Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hard Graft

sweet Mirabelle plum grafted onto a damson tree

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that, rather than being a slick ‘how to’ guide to permaculture full of achievement and success, it’s actually a traveller’s tale along a stony road full of mistakes and ‘no shows’, with, it has to be said, the odd moment of glory.

This is just such a rare moment.  We’ve attempted something for the first time … and, amazingly, it has worked.  We grafted hardwood cuttings onto existing fruit trees and rootstocks and, after a tantalising delay, they’ve all sprouted big healthy leaves.

I would say that the large majority of all fruit trees that you’ll come across are grafted, that’s to say that it’s not a tree that’s grown from seed but rather two trees, in the parlance of stolen cars, “cut and shut”.  The top bit gives you the fruit you want and the rootstock determines the terminal size of the tree, thus you can have a Granny Smith apple that is a dwarf tree, requiring a stake all it’s life to support it, or a Granny Smith that grows to a full-size tree, which you’ll be climbing with a ladder to harvest it.

grafting demonstration
In December last year, we took hardwood cuttings from a Mirabelle (sweet yellow plum) and a tasty yellow cherry that we have (no idea of its name) then wrapped them in a plastic bag and stored them in the fridge.  In February, we went to a local event run by a club, passionate about their local apples, called “Mordus de la Pomme”.  We were able to buy hardwood cuttings from an astonishing range of local apples along with porte-greffes (rootstocks).  There were thick catalogues of apple varieties and plenty of posters and diagrams to explain what to do along with enthusiasts demonstrating grafting techniques.

huge choice of cuttings
We bought a couple of dwarfing rootstocks and a couple of ‘twigs’ of Reinette d’Armorique and Rouget de Dol.  The rootstocks were planted in a pot of earth and the cuttings stood upright in a pot of moist sand, both of them being put in a shady place, so as not to dry out.

Like goes with like (stones or seeds) so cherries and plums are interchangeable, as are peaches and almonds but apples go with crab apples and pears on quince rootstocks.  In March, we used the cleft graft technique for all the grafts, cutting off a branch, or chopping the rootstock off square, then creating a cleft with a froe or pocket knife (as appropriate).  Taking care of your fingers, two decisive cuts with a sharp knife form a tapered wedge at the end of the graft (scion).

cleft graft
A flat-bladed screwdriver holds the cleft open while one positions the scion.  The idea is to line up the vascular cambia (Google it: I haven’t got the space to explain everything!) which is rather precise.  The old guy at the fête de greffes had a great trick.  If you angle the scion relative to the branch into which it’s being inserted, he reasoned, at least one part must be in the correct position.  That’s what we did and, despite taking some time and having us both concerned, ALL the grafts have taken.  Proud permaculturalists are we.

By the way, you don't need to buy a special knife, nor grafting pliers, nor grafting wax, nor special tape (strips of polythene and and masking tape work fine) so put away your cash while you make your first attempts.
apple trees onto dwarf rootstocks
Mirabelle plum and yellow cherry onto damson

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Registering our gratitude.

Alastair (waving) and Gabrielle after a hard days work
I can no answer make, but thanks,
And thanks, and ever thanks …
Bill Shakespeare 12th Night Act 3 Scene 3

That’s pretty much the gist of it : thanks to a lot of friendly people—and a few sheep—who helped us process a huge pile of felled tree into neat stacks of cut and split logs to heat us through next winter.

We thinned and tidied up a parcel of our woodlandwhere the bluebells are unrolling their beautiful spring carpet more and more each yearto let in more light help some of the better trees to fatten up.  Thanks to Mélanie and Patricia for helping drag out the felled trees and stack them for collection.

We clear-cut another parcel of about a third of an acre to replace its sycamore monoculture with a mixture of black locust (false acacia) silver birch and sessile oak and thinned a mixed section (of Corsican pine and some broadleaved trees).  Thank you to Andrew and Sue for helping to extract and stack that wood.

Volunteer-less, after a late cancellation, I asked neighbour Paul (recently retired from a lifetime farming pigs) not only if I could borrow his tractor and trailer as I usually do but if he could help me.  We did seven very full trailer loads together and I collected a further three on my own the following day, so a big remerciement to Paul.

Now we had a big pile of wood to process.  Firstly artist Alastair, fine artist of international repute, helped create a long installation which, whilst not having an actual ‘meaning’ per se, is meant to evoke cosy evenings in front of a roaring log fire and entitled, “I’m knackered”, at least that’s what I think he said.  Thank you Alastair.

Clive and Wendy turned up next and while Clive and I chopped up the thinner lengths, Wendy and Gabrielle spilt the larger logs of Alastair’s art installation.  Clive also started barrowing up logs to where they would be stacked.  Vielen dank!
Running out of helping hands, I got the sheep involved (extra photo to allay your doubts that our sheep can stand on two feet) but they were slow workers and spent too much time chatting.  So when Merle and Darrell came to look after our permaculture smallholding when we had to dash to England for family reasons, Darrell made a damn fine job of creating a very French woodpile.  

Merci beaucoup!

That left a residue that I attacked piecemeal myself until, Kev, a holidaymaker in our gite, came to see what all the activity was about and, rather foolhardily you might think, asked whether he could help; that’d be a ‘yes’ then.   

Muchas gracias

A huge job that we couldn’t possibly have done without all that generous help … thanks and thanks and ever thanks ...

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Asparagus tips.

Asparagus inspires gentle thoughts.
Charles Lamb, English essayist 1775 - 1834 

While it is true that our now well established asparagus bed is a true herald of spring and lovely thoughts accompany the arrival of this royal vegetable I have also, this season, been experiencing more murderous musings. The reason is the arrival of the main enemy of a good healthy crop, the aptly named asparagus beetle
asparagus beetle

I first came face to face with this troublemaker a couple of days ago when I saw one climbing on a fresh spear and, as I didn’t exactly know what it was, I just shooed it away instead of squishing it. It didn’t take long to get a positive ID on asparagus beetle, as it’s small but quite distinctive with a black and white spots on its back and a red under body. 

Now I knew what I was dealing with, my next task was to try some way of ridding myself of this pesky critter. As with many infestations, actually picking the buggers off and despatching them is a really very effective method but this isn’t always possible or desirable so I also wanted to find an organic spray I could make myself. 

I was delighted when I found this recipe for marigold spray, which claims to repel the beetle . I’ve already got lots of marigolds coming up like weeds in the garden so it was the perfect choice. Marigolds (calendula officianalis) are a bit of a wonder plant. They attract beneficial insects and pollinators and repel baddies in  garden, the petals are edible in salads and cakes and an oil infusion is the basis of a healing and soothing lotion or balm. Basically no garden should be with out a few as they are so easy to grow and go on and on all summer. The cheery colour of their orange petals really does gladden the heart and now I was learning that they were going to help me in my battle against this bad beetle as well. Result.

I made up the mixture over night and the next evening sprayed it on the asparagus. It didn’t totally repel them that first day but it lessened the infestation considerably. I repeated the spray treatment the following morning and evening and this morning there were none on the asparagus at all. I am really happy with the results and am planning to make up some more but I am also killing on sight and taking no prisoners.
petunia added to our asparagus bed

Another unexpected ally is the petunia flower much beloved of the urban window box. I’ve never been a lover of this most popular of bedding plants and I generally speaking find annuals of this kind blousy and fussy and a waste of money. But it turns out that it’s also a bit of a wonder in the lexicon of companion planting (scroll down to petunia) and particularly good against asparagus beetles.  I have planted and sprayed, surveyed and squished and I seem to be winning!

So to bring us back to more gentle thoughts: asparagus on the plate.  This BBC Good Food web page has over eighty recipe suggestions and we can vouch for two of them.  A tasty entrée with blanched spears sprinkled with cheese (we substituted mature cheddar) and wrapped in our home made Parma-style ham and, with only a couple of weeks to go before the end of our season, a divine way to combine a few spare asparagus spears with sun-dried tomatoes and black olives to make a perfect summer lunch or sublime portable picnic food. They're both very easy and totally delicious.  I hope you enjoy them.  Gabrielle