There’s a word for it … evolution!

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I have had more time to just be in the Forest Garden this month, observing everything that’s going on – and there’s a lot! It’s so pleasing to see the developments, even though to the casual observer it may seem that not much has changed (it still looks like a field!). Living in and among and around the garden I notice how much has happened in the three years since the Project began. And especially this month, I have suddenly realised that what I’m witnessing is the ‘constant evolution’ in the sub-heading to the website’s title. I’m not even sure if I fully realised when I wrote that what it could really mean!

For example, I’m seeing more bugs, beetles and insects in general, and evidence of mycelial networks, this year than before – mushrooms, the caterpillars mentioned below, but also grubs rolled up in tree leaves and ladybirds and beetles to feed on them. It’s good to realise this is happening and that the natural cycles of plant and insect ecosystems and food chains that I know will come, are beginning to get established.

The general physical workload has been fairly light this month, with some strimming of pathways, cherry picking (see below), and some tree watering at the beginning of the month. But there was one major event – the creation of the new lentil patch (see Blog, May 1st, 2021 for the background to this). It has been placed just above this year’s patch, which can be seen in the background in the photos here, above the upper swale ditch and below the Coppice area.

The new patch will now be left to compost until April next year, when a new crop of lentils and beans will be sown.

The area marked out and strimmed …
… retention furrows for the plastic dug and cardboard and organic matter added …
… the plastic laid and the sod replaced in the furrows to secure it

This year’s patch is growing well (see below), despite the attentions of Chanua the cat, who has decided it is ideal for her needs, hence the bare patches! You can also see some bean and nasturtium plants growing around the frame.

The idea behind the two patches is to create a kind of ‘planting corridor’ coming down from the Coppice, one of the pioneer areas of the Forest Garden, as part of the increase in continuity, fertility and plant density. It also mimics the development of a natural forest, which advances from the edges outwards, and this is what’s happening here. The three photos of the new patch above illustrate this clearly, as they were taken from the edge of the Coppice.

I have also decided to follow the same principle moving outwards from the western boundary, where there is the wild hedge (Blog, January 1st, 2021) and the line of Italian Alders. This too is already a pioneer area, and a couple of lentil patches here would help this side of the garden develop eastwards.

In connection with these ideas of continuity and plant development, this month has also been a time for reflection on mapping the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. This has been mentioned several times before, including my reticence to commit to paper! I understand the value of working to a plan, and that this is one way of ensuring continuity and cohesion and avoiding getting things in the ‘wrong’ place (if indeed there is a ‘wrong’ or a ‘right’ place). The original sketch plan made three years ago is still remarkably relevant in terms of general areas for plants, access and management, but on the other hand, the idea of ‘constant evolution’ in the subtitle for the Project is one of the reasons for my reticence, and for me fluidity, spontaneity and adaptation to new ideas are also very important. The discussion on the lentil patches, above, is an example this.

However, things have moved forward this month, in that I have, with the help of the IGN (the French national mapping institute) and their new open access databases, produced a couple of satellite images showing the Project in its context and the boundaries of the site, see below.

The Sombrun Forest Garden Project (the green polygon in the centre of the image) in its landscape context
The boundaries of the site

I have often talked about the importance of the landscape mosaic of which the Forest Garden is a part, and the first image above shows this very well, with forest, small polyculture fields and large monoculture fields. The forest next to the site to the south-west often appears in the background of my blog photos, and it’s where the deer come from (they have been a bit better behaved this month)!

The second image was taken about two years ago and so doesn’t show the current situation, but it gives a clear idea of the Upper and Lower Gardens and the relation of these to the site as a whole. The Upper Garden especially has already changed a lot and today, the coppice is in the top north-eastern corner (roughly where the image is greener), with the lentil beds and the upper swale (see above) below this, coming down towards the end of the driveway. And you can just make out the line of five nitrogen-fixing alders inside the western boundary of the Upper Garden. Over the whole area, many trees have been planted and pathways and swales defined. You can see a couple of pathways above, but the one in the Upper Garden is no longer there (evolution!). Hopefully as the satellite images are updated they will show the developments in the garden from outer space!

The point here is really that this is the foundation for whatever mapping of the Project is decided on, and at the moment I am thinking in terms of fixed ‘base’ images such as those above, plus a series of illustrative, free-drawn ‘maps’ showing the position of plants and planting as it evolves. These could be produced from drone photographs and redone on, say, a yearly basis. In this way it will be possible to capture the essence of what is happening without it being too rigid or precise.

The November 1st, 2020 Blog referred to the site survey for the project completed in October and there is now a supplementary document to complement this, including the photos above and more data (e.g. altitude, surface area and slope). This and the original site survey document are included here:

May saw the start of the cherry harvest, and the ‘early’ tree produced an abundant crop of dark red cherries. Many hours were spent picking, de-stoning and transforming the fruit in various ways. The two most successful were clafoutis and compote, as in the photo below, and both freeze well. And in case you’d like to try it yourself, the clafoutis recipe is included below! For the compote, I de-stoned the cherries, added about 7.5% of sugar, maybe 5% of kirsch and just a little ground almond, brought it to the boil and then boiled rapidly uncovered for about 15 minutes to reduce it, until the fruit became soft and just beginning to break down; the whole thing had a kind of soup consistency. Then it’s blitzed and put in the little containers for freezing. Really great taste! The ones in the photo are from the first batch, and subsequent batches became darker, almost a damson colour, and more intense in flavour, as I got better at it.

The Paulownia seeds sowed last month took the whole of May to germinate, I think because we have had changeable weather, and the temperature in the polytunnel probably dipped too much at night. They are only just beginning to show, but hopefully they’re on the way now!

There’s going to be a huge crop of Hawthorn berries this autumn – plenty for everyone! And judging by the amount of flowers, there will be a good amount of rosehips from the Dog Rose too. Both of these are excellent medicinal crops, see below.

We are keeping an eye on the vineyard for the Yaouzé Project (Blog, April 1st, 2021), and spent some time this month strimming between the rows. There has been a fair number of wild flowers, and in future years, we will be leaving strips of uncut grass down the centre of each row to encourage more. Included in the parcelle there is also an area of grass (just visible on the left in the photo) between the vines and a track, and this will be useful too, for tree planting and biomass production.

This photo was taken on May 10th, and the vines themselves have been slow to develop because of the weather this year, including being affected by the frosts in April (Blog, May 1st, 2021). Along with all the pollution mentioned in the March Blog (April 1st, 2021), the vines are also a monoculture, but the work we are going to do over the coming years will change all that!

There were a couple of interesting visitations this month, in the form of caterpillars! I noticed one branch of a Red Alder (Alnus rubra) almost completely stripped of its leaves and found a clan of Hazel Sawfly caterpillars (Croesus septentrionalis) munching away. I asked them politely to leave and so far they haven’t come back. And on one of the young apple trees in the Upper Garden, there was a Leatherjacket caterpillar (Tipulidae family), very aptly named as you can see from the photo. I only spotted it by chance, as it very cleverly resembles a twig, and it had already damaged quite a lot of the leaves (it is the larva of the Cranefly or Daddy Long Legs).

And while on this subject, I can’t resist including a Giant Peacock moth that turned up in Jane’s garden at the end of the month. Apparently, it is Europe’s largest moth and it is huge, rivalling tropical ones I have seen, in size, if not in colour! This one measured about 20cm across.

It looks like my next challenge is going to be wild boar! They left this behind (photo below) on a visit just two days ago in the Lower Garden, so I’m wondering when they might move to the Upper Garden and root around in the lentil patch! Not a nice thought, as they can cause considerable damage, but let’s wait and see!

Wild boar dropping

There is a Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra) growing in the roadside hedge at the entrance to the driveway, and it’s sad to see this year that it has become a victim, or at least I presume so, to Dutch elm disease. One branch at the top of the tree died back at the end of last season, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s a pity to see it go. There is another younger one beside it which looks healthy at the moment, so we’ll have to see if that survives.

In terms of media events this month, I must mention again the International Forest Garden Symposium, which has only just started (May 31st) and goes on until Friday June 4th. See the Blog, May 1st, 2021 for full details; there is still time to sign up if you want to take part. I’m already feeling very inspired, and the scope of this event is just amazing! Not only in terms of all the speakers over five days, but also the virtual exhibitors, poster presentations, documentary resources, plant and seed suppliers worldwide and networking possibilities, which will continue to give value long after the event itself is over. There’ll be a full report on the symposium next month.

This month’s Wild Flower Census showed slightly fewer species at 59 (see below for the full list), so the peak this year has been in April (see Blog, May 1st, 2021) with 65 species, no doubt reflecting the early warm weather we had in February. It’ll be interesting to see if a competition for the most species develops between the two months as the years go by! There were however, two new species, Forgetmenot (Myosotis arvensis) and Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris), and the welcome return of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), left. Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) just made it into this month’s census, and there is lots of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) about to burst into flower over the next few days.

Last but not least, the weather! May in general has been fresh, damp and changeable, including temperature peaks and troughs (32° on the 8th and 31° on the 28th, 3° on the 2nd); I still felt it needed to warm up a bit right to the month’s end, and then the last few days seemed like a taste of summer! An average of the last five years’ temperature for May here works out at 15°, and this month we had an average of 14.4°, so nothing to complain about really, despite having to light the woodburner in the evenings until the 28th . We had a respectable amount of rain (81mm), but I think the new trees will still need watering soon.

3 thoughts on “There’s a word for it … evolution!

  1. Anni Kelsey June 15, 2021 / 13:52

    Another wonderfully informative and interesting post. Thank you! I absolutely follow your thinking / feeling about how the garden will have an evolutionary unfolding of its own and how you wish to allow that to happen. I think it is the art of gently treading a path between what nature will do unaided and how the gardener can tweak and guide (and occasionally do more than that) that is the fascinating part of integrating oneself within one’s garden. And being aware and informed of what is going on and what that might mean in terms of the emerging ecosystem lays a sturdy foundation for that ongoing journey. I love your garden and I love the way you ‘garden’ it. All good wishes to you both.


  2. Jonathan June 15, 2021 / 17:57

    Thanks so much Anni for your encouragement and insight. You must come and visit one day!!


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