Coppicing and hedging …

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After last month’s collective sigh (from both the forest garden and from me!), December has been a very active month, and a large part of it has been spent on coppicing the Goat Willow (Salix caprea) on the north-eastern boundary.

This was a very satisfying task, taking part in an ancient tradition, and knowing that new shoots will grow quickly and provide new wood. The whole Coppice area in the garden, shown in the bottom left picture, will be managed to provide a succession of different types of wood on a continuing basis.

The by-products of this process, shown in the photos above, are also an important part of the forest garden principle; the poles, stakes, small wood and firewood all have their uses, and the biomass too, which will be spread around the coppice area to decompose slowly, providing habitat and food for a wide variety of insects and fungi, and eventually contributing to the humus content of the forest floor.

People are often not clear on the distinction between coppicing and pollarding. The former, as you can see, involves cutting the tree right down to a stump or stumps at more or less ground level. By leaving a few stems to photosynthesise, the tree has the energy to reshoot quickly, particularly a willow which regrows easily in any case. A coppice can also have a lot of trees close together, because there is never time with the continual cutting for any major competition for light. The big disadvantage with this method is damage from browsing animals, who like the juicy new shoots.

So there is an alternative – pollarding. This involves cutting a tree down to its trunk about 2 – 3m above ground level, beyond the reach of the browsers. It can be done with more mature trees as well, but the regrowth principle is the same. The pollarded tree also becomes its own ecosystem over time, especially in decay, as seen in the hollowed trunks in the photo. Willows were often pollarded in vineyards all over France, where the orange, whippy shoots were cut every year for use in tying back the vines. Sadly, this is now largely superseded by plastic ties!

Hedging was also done here at the beginning of the month: The hedge above the drive entrance (below) now contains Bramble (Rubus fruticosus), Field Rose (Rosa arvensis), Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclyminum), Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), and Spindle (Euonymus europaeus). Wild flowers in the hedge include Teasel (Dipsocus fullonum), Nettle (Urtica dioica), Goosegrass/Cleavers (Galium aparine), Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), Ivy (Hedera helix), Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), Grape Hyacinth (Muscari neglectum), Creeping Cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans), Perennial Sow Thistle (Sonchus arvensis), Lesser Stitchwort (Stellaria graminea) and Vervain (Verbena officinalis).

The hedge continues below the drive entrance and has Bramble (Rubus fruticosus), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Hazel (Corylus avellana), Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) and Madder (Rubia tinctorum), plus some of the wild flowers mentioned above. The only plant I have introduced in the entire hedge is Autumn Olive, which is filling in the gap in the foreground (above left).

The next job in the Coppice is thinning all the oak saplings (there are a lot!) to just one or two stems. This is their first growth, and I would like this to be as strong as possible, so that when they are coppiced in a few years’ time, the stumps will be well established to produce new shoots. It will mean fewer oak poles this time round, but faster!

The end of the year is a good time to review progress with the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, and I am very happy with what has been achieved this year, getting the Project well and truly off the ground!

The early months were taken up with planting and setting up the Wild Flower Census, which regular readers will know is updated every month during the growing season. This reached its height in May, with 60 different species in the garden! Also the underground water rivulets were confirmed by the sourcier and the swale ditches were dug in February. In June I was reporting how well they were working. Water management is an important part of the Project and agroforestry in general.

The Coppice area and the permanent pathways were defined in April (I keep to the pathways as much as possible, to avoid compaction and damage to plants and wildlife everywhere else). I also made my first attempts at setting up the website! These were a little awkward, looking back, but by October, the whole thing had been redesigned, and I am still happy with the way it looks and performs. The first in the series of Articles was published in May, and there has been a good response to the ones that have appeared so far.

I also decided it was high time for an Inventory of the whole Forest Garden, and you can see this by clicking on the link below. The inventory shows over 50 species in this first real year of the Project, and it will be exciting to see how this develops over time (500 in 10 years?!). The inventory doesn’t include any wild flowers, which have their own inventory (see above). You can find examples of this – the Wild Flower Census – in previous blogs on this site.

The ordering of my fruit trees turned into quite a saga, because the Conservatoire Végétal where they come from had a Covid case and had to close to the public; they also had a huge run on internet orders, with the result that I eventually got only 6 out of the 15 trees ordered, and no hope of getting the rest this winter. So be it, and I’m not too disappointed, because the trees I have are all different local species and of very good quality, all 2 years old. I have apple, plum, peach, cherry, pear and quince. To this can be added the 6 apple trees grafted by a generous neighbour, plus gooseberry, raspberry, blackcurrant and goji, all of which were planted temporarily last year. All the fruit trees and bushes will be going in the Upper Garden, many of them along the swales, to continue the development there which began with introducing some nitrogen-fixing species, increasing species variety in the Coppice, plus managing pioneer species that were already there. Refer to the Inventory above for the full picture.

And at last, I have my sign up at the property entrance (November blog)! It took a long time, but was well worth the wait.

But I think my major preoccupation this year has been the weather! Not just the drought we experienced all summer and the effect that had on my young trees, but also recording it. By October I had a weather station set up, something I had wanted for a long time, and the first month’s reporting was at the end of November. I have now realised that I need to keep the weather recording in perspective, however, and while the station will be perfect for records to build up and consult as time goes on, I find I also need the personal touch of observing and reacting – it’s a part of working with Nature – and this wasn’t happening with just relying on the station data alone.

So I have returned to daily observations in my journal, and these show that December was mostly dull and wet, alternating cold and mild. We had a lot of rain (192mm), particularly right at the end of the month, which seemed to go on forever! There was also more wind, associated with the low pressure systems.

Instead of the rather detailed charts in last month’s blog, I have decided to produce a weather table for inclusion in the monthly blog, with figures on essential data, and this is included below. It will give a quick reference over the period of a year, and will build year on year, and I will also have all the charts on the computer anyway (see November’s blog) for more detailed records when needed.

I have had some further thoughts on the design process for the Project too. The nuts and bolts reporting on topography, geology, hydrology etc has been done (November blog), but for the ‘forward planning’, while I obviously need to follow a general layout for practical reasons (I have this in sketch form at present), I also need to allow things to develop in their own way, for Nature to suggest positions and companions for my plants. It is really for this reason that I am concentrating on letting trees dictate at the beginning, and getting major players into position for other trees and plants to fit in. The fruit trees, for instance, are a key example of this.

I am aware that my efforts at the moment are directed more towards the ‘forestry’ part of agroforestry, but I think this OK, and the ‘agro’ part – the herbaceous plants, ground cover, below-ground plants, creepers, perennial vegetables and so on, the vertical arrangement that really makes it a forest garden – will follow in good time when we are ready.

I am very pleased to see fungi/mushrooms growing openly in various parts of the garden. This means that a mycelial network is building up, an essential part of soil health, and this will increase as more plants and trees are added. Plus I’m armed with slightly more understanding of this extremely complex area, thanks to Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life, which I mentioned in the November blog.

I am glad to be able to talk about media events each month, because this shows that stuff is happening in the wider world, and this is what we need! The first is another film, Gather, directed by Sanjay Rawal (available on the usual outlets such as Netflix, Vimeo, Amazon, etc), featuring four Native American (First Peoples) groups in the US central plains and their work on food sovereignty through re-establishing indigenous food systems. This is something that resonates deeply with me, having worked with tribal people (the Adivasis) on livelihoods and food security in the mountain forests of south-west India. It is also closely linked to the objective behind the Sombrun Forest Garden Project and what is beginning to happen here.

We need to re-establish our relationship with local food and the people who grow it – I have talked about this before – and also our relationship with Nature. The Covid crisis has brought this to the fore and the local food paniers, meat, bread, sheep’s cheeses and yogurt (and Pyrenean wool mattresses!) which have been developed by growers and artisans in this area, and in many other countries too, are evidence of this need.

Second is another book – Jardins-Forêts: un nouvel art de vivre et de produire by Fabrice Desjours – for those of you who read French! Published last year by Editions de Terran, it is a mine of information on all aspects of forest gardening, and captures perfectly the ethos behind it, but mostly for me it has opened the door to France, in that I have always had difficulty finding sources for forest garden plants and other resources such as websites here, and now I have it all! It shows that the agroforestry principle – trees! – and the forest garden concept in particular, is expanding in temperate regions and in all kinds of different cultures the principle is inevitably always the same. Fabrice Desjours also brings in the tropical aspect, since the forest garden par excellence is to be found in these regions, and I too have always felt that we can learn a lot from them, because of my own experience.

And I must also mention another blog that I have found, gardens of delight by Anni Kelsey, who has been forest gardening in Wales for many years and has also written a couple of books on her experiences. Her approach is very much ‘Stand back and take your place in Nature’s system’ and it is very close to my own. Very enjoyable, insightful and informative writing!

A Happy New Year to all my readers!

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