Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Supporting Trees

Recently I noticed a quite old mini-documentary on forest gardening that I thought I had seen before, but hadn't as it turns out, having just seen a separate interview with one old fellow in it, the late Robert Hart, who started a quite famous forest garden halfway down England in Shropshire. This documentary was made up of a series of 3 interviews, which it turns out contain some great gems of knowledge on forest gardening in a temperate climate; the first being with Robert Hart about his 500m^2 labour of love, the second was with Ken Fern, who started and continues to maintain Plants For A Future, a project in Cornwall that has trialled thousands of different plants for their suitability in temperate climates, creating a database with detailed information and ratings based on things like hardiness, edibility, potential poisons, and other uses (you can tell this was filmed in the 90's when he mentions how 'big' a disk you needed to store the database). The last was on the subject of some applied urban permaculture with Mike & Julia Guerra.

I had used PFAF's website before when first reading about permaculture a year or two ago, when there were a collection of very handy general info pages, for instance on why we should be tending to use perennial plants, and some information on the forest layering system on a helpful page about forest gardening. There were some links to useful perennial food crops such as chestnut, walnut, brambles, et cetera, but otherwise the information wasn't very easy to navigate.
I noticed a while back when I looked it up again that the site was down for maintenance, and now that it is back up again, it's quite an amazing change. You should really go check it out sometime (if I didn't already make that clear :), and I think they could do with some support too, since it looks like they forked out a bit to have some people with a lot of talent fix their website up. Now there's a very effective database search function on the site that can let you search by any combination of your needs, such as plant uses, environmental conditions, or simply keywords.
For example, one of the plants that Ken showcased in the aforementioned video was a member of the genus Elaeagnus, sometimes called Oleaster, which had some amazing properties I was looking for all in one plant, and some I wasn't even looking for. It's a nitrogen-fixing perennial shrub that resists a cold windy maritime climate well, so I could plant it up north between our trees to support their growth, just as Acacia is recommended in warmer climes. Not only does it grow quite fast, a great novelty feature of the species that it seems Ken had there, Elaeagnus Pungens, is that it produces an edible fruit in springtime, usually around April, of which both the outer flesh and the oily seed (once hulled) make very useful foods.
I managed to get hold of a couple of such species, and as Ken said, if you can tell me any other fruit that you can get out of your garden in April, I'd like to know about it.
So while that's a great find, I really wanted to know what native shrub or tree species could be used as nitrogen-fixing legumes to support the regrowth of forests in harsh cold-temperate climates, so I popped a simple search into that new database interface, looking for perennials, trees, shrubs; nitrogen-fixing, wind-resistant and maritime-exposure tolerant in hardiness zones 4-7, and ended up with a short list on one page that included a few things I recognised. Notable natives included Broom, a prolifically-growing weed that I've noticed growing wild while in fruit in Perthshire about a year and a half ago, which I could identify through Wikipedia back then when wanting to know if its pea pods were edible (they aren't), and another plant, which is a very common sight in Scotland, Gorse.
Now while I know that Gorse can grow a very strong windbreak hedge, and those who have tried it tell me that you can make a very tasty wine from its flowers, I am reluctant to plant any, both for its ability to grow out of control, and due to a grudge formed against the plant during section and platoon attack exercises over the countryside a few years ago, when I learned exactly how nice it is to wade through the stuff. If I can find another place that someone will allow me to start replanting trees, I may use it as a support species and a hedge to keep winds and sheep out then, but won't be letting it take over some common food-growing ground any time soon.
On a related note, George Monbiot recently posted a very good article to the Permaculture Research Institute, on the problem of land mismanagement and deforestation that has been occuring in Scotland under careless wealthy landlords since the time of the Highland Clearances. It's my hope that we can get enough support in Scotland to start replanting the Caledonian Forest on a large scale, before any more biodiversity is lost.

As for my efforts to reverse the trend of vanishing boreal forest, I went back up north very briefly at the end of February to check on how the patch was doing and see what I could plant.
The first thing I noticed, which I was expecting to some extent due to some stormy weather in the weeks while I was away, was that several of the trees were leaning away from the prevailing wind. It's a common sight to see the few very sparse trees on the north end of Sutherland doing this as a growth habit when they have been beaten by strong winds over their lifetime, but what's not so nice is when a young newly-planted tree has rotated not in its trunk, but at the roots when it wasn't very well anchored.
The very-leaning one on top-left is the plum.
Not only were the trees not very well anchored in the ground since they were planted bare-root, but since they arrived after I left, my friend managed to put a couple of them in backward to the plan I sketched, which they also lost, so on the windward side of our damson (prune) tree with its very dwarfing rootstock, there's a slightly taller and weaker 'katy' eating apple tree. I guessed it would probably just do more damage to the root zone if I was to try and dig them up again to swap their positions, so I left them that way and hoped for the best, my next task being to give those trees some much-needed support.
It was easy enough to right that plum where it was slightly loose and tread the earth back down for a start.
It seemed that the local potted trees, while taller, suffered a lot less in the winds due to already having some stronger-established roots and a sort of counterweight from the pot soil.

The little Katy eating-apple tree only seemed to be managing because it was propped up slightly by a nearby tyre, which my friend had helpfully used to weigh down the cardboard box that the bare-rooted trees came in, as simple mulch to rot the grass down underneath.
I gave the tyre a gentle boot to set her upright again.
The worst-hit seemed to be one of the Willow cuttings that I took the last time, which I hadn't pruned enough to stop it blowing over.
While this needed to be cut back, the other, smaller branches that I planted did just fine.
Next to the bramble cuttings that I planted, which were doing fairly well, my friend had uncovered a couple of hawthorn bushes that were planted a couple of years ago and had grown quite slowly since then, probably because they were surrounded by grass and constantly wind-beaten.
Bramble cuttings in background near fencepost, Hawthorn in foreground.
Also I found out the hairy-looking cutting I took before was a rose cutting, which is useful as rose bushes provide rosehips that make a half decent jam, so keep an eye out for them in suburbs during autumn; I've even found them in retail-park car-parks before.
Inspired by the antics of Bill Mollison in yet another old permaculture documentary, I shoved a few hazelnuts into the ground between the brambles, to see if I can add yet more variety to this windbreak.

As for stopping the trees that didn't have tyres near them from blowing away, the bottom of the wider section of the mini swale that I dug gave me plenty of rocks to weigh the soil around their roots down with.
Hole from a big'un that I just pulled out.
...and that rock supporting a willow.
Another thing that's obvious in the next pic, which I noticed as soon as I turned up, is that there are no pea shoots growing on the swale, nor peas left to germinate into them, as I was a little hasty in the way I sowed them with limited time on my last visit.
'Howgate Wonder' cooking apple tree with some rock support at the back.
Following on from seeing Lawton and volunteers liberally tossing bacteria-inoculated peas from buckets onto a swale in the water-harvesting doc, I was silly and lazily applied the same method, when I was sowing onto cold rocky soil in pitch black while they had some quite large walls of soft soil to sow onto in autumn, forgetting that there were field mice hiding all around me, who probably had a feast on those peas over the last few weeks, not that I mind much with plenty of peas to spare for now, but it taught me a lesson to cover my seeds properly in future.

After unpacking those Elaeagnus shrubs, I took cuttings from the top of each one the next day, so that I could propagate them a little bit and since being tall isn't a great advantage in these winds.
Spare shrub cuttings, easy drill by now; cut just below a leaf node, clip that leaf off and about half of what's left, including a top leaf, soak in a wee bit of honey (or rooting hormone if you can get it) then stick each in potting soil, or in a propagator tray (essentially overpriced egg packaging) if for small plants. The brambles that I treated this way are doing fine.
Then I took the potted bushes out and planted them, plus a couple of extra cuttings that I didn't put in pots like the brambles, to see if they would take root outside while having potted ones as backups.
My planting method was essentially the same as for trees, sticking them in a hole slightly deeper than the potted soil, only this time I lined the hole bottom with some home-made compost instead of duck manure, then put the sods back in upside down as before, mulching the top with raked grass and rocks.
After sticking the rest of the cuttings down, I re-arranged some of the cardboard mulch and added some cupboard-backing fibreboard that I had previously salvaged from furniture dumped on the streets in Glasgow.
Three or four weeks with cardboard on top didn't completely rot the grass there, but it made a big difference.
The remaining compost I spread over the cardboard, starting to prepare a bed for planting a few things. As light faded I went round every tree and planted a few climbing Nasturtium seeds, which should out-compete the grasses and protect the trees with their creeping nature, while making a tasty salad addition (the seeds also look funnily brain-shaped).

The movement of cardboard for mulch was part of a plan I was forming while making up a new and more accurate sketch for the plot over those couple of days. It now also includes a rough plan to divide the ground up into a series of paths and keyhole beds, so as to maximise the surface area available for planting and harvesting crops, without having to tread over food to reach the middle of a patch, and a site to potentially test a turbine on a crest of the hill is marked.
There may be a small spot of hypocrisy here, as I suspect I might have confused the two Elaeagnus species that I got and planted them the opposite way round to what I wrote in this updated map, not that it matters much.
After reading over information and diagrams on companion planting for a while to get a feel for common relations, I decided a good way to help work out large arrangements for planting lots of different crops could be to draw up a list of small guilds of a few plants that strongly benefited each other, suited to a cold temperate climate, and then try to arrange a mosaic of those small guilds based upon the features of the landscape.
'Rosemary' is a bit hard to read in the middle with the flash; but other pictures had some of the outside diagrams fuzzy, so I might just try and replace this photo with a scan.
When I wanted to plant some vegetable and herb seeds on the last day I was there, I was unlucky that a quite constant 10-20mph breeze picked up for the whole day, plus intermittent gusts, which made sowing seeds a nightmare. I settled for just covering one small patch a couple of square metres in size with compost and some potting mix that had become waterlogged, though with the sun coming out to evaporate whatever was left of the previous day's rain, I worried slightly about that soil eroding in the wind once dry.
For the crop arrangement I stuck a few globe artichoke seeds on the windward end of the patch, a few chives around the eating-apple tree to help that, followed by some onions to repel the pests of a row of carrots and sprouting broccoli beyond that, then a patch of lavender in the hardest-to-reach bit that ought to attract some predatory insects, with some more chives behind to help the rowan tree. Where I expected some of the seeds to need deep roots, I jabbed a set of holes through the half-layer of cardboard with a pitchfork and put loose compost into them before sowing seeds. Afterwards I spread some raked grass over the patch to try and keep the soil down under the sun and wind.
I could only be bothered to stake down my little bottle-shelters on the most windward sowings of carrot and broccoli though, having not prepared a lot of stakes and finding them a bit small.
Around the area and some of the swale I scattered a little bit of clover seed to fix nitrogen in the soil, though I might see about getting some comfrey later.
As a little extra protection against the harsh wind and the nibbling rabbits that have plagued this land since the Romans brought them over, I then staked some spare chicken-wire around a few of the trees, which will also give an added benefit of catching wind-blown debris for mulch, while giving nasturtiums something to climb on.
When I ran out of chicken wire, I just used a bit of old string and piled up some grass cuttings into a mat.

Let me know if I cut out too much detail or rambled on too much, it sure seemed like less work before I tried to write about it!


  1. Hi 4ndy, concerning PFAF do you also know,

    it's a good resource too for open source info on plants / seeds, etc


  2. Where exactly can you find info on plants/seeds on cambia's site? As far as I can see the site is heavy on simply promoting a very small NGO that has quite a few dodgy investors/partners with a lot of money, although its stated aims about open-sourcing biotechnology are quite noble.