Bedford Fields Community Forest Garden

What could you do with 1/3 acre of unused local council land?

One solution is to enter into a management agreement with the council and create a community garden.  It may seem a daunting task, but 5 years on from inception, Ben and Joanna of Woodhouse in Leeds, now manage a 1/3rd acre of land in a suburban area of Leeds and have created a thriving natural environment of some 86 edible species, known as Bedford Fields Community Forest Garden.

I joined them yesterday for an impromptu workday.  I’ve only seen a forest garden that is 3 years old, and I was surprised by what an additional two years of work and attention could gain.  As Ben explained, yields have increased year on year, and they’ve even had a surplus of fruit to give away this year.  We foraged for remaining berries. Blackcurrants and raspberries were particularly ripe and needing urgent harvesting.  I like this kind of ‘work’.  Crouched in the undergrowth, I became acquainted with the local resident, a common frog.  Images-from-Within-a-Food-Forestweb
I say common, but like many insect dependent creatures, they have experienced declining populations.  My encounter illustrates the value of a food forest for more than human populations.

I also found myself remarking on the number of pollinators taking advantage of the many herbal flowers.  There were at least two varieties of honey bee visiting in addition to bumble bees and butterflies.

My second observation was the remarkable health of the plants.  No pesticides nor fertilisers, but instead clever companion planting and plenty of mulch to add to existing good soil .  The land had been undeveloped since WWII, illustrating how the natural process of succession leads to environmental healing independent of any human intervention.


Permaculture helps quicken this natural process by aiding soil building.  Layers of organic matter over time means increasing soil depth and quality.  While the health of the environment was outstanding, Ben’s own observations pointed out a fungal infection that had affected the leaf of a couple of raspberry varieties (interestingly, one variety was resistant).  The reason was a dense canopy of hawthorne blocking sunlight.  So the first task of the day was some hawthorn thinning.

Now, I’m a little superstitious about meddling with hawthorn.  I see it as a magical tree, being the favoured dwelling place of the sidhe, or fairy people (I lived in Ireland a long time and lived on a street where several of the houses were believed to have been built in a fairy ring and many family tragedies were attributed to this).  But with good will and many silent apologies to the hawthorn, the sunlight did dapple through the trees to aid the raspberries below the canopy.  I suffered a couple of scratches when I was a little less than respectful of the 1 inch thorns, but otherwise was surprisingly unscathed.

I took advantage of a welcome, orange-lip-inducing spaghetti lunch to take a few photos,  I haven’t managed to capture the spirit of the place as adequately as I would have liked, the overview above doesn’t do it justice.  But of course, I did get another borage picture!

Earlier, Ben had shared the nutritional benefits of nettle seeds.  He stated that it was the most nutrient rich naturally growing item in Britain.  Whatever you can do with a poppy seed you can do with a nettle seed.  He did say he’d add seeds to the spaghetti lunch, but not sure if I experienced their edible nature or not.

Peacock Butterfly Caterpillar
Peacock Butterfly lavae, photo taken in Brighouse.

I decided to investigate the value of these seeds further, and they are indeed nutrient rich and have been found to have significant effects in the treatment of adrenal and kidney related problems, including failure.  If you’re feeling lethargic due to stress, then they are recommended for increasing alertness.  Some people are more sensitive to the stimulating effects than others, lost sleep could be a side effect.  Given certain mild symptoms myself and Verd experience, we’ve decided to go foraging.  Ben told us that this time of the year is the optimal time for gathering, but don’t forget to leave enough for the plant to reseed itself.  You may have to get ahead of the peacock butterfly, which lays eggs at the top of nettles.  The black caterpillar appear to be particularly partial to the seed as well as leaf.

Over lunch, Ben explained how the trees were the heart and first plantings on site.  After 5 years growth, the fruit tree yield is impressive.  Both apples and pears are abundant.Images-From-With-a-Food-Forestweb

I made a mental note of the design principle, as I’ve always planted somewhat randomly and generally ineffectively, with taller plants blocking out the smaller.  From the trees as a central point, other plantings extended out from this centre.  As the project developed, the separate circles would finally merge.  You’ll see in the top picture how paths between plants are maintained with a comfrey lining.  While the edibility of comfrey is largely debated, this plant has several functions in a permaculture garden.  A good nitrogen fixer in the soil, it can be Images-From-Within-a-Food-Forest-3web
chopped and dropped profusely throughout the year to use as mulch.  This particular variety, creeping comfrey, also provides sufficient ground cover to control more insidious weeds.

The last part of my day was spent cleaning cut branches to make poles suitable for the creation of a trellis later.  Unfortunately, I was unable to stay long enough to help in the evolution of one, but was shown how a drill and wire would work to hold it together.

The visit was a great way to take one of those first steps towards the great adventure.  Although I didn’t ask too many questions, I learned a great deaI.  AND it was fun, not least as it was a glorious day, from which I didn’t suffer from too much; canopy layers of trees are an effective filter.


Many thanks to Ben, Joanna for hosting and to the other workdayers, Ian, Adam and Sam for the welcome!


All photos taken at Bedford Fields Forest Garden, except where indicated.



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