….. meaning phew!, or expressing relief. We’ve had some rain (68mm), and more is forecast in the next few days. We had to wait until the third week of the month, and until then summer continued, with another heat peak around the 15th. And now we are getting noticeably shorter days (equi nox), the mornings and evenings are a lot cooler, and right at the end of the month I lit the woodburner in the evening for the first time.
Although over the last four months we have had about 190mm of rain, two-thirds of the published local average for this period (see the paragraph on weather recording below), the ground has been very dry to quite a depth, and together with the several heat peaks this constitutes a drought for the land here, not good news for young trees.
The Italian Alders (Alnus cordata) (below left), for example, are now looking decidedly weak and spindly (they were planted nearly two years ago), when really they should be well on the way to developing a healthy root system. They have shed a lot of leaves to reduce photosynthesis, and they also have a lot of buds, but the test will be to see if these develop at the appropriate point, and of course we are nearing the time when the leaves will fall anyway.
The Red Alders (Alnus rubra), in contrast, are doing well (above right), and the comparison indicates Nature’s system clearly, in that a whole raft of non-linear conditions, from climate to soil to phenology to ecosystems and so on, combine to produce a result, irrespective of whether or not that qualifies as a ‘success’ in human terms.
As must be obvious by now, I am not following a productivist model with the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, but rather one where Nature is allowed to show the way, just giving her a few nudges from time to time! For example, some compost and urine will be added to all the new trees during October to help them along. Forest regeneration is taking place amongst all the other things going on here, and maybe the introduced Italian Alder is not one of the pioneer species that is suited to my particular conditions. We’ll see of course, because next year may reveal something different. I do have the luxury of allowing time for the much slower pace of a forest garden, Tree Time as I call it, which is an essential part of the Project ethos.
I now have the weather station mentioned in last month’s post! Still in pieces on the kitchen table while I try to figure it all out, but it’s here! It has ‘connectivity’, so data will be constantly updated and I can produce monthly charts easily, essential for year-on-year comparisons and a useful contribution to understanding weather conditions and climate change locally. It will also mean I can check the published weather averages, which are often not specifically for my village.
Winter plans for the Project are firming up; these will include fruit tree planting, establishing a first ‘bed’ for lentils and beans, and coppicing.
I am lucky to have the Conservatoire Végétal Régional d’Aquitaine not far from here, and they specialise in the research and production of a wide range of southern French fruit and nut tree species. In view of the likely climate stresses that new trees will experience, it is important to have varieties that are the best suited to conditions here, and the Conservatoire is advising me on that. There will be just one or two trees each of 10 or so species, and planting will probably be in December or January. As mentioned in a previous post, they will mostly be planted on the swale mounds to maximise water availability.
For lentils and beans, I will shortly be mowing a suitable area, covering it with mulch (cut grass, cardboard, shredded branch wood, black plastic sheet or all of these), and then leaving it until the spring. This will probably be just below one of the swale mounds, since the idea is for future companion plants of the fruit trees to benefit from the nitrogen fixing of the lentils/beans. In this way the legume patch can be moved each year to repeat the process, improving the soil as we go.
The main coppicing activity will be the Goat Willow (Salix capria) on the eastern border (Blog Post, September 1st), quite a big job. This will provide biomass for the Coppice area in the north-eastern corner, plus poles and small wood for the woodburner. I will also be removing unwanted lower branches from the many self-seeded Oak saplings (Quercus spp.) in this area, to make them more suitable for future coppicing.
I have often talked about the Evaluation and Design stage of establishing the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, and the evaluation part (topography, geology, hydrology, etc – the ‘fixed assets’ in the ecological process) is almost complete. But because of the ‘constant evolution’ in this website’s subtitle, the design part is likely to be a rather fluid affair. Yes, you need a basic outline of what is going where and with what, and I already have this in sketch form. It follows something like the ‘zones’ in permaculture, where you have the most-visited areas nearest the dwelling and the least-visited furthest away. So in my case, herbs and whatever annual crops I decide to grow would be Zone 1 outside the front door for immediate access, and the Coppice (see above) Zone 5, because I don’t need to go there very often. My point is that I can have an outline map or plan, but it will not contain every tree or shrub or vegetable because I will need to constantly adapt the details depending on prevailing conditions, what works well and what doesn’t, and just plain getting things in the wrong place!
The harvest continued in September, and by far the best producers were the blackberries and the figs, both of which are in good supply in the freezer. I have had a reasonable amount of tomatoes, some courgettes, and quite a few squash of different sorts. The maize and beans were not really a success due to the drought and the lack of suitable soil.
There was also a fair crop of walnuts, just in the last few days when some squally showers brought them all down. There are not so many as last year, which was a ‘mast’ season for this tree, but the quality is improving and I may even have a higher yield in fact. The walnut had been neglected, and shaded by an overgrown cherry (photo below), and so last year I reduced the cherry by about half and have consistently been giving the walnut the urine treatment. The large number of worm casts under the tree shows that this is effective. I will be either coppicing or pollarding the cherry to give the walnut even more light and to regrow the cherry to a more manageable size – it is still far too big for its situation, a kind of corridor along the side of the house that connects the Upper and Lower Gardens.
The September flower census (see below) had 21 species, just a couple less than last month, but the surprise was the return of 7 or 8 flowers after a drought break. They were very reduced both in numbers and size, but definitely there, including Lady’s Bedstraw.
A couple of little mystery stories to end with: I have been growing a Horseradish plant (Armoracia rusticana) under the Greengage and Mirabelle trees (it deters soil-borne pests and diseases, plus the leaves are delicious in a salad) and found that the leaves were always being eaten, long past the normal slug period. I put a chicken wire cage around it and the leaves grew again, untouched. One morning I noticed that the wire netting had a large dent in the side, so I’m assuming that the culprit was a larger animal with a taste for horseradish, still trying to get at the leaves – a cat?!
I had a bird in the courtyard this month which I have identified as an Alpine Chough (see photo) because of its size (bigger than a blackbird), its dense, glossy black plumage, curved orange beak and the fact that it spent a long time digging in the soil, one of the characteristics of the species apparently. It was puzzling to see it here because it is a mountain species and I am about 90km north of the Pyrenees. It was also on its own, when it seems choughs are usually found in groups. Anyway, I’m glad it paid me a visit!