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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Knapweed, mulching and potting-on the paulownias

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Early this month I decided I needed to cut back the Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) severely if it wasn’t to take over the whole garden! Last year it was just along both sides of the driveway, but this year it had set itself in swathes over a lot of the Upper Garden, restricting other plant growth. So the majority of it has been strimmed at what I judged to be the best time – after most of the other wild flowers were over for the season, and before the knapweed itself had a chance to set seed. It will of course come back, but it should be controllable now and should be greatly reduced.

There is also the question of ecosystems and ecological change. As mentioned in earlier Blogs, I have already noticed changes to the ecology of the Forest Garden in the short time it has been in existence, and controlling (but not eliminating) the knapweed will obviously have an effect too. But as more plants are added as the years go on, there will be change anyway, planned disturbance, so I consider this approach justifiable.

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The Symposium, the lentil patches … and design!

(For my email subscribers: Remember to read this on the website – better design, more information, updates included, altogether a better experience!)

No apologies for beginning this month’s Blog ‘away from home’. The First International Forest Garden Symposium (see Blog, June 1st, 2021) more than lived up to my expectations. It ran for the whole week from May 31st to June 4th, was a huge success and raised so many important issues, that I have written a short article about it; the Blog needs to concentrate on what’s happening here in the garden, and in an article I am free to express views on the bigger picture and on what the Sombrun Forest Garden Project symbolises in the wider world – a global ‘landscape mosaic’ connection that I think is important, as regular readers will know. To read this, go to the Articles page in the menu above.

And so, to more local matters! The design ideas discussed in last month’s blog (June 1st) have moved on a stage, and it’s now clear that the lentil patches will become the focus of development here. They have been re-named Carré 1, Carré 2 etc (from the French for ‘square’). Carré 1 has this year’s lentils and beans (plus some self-seeded tomatoes from the biomass I added last year, which have been removed as they would have used up all the nitrogen the bed is creating!) and is behaving very well – see below.

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There’s a word for it … evolution!

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I have had more time to just be in the Forest Garden this month, observing everything that’s going on – and there’s a lot! It’s so pleasing to see the developments, even though to the casual observer it may seem that not much has changed (it still looks like a field!). Living in and among and around the garden I notice how much has happened in the three years since the Project began. And especially this month, I have suddenly realised that what I’m witnessing is the ‘constant evolution’ in the sub-heading to the website’s title. I’m not even sure if I fully realised when I wrote that what it could really mean!

For example, I’m seeing more bugs, beetles and insects in general, and evidence of mycelial networks, this year than before – mushrooms, the caterpillars mentioned below, but also grubs rolled up in tree leaves and ladybirds and beetles to feed on them. It’s good to realise this is happening and that the natural cycles of plant and insect ecosystems and food chains that I know will come, are beginning to get established.

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Challenges and progress … and wild flowers

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As I have known from the beginning, my ideas and plans for the Forest Garden, and indeed the life of the whole garden itself, are “in constant evolution”, as it says at the top of the page! This is completely natural, and I welcome it, and sometimes it presents me with unforeseen challenges. A case in point is the rather unwelcome attention of the deer from the forest opposite the property. As mentioned last month (Blog, April 1st, 2021) there has been quite a lot of damage to the young trees, to the extent that a large part of April’s work was in providing individual netting to protect them (see below), and including a daily morning round of the garden to check on damage. So far, I have only lost one planted tree (a small-leaved lime which was completely severed at the base), and a few self-sown oak and wild cherry. Several other planted trees have been partially damaged, but I think they will survive.

You might think that the best answer would be to fence off the whole property to allow trees and other plants to grow up in peace over the next few years, but apart from being hugely expensive, this is against the whole ethos of the Project. I have often mentioned in these blog posts the idea of the Forest Garden being an integral part of the local landscape mosaic, and to put up a high deer fence would be a symbolic closing of the door on everything that surrounds it. So no, no fences thank you! The netting protection that has been installed doesn’t look particularly nice but it seems to be doing the job. In fact the problem will exist for quite some time yet, as the Forest Garden develops and each year young, juicy plants are added to tempt the browsers. No doubt my approach to this will evolve too, but for me it’s a question of learning to live with the deer, not against them!

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The first cuckoo and a new development …

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The workload has been fairly light this month, but there has been plenty happening. Right at the beginning of the month there was that key spring moment when you notice trees coming into leaf, a pale tinge which can be a hundred shades of green, yellow, bronze, beige, gold …, not just here in the Forest Garden, but over the surrounding area too.

I think that because of the generally mild weather since the latter part of February (see the Monthly Weather Record below), everything is fairly advanced here this year, and the Wild Flower Census (see below) showed no fewer than 40 species, up from 27 last March. This was no doubt due to the weather, because virtually all the extra plants were ‘returnees’, just coming through earlier. The Grape Hyacinth (Muscari neglectum) finally showed up (see Blog, March 1st, 2021), but just one solitary stem; hopefully it’ll be back next year in force.

One new arrival this year in the gravel outside my front door is Cornsalad (above), also known as Lamb’s Lettuce or Mâche (which is also the French name). I hope it spreads because it is very good as a salad leaf. The Cuckoo Flower turned up in numbers, and right on cue, I first heard the cuckoo on the 24th!

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Winter’s work is done, a new life begins …

February has been another busy month, with the completion of winter tasks and a general feeling of the garden beginning to wake up, especially towards the end of the month.

Some of the wild flowers that have appeared this month, left to right, top to bottom: Lesser Celandine, Hairy Bittercress, Lungwort, Dandelion and Great Horsetail

The Wild Flower Census has revealed 26 species this month, up from 17 for February last year. There is one new species, Wavy Bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa), which I discovered on the last day of the month hiding among the Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), and the others are flowers returning earlier than ‘usual’. This in itself is interesting from the point of view of climate change, and I have also noticed that flowering times in many cases are earlier now than those given in the flower identification books I use.

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