Saturday, February 03, 2007

“The best laid plans of mice, men and inexperienced permaculturists…”. After the electrifying excitement of the last blog entry, it’s back to the plan for the gite garden. The design questionnaire asks what we want to keep and what we want to get rid off. A dark green laurel hedge—as wide as my span between outstretched fingertips—running the length and across the bottom of the garden is top of the list to go. The cherry laurel—to give it its full name—is an excellent hedging plant, very tolerant of shade and happy in heavy clay soil, both “problems” of its situation in this garden. However, it’s also “a greedy plant, inhibiting the growth of nearby plants”. (Thanks to Ken Fern’s excellent Plants For A Future website for the details. Structurally, it’s large and dark green and overwhelms this small garden, so it has to go. The same goes for a huge cypress tree, which also has a negative impact on the daylight that reaches our own home. There are many other smaller shrubs but, as these don’t fit in with what we want from this garden, they are on their way out as well. In fact, we can relocate these shrubs (not the laurel, that’s for the chipper) to other parts of our land. This is a bit of a “scorched earth” approach but, because it’s such a small garden, we feel that shouldn’t be a problem.

We’re keeping the water butt I installed last year, the gravel circle directly in front of the balcony and several lavenders for their beautiful scent. These plants have gone “leggy” and so we’re going to try a tip I saw on a gardening TV programme which suggested burying the plants up to the foliage and, after roots have grown on the newly submerged woody stems, they can be cut off and replanted, thus obtaining several new and well proportioned lavender plants from an old an overgrown one. We’re also keeping some wooden fencing panels, which we'll repair, then protect and colour with a water-based wood preservative.

We’ll be planting a nut tree, a fruit tree and a soft-fruit bush. Herbs will go in, for their scent and for the gite guests to use for cooking. We’ll sow some perennial salad vegetables—a very permaculture thing as they provide food yet without the intensive inputs required for annual salad plants in the height of summer. Courgettes and tomatoes will feature as, despite the fact that they’ll need daily watering when it’s hot and dry, they are easy to grow and prolific producers.

If you remember, I’d said that we’d missed out some of the features of the site survey in our rush to get started. One of the missing bits of information was a soil survey. We should have dug a few holes around the plot to determine the type of soil and subsoil—structure and pH—the depth of topsoil and drainage. We didn’t, and so it was a great surprise to put a spade in the earth—whilst starting to dig out those laurels by their roots—and hear the clang and feel the jolt of spade against concrete. An exploration of the rest of the garden has revealed a concrete slab covering the lower half of the garden. Back to the drawing board …!


Anonymous said...

Hello Stuart and Gabrielle.
Thanks for the explanations you give on your project.
I also have laurels to dig out.
Can't we use the leaves for mulch or something? Is it necessary to take these plants to the tip?
Best wishes,

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Hi Manny!
We've got a garden chipper and laboriously put the whole lot through and now have a huge pile of woodchips which should rot down.
re chippers: we did lots of research and it seems that chippers are very good at one thing only, so you need to decide whether the majority of stuff you'll be chipping will be woody stems or soft leafy stuff and buy accordingly. Ours has a slow moving heavy gear with teeth on, which rolls against a nylon roller, so it's really good for woody stems up to about 35mm (not bad for a DIY electric shredder) but it does sometimes choke up if just leavfy stuff is fed in.
Re using woodchip as mulch: wood is high carbon and so needs lots of nitrogen to help it decompose. Therefore, if you use fresh woodchip as mulch, it will rob the soil of useful nitrogen so depriving the plants you're trying to grow of food. You need to let it rot down completely before using it as a mulch. We use it fresh to mark out paths, which it seems to keep weed free precisely because of the reason above.
I did wonder whether the cyanide in the laurel might poison the ground if it was used as a mulch but I reckon by the time it's all rotted down, the cyanide will have long since disappeared. Perhaps someone else reading this has an opinion?
We did pile all our woodchip up in a large heap to help decomposition: once you're about a metre cubed big, the thing seems to have a critical mass and heats up dramatically. Unfortunately, but also amusingly, our chickens, who can wander where they like, love stratching around in it, so it's messily spread all over the place now!
Anyway Manny, stop reading the computer and get out and dig those pesky laurels up.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the useful advice.
Using the laurels on the paths seems like a good idea.
Regarding the computer, I use it at work (in UK). I will not be on the site to dig out this laurels until May. In the mean time I watch your progress with interest.
All the best.

Zoe said...

Hi Stuart & Gabrielle
I found this on the Garden Organic website (
"It is fine to use the composted shreddings of these plants. Although laurel, privet and yew do contain poisonous compounds, the toxins present will break down during the composting process. Care should be taken when shredding these materials, they must be shredded outside or in a very well ventilated area. Wear gloves and stand 'upwind' whilst shredding. Large quantities of evergreen clippings are best composted seperately rather than adding to an existing heap. Heap them up and water well, mixing in some 'green' material such as grass clippings to speed up the composting process. Leave the heap for 6-12 months, after which the material can be used as a mulch around established trees and shrubs."
Hope this helps...

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Thanks very much Zoë, for taking the time to pass on this useful info and we shall follow your lead and use the Garden Organic website a bit more.