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Edible Plant Communities Research - The Eden Project 2016

Responding to the contemporary horticultural issue of food security and diversity The human population is rapidly expanding, with fewer people growing food and more living in urban environments. Our food system is being put under significant pressure, which is pushing agriculture to extreme intensification. Resulting in degraded environments, food with a poor nutritional quality and pollution at a global scale (United Nations 2014, Badami & Ramankutty 2015, Lovell 2010 & Ackerman et al 2014).

Often the limiting factor in growing your own food is the time and money this takes, because typical annual vegetable production requires large amounts of input to provide any food. However, with the huge diversity of edible species available to use at this time. We can and should experiment with new methods of edible landscape plantings (Toensmeier 2007).

There is a growing movement of people experimenting with perennial vegetables as they required low energy inputs, carry on growing year after year and provide valuable biodiversity benefits (Toensmeier 2007 & Barstow 2014).

In planting design, there is an increasing movement of designers and enthusiasts who are experimenting with designing aesthetic plant communities. Of particular interest to this project are herbaceous perennial plant communities. This methodology seeks to mimic the composition and structure of plant communities, aiming to create a natural aesthetic, reducing maintenance costs and increasing ecological benefits of designed plantings (Rainer & West 2015, Oudolf & Kingsbury 2013, Price 2012).

This planting design is seeking to merge current knowledge of edible perennials and designed plant communities to create a designed edimental plant community. Therefore, providing a beautiful edible planting, with significant ecological benefits and with a low maintenance requirement.

Plant Selection Plant selection was a process of research to identify a range of edible perennial species. Once a large list was collated, they were then selected for their edibility rating according to the Plants For A Future database (2012) and Barstow (2014). Plants were then selected for their aesthetic qualities. When designing a plant community, there is a selection process for suitable plants. Due to the limited range of ‘edimental’ species available, this scheme is an adaptation from a variety of sources. Incorporating plants that do not perfectly fit into the guidance set out by relevant and recognised literature. This scheme is an experiment into the possibilities of edible ecosystems.

For this composition to be successful it is vital that the plants are compatible. Selected species originate from damp grasslands, meadows and woodland edge. Therefore, these species have a high chance of success when combined into a community.

Design Methodology Planting design methodology set out to create a dynamic plant community. The methodology implemented is an adaptation from a variety of literature on the subject of designed plant communities (Rainer & West 2015, Price 2012 and Oudolf & Kingsbury 2013). The method used divided plants into four layers chosen for their particular traits and habits. Two mixtures have been created, planted in a wave pattern that aims to reduce the complexity of the composition in the establishment, allowing high diversity, without compromising the success of the scheme.

Planting beds have been designed as long rectangles, helping in maintenance and harvest. The width of the beds are 1500mm, suggested by RHS (2017) as the correct width to allow reach to the centre from the pathways, avoiding stepping on the beds.

Structural/ framework layer 10% As suggested by Price (2012), two species have been chosen for each mix in this layer. Characterised by tall species with few leaves, as this allows sunlight to penetrate the bottom layer according to Rainer & West (2015). Particular emphasis has been placed on plant form, in line with Oudolf & Kingsbury (2013) who state that plants in this layer should have distinctive shapes, contrasting with plants in the other layers. Mixture A includes Patricia scabiosifolia with its airy delicate structure and Helianthus tuberosus with bold dominating clumps. Mixture B includes Foeniculum vulgare 'Giant Bronze’ with its feathery foliage, contrasting beautifully with dense structural form of Angelica gigas. These four species will provide visual structure, and a vocal point in the composition.

Seasonal Theme Plants 40% This layer is formed by species that are visually dominant during a season. When not in flower the plants in this layer should hold their structure and provide a green canvas in the composition.This is demonstrated by the dramatic structural flowers of Sedum, or the texture of Hemerocallis foliage. Plants in this layer are good companions to the structural layer and provide long seasonal displays. The role of these plants is to spill over and around the architectural forms in the structural layer, occupying gaps between layers.

Ground cover 45% Plants in this layer are functional plants, adapted to tolerate semi-shade and used to cover ground between other species. It is the foundation of a plant community, working to knit the composition together, providing rhythm and unity (Oudolf & Kingsbury 2013). The plants in this layer are not your typical ground cover species. The choice of edible ground cover species, plants that naturally spread across the surface of the soil is very limited. Therefore, these plants have been chosen for their ability to cover ground. According to Price (2012) this layer should have hammock forms, such as Alchemilla mollis or Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’. Species such as Geranium tuberosum will make way for more dominant, summer flowering perennials and go into a summer dormancy (Oudolf & Kingsbury 2013).

Filler plant 5% These are short lived plants, with a habit of filling gaps and providing a seasonal display. Larger structural species can take a long time to establish so the composition needs filler plants to fill space and provide visual interest. According to Rainer & West (2012) filler species act as an insurance policy, filling space when other plants die. Both mixes include the same three filler plants. Within the composition, Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata 'Ruby Port' and Silene vulgaris will fill gaps and self seed, creating a seed bank for future disturbances. Platycodon grandiflorus does not fit into the layer as outlined by Rainer & West (2012), however it has been included into this layer because according to Barstow (2014) its roots have a habit of germinating in difficult places, figure 18 demonstrates its suitability as a filler plant.

A designed plant community at Hermmanshof gardens, Germany. Take note of Platycodon grandiflorus acting as a dynamic filler plant and a perennial vegetable. (Eischeid 2015).

Maintenance & Management The maintenance of this scheme is planned to be at a minimum, with the main maintenance carried out once a year. In late winter when the scheme is mown and weeded. Please use figure 20 as a guide for management.

The dynamic nature of this scheme means that it will contently be evolving, therefore it is important that it is monitored to make sure the design intent is not compromised. Monitor regularly through observation and images, then analyse with the original plan. Please use figure 21 as a guide for monitoring the scheme.

Success of the Scheme This planting has been an experiment into the possibilities of edible plant communities. Seeking to provide a new methodology in edible landscape and garden plantings. The author considers the planting to be a success, however there are clear limitations to this technique.

The planting is not suited to many common annual vegetables, which would not survive in such a competitive, dense plant community. There is however a possibility of experimenting with broadcast seed of early harvest and winter crops. Radish would be an option that could be experimented with. All of the plants in this scheme are perennials that die back in the winter. Therefore, there is opportunity to broadcast green manures that also provide a winter staple such as mustard leaves. Many of the mustard leaf varieties also have very attractive leaves which would provide an aesthetic quality within the winter, protect the soil and provide habitat for wildlife.

The scheme has adopted the planting methodology from the Sheffield School, in which plantings are randomly placed and design is carried out on a spread sheet. The author suggests that future edible plant communities should adopt methodology outlined by Oudolf & Kingsbury (2013), whereby plantings are designed on a plan with set groups of species with one to three intermingled species. This would help reduce the complexity of the planting, making management easier.

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