Honiton: the amazing agroforest being cultivated in Awliscombe

  Posted: 20.09.21 at 15:38 by Philippa Davies

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In a field in Awliscombe, just outside Honiton, something rather wonderful is happening.

A selection of trees, shrubs, edible crops and herbs is being planted in such a way that the different species support each other, sharing nutrients through their root systems and the soil and creating an environment that benefits them all.

This project – known as an agroforest - is being created by Sue Holland, a botanist who feels a deep connection with the natural environment. It’s in its early stages at the moment, with many young trees, small patches of shrubbery and some areas still bare and waiting to be planted this winter, but this is a long-term initiative and a vision for the future.

Sue explained: “It won’t come to maturity for between 10 and 20 years. But at that point when we walk here it‘ll be like walking into a temperate jungle - it will be full of shrubs and medium sized trees and canopy trees, and all of them working symbiotically and in relationship to each other providing food. It will also be a haven for even more wildlife than we have at present.

“The key thing about agroforestry is diversity of species - we’ll have about 200 species of plants all crammed into a relatively small area, compared with the farmer’s field nearby where you have one crop growing in a monoculture way. This is a different way of growing food, and it’s growing food in a way that’s very robust and sustainable.

“Agroforestry is part of a bigger movement called permaculture, which means you’re growing perennial plants that crop every year. So, once you’ve put the initial energy into planting and growing you don’t have to do that every year, it looks after itself and becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem.”

The underground communication system of trees

Agroforestry isn’t the same as rewilding, where plants are left to grow and spread naturally, but it’s closer to it than the usual crop production methods. It draws upon nature’s own mutual support systems for plants and insects, which includes the underground communication network used by trees.

Yes, really. This is a scientific fact, as Sue – with her botanist hat on – explains.

“There are fungi species that have a symbiotic relationship with the root system of plants – called mychorrhizal fungi. This network connects the roots of the trees and acts as a conduit to move nutrients and minerals between them. It acts as a biochemical communication system and some research has shown that if a tree becomes ill in some way, through the mychorrhizal fungi network it will be able to alert other trees and they can divert nutrients to the tree that’s unhealthy.

“It really sounds fabulous that trees communicate with each other, but why wouldn’t they? They’re living organisms like we are. And if you think about some of the really ancient trees that exist, the yews and oaks, it’s quite an amazing thought.”

The plants and trees growing in the agroforest

If you were viewing Sue’s agroforest from above, it would look like the shape of a flower, with a central grassy area and seven petal-shaped growing areas laid out in a circle around it, each with a different ‘purpose’. For example, one contains medicinal plants including echinacea, calendula and chamomile and another is planted with culinary spices such as saffron, pepper and allspice. There’s another bed for fruit, where a healthy crop of wild strawberries and blueberries is flourishing, while also preventing weeds from coming through. A pond in one section is providing a habitat for aquatic plants and wildlife. The pond is a year old and already has newts, frogs and toads living nearby.

There are also several plants and trees which are not among the species you would expect to cultivate in England, such as the almond. Sue explained: “The idea is that because an agroforest reaches maturity in 20 years, one needs to consider what the climate will be like then. So, tending towards Mediterranean plants and others that grow in warmer climates is a good thing to do - that’s why we’ve got things here that are quite exotic, because we’re facing warmer and wetter conditions.”

Like Sue’s project, the agroforestry movement itself is relatively young, but it has huge potential both for the environment and for food production. Sue says her agroforest is ‘a tiny, modest experiment, but it sits within a broader movement that is being led by some really amazing people’. According to the Agroforestry Research Trust, run by Martin Crawford, ‘research over the past 20 years has confirmed that agroforestry can be more biologically productive, more profitable, and more sustainable than forestry or agricultural monocultures’. And of course, its principles can also be put to work on a smaller scale, in our own allotments and gardens.

So perhaps Sue’s seven-petalled agroforest is literally part of a growing phenomenon, and potentially the shape of things to come.
To visit or find out more, please contact Sue on [email protected]

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