I love to visit the Garden of St Erth.
It’s an hour’s drive from my place, a lot of the drive through lovely countryside and forest. There’s no mobile coverage there and once you get to Blackwood, you drive down a narrow, windy road. It feels like escaping to a secret sacred place to me. When I get there I look closely through the nursery to see what interesting plants they have in stock for edible gardens. Then I head into the shop to look at seeds and books. And once I’ve had my fill of consuming, I head out into the gardens, straight to the espalier fruit trees, annual vegetable beds and the food forest. If the cafe is open, I head there afterward for fresh scones or a tasty plate of vegetables. They do simple, seasonal food really well there.
The nursery always has plants you can’t get at other nurseries, and often has plants in stock that are not currently available on the Diggers Club online shop. On a recent trip there I bought a dwarf Japanese (Okitsu Wase) Mandarin which I couldn’t find online anywhere. And on my trip there last weekend I came back with a tea shrub and a caper bush, which I haven’t seen at any nurseries in my region.
The Food Forest
The Food Forest is my favourite part of the garden. It is long and rectangular, oriented lengthwise down a slope, and fenced off from the other gardens. I can’t resist an invitation to enter a closed garden through a friendly gate. You can’t really see what’s going on until you get inside. Here there’s a long winding path right down the middle and most things are labeled so you can identify what is planted.
This garden seems to me to achieve what I would love to do in my garden: balance functional food garden principles (here permaculture) and traditional garden design to create a productive and beautiful garden. The sense of space and fullness created through the use of plants, interesting foliage and growth habits, and repeated plantings make it look and feel like any well designed and planted ornamental garden. But I think everything planted either has edible value or value to an edible garden. And there are interesting techniques used to increase productivity, including I think guilds – groups of plants that perform different functions and use different niches within a small area for mutual benefit and improving use of space. I must get along to a tour with the head gardener one day to find out more about the garden. Below are some photos of what I noticed on my last trip.
Below is a shrubby head-height feijoa closely underplanted including with comfrey and I think elephant garlic. No need for lonely fruit trees in the garden or even to separate your fruit trees in an orchard.
Here are three hazelnut trees which on closer inspection seem to be planted and pruned as one, as described in this method. The trees are underplanted with jostaberries, elephant garlic and red sorrel among others, which forms a sort of guild I think. I’ve not tasted red sorrel and it’s hard to see here, but it is a beautiful looking plant with deep red veins. The elephant garlic looks full and vigorous like iris foliage and is a lovely colour contrast to ubiquitous green. It seems leafy all year round.
Wormwood, Chilean Guava, elephant garlic, and I think the low spreading plant might be chamomile of some sort. I like the mass plantings, and the contrast in colour and form here.
Artichokes behind a border of chives. They have a few spots reserved for annuals – you can see potatoes in the foreground.
A Nashi pear surrounded by red mustard, rhubarb, and Moroccan mint.
Black currant bushes in front of, I think, hazelnut trees. I saw these bushes bare during winter, and they are pretty attractive bare as well. They are quite tall – about my height (160cm) and look strong and dense even when bare.
Asparagus with comfrey. I was excited to see this as I’m after ideas on how to incorporate asparagus into the permanent garden. There is quite a bit of empty space in front of this spear – so will be interesting to see where the asparagus comes up or whether that space is reserved for something else. I’ll have to go back to check.
Golden Hops growing over arch. I know nothing about hops – can you use this amount at home? Feijoas growing as shrubs in the background through the middle of the arch.
Espalier Trees and Annual Vegie Beds
There are also two rows each of espaliered pears and apples, a row each of espaliered quince and plums, and quite a few mounded vegetable beds. I’m very interested to see the fruit trees across the seasons as I am learning how to prune and train my 17 apple trees. I’m also fairly new to vegetable gardening so it’s interesting see what grows and how, in a similar climate (a bit colder and wetter than my local climate).
Below is an apple espalier. I think this form is called ‘arcure’. I like the way the plants are mirror images.
Pears espaliered in Belgian Fence (also diamond cordon) form. The main stems both shoot from one plant at the bottom in a ‘v’ form. I’d say the plants are spaced about 60-70cm apart. I’d love to know how productive these trees are and how old.
Free standing espaliered quinces and plums (second photo below) really make you think about how much you can fit in small spaces. I’d love to talk to the gardener about keeping plums pruned this way – it’s been suggested to me it would be a lot of work to convince them to stay that height. You can see how bushy they look compared to the apples and pears. I love the way they look.
I like the way here the thyme underplanted fills up the space, adds contrasting colour and texture and form. I think thyme being an aromatic plant is supposed to help deter the bad bugs.
Here you can see the plums from the other side and how close they are to the vegie bed. The beds are netted using tomato stakes and nifty three-way joiners. Must ask them where they get the joiners. There’s lots of space under the nets for the vegies to grow. Paths between beds are layered with straw.
The beds are mounded up the hill, which is encouraged in permaculture to make use of the movement of water down a slope – run-off is directed towards other beds and plants, rather than into drains or elsewhere. You can see peas growing in second bed from the front with simple wire mesh trellis staked in for the peas to climb up. Last year I noticed they had peas growing up a string trellis, so they seem to try different methods each year which is good for getting ideas.
Beautiful free standing apples underplanted with daffodils, hellebores and comfrey. I forgot to check what the silvery clipped bushes are. Maybe santolina? I like the way the clipped form looks next to the more wild feel of the underplanted flowers.
Principles for Home Garden Design
Ah, St Erth, how I do love visiting you. I would like a microcosm of this garden in my backyard design. More formal area with beds and espaliered trees, and a food forest area with berries, perennial vegetables, trees and herbs all combining to create a feel of wild and tamed.
It illustrates a few simple concepts I need to really think about for my garden design:
- Using space efficiently through groups of plants that take up different environmental niches and help each other out.
- Use of mass plantings (I need to learn to propagate pronto).
- Use of different colours and form/growth habits.
- Use of perennial vegetables.
The edible gardens are only a part of the Garden of St Erth. It’s a lovely place. If you go any other time than summer I recommend taking a sturdy pair of boots as it can get a bit muddy in the hilly parts around the food gardens. It’s also usually colder than my town or Melbourne, so take a jacket.