December 2018 | Gardening – more than one way of doing things . . .

December 2018 | Gardening – more than one way of doing things . . .

Hi again – cold now but there is still the odd day of bright, clear weather to enjoy. Last month I was thinking back to when I worked in a community garden – one of my first roles after training – it was in a very urban area of south-east London and my brief was to cater for people who didn’t have space to grow much i.e. people without gardens, people with balconies or window boxes only.  Having usually had a smallish garden myself – and not minded because I always rather liked the challenge of a small space and the special focus needed to develop it – I was impressed by the thinking behind the theme of the community garden which was so appropriate for it’s surrounding environment. The community garden was really well attended and it turned out to be a very enjoyable role.

A pyramid shaped stack of two tone brown mushrooms or toadstools.
This autumn fungi seem to have been very much in evidence and not just in woodland. This is probably the dreaded honey fungus, seen in a front garden, but the jury is currently out as to how much harm it actually does.

As the trees turn into skeletons of their former selves don’t be discouraged – there is colour to be found in winter. In January 2015 I wrote about Getting the Most out of the Winter Garden and it was one of my most popular posts – we do need some encouragement at this time of year.

I came across the name Robert Hart and his style of gardening recently when doing research on the internet.  One of the great things about the web is how you pick up on interesting things en passant. The downside is the amount of your time that can get swallowed up.

Robert Hart, now known as a pioneer of Forest Gardening, started a traditional-style smallholding at Wenlock Edge, Shropshire back in the 1960s to support himself and his brother. He soon found that maintaining large annual vegetable beds, rearing livestock and looking after an orchard was a project beyond his strength but he noted that his small bed of perennial vegetables and herbs was looking after itself and making few demands.

He adopted a vegan diet and started a vegan, organic food production system.  The three main products from a Forest Garden are fruit, nuts and green leafy vegetables.  Later, when studying the relationships between plants he settled on the Forest Garden concept and modified it to suit temperate climes like ours and much of Robert Hart’s thinking can now be found underpinning the permaculture movement.

The ancient woodland method of growing food originated in the tropics where it is still common. Kerala, India, has three and half million forest gardens to this day.

Ken Fern of Plants for A Future paid a visit to Robert Hart’s Forest Garden in 1996 and made the following observation –

. . . Robert gave a short tour.  He apologized that the garden was not looking as good as it could as he had had a serious accident some time before and had been unable to work in the garden.  If this had been a normal food garden, with its rows of annual vegetables, then what would be growing there now if the gardener had been too ill to work the garden?  The forest garden and its perennials will still produce a good crop even if you spend no time in the garden and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Tiny new ferns emerge from the midrib of the parent.
Tiny new ferns spring into life emerging from the midrib of the parent.

So how does this relate to our gardening as city-dwellers?  The modern concept of Forest Gardening, which I’d describe as a vertical layered strategy, embraces not only plant relationships but human relationships with the land – there is always more than one way of doing things.  The humans choose how they relate to the land, one participant from Spiralseed said of forest gardening –

Successful gardens do not keep expanding.  Instead, they provide a surplus of plants and knowledge that help to establish new gardens

The city itself throws up different challenges to the concept than would be the case if a garden were sited in agricultural countryside.  The city also throws up mess.  Spiralseed tells the story of their city Forest Garden in an Islington community in 1991 and mentions specifically the problems of the city setting – in their case

the ravages of stray dogs and footballs and youths who prefer to use the unripe apples as missiles

The Phoenix Garden

About 15 years ago, when shopping in town in the area of Oxford Street, I noticed the tops of a thick group of trees I could see between buildings and thought this must mean some sort of green space where maybe – mercifully – I could sit down for a while away from the crowds.  It took some time and several detours to track it down by following the tree tops I could see.  I then discovered the Phoenix community garden and I loved it immediately.

The Phoenix Garden 2018 - new building and planting
The Phoenix Garden 2018

I remember that discovery day vividly; a young woman in an Ambulance uniform was eating her lunchtime sandwiches sitting next to her Ambulance bicycle; a man was breaking up a coconut and sharing it with his small son – others were munching from their lunch boxes while other people were sitting around peacefully reading their books.  A lovely relaxed scene of people at leisure – unexpected directly behind Charing Cross Road.

At that time I marvelled at the fact that such a facility could exist, and still do, completely surrounded by blocks of flats and cars, and in one of the busiest, most traffic laden parts of London.  With just a tiny suspension of disbelief and averted eyes it felt like quiet countryside.

Garden volunteer with bucket of rubbish collected from garden perimeter
I met one of the volunteers who had been avidly combing the garden perimeter to collect the rubbish in her bucket from the city’s attempt to encroach on the garden. Her work, and that of all the volunteers, is what sustains the garden. A garden, however natural, is a work of artifice and inevitably needs maintaining.

I have returned many times since with various garden-oriented friends who have been equally impressed and I returned last month, after a gap of two or three years,  to see how the garden is looking now.  Each time I find it very changed because now there is funding and the site is being developed.  I guess that in our world standing still invites disaster.  However, Phoenix garden is as welcoming a place as ever it was  where I found people still eating their lunchtime sandwiches – well-wrapped up against the November cold.  As always, I really enjoyed my visit there meeting people who had come there to take a break and the volunteers who make the Phoenix Garden what it is.

The planting has been embellished and it looks great.  Their planting theme would seem to be sustainability and I have to say the garden area is massively enriched by planting and pathways and has decidedly more visual impact than 15 years ago and yet is still the perfect peaceful antidote to the city.  A noticeboard in the building that has replaced the large gardeners’ shed that was here on my last visit tells –

The garden is managed to be attractive all-year-round for people to enjoy and to provide quality habitat to benefit urban wildlife.  We use no herbicides, pesticides or artificial fertilizers.

People sit out to eat their sandwiches even in November
. . . people sit out to eat their sandwiches even in November. . .

The garden is also designed to need no watering and it is always clean, unlittered and well maintained. They are very proud of being home to the West End’s only frogs.

Take in a visit to the Phoenix Garden when next in the West End – well worth a visit and the new building, as well as the location can be hired for events. Check the website first for hours of opening as sometimes these can be restricted.


One of the benefits of having an allotment that I have very recently come to appreciate is having sufficient harvests to make preserves. Back in October I remember thinking that the only preserving I still had to do was the medlars that would be harvested once they had been frosted, on the tree, and softened. Then I had a chance meeting with a chap I have known for several years who knows I like making preserves. He told me one of his neighbours was putting out Quince pears for people to help themselves and said he’d get me some. I was so disappointed to hear later they had all gone as I have always wanted to try Quince preserves.

Some days later, working in my garden, said friend arrives with what must have been 10lbs of Quince pears – so heavy that I had to make two trips to get them into the house. But I was absolutely delighted to have them – these strange, large, knobbly fruits with a fur finish.

There is much preparation to do with Quince pears although less than with medlars. What I find works well in the case of fruits that take time to prepare (we’re talking hours and hours here!) is to do the preparation and then freeze them, leaving the actual jam or jelly making for a second session.

Quince | Top Tip

In a chance chat with one of the allotment guys who loves cooking and preserving he complained about the tasteless result of his Quince jam. “Of course, it could have been the recipe” he said. His point was well made.

A word of warning here when using recipes from the internet. I feel a bit uncomfortable criticizing people who enthusiastically share their family recipes. I have loved both reading them and making them but I have to point out that I read at least ten recipes for Quince jam and jelly before starting to actually cook. They weren’t always easy to understand or the instructions didn’t quite hang together. One recipe even said to adjust your cooking time according to your altitude above sea level (!) Preserving does take up hours of time as well as some investment and you will probably want to get it as right as you can first time.

My Quince jelly is delicious and I’m convinced my friend of the tasteless jelly had a recipe problem. The floral flavour I’d read about reminded me of the taste of rose hips. Not so surprising given that the Quince is a relative of the rose (Rosaceae) family.

When I returned to the allotment plot recently after concentrating for longer than I expected on my own garden I found seven large, overgrown cucumbers, doubtless rather bitter and certainly covered with prickly spines. Once you are initiated into preserving it becomes difficult to justify composting and wasting any surplus – something of a double edged sword. Spent more time processing 5lbs of cucumber and apple chutney spiced up with chillies and tomatoes.

Bright orange fungus seen in Greenwich Park.
There is colour in winter. Seen in Greenwich Park – Redlead Roundhead (Stropharia aurantiaca).

Membrillo (Fruit Pastes)

In my post last June I talked generally about Fruit Pastes discovered when having a birthday lunch with a friend who visits family in Spain regularly. I was impressed with my cheese and fruit paste platter in the Tapas bar. Apparently squares of Fruit Paste are a favourite snack in Spain where they are combined with Manchego (sheep’s milk) cheese. These are now attracting attention here again. I made Membrillo, found it excellent and substituted Feta cheese until I can get hold of Manchego. I also found Membrillo very good with meat and think it’ll make a great addition to the Christmas table.

Talking of which enjoy your celebrations and Christmas cooking, entertaining and being entertained, seeing friends and family and whatever you are doing may it mark a good end to your year. May 2019 be a good year for all of us.

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