(For my email subscribers: Remember to read this on the website – better design, more information, updates included, altogether a better experience!)
Weather-wise, January has been a month of contrasts. It was cold until the new moon on the 13th, with most nights falling below zero and a low of -6°C on the 8th; then the rest of the month was very mild with overnight temperatures of 11° or 12°, and a high of 19° on the 28th. It was reasonably dry at the start of the month (13mm rain) but the mildness later on meant a lot of rain (114mm) and very unsettled weather in general. January went out with a bang, with a thunderstorm, gales and heavy rain late evening on the 31st!
The swales filled up very nicely as you can see above! This photo also shows the principle of the swales very well. Rainwater running down the slope is caught by the ditch and because this follows a contour line, the water is evenly distributed and slowly infiltrates the soil. Biomass is also placed in the swale; I have in fact added more since this photo was taken. The trees planted on the bank then benefit from moist ground with increased bacterial and mycorrhizal activity.
The beginning of the month was a good time for pruning and planting, with the Moon waning (between Full Moon and Third Quarter) and the biodynamic calendar showing fruit and root days*. Greengage, mirabelle, and figs were lightly pruned to capitalise on last year’s new growth. These trees are old and were inherited neglected with the garden. I have spent the last three winters encouraging them back to growth, and I hope this year will see more fruiting. Pruning only really needs to be architectural, i.e. for the good of the tree not the gardener, and over-pruning or moulding into shapes ‘to make life easier’ is not really necessary and doesn’t help the tree.
The new fruit trees were planted between the 5th and the 7th on the swale banks. These were peach Charles Roux, apple Pomme d’Albret, plum Datil and pear Tarquin des Pyrénées on the Upper Swale, and cherry Cerise Noire d’Itxassou, quince Coing de la Haie de Thouars and apple ‘GG’ (a special graft from my neighbour Gérard – you can’t get much more local than that!) on the Lower Swale. Soft fruit bushes – gooseberry, raspberry and blackcurrant – will be moved from their temporary quarters to the swales, in between the fruit trees, during the next transplanting period (February 1st and 2nd), weather permitting.
A word about planting. Much of the advice in the glossy gardening literature is, at best, less than helpful; instead, we need to think seriously about how plants, the atmosphere and the soil and its organisms actually interact, and what their real needs are, and then act accordingly. For example, when you take into account that around 95% of what the plant needs for growth comes originally from the atmosphere, the perspective changes slightly!
Bare-root trees are better than container ones, because their roots have not been deformed and restrained by the pot, and they have been grown in real soil. When making the hole for planting, dig just to the size and depth of the roots, no more (a possible exception to this rule is with very heavy clay soils, when a slightly bigger hole and the addition of some humus may be necessary), taking note of the different soil horizons and keeping these in separate piles. Soil horizons are the layers of soil in the ground, starting with leaf litter, then humus, and then Horizons A, B and C, distinguished by changes in colour, usually darkest at the top (the most fertile) and becoming lighter as it goes down through the soil formation stages to the ‘mother’ bedrock. Break up any lumps of soil.
Make the hole to fit the existing shape of the roots, loosen any compacted soil on the bottom and sides of the hole, put the tree in, settle the roots in their natural position and replace the soil in its original layers using your hands. This is important, because it maintains the ecosystem of each horizon intact, and for this reason it is not necessary or desirable to put any compost or fertiliser in the hole. Wiggle the tree a couple of times gently while replacing the soil to allow it to settle around the roots. Firm the soil only very lightly around the tree, you want as much air in there as possible. Plant to the original soil line on the base of the tree, and always keep rootstock graft points above the soil. You may or may not decide to include a support stake depending on circumstances, but bear in mind that a young tree needs to sway in the wind to allow it to anchor itself and for its root architecture to develop properly. No straight jackets required!
Spread a thin layer of compost around the base of the plant and then water the whole thing in. Finally spread a layer of mulch over the compost. Stand back, wish the tree well, and let the worms, bacteria and fungi get on with their work!
Strimming also took up a fair amount of time this month. It is an annual event on the grasses in the Upper and Lower Gardens, and the objective is to remove the previous year’s dead growth to stop it seeding and also to allow the wild flowers the light and room to grow up again. I left it too late this year, it should really have been done in October or November, and new grass was already beginning to grow through the old, complicating the task. Removal of the old grass will also be more difficult, but I will need to do this. Strimming is something that will be done less and less as the forest garden progresses and plant density increases, but for now it needs to be done, keeping a careful eye out for any wild tree saplings that have grown up.
The Wild Flower Census is back! I thought it probably wouldn’t be needed until February, but in fact there were seven species this month, including the Woodland Crocus (below), which is always a lovely sight. See the census file below for the full list.
The very mild weather has no doubt played a part in encouraging plants to become active, and I have also seen a bumblebee looking for nectar, a very sleepy hornet, and several species of beetle emerging from a woodpile. A friend also told me that the hedgehogs in her garden not only went into hibernation late, but are now already beginning to wake up again. We’ll see if the weather in February turns cold again and causes them problems. I am glad to have the weather records for just such events as this; it will be an invaluable resource for documenting climate change.
It was very pleasing to find a newly-developing mycelial network (photo below) in the log pile, and quite a rare sight because they are more often than not below ground. The logs are next to a large biomass pile and it is no doubt this that has encouraged the spread of the network. It is something that is key to the development of the forest garden, and the swale plantations (see above) are also an important part of this. They cover a wide area in the centre of the Upper Garden and should provide a strong link in the chain. I continue to find Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (Blog, Time for a Rest, December 1st, 2020) on fungi and mycelial networks an inspiration, and prefer to read small sections at a time rather than plough through the whole book; the importance of mycorrhizal relationships with plants cannot be overstated.
And in connection with this, I have finished spreading the biomass from the Goat Willow (Blog, Coppicing and Hedging, January 1st, 2021) in the Coppice, and have been thinning the many oak saplings there. The result is quite striking, and will lead to healthy development of insect populations and fungi on the decomposing stems. The photo below only shows a part of the Coppice area, and there is at least as much again behind where I was standing.
I had an interesting walk in the forest on the hill opposite my property this month (see photos above and on the Homepage), with neighbour Jean-Christophe, who was telling me that about 70 years ago all this area was vineyards (apparently my garden was too). All the woodland there now is the result of natural regeneration, and it’s already pretty mature with the usual range of species – oak, birch, a lot of chestnut, hornbeam, acacia, service tree, field maple, and holly and butcher’s broom in the understory (ash is noticeable by its absence). It’s great to see this and to have it so close at hand. I really feel the forest garden is a complementary part of this landscape and each is contributing to the other’s development.
This leads me to one of the media events this month, that of the Global Landscapes Forum Best of 2020 web page. GLF is the world’s largest platform on sustainable land use, and has an ongoing programme of online conferences, videos and articles on a truly global scale. Their outreach is staggering and conferences were attended by over 800 million people in 2020! Managing Director John Colmey also has a podcast on how living knowledge and local communities can help the world recover from Covid19 and climate change. Well worth a listen, and very relevant to the Sombrun Forest Garden Project.
There was also an interesting webinar discussion on bioindicator plants on one of the French agroforestry sites that I follow, Arbres et Paysages 32. The concept, dealt with exhaustively by Gérard Ducerf in his volumes Plantes Bioindicatrices (Blog, Dry July, August 1st, 2020), is about interpreting the messages wild plants give us on the state of our soil. It was interesting to note that a group of plants – Chickweed (Stellaria media), Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Spotted Medick (Medicago arabica), Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), and Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) – indicate a balanced soil, and all are present here in abundance, a good start!
I guess that this month’s blog has been all about networks and interconnectedness, from the global to the local to the microscopic, and that symbolises too the structure of the Sombrun Forest Garden Project within its own microcosm. Everything is a part of something else, every plant is and will be connected to other plants, ecosystems, mycelial networks, and there are no hard and fast rules about how that will develop over time, no proof that anything works, where everything comes about as a result of observation and experimentation. And that makes it very exciting and a privilege to be a part of.
The following extract from Merlin Sheldrake’s book, beautifully written, sums up my thoughts: “Can we think about a plant without also thinking about the mycorrhizal networks that lace outward – extravagantly – from its roots into the soil? If we follow the tangled sprawl of mycelium that emanates from its roots, then where do we stop? Do we think about the bacteria that surf through the soil along the slimy film that coats roots and fungal hyphae? Do we think about the neighbouring fungal networks that fuse with those of our plant? And – perhaps most perplexing of all – do we think about the other plants whose roots share the very same fungal network?” (Sheldrake M., 2020. Entangled Life, Bodley Head, London, p.164).
(*Whilst acknowledging that the followers of the scientific method among my readers may find this a difficult concept to accept, a lack of ‘scientific proof’ is not proof of lack of validity!)