The garden awakes …

This month has seen a lot of new life – wild flowers returning, birds singing, trees budding and blossoming, grass growing, newly planted and other young trees and shrubs beginning to come into leaf.

There has been the bright, fresh yellow of the dandelion and lesser celandine flowers, the alder catkins, the pussy willow, the first leaves appearing on the quince tree, peach flowers ready to burst and the black cherry plum in flower. All of this is sorely needed early food for the first insects, notably for the bumble bees which have been out a lot.

The blackbird strikes up his song in the early dawn, before it’s even properly light, and the first house flies have shown up, along with a variety of beetles from the wood stack next to the kitchen, and sleepy shield bugs, which don’t even have the energy to turn themselves over if they fall on their back! The squawking formations of cranes passing overhead on their way north and the first butterfly – a bright sulphur-yellow Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), predictably called the Citron in France! – in the garden. And I have seen my first hedgehog, fresh out of hibernation with its prickles all covered in dried grass and leaves, a new addition to the Forest Garden. I hope they’re here to stay!

There has been yet more planting this month, notably the ‘defensive hedge’ (see last month for details of this) and two late tree purchases – another pear (Williams Bon Chrétien, to the rear in the photo below) to improve pollination of the first one (Tarquin des Pyrénées), and another plum (Prune d’Ente, nearest the camera, which is the classic variety grown for prune production just north of here in the Lot-et-Garonne département. My organic farm was there, surrounded by these orchards, and the plums are perfect for drying and preserving).

The ‘defensive hedge’ in the end became three hedges, as I decided to split the plants between the gap on the eastern boundary and either side of the drive entrance. For the driveway part, which is a continuation of the existing hedges, curving round into the entrance, there are sea buckthorn, barberry, Japanese rose and Japanese quince plus two gooseberries, and on the eastern boundary I put medlar, Tibetan bramble, hawthorn, blackthorn, thorny lemon and Russian olive, plus a row of gooseberries. There were three gooseberry bushes left over, so these were planted along the upper swale, where there are already other soft fruit bushes.

Another late decision was the addition of two further swales higher up in the Upper Garden (see Blogs, June 30th, 2020, February 1st, 2021, August 1st, 2021 for an explanation of the principle of these contour-line ditches and how the levels are achieved). This is an area for which there were no plans as yet, but the two existing swales lower down the slope have worked so well that I decided it would be a good idea to add more. Because they are filled with carbon biomass, and because they are, even in drier weather, damper than the surrounding area, the swales become a sort of super-highway for mycelium and other underground flora and fauna, from which networks and minute pathways extend over (or rather under!) the garden, linking everything together. And the banks created below each ditch are then ideal spots for planting.

Fruit trees and soft fruit bushes were planted on the existing swale banks to benefit from these conditions, but for the moment on the new ones I am going to scatter a lot of flower seed, such as marigold or even carrot, to cover the soil banks against re-colonisation from grasses, and also to provide flowers for insects, and for biomass. And of course plants such as marigold have medicinal uses as well. Some of the comfrey cuttings mentioned in last month’s Blog will also go in these swale banks, hopefully to spread along them as well as doing their mineral accumulation work and providing biomass.

In the photo below you can see all four swales clearly, leading down to the bank above the driveway, and it’s as if the new ones have completed the structure of the Upper Garden, giving a sense of unity to this whole area. This is very satisfying.

Another major event this month was the replacement of the the polytunnel plastic (see last month’s Blog for the background to this). As mentioned last month, this is much thicker, light-diffusing plastic and hopefully will last up to 10 years. Yes, you noticed, it’s out of true, but the frame had become distorted and I needed the door posts I added to be square for a door to be fitted!! It’s called rustique in France!

It was done on the last day of the month, in ideal conditions – dry, sunny and no wind. The old plastic has been propped up against the wall (on the right in the photos) in an attempt to stop Chanua jumping up on to the top of the tunnel, which she likes to do. She is quite capable of ripping the new plastic! I’ll now have to set up a more permanent, and less unsightly, deterrent. This tunnel is less than 5m long, and I remember the last one I did, on my organic farm, which was 22m long and we chose a windy, wet day to cover it. Not a good idea!

Also at the end of the month, I watered all the new additions to the Forest Garden. I don’t water in trees and shrubs when they’re planted, as they’re dormant and the ground is pretty damp in any case. I prefer to do this when they first show signs of waking up, when I feel they need it as part of their growth cycle. Depending on the weather during the spring, they may get one or two more waterings, and then regular doses during the dry summer months, hopefully just for their first year.

Until the middle of last year, I did a monthly wild flower census (see Blog, July 1st, 2021), when I decided to continue this just on an annual basis. So this year I will probably do it in April/May, the two most prolific months. The Forest Garden is changing, not just in the obvious, physical sense with the large amount of planting and the addition of more swales, but also something more imperceptible, very subtle, and it’s definitely happening! Because of these changes, both visible and not-so-visible, there could well be a drop in the numbers of wild flower species this year. But I see this all as part of the evolution of the garden, the effect of planned disturbance, and, if indeed there are fewer this year, then they will return over the years ahead, along with other new species not seen before, when they find their niche.

One of the main functions of a project such as this one is ‘self-sufficiency of inputs’, and I often think about what I could do to reduce those that come from outside – for example, the black plastic ‘carrés’ for eliminating grass prior to planting, farmyard manure, and bark mulch from the sawmill. I took the decision that these were justified to begin with, but as time goes on, they will become less and less necessary, as the material needed starts being produced on site.

I was pleased to be able to help some smallholder friends with a planting project earlier this month on their farm not far from here. We were a team of around 10 people and planted nearly 30 fruit trees in time for the obligatory lunch back at their house!

February’s weather was generally settled, with temperatures falling to around freezing in the mornings and brighter afternoons with sunny periods or full sun, getting up to 20.7° on the 28th. It was fairly dry (33mm of rain, half of which fell in two days mid-month). Average humidity was however 85%. See the full monthly weather record in the link below.

There was an article in Le Monde a few days ago – February 20th – which resonated with me. Entitled ‘No escape hatch with climate change’, it’s an interview with Jean-Marc Jancovici, who heads the think-tank The Shift Project, and who has just published Climat, crises: le plan de transformation de l’économie française (Climate and crises: transforming the French economy, Odile Jacob, 11.90€) a plea for fundamental systems change and for thinking and planning for the long-term. It has a lot to do with our futures, and yes, with the role that forest gardens and agroforestry have to play, too.

The point that struck me is that it’s a sign that concerns over the future of the planet have moved up a gear, if organisations such as this, which have the ear of governments, can be taken seriously when they talk about the changes that are coming maybe sooner rather than later, which has hitherto fallen on deaf ears.

The interviewer raised the difficulty of convincing the general public to accept deep change, but M. Jancovici pointed to the acceptance of restrictions on tobacco consumption or that of limiting speed on the road as examples that it is possible. Big ideas such as ‘post-growth’ and ‘post-carbon’, now very much to the fore, are in play, and worldwide, there are thousands of initiatives in progress; they just need acceptance on a wider scale, and this is what the article is about.

I have also been re-reading The Garden of Equal Delights by co-forest-gardener Anni Kelsey (see Blog, January 1st, 2021, when I first mentioned her work), and it is a delight indeed! Her approach is very similar to my own, and I owe ideas such as planting root vegetables for their flowers, and the niches for wild flowers, both mentioned above, to her. The book is based on a set of 12 principles, the result of many years of keen observation of how Nature works and how we can learn to let go, to find our place within that. It’s very sympathetic writing and I recommend a read (Triarchy Press, Devon, UK, not translated, but needs to be!).

A lot has been achieved here in Sombrun this winter, and now it’s time, as Anni says, to take a step back, watch and wait!

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