Plants for a Future visit, October 2011

I went to visit Plants for a Future (PFAF) last weekend, which ended up pulling together quite a few threads for me. I first came across the PFAF website in 2005 when I was collecting data about edible wild plants for my own website, Notes on Survival. This was a somewhat survivalist response to my taking on board the climate change news that had been trickling in over years. I was always highly impressed by the thoroughness of the information, the obvious effort that had gone into putting it together and the underlying passion.

The PFAF website is widely held to be the most comprehensive and accurate record of edible plants and I always turn to it first as an online source. Then earlier this year my friend and colleague at Edible Landscapes London, Gemma Harris, bought me a copy of the book. This one pre-dates my favourite book, Creating a Forest Garden (Martin Crawford) by 13 years and covers much the same territory: arguing why conventional agriculture fails; how forest gardening is the way forwards; how their respective projects were developed over time in hostile windy settings; and plenty of detail about what plants they've grown. Both books are a wealth of information and always by my desk.

So when Gemma casually mentioned that she'd be heading down to Cornwall asked if I'd like to come along, I jumped a the chance. I wasn't even put off by the fact that we would be camping, in October. The first thing I noticed was how un-Cornish it looked. Mostly you see windswept monocultures with few trees or, well, life. The hedges, shelter belts and wind breaks that Ken and Addy planted right at the start of their project have paid off. One of the first things you see as you come into the drive in is an attractive wall of bamboo. From this point onwards you are protected from the wind. They've created a haven full of butterflies, birds and wild flowers. As you wander into little orchards and along winding paths it's like being inside a beautiful curvaceous maze. The other thing I noticed was how huge the trees are. They look like they've been there forever, not just 20 years.

It's mostly Addy on site these days. We found her by the main shed which was full of the gorgeous aroma of apples. Addy loves apples and it shows: there are about 100 different types of apple and anything up to 150 apple trees at PFAF. And these are apple trees completely laden down with apples. Gemma and I set to work harvesting some of them but we could see it would be almost impossible to harvest them all without a bit more help.

We picked the apples carefully and placed, rather than dropped, them into bags. We also had to be careful with the trees because next year's flower buds are already sitting on the rather brittle twigs (and we wouldn't want to ruin next year's crop). We collected windfalls in separate bags and then brought them all back to the main shed. When we checked them over and transferred them into wooden crates, Addy was able to tell at a glance what apple variety was which. She really knows her apples.

In addition to the rather lovely apples, we were pleased to meet some of the other, more unusual, trees and were grateful to have Addy there to answer our questions. Wonderful to see the slightly unripe Persimmons and taste Plum Yew, Blue Bean Tree and Sea Buckthorn fruits for the first time. The Plum Yews really do look like yew trees and you have to peer under their long fronds to spot the clusters of small fruit. They were about 3cm long and ranging from yellow to mid brown. The brown ones were delicious and tasted to me like caramel. The seed kernel was also delicious. Since this plant is evergreen and can fruit in the shade, it instantly jumped to my 'must have' list of plants. The Blue Bean pods were unexpectedly soft to the touch and looked beautiful against bright yellow leaves. Nice enough taste but a bit of a faff to spit out all the seeds. They also have the rather unfortunate side effect of making your lips stick together, because of the latex in the pulp!

The exploding Sea Buckthorn berries were way more tart but kind of refreshing and moreish. I have sampled sea buckthorn jam at the Agroforesty Research Trust and they almost had to prize the jar out of my hand. It just doesn't taste like any other jam. I was astonished at how large the sea buckthorn tree was – I've only ever seen it on a video as a waist high plant. But that was on a cliff top. Here, perhaps because of their sheltered position, well, you can see from the picture how huge they are! By contrast, the Siberian Pea trees were quite small, though they were absolutely covered with dried pods.

I noticed there were at least 15 Monkey Puzzle trees around the site. Since these take around 25 years to start producing the massive cones and nuts, this represents a long term investment. All of the trees have to be protected from deer and rabbits and they've mostly done this using old water bottles. I was surprised that any animal would try and eat the sharp little barbs at the base of a Monkey Puzzle but Addy showed us damage on a tree that had been left unprotected.

Gemma and I were really lucky with the weather and were able to be outside the whole time, working in the sun by day and sitting around the fire by night. On the second night we used an old metal box to contain our fire and enjoyed some delicious but only partially cooked, date-stuffed apples. Here they are looking rather Dali, melted onto the metal surface. It was a special pleasure to meet Addy and have the chance to spend some time with one of our pioneering heroes. Along with the American Elder cuttings and a few seeds, we take away some very fond memories and will be pleased to come back.

Addy is happy for others to visit the site between March and October to lend a hand, but you should be aware that the camping facilities are pretty basic – a compost toilet and a bit of a walk for water. You don't have to bring loads of cooking equipment though because there is a simple kitchen in the main shed. You should also be prepared to respect the no smoking policy and eat a vegan diet while on site.

Contact Addy Fern for more information on 01208 873 554.