Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Forest Garden

Neighbour Camille holding a sapling upright during planting
Although it encompasses much more, when asked to explain what permaculture is, I turn to the concept of a forest garden, which seems (for me) to epitomise it. 

Consider a field of cereal growing next to a woodland and compare the inputs and outputs.  The arable field gets spread with muck or chemical fertiliser, ploughed, harrowed, sown, sprayed, sprayed again and harvested and then all that over again, impoverishing the soil.  The forest, on the other hand, is untouched by human hand, soaking up sun from above and water and nutrients from below and producing way more biomass per year than the adjacent field.

Spreadsheet showing chosen trees
So far, so panacea, but the important thing (for us) is that we humans can eat a large percentage of the biomass created by the field of cereals, way more than we could from the woodland.  The permaculture lightbulb (Gestalt effect!) moment is that we could design a woodland using edible plants, vastly increasing the proportion of biomass we can use.  That’s the idea of a forest garden.

However, in his new book Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops, Martin Crawford disagrees:

Is it permaculture?  No.  It’s sometimes one element of permaculture and people sometimes mistakenly call it permaculture … To avoid confusion, I don’t call my forest garden ‘permaculture’; I just stick to ‘forest garden’.”  

So what do I know?  Whatever nomenclature he prefers, I can thoroughly recommend his book which is a very clear ‘how to’ manual of temperate climate forest gardening.

Volunteer Patricia cutting out trees
Our own has been on the ‘list of things to get around to’ (i.e., it hasn’t even featured on the ever-daunting ‘list of things to do’) for a long time and Martin’s recently published book has proved a helpful incentive.  A few weeks ago, our friend Kristen jumped on an overnight train and travelled all the way from the Aveyron to come and spend a few days with us.  He’s just finished translating Patrick Whitefield’s How to Make a Forest Garden into French: Creér un Jardin-Forêt: Une Forêt Comestible de Fruits et de Légumes au Jardin.   

A bit of a whizz on the ’pooter, he created a spreadsheet of our chosen trees (see above) with columns showing the names in English, Latin and French (remember, I’m reading an English book but ordering trees from a French pépiniériste) and other important things to take into account, such as fertility needs, shade tolerance and pollination requirements.  He also played around with Google Sketch Up, creating a 3D-effect image with shadows that moved with the time of day.  A great idea needing a lot of work but it would be a powerful tool for placing and spacing trees and shrubs during the design stage so that they get the sun they need throughout the growing season.

With no time to waste, we reverted to cutting out circles of coloured paper and ‘Blu-Tacking’ them onto a scale map of our field.  Designing a forest garden is not a process to be rushed, so we left the plan to stew and took it out, from time to time, discussing it and moving the paper trees about.  Our forest garden finally coalesced to the point we could order trees and start planting.  Using triangulation, a 30 metre tape and some garden canes, Gabrielle and I converted the details on the scale plan into planting positions on the field.

Triangulating planting positions
The field is currently pasture and we will plant up trees (with sheep-proof guards) over this and the following winter, then start on the shrub layer a winter or two later.  We’ll eventually remove the sheep when we find it impossible to protect our plantings, although we do plan to have chickens and ducks free-ranging, a rabbit tractor and have designed in a space for pigs, which will be overhung by fruit trees.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dreaming of bees and kisses

Hugh puckers up
Over a cup of tea, Gabrielle recounted her dream.  The details are a bit blurry but, in essence, she was preparing a meal for me of fried bees in honey sauce and somehow the bees had ended up in the compost bin and I was getting increasingly annoyed as she tried to rescue these cooked bees whilst flirting, even kissing, downsizer-turned-celebrity-farmer and TV chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.  Amongst my readers, are there any Jungian psychoanalysts who could shed any light on this?  Should I be worried?  Should HFW be worried? What do the fried bees signify?

Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from the USA in the late 19th or early 20th century. Now widespread throughout England and Wales, and some parts of Scotland, they are absent from France and the rest of mainland Europe except for a few scoiattoli grigi in Italy.  The sting in their bushy tail is that they are notorious for displacing red squirrels.  These impostors out-compete the native reds for food, can digest acorns, which the reds can't and also carry a virus, which does not affect them but is deadly to the reds. 

So, you see, we have a healthy population of red squirrels which always cause a ripple of pleasure when we spot one bouncing round the limbs of adjacent trees.  I haven’t the telephoto lenses, skills and patience of a wildlife photographer, so I was happy to grab this image the other morning.  Grey squirrels can be cute too but there’s something especially optimistic about a red squirrel with his Tufty ears and russet coat, a warm dab of rouge on a grey winter’s landscape. 

Incidentally, I once ate a grey squirrel, cooked by a tramp over an open fire in Chichester … it tasted a bit like chicken.  Considering the  damage they are doing to woodlands, I think it should be a duty of meat-eaters (I’ll spare the vegetarians) to eat a grey squirrel a month.  Don’t turn your nose up: it’s free range, organic and would help to preserve trees.

Next up : I promise a more sensible blog as we plan and start planting our forest garden and building our Warré beehive.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Permaculture ideas : A help or a hindrance ?

Permaculture is a design system.  It involves looking at nature and seeing what works and how it works and then applying some of that inherent wisdom to how we design our own food production systems.  One connects things, juxtaposes them, and then basks in their productive symbiosis, two for the price of one.

To the north of our potager (vegetable plot) we have our willow plantation, several rows of thirty two different varieties which, along with providing bees with an early and continuing source of nectar and rods for living willow structures, acts as a windbreak to our veggies from the cold dry winds that blow from the north.  To the east, we have a couple of black locust / false acacia (robinia pseudoacacia) trees, which were principally planted to obscure the slabby grey wall of our neighbour’s house.

Both of these trees could be classified as pioneer trees—trees that move in first to untended ground, the first step towards natural reforestation—and are very competitive.  They chuck out energetic roots that go hunting for nutrients and water. Serge, our helpful neighbour, has delivered us another load of chestnut planking that he has torn out of a building renovation and rescued from the site bonfire.  This meant that I was able to enclose another four raised beds in the potager and in all the preparatory digging and clearing of the pathways, I discovered some roots.

N-fixing nodules on false acacia roots
Blooming scary, great long, strong ropes of roots, thick as a man’s wrist (well, finger, I exaggerate!) and running a long way into the vegetable growing area.  One of the disadvantages of raised beds is that they dry out quicker and last summer was exceptionally dry, so to have tree roots pumping out what’s left of the precious humidity that remains isn’t desirable.  But wait.  The roots of false acacia are nitrogen fixing, feeding other plants … hmm.  It’s a legume, so the roots have nodules (see photo) containing nitrogen-fixing nitrogen bacteria. 

how far the roots stretched
So, the permaculture questions:  do the vegetables gain more from the windbreak effect than the water they lose to thirsty willow roots? and do they gain more from nitrogen fixation than they lose from thirsty false acacia roots?  In short, I don’t know but it’s an interesting conundrum.  Practically, we plan to progressively remove the first few rows of willows, to retain some windbreak effect but at a distance and we only have two false acacias, so we’ll keep an eye on the relative humidity of the closest bed relative to others to see if the roots are unfavourably drying out the bed.  For me, permaculture is a “work in progress” and all the more useful thought of like that.