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Garden visits - Kew

One of my favourite occupations is going to look at plants growing in gardens, and one of my favourite places to go is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London.

I spent my childhood not too many miles from Kew and often used to walk there and then wander round looking at plants. It cost all of one old penny in those days (less than 1/2 p), though even at its current price of 3? it is still good value. It did not occur to me in those days that I would one day be visiting the gardens on a much more professional level. Kew is an absolute paradise for anyone wanting to grow alternative plant foods to be able to find out what the plants look like and how well they grow.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to get permission from Kew to harvest any of the fruits, nuts etc that I see growing there in order to find out what they taste like. However, I have been given permission to pick up fallen fruits, seeds etc to taste them, though they did warn me that they would not be responsible if I contracted some strange sort of disease as a result of my experimentations.

One of the best times to visit Kew is in the late summer and early autumn. Around September and October most of the hawthorns are laden with ripening fruit and these conveniently often fall to the ground when fully ripe. If you pick your species carefully, hawthorns can provide some of the most delicious fruits you can grow in this country. Many is the meal I have enjoyed sitting under one of these trees.

Although not designed with permaculture in mind, some of the areas in Kew make very good examples of woodland gardening. There is one area in particular, near the Princess of Wales greenhouse, that is teeming with edible woodland bulbs and herbaceous plants. I might not be able to eat them, but I can take photos and imagine setting up such a system on our land once we have a woodland with trees tall enough.

Kew is also a good place for debunking myths. Many is the time I have found plants growing there with good crops of fruit when all the books say that these plants do not fruit in this country. One especially pleasant surprise was coming across a grove of North American and Chinese persimmons (Diospyros virginiana and D. lotus). It was mid October and the ground under the trees was littered with fruits. There had been a number of frosts in the past few weeks and the fruits were soft and crying out to be eaten. The taste was delicious, like eating fully ripe apricots only much nicer. A very pleasant half hour was spent filling my stomach with this nectar. I tried taking a few home with me but they were so soft that they broke up in my bag leaving a very soggy mess for my wife to try and eat that evening. I have tried to go back to Kew at the same time each year in order to repeat this feast, but have never been lucky enough to find many fruits ripe on the ground. Nevertheless, these trees usually have a very good crop and if this was harvested in late autumn and stored then they would ripen slowly over the winter. The books claim that it is not possible to ripen these fruits in Britain, though this is obviously rubbish.

Living in Cornwall now, it is much harder for me to visit Kew, but I still try and get there a few times each year. Although I have been going there for many years, I nearly always find an exciting new plant that I did not realise was growing there.

I intend to talk about other interesting gardens to visit in future issues of the newsletter. Meanwhile, for those of you who do not live near to Kew, the following list of gardens to visit might be of interest. I apologise for the strong bias of gardens in the south of the country, my limited resources prevent me from getting to many places in the north. If you know of any others that should go on the list then please drop us a line with details.

Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. Inverleith Row, Edinburgh.
My only real foray to the north, Edinburgh boasts one of the finest botanic gardens in the country and is especially rich in barberries and Sorbus species.


The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum. Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, Romsey, Hants.
An amazing collection of trees and shrubs including some very special Crataegus species and a 20 metre tall Kiwi fruit growing into a tree and fruiting heavily each year.


Royal Horticultural Society Gardens. Wisley, Woking, Surrey.
An orchard of over 400 cultivars of apples is one of the main attractions. Basically a showground for ornamental garden plants, fruits and vegetables, there are plenty of interesting alternative food plants if you know where to look for them.


University Botanic Gardens, Cambridge. Bateman Street, Cambridge.
This is one of my favourite places to be. A delightful garden with some very special plants including a hardy yam and one of the nicest crataegus fruits I have eaten.


Westonbirt Arboretum. Near Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
Probably the largest collection of trees and shrubs in Britain. Delightful at any time of the year but a day is far too short to see it all.


University of Liverpool Botanic Gardens. Ness, Neston, South Wirral.
This is quite a windy site and so is a good place to go if you want to know how to provide shelter in such conditions.

Now available: PLANTS FOR YOUR FOOD FOREST: 500 Plants for Temperate Food Forests and Permaculture Gardens.

An important new book from PFAF. It focuses on the attributes of plants suitable for food forests, what each can contribute to a food forest ecosystem, including carbon sequestration, and the kinds of foods they yield. The book suggests that community and small-scale food forests can provide a real alternative to intensive industrialised agriculture, and help to combat the many inter-related environmental crises that threaten the very future of life on Earth.

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