My, my … mycelium, it’s getting everywhere, and the frost too …

As you can see from the photos above, there has been quite a lot of mushroom activity this month. They were all of the same species and were spread across the whole extent of the Upper Garden – around the small-leaved lime in the Coppice (left-hand photo), next to a chestnut further down the slope at the end of the Coppice (centre), and next to the quince on the lower swale bank right across the other side of the garden (right). From this, I think it is reasonable to assume that this variety has already spread its underground network across the garden, linking up with other trees and biomass piles along the way. How exciting is that?!

The weather patterns this month deserve a special mention; the month was generally dull and mild with an average temperature of 11.7°, but also with a sudden sharp frost (-2.5°) and no wind on three consecutive nights (3rd – 5th), preceded and followed by rain (of which there was a respectable 53mm this month). There was considerable damage to fruit flowers and even leaves, which all got burned. I am assuming that the leaves and flowers were still wet from the rain remaining on them when the wind dropped, increasing the extent of the damage. The result is that there will be very few mirabelles, greengages and walnuts (see below) this year, and some of the young trees too suffered leaf burn, hopefully not terminal. Apple and cherry blossom, for some reason, has not been affected, and there is a surprising amount of that (photos below). See also the full Monthly Weather Record below.

Cherry (left) and quince blossom, seemingly unaffected by the frost. These are two local varieties and they are only about 3 years old, so the amount of blossom is surprising. I love their names – Cerise Noir d’Itxassou Geresi Belxa (Basque, all x’s and consonants!) and Coing de la Haie de Thouars (the hedge in Thouars must be pretty famous by now).

I also observed that the new walnut, planted this winter, was taking its time coming into leaf, whereas the established one in the Lower Garden was already producing new growth and flowers. This has cost this tree dearly, because many of its new shoots and flowers have been frost-damaged (centre of photo below left), whereas the new walnut Franquette is apparently a late starter, and the weather and the delayed season (moon phases, arrival of the cuckoo and so on), probably meant that it knew best and bided its time! Just on the last day of the month it started to burst its buds (below right) exactly at the time of the new moon, a relief for me!

Photo credit (right): J-C. Grolleau

I also thought that maybe the paulownia hedge planted last year (Blog, November 1st, 2021) had been killed by frosts over the winter, but I needn’t have worried. By the end of the month, only a single tree out of the 42 planted was not reshooting from the base. More relief, and I have some spares!

All of the above shows just how much we depend on Nature, that we have to learn to work with what it has in store for us and that we need to approach our work with humility. I have to smile when I see the efforts of (wealthy) wine growers and orchard owners, who fly helicopters over vineyards to stir up the cold air or light hundreds of huge candles among their peach trees to ward off the frost, very often with negligible effect! Perhaps planting a few different types of tree among their vine and fruit monocultures might be a better solution in the long term.

April was a busy month in the kitchen too, with a continuing small supply of young rhubarb for compote, plus cakes and tarts, and the beginning of salad leaves (dandelion, horseradish, sage, lemon balm and corn-salad or mâche), not forgetting the nettle tea!

Rhubarb and apple compote, freshly picked rhubarb and my daily salad lunch (background, right). The tarts on the right have a kind of custard tart texture but use greuil, a type of curd cheese made from ewe’s milk which I buy on a local market (take your own tub!). There are many different versions of this cheese all over France, but this name is only used here in the south-west.

Lemon balm, sage and nettle drying for use in tisanes and cooking. A recent test revealed high iron levels in my blood, which I think can only be as a result of the amount of nettle tea I drink!

It has also occurred to me that the Sombrun Forest Garden is already providing a year-round supply of produce, given that fruit and vegetables can be cooked and frozen or dried. I have just this month finished the fruit leathers and dried fruit made last autumn, I am still eating last year’s walnuts and jam, and in the freezer there is still plenty of vegetable soup and fruit compote. All this at the same time as the rhubarb and salad leaves are just beginning again.

And so to the wild flower census, which will be done for just April and May this year. As I thought, the number of species is slightly down for April (54) compared with last year (65). This is probably due to the changes happening to the ecosystems of the whole garden, but also because, as mentioned above, the season is slightly later this year. So we might find that May’s total is up again. In any event a very interesting exercise which will have greater and greater meaning as the years progress and comparisons over a longer period become possible.

Despite this reduction in species numbers, and apart from the Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) mentioned in last month’s Blog, there have been two more new arrivals this month – St. Bernard’s Lily (Anthericum liliago) and Bush Vetch (Vicia sepium). See the full list in the link below.

A second Green-winged Orchid (Orchis morio) appeared (see last month’s Blog), which increases its chances of survival and multiplication. If I were a statistician, I would say that its population has doubled in the last year! Common Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris) has genuinely increased considerably, as has Crosswort (Cruciata laevipes). Gérard Ducerf, in his Plantes Bio-Indicatrices (see last month’s Blog), writes that milkwort is a sign of increasing biodiversity and of a lack of nitrogen/organic matter; this seems to match the current situation here, and which is being addressed by the planting of a wide variety of species and the addition of nitrogen-fixing plants. Talking of biodiversity, I might also add that there is no shortage of small mammal life here, judging by the numbers of mice and voles etc that Chanua presents for me on a daily basis!

I have also noticed that the flowers of Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) look particularly intense and rich in colour this year – maybe that’s just because they are fresh and new, or maybe it’s because the soil itself is becoming richer.

An interesting experiment is these young seedlings (photo below) – they have grown from a marc cake of pressed apple from a local cider-maker. I shall be thinning them to about 10 or so seedlings and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know the variety, although it (or they) will also be local, as I know the artisan concerned is very insistent about that, and of course, not being a graft, they will not be true to type. Nevertheless, I think it is a worthwhile idea. It is my ambition to grow a Kazakhstan apple here one day. This is the area where most of today’s hybrid apples originate from, and they too grow naturally from seed in the wild.

The new lentil patches – Carrés 2 & 3 – have been uncovered after a year under black plastic, and the ground is soft and friable (and grass free!), with the additional organic matter I put down decomposing nicely. Each patch has been broadcast with 1kg of lentils, which is probably a little generous, but I want to be sure that the grass doesn’t get a chance to regrow. These have been watered in and walked upon, so now we just wait and see.

And just as a reminder of where we’re headed with these squares, here’s an up-to-date photo of Carré 1, which had the lentil treatment last year and was planted up and mulched this winter. It contains apricot, szechuan pepper, jostaberry, sea buckthorn and ground-cover raspberry, and will hopefully fill out to cover the ground and intermingle in its various layers in no time at all!

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