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?!

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The forest is coming, and the cuckoo came …!

Quite a quiet month for this forest gardener, surveying the winter’s work, and including a brief visit from Covid! But the garden itself has continued to burst open (see Blog last month). Wild flowers are coming back in numbers, and I’m tempted to start the census again, but will hold off until next month as planned. There is one new arrival so far, Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), in several different places over the garden, which I am pleased about, particularly as Gérard Ducerf, author of my bio-indicator ‘bible’1 (an exhaustive three-volume work on wild plants and what they tell us about the soil and habitat where they live), says that it is evidence of the transition to forest! Really good news, as that’s what I’m here for!

New arrival Ground Ivy, (foreground), in company with Crosswort (Cruciata laevipes)

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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.

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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.

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New tree planting …

The new trees arrived just before Christmas and were planted between December 26 – 28! They have been added to the Forest Garden Inventory (see link below) and there is now a total of 79 species here – that is, trees and shrubs only, as herbaceous plants (apart from three with special uses) and wild flowers are not included in the inventory. The latter, as regular readers will know, have their own census and amount to some 120 species over the course of a year (see Blog, July 1st, 2021 for the last complete census). When I start to include perennial vegetables in the Project, these will probably merit their own inventory for the sake of clarity.

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The Sombrun Forest Garden Project, three-and-a-half years down the line …

No. 5 in an occasional series of articles covering agroforestry-related topics in greater depth

With the site map mentioned in the November Blog, the site evaluation for the Project is at last complete; I have reached another milestone and a new departure, and very exciting it is too! Now I want to document the background to the Project, up to this point. This will also inevitably include some autobiographical details, since my life leading up to the purchase of the property, the launch of the Project in 2018, and the many things I have either learned or had confirmed along the way, are all interwoven. This article is a story of hope and redemption in these dark times, and from now on, the real work begins! Read on …..

Let’s look first at what has been achieved so far. I reproduce here not just the newly-completed site map, but also the Site Evaluation and satellite images published in previous blogs (November 1st, 2020 and June 1st, 2021), to give the complete picture from which the Project will be moving forward.

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Completion of the Site Evaluation – the map tells all …

By far the most significant, and exciting, event this month has been the completion of the the Site Evaluation for the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. Started over a year ago, it ground to a halt because of my indecision over making a map (pure Libra)! But now the Site Map has been done, showing the actual situation of the Forest Garden in terms of infrastructure and existing trees/new planting to date, and I can see that I needn’t have concerned myself over committing to a design. The map (and Nature) will suggest the way to proceed.

In fact, reaching this stage has prompted me to reflect on how we got here, and I have written an article about this (go to Articles in the menu, or click on Articles in the right-hand column). As usual, I prefer to keep the Blog to what has been happening in the garden, and an article allows me to express opinions and views on this and related subjects. So I recommend a read; at times autobiographical, at times botanical, at times thought-provoking, you’ll find all sorts of opinions and views on my approach to forest gardening and what it means to me. I have also included the complete Site Evaluation there – evaluation, satellite images and site map.

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Paulownia hedge, results of the harvest, flying the agroforestry flag …

A major event this month has been the completion of the paulownia hedge, a total of 42 plants in all, so there are plenty left over in case of failures. The leaves have all now started browning and dropping in preparation for winter; hopefully they will all reshoot in spring. See previous blogs for the history of this adventure. The picture below gives a clear idea of the job the paulownias will do in erosion control of the terraces (left) created three years ago to move the earth bank back from the house, and in providing a screen from the road (right).

The trees will be pruned back regularly, probably two or three times a year as it grows very quickly, to form a hedge, and the biomass used on the terraces to help build the soil profile there. I have also put a line of sheep’s wool along the hedge, in the hope that the smell will deter any interested browsers! Apparently deer in particular don’t like the smell of ‘raw’ wool.

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Harvesting, digging and birthdays …

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Harvesting dominated the month’s activities again in September – figs, hawthorn berries and walnuts. There was a good crop of red figs but fewer ‘white’ ones (which are actually green!). They were all halved and dried in the dehydrator (around 40 hours at 40°/45°); satisfactory, a bit too dry at first for my liking, but after storing for a short while they became softer and pleasantly sweet. Online recipes for drying figs suggest about 55°, so maybe next year I’ll try this, for a shorter period. In general, instructions for dehydrator fruit processing specify the 40° – 45° range to conserve their raw nutritional value, but maybe figs are a special case. Work in progress, any comments gratefully received!

I also made several batches of fig compote for the freezer and dried more apple slices from Jane’s garden for vacuum packing.

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Fruit harvest and processing, reflection on priorities …

The main event this month has been fruit harvesting, and considering that we are still at the beginning of the Project, I think this qualifies as A Result! There have been greengages, mirabelles, raspberries, blackberries, autumn olive and white beans, plus some apples and pears from friends’ gardens. These have been processed in a variety of ways – jams, compotes, stewed, dried and leathers – and I am very pleased with them all (photos below), especially the mirabelle ‘prunes’, which were dried to a point where they were still slightly soft and are very tasty. They have been vacuum-packed, so any moisture content remaining should not be able to develop into mould. And there’s more to come: figs and hawthorn berries in September, and walnuts the following month. I have also read that hawthorn berries are very high in pectin, so will be trying them for jam-making. At the moment I use chunks of quince, which also work very well in helping jam to set.

Some processed fruit and vegetables. Top, mirabelle ‘prunes’, dried apple and pear rings and autumn olive fruit leather, and below them some haricot Tarbais, the local white bean. Bottom, greengage and mirabelle jam, bramble jelly and apple and mirabelle compotes.

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