Bare Roots - Creating food forest layers, maximum plantings for minimum cost.

When I was thinking about how to design and plant our garden and see it grow from the rough field and limited top soil stage, one of my first considerations was that we were going to spend most of our waking hours in it.  As this house and garden were bought as a long-term escape plan and because we were working and living in a town constantly surrounded by noise, our basic initial requirement was privacy and tranquillity,  a wild forest garden seemed perfect. 

Polish chamois hen and rooster in a forest garden

Once we began to live here permanently and eventually to keep poultry, the natural environment it provided to do this, along with the addition of forage provided by the trees and plants became ever more valuable.

Transformation and Transmogrification - Open field to food forest garden

Creating a forest garden from a field

Organic garden in Normandie

We also love to eat outside, so the idea of being surrounded by trees, plants and wildlife (at this point we had no poultry) was also a major consideration. (We had to replace the tiles of the house as a result of the 1999 tempest so the greenery also did a great job of removing the glare of modernity.)

Organic forest garden, Normandy France

One of my favourite memories of my childhood was of playing in the small woodland on our own farm or dreaming about the vast mediaeval forest on the neighbouring one.  The silence of woodland and forest is something you either love or hate, there is no middle ground. It is for that very understanding of the human psyche, that the word panic derives from the fear of the forest sprite, the Greek god Pan. He is supposed to have rustled leaves of bushes and forest vegetation as travellers passed through his domain, engendering irrational fears and flight! Having eaten many an evening meal by candlelight in the middle of trees and long grass surrounded by gangs of marauding hedgehogs, snorting wildly and crunching up snails, I can empathise.

The Canopy and Sub-Canopy

We started out to create the canopy and sub-canopy or as Gertrude Jekyll, would refer to it the 'carpentry' of the garden. I was working on the principle of beginning at the top and working down. The canopy was the part of the garden that would need the longest time to establish itself and in an open field with clay soil, was imperative for soil structure, drainage and shade. Initially I had very little knowledge of our present climate and growing potential of the soil, so I chose the best possible size of specimens for our budget. Although, with greater experience of the land and microclimate and thus its possibilities, we realised that growing the sub-canopy and even the canopy from seed and/or cuttings was quite viable. We also visited an Ecocampsite down in the Lot, where they had a much younger garden than ours but with beautiful large specimen trees and bamboo. We were advised that the holes for planting were dug with a small mechanical digger. So if you are building a house on site at the same time as establishing your garden and have access to machinery or better still, a large group of friends, you might think of this valuable tip of digging a huge receiving hole for the roots. You can do this and even fill in the holes with loose soil and compost until such time as you are ready to plant.

Bare Roots


Italian white peach tree - organically grown
Unless you are very young and only looking to live in your forest garden in your dotage, time is of the essence and the good news is, faster growing forms of plants are cheaper! Bare rooted refers to plants that are grown in the open and then dug up for sale, when dormant from late Autumn to early Spring. For this reason they can be also sent by carrier, so your choice of varieties, quality and price is much wider. I've always found bare roots to to be stronger and quicker to take off when replanted. This is because they are not suffering from lack of nutrient nor pot bound as large subjects can become in containers. Some of the main plants we have bought this way, are roses, fruit bushes, trees, including hedging. In the past and in order to build up a good number, we hoarded 'Birthday' money and gave trees as presents to each other. 

Betula utilis var. 'jacquemontii' aka the Himalayan birch in a forest gardenPrunus serrula var. tibetica aka birch-bark or Tibetan cherry  in a forest garden

Warning: when we lived in the UK, I used to see a particularly fine tree in our local nursery and reserve it for Andy until such time as we were leaving for France. On going back to fetch it I would often find it had grown rather larger than expected. This beautiful Betula utilis var. 'jacquemontii' aka the Himalayan birch (above) and this gorgeously rich Prunus serrula var. tibetica aka birch-bark or Tibetan cherry (right) had to be wound around the foot well and entwined around my feet to reach their destination. Furthermore don't worry if you think something is in the wrong place, if you are careful, you can move even quite large trees. The Italian white peach (above top) moved three times before it was happy enough with its soil and aspect to produce a good crop. 

rosa. galica officinalis or the Apothecary RoseSome of the  first plants we bought to create our garden were a parcel of bare root roses from Norfolk, these included a selection known as the Empress Jos├ęphine collection. Some of these were for the canopy and some for lower levels and ground cover. These we hauled over from the UK on the back of our motorbike. It might seem, as the name suggests, coals to Newcastle but at the time France was still in the dying throws of the equivalent of 'Wheatcroft fever'. This meant that all that was on offer in roses were, to me, bright, blowsy modern hybrid teas with no scent and precious little value for food or to a wild garden. Above are a selection of the best culinary and medicinal roses, rosa.galica officinalis or the Apothecary Rose (centre right with the golden stamens) lives up to its name. It makes fabulous ice cream and I have used rose petals to make rose water, which I have applied to great effect in eye baths and compresses (see my article on treating eye problems with rosewater here).

Rambling rose - Rambling Rector and the the Bourbon rose, Zigeuner Knabe

Rambling Rector (above) was another of my choices, a beautiful double rambler, seen here growing through another great culinary rose, the Bourbon, Zigeuner Knabe. Then of course there is the fabulous rosa. filipes 'Kiftsgate' (below) which gives your forest garden canopy the Sissinghurst touch.

rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate' in a forest garden in France

Hen eating apple blossoms in an organic forest garden
Our hens love roses, leaves and petals and apple blossom, many flowers from trees and shrubs are actually a valuable and freely available source of good wild nutrition for you and your birds and luckily most of the time the latter will be content to eat them as they fall. In fact many of the trees we have planted, have provided extra nutrient for our birds, whether wild or domesticated. Our Amelanchier (Serviceberry), for example, (taken bare rooted from a friend's garden), the hens eat every petal as they drop, we never get a beautiful white carpet from it as we do from the apple orchard.

Chamois Polish hens and rooster amongst apple blossom in an organic orchard

Furthermore, although we eat the petals and hips of our roses we also had additional food value from them in honey, as my neighbour who has hives bought us down a kilo of his harvest in recognition of the food we had provided for his bees.

Our other major bare-root purchases  were hedging beech and hornbeam, most necessary here as wind and weather protection from the wild sea breezes. Building up a series of hedges in a garden provides not only a series of garden 'rooms', this might seem formal for a forest garden. However, by its very nature, food forest gardens have no blueprint as such, each one being unique to the individual gardener. 

Hens grazing on beech leaves in an organic forest garden
To me hedges give a wonderful sense of space and discovery as you travel through a garden, they also provide a fantastic safe habitat for wildlife and of course nesting for birds. Hens love hedges too, in the Early Spring and Summer they will use them as corridors, 'grazing' on the nutritious leaves and  roosting high up in them to catch a sea breeze during the heat of the day. I also use strategic hedging to break up flight paths for marauding birds of prey, which is exceedingly necessary if you have pigeons, particularly white fantails and free-ranging tiny chicks.

Chamois cochin chick in an organic forest garden
Frizzled chamois polish roosters in the rain in an organic forest garden

Hedges also, of course, are very important for protecting poultry from the rain. Although in the case of these two chamois Polish brothers, lowering their frizzled plumage, whilst standing between the current bushes and the beech hedges seems to do just as well.

The next part of this series will look at building up the canopy and sub-canopy as well as the other layers of your food forest,  from seeds and cuttings.
Wisteria over the hen house door in an organic garden
Thanks for dropping by and if you have enjoyed this piece and found it useful think about sharing it and also may be about joining this blog. Please also feel free to ask questions or make comments in the section below.
All the very best,
©  Sue Cross 2015


  1. I love your work. It is truly incredible, what you have achieved... Cannot wait for the next part. Love

    1. Aaww thanks for that! I really appreciate your feedback. Hoping to get the new episode out shortly. All the very best from a rather damp Normandie, Sue