As a gardener it is interesting to see the different trends which are associated with food; some of these are short-lived and others will be embedded into our culture for many years to come. One of the biggest surges of interest over the last few years is the grow your own movement; we all want to know where our food comes from and more importantly how it has been grown. This has seen many more people start growing vegetables in their gardens and, apart from being fun, it can save you a lot of money.
More recently, foraging for food has become a hot topic. This I'm sure, many of you have been doing for years, particularly picking blackberries from our local hedgerows. But with rising food costs, for those wanting to try something different and looking to experiment with plants not available from the supermarkets, foraging is gaining in popularity.
However, I would recommend you carry out some research before going collecting so that you know the tasty plants from the harmful ones!
Coming into autumn, fruits and berries are plentiful, and apart from the more familiar subjects such as apples, here at RHS Rosemoor, we have planted a new area in the garden containing a collection of plants with edible fruits and berries which are less common. I'm sure you will be aware of the plants featured, but possibly not the fact that they are edible, tasty and in many cases very good for you too. We have called this the Forest Garden and it is situated within the teaching gardens around our Learning Centre.
The idea of a forest garden is to create a way of growing a wide range of edible plants in a more naturalistic environment and, once they are established, they form a virtually self-maintaining eco-system, with various levels of plants from ground- cover herbs to fruit-bearing trees growing in association with one another.
In this area we have chosen many different woody plants to highlight the species available for you to grow and harvest fruits and nuts.
We are also growing local Devon plants such as the Devon Sorb Apple, one of the many unique species of whitebeam (Sorbus) growing here in Devon.
It forms a lovely round-headed small tree producing bunches of red-brown fruits which have been a major food crop in the past. The fruits are best eaten after a frost, or you can cheat by placing them in the freezer; this will reduce the bitterness. They are high in vitamin C and make a nice jelly to go with savouries or game.
Another local plant in the Forest Garden is the Devon Mazzard, a type of Prunus avium AGM, the wild cherry; these are a unique group of old Devon varieties which were extensively grown in North Devon as a food crop. Research has found that cherries have been a food crop across various parts of Europe since the Bronze Age.
Within RHS Rosemoor we are fortunate to hold a National Plant Collection of Cornus, many of these, apart from having lovely stems or showy flowers, also produce edible fruits. Cornus mas, the Cornelian Cherry, is a large shrub from central and southern Europe. In Bulgaria and the Ukraine, breeding work is being undertaken to produce new varieties with larger and more flavoursome fruits. The fruits are cherry-like in appearance and can be used in jams or eaten when dried.
The flowering dogwood Cornus kousa, which originates from Japan and China, will make a large shrub or small tree and with time produces strawberry-like fruits at the end of the summer. These are sweet and juicy and can be eaten raw or made into a preserve. We have planted a variety here called 'Big Apple' named after its large fruit, but another good variety to plant is the Chinese form Cornus kousa var. chinensis AGM.
One plant you may not have thought of trying to eat is the Sea-buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides AGM; a spiny shrub to small tree which grows over Europe and Asia. During the Cold War, Russian and East German horticulturalists developed many new varieties with enhanced characteristics such as a greater nutritional value, larger fruits, different ripening months and easier harvesting. This breeding work continues to this day and the US and Canada have various experimental crops planted.
You may ask why the interest in this plant? It is because the fruit is a highly enriched source of vitamin C – 15 times greater than oranges! They are also high in vitamin A. The fruits are very tasty, but best harvested after a frost. They are usually made into a juice and are grown commercially in some countries for this purpose. If you want to try and grow these, one tip to remember is that they have both male and female plants, so to get fruits you will need both. We grow the male 'Pollmix' with the females 'Hergo' and 'Frugna'.
Hazels are of great use to gardeners. We use stems cut down during the winter as plant supports and have recently planted a coppice of more than 200 common hazel plants to provide material for the future. But of course the main reason we grow them is for nuts and much breeding work has gone into making improvements in various parts of the world. We have planted many varieties such as Corylus avellana 'Butler' – this is an American selection which is a heavy cropper with large mid-brown nuts. Another is Kent cob which is a traditional English variety being a good cropper with medium-sized nuts.
You may not have heard of Trazels; these are a cross between our European hazel (Corylus avellana) and the Turkish hazel (Corylus colurna), we have a variety called 'Chinoka'.
This is a vigorous upright small tree which will produce many nuts. Bear in mind that hazels do require good cross-pollination so make sure you have several varieties nearby.
The plant world is very diverse and many plants are edible, but before you try anything do your research.
Apples are one of the nation's favourite fruit crops and to celebrate the harvest, why not come along to Rosemoor's Apple Day tomorrow between 10am and 4pm where there will be displays, cookery demonstrations, recipes, tastings; planting and cultivation tips and talks; children's activities and trails; and apple-related products for sale. If you have an apple tree in your garden, but you don't know the variety, bring along a fruit and we will endeavor to identify it! Rosemoor's Garden Kitchen Restaurant will be offering an Apple Day menu featuring fruit from the garden.