Dry July!

I would like to dedicate this month’s blog post to James Lovelock, who celebrated his 101st birthday a few days ago. By any measure an extraordinary person, this independent scientist/inventor/engineer has been publishing original and challenging ideas on the future for our world and the planet for half his life (yes, 50 years), shows no sign of letting up, and just keeps on getting better! The paperback edition of his latest book Novacene (2019) – my bet is that the name will stick – was published on Thursday, and he is already working on the next one.

With two doctorates and innumerable awards over his lifetime, he was employed by NASA in the 1960’s inventing equipment for space exploration, and famously designed and built a ‘homemade’ gas chromatograph in three days (the Electron Capture Detector), a highly sensitive instrument which measures industrial poisons in parts per trillion, signalling the dangers of CFC’s in the 1970’s and revolutionising our understanding of the atmosphere and pollutants.

But arguably his most significant achievement has been in alerting us to the dangers confronting our planet through his Gaia Theory (Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) and subsequent updates). Far from being a prophet of doom, Dr. Lovelock exudes practicality, common sense and optimism, but predictably, the scientific ‘establishment’ has difficulty in keeping up with his logic!

Long may he continue. Happy birthday, Dr. Lovelock!

With only 10mm of rain, July has been a dry month. While the industrialists have been wheeling out their maize irrigation booms, I have been taking down my watering can. The ground is exceptionally dry to quite a depth and, with no rain forecast, to give my new trees a chance of survival I have deep-mulched them with my ripe grasses and a little compost, and water this every few days to keep their upper fine root systems moist. So far so good, and they will have plenty of time to develop their deeper roots when the ground becomes wet again.

Up to now, we have avoided any canicule (heatwave), although the last two days of the month did peak to around 40°C in the afternoons. By this time last year we had had two heatwaves. August may be a different story, although generally by mid-month, the sun has lowered sufficiently for this to be less likely. The official definition of a canicule in France is when the temperature doesn’t drop below a specified minimum (usually 21° – 23°C depending on the area) over a continuous 72-hour period.

But of course, the question of climate change raises its head, since it is clear that the situation is changing rapidly, and I have to observe, record and reflect on how this will affect the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. Will the genus/species I am encouraging (existing) and planting (new) grow well under different conditions? (Not just trees but shrubs, herbaceous, perennial vegetables, climbers, everything, both wild and not-so-wild). Is the ethos of growing local varieties now out of the window? (And anyway, are there really any truly ‘local’ varieties? Probably not; they have just adapted to local conditions, and now new ones will have to do the same thing). Can we expect to experience near-savanna conditions rather than cool temperate? (Spain might be a good place to have a look around). I am still effectively in the design and planning phase of the Project, so it will be best to keep an open mind on how to let the Forest Garden evolve. (Not for nothing that the subheading for my website mentions ‘constant evolution’).

All this does not, of course, change the overall plan for expanding with trees and shrubs etc in the Upper Garden (and at the same time altering the ecosystem emphasis anyway), it’s just a question of what. It’s interesting to see that of the two alder species I planted last year – Italian Alder (Alnus cordata) and Red Alder (A. rubra) – the Red Alder seems to be much happier in the current conditions. Early days yet, of course, but it illustrates my point about species suitability in a changing climate.

Linked with this dilemma is my current ‘invasion’ of Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra). It has colonised a bank along the length of my driveway (photo below), and smaller areas in the Upper Garden. I know that it is an important butterfly plant, providing them with food from July to September when flowers are becoming scarcer, and that Gérard Ducerf, in his excellent volumes on Plantes Bio-indicatrices (1), is full of praise for it as an indicator of biodiversity and balanced soils, which is just what we want. But will it spread through the grasses in the Upper Garden and suffocate the wild flower populations there?

Common Knapweed in the Sombrun Forest Garden

My feeling is that it won’t, that I just have to watch and wait, because of the way species composition evolves (last year on the aforementioned bank there was nothing but Perennial Sow-Thistle), and because the wild flowers and grasses become established in the spring before the knapweed gets going. Let’s see!

The annual vegetables are growing well, and I should get a reasonable crop from them given that there was not much preparation (courgettes and tomatoes have already started). They are not entirely within the scope of my project, although it’s nice to have some from time to time. I would actually far rather be growing perennial vegetables, lentils and beans for their nutritive value, ease of maintenance and enrichment of the soil and soil life.

Having said that, the maize flowering was a wonderful spectacle that I had never witnessed at close quarters before – the male flower or tassel up top letting the wind shake its pollen onto the female ‘silks’ in the stand, each strand of which is connected to one kernel of corn. Pollination occurs when the pollen touches the strand. Photos below.

The number of wild flowers has naturally taken a dive this month, and the census reveals 35 species, including 8 newcomers, and some old-timers. For the full list, click on the button below. The dominant species at the moment is the Common Knapweed (see above).

Bramble control continues, just to keep it in check so it doesn’t completely take over, and on the roadside wild hedge in the Upper Garden, I have a fine crop of blackberries. The hedge gets a light pruning in winter and each year I am rewarded with the berries. I started picking about a week ago, and now they’re really beginning to ripen. I’d like to keep ahead of the competition to begin with (there’ll still be plenty for them), to avoid what happened with my greengages and Mirabelles. The birds kind of stole up on them without me realising, and all of a sudden there were none left! One opportunist had obviously taken his time to savour the booty, because there was a neat row of plum stones along a branch!

The solar dryer has been moved to the Upper Garden (see photo), where it gets a lot more sun than in the courtyard. I am regularly getting temperatures of over 50° in the drying cabinet, and this month I dried some Mirabelles, halved and stoned. After three days, and bringing the trays indoors at night, I got something that was deliciously sweet and sort of a half-prune. Very nice, but obviously this technology is work-in-progress!

The solar dryer in the Upper Garden. You can see how dry it is.

I find it interesting that with the summer heat comes invasion, both in plant and insect life, presumably just with the struggle for survival. It’s different from invasive species such as acacia and blackthorn, which are ‘pioneers’, the first stage of the process of natural reforestation. With the summer ones there is almost a sense of aggression. The bramble is a good example, as are the horseflies, which are my least favourite insect, since they seem to have attitude, and to be just out for blood (mine)! Compare them with wasps and bees, which are normally quite docile creatures, and only become aggressive when required to defend themselves against predators (especially the two-legged kind). However, it’s all part of life’s rich pattern, and I am pleased, because much of what’s in the above paragraphs is evidence of just how quickly things can evolve. Thanks to all concerned.

(1) Ducerf, G. (2007). Plantes bio-indicatrices alimentaires et médicinales. Editions Promonature, Briant, France. http://www.promonature.com

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