The Land

Growing a food forest

The Abrazo House project has never just been about building. Just as important is our approach to taking care of the land. In 2005 our 0.8ha (2 acres) of land was pasture with just a few scattered trees (mainly willow and hazel) — a virtual monoculture, very far from the natural vegetation for our area which is a mixed woodland including both evergreen and deciduous trees, bushes, shrubs, climbers and herbs, as well as a host of birds and other wildlife.

If we had left the land without any intervention it would eventually have turned back into a mixed woodland, through a natural process called succession — but first it would pass through a phase which was dominated by brambles and other opportunist weeds. Instead, we want to use the forces of nature to help us create a garden that will provide most of our food and fuel with a minimum of work.

Most of our land is now in transition to a food forest that mimics the structure of native woodland, but with a diverse mix of species that produce soil fertility, food, fuel and/or fibre.

We began by planting large numbers of nurse trees: fast-growing species (like alder, ash, birch and maple) which block wind, build soil and encourage the growth of other, slower growing, more productive climax trees: chestnut, walnut, citrus, plum, cherry, apple, pear, etc.

While the trees are growing we have been experimenting with different plants that grow in between and underneath them: ground cover plants that keep down the weeds (like rhubarb, nasturtiums and strawberries), shrubs (raspberries, currants, blueberries, thornless blackberries), plants that create fertility in our heavy clay soil (comfrey and beans are good), climbers that create shade and shelter (grapes, kiwi, wisteria, jasmine…)

Of course, we have also planted some traditional annual crops like cabbage, brussels sprouts, pumpkin, peppers and onions.

We have also been employing some dedicated workers to help us clear the weeds (mainly grass) from the areas we want to plant — chickens are our favourites because they also give us eggs; we’ve also had ducks and goats. But on the whole we prefer wild animals to domestic ones, and our diverse garden is home to a host of them: from slow worms and midwife toads to hedgehogs and foxes, woodlice and bees, wrens and swallows…

In a temperate maritime climate like ours we should be able to enjoy food from the garden every day of the year with a minimum of work. So far we haven’t achieved that, but now that we have finished the main house it is a goal we are working towards…