Harvesting, digging and birthdays …

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Harvesting dominated the month’s activities again in September – figs, hawthorn berries and walnuts. There was a good crop of red figs but fewer ‘white’ ones (which are actually green!). They were all halved and dried in the dehydrator (around 40 hours at 40°/45°); satisfactory, a bit too dry at first for my liking, but after storing for a short while they became softer and pleasantly sweet. Online recipes for drying figs suggest about 55°, so maybe next year I’ll try this, for a shorter period. In general, instructions for dehydrator fruit processing specify the 40° – 45° range to conserve their raw nutritional value, but maybe figs are a special case. Work in progress, any comments gratefully received!

I also made several batches of fig compote for the freezer and dried more apple slices from Jane’s garden for vacuum packing.

The hawthorn berries were ready at the beginning of the month. There were so many that I was able to pick enough just by gathering the bunches at the end of each stem, leaves and all, and still leave plenty for the birds. I decided to make a Hawthorn and Apple Leather and used an internet recipe as follows:

450g each of berries, cleaned and destalked, and apples, cut up just as they are, 350ml of water and 3 tbs of honey. Simmer the berries and apple in the water for 10-15 mins or until they are soft, mash and allow to cool slightly. Press through a sieve with the back of a strong spoon and collect the resulting paste. Mix in the honey. The mixture should be stiff enough not to run outwards when spread on to the drying sheet. Form a rough rectangle several millimetres thick and dry for around 10 hours at 55° (leathers can be dried at a higher temperature than raw fruit as they have already been cooked).

The result, as you can see above, is excellent, and one square (about the size of a square of chocolate) is sufficient for a small snack as it is full of concentrated goodness. Neither sweet nor bitter, it has an intriguing taste! I made three leathers of this size and also dried 500g of whole berries for use in tisanes.

The walnuts provided a revelation this year, as I had unintentionally cut the grass under the tree earlier than usual, and noticed in mid-September that the nuts had started dropping. I realised that I had an early variety, and that by leaving them until late October before gathering as in previous years, they had been on the ground, vulnerable to damp, mould and insect damage for maybe a whole month. Most of the nuts have now been collected, including many knocked off the tree with a long pole; they have been de-hulled and put in the polytunnel for drying before storage.

Various stages in walnut ripening (left) – the ideal is on the right, when the nuts drop to the ground out of their casing. The middle two examples are easily dehulled, but with those on the left, the casing shrivels around the nut and becomes harder to remove. The right-hand photo shows part of the walnut harvest drying in the polytunnel.

October will probably see rosehips being harvested, and they will get a similar treatment to the hawthorn berries. What is particularly interesting is that I am already getting a mix of managed and foraged crops from the forest garden, which is exactly the aim here.

And on the subject of harvesting, there were two ‘firsts’ this month as in the photos below. The first (and only) apples from a young tree grafted by my neighbour Gérard, a variety he calls “GG” after his initials, and the first hazelnuts from one of three trees planted in the Coppice. Both the apple and the hazels were planted two years ago, so I guess they’re three or four years old now. For me it is significant, even though it’s a minor result, because it’s showing that things are getting going! I’m very happy with what I have been getting this year, only three years after the start of the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. And thanks, Gérard, the apples have a really great taste!

On one day this month there were three bats behind one of the kitchen shutters in the courtyard. Despite my attempts last year to attract the bats I had seen around the house, including putting up a bat box (Blog, May 5th, 2020), they were not persuaded to move in. But at least seeing them again this year means they are around and that there is therefore food for them here, which is encouraging in terms of ecosystem development.

Maintenance jobs this month have included some strimming of pathways and verges, the last watering sessions for the young trees, which are now showing signs of the approaching autumn, and the final log stacking (see photos).

Outside the logs have been stacked in five rows, spaced for aeration, and covered with a single plastic sheet to keep off the worst of the weather from the top. The small stack at the front in the photo on the left is what remained from the last delivery, not worth starting a new row for. In the garage there are two bays of logs three deep, which are used on a rotating system, emptying one bay and refilling it from outside, while then using the second, and so on. This allows the surface damp on the outside logs to dry off before they are used. Outside there are about 11.5m3 and in the garage 4m3, which should be enough for two years, and meaning that I can now keep a year ahead, to ensure I am always burning wood that is properly dry.

There is also already a fair amount of kindling and small wood from around the forest garden, which is always useful for starting or reviving the woodburner, and this will increase year on year from now on with prunings and with small wood from the developing coppice area.

A major advance has been the digging of the trench above the back terrace for the paulownia hedge (see recent Blogs on this site for details of how the plants have been developing). This is about 18m long and is now ready to receive the saplings which have been grown from seed this year; they will be close-spaced at 40cm. The ‘kink’ in the trench is to reduce conflict with the roots of the robinia just to the right. Full details of planting next month. The hedge will serve several purposes – biomass (paulownia grows rapidly and has large leaves, and can be cut back two or three times a year), erosion control of the sub-soil where the bank was terraced, and as a screen from the road for the house terrace. The biomass will be used on the terracing just below the hedge where I am currently building a soil profile, and elsewhere in the garden as a mulch.

We’ll have to see if the deer are attracted to paulownias; I hope not, as protection will be difficult. They haven’t been around much lately, but they probably have plenty of food such as maize elsewhere at the moment.

September was quite a wet month (95mm of rain), and this was very welcome. It was also quite warm and at times humid (see the Monthly Weather Record below), but in general the weather was a mixture of overcast with showers and sunny periods . There was a spike of 37° on the 6th, but the monthly average temperature was just over 19°. Morning and evening temperatures started dropping by the end of the month; last year I started lighting the woodburner in the evenings at this time, but we’re not at that point yet this year.

Jane’s Yaouzé Vineyard (Blog, April 1st, 2021) has produced a fine crop of grapes and these will be harvested on October 2nd, with a team of volunteers including the present writer. The following day, the grapes will be taken for pressing, and the resulting juice both sold and used for home consumption. Plans for this project have evolved, whilst maintaining the same goals, and the vineyard and its adjoining small plot of land will gradually turn into a forest garden. Gaps in the vines will often be filled with other plants, and trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, especially those which fix nitrogen, will go in on the adjacent land too. There will be more details on this in future blogs as it progresses.

Chanua the cat arrived here at the end of November last year (Blog, December 1st, 2020), and as the vet at that time said she was about two months old, I have decided that we share the same birthday at the end of September! So she is now one year old. In the short time that she has been here, she has not only become a very handsome cat, but she has also made her mark as Top Predator in the neighbourhood (judging by the variety of wildlife presented for my approval), and I think she is becoming Top Cat as well. Close by, there are two older cats in particular who were extremely hostile at first, and Chanua was also very timid, but now the tables seem to have been turned, Chanua is very confident, and the other cats have started to show her deference. (Please allow for a little understandable hyperbole in these remarks on the part of the lucky ‘owner’).

Something stirred in the undergrowth – Chanua preparing to pounce (left) and helping with the walnut harvest (right).

6 thoughts on “Harvesting, digging and birthdays …

  1. lisinmayenne October 2, 2021 / 10:07

    What a wonderful harvest! Those fruit leathers look amazing, how long will they keep for? I’ve never tried making any as I don’t have a dehydrator but maybe when the woodstove is in and damped down overnight? On which subject . . . we had a huge fig harvest from our Asturian garden, I halved them and sat them to dry on metal cooling racks on the coolest part of the stove hob turning them occasionally – worked a treat! It’s always good to see the log store ready for the colder months, I’m hoping we won’t need ours for a while yet. Lovely read as ever, thanks for sharing.


    • Jonathan October 3, 2021 / 17:38

      Thanks Lis, it’s the first time I’ve made leathers, but they’re dried and they’re really concentrated, so I’m hoping the answer is – a good long time! I think they should be kept in an airtight container however. Thanks for the interesting experiment with your figs. How long were they drying on the stove for, and roughly how hot do you think it was?

      Liked by 1 person

      • lisinmayenne October 3, 2021 / 19:58

        Mmm, I need to do some leather experiments! I dried the figs over the woodstove which was very much ticking over – oven thermostat wasn’t the most reliable but it hovered around 150C – the cooler end of the hob was where the kettle sat keeping warm but certainly wouldn’t boil (sorry, not very scientific!) It only took 24 hours or so to dry the figs, I turned them regularly during the day. Also had a lot of success drying kiwi slices in the same way. It’s a different experience here, though – I’ve ordered a wooden apple press today so we can make juice


  2. Gillian A Munn October 2, 2021 / 21:00

    Wonderfully written this month. Most informative on the harvesting and drying operations. Well done. So enjoy reading your newsy blogs.
    keep up the good work we can all learn alot.


    • Jonathan October 3, 2021 / 17:25

      Thanks Gillian, it’s really nice to get feedback and to know that you enjoy the Blog


  3. Jonathan October 3, 2021 / 21:21

    Sounds from your reply that you probably dried your figs at about 70°. The general consensus, as mentioned in the Blog, is that raw fruit needs to be dried at around 40°- 45° to conserve the nutritional values, but I also wonder if figs are a special case and can be dried a bit higher. I need to experiment. But anyway, if you enjoyed them, does it really matter?!


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