The Symposium, the lentil patches … and design!

(For my email subscribers: Remember to read this on the website – better design, more information, updates included, altogether a better experience!)

No apologies for beginning this month’s Blog ‘away from home’. The First International Forest Garden Symposium (see Blog, June 1st, 2021) more than lived up to my expectations. It ran for the whole week from May 31st to June 4th, was a huge success and raised so many important issues, that I have written a short article about it; the Blog needs to concentrate on what’s happening here in the garden, and in an article I am free to express views on the bigger picture and on what the Sombrun Forest Garden Project symbolises in the wider world – a global ‘landscape mosaic’ connection that I think is important, as regular readers will know. To read this, go to the Articles page in the menu above.

And so, to more local matters! The design ideas discussed in last month’s blog (June 1st) have moved on a stage, and it’s now clear that the lentil patches will become the focus of development here. They have been re-named Carré 1, Carré 2 etc (from the French for ‘square’). Carré 1 has this year’s lentils and beans (plus some self-seeded tomatoes from the biomass I added last year, which have been removed as they would have used up all the nitrogen the bed is creating!) and is behaving very well – see below.

The Carrés will each be a kind of forest garden in microcosm, with vertical layers of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground cover, below-ground plants and climbers, but will at the same time form a part of the coherent whole of the Project. In this way, both the visual and the practical aspects of the Forest Garden will be taken into account. For example, Carré 1 will lead up to Carré 2, which will lead up to the Coppice above it, not only by gradually increasing in height, but also by grouping plants within each square and in neighbouring ones in ways which will facilitate harvesting and symbiosis, increase biodiversity and eliminate unwanted competition.

They will also be an incentive for producing a map! Referring to Carré 1 or Carré 10 constantly will become difficult to visualise after a time, I imagine, so some kind of a map will be a valuable aid.

One of Jane’s patchworks (left) has inspired this development, and shows the above principle very well. It is based on the idea of the home in 19th century American patchwork art*, the principal one here being in the centre (a small Moroccan mirror), with the black squares around representing subsidiary ones, and with ‘twists’ radiating out from each of these. If you are familiar with permaculture, you will recognise the parallels here (i.e. the home and the zones), with the twists representing a planting design linked to a central focus, maybe a tree. Apart from being a lovely, intricate piece of work, it is also for this reason that it appeals to me and can represent the development of the Forest Garden. Many more squares will be added over time, so that the garden really will become a forest!

Carré 3 has been created this month on the western edge of the Forest Garden (pictures below) and this is now becoming a familiar process – cutting the grass, adding biomass (for nitrogen as well as carbon to facilitate composting, as you can see) and laying the plastic. I understand that some people will consider the use of black plastic un-environmental, but in terms of cost, re-use and above all efficiency and speed, it wins hands down over other methods, so I feel it is justified**. You may have noticed that it also matches the patchwork – just joking!!

As with the other squares, this one is about 25 square metres and this seems to work well. It is good also to be starting to move the forest inwards from the western boundary. Carrés 2 and 3 will remain covered until next April, when lentils and beans will be sown in them. And so it will go; I’m already thinking of adding Carré 4 in the Lower Garden between the existing mature cherry and plum trees. More on that next month.

The weather this month has been a mixture of hot and cold, wet and dry, and there was a good amount of rain (75mm). Click on the link below for the weather summary for this month. The rainfall is slightly more than in June last year (60mm), and is good for the new trees, because we can probably expect drier weather from now on. The first three weeks of the month were either mild or very warm and humid, (during the second week, when we had 37° on the 13th and 15th), but for the last week the weather became much cooler and wetter. We also had a sprinkling of thunderstorms.

I decided to get a load of bark mulch from my local sawmill (see photo), and this will gradually be placed around all the trees to protect them against future drought. The bark is a good mulch, decomposing slowly, adding to the general fertility of the soil and retaining moisture around the trees. If we get a dry summer they will need it, and some watering too, until they get properly established.

There was the first log delivery for the woodburner this month – 5m3. The total delivery for this year will be 15m3, so that with yearly consumption of about 7m3 I can keep up the rotation of being a year ahead and will soon be burning wood that is properly dry. The logs will gradually be stacked over the coming weeks so that they can get the full benefit of the sun and wind to dry out, before being protected from the winter wet.

June was also quite a busy month for general maintenance around the garden, with quite a bit of strimming and hedge trimming to keep pathways and roadside banks clear after the ‘spring surge’. The ditch outside the Lower Garden was full of Lesser Water Parsnip (Berula erecta), which had become overgrown and was starting to spread onto the road! An amazingly prolific plant, full of water and yet very robust. Most of this was used in the biomass for Carré 3, along with laurel hedge clippings and strimmed grasses (see above). I also did some some bramble control, just to stop it becoming too overgrown. There is a good crop of blackberries on the way, too!

I have established a rhubarb bed in the Lower Garden (photo below) on last year’s maize/bean/squash patch, because this was still grass-free, and so far the plants are doing well. I manured quite heavily before planting. The mulch is waste wool from Jane’s Pyrenean sheeps’ wool mattress-making business, and again it is good for slow decomposition, weed suppression and moisture retention. You can also see three Espelette chili plants in this patch. These are from the village of that name in the Pays Basque, which is not that far from here. It is famous throughout France for its chilis, which can be both hot or mild, and a tourist industry has been built up around this.

I have potted on 80 Paulownia seedlings (Blog, May 1st, 2021), and they seem to be doing well. The wire netting is for cat protection! A large number, maybe 30 or 40, will be required for the biomass hedge planned for the terraced ground behind the house, which will also prevent soil erosion. There will also be a few planted around the Forest Garden as pioneer trees for biomass and shade, plus some for the Yaouzé Vineyard Project, and no doubt, some will fail!

The Italian Alders (Alnus cordata) planted a couple of years ago on the western boundary of the Upper Garden, have not really been a success. Only two out of the five planted have survived, one succumbing to the frost in April this year (Blog, May 1st, 2021), but the other two just not getting going. Red Alder (Alnus rubra), on the other hand, seems to like it here. I might still replace the Italian species with the same, because it is reputed to be the best at surviving dry conditions and poor soil, and they are needed for nitrogen-fixing and as a windbreak. Or maybe their poor performance is a message I should be listening to, we’ll see.

The June Wild Flower census is included in full in the link below, and the total has unexpectedly gone up by three species to 62, including a huge amount of Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), some of which will probably be cut down before it flowers, as I don’t really want it to keep increasing everywhere. Some species have finished, such as Common Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris), but others, such as Hawkweed Oxtongue (Picris hieracioides) and Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) have returned.

Fruits and nuts are forming nicely on the inherited mature trees in the Lower Garden – Mirabelle, Greengage, Kaki, Fig and Walnut – so all being well we’ll have some good crops to dry and store, although I noticed at the end of the month that some walnuts had started dropping prematurely. Hopefully there won’t be too many lost, as it has fruited well. The fruit trees in the Upper Garden are too young to bear fruit, but they seem to be establishing themselves well. There are also some Gooseberries, Raspberries and Blackcurrants among the new trees on the upper swale, and these are looking healthy too, but no fruit as yet.

*Patchwork in North America has a very interesting history, and was a way of coming to terms with hardship, not just by providing a pastime and by re-using scraps of old cloth to make something new, but also, during the slavery period, by creating maps of escape routes, with the black squares representing an ‘underground’ embarkation point.

** I would like to acknowledge the ideas of Martin Crawford here. He used this method in establishing his forest garden at the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, UK and describes it in his book Creating a Forest Garden, pp. 72-4.

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