Hügelkultur work is done, and a new phase begins …

Easter saw the completion of the three new Hügelkultur beds in the Upper Garden. A two-month long and labour-intensive job, but the result is worth all the effort!

The photos above were taken from diagonally opposite sides of the Upper Garden, looking to the north in the top photo and to the south in the second, and they show clearly the siting of the beds within the garden. As I have mentioned before, the beds now mean there is a completely different emphasis on the layout of the Forest Garden, because future planting will be governed to a greater degree by the position of the beds. But this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily take on a linear form; planting can be irregular, and also in between the beds as well as on them; and over time, the beds themselves will become much less visible, although their function will still be as important. Thus the density and multi-layered aspect of a true forest garden can be achieved whilst benefitting from the action of the Hügel beds. (For a detailed explanation of the function of Hügelkultur beds, see the Blog, March 8th, 2023).

You will notice that the first bed changes colour halfway along (photo 2)! I ran out of straw at that point and finished off with some bark mulch that was already here. The effect will be the same – maintaining surface moisture when the weather gets dry, and helping to suppress weeds. I have also allowed for the existing pathway to run through two of the beds; both photos show this.

As yet, there are no firm planting plans for the new beds, and in any case, it’s a bit late now to do any new planting. As mentioned last month, only shrubs and herbaceous plants can be put on the beds; trees have to go alongside, because the beds sink slowly over time as the woody material in them decomposes. But this is fine, tree roots will seek out everything they need from the beds, and the improved underground mycelial and bacterial networks will connect up with them too.

The swale ditches installed three years ago are still there, still doing their job, the lower one clearly visible at bottom right in the first photo, the higher one between the second and third beds in photo 2.

With all the emphasis on Hügelkultur in recent Blogs, the four Carré beds that were created over the last three years have been given less attention. But they are still there, and still very much a part of the overall plan. The black plastic mulch, on all carrés in place for over a year, whilst not very ecological, was very effective and produced weed-free soft and workable soil.

The plants in Carré 1 are growing away well – there are male and female sea buckthorn, ground cover raspberry, jostaberry, Szechuan pepper and apricot.

After the black plastic treatment, Carrés 2 and 3 were covered in cardboard and a layer of bark mulch, and this year I will be sowing dwarf beans in them to maintain nitrogen levels and act as a ground cover, plus of course to have green beans as well! They will eventually be planted with trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, species to be decided.

Carré 4 in the Lower Garden was transformed into mini Hügelkultur beds (see Blog, December 1st, 2022 and January 1st, 2023) and will be sown/planted with some annual crops for the kitchen this year. I have bought a range of vegetable, salad and flower seeds, and these will either be started in pots in the polytunnel or sown directly in the beds a bit later on. The vine in the foreground growing up the Mirabelle tree is an heirloom white grape called Noah, which produces delicious fruit. It’s now in its second year here, and will spread up through the branches of the tree.

It’s a relief to find that most trees, fruit bushes and shrubs have made a good start to the season after the trials of last year (extreme heat and drought), even some gooseberry bushes, which were only planted 15 months ago and which looked decidedly dead at the end of the year! Most of the young fruit trees have had a good showing of blossom, and several even have some fruit forming already. One of the two almond trees, also planted winter 2021/22, has a few nuts forming, too (photo below, left). The other photo below shows the mass of flower on an Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata).

I first heard the Cuckoo on April 1st, two days later than last year, and the Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis) had duly showed up a few days before, a remarkable cross-family symbiosis!

And talking of symbiosis, I discovered these two fungi (below) whilst uncovering a heap of woody biomass for use on the Hügel beds. I had certainly never seen anything like them before, but apparently they are not uncommon. The small one on the left is Sarcocypha coccinea and the larger one Daedaleopsis confragosa. They were certainly doing a good job of working together with the wood and the soil, and they were transferred to the depths of one of the new beds, still attached to their branches, where I hope they will continue their work.

There has been a fair amount of strimming activity, and I am adopting a new strategy with the grass areas here. In previous years, the grass has been left uncut during the spring and summer, with just one cut in the autumn. But in a season such as last year, the long, very dry grass becomes a considerable fire risk, particularly as I have relatively close neighbours all around. So this year it will be kept shorter, with occasional cuts as the season progresses, and I will observe the effect this has. The trade-off here is with the wild flowers, but most of these seem to be around the margins anyway, and so will probably escape the strimmer. I can also leave a clump of flowers if I come across one while strimming.

Weather-wise, March was a fairly typical dull and showery month, mostly quite mild and no frosts, and with a respectable 61mm of rain. April so far (mid-month) has seen nearly 60mm of rain, with quite often heavy and blustery showers. By early April, most of the fruit trees except the apples were in blossom, and we had two very light frosts on the 4th and 5th. However, the temperature didn’t quite get down to 0°, and I think the trees escaped any damage.

Bread-making has become a regular Friday pastime, and there has been a continual improvement in understanding and technique, so that after my first 6 months I am now able to reliably produce a professional quality sourdough loaf, in terms of appearance, taste, crust, crumb structure and gluten development. I have also decided that, as I now have two dutch ovens and they can fit side by side in the oven, I prefer making two smaller loaves each week (see below). I find this more pleasing and more manageable than cutting a single large loaf in half. They just about last me the week!

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