Forest Gardening

Our Incredible Edible Civic Centre garden is off to a flying start, with lots of plants in the ground already, and we've been delighted with the number of people helping out and showing an interest in the garden. But a surprising number of people have been rather shocked at the idea of us growing food in such a location. "You can't grow vegetables under trees," we've been told! "You're doing it all wrong!"

Yes, traditionally the veg patch goes in the sunniest part of the garden. Traditionally the soil is plied with compost and manure until it's rich and bursting with nutrition. Traditionally vegetables are grown in neat rows and square beds. But this is not the only way to grow plants, and those traditional vegetables are not the only edible crops out there... There are more than 50,000 edible plant species! How many do we find in the supermarket or in the traditional veg patch?

Forest gardening is a sustainable and low-maintenance food production system that mimics a natural woodland ecosystem, to make best use of space and resources. It's a permaculture approach, designed in harmony with nature to benefit both nature and humans. Nature has been growing plants a lot longer than we have, and much more efficiently - there is plenty we can learn by looking at how it does things!

Imagine walking through a woodland. The tree canopy above casts dappled shade and sunlight, which changes throughout the year. Between the trees there are shrubs and bushes, and either side of the path a mix of medium-height herbaceous plants and low-growing groundcover weeds. Ivy and other vining plants climb a few of the trees. Everything grows in harmony and plants sustain themselves and each other for many, many seasons without input from any human. There are no straight lines or squares, there's no digging or manure, there's a rich mix of plants growing close together in endless combinations. Now imagine every plant in this woodland is edible...

Diagram by Graham Burnett

Forest gardening has much in common with agroforestry, which is gaining popularity in many parts of the world. Trees are planted in rows between and across fields of more conventional crops, to provide habitat for predatory insects and birds, reduce evaporation, reduce soil erosion and run-off, provide shelter from the wind, provide an additional fruit or fuel crop - and the list goes on. By moving away from conventional industrial farming towards something that looks a little more like nature, farmers are taking better care of the earth and getting more from their land.

Our new garden will contain lots of tasty and nutritious edible plants that you may not have heard of before. Many are perennials (which last through winter and go on for many years), others spread by dropping their own seed to come up the next year, and we will sow just a few 'crowdpleasers' from seed each year. Some are native wild plants that you can actually find in the forest or woodland (wild garlic, wild strawberries, various purslanes). Some are traditional crops and herbs that have fallen out of popularity because they're slightly less tasty or efficient somehow than their modern counterparts, or, more likely, don't keep as well on the supermarket shelf (Good King Henry, sorrel, lovage). Some aren't that unusual at all; many familiar berries and leaf crops can thrive in partial shade. All are chosen to tolerate the shady environment under the trees, and to provide a harvest that's easily shared by many people (no cauliflowers or giant pumpkins!). Planting them jumbled together instead of in rows brings all the benefits of companion planting (attracting a variety of insects, being less vulnerable to pests, using different nutrients from the soil etc.) and means crop rotation isn't necessary. And between them, they'll provide food all year round, and create a richly diverse and interesting garden where there's always something new to discover.

Oh, it won't be perfect. Not every single plant will thrive here, and a few are bound to need some extra nourishment along the way, and I can't promise we'll get the minimal input/zero waste thing right from the word go. But it will find its balance, it will be educational and it will be bursting with good food.

Our plant labels are designed to help you learn about the different plants in the garden, with a picture to help you recognise it, a few basic details, and for many, a code to scan to take you to further details on the plant in the Plants for a Future database. Plants for a Future is a charity with the aim of "researching and providing information on ecologically sustainable horticulture, as an integral part of designs involving high species diversity and permaculture principles" and is a wonderful source of information on over 7000 edible and medicinal permaculture plants.

For more on forest gardening, read this in-depth article. For more on permaculture try this excellent free ebook by David Holmgren.

- Naomi Distill

Join us for our Autumn 2017 Open Day

7 October 2017  2-4 pm  Hammonds End Farm, Harpenden, Herts, AL5 2AY

Come along for a free tour of our little farm in Harpenden. Refreshments provided.

At FoodSmiles members grow organic veg together, sharing skills and learning about growing, we share the harvest once a week.  Our main working parties are on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday afternoons.

Paths are uneven, please wear strong shoes.

Come and Grow - Incredible Edible launch!

At long last, we'll be launching our Incredible Edible Civic Centre garden on Saturday 7th October, as part of St Albans Food Festival's 'Sustainable Saturday'! Please come along 11am-2pm to help us start turning this neglected bit of land into an abundant food garden right in the town centre - or if you're not ready to get your hands dirty this time, just to pick up a flyer, take a look, see our plans and find out more. You'll find the garden right next to the main entrance to the Alban Arena.

Anyone who lives, works or plays in St Albans is invited to pick food from the garden, and to help out. We hope that it will bring local people together, provide free food for anyone who would like it, enhance the town centre, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and enable us to teach and share growing skills and promote the benefits of growing-our-own. The garden is small, but will have a rich mix of berry bushes, rhubarb, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.

If you have any questions about the garden or would like to sign up for more news about both our community gardens, please email us at the address below.

Join us for an expert talk on Bee Keeping

Bee Keeping Talk

At Courtyard Café, Hatfield Rd, St Albans on Wednesday 20 September 10.30-11.30 am

Local bee keeper David Miveld will be sharing his knowledge and experiences of bee keeping in St Albans.

All Welcome – just £5 including coffee

Spaces are limited so to be sure you can join us, please email to book your place.

Incredible Edible... St Albans!

This summer, FoodSmiles will be transforming two unloved spaces in the heart of St Albans into two brand new community food gardens! In the style of Incredible Edible, they will be open to all: anyone who lives, works or plays in St Albans is invited to help out and to pick food from the gardens - and we'll be joining the Incredible Edible Network to promote them and link up with similar gardens. The gardens will bring local people together, and they'll provide free food for anyone who wants to take it. They'll also enhance the town centre, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and enable us to teach and share growing skills and promote the benefits of growing-our-own.

We're still bringing together the last few details, but we hope to be making a start on the gardens during the summer holidays (if not before). We've already been pledged significant donations from three local businesses: Aylett Nurseries will be providing us with tools and seeds to get us started, Carpenter's Nursery are giving us lots of berry, rhubarb and herb plants, and the Hare and Hounds are helping with a generous cash donation and a team of helpers for our launch day! However, we still need to raise up to £5000 for noticeboards and signage, raised beds and compost, and a few other bits. If you'd like to make a donation towards setting up the gardens or if you know someone who might sponsor us, please get in touch.

The first garden is on Russell Avenue, behind the multi-storey car park. A lot of it is shaded by trees so it will be suitable for a forest garden, featuring wild edibles among others, and a shade-tolerant berry and rhubarb patch. We'll also include a wildlife area, herb garden, raised vegetable beds and a flower border to support pollinators and catch the eyes of passersby!


The second garden is in the Civic Centre, next to the Alban Arena and a stone's throw from the council offices. It'll be a great place for lots of people to see what we're up to! It will include a similar variety of herbs, flowers, fruit bushes and low-maintenance veggies.


If you live, work or play in St Albans, these gardens are for YOU! If you're interested in getting involved it'd be great to hear from you. Please email us at the address below.