary’s help we took the plunge! It has become an ongoing, living experiment and we can attest to it having an overall tremendously positive effect on all of us and has changed the way that we interact with the land under our care…

The forest garden approach is a way of growing perennial crops in multiple layers mimicking the natural patterns of plants in a multi tiered, medium stage, woodland system. For us, growing food in such a way that nourishes the land and ourselves and provides habitats for wildlife above and below the soil, made us feel like were doing something incredibly powerful for our family and our land and at least take one small step outside of an industrialized system that is giving us food that is unhealthy at best and possibly poisonous at worse.

We use no chemicals at all to kill anything and only plant based fertilizers. We make witches brews of nettles, comfrey or seaweed and mulches of tree bark or compost to help feed the soil. We also use nitrogen fixing plants as companions to fruit and berry trees and shrubs. What used to be normal, unquestioned behaviour for so many of us with spraying chemicals to kill things, has become a serious no no for us. There are always alternatives to using counter intuitive poisons on the land.

We now just mow a path where necessary through the lawn grasses and leave them long and able to grow to maturity with one cut for the lot in early winter. Swathes of clovers, birds foot trefoil and a host of other native species that were in the seed bank and have been allowed grow create habitat that attracts and feed the insects, which in turn feed the birds, frogs and small mammals. We are infinitely prouder of having an environment where we know what we’re doing does not harm anything on purpose. It’s a no brainer. We might have a few more ‘weeds’ but so what? In our heads they are now positively re-branded as crucial native flowers and they are welcomed. We are learning all the time of the very special symbiotic relationships that exist between so many of our native flora and fauna and they both need a space to thrive if they are to succeed into the future.

Drawing of the 7 layers of the forest garden by Ruth Evans

We also don’t dig over the earth where possible. Unbeknownst to me before I met Mary, there lives a massive mycelium network that connects and helps all of the plants and lives just under the soil. We’re all only recently starting to understand how plants talk to each other and help each other out with this intricate network. Being able to warn each other of danger and being able to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbour as it were, if there is a particular nutrient that it needs. Instead of digging things over we’re introducing a lot of organic matter as mulches on top of the soil and planting down through these layers rather than disturbing the soil bed in a more traditional way.

Alongside a fire pit area, another key design feature of all Mary’s gardens is to incorporate a wishing circle. I may have been slightly dubious at first with these ideas but I went with it and I’m very glad that I did. Where else makes the most sense to sit and wish and dream and ponder than outside in your own natural space, planted by your own hands with your own families needs in mind – in fact it’s the best spot in the world and it’s a real draw for everyone that comes into the garden. The circle has a sentinel of 10 silver birch trees surrounding my wishing tree of hawthorn and I’m planting as many foxgloves and teasels around the base of the trees as I can fit in. It makes a real buzzy haven to sit amongst.

We are now six years into the project and from a bare paddock we have come a tremendously long way and have never looked back. It’s been hard but incredibly rewarding work. Once all the various 7 layers of the FG have grown to maturity the intensive workload should decrease, but I’m sure there will always be things to be tipping away at at! We have 8 fruit and nut trees in the space that will ultimately make up the canopy layer and this year and last we’ve been adding bigger shrubs that will form the next tier down and nitrogen fixing plants too. The shelter belt hedging is all made up of a permaculture mix of trees and shrubs and we already have a tonne of interesting berry bushes in situ. We started a herbal and medicinal area too and it’s been really interesting to learn about the various plants and how they can be used. It’s been a massive learning curve for us but we’re very glad we started and we’re not going to stop now!

THE BFG (big forest garden)

Because we noticed how much life was drawn into the forest garden in even the first few years, the natural progression was to just keep going and expand our planting and way of approaching the land into our other 2 acres. There were no ponies on it any more that would have eaten everything in sight, so we started by planting a small coppice area and it grew legs and arms from there!

 

Alongside us, Mary had gone one step further along a re wilding school of thought and started a global movement called We Are The ARK, which stands for Acts of Restorative Kindness to the earth. We were all discovering just how much of a huge catastrophe is unfolding around us, without us really being that conscious of it. Unbelievably we have wiped 60% of biodiversity from the planet and it appears that each day that passes we lose a further 200 species. Once gone, they’re gone forever. Once the insects go, we won’t be far behind them. We are reliant on them for so many things that we are just taking for granted. Our baseline for what is normal to see and experience in the natural world, is changing drastically with each generation. Biodiversity loss is arguably a bigger worry than climate change but both are bedfellows and I’m sure are unfortunately giving each other a hand to pull us down a slippery slope.

So much of the natural world is being pushed out and marginalized and nature has smaller and smaller areas to thrive in. We haven’t got huge tracts of land that we can re-wild here, but we do have the potential to try and make a difference on the land under our care. So, we are ‘Arking’ a lot of it. In the real world that means trying to create as many beneficial habitats as possible and encouraging as many native species as we can handle, into the fields. Letting nature do her thing basically and giving her a helping hand if we see help is needed.

 

The main ARK idea is if we could all heal even half of the pieces of land we are responsible for – however big or small – we have the very real possibility of creating a network of interdependent, truly living places and corridors and not just a patchwork of millions of collective acres given over to manicured relatively dead lawns.

These past few years instead of pulling out all the thistles for example, we leave them and are rewarded with a HUGE amount of butterfly, bee and insect action in the early summer.  Then when they have gone to seed, the finches move in for a feast.  The nettles and all the native wildflowers we have are now left to do what they need to do, which is to provide food and life cycle shelter for so many creatures that have made their home here. In the few years that we have left things be, we have noticed a huge increase in biodiversity.

We dug out a big marl hole where the water always pooled when we had the ponies in the field. Being in Ireland and not being a stranger to the rain, it didn’t take long before it was full of water and full of interesting life. Diving beetles moved in pretty immediately and then the dragonflies and damsel flies weren’t far behind them. In the first coppice of Alder, Hornbeam, Field Maple, Willow and Birch trees we have already noticed an uptick in birds like siskins and red polls visiting that area to feed on the insects that live amongst the branches and the cones. We have continued to plant trees in lots of other areas of the fields now too because why not? It has to be of huge benefit to the nature all around us…and we do like a bit of nature in this house.

Where the grass in the field has been left and has grown long, its great habitat for small mammals, invertebrates and frogs and as a result we get regular visits from a buzzard or two that sit patiently on top of a post waiting for something to rustle in the undergrowth and give itself away. Last year we even saw our first long eared owls in the fields actively keeping the rodents at bay!

Everyone that has come into the garden has commented independently on what a good energy comes from being in it. It still feels very much like a work in progress and of course in regular gardening terms it is a challenge for some eyes to overlook the hay mulch and nettles or dandelions and straggly bits that we’ve historically been trained to eradicate as soon as they pop their heads up, or the growing piles of dead material left about the place. But – there is a beauty and need in all of this garden – other than it just looking good through our own eyes – and that’s probably rooted in its own authenticity as a fairly wild space that is being made specifically to consider what lives above and beneath.

This is certainly not a fast track approach to anything – but then what gardening project is? I do however, have faith that it will be a most beautiful and giving space in the fullness of time – in fact – it already is and surely it can only get better…