Fruit harvest and processing, reflection on priorities …

The main event this month has been fruit harvesting, and considering that we are still at the beginning of the Project, I think this qualifies as A Result! There have been greengages, mirabelles, raspberries, blackberries, autumn olive and white beans, plus some apples and pears from friends’ gardens. These have been processed in a variety of ways – jams, compotes, stewed, dried and leathers – and I am very pleased with them all (photos below), especially the mirabelle ‘prunes’, which were dried to a point where they were still slightly soft and are very tasty. They have been vacuum-packed, so any moisture content remaining should not be able to develop into mould. And there’s more to come: figs and hawthorn berries in September, and walnuts the following month. I have also read that hawthorn berries are very high in pectin, so will be trying them for jam-making. At the moment I use chunks of quince, which also work very well in helping jam to set.

Some processed fruit and vegetables. Top, mirabelle ‘prunes’, dried apple and pear rings and autumn olive fruit leather, and below them some haricot Tarbais, the local white bean. Bottom, greengage and mirabelle jam, bramble jelly and apple and mirabelle compotes.

One thing I have noticed when harvesting the greengages and mirabelles this season, is that there were no grubs or larvae inside any of the fruit; in previous years there has been a lot of spoiled fruit. It remains to be seen whether this is just a one-off respite from this particular insect, or whether the changes in the forest garden ecosystems here are having an effect on insect populations and predation, and on tree health through the action of developing soil organisms and earthworms. It will be interesting too, to see whether the same goes for the walnuts later on; these have always been affected and spoiled inside to a great extent. As mentioned last month, there is a promising-looking crop, so let’s hope!

The once-yearly light trimming of the wild hedge on the western border of the Upper Garden (Blog, January 1st, 2021) is paying off too. The blackberries in the hedge are improving all the time; fruiting when I arrived here was patchy and small, but several plants this year had much better formed, larger fruit. I also harvested less this year, so there was plenty left for everyone else.

I am particularly pleased with the autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata) berries, because the bushes are only two years old and already two of them have produced 370g of fruit (see photos). From these I made a fruit leather, mixing the strained pulp with some ground almond and small oats to thicken it and then drying the resulting ‘sheet’ for about 24 hours at 55°; see how it turned out above. Not bad for a first attempt, some improvements needed, and maybe it needs a little honey, but a highly nutritious snack!

The weather in August has been mostly dry, and since the mythical 15th (folk-lore based on the lessening incidence of the sun, I imagine, but which seems to hold true, even with the increasing effect of climate change), we have had cooler, often cloudy, evenings and mornings, heavier dew, but higher pressure and so more settled weather with some lovely warm afternoons, especially in the last week. There was only 11mm of rain in August, and this right at the beginning of the month, so I have been watering the new trees on a weekly basis; the bark mulching is proving its worth, and they are managing well. We had a couple of days of mid-30’s temperatures mid-month, but since then they have mostly been under the 30° mark. See the link below for the full details.

There have been some garden maintenance jobs this month – strimming pathways, keeping the bramble under control, log stacking and so on – and the paulownia saplings (see recent blogs) continue to develop. In fact they have now almost outgrown the coffee bags they were re-potted in, so September will see the preparation of a trench for planting them as a biomass hedge.

September will also be the time for the plant order for this year’s lentil patch. This will include (hopefully) a Kazakh apple. This is virtually a wild fruit, and unlike domesticated apples, which need to be grafted onto a rootstock, can be grown successfully from seed. Its great genetic diversity means that there is a lot of variation in the fruit, sometimes on the same tree, but always with a wonderful flavour. My interest in it is because Kazakhstan was the principal country of origin of the apple, and most species of domestic apple today have been bred from this stock. There will also be another walnut, to improve pollination prospects for the existing tree, white mulberry (for fruit and salad leaves), sea buckthorn, jostaberry, ground-cover raspberry, a grape vine to climb around the Coppice, and some perennial vegetables such as Good King Henry, wild garlic and leek.

August has been a time for reflecting on where I stand in the forest garden debate. If you have been following the Blog over the last year, you may have noticed that I don’t fit the usual ‘gardener’ mould! I am not really interested in (and to be honest, am not very good at) the usual annual crops – the tomatoes, salads, carrots, and so on – because, with the exception of the legumes, they take so much from the soil without putting anything back, and they are very demanding, capricious and susceptible to all kinds of pests, diseases and predators because they are inherently weak. I do however have an idea that at a later date I may establish a raised bed somewhere for just a small kitchen garden, surrounded by forest garden plants, and at a time when the soil has developed suitably. Maybe one of the future lentil patches would be good for this.

Perennial vegetables and fruit seem to me to be much more appropriate for a forest garden, because they come back the following year without having to go through all the ground preparation and sowing/planting out, they can act as ground cover, suppressing the plants (‘weeds’) that you don’t really want in that particular place, and they provide not only nutritious food (often with higher food values than the classic annual crops), but also other ecosystem services such as nitrogen-fixing and shade. On top of that they fit very well into the forest garden scenario, where trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and ground cover all intermingle and benefit each other. In short, the whole idea of biodiversity, self-fertility and resilience for which the forest garden is renowned, and of which annual crops are the antithesis.

It probably comes down to the fact that I am more of a ‘forester’ than a ‘gardener’, and that gives me a much more long-term view of the establishment of a forest garden – as I have said before, the trees must come first and everything else will follow from that. And it seems logical to me that the garden should, in this case, be allowed to establish itself (with a little help from me) in as natural a way as possible. Hence the emphasis on pioneer plants such as the bramble, willow, blackthorn, dog-rose and yarrow that were already here, with the addition of nitrogen-fixing pioneers such as the alders and robinia, and mineral accumulators such as comfrey. And hence too, my reticence to ‘commit’ to a fixed design, because it is simply not the time for that yet. The preparation and development of the foundation, opening the way for the soil organisms, the invertebrates, the small mammals, the mycorrhizae, the unseen things, to develop, must surely come first. Everything, the whole project, will then benefit enormously from that in the long run. I do, of course, have the luxury of time, but you can learn a lot from a different concept of time, and in that context, things are moving along quite nicely!

I was very enthusiastic about the recent Forest Garden Symposium (Blog and Articles, July 1st, 2021), and on the wider scale, it was extremely important and I stand by what I wrote then. But there was still in many presentations the flavour, certainly with the larger scale projects, of the productivism of agriculture and of following what I call the ‘NPK rules’ when it comes to soil management. If I am going to advocate agroforestry and forest gardening as an alternative to industrial agriculture, then maybe I have to compromise and accept this. But these ideas are not relevant to the Sombrun Forest Garden Project, which is, and always will be, based on allowing Nature to show the way. I often have to remind myself of that, and accept that there is perhaps one of life’s paradoxes in play here.

3 thoughts on “Fruit harvest and processing, reflection on priorities …

  1. lisinmayenne September 3, 2021 / 13:03

    This is a fascinating post, I’ve read it several times before commenting! I love your whole philosophy towards forest gardening (and growing food, improving soil and ecosystems, etc) and it must be very satisfying to literally be reaping such an interesting and diverse harvest – with so much more to come. I must admit I would struggle without my beloved vegetable patch but the emphasis is on letting nature do its thing as much as possible even there, building soil naturally, sourcing local heirloom varieties, seed saving, letting plants regenerate or self-set and the rest, as well as plenty of perennial planting, too. I’m very taken with the autumn olive and about to launch into some research as obviously your climate is far different to northern Mayenne and I’m wondering if it would grow happily here? It’s always good to find new things and share ideas so thank you – and ‘bonne continuation’ with your harvest. 😊


    • Jonathan September 3, 2021 / 13:56

      Wow! Thank you, and yes no problem for the Eleagnus where you are – it grows well in the UK and also in Scandinavia, I believe. A big advantage with this species (E. umbellata), and also with Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), which produces nutritious berries also, is that they fix nitrogen, and so are a very useful addition to your garden, in among other plants. Yep, I do actually like annual vegetables! I get them from one of the small organic growers around here; they do them much better than I do! And as Jane (my girlfriend) said yesterday in her droll/drôle way – “bien aussi de penser à quelques légumes de saison, Jonathan”, so I’ll be doing a few later on!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • lisinmayenne September 3, 2021 / 14:39

        Fantastic, thank you! I’ve started a list for autumn planting so those both sound like really helpful additions. Good luck with the veg, if I can grow them, anyone can!


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