3 good reasons

February 8th, 2014

“Never do anything without having three good reasons” this is a permaculture principal I prefer to follow. As a result I have been holding off tidying my garden beds all winter aware that all the dead stems and leaves from last year’s growth have been helping to protect the soil from the pounding rain, that they have provided shelter for insects and amphibians as well as protecting the crowns of my plants from the worst of the weather. I know that a tidy garden is not the best wildlife garden but people do judge me by my garden so I try to aim for a happy balance. I have been missing my garden for months now so I am itching to get out there and do a bit of gardening and I want to enjoy the effect of the spring bulbs when I look out from the window.

Every  action has a knock on effect so scooping up all the dead stems from around my collapsed herbaceous perennials exposes hiding weed seedlings and makes the beds look tidy but my action breaks the carbon cycle removing the nutrient source for all the associated micro-organisms in the decomposition process. My soil will be more prone to ‘capping’ (surface compaction), weed seed germination, loss of soil micro-organisms and the associated humus and fertility but not all is lost, my dry twiggy debris is added to my compost bins and last season’s compost (which is ready) is returned to the beds so ‘mending’ the carbon cycle.

Having spent a few hours today, out there in the crazy wind, I can now enjoy the dainty snowdrops, Eranthus, Crocus and primroses in tidier beds, I have exposed weeds and made a start on dealing with these; the ephemeral, peppery and edible Hairy Bittercress and the irritating Poa annua undaunted, merrily pushing up flower heads, the tiny dandelion rosettes doing their best to get a hold without my noticing. Now I am motivated to get an early start on my weeding and whilst tiptoeing through the beds I see the tell tell signs of rabbits, grrhh, I get excited about plants that I will take cuttings from any day now, plants that I will divide. I prune the roses and the apple tree whilst I am there, the spotted purple apple prunings will be woven into something in my workshop. Oh it is very cold and blustery but whilst the rain holds off it is such a treat to get out there and to be up close to ‘spring’.

My 3 good reasons, well 3 or more reasons:  gardening makes me happy and feel alive, material for the compost bin, getting a head start on the weeds, ‘taking off a load’ from some of the perennials in this strong wind, getting ready for propagation, collecting weaving materials, planning pest and disease control measures…

Orchard notes – Shepton Mallet

February 1st, 2014

A beautiful bright sky this morning, cotton wool clouds sailing across a pure blue background, a strong biting wind ruining any plans of enjoying some gentle pruning in the orchard. This morning I was scheduled to welcome Shepton Mallet Horticultural Society to my orchard for a pruning practical but the weather forecast of chilling winds and heavy rain led this to being cancelled; this is the gist of what I was going to talk to them about.

Spacing is a funny thing, books tell you one thing and yet horticulturists constantly bend the rules – and you can if you have a plan. Traditional cider orchards are planted at approximately 10m x 10m with the plan that the grass is managed by grazing animals. It is an extensive and relatively low input system which works beautifully (other than risk of physical damage to the trees and soil compaction if badly managed). In other orchards you will find spacings anywhere from the 10m to an in-row spacing of 2.5m or even less (i.e. the hedgerow system). Inputs increase proportionately with closer spacing as there will be more pests and diseases, more trees to purchase and plant, more supports will be required, more spraying, more mowing, etc….

I find in my job that fruit trees in gardens cause a lot of misery; ‘the tree is shading my garden’, ‘this tree was planted too close to this one what should I do’, ‘my tree is growing too big’, ‘the tree produces far too much fruit’, ‘the fruit make such a mess’, ‘If only I knew how to prune’, etc… Gardeners tend to fear trees that grow beyond their reach and respond aggressively yet horticulture is all about understanding plants and responding or manipulating growth accordingly, it is a fantastic occupation whereby you develop a relationship with each plant through the seasons.

Some knowledge and courage, a good dose of patience along with regular interaction are key when it comes to managing fruit trees.  First, rather than be swayed by romantic notions or impulse buying (1) be sure you do want to plant a tree in your garden bearing in mind its mature size (2) do your research; find out which rootstock is appropriate to your conditions as this will give you an idea of how big the tree will grow, of what sort of staking is required and it will help you decide on an appropriate spacing (3) decide from the outset on the shape of the tree you going to prune to, this will also be influenced by the shape of the tree you are buying.  Plants are among the most forgiving of living organisms, they will grow despite your mistakes or neglect, they will usually give you a second chance however the more knowledge and practice you have under your belt, the more beautiful and fruitful your trees will be.

Rootstocks are not just about final size of tree, more vigorous rootstocks should be chosen on difficult soils (e.g. clay). That said it is a complex balance between choice of rootstock/ soil conditions, vigour of variety (e.g. Bramley and most other large apple varieties are very vigorous trees ), pruning and cultivars that you like to eat and have a use for.

So we come to pruning, traditionally fruit trees were grown as lovely open centred, bowl shaped trees, these allowed good air flow and sunlight into the heart of the tree however these days the trend (particularly in orchards) is for a central leader. Open centre trees require a lot of regular pruning and can suffer from poor (weak) branch angles whilst trees pruned to a central leader will tend to grow taller with good branch angles and a gentle taper from base to tip. I am growing my 500 cider apple trees with a central leader and I am aiming for spiralling layers of branches, about 3 branches per layer, so as to allow good light levels around each branch.

My trees are young and I am in the early days of developing a relationship with them. Some of them are growing ‘text book style’ whilst others can’t decide which shoot is going to be a leader, it is up to me on chilly winter days to make executive decisions as to which stem I elect as leader and which I cut out. My choice may not look obvious right now and my decision will be revisited next winter once I see how the tree responded to my cut(s). It is also now that I can evaluate the quality of the taper on my trees, if the trunk constricts too severely at a point that means that I have too many branches in a ‘layer’ and that the sap is taking the easiest route and being diverted into the branches of that layer rather than flowing evenly up to the tip of the tree. I want the sap to feed each branch equally and I want a gentle even tapering trunk for strength.

I have planted my orchard with an aim, I have an outlet for the fruit (piltoncider.com) and I love the idea of transforming a flat field into a dynamic bio-diverse environment knowing that what I am doing has its roots in the Somerset tradition. Since I have an outlet for the fruit, I want to grow a big a crop as possible; I am farming light, light which will interact with the leaves to produce sugars which are converted into woody growth and apples. The taller the tree with beautifully spiralling well spaced branches, the more potential for a good harvest. All I need to do is cut out branches at the trunk in order to preserve the ‘taper’ of the trunk, this is called replacement pruning, it is simple to do and I don’t have to worry about shortening side shoots. If the tree is well pruned in its formative years then it will have the best start in life, just like us. A neglected tree but one which was given a good shape to start with can usually be brought back into shape over a few seasons by appropriate pruning but never remove more than 25% in any one season (little and often is best).

I understand that in a garden setting the aims are usually different and a glut situation is very rapidly reached so you might not want a big tall tree however a big tree is good for wildlife. Trees in the garden significantly contribute to biodiversity and the bigger the better! The more layers of vegetation (height) in the garden, the more habitat, shelter, the more food, the more creatures both microscopic and bigger, the more complex food webs. If you don’t have space for a tree, or trees, you can still have layers of vegetation from short grass to long grass, through to herbaceous perennials, small and larger shrubs plus a few bug hotels strategically placed around the garden.

An apple tree can live 100 years, when you plant a tree you are planting for the future, your choices (of variety, rootstock and spacing) will have a bearing on its chances of growing into a majestic specimen.

Summer management – this is another subject but for now just to say that… young trees (and shrubs) must be kept weed free around their base for at least 5-10 years or longer depending upon the vigour of the plant, this is a very common problem in gardens. If you have a plant growing in the lawn which just doesn’t seem to be putting on any growth it is because of the competition from the grass – hard to believe but true, a very common mistake in gardens.

Seasonal garden decorations

December 19th, 2013

A multi approach to gardening is always the best approach – the diversely planted garden will give you year round harvest of flowers, stems, foliage,  fruit, seed heads; it will provide for wildlife on all levels throughout the year (shelter, food, hibernation…); it will protect the soil structure and the tiny soil micro-organisms; it will look more interesting and will be so for everything and everyone…   This time of year, I harvest Christmas decorations from the garden such as the lovely fruit of Crataegus prunifolia, Iris foetidissima, the exotic Buddleia and  Actaea seed heads, scented sprigs of rosemary, sage, bay and lavender. 

Happy Christmas

Garden under construction – Devon

December 6th, 2013

The recent spell of dry weather has allowed Dave and his team to make good progress on this exciting project.  It is a year since I started work on the plans, now plants have been lifted, the site cleared, top soil and subsoil relocated into neat mounds nearby, all the marking out is done plus some of the leveling, the concrete foundations for the rill, pools, canal and upper pool are in, the topiary and pleached hedges  have been chosen…. 

During my site visit earlier this week a JCB gently hummed away as it excavated trenches for new yew hedges, blocks were being laid for the rills closeby and lazer levels beeped at all corners of the gardens ensuring the design is implemented to +/- 3mm precision.


Roses in the rain

November 11th, 2013

A check up visit on a client whose new rose garden is blooming well even in the November rain.  This is Rosa ‘Simply Heaven’

Turning of the seasons

October 23rd, 2013

The seasons have turned once again, leaves are colouring, wind is blowing apples from the trees and flocks of birds dance in great tumbling patterns in the sky. 

I love watching flocks of birds, pirouetting in the sky, flying in and out of visibility.  In this area we get the starlings – small to huge flocks of starlings creating spectacular murmurations.  The starlings are currently migrating back to Somerset, flying in from Scandinavia and small flocks dance above hedgerows and fields. 

Earlier this year I created two willow forms which were inspired by starling murmurations, one of these (‘Flight’) has been on show at the Travelling Lines exhibition at North Wall Gallery, Oxford (organised by Oxfordshire Basketmakers) – the pieces cast great shadows adding an appropriate extra dimension.


So the gardening calender has turned a page, most of my garden harvest is in but not all - I still have tomatoes on the vines, leeks, parsnips, celeriac, beetroot, chard, salads, etc…   There are plenty of flowers still in the garden too.   It will soon be time to think about harvesting natural materials for weaving with, I have orders from Somerset Arts Weeks and am impatiently waiting for the Virginia Creeper to drop its leaves as I have a commission involving its long flexible tendrilled stems and it is a great opportunity too to tidy up this unruly plant.

In the studio I have been working on ‘final issue plans for construction’ for an exciting project in Devon whilst smaller projects have been, and are keeping me busy too.

Glorious summer borders, Shepton Mallet

August 19th, 2013

Bright colours, exciting shapes and textures looking good in the sunshine.  Planted 18 months ago, these beds are laid out in a grid of beds which act as an informal division between a small orchard and vegetable garden.  The beds provide a long season of colour and interest from spring right through into the winter months.


Crop walking in August

August 8th, 2013

A lovely sunny day for my routine crop walk – I walk up and down the orchard rows, secateurs on my belt, gloved hands and a plastic sack.  I give each tree a long hard stare, beginning with the leader then checking each branch from the top to the bottom.

The trees are being eaten – of course they are – this is an orchard which receives the minimum of spraying, an orchard where we are trying to maintain a balance betwee the ‘good and the bad’.

Second generation young Vapourer moth are sitting in the sun ontop of the leaves close to the leader, these are a spectacular looking caterpillar, easily identified.

Also at the top of a couple of trees, on the underside of the leaves, a healthy colony of voracious hawk moth caterpillars, much harder to spot and pick off than the Vapouror moths.  The guilt gets to me but I have to protect my young apple trees whilst I can, in a few years time the hawkmoth larvae will be well beyond my reach.

The bottom of the trees are being eaten too, by deer.  It took a couple of years for the deer to find the new orchard but now they pay it a daily visit and so our deer fence is being extended as I type.

The good news is that we have a healthy population of beneficial insects in the orchard too, I found many ladybirds and spotted a lacewing, hoverfly and earwig too.

Yews Farm garden – horticultural excellence

July 5th, 2013

This is the perfect garden (for me that is!) not only does it look stunning in the summer with its romantic planting, carefully chosen colour schemes and its embracing of productive vegetable beds and trained fruit but this is a garden that will keep its dignity throughout the winter months as well, with the gnarled apple trees, the formal bay and box shapes offset by a crisp edged lawn. (is that sentence too long?)

The garden at Yews Farm was started in 1997 by Louise and Fergus Dowding , they started with a blank canvas only retaining the existing apple trees in this beautiful walled space. Beds are block planted as they believe this makes maintenance easier, it is one of the best approaches in our gardens at home which so few of us fail to achieve because buying 9 plants at a time of only one sort feels rather too extravagant.

Keeping maintenance low is key to Fergus and Louise; beds are not dug and well rotted manure is added to all beds annually. By keeping the soil healthy you improve the health of your plants “for a plant to thrive, the soil must be alive”.

Plants are not only chosen for their colour but also for their form, for example clipped shapes, Hydrangea quercifolia, Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’, ferns, Dracunculus, Paulonia, Yucca, Globe artichoke, Helleborus corsicus, Eryngium, Euphorbia mellifera, Eucomis (most of these were in the gravel ‘jungle’ garden).

Self seeding is allowed in this garden as this does reduce maintenance however Louise is ruthless, if a plant fails it will not be replaced similarly if a plant is not quite right, it will not be kept either. A hidden away cutting garden might be a place for those outcasts! Good plants for self seeding include Eryngium ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’, Allium Christophii and Hellebores.

Other plants that impressed were:
Ligusticum lucidum Rosa ‘Eden’ (cream, pink, green) – a recent French bred climbing rose
Iris ‘Kent Pride’ (lovely blue tinge to base of leaves)
Rosa ‘Hot Chocolate’ (dark rusty orange / red with different interesting tones)

Tips shared with us by Fergus:
1. Hostas tend to stay slug free if grown on gravel but where their leaves are not touching other plants (which creates a slug bridge).
2. Manure from silage fed cows tends to be less weedy than field grazing cows
3. Louise is using horticultural grade Neam oil insecticide / soap against box blight


Art and glamping

June 26th, 2013

Glastonbury Festival kicks off today, I have installed some of my larger willow forms throughout one of the exclusive camp sites just outside the fence.  These special ‘glamping’ guests will each have with their own magical garden areas complete with local willow art work.