Paulownia hedge, results of the harvest, flying the agroforestry flag …

A major event this month has been the completion of the paulownia hedge, a total of 42 plants in all, so there are plenty left over in case of failures. The leaves have all now started browning and dropping in preparation for winter; hopefully they will all reshoot in spring. See previous blogs for the history of this adventure. The picture below gives a clear idea of the job the paulownias will do in erosion control of the terraces (left) created three years ago to move the earth bank back from the house, and in providing a screen from the road (right).

The trees will be pruned back regularly, probably two or three times a year as it grows very quickly, to form a hedge, and the biomass used on the terraces to help build the soil profile there. I have also put a line of sheep’s wool along the hedge, in the hope that the smell will deter any interested browsers! Apparently deer in particular don’t like the smell of ‘raw’ wool.

I have spent some time recently trying to find a good supplier of forest garden plants in France (not easy, but this seems to be the case everywhere, as it’s only specialist growers who will do this – hopefully this will now start to change as more and more people realise the value of this approach; I might even start a small nursery here later on!). I eventually found a permaculture supplier (Atmosvert, in the Creuse département, centre west of France) and have ordered this year’s trees and shrubs from them.

There is a range of nitrogen-fixing shrubs (sea buckthorn and autumn olive, which also produce fruit), fruit trees (apricot and almond), fruit shrubs, climbers and ground cover (jostaberry, vines and spreading raspberry), more trees for the coppice (silver birch and hornbeam), and a couple of perennial vegetables (good king henry and horseradish). Future blogs will cover where these are planted.

There is another dimension to the problem of plant supply as well. The difficulty in getting hold of what I want encourages me to grow it here, occasionally buying seed, asking other people for seed and cuttings, and collecting from the wild – seed, cuttings and whole saplings where I’m not endangering anything.

Harvesting continued into October, and rosehips were picked at the beginning of the month – almost too late, as I hadn’t realised that many were getting overripe. However, there were enough to make a couple of leathers (see photos), and, as with the autumn olive and the hawthorn berries, the taste is very intriguing – nice, but unusual!

The walnut harvest and drying in the polytunnel were completed (some were still falling right to the end of the month) and there are over 10kg of nuts in their shells. I am more than happy with this, and have decided to shell them a jar at a time as I think they will keep better that way. I have also noticed this year that many more nuts shed their outer casing on the tree than in previous years, and then dropped to the ground, and there is far less internal insect damage to the nuts themselves. I hope this is a good sign for the health of the tree, which I have been nurturing since coming here.

The nettle patches all around the garden provided a second (or maybe third?) flush of young tips this month and these were harvested and dried for use in tisanes. The nettle is an amazing and often underrated plant, and besides being very useful as a compost accelerator and fertiliser, provides us with a highly nourishing tea, full of vitamins and iron, as well as acting as a diuretic, among other benefits.

As the harvest season has now finished, I wondered what the year had brought in terms of crops, and was surprised with the result (table below). Given that the Project is still in its infancy, I think by any measure this is a satisfactory outcome!

AprilHawthorn flowers
Dandelion (9 months)
Nettle (9 months)
Comfrey (9 months)
Dried for tisanes (medicinal)
Leaves for salad (medicinal)
Dried for tisanes (medicinal), compost
Medicinal cream, leaves for compost, mulch
MayCherriesFresh, clafoutis, compote
Stewed, compote, jam
Fresh, compote, jam, dried for prunes
Boiled in curry, dahl
Flowers and leaves in salad
Autumn Olive
Haricot Tarbais (white bean)
Fresh, compote, jam
Fresh, compote, jam
Boiled for curry and spread
SeptemberHawthorn berries
Leather, dried for tisanes (medicinal)
Fresh, compote, dried
Dried for eating, salads and cooking
Fresh, compote, dried rings
Leather (medicinal)

Right at the beginning of the month, we harvested the grapes in Jane’s Yaouzé vineyard (photos below). We had a team of about 15 volunteers of all ages and the job was done in a couple of hours, followed by the obligatory lunch! The following day, we took the grapes to a local organic cider producer for pressing and bottling the juice. We ended up with just over 130 litres, which will be used at home and also sold locally.

As mentioned last month, ideas for the Yaouzé Project are evolving, and Jane has done a lot of work in the strip of land at the side of the vines, which has alfalfa or lucerne (Medicago sativa) as ground cover. She has planted some of the left-over paulownias from Sombrun, plus one or two other tree saplings, and included in my plant order for this year (see above) are some nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs which will go in the same area.

The plastic was laid this month for Carré 4 in the Lower Garden, between the cherry and mirabelle trees. This will be left until autumn 2022, when nitrogen-fixing shrubs and shade-loving perennial vegetables will be planted. One problem with the carré plastic sheets is that they come under attack from Chanua (see last month’s Blog), who rips holes in them to get at potential prey, which she must be able to hear underneath! A job for the gaffer tape (thanks Sam)!

And so to the weather … a fairly dry month (44 mm of rain), after a wetter September, and relatively high pressure from the 4th to the 27th, giving us an Indian summer – I was seriously considering getting out the hoses again and watering the new trees. The rain fell to match the pressure, in just the first week and in the last three days. We even had our first air frost on the 14th (down to 2°), and there were three or four days in the month when temperatures were in the upper twenties. Rather oddly, however, average humidity remained relatively high at 84% for the month. See the full Monthly Weather Record below.

I now have the first year’s-worth of records from the weather station, and very useful it has been. However, there are some doubts over the accuracy of the data, due to down-time from electricity and internet cuts, when the device is not recording. With rainfall, for example, I have re-installed my old manual gauge, and although some months the results are similar (showing that the old gauge is accurate), in others the gauge is ahead of the station by quite a long way. Thus I am now taking the results from the old system! This does make me wonder if the other data are inaccurate, but these are not so critical as they deal in averages.

In media events this month, there was an article on the Mongabay site about the women of the Bribri tribe in Costa Rica and their forest gardens, painting a vivid, human picture of a time-honoured system that mimics the diversity and productivity of the forest. The gardens are centred around the cocoa tree, the classic tropical forest understory crop, which flourishes under the shade of the taller timber trees (and not in neat monoculture rows out in the open, as is the current trend for industrially produced cocoa). The cocoa in turn provides the habitat for medicinal and other herbaceous plants, as well as for livestock and other flora and fauna.

It is the classic example of the forest garden, which is for me the model on which the Sombrun Forest Garden Project is based. Tropical, yes, but the principles are broadly the same and they have taught me a lot. There is a current trend in temperate zones towards what is called the ‘food forest’ and which some put in the category of forest gardening. But the two are quite different, the former being based on what we could call a more diversified form of modern gardening (no quarrel with that), the latter on agroforestry, which after all highlights the importance of the trees and gives a much greater vertical emphasis, what the whole forest garden system is about. The trees play a pivotal role, contrary to the view of the journalist in the ‘praise’ section of a recently published book on food forests, who proposes that the book “dispels a common myth that the first requirement of a forest garden is a forest”! Hmm!! Could try harder!

There is also a book I am reading at the moment, Etre un Chêne (Being an Oak) by Laurent Tillon, which is unfortunately only presently available in French (good news for my French readers!). This would definitely make my top ten list of all-time great reads, as the author, a forester and researcher, unravels a lifetime of detailed botanical knowledge in a fascinating story-telling way, tracing the 230-year history in close-up of a single oak tree in the Rambouillet forest near Paris, and all the other life forms around that depend and have an effect on it; and at the same time he manages to provide a history of France over the same period. Fear not, anglophones, I’m sure it will be translated into English before too long.

Maintenance in October has consisted mostly in strimming the whole garden area before winter. Not only has this controlled the second growth of the ubiquitous knapweed and provided a biomass effect over the whole area, but has also provided a mulch for the new paulownia hedge. It has also given me an unexpected new perspective on the layout of the forest garden (see also the final word, below). The trees and shrubs already planted stand out in greater relief and give me a better idea of how it’s shaping up.

And just a few miscellanea to add to that: a St. John’s Wort in flower in the Coppice (no, it’s the equinox, not mid-summer!); and while strimming (not too low, fortunately), I noticed several places where mushrooms of different sorts had come through. As these are the ‘flowers’ of the underground mycelial network, it is a very encouraging sign, and I hope they’ve been spreading lots of spores. Finally, I have a Szechuan pepper growing in a pot (see photos), which will get planted out this winter, and I have realised that this is the ultimate deer-protection plant – take a close look!

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) in the Coppice in October! Thorns on the Szechuan pepper leaves and stem.

And the final word (for now) is on design! My ideas are evolving all the time, like a forest garden, and I have come to realise that my design for this particular forest garden will probably never get put down on paper in a sort of architectural way. You might say that putting it all down in black and white avoids getting things in the wrong place; but I think mistakes can happen either way, and a certain fluidity to the structure is a good thing. In planning things formally, there is a hint of mankind’s age-old desire to control Nature (which we don’t!). There will no doubt be some sketches from time to time, but we will grow together, the Project and me. The Sombrun Forest Garden Project is very long-term; I’m not after short-term results or productivity, and the best ideas come from being out in the garden and observing. It will show me where we need to go.

4 thoughts on “Paulownia hedge, results of the harvest, flying the agroforestry flag …

  1. lisinmayenne November 2, 2021 / 13:36

    Another fascinating read, Jonathan. Thanks for sharing, also for the links to Atmosvert and Etre un Chêne, both of which I’m planning to indulge in! Your list looks great, it’s incredible how much food / tisane / medicines you have managed to harvest this year. I’m envious of the walnuts, we have none here but had a good crop every year in Asturias and they kept well in their shells for a couple of years (we still have one sack left but after that . . ????). On the bright side, I’ve successfully made hawthorn and apple leather in the woodstove oven this week, it’s very tasty – so thanks again for sharing the recipe and your experience. Hope November brings you another satisfying month in the forest garden. 😊


  2. Jonathan November 2, 2021 / 18:07

    Hello again Lis, thanks for your comment and glad you are enjoying the blog. I have found Atmosvert very pleasant and helpful. I think you will enjoy theTillon book! I would be interested to know the drying details of your leather in the oven.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lisinmayenne November 8, 2021 / 08:10

    Drying the leather was a bit of an experiment! The woodstove was just ticking over (I don’t trust the oven temperature gauge but it was probably 100-150 degrees max) so I gave the tray a few hours at that, turning it occasionally, then left it in overnight as the fire went out. The next day, the leather was done round the edges but still tacky in the middle so I peeled the baking paper off the tray and sat it on a cooling rack on top of our woodburner – not a very authentic method, I’m sure, but it worked a treat. I made the second batch (apple and cinnamon) slightly thinner and it dried out perfectly just in the oven. We’ve also been drying apple rings very successfully in the same way. People in the know keep telling me we need to buy a dehydrator, I’m sure they’re very useful things but I’m still happy to manage without if we can use the ‘free’ heat from the fire.


  4. Jonathan November 8, 2021 / 08:18

    Absolutely! Stick with it if it works. Thanks for the information

    Liked by 1 person

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