More planting, hedge trimming and biomass …

Planting continued towards the end of the month (21st – 24th) with the addition of trees and shrubs both in the Lower Garden and in the Coppice. Four holly saplings that had been kept in pots for a couple of years and another small ash tree were put among the other trees in the Coppice, which now has a lot more diversity than the oak saplings, bramble and dog rose that were there when I arrived nearly four years ago. The holly is an understory tree in the forests around here and is a complement to the canopy oak, ash, hornbeam etc, and adds another piece to the ecosystem jigsaw.

The Lower Garden gained two sea buckthorn, an autumn olive and a Siberian pea tree (all nitrogen-fixing as well as providing edible fruit/pods), plus two small peach trees given by a friend and a couple of horseradish (to improve soil health and provide salad leaves, not to mention the pungent root of relish repute). I also planted a couple of grape vines (one white (Noah), one red (Maréchal Foch – a local lad), both ‘heirloom’ varieties), under two of the established fruit trees. These will use the tree as a support and grow up through the foliage to fruit in the sun. Much of the planting over the last couple of years has been focused on the Upper Garden, so these Lower Garden trees and bushes are making a real difference there.

The photos above show the work in the Lower Garden – two vines (left), two buckthorn between the walnut and cherry (centre), and a view from the bottom of the garden (right). In the centre photo, I have cut back the cherry (foreground) to allow more light to the buckthorns and also to the walnut higher up. This is part of the ongoing work to improve this area and help the walnut, which three years ago looked like it was giving up. The large crop of nuts it gave last year is I hope a sign that the trend has been reversed, and that with even more light/sun and help from the buckthorn it will continue to thrive. There is already a lot of worm activity in this part of the garden. The cherry is an enormous, vigorous tree, having been just left for many years, and so cutting it back in stages will not harm it; I already started on this a couple of years ago. The only problem is that I have to climb higher for the fruit!

Hedging and pruning has also been a major part of January’s work. The roadside wild hedges in the Upper Garden got their annual treatment – reducing height and width slightly – and some work was done on a goat willow on the eastern boundary (centre background in the biomass hedge photo below) to stop it becoming too invasive for my neighbour. The soft fruit bushes along the swale bank in the Upper Garden were thinned out a little. I also felled a small wych elm at the entrance to the driveway which had succumbed to disease (Blog, June 1st, 2021), leaving the stump to decompose.

The biomass ‘hedge’ around Carré 1 has been taking shape (see photo below). The stakes surrounding the carré were completed and the hedge trimmings and prunings added between them. I would like to increase the height but this depends on the amount of biomass available! There are older prunings behind the log piles, so some of this can be used, leaving the lower layer of branches and twigs where they are as they are already rotting down nicely.

Apart from decomposing slowly to provide carbon/nitrogen and encourage biodiversity above and below ground, the prickly biomass will also provide a barrier against unwanted attention from the deer.

I sometimes wonder at what point the biodiversity, plant production and soil fertility will become self-sustaining, where the ecological cycle of producers, consumers and decomposers looks after itself, which is after all the whole point of the Forest Garden! There will always be the ‘constant evolution’ of the website’s subheading of course, but maybe there will come a time when I could go on holiday – just joking! For the moment, and for a good few years yet, the name of the game is building, building, building – working with Nature to construct an environment where all this will happen.

The small polytunnel (photo below) in the Lower Garden doesn’t often get a mention in the Blog, but it nevertheless plays a vital role in the Project, for seed and cutting propagation, and general storage! The plastic wasn’t of very good quality and is looking a bit the worse for wear after only three seasons, so I have got some proper professional polyethylene (sorry!) and clips to replace it, and some more tubing for door posts; this should last for anything up to 10 years.

And talking of seed propagation, I have been saving seeds over the last few months – marigold, pumpkin, butternut squash, physalis, amaranth, tansy, to name a few, all edible or medicinal or both. I also dug up a couple of comfrey plants and broke off about 85 smaller pieces of root, before replanting the main clump (see below). The pieces are now stored in dry sand until propagation in the spring. They will then be planted all over the Forest Garden for soil improvement, composting and biomass – you can never have enough!

One of the plant nurseries I use has put together a series of hedging ‘kits’ specifically for permaculture and forest gardens – an anti-pollution hedge, a bee hedge, a thousand-and-one-flowers hedge, and so on. I have ordered one called ‘haie défensive odorante’, 20 plants full of thorns to discourage the deer! (but which also smell nice and provide nitrogen and lots of small fruit), to go in the boundary gap in the left background of the biomass hedge photo above. The plants included in the kit are sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), medlar (Mespilus germanica), thorny lemon (Poncirus trifoliata), beach or Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa), barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Tibetan bramble (Rubus thibetanicus), Russian olive (Eleagnus angustifolia), Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa).

The Woodland Crocus is up! I first noticed it on the 21st, five days later than in 2021.

I often talk about the Landscape Mosaic in the Blog (see the satellite image in Article No. 5, December 1st, 2021 for a graphic example of this) and this month I was up in the forest to the west of the Forest Garden, and thought what a good example of natural regeneration it was. Apparently only about 70 years ago, all this area was down to vines, my land included. There was a link then between the two areas, and we are rebuilding that link today.

I love the quality of the old chestnut stump (right) and the amazing holes in the tree on the left – I think they’re too big and perfect for a woodpecker, and may have been done by the local hunting fraternity to attract some kind of nesting. I don’t know; any ideas, anyone?

And while out walking, I took this shot (below) of what I call ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ just below my property; the Project site and buildings are out of sight, but the bottom corner of my land is where the end-of-speed-limit sign and the lamp-post are in the photo. I gave the speed hump this nickname because it is on the Greenwich Meridian, in other words where you pass from East to West!

I have started work on improving the Site Map (Blog, December 1st, 2021). I had the original pencil-drawn map enlarged to twice-size and am now retracing that, using a fine-tip marker this time. This will allow more room for additions and labels, and then when reduced again it will be much sharper and clearer. Work in progress!

The weather this month reminded me of a good old-fashioned winter in the frozen north of my youth (well, the condensation on the insides of the windows wasn’t quite frozen into those beautiful crystal patterns, as I remember from those days, but for this latitude it was cold for an unusually long time!). We had sub-zero temperatures for 20 days altogether, with a minimum of -4.3° on the 23rd, and for several days it struggled to get above zero all day. There was a maximum of 22° on the 4th. The month was marked by high pressure, giving stable weather and the low temperatures. There was also a reasonable amount of rain (83mm), which fell mostly between the 4th and the 10th. See the full monthly weather record in the link below.

A recent article in the UK Guardian by fungi biologist Merlin Sheldrake (author of Entangled Life, Blog, December 1st, 2020) and Dutch academic Toby Kiers, on mycorrhizal networks and the crucial role they play in soil and ecosystem health, caught my attention. If we want to tackle the climate crisis, the authors say, we need to address a global blindspot: the vast underground fungal networks that sequester carbon and sustain much of life on Earth. We are destroying these networks at an alarming rate through urbanisation and industrial forms of agriculture and forestry, which simply ignore the life in the soil. By advocating for soil and documenting underground networks and species, the authors hope to promote a deeper knowledge of fungi and make sure they get the attention they deserve. Bravo!

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