Drought, watering, resilience and plans …

When I wrote ‘Drought and heat – thoughts about the future …‘ last month, little did I realise how this situation would continue and become more critical throughout August, causing considerable upheaval at the heart of the Sombrun Forest Garden Project! I have often said in these pages that I am working hand in hand with Nature, that really it is Nature in control, and this has taught me a valuable lesson this month: in following Nature, we have to be prepared for surprises, and things may not turn out as we thought. This year’s drought has caused me stop, forcibly, and made me realise that I have to adapt.

The photos below are symbolic of the conditions: on the left, one afternoon’s harvest of blackberries, and on the right, partial die-back of a goat willow tree.

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Drought and heat – thoughts about the future …

Once again, the weather has been a major preoccupation this month, and my thoughts on species future for the Sombrun Forest Garden Project have moved from the back of my mind to the front! As you will see from the monthly weather report below, most of the month has been dry and hot, and I think I have to accept now, given everything else that is happening with climate change as well, that this will become the norm. Not only have temperatures been higher than ever (40° and higher on three occasions already this year, two of which were in July), but rainfall has been minimal and we are in a severe drought. Couple this with the fact that the soil here is very porous and lacking in organic matter due to its composition with pebbles and stone (see the Site Evaluation, Articles, December 1st, 2021) and you have a recipe for struggle!

Of course, over time, the forest garden system will itself overcome these difficulties, by increasing shade and underground mycelial networks, and by improving soil humus, fertility and structure with the better water retention that that brings. But it will take a good few years and until then, I need to think seriously about providing more drought resistant species. This will mean researching genus and species which are also compatible with the aims of this Forest Garden, namely biodiversity, symbiosis, utility and resilience. I am taking this seriously enough to think in terms of putting this winter’s planting on hold, and maybe getting in touch with other forest gardeners in neighbouring Spain and Italy for their advice.

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Wild flower census, the weather and luxuriant growth …

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.

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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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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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