Sunday, 8 April 2012

Did you say shrubberies?

As I mentioned a few days ago, the elaeagnus pungens shrub that I planted from a pot looked quite unhealthy, since most of its leaves were turning pale and some dropping off though it should be an evergreen plant. The hybrid Elaeagnus x Ebbingei from a pot was doing very well by comparison:
Although a few of the leaves were turning that same way.

Elaeagnus Pungens Maculata, after covering the grass around it.
Seeing the other plant in this state was a bit disheartening since it is one of my favourite plants there at least from its reported qualities, although I am glad that I took a few cuttings of each elaeagnus shrub, as all those still seem to be healthy at least by leaf colour, although they haven't grown any noticable shoots in their windowsill location. I'm not sure what caused this shrub to suffer so much, but I have a few things in mind. The first thing proposed by a neighbour was that perhaps the strong coastal wind was too much for this plant, although I have doubts about that since plants from the whole genus are supposed to make a very strong hedge near coasts, and the shrub is very close to ground-level where the wind is cut down heavily by the boundary layer effect.

I was mildly suspicious about a bunch of caterpillars that I saw in a group several feet away by the fenceline; they most likely had recently crawled out from their little silk tents somewhere nearby, but at the size of them I was worried that they might have already chewed up the leaves of the shrub a bit, though I put that down as unlikely since only a couple looked at all mis-shapen or bitten. I first saw one of them on some grass near the swale back in March, and although it was the largest insect around at the time I didn't think much of it, just taking this picture of it so that I could identify it.
From this page it looks as if it's either a Fox Moth or a Browntail.
Next I thought that maybe this particular shrub hadn't done well because it got a bit less water than the other, being more on top of the hill and on the high-side of the swale, while it was larger and so perhaps thirstier, but with the frequency that it rains around here I guess that is also unlikely. Nevertheless I watered it a lot just in case water was a factor.
I later found and read a more detailed page about the shrub on PFAF, 'Elaeagnus x Ebbingei, A Plant for all Reasons', where it said that "The plant is very tolerant of site conditions, the only situation that is a definite no-no is one that becomes waterlogged. It far prefers a well-drained soil, is capable of growing in very poor soils and, once established, is very drought resistant and will succeed in quite dry soils." So I hope that I didn't make a situation worse by giving the plant some more water. I really ought to do a soil test, which I still haven't got around to yet, only knowing that it consists of a few-inches smear of mud over quite a lot of rocks, supporting mostly grass and very little Heather (which prefers acidic soil), but not knowing the clay/sand/peat fraction.

Lastly, I wondered about root shock; upon examining every one of the trees planted, it seemed that they had all spread at least a couple of their buds into small leaves, with the exception of the Ash, Plum tree and the largest Willow cutting that I had taken, the latter two of which also happened to be the trees worst hit by the storm winds that came during the first time I was away since they were planted. I think that injury/damage to the plant roots might have something to do with the weakness of all these plants, however that doesn't explain why the elaeagnus cuttings that I planted straight outside were nowhere near as healthy as the ones inside (but water, soil quality and competition with nearby grass could explain that), the ash might just open its leaf buds quite late though.
A couple of cuttings indoors.
One of the two cuttings outside; they are both in similar shape.
Of course another possibility that I really hope isn't the case, since there would be little I can do about it, is that the shrub could have caught a disease here. If that were true, then it might spread in the soil and could even prevent me from successfully planting any of them in that area for years to come, and they might have to be kept only as pot-plants.
I can still give native shrubs like Gorse and Broom a try as inter-planted perennial legumes to support the fruit trees, although they wouldn't be anywhere near as useful as elaeagnus x ebbingei with its food crop. I may still be able to get a deciduous fall-fruiting Elaeagnus species, Angustifolia (Oleaster / Russian Olive), to grow here, and I'm interested in whether I can get Siberian Pea Tree to grow here.

Besides that, I've been slowly working my way around the patches that I intend to turn into a series of keyhole beds separating walkways, laying down what bits of cardboard, sacks, old tyres and rocks I have on hand to mulch down the soil for few weeks, before spreading some of the little home-made compost and rotted manure I have access to, on top of the then dead or dying grass, to plant seeds in.
Using the leftover pegs from plotting out a contour to mark out where keyhole plant-beds will be, then mulching some of those spots down.
The grass roots are quite stubborn and will try to re-grow through the compost if a gap is left for light (maybe there's a philosophical lesson in that), but I have scattered seeds of some so-called 'green manure' nitrogen-fixing ground-cover plants like Fiddleneck and Crimson Clover, to stop weeds from getting through.
Some of the first seeds I sowed back at the start of March are only just beginning to germinate.
I've heard that people round here usually go with leaving rolls of old carpet across strips of grass that they want to grow some crops on, for several months before taking them off to plant annual crops in the ground where the grass has completely mulched down. I just hope that my accelerated method with compost on top will still allow plant roots to establish into the space where the grass is breaking down. I doubt that carrots or parsnips would ever be able to grow to a good quality in soil of this depth anyway, but I'm still going to try in the softer spots where I can get a pitchfork deeper in before hitting rocks.
Filling the slots in the swale mound built from chunks of heavy soil.
One of the things I just tried in the last day was to patch in the slots between some of the blocks of sod that I turned over for my swale using a loosely forked compost/manure mix to make mini-seed-beds, and planted peas 'n' carrots (apparently they go well together) on top of most of those patches, hoping that the softer groove would give the roots an easy run, making for better carrots and hopefully rejuvenating some of the soil where the peas are.
The Rowan tree opening spring leaves.
Currently the Rowan tree and the Katy Apple appear to be the healthiest trees, or at least have grown the most/earliest leaves, but time will tell which trees are strongest when they all present a bigger area for the wind to drag on. None of the brambles that I planted directly into the ground look very alive, but I don't know what's going on at the root level. On the beds of mulched ground I'm trying to roughly use the set of crop guilds that I sketched up here from mixed free online sources, and will be sure to report on what is growing well where.

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