February has been another busy month, with the completion of winter tasks and a general feeling of the garden beginning to wake up, especially towards the end of the month.
Some of the wild flowers that have appeared this month, left to right, top to bottom: Lesser Celandine, Hairy Bittercress, Lungwort, Dandelion and Great Horsetail
The Wild Flower Census has revealed 26 species this month, up from 17 for February last year. There is one new species, Wavy Bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa), which I discovered on the last day of the month hiding among the Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), and the others are flowers returning earlier than ‘usual’. This in itself is interesting from the point of view of climate change, and I have also noticed that flowering times in many cases are earlier now than those given in the flower identification books I use.
There are a lot more Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and Hairy Bittercress, and there were more Woodland Crocus (Crocus tommasiniana), in the Lower Garden around the Persimmon tree, although these are now over. I am always glad to see the Great Horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) coming up, as it is a truly amazing plant, with prehistoric origins. It is rich in minerals, especially silicon, which gives it its ‘architectural’ structure. It is a useful garden plant as a compost accelerator (along with nettle and comfrey), and an important medicinal plant too.
One absentee from the list so far is Grape Hyacinth (Muscari neglectum), but it may just be later this year. It was only in a small patch last year, and I widened an access pathway nearby over the winter, so I may have disturbed its ecosystem. Hopefully it will return, and next year I will be complaining that it is taking over! You can see the full list of this month’s flowers by clicking on the link below.
One of the first actions this month (February 2nd) was to finish transplanting the fruit trees and bushes put in temporarily last year in the Lower Garden. Gooseberries, raspberries and blackcurrants joined the other fruit trees on the Upper Swale bank, and the remaining apples grafted by neighbour Gérard went on and around the Lower Swale. You can see the banks in the photo below, marked by lines of dried grasses. The bench in the foreground is in a special place, because it is just below the Coppice, a really peaceful spot which is already surrounded by young oak, chestnut, goat willow, small-leaved lime, robinia, acacia, hornbeam, red alder, hazel, holly, hawthorn, blackthorn, dog rose, honeysuckle, hibiscus, bramble, fern and many wild flowers, and from where you can see the Pyrenees. As time goes on, there will be at first a permanent raised wooden platform, and then a summer cabin, a place to spend nights in among the sounds, sights and smells of the Forest Garden!
Several other winter jobs were completed this month, including collecting the strimmed grasses in the Upper Garden for use as mulch, moving the piles of poles, stakes and firewood from the Goat Willow coppicing (Blog, January 1st, 2021) to under the house terrace to keep dry, tidying up wood piles and finishing thinning the oak saplings in the Coppice.
I have bought 2kg of Green Lentils from a local organic grower ready to broadcast on the lentil patch (Blog, November 1st, 2020) in April. I will also sow some beans, squash and flowers such as marigold and nasturtium here. The effect should be good, lots of good food, as well as nourishing for the soil (nitrogen fixing, biomass) and attractive for insects. The idea is to move the patch (it’s about 5m square) to a different place every year to help with general fertility. As soon as the black plastic mulch is lifted for sowing this spring, it can be put down in the new location, giving it a full year to compost the grasses underneath.
One major event this month has been getting a (rather large) heap of manure from a nearby organic agroforestry teaching farm. I ended up with about 1.5 tonnes of really good straw manure because Stéphane, the farmer, insisted on filling up the truck! And it cost me just a bottle of wine (organic of course!). I have broken my rule of no external inputs in this case, as I wanted to feed all the trees planted since the Project started, and there wouldn’t have been nearly enough of my own compost. I am thinking of the likelihood of drought again this summer, and by making sure that the trees are developing active root systems and encouraging mycelial networks before this through the action of the normal soil organisms, they should have a better chance of survival. Once established, they won’t need feeding again.
The imported compost was a mixture of manure from horses, cows, goats and sheep, and quickly started developing white rot fungus
The manure spread around the bases of the trees was then covered with a mulch of the grasses I collected after strimming. This will ensure the manure doesn’t dry out and also maintain moisture below. The photo below shows the mulch, with compost underneath, around one of the old, inherited fruit trees in the Lower Garden. I fed these trees too as I wanted to give them a boost after spending three winters coaxing them back to life.
I have created three new biomass piles in the Upper Garden (see photo below) from old rotting wood and other twigs and branches, all already on site. These will help the spread of mycelial networks and encourage more insects. The importance of decomposition in the ecological cycle (producers, consumers, decomposers) cannot be overstated and I have written about this before. Worms, insects, microbes, bacteria, fungi and even small mammals all play their part, and it is for this reason that biomass has a big role in the (re-)establishment of biodiversity, both above and below ground, as the Forest Garden, and self-fertility, develops.
The worm-casts over the whole forest garden, but especially in the Lower Garden where the ground is now really uneven, are a good sign too, evidence of a lot of underground activity and a source of rich soil for the compost heap (see below)!
The alders have some fine catkins, and the goat willows are just starting to produce theirs too. These are a vital source of early food (pollen) for the insects, and so it is very good to see.
Disturbance, both natural and planned, has a role to play in the development of any natural site, and the Sombrun Forest Garden Project is no exception. Everything here is continually changing (in constant evolution, as it says at the top of the page!). For example, the drought conditions last summer (natural) or the creation of the swales and the biomass piles, even the addition of manure (planned) will all have an effect on the ecosystems of each plant and its relation to other plants and the soil, as well as the ecosystem of the forest garden as a whole.
Weather-wise, February was generally calm, dry and quite warm, and this no doubt was the main cause of the general feeling of awakening in the forest garden. There was 50mm of rain, mostly in the first half of the month, and an average temperature of just under 10°, with a peak of 22° on the 24th. Air pressure was relatively high as well, producing some colder mornings and evenings. See the monthly weather record in the file below.
In terms of media events this month, the Mongabay website deserves a mention. It is a very wide-ranging environmental and conservation site, reporting worldwide, and is well worth subscribing to. In particular in February there was a podcast on agroforestry, including interviews with three keynote speakers, Erik Hoffner, who edits Mongabay’s ongoing coverage of agroforestry, Sarah Lovell, who talks about agroforestry in the US, and Roger Leakey, who discusses agroforestry in the tropics, based on his own lifetime of experience. I am very conscious that the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, under the umbrella of agroforestry, is connected to a worldwide movement, a part of the bigger picture (see Article No. 3, September 21st, 2020), and it is for this reason that I like to mention media events each month. To be aware of what is happening in the wider world helps to confirm our own actions and ideas, and makes us feel that we are a part of something worthwhile, that we are contributing, in however small a way, to something greater.