Sunday 9 July 2023

Plants, Wildlife and Polycultures for Forest Gardens and Regenerative Landscapes - Part 4

Welcome to part 4 of a series where we'll be posting some observations and experiences about the various plant species from our forest gardens and regenerative landscapes, as well as interesting plants and polycultures from around the world. We'll be featuring plants from different layers of the forest garden, presenting some established polycultures, and providing some suggestions about how to design, build and manage forest gardens and regenerative landscapes.

Forest Garden Plants 

Lower Canopy Layer Corylus avellana - Hazelnut are ripening around mid summer. These plants are quite odd in that pollen is released from the male catkins in bursts across a 4- 6 week period in January - March. The pollen germinates as soon as it reaches a receptive flower but the fertilization process does not take place for another 4-5 months in June. Once fertilized the female flowers develop into nuts very rapidly with 90% growth occurring within 4 - 6 weeks.  

For more info about growing and caring for Hazel see here The Amazing Hazel - The Essential Guide to Everything you need to know about growing Hazels

Shrub Layer Vitex agnus-castus - Chaste Tree although called a tree it behaves like a shrub and although generally a full sun plant it grows well in the dappled shade of a large tree with an light canopy such as Gleditsia triacanthos - Honey Locust  or Prunus armeniaca - Apricot. The plant has an amazing history medicinally, and has been used for thousands of years for its beneficial effect on the female hormonal system, the seeds being used to restore balance to the female reproductive system.

It's a great plant for xeriscaping being very drought tolerant, an attribute it would have needed to survive in its native range of North Africa and West Asia. Interestingly, this plant forms one of the ingredients of the legendary Moroccan spice mixture 'ras el hanout'. 

Although from the warmer regions of the world Vitex agnus-castus - Chaste Tree  can tolerate very cold winters down to -20 celsius.  

Herb Layer -  Levisticum officinale - Lovage is one of our favorite herbs in the forest garden. The flowers attract huge amounts of beneficial pest predators such as parasitic wasps and lacewings, ladybugs, tachinid flies and numerous other flies and bees, especially honey bees. 

The plant is a classic culinary herb and the leafy greens will start to appear in early spring, I find the flavor too overwhelming for mixing in salads and stir fries but is a little works ok. The plants will grow a meter + by the beginning of summer when the flowers start to erupt and the flowering period can last up to 4 weeks in some seasons. We'll leave the plants to reach senescence and decompose over the winter as the hollow stems of the plants can make great nesting sites for beneficial invertebrates. When the new leaves appear in the spring we'll cut back last years growth and round we go again.  

Ground Layer -  Physalis alkekengi - Chinese Lantern can make a great ground cover in the forest garden. In deep shade they will spread slowly but with enough light 4-6 hrs  they can spread quickly to form an attractive and dense ground cover. We're using the plant under mature Prunus avium - Sweet Cherry between Rubus fruticosus cv. - Blackberry and a Corylus avellana - Hazelnut that is grown for biomass rather than nuts.  

Inside the intricate "lanterns" in late summer/early autumn are little red edible berries the taste of which can vary from sweet to bitter, usually they make an acceptable nibble. 

Physalis alkekengi - Chinese Lantern spreads primarily through rhizomes, which are underground stems that give rise to new shoots and roots. This allows the plant to form clumps or colonies over time, creating a dense and visually striking presence in the landscape. The seed from the fruits will germinate easily in our experience and is a great way to promote a genetic diversity of plants for the gardens. We'll remove the seeds when the fruits are ripe , wash the seeds and sow them immediately  in the autumn in trays. The trays will overwinter inside the sunroom and should start germinating within 4-6 weeks.    

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Weevils (Curculionidae) are some of the most common beetles in our gardens. Although strict herbivores, they rarely cause significant damage to crops.

Always a pleasure to observe The European Praying Mantid - Mantis religiosa in the gardens. This is a young specimen no more than 4 cm long. From early summer through to late September you can find mantids in the garden but you have look quite hard as they are often on plants with similar coloration to their bodies. They are predators of many types of insects, including flies, moths, grasshoppers, crickets and aphids (when very young).  Mantids will also feed on some beneficial insect species and female Mantids will often eat the male after mating.

One of our favorite garden residents has to be Hyla arborea - European tree frog, not least because they are primarily arboreal, meaning they spend a significant portion of their lives in trees and shrubs so we hardly ever see them.

They inhabit a range of environments, including forests, woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and gardens and require suitable breeding sites, such as ponds, ditches, or still-water areas, for reproduction. The breeding season for European tree frogs typically occurs from April to July and during this time, males gather near water bodies and call to attract females, this is when we're most likely to see them. After mating, the females lay their eggs in small clusters, which adhere to aquatic vegetation or other objects in the water. Tadpoles hatch from the eggs and undergo a metamorphosis into froglets.

They are insectivorous, feeding on a variety of small invertebrates, including insects, spiders, and other arthropods using  their sticky tongues to capture prey.


Here is a five-layer polyculture we have growing in an open area of our forest garden. This polyculture has been growing well for over 8 years but since the photo was taken 3 years ago, the  Spartium junceum - Broom died off following some heavy pruning (I reduced more than half the biomass and the plant did not recover) and the Zanthoxylum piperitum - Japanese Pepper Tree also died and I still have no idea why on that one. We've added a few more plants to the area and replanted the Vitis vinifera cv. - Wine Grape to a more appropriate location. 

Polycultures are dynamic and often when you have many plants growing together things can change fast and sometimes it's difficult to work out why they change.   

That's all for now !

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