Having worked through the month on the Wild Flower Census, I think I may have been a little over-enthusiastic with species numbers last year! I have found that it is very easy to confuse species within the same family or genus of certain plants, especially those in the Daisy (Asteraceae) family – for example the sow-thistles, hawkbits, hawksbeards and hawkweeds – and thus inflate the numbers! But in spite of this, May this year saw 67 species of which I am certain (2021: May = 59; June = 62), and this is a record! It also means that the Forest Garden is maintaining and increasing its diversity in wild flowers, all part of the evidence of increasing soil health, even with the disturbance to ecosystems brought about by planting, creation of the lentil patches (the Carrés), walking where I shouldn’t be walking, and so on. The total number of species over a year in the garden is already over 100. The full census report is in the link below.
This has also been an exceptional month weather-wise; we are experiencing drought conditions in May, which has commonly been a wet month until now. Maximum temperatures soared into the 30’s early on (9th), and stayed there until the 24th (minimum temperatures were around the 10° mark). We did have some storm rain during this period, but very little, and the total rainfall for the whole month was only 12mm (81mm in May last year). Full details are in the Monthly Weather Record (link below). After a few years, the record will show the weather and climate trends here and to what extent the Sombrun Forest Garden Project is being affected by climate change – for example, is this May’s weather an exception, or is it part of a trend towards a drier, hotter, savanna-type climate for this area? My bet would be on the latter!
During May, I have continued to come across damaged flowers and leaves from the frosts at the beginning of April (see last month’s Blog), meaning that it was even more extensive than I at first thought. Apart from the crops mentioned last month, there are two cherry trees here (early and late varieties) and neither has produced an appreciable crop. What little there is I have left for the birds and for the moment there are still some tubs of cherry compote from last year in the freezer!
Because of the dry conditions, I have been watering the new trees and shrubs much earlier than usual, and they are mostly looking in good shape – one new pear tree, a Williams Bon Chrétien, has decided to give up, but I think this is probably due to a mix of the frost mentioned above and hydraulic stress.
In general, however, the state of play is encouraging. The photos below show some of trees planted between 2019 – 2021, and despite the dryness they are obviously finding deeper water, have luxuriant growth and are getting away very well. This is pretty much to be expected – young trees have a slow period while they get established and then growth accelerates after that, given the right conditions. And from the wider perspective, this change will be exponential over the whole forest garden system; the more trees there are, the greater the underground resource and photosynthetic capacity, the hydrological profile changes because of water management (see below) and tree transpiration, and the more resilient and abundant the whole garden becomes.
The black walnut (Juglans nigra, left) has increased its stem length by 55cm already this year, a quarter of its total height; the small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata, centre) has abundant foliage for the first time and is being constrained by the deer protection netting; the chestnut (Castanea sativa, right) has similarly shot up over the last couple of months.
More evidence of improving conditions in the Forest Garden – horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, left) in full flower, which has not happened before now. At the foot of its trunk there is a large pile of woody biomass and I guess the decomposition there is beginning to have an effect; and flowers on a very wispy young acacia tree (Acacia spp., right) which I have tied back (foreground) to encourage it to grow upright and away from overhead electricity cables. The goat willow (Salix caprea) to its left was coppiced a couple of years ago and this has given more light and space for self-sown trees such as the acacia to flourish.
Connected with this, I have also noticed a distinct increase in insect life this year. I have the impression that there are more butterflies, ladybirds, small mammals and beetles, and certainly, the ladybirds have not really been around until now. And on closing the polytunnel one evening recently, I had to rescue seven butterflies of I think three different species, which had found their way in there. Butterfly intellect doesn’t seem to stretch to flying out of the wide-open door! It would be great to have censuses of insects, birds, small mammals, grasses and so on for the Forest Garden, but for the moment, time does not allow! Any offers?!
I sowed thyme, Good King Henry (perennial ‘spinach’), wild strawberry and hops this month in the polytunnel (although they have spent more time outside in the shade of the trees than in the tunnel!), and when mature enough, these will be planted out in suitable places – thyme in the sun, Good King Henry and wild strawberry in the shade, and the hops next to a tree! All the squash plants grown from seed (Blog, April 1st, 2022) have been planted out. The photo below shows the plants in the heeling-in area (a useful second life for this patch!), and hopefully they will now spread out in all directions – the one centre right seems to have already started!
I seem to have struck a deal with the deer! I leave them the self-sown oak saplings, of which there are plenty and which they like to nibble and rub, and they ignore the other trees protected with wire netting. That’s the theory anyway; no doubt something will happen soon to prove me wrong! There are plenty of signs that they are there (droppings, flattened grass where they have slept, and of course bark-stripping), but I never see them.
I had another visit from my geobiologist (water diviner) friend this month. He came to check on energy fields around and within the house, but while here he also rechecked and confirmed the underground water channels that criss-cross the property. Unfortunately I don’t have a spring here, but there is one major seasonal subterranean rivulet which comes down the slope of the Upper Garden and passes under the house. It might be a possibility to sink an outlet for this at the back of the house and pump water up to a tank or small reservoir to provide for at least some of my water requirements.
Hydrology is one of the major pillars of the forest garden system, and I think I need to give higher priority to this for the Sombrun Forest Garden as climate change accelerates. I already have the four swale ditches in the Upper Garden, which are proving their worth for water retention and as biodiversity ‘hotspots’, but my plan for the management and use of all rainwater and grey water from the house (see Blog, August 1st, 2021) is becoming more urgent.
Some friends who also have experience of growing plants in the tropics have given me a Moringa (Moringa oleifera) sapling and seeds (photo below left). Also called the Drumstick Tree from its long, narrow seedpods, it is little known in temperate regions, but it can with care be grown here by bringing it indoors for its first few winters and thereafter protecting it when overwintering outside. Moringa originates from northern India and is used extensively in the tropics for medicinal and nutritive needs. A powerful plant, the list of its benefits is very long, as can be seen from this article.
The right-hand photo above shows another tropical plant in my garden, a Bottlebrush (Callistemon spp.) which I grew from seed taken while working at the Keystone Foundation, an NGO in south-west India. This tree is about five years old and has been protected as in the paragraph above, being planted out last year. As yet it has produced none of the typical scarlet ‘bottlebrush’ flowers, but hopefully will soon!
You might think that these trees have no place in a temperate garden because they are ‘exotic’, but when you consider that many of our everyday plants, for example the apple, the potato or the tomato, were once exotics, the emphasis changes. My view is that if it is more or less self-sustaining and is a useful and symbiotic contributor for both me and the garden, there is no reason not to grow it.
As regular readers will know, I often like to mention articles or books from the wider world of agroforestry and the environment in order to keep what is happening here in perspective. This month, I came across an interesting article on the gut microbiome, published on the Mongabay site. What has that got to do with forest gardens, nutrition and ecosystems, I hear you ask? The answer is: a great deal – read on!
In a very wide ranging article, the author draws the comparison between the health of the land and that of the human gut microbiome; we are engaged in the destruction of our gut ecosystem in much the same way as we are destroying the world’s forests and farmland, through our use of industrially-produced, nutrition-poor foods and synthetic medicines – ‘bulldozing’ our health with antibiotics and junk food, as we bulldoze the planet.
We need to restore the biodiversity of both through a form of ‘re-wilding’ – i.e. letting natural processes take control, and part of this is in allowing ‘good’ bacteria to proliferate. Urban environments not only reduce the natural capacities of the land, but also deny human beings access to the essential bacteria needed for gut health. Exposure to natural ecosystems means turning the tide, and there is a direct link here. By restoring and being ‘in’ the land, we are restoring ourselves and by extension, our mental health as well. Thought-provoking and challenging, but entirely plausible, it’s ringing loud bells with me and the Sombrun Forest Garden! As usual, biodiversity across the spectrum is the key.
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