The year in perspective …

I think 2022 was the year that the climate crisis really sank in for me. Quite apart from all the extreme events the world over, served up in copious helpings by the drama-hungry media, if I look back over the year, the one thing that really stands out is the drought we experienced here for over four months. As I wrote at the time (Blog, October 1st, 2022), it was a shock! It made me imagine all sorts of scenarios, right up to whether the land here would be able to support the Forest Garden Project if this was repeated regularly in the future.

The good thing to come out of this was the idea of installing hügelkultur beds in the Upper Garden, coupled with rainwater harvesting. This is still planned, but I am no further forward, waiting for the digger man to arrive. Unfortunately he is very good at his job (he has already done some work here), and so I think I must be further down the waiting list. I will wait until later on in January and then try him again. If that’s still no good, I will have to consider looking round for someone else, as the beds really need to be done before the spring. This involves such a fundamental change of direction, both physically and mentally, that until I can start, I feel as though things are in limbo, although my enthusiasm for the Project as a whole, and my overall long-term hope for an ecologically viable future for the planet, remain undimmed.

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Very welcome rain, at last, and I move indoors …

November has been wet, so a quiet month in the Forest Garden, although there has been plenty of activity indoors. Soup- and bread-making continued, and I have been improving my understanding of both the levain and the dough, and trying different flours. The one I am using at the moment comes from a water mill close to the Pyrenees, where they still use the traditional stone ground method. Fascinating to see, and the flour is good, but sadly it is the only mill of its kind left in my département.

I have learned to refresh the levain for just a few hours (four or five) before starting the dough, so that it is at its peak activity. And I have tried making and baking in a single (long!) day, as well as leaving the dough to proof overnight in the fridge and baking the next morning, as mentioned last month. On the whole, the overnight proofing seems to work best, as there is more time to fit in other activities during the day with this method. It also gives the yeasts and gluten a longer and gentler development, and the resulting loaves seem to be more consistent.

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Bread-making, hügel beds and The Drought continues …

I started making bread in the area set up for the purpose in the kitchen (Blog, July 1st, 2022) about mid-September and have had a testing time! There have been several failures and near misses, but by the end of October I had produced my first satisfactory loaf, a mix of white, wholemeal and rye flours. I started my own levain (or sourdough) culture, because it is the character and nuances of flavour that this gives that interests me in bread-making. It represents working with the diversity of natural yeasts (so organic flour is essential) as opposed to the ‘monocultural’ store-bought yeasts, and learning from the infinite number of variables that this presents; it is thus in keeping with the ethos of the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. I hadn’t actually made that connection until a friend pointed it out to me the other day, and really it means that the process is the goal, and that the bread produced at the end is a bonus, particularly if it looks and tastes as good as in the photos below!

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All change, water management is the name of the game …

This year has been a shock. The garden has suffered from severe frost and drought and as mentioned last month, I have realised that there has to be a fundamental shift in my approach to the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. Frost I can’t do much about, as this will vary from year to year, and will no doubt continue on a ‘win some, lose some’ basis. But there is a high likelihood of extended summer drought from now on due to climate change, and I can at least plan to mitigate this.

It means that the immediate focus needs to be on water management, to develop further from the swale ditches already installed in order to help the trees, shrubs and other plants to survive. This will now take priority over further planting (although there will be some, see below) until I can see the way forward to resume. My thinking is that unless I can give Nature a helping hand to improve the conditions for survival, the Forest Garden will always struggle, given the initial poor soil and the slope on this site. I was even watering this month, September, which has never been needed before.

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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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