Challenges and progress … and wild flowers

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As I have known from the beginning, my ideas and plans for the Forest Garden, and indeed the life of the whole garden itself, are “in constant evolution”, as it says at the top of the page! This is completely natural, and I welcome it, and sometimes it presents me with unforeseen challenges. A case in point is the rather unwelcome attention of the deer from the forest opposite the property. As mentioned last month (Blog, April 1st, 2021) there has been quite a lot of damage to the young trees, to the extent that a large part of April’s work was in providing individual netting to protect them (see below), and including a daily morning round of the garden to check on damage. So far, I have only lost one planted tree (a small-leaved lime which was completely severed at the base), and a few self-sown oak and wild cherry. Several other planted trees have been partially damaged, but I think they will survive.

You might think that the best answer would be to fence off the whole property to allow trees and other plants to grow up in peace over the next few years, but apart from being hugely expensive, this is against the whole ethos of the Project. I have often mentioned in these blog posts the idea of the Forest Garden being an integral part of the local landscape mosaic, and to put up a high deer fence would be a symbolic closing of the door on everything that surrounds it. So no, no fences thank you! The netting protection that has been installed doesn’t look particularly nice but it seems to be doing the job. In fact the problem will exist for quite some time yet, as the Forest Garden develops and each year young, juicy plants are added to tempt the browsers. No doubt my approach to this will evolve too, but for me it’s a question of learning to live with the deer, not against them!

(This reminds me of the elephant fences in the mountain forests where I was working in India – strong though they were, the fences were pretty ineffectual against the sheer power of a hungry, and sometimes angry, elephant! The whole subject of human/elephant relations in India, and what needs to be done to re-establish ‘pachyderm rights’, is fascinating).

Another challenge that I have been aware of for some time and have also often written about, and which is now becoming much more in evidence, is climate change. With low rainfall this month (see below), everywhere is very dry at a crucial time and the new trees have needed watering. So far so good, and May is usually a fairly wet month here; we’ll see. The climate trends are not promising however, and this will be another situation which will require adaptation in terms of plant species and management as it evolves.

In connection with this, I have sown some Paulownia (Empress Tree, Paulownia tomentosa) seed this month (photos above). It is another pioneer species (trees and shrubs that promote the necessary conditions for forest growth and which are then gradually superseded), grows very fast, thrives in dry conditions and poor soils, and is a useful source of biomass and shade due to its rapid growth and large leaves. It is also a good tree for cleaning and reclaiming polluted and damaged soils by absorbing heavy metals and other harmful substances. Its large leaves are efficient at absorbing pollution in the atmosphere, and it is a good windbreak tree. Another use is for controlling erosion on banks and exposed sites where it can be grown as a close-planted hedge to consolidate the soil and be cut back frequently for its biomass. Trees of this kind are often grown in the tropics as a ‘living fence’ to keep out wildlife or prevent cattle from grazing crops, and there is no reason why the Paulownia can’t be used in the same way here – maybe even for deer, although it would need to be quite high, and I’m sure they would find a way through it in any case!

For the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, it will be used in true pioneer fashion, because the soil here is very porous (see the Site Evaluation, Blog, November 1st, 2020) and not yet very fertile, to help create the right conditions for the Forest Garden to develop, along with other pioneers such as robinia and alder, already planted. There is also an area of bare earth bank behind the house which could benefit from the erosion control of a Paulownia hedge and its biomass. Further, it will be a useful plant for the new sister project, the Yaouzé Vineyard Project (see Blog, April 1st, 2021), in helping to clean the site, act as a windbreak, and provide biomass. More on this as the plants develop. Oh, and it has stunning violet flowers in spring!

And on the subject of challenges, along with most of the rest of France, we had a severe late frost episode between the 6th – 8th of the month, and several of the young trees were damaged, notably chestnut and alder. The most severely affected was one of the Italian Alders, which was completely burned, while its neighbours within about 5m of it, alders also, were untouched (see photos), as if a thin band of freezing air had passed over the garden. We’ll have to wait and see if it regrows. And surprisingly, most of the young fruit trees, some of them already in flower, were untouched or just singed. On a national level, these two nights were a disaster for the wine and fruit growers in most areas of the country, monocultures unfortunately, with many forecasts of 80% crop losses.

My overall impression of April is of mostly mild weather, interspersed with the frost episode mentioned above and a slightly less severe one a week later, and a heat peak of just under 30° on the 23rd and 24th! There was almost always a cold wind, from the north and east, and it was a dry month, at least until the last five days, when we had 25mm of rain. In the whole of the month up till then there was only 6mm, and only the top few centimetres of soil have been moistened, even by this amount of late rain. Below that it is hard and dry. There is also a feeling of suspended animation over the garden, as everything waits for warmer, wetter weather to really get going.

This month has seen the walnut come into flower; I am always struck by what seems to be the rather clever yet haphazard pollination arrangements of the walnut! The distance between the female and male flowers (see the photos below) is Nature’s way of avoiding self-pollination, and as the pollen is very small and light, it can be easily transported to another walnut tree by the wind. The difficulty is rather that the pollen is available for quite a short time before the male catkin drops off the tree (high winds or no wind at all don’t help) and it is far from certain that the female will be receptive at the right time! No bees and anthers here! This helps to explain the variability in walnut harvests from year to year. The answer is to have several walnut trees in the vicinity, which increases the chances of pollen from a neighbour landing on another tree’s sticky stigma. This is under way at the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, but it will take a few years yet!

Female walnut flowers, showing the nut beginning to form
The walnut, with female flowers (centre left) often quite a distance from the male flowers (right)
Male walnut flowers

The lentil patch has been uncovered, the soil loosened and given a compost ‘top dressing’, and the lentils sown (see photo below). They were broadcast in two directions over the whole patch. I have also sown some lupin, borage, lemon balm and comfrey around the edges, and some nasturtium, which should spread over the whole bed. The frame in the left-hand photo was used last year elsewhere for tomatoes, but this year I have sown some Haricot Tarbais (a local white bean) to grow up the three lines of netting. Beans have also been sown around the tree protection netting tubes on the upper and lower swales (see the photo at top of page). STOP PRESS April 30th – the lentils are beginning to show!

The compost dressing consisted of a mix of my own compost plus some of the manure pile, just a thin layer lightly worked into the soil surface. After sowing the lentils, I walked over the whole patch in both directions to gently firm the soil. I also loosened and composted a section of the swale bank above the patch to the right, and sowed some squash – butternut and potimarron. Future blogs will report on progress in the patch (and whether it survives the ravages of the browsers!) but it has a key role in increasing soil fertility here, through the nitrogen-fixing activities of the lentils and beans. After harvest in the autumn, I will be planting a tree or two plus some ground cover and herbaceous plants – species to be decided, but it will include some perennial vegetables while the ground is grass-free.

The black plastic square will now be put down in another part of the garden to do the same job, and this is a good way of increasing plant density and general fertility for the Forest Garden, patch by patch over time, without competition from the long-established grasses here. For this year’s patch the plastic was only down for six months and although the grass, and the biomass which had been spread around, was nicely brown and broken down, it hadn’t had enough time to compost completely. Future patches will have a full year.

April was also the month for Hawthorn flowers, and they have been excellent this year (see photos), promising also for berries in the autumn. There is a very short ‘window’ for collection before the flowers are over, but I have been able to harvest plenty for drying and use in tisanes (hawthorn is a good medicinal plant). I have decided to invest in a small electric unit for all flower, leaf, fruit and vegetable drying (see photo) while I rethink the solar dryer constructed last year (Blogs, June 30th and August 1st, 2020), which will need to have some kind of ‘dual fuel’ arrangement I think. The new dryer is small, efficient and very well made; it was also not that expensive. It can be regulated between 35° and 70°, and for a period of up to 20 hours. The hawthorn flowers, for example, were dried correctly in about 9 hours at 40°. There will be plenty of scope for drying some Sombrun Forest Garden Project fruit this year, and I am looking forward to trying some fruit leathers too!

The most important media event this month is one that hasn’t yet happened! Martin Crawford of the UK’s Agroforestry Research Trust is organising the International Forest Garden/Food Forest Symposium, postponed from last year because of Covid, from May 31st – June 4th – ONLINE! If you’re interested in the role forest gardens play, environmentally, ecologically and productively, throughout the world, or just starting a project, or even if you are experienced in this area, this is something not to be missed.

It concentrates on temperate forest gardens, and is fee-based, unlike many online conferences, but there are 65 speakers from nearly 20 different countries covering a broad and interesting range of topics from ’30 years living in a forest garden’ to ‘The role of food forests in transforming our food system’ to ‘Forest gardening in the city’, to name just three, and it goes on for five days! And there are other advantages too for delegates, such as the availability of all the talks for 6 months so that you don’t need to spend five days in front of your computer, related documents to download, panel discussions, poster presentations, virtual trade stands, forums and more.

Martin Crawford now has a worldwide reputation for his temperate forest garden pioneering work, and is the author of several books, including the classic Creating a Forest Garden (Green Books, Dartington, Devon, 2010). The link above gives you the home page for the symposium, from where you can find programme details, booking form etc.

There was also an interesting article in the UK Guardian this month – A poor man’s rainforest: why we need to stop treating soil like dirt – bringing to centre stage the importance of the soil beneath our feet, home to possibly a quarter of the species on the planet, where organisms and food webs “like a collective of tiny chemists … keep soils healthy and productive by passing nutrients between them”. The article also looks at the role of earthworms and the importance of soil biology and diversity.

The Wild Flower Census (see link below for the full list) has revealed seven new species this month – Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), Leafy Hawkweed (Hieracium umbellatum), Field Mouse-Ear (Cerastium arvense), Lesser Water Parsnip (Berula erecta), Common Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium), Hairy Bird’s-Foot Trefoil (Lotus subbiflorus) and Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta) – and the overall total is 15 up on last year at 65 (more than even May’s total in 2020!). This is very pleasing to see. I have to admit that it is entirely possible that some plants were mis-identified last year, the first year of the census, and so one or two the above new species may in fact be just a case of correct identification. The Hawkweed above is a case in point. There is a host of similar-looking Asteraceae (Daisy family) genera and species such as Leontodon (Hawkbits), Crepis (Hawksbeards) and Pilosella and Hieracium (Hawkweeds), and it is easy to get them mixed up!

There were also some welcome ‘returnees’ such as (from left to right) the Ox-Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) and Field Pepperwort (Lepidum campestre) in the photos below.

I was up in the coppice area in the northern corner of the Forest Garden the other day, and I turned round and saw this:

These are all self-seeded Oak saplings, and I just thought – ‘It’s beginning to look like a coppice!’ This is just one section that caught my eye, and elsewhere there are Chestnut, Small-leaved Lime, Hazel, Hornbeam, Ash, Red Alder and Robinia (Black Locust), which have all been planted among the Oaks, and Acacia, Blackthorn, Goat Willow, Hawthorn, Dog Rose and Bramble which were already there. The thinning work done over the winter is beginning to pay off, and the coppice will provide leaf litter and mycorrhizal activity to increase soil fertility, and shade to encourage new species of wild flowers, plus of course over time a constant supply of smallwood for posts and supports. There are many perennial vegetables that can be grown among the trees, such as Wild Garlic or Ramsons (Allium ursinum), Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus henricus), or Groundnut (Apios americana), a climbing nitrogen fixer (not to be confused with Peanut).

4 thoughts on “Challenges and progress … and wild flowers

  1. David Hewson May 5, 2021 / 15:19

    Dear Jonathan,
    Just a quick line to to thank you for your blog which Jane and I both found to be most interesting and informative.
    We were glad to read your comments on your Paulownia and their success – it has been the same with us here and we are now thinking of planting some more – how easy is it to grow them from seed, and at what period should one gather the fruits? Due entirely to bad/lack of maintenance, all our branches are high up the stem; will it strike out from lower down, now that the ivy has been removed?
    Thank you again for such an interesting article. Are you now a fully qualified Forest Gardener with a string of letters after your name?!
    With best wishes from us both,
    David & Jane


    • Jonathan May 5, 2021 / 19:13

      Hello David, thank you for your comments, and first of all I have to say that you are never ‘fully qualified’ as a forest gardener! As you may have guessed from the latest blog, there are always new things to learn from Nature, and forest gardening is all about watching and waiting. Paulownia is relatively easy to grow from seed, the main thing to remember is that it is a light-dependent germinator, so seeds are sown on top of moist compost, with at most a light sprinkling of sand over that. If they are covered with glass or clear plastic to keep humidity up and warmth in, they should germinate within a week or so. The seed pods are collected at the end of summer as soon as they are brown and dry. Don’t let them open, as the hundreds of very light seeds inside will just blow away! Paulownia normally suckers vigorously from its roots, and indeed it is often classed as an ‘invasive’ species because of this. If not managed, it can spread easily.


  2. Anni Kelsey May 10, 2021 / 10:40

    Hi Jonathan, another fascinating and detailed blog post – thank you! There is so much going on in your garden and you capture it all so well. I particularly appreciate the way you plan to work alongside the deer, not fencing them out. As well as our small forest garden at our Welsh home my partner and I are fortunate enough to have a small (3 acre) patch of semi natural ancient woodland just over the border in Shropshire. It has many of the native trees that you describe in the final paragraph and I am working to add more natives every year. Cameras have caught muntjac deer (as well as badgers, foxes, rabbits, squirrels etc) and there evidence of them chewing away at some young self set seedlings. I am protecting the plants I put in with brambles now – to see how that works. Some I have now planted into bramble patches; previously I was clearing brambles, till I realised how well the prickles protect other species. But I continue to clear some of the brambles and have liberally strewn some of their stems over and around other young trees.

    Your lentil patch is interesting, I look forward to seeing how that progresses, it will be a lovely place for insects as well.

    I am interested in saving and drying some hawthorn flowers – do you know if they have the same or different medicinal benefits to the fruit?

    We had similar cold dry weather in April with heavy frosts and also a north / north easterly wind. So far May has been more like April might have been expected to be.

    Looking forward to your next post, all best wishes, Anni


    • Jonathan May 11, 2021 / 10:01

      Hello Anni, thanks for the feedback, it’s really appreciated! I’m very envious of your woodland and what you’re doing with it, and cameras too – wow! It’s nice to hear you’re using the brambles, it is after all another pioneer species, and is only ‘invasive’ if you let it! I hadn’t thought of using the cut stems as a deterrent on other plants! For the hawthorn, I have always understood that the flowers and the berries are interchangeable, and my books confirm this. They both have the same chemical constituents; maybe the berries are slightly more bitter. (As I’m sure you are aware, but other readers may not be, hawthorn is a powerful vasodilator and if used on a daily basis for heart regulation/hypertension, it should only be under supervision from a qualified practitioner).

      Liked by 1 person

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