The Open Day on 28 May was a wonder.
A trip down to Rodmell wasn’t on our agenda as Brighton Art Wave was very much our plan for the weekend, but seeing something about a local so called ‘forest farm’ having an open day and being someone who gardens in a chaotic, partially informed messy way aimed at improving soil, providing shade, moisture and lots for local wildlife made this something I very much wanted to see. My efforts at turning a patch of urban garden into a quasi-allotment forest has largely failed as what crops did survive the onslaught of slugs usually gave up through lack of moisture/nutrients in the soil, are suffocated by weeds, give up for lack of light (or too much light) or get blown over in the first gale.
We followed instructions about parking on Mill Lane to the letter. No one wants a stranger’s car blocking their drive and restricting movement of farm vehicles or horse-boxes in a semi-rural village setting. This meant an enchanting walk up Mill Lane – which in fact takes you onto the South Downs Way (something to note for a later visit).
The views over the Ouse Valley are stunning as in one sweep you can look north to Lewes, north east to Mount Caburn, east towards Firle and south east down to Seaford Head/Newhaven and the Channel.
Our timing could not have been more perfect, and a complete fluke, as the Head Gardener Marc Stenham was just starting his tour and talk around the garden – more of a huge, cohesive allotment plot (without much of the repeated allotment furniture of boundary markers, multiple sheds, greenhouses and benches.
I took notes. I was tempted to hit record on my phone but know from previous experience that bird and human chatter or my own heavy breathing would probably feature enough to make parts of it unintelligible. I kept an ear on the talk while cutting in and out of the labyrinth of turfed over paths; I was in wonder at the lack of compacted soil or gravel paths as so many of us resort too. Limited footfall when visitors are not present must help.
The ground here is awful : tips on soil improvement and management on the Chalk Downs of Sussex.
“The ground here is awful … inches down to chalk” Marc explained. Any of us from roundabout here (I’m thinking everyone), could nod in agreement on this one. “The beds have had ten years of no rotation and mulching, using wood chips and comfrey leaves, though human waste from the composting toilet is the best”.
Visits to the composting toilet followed
I paid a visit early, spent my penny as it were and took some photographs. It reminded me of two other bizarre lavatories that I have used in the past: a similar hutment on the Masai Mara 40 years ago, a double seater in a thatched hut with large piles of National Geographic and the knowledge that there were crocodiles in the creek below; and ‘our own’ mediaeval long drop stone toilet in the wall of the south wing at Appleby Castle.
“Mulching is key to keep moisture in the ground” Marc continued, still answering questions when I returned from the composting loo. As well as the all important ingredient of ‘night soil’, he recommends comfrey and wood chips from any source (he gets it for free from saw mills and tree surgeons). Wood pulp he explained is a huge bonus as it stops weeds, adds fibre and holds moisture. “The older it is the better” he added, though anything and everything works. I found ArbTalk which appears to indicate where free wood chips could be available.
Intensity of planting
Marc advised us “never be precious about your plants”. Looking around the plot I would suggest that the extra volunteer hands of people who come and stay here are put to good use; my experience is that if you let things go for too long it is easy to brambles, docks, ivy, and couch grass. In Rodmell Forest Garden nettles are at home in many of the beds; i have no doubt where they are permitted and where they are not is carefully managed and done for a reason.
Marc spoke of ‘keyhole plants’ in the beds; I’m thinking how a variety of edibles are planted directly into mixed beds where collectively they will thrive.
Marc told a story of how a volunteer from China took to regularly using leaves from their Toona sinesis tree in omelettes.
There was also some talk of the Siberian pea; I just took pictures so I will need to ask others what was said.
Let the birds do their work
“We’re only here fractionally, the wildlife is here all the time”, said Marc.
Another memorable comment and highly repeatable. It helps all round to create some kind of synergy if not symbiosis with nature. Marc explained that the “ecosystem of the garden is now working”. In particular he praised bird life and especially the busy blackbird families. I have to wonder what I might do to save on bird seed; I like having the tits, sparrows and goldfinches around but can’t keep shelling out for bird food.
“Most things are edible but they don’t necessarily taste nice”, said Marc.
Other than what is being deliberately grown I’m assuming Marc was talking about random weeds which appear such as nettles and dock, both of which I have eaten, though best of all has been foraging wild garlic for pesto and soup. We were able to help ourselves to a Cardoon Lentil Soup.
“I don’t like anything in pots: I would rather use trays and get things into the ground”
Marc then qualified this with “and then I don’t have to think about it’; he wants a plant to look after itself. I rather think this requires intelligent planting, a good deal of forethought and all the mulching and keyhole planting he has been talking about … and those volunteers coming in who must be given something to do. There is plenty around the plot to show ongoing work, organising, managing, sorting.
The Rodmell Food Forest Garden, allotment, South Downs hillside labyrinth is a gem. Wait for another Open Day, offer to volunteer, pick up tips, learn from enthusiastic experts and then put some of the ideas demonstrated here into practice where you live.