The warm weather has brought on the early Redsleeves apples even faster this year. I try to leave them to ripen on the tree as long as possible but every time I go outside more of them have fallen to the floor. I've given up waiting and picked most of them now. Straight off the tree they are a little sharp, but after a few days they are sweeter and edible without cooking. It's great to have some apples so early in the year although, to be honest, I would rather have them a little later in the season when the soft fruit in the garden is less plentiful.
I love spotting wildlife in the forest garden. I noticed this beetle at the top of a bamboo cane earlier this month. The cane was next to a patch of rhubarb and a large partly rotten oak log that I use as a bench. I think it might be a lesser stag bettle (Dorcus parallelipipedus), which according to this website live in rotten wood of deciduous trees as larvae and then emerge to mate. I guess it is pole climbing looking for a partner or getting ready to fly off.
This is a few weeks ago now, but I thought I would post some photos of the quince and apple blossom in the garden from the beginning of May.
The flowers on the quince tree always surprise and delight me. The petals start life tucked into each other in a kind of spiral and gradually unfurl. The whole tree is covered with flowers and it makes a great display and it makes me glad that it is close to the house and I can see it every day. So far most of the flowers don't result in fruit, but each year brings a few more and I'm happy to be patient when it looks this good.
The apple blossom develops at different times on the different trees in the garden. The varieties were chosen to overlap and whilst the timing varies from year to year they are in flower together for the most part. They have a variety to their colours too, from red, pale pink, to purple and peach. The blossom smells wonderful close up too - definitely not the case for pears! After a bumper year last year, this year the Tydeman's Late Orange had very little blossom. The rest of the trees have had a decent set of flowers, including the grafted tree for the first year.
This week the pear trees in the garden are out in full bloom. The cherry trees are just a little behind them and the earliest of the apple trees (Redsleeves) has a few flowers. It's one of my favourite times of year when the fruit trees come into flower and they transform the garden.
Everything else in the garden is growing away now too. The rhubarb is ready, wild garlic is in leaf and the peppermint is coming up all over the place. The red-veined sorrel is in full leaf and lots of tiny self-seeded seedlings are coming up, including a few from last year that are a bit larger. Hopefully that means it is spreading on its own.
It's starting to feel springy!
Saw the first butterfly in the garden on Saturday, a brimstone and also a bumblebee. The next day saw two small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae), one sunning himself on the flowers of a Bergenia cordifolia.
Over the last couple of weeks I've been pruning the bushes and trees in the forest garden. First up were the gooseberry cordons. I originally planted three cordons: Invicta, Hinnomaki Yellow and Hinnomaki Red. From cuttings from those I've now got nine cordons on two boundaries. I summer prune the cordons to keep them compact and them again in winter. I try to video how I prune them so that I can see the effect that it has year on year. This year I went back and compiled them all together.
I'm pleased with the way they have grown. I think I could have been more conscientious about tying in the new growth and I would probably have cordons that were a bit less wiggly, but they are fine really. One thing that I have been disappointed with is the yield though. The older cordons do produce fruit, but not a great deal. I keep a fairly close eye on them during the flowering and fruiting season and I don't think anything is eating them then. The leaves look fine so I don't think I have saw fly. I read that hungry bullfinches can eat the buds in winter which is a possibility I suppose but I don't really want to net them. I did wonder about the soil and growing them on chalk. I read that potassium deficiency can be a cause of poor fruiting and that this can occur on chalk soils. I'm trying a little wood ash added to the mulch around the plants and I will use diluted seaweed extract as they start to grow this year to see if that helps.
I've also been pruning the redcurrants, whitecurrants, worcesterberry and blackcurrants. I also had to repair some of the supports on the boundary after the high winds that hold up the tayberry and some of the gooseberries. I've tied in the climbers like the tayberry, loganberry, blackberry and Japanese wineberry.
A little later I pruned the apple and pear trees. For most of the trees in the garden I'm still working on developing the framework of branches. It's nice to look back and see how the pruning has shaped the tree. I compiled all the videos for the Redsleeves apple which I'm growing as a bush tree.
Looking back at it now I think I could probably have left the leaders alone this year instead of cutting them back to half the new growth. I think from next year I will revert to maintenance pruning only and see how the tree develops.
The other apple trees got similar treatment. The only apples that didn't get pruned were the cordon (Blue Pearmain) and the Annie Elizabeth bush. That has been growing really slowly ever since it was planted. It has a dodgy graft from the nursery which is really swollen. I was hoping that it would recover as it got bigger but it doesn't seem to be the case. I think I might have to take it out or try some fancy bridge grafting on it. It's a shame because it is the only cooking apple in the garden. I decided that it would be good to have a better balance so I am planning to graft three new cooking apple varieties onto the existing apple at the end of the garden. I've had some success with grafting half of it with Egremont Russet and Merton Russet. There are still three or four branches of the original unknown variety that I am happy to lose so I ordered scions of Newton Wonder, Grenadier and Rev W Wilks from Deacon's nursery that I will graft onto those. I will have to wait a while but if they all take I should eventually have cookers from August through to March.
I pruned a couple of other trees too. I reduced the height of the quince tree as it was getting a bit taller than I wanted. My intention was that it would sit below the Tydeman's Late Orange standard apple behind it. The top was starting to compete with the apple for light so I took a few feet from the side closest to the apple, cutting back to the next main branch below. I also reduced the height of the Nottingham cob which was getting up to about 2.5 - 3.0m, a bit taller than I wanted. Hopefully it won't reduce it's productivity too much. Only time will tell.
I've been keeping track of the outputs from the garden. I keep a tally of the different produce in the side bar on the right by season. As it is the start of the year I've gone back and summed up the output from last year.
I've shown below the total output from the garden by weight. The graph is dominated by the fact that I grew nearly 40 kg of potatoes in 2011 in the front garden to clear it ready for planting perennials. However, you can still see that 2013 was a big improvement on 2012, which was a pretty bad year for produce.
I plotted the same data, but without counting the vegetables. This gives a better picture of the produce from the forest garden. Most of this is made up from fruit with some nuts, leaves, shoots, stems, herbs and fungi. The year before last stands out as a particularly bad year, with last year more inline with the general trend of increasing production as the garden matures. Most of this was a result of more soft fruit, particularly raspberries, currants and other berries and more tree fruit as the trees develop.
The plot below shows the same data on a monthly basis. I've noticed that the relative productivity of any given month depends quite strongly on the weather, with earlier ripening last year in the warm weather.
Finally, the graph below shows the output by month, with each year side-by-side. It gives a better picture of the productivity of the garden at different times of the year. You can see there is a pretty slow start to the year with little in Jan - Mar. That is getting a little better with really early Babbington's leeks and garlic shoots coming up strongly in January. As the apple production increases, that gap is also starting to be covered a little by stored apples which are available from Oct - Mar. The most productive months are Jul - Sep. There is relatively little harvesting in November. December includes roots from mashua, oca and Jerusalem artichokes although the gap in 2013 is because the artichokes are still in the ground.
Finally, below is a plot of the different categories of produce by month for 2013 (click for a bigger version). Early in the year (Apr - May) is dominated by stems (rhubarb). Soft fruit comes in from Jun - Sep and the tree fruit from Jul - Oct although of course much of that stores through the autumn and winter as well. The weather this year has pushed this graph to the left compared to a normal year.
So how does the future look? Well I'm encouraged by the increase in the fruit production from the forest garden. I was pretty disappointed last year after the really poor harvest. I'm starting to have enough data to see the trend over multiple years. When I set out I knew it would take a long time for the trees to mature. That has panned out and I've learnt that there there can be a lot of year to year variation. It will be interesting to see if that remains as volatile as the garden matures. I'm not expecting a great year for tree fruit next year as the winter has been fairly mild but I am hoping to have some apples to store for the winter. I think the soft fruit will continue to improve as well as the tree fruit as the bushes mature, including those that have been planted more recently. There is scope to extend the season of the perennial vegetable output by growing more alliums, particularly the Babbington's leeks which seem to thrive will little effort and come up really early.
I haven't mentioned the inputs into the garden so far. The garden continues to be low input in terms of the effort required to maintain it. Most of the work is involved in harvesting and pruning. I've spent a little more time on growing salad crops this year in a couple of raised beds to complement the other output. I've worked on building up the soil a little in the last few years with inputs of compost, farmyard manure, ashes from the wood burner, bone meal and waste from pet rabbits, but none in very large quantities.
I wrote last month about storing apples. I've got a lot of Tydeman's Late Orange apples on the shelf. They are keeping pretty well but I thought I would have a go at drying some of them out. A while ago someone bought me a little mechanical corer and slicer, the kind you screw onto a table. The apple slots onto it and you turn the handle and the apple gets peeled, cored and sliced. It worked really well, coping with the different sized apples.
I dipped the sliced apples in some diluted lemon juice to stop them browning. The slices then went onto wooden spoons and metal skewers and I put them onto shelves in the oven. I haven't got a dehydrator so I used the oven set very low (about 50 oC) for about 12 hours. To make the most of having the oven on I dried about 15 apples. I wasn't sure whether to slice the apples with their skins on or not. I chose to peel them but it seemed a waste to through the peel away so I dried that too, spreading it out onto another shelf. One of the nice things about peeling the apples is that all the imperfections get removed from the apples before they are dried. It is then easy to remove any unappetising bits of the peel before drying that. The only parts that weren't dried were the cores - the rabbits got them. Once it was all in the oven I kept opening the oven door to let the moisture out for the first few hours.
I was really pleased with the result. The apples ended up in really interesting shapes from how they hung from the spoons and skewers - a little bit like snakes hanging from a tree. It's amazing how much an apple shrinks when dried. The apple slices have a really good consistency, they are fairly chewy and seem as though they would last a while stored. Having said that most of them have already been eaten in less than a week as snacks and lunchbox fillers. The dried peel is crispier and a little bit more fiddly to eat, but still tasty.
The news is full of the weather. It has been wet and windy for a long time now. Living on chalk has its benefits, one of them being that it is very free draining and water doesn't usually hang around very long. However, the downside for gardeners is that the natural soil is pretty thin, particularly when on a slope.
I've been working on building up the soil in the forest garden for a while now. I use a lot of organic material, either directly or composted around the trees and shrubs and it seems to be gradually building up the depth of the soil. About a year ago we took on a pair of rabbits from some friends. Free running rabbits don't really mix with growing a forest garden so they are in a run and they eat a lot of hay. The side effect is that I now have a regular supply of hay and straw and rabbit droppings to use as a mulch. This has really accelerated the depth of the mulch in the garden with nearly all the trees and bushes having a really good layer. I read that hay is a bad choice for mulch as it contains lots of seeds so it will be interesting to see what sprouts next year. I guess I should be ok as long as I continue to have a steady supply to put on top.
Not far from me is a iron age hill fort that I often visit. Most of it is bare grass banks but there is a good selection of yew trees and a few other varieties. Walking there just after New Year I was sad to see two of the yew trees blown down by the strong winds. It was interesting to see just how shallow the roots were though. Looking at the trees that are still standing shows just how tangled the surface roots are and made me think that perhaps they are much more stable when growing together with other yews close together. I wonder how growing a community of trees and other plants together in a forest garden might affect how susceptible they are to being blown over in high winds?