The first cuckoo and a new development …

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The workload has been fairly light this month, but there has been plenty happening. Right at the beginning of the month there was that key spring moment when you notice trees coming into leaf, a pale tinge which can be a hundred shades of green, yellow, bronze, beige, gold …, not just here in the Forest Garden, but over the surrounding area too.

I think that because of the generally mild weather since the latter part of February (see the Monthly Weather Record below), everything is fairly advanced here this year, and the Wild Flower Census (see below) showed no fewer than 40 species, up from 27 last March. This was no doubt due to the weather, because virtually all the extra plants were ‘returnees’, just coming through earlier. The Grape Hyacinth (Muscari neglectum) finally showed up (see Blog, March 1st, 2021), but just one solitary stem; hopefully it’ll be back next year in force.

One new arrival this year in the gravel outside my front door is Cornsalad (above), also known as Lamb’s Lettuce or Mâche (which is also the French name). I hope it spreads because it is very good as a salad leaf. The Cuckoo Flower turned up in numbers, and right on cue, I first heard the cuckoo on the 24th!

There is also a new flower, a freesia, in the courtyard in front of the house (see below) which I don’t think can be called ‘wild’! I have been here three years and this is the first time I’ve seen it. Perhaps it’s what is called a ‘garden escape’, and maybe some seed has flown in from a nearby garden, or maybe a corm was planted by the previous owner and has just now decided to grow. Whatever happened, it’s very beautiful!

The freesia in the courtyard; there is also a yellow one in the background.

My overall impression of the weather this March is of feeling cold, although this is not borne out by the statistics! These showed an average temperature of 9.7°, which is almost identical to February. Perhaps it was a ‘feels like’ factor because there were some northerly breezes and also perhaps I was expecting March’s average to be a bit higher than February as spring starts to come in. Rainfall for the month was 29mm (see the Monthly Weather Record below). In the last four days of the month we had temperatures in the mid-twenties, and there were the familiar sounds of bees buzzing busily and the sight of butterflies flitting over the wild flowers. The 29th was the first day I didn’t have to light the woodburner.

It was good to see the Mirabelle coming into abundant flower along with the cherries (photo below). The old wood on the Greengage (out of shot on the right) flowered before the one-year-old wood, which has mostly gone straight to leaf, evidence that we are not there yet with this tree! However, it is looking vigorous and there should be a reasonable amount of fruit from the old wood. Hopefully there will be a good crop from the Mirabelle, justification for the work carried out to regenerate it. You can already see the leaf replacing the flower in the photo, top right.

Regular strimming has started this month too. It is limited to the roadside verges (to be a good citizen and to avoid the council massacring everything!), but more especially to the pathways through the Forest Garden. These are essential to avoid walking everywhere and risking compaction and damage to plants (see the photos above and below), but they are also very inviting.

The Upper Garden in March, showing the pathways and the lentil patch, which will be uncovered and sown in April. The Coppice area is out of shot to the right at the top of the slope.

March has seen the start of the browser season and there has been damage to several trees, notably a Red Alder and an eleagnus (Autumn Olive) in the top corner in the photo above, but also some of the oak and wild cherry saplings. I have put protective netting around the first two, but the others are not so worrying as they are self-seeded and plentiful (for the moment!) and as the deer seem to like them, this may persuade them not to bother with the other more valuable planted trees (or not!).

However, although so far none of the new fruit trees have been affected, April will probably see a programme of protection for these too, as I don’t want to risk damage to them.

The effects of deer browsing: the Red Alder (top left) was only slightly damaged, and I was able to bind up the lower branches (top right) and put some wire netting in place (bottom left). The damage to this Wild Cherry (bottom right), however, is terminal.

Just a word about tree protection; there are all kinds of bands to wrap round tree trunks on the market, but these should be avoided, especially the plastic ones! A tree’s bark needs to breathe, or more correctly, photosynthesise, just as much as its leaves. The bands may make life easier for the gardener, but not for the tree! Much better to use some kind of netting, such as the poultry wire in the photo above. There is a useful explanation in this Guardian article from 2002 (don’t worry, tree bark still does the same job, even 20 years later!).

Chanua the cat (Blog, December 1st, 2020) is growing up fast and has started hunting – mice, voles and lizards so far. This will have an effect on ecosystems and food chains, but the fact is that there were already a lot of cats in the neighbourhood long before Chanua arrived, so I am going to put it down to planned disturbance! (See Blog, March 1st, 2021).

I planted out some Chestnut (Castanea sativa) saplings on the 25/26th which neighbour Gérard (grafted apple trees, Blog, March 1st/February 1st, 2021) had given me from his forest parcelle above the village. Most of them went on the edge of the Coppice to begin its slow march downhill from the top north corner. Another neighbour (Jean-Christophe) had given me a tiny Szechuan Pepper last year and it survived the winter frosts outside, so has gone into a bigger pot to grow on this year. There are also several holly saplings, which will eventually go in the Coppice as understory trees.

I finished last year’s walnuts at the beginning of the month. I seem to remember them lasting into April last year!

There was a good online conference (Global Landscapes Forum again – Blog, February 1st, 2021) on the 22nd, on the State of the World’s Forests. My regular readers will know that I see the world at large as both important and relevant to the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, because it gives us inspiration, scale and meaning. There were three interesting speakers from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR, Indonesia), The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO, Italy) and the World Resources Institute (WRI, Kenya office) talking not just about how things are at present (Africa is becoming a hotspot of deforestation), but also about the urgency of restoration – cushioning communities, resilience and food and water security. And yes, this is relevant to the affluent ‘west’!

And especially in view of the Covid-19 epidemic, we need to really make a fresh start and reassess where we are; going back to business as usual just won’t do. All three speakers emphasised the need for this in the immediate future – we have to become Generation Restoration, forest gardens and young people included!

There has been an interesting development connected to the Sombrun Forest Garden Project! My girlfriend Jane has a small parcelle of vines just outside Tarbes to the south of here, very close to the Tarbes/Lourdes airport (as in 800m from the end of the runway! You can see some aircraft above the vines to the right in the photo below). The vineyard is a monoculture drowning in a sea of pollution – very low-flying aircraft, industrial agriculture all around, a flat, exposed site and compacted and degraded soil. It is in a beautiful setting with the highest part of the Pyrenees range as a backdrop (the highest one on the left is the Pic du Midi at just under 3000m), but paradoxically here in summer there is often a visible cloud of brown pollution haze hanging over the area.

So why are we interested in this? Precisely because of the problems outlined above! It is an ideal site on which to demonstrate, over time, how the principles of agroforestry/forest gardens reduce pollution, by increasing biodiversity, soil health and plant quality and productivity. The scientists have a name for it, of course – phytoremediation – and it has been used to good effect on numerous industrial and other sites throughout the world. Without going into too much detail, there are several sub-categories (phytostabilisation, phytoextraction, phytovolatilisation and phytofiltration), and if you are interested, there is a not-too-technical article here.

So by planting trees, shrubs, different varieties of vine and herbaceous plants, and introducing biomass, a self-fertile and productive area will be developed. It will be called the Yaouzé Vineyard Project (the name of the parcelle), and will become a sub-project of the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. It will be given a separate page on this website, and there will be updates in the form of a blog from time to time.

The first major intervention will be next winter when trees will be planted, alders along the western boundary (windbreak and nitrogen-fixing) and robinias at various strategic points (nitrogen-fixing and light shade). Both of these will also have an effect on the micro-climate of the parcelle and thus on biodiversity, and mitigate the effects of inevitable chemical spraying in the surrounding fields. There are many gaps in the rows of vines and over time these will be filled with different varieties of grape and other fruit plants.

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