Friday, 4 July 2014

Blazing June brings amazing crops of strawberries

So now I know just how weather can influence crop size as the clement and warm weather that has been with us right through the winter, spring and summer without a break so no gales no frosts and just the right amount of rain. What's more I think that my land is at last showing signs of getting into balance regarding slugs and snails as the amount of damage from these pests is minimal. Adding these circumstances together has made for exceptional crops of strawberries and cherries. Compared with last year the strawberry crop from the same patch was 10 kilo this year I have picked over 25k of delicious I started on the 6th June and am still picking. Last year the cherry crop was poor due to late frosts this year the first tree (Merton Glory) has just been picked out with a total of 8k.


Fantastic fruit
The strawberry bed
Prior to the strawberries coming on line I picked a kilo of berries from the Elaeagnus evergreen windbreak. I processed these through the green life juicer seeds and all and the result was a creamy delicious juice it almost tasted of liquid strawberry and made the tedious task of picking worthwhile.

Hundreds of Elaeagnus fruits which took 4 hours to collect
 
Protecting cherry trees from birds is quite a problem, you can try plastic snakes or owls or just sit under the tree all day and try not to go to sleep, or grow miniature cherries that are easy to cover.
My method is to use large nets and construct a cage from coppiced poles and bamboo. I have a 4 metre picking ladder which is useful in pulling the net over the cage. The netting I use is a micro mesh which allows good airflow but keeps out other unwanted predators such as wasps. Its 13 metres wide and I was lucky enough to purchase 500metres 2nd hand from a farm in Scotland and I cut it up according to each tree size, made to measure so to speak. Its now 3 years old and there is no sign of any breakdown in the fabrication, long may it last.
Completed frame of cherry Small Black
Net in position
 
Small black cherries ripening in safety
 
Eco Corner 
 
This time its about the humble scythe.
I have been using an Austrian style scythe to manage the grass, nettles,bracken and herbage for over 6 years now and have found it to be without doubt the best piece of kit for keeping order amongst my plants. This year in particular the growth has been amazing and the scythe with me hanging on the end has been in use non stop.
So whats eco about a scythe then?
For the planet
The handle or snath is made usually from Ash which is a renewable resource from coppice.
The blade is relatively small made from steel and can be reused over a lifetime.
The whole kit is light and cheap to ship.
The only fuel is human.
For the land
Animals that may have been chopped to pieces with mechanical devices will have time to escape the swish of the blade.
The trees will not be damaged as they can be with strimmer cable.
Only light foot traffic which will not compress the land.
For us
We get a chance to get closer to our environment observing nature while we work.
Using the scythe is a first class aerobic exercise and will also build muscle, you should see my 6 pack.
Believe me it is an efficient method of working and often wins in races against a strimmer.
Its quiet in operation you can even hold conversations with fellow scythers.
Any drawbacks
Well you will need to acquire some new skills best done by taking lessons from an expert.
The blade is razor sharp so you will need to be aware of this and how to keep safe around yourself and others. All in all its fun to learn and fun to use even if its only for your lawn ( yes you can scythe the lawn and get really good results.)
I would be happy to teach anyone interested I am shortly to announce a 2 day intensive course and allow students to camp in the Forest Garden. I plan to offer this as open source  (no fee) in return for 2 days scything. If anyone is interested just email me bslark@aol.com

A section of 3 metre wide windrow goes past a purple hazel which is now ready for mulching
 
And finally here is a pic of those cherries to cheer you on your way, till next time.

 
 

 
 


Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Winter and Spring Weather has Produced some Surprising Results

Following 3 rather cold and wet winters, this past Winter has and now spring has been extremely mild, in fact we had frost on just 3 days in Winter with the lowest temp just -3 and no frost at all in the spring. In my 12 years of residence here in West Wales this has never happened before and like some of the trees I have quite missed a really good cold spell. What we did get is the wettest winter on record!

What can the trees tell us about this?

I have several Ash trees all of which are only just beginning to leaf out now and one in particular is still dormant this is weird for the 22nd of May. The Oak trees have preceded the Ash by about 4 weeks and as the old rhyme goes Oak before Ash and we will get a splash. Personally I think that the Ash trees really need to be chilled and this is why they are so late. I heard from  reputable source that Ash can remain dormant all year due to this. Beech trees too need to be chilled and will not grow well if subjected to warm winters so this species may well be limited to northern climbs in the future.
Global warming could well be having an effect on our native flora and fauna so we must all do our best to help

In the forest garden some of the plants are also behaving differently no more so than  the Yellow horn
(zanthocerus sorbifolium). This shrub was planted 11 years ago and has flowered occasionally but never more than 12 or so blooms but these have never formed seed capsules. The growth rate has been really slow up to now but this spring the growth of new shoots has doubled its size and it has flowered profusely. Seed capsules have started to form and it looks like several may go on to develop their fruit which is a thin shelled seed or nut.

Yellow horn showing the formation of the seed capsules+
 
Most years my Eleaeagnus ebbingei windbreak has flowered profusely but rarely given much if any fruit. It is also a magnificent windbreak and has in places risen some 6 meters especially where a tall tree is grown alongside as it tends to grow into and up trees. This winter not only has it flowered but now it has produced and abundant crop of fruit which will soon be ripe and be the first outdoor plant to give me a fruit crop (that's if you don't count rhubarb)

Nearly ripe fruits of this windbreak nitrogen fixing wonder shrub.
 
I had my first group visit of the year from the  South west Wales Goat Club who despite picking one of the worst wet and windy days still enjoyed their afternoon with me. Luckily by the time it came to the tea and cakes the weather improved and so the repast was taken on the lawn. Because of the time of year the only edibles were freshly cut bamboo shoots and lime leaves.
 
The biggest talking point was the recently installed compost loo which was much admired (though I'm not sure whether anyone used it!!) For me its an important part of the sustainability of my garden and I use it as often as I can. I was also asked to demonstrate with my scythe and I was able to show just what can be achieved with just one sweep. This did create a lot of interest and maybe just maybe someone there will have a go.
 
The Club makes many visits to interesting projects around the 3 counties and what's more you don't have to keep goats to join. You can contact them here: www.southwestwalesgoatclub.co.uk
 
Members of the South West Wales Goat Club on the lawn at least it had stopped raining.
 
If you want to organise a visit for your group or as an individual please send a request via email to bslark@aol.com
 
ECO Corner
 
Woodburning makes climate change sense and is the most sustainable way to heat your home heat your water and to cook on. Now is the ideal time to investigate the possibilities for your home. I have just completed my first year cooking and heating home and water with wood and can make the following comments.
Benefits
It saves money especially if you have your own source of wood which can cover some of your requirements. It is very efficient and easy to maintain as a sweep is about all you need and that costs a lot less than a heating engineer to service your boiler. The ash is a wonderful feed for your plants and can save  on plant food and fertiliser. The additional work of lifting and carrying logs in to your house can be seen as a method of keeping fit. I am 70 and have no problem with this function and treat it as exercise. Most of all this is the most sustainable method of heating your home with wood providing of course that you use a local supplier. 
Points to consider.
Conversely it is a lot of work especially as you have to feed your firebox  having to load it every 2 hours or so. There is also the clearing of the ash build up probably every 2/3 days if its being used constantly. Storage is also a big issue and will dictate price as the more outside storage you can provide the cheaper the wood will be.
As the woodburner becomes more popular better methods of delivery and storage will be devised companies will eventually provide storage racks or containers just like oil and gas companies provide tanks.
You can also now buy a complete heating system based on an automatic feed from a hopper directly into a boiler usually located in an out building. Now that's an interesting proposition. You can see a range of wood burning options and the boiler at this superb suppliers website. They are local to West Wales but are probably the most knowledgeable organisation in the UK.
 
 
And finally I leave you with a picture of the Quamash or Cassamia . A bulb much used by the Native Americans as a staple food. They evidentially made a fire onto hot stones in a clamp. The fire was allowed to die and the bulbs were put onto the stones and the clamp sealed for at least 48 hours before eating. I don't think I will try that method, but its nice to be growing a plant with that connection and it forms part of the function of a FG to grow food in the soil layer. Besides all that just imagine the sight of thousands of these plants in flower, even my few plants look fantastic
 
 
 


Thursday, 8 May 2014

A Spring Symphony of Birdsong, Flower and Awesome Promise

The Forest Garden is maturing fast after 12 years of establishment and is attracting more wildlife than ever, this includes several new species of birds including Goldcrests,Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroat. I have also spotted a male Coockoo Bee, its jet black and quite rare. They are here to enjoy the bounty provided by the ever increasing variety of flowering shrubs and trees and what a show of blossom we are enjoying right now as the pictures below show.
 
The mild weather over winter and spring has made all the difference and now that the chance of severe frost and hail has passed we can look forward to an abundant harvest. Right now we are picking bamboo shoots and of course rhubarb.
 
My Eco Corner
 
Just thought I would make a few Eco comments each post so here's the first.
 
I am a vegan and have been for 12 years now, before I was a veggie for many years. I converted to a veggie mainly due to the animal welfare issues and I must say the diet agreed with me so I didn't find it difficult to convert.
 
I converted to being a vegan in 2002 when I leaned about the dangers of dairy foods and eggs from various experts assembled at an Anthony Robbins Life Mastery Course and that all made sense to me to. So my diet became vegan as did my clothes and shoes, it was a real life style change and as before I really enjoyed the changes and challenges and still do.
 
Finally I was able to complete the puzzle when I realised that if we are to survive on this planet we have to eat less meat and consume less dairy. The space and cost of rearing meat and milk is far higher than equivalent in veg, fruit and nuts. In fact much land is given up just to feed ruminants, farmers keep their cows in so the grass can grow and supplement with unnatural feedstuff usually soy based (90% of the world soy bean crop is fed to animals). I say this is crazy as is the non organic chemicals used to grow the grass and cerials that get fed to cows etc in vast amount's which eventually finds its way into the groundwater and we all end up being exposed to this.
 
So being a vegan is to truly be part of a sustainable eco system and having just celebrated my 70th birthday and still can swish a scythe with the best of them and manage my 4 acres by hand. I truly believe that a vegan diet is the healthiest option for energy and happiness and  it may lead to a longer life too, now that would be a Brucey Bonus!!! Why not have a think about this and give it a try, you will be amazed at the difference it will make to you.
 
Back to the plants, here are just a few of the many in flower
 
 Cornelian Cherry flowering in Feb
 Almond with a special visitor in March
 Nanking Cherry in March
 Juneberry with the first wasp seen in March
 Bladdernut in April
Finally a Morello Cherry in late April
 
For me its a really bust time as the grass is growing fast and needs constant scytheing the trees and shrubs need mulching there are early cuttings to be done, the polytunnel and greenhouse need attention to check seed sowing progress and plant up the tomatoes and I still have branch snedding to do from this winters coppicing, I only managed this blog because its raining today. So next time I hope to report on the first fruit crops so see you then.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Global Warming , Agroforestry, some Coppicing and Blossom as well.

Recent floods after prolonged wet weather have been a salutary lesson for a lot of people and in some cases their business. What I have learned from the Forest Garden is this.

A higher density of trees in the landscape controls the flow rate of excess rain water off the land this combined with the rough pasture underneath the trees adds to the ability of the land to absorb much more water than otherwise. I was astounded to find that I could dig  planting holes for my 20 new trees without finding water and was able to actually crumble the soil in my hands.

Take a typical arable farm with massive field size and monoculture cropping the rainwater has nothing to stop it in the winter and as a result there is run off and or flooded fields. Or look at a dairy farm with cows constantly compressing the soil whilst grazing leaving the fields bare and hard for the winter. Where is all that rain going to go certainly not very deep into the soil.

My Forest Garden has taught me a lot over the years but this years lesson is the most important of all thus far. Trees are a vital part of the agricultural landscape and if we are to avert the vagaries of global warming within our farming communities we need to move away from monoculture and include trees as part of the farming design. It is called Agroforestry its been around for thousands of years and it works. For more information about this type of farming please go to www.agroforestry.co.uk

Lady day is nearly upon us and this marks the end of the coppicing season so since the rains stopped I have spent all my time managing the strips of land adjacent to the hedgerows. Several old willows have blown over and been held up by others so some very patient deconstruction has been taking place and of course the work has given me a fresh supply of firewood for 3 years hence.

Here are some seasonal photos taken over the last few days.


This golden willow is  just 12 years old and is already over 10 metres tall
                                                  A woodpile following coppicing

                                 Blossom at last... this is Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa)
 

 
                                      Here we have a Japanese plum var methley (P.salicina)

                      This is Almond robijn (P.dulcis) a Dutch variety said to do better in the UK


                                        

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Reasons to be Cheerful

The way we have suffered with the weather over the last weeks and still are right now, optimism about the oncoming spring is really hard to conjure up. We had a sunny interval yesterday so I decided to have a walk around my much neglected forest garden and was quickly reminded that the force of nature endures most things, including incessant rain and gale force winds and apart from a few broken branches there was no terminal damage.

Whilst passing the Eleagnus I noticed to my amazement that flowering had finished and fruits had formed, could this be due to the hot summer and the extremely mild winter thus far? Further up I came to my hazel orchard already resplendent in thousands of drooping catkins now joined by the tiny red star shaped petals of the female flowers, they all looked happy enough and hold out the promise of a bountiful harvest of nuts next autumn or maybe earlier as they seem so advanced. Then on my way back to the house I saw that the Strawberry Tree (Arbutos unedo) was still in flower having bravely survived all through the worst of the storms so far.
 
Finally another little gem my Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) waiting to burst into flower. here's the picture gallery,
Hazel catkins showing a female flower (if you look closely)


Eleagnus fruits
 

Dainty bell shaped flowers of the Strawberry tree 

 
Flower buds just about to burst on the Cornelian cherry
 
During January I visited the fantastic gardens at  Schumacher College near Totnes in Devon and couldn't resist adding these pics, not bad for the 14th January. Oh yes another sunny interval!!

 
 
 This is part of an avenue of mature witchazel this not only looks spectacular but smells divine.

 
 Now this is what I call a strawberry tree with massive fruits which unfortunately were past their best for eatng.

So I am back indoors having dutifully filled the log cupboard hopefully for the last time tonight. That sunny interval but just a dream, I can at least reflect with some optimism that this will all be behind us  soon and that spring will have its way.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Phytopthera ramosa spreads to West Wales


The dreaded Phytopthera ramosa has struck Pembrokeshire's population of larch trees with vengeance,
so much so that it has arrived just 10 miles away from my forest garden. Now the larch is not a forest 
garden tree, though its timber is a valuable soft wood commonly used for construction, indeed my
compost loo frame is made from it. 
 
I inherited 3 Larch tees which are over 30 years old when I moved into the property 12 years ago and they have become a quite a prominent part of the garden architecture with their graceful swaying branches providing protection form the wind and shelter form the sun.
 
About 2 months ago I received an email from the Pembrokeshire Coast National Parks warning of the rapid spread of PR and that they have already had to clear fell a plantation of larch in the Gwuan valley as some of the trees had become infected. I wrote back asking advice on my 3 trees especially as these were located near to my sweet chestnut trees and I knew that PR can affect these also.
 
My answer came a few days later saying that it would be wise to fell them as it is inevitable that they would become infected and that this would mean that I would loose the Chestnuts as well. So in just one day my three 30 year old larches were felled and lo there was light and a lot of wood to process.
 
So I've lost the Larches but gained firewood and kindling and an awful lot of hard work. For the record Phytopthera ramosa was first found in imported larch saplings in 2010 it also affects bilberry, possibly all the vaccinium family and the rhododendron family.
 
It affects Larch more veraciously due to the massive colonisation of the needles from the PR spores some 50,000 can be found on a single needle. The spores can spread in the air or in water and already infected trees have been found in almost every part of mainland UK. Sadly there seems to be no let up in the spread and destruction of Larch and worse still the mild start to winter will insure an increased survival rate of the spores and an increase in infections next spring.
 
So far there is no news of possible methods to restrict the spread or discovery of any resistant clones.
 
Before felling with my Mulberry tree almost underneath.
Wain from Aberteifi Tree services expertly dismantles the first one
Some of the bounty from the felling, which includes 3 new chopping blocks. The stumps have been left 4 foot tall so that I can have them sculpted into appropriate images. Now I have to split the  rounds, saw up the side branches and collect and stack the kindling before I can reclaim the lawn.



Friday, 6 December 2013

Championing Sweet Chestnuts

Chestnuts waiting to fall.
Anyone with a sweet chestnut tree near to their home will know what a great year it has been for this superb nut. I am lucky enough to have not 1 but 2 of these majestic trees just a 30 meters from my door, well I did plant them on purpose of course because I just love to eat chestnuts and a forest garden should include them if its large enough. My trees were planted just 11 years ago and this year I have managed to collect about 12Kg of nice quality nuts.

I well remember as a child my Dad taking me into Richmond park to collect chestnuts from some truly magnificent trees may of which still stand today, in those days the public were still allowed to collect them but nowadays they have to be left to the deer and squirrels. I did manage to use my shoes to peel the prickly burr to reveal the nuts but it was quite tricky and was quite a knack. I also remember well trying to peel the inner skin (pedicule)off the raw nut so I could get a taste of the nut in its raw state but beware if this wasn't taken off entirely the nut was virtually inedible. When we got them home and roasted them all the undesirable bits came away easily and the delightful irresistible taste of roasted chestnut hooked me for life.

As a vegan chestnuts have become an important part of my dietary regime but I have to say getting them ready to eat is not without its challenges.


A|s the trees are accessed every day the nuts are best dealt with immediately as the pedicule is more easily removed whilst it is still in its damp fresh state. If allowed to dry then the process becomes more difficult. This year the sheer weight of the crop meant that I could not keep up, so into the fridge they went ( nb I must invest in a bigger fridge for next season).  After many different methods of processing I came up with what I consider the ultimate solution, unless anyone has a better method(suggestions welcome)

taken out of the husks using protective gloves.
Keep a saucepan half full of water on a rolling simmer. Take 6 nuts cut a cross in the  pointed end,pop into the water for about 2 minutes. Take out and replace the nuts with 6 others. The skin and pedicle will come away easily taking about 2 mins so you can keep a constant stream of production until your complete batch is finished.

Now with the partially cooked nuts you can put them in the fridge for a few days or freeze them for cooking later. Of course if you just want them for roasting keep them in their skins and when roasted both the skin an pedicle will come away fairly easily.

What to do with the semi cooked nuts then.





How about a chestnut roast, here is my first one ready to be wrapped in greaseproof paper and stored in the freezer.I have me 3 so far ready for the festive season.

Perhaps a chestnut and mushroom wellington, I am now working up some recipes and as soon as perfected will be happy to publish to my readers.

Chestnut flower is also another option as well as chestnut puree which can be converted into delicious sweet dishes. I will have ago at both after Christmas and report my findings.







I should also tell of the reason why this posting is rather late. Well its Phytopthera Ramosa the dreaded pathogen which has been devastating the larch population in West Wales .I had 3 healthy trees but was warned that they would eventually succumb and as this pathogen also attacks sweet chestnuts I was advised to act sooner rather than later. So my 3 -35 year old trees had to be felled. There was and still is a lot of work left for me to do as the tree surgeon only took a day to complete the work, I  wanted to use every part of the wood branches and needles so after cutting the trunks into rounds I have all the rest to do. I do have the benefit of more light , 3 nice chopping blocks and a years supply of firewood. I have lost the graceful pendulous swinging arms of those beautiful trees which graced the garden for such a long time. We can only hope that some way will be found to re introduce this important tree some time in the future.