Monday 27 January 2014

What a worthwhile pursuit to restore an orchard!

It was Twitter that brought that to my attention: volunteers required for an orchard restoration project.

Restoring an orchards is such a worthwhile project.

Appeals against the disappearance of the traditional British orchard have gone on for a while now, the NT and Natural England have long campaigned to save orchards as a  matter of conservation: they are a wildlife heaven, besides providing us with healthy, local food. Don't you think it's crazy that most of the apples we eat nowadays come from the other side of the world, when Britan has such a rich history of cultivating our own, a country that in Victorian times had more varieties than anywhere else?

There's that, and then you know I love pruning: there is nothing I enjoy more than restoring a badly pruned tree to a dignified shape. I had no professional experience of fruit trees though, so this sounded like a good opportunity to learn more, and it was indeed.

Our very generous trainer was Bob Lever, orchard expert from Norfolk. The site Stanmore Hospital. The organisers: local Hoi Polloi project with the Urban Orchard Project.

The old orchard, just behind the hospital restaurant, has gone neglected over the years and, as part of a community project, it is going to be brought back to life for the enjoyment of all (and to make delicious juice and cider, which we had the pleasure to taste).

"A tree on top of a tree"
At some stage, all the lower branches of the apple trees - originally goblet-shaped - had been cut, and the plants had responded by pushing towards the sky, in some case creating what Bob called "a tree on top of a tree". That results in apples growing high up, and  in productivity of lower branches going down.

Besides, unmanaged trees tend to produce smaller, poorer quality fruits, but pruning can re-invigorate them. You can tell a branch has been left too long when there is lichen growing on the tips: as lichen is very slow growing, it means it had plenty of time to get established. Also, in this season, the fruiting buds should be rather big and plump (the leaf ones much smaller), but that was not always the case on the trees in that orchard, that had tiny buds.

Larger fruiting bud
Smaller fruiting bud
Our mission, as the first stage of restoration, was not so much to get rid of dead wood - which can be a good wildlife habitat (unless is obviously causing a problem to the plant or enabling access of pest and diseases) - but to start pushing the energy of the plant slowly backwards towards the lower branches, freeing the centre of the tree, so that more light could reach lower, and to relieve some of the trees - which, at their respectable age, start to get hollow in the trunk - of some excessive weight.
The fascinating thing is that the hollow inside the trees is actually quite beneficial to their longevity, as it makes the wood more flexible to the tensions of growth. And most fungi growing on apple trees feed on rotting heartwood, so they pose no threat to healthy trees. But too much weight is too much.

Bob suggested we take no more than 20% of the branches (plus any dead wood in the way), as trees that are pruned too hard push out vigorous vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting, and usually send it up almost vertically, at awkward angles that make the union rather weak. Incidentally, the most productive branches tend to have a 45° inclination.

A phoenix tree
"Phoenix trees" is another term we got to learn from Bob: it describes a tree that has fallen on its side, from which the side branches have taken over as a new tree - almost rising from the old tree's ashes - to give it another lease of life.

Phoenix trees only have part of the rootstock still in place, so they must not be left to grow too big, and they are actually sitting on the fallen trunk, so cutting it away is usually a bad idea (if anything, it should be propped, especially if there is a chance someone might be tempted to climb over it).

Giving more space for the young, healthy branches, and clearing around the tree for easier maintenance were the suggested interventions.

After such great introductions, we worked in groups on individual trees. I had a great time, teaming up with lovely volunteers Amy and Sue: we got to work on two trees, establishing a routine that got us quite far!

In fact, one of the trees we worked on was the "tree on top of a tree" (in the picture above) from which we removed a large crossing branch, mostly dead, and an even larger vertical branch that was causing excessive weight on a tree that was already leaning.

At the end of the day, and just before it started raining the usual torrents, we were proud to have pruned the apple tree to a much more proportionate, less top-heavy shape, that over the next three to four years can be restored to production and be enjoyed by the community.


Note: some more suggestions on how to prune apple trees on the Urban Orchard Project website

Monday 13 January 2014

I've got seedy penpals... and musings

January, that time of the year again.

Forcing yourself out on a sunny, yet frosty, day to clean the greenhouse - your fingers numb - so it's ready for the new sowing season...

... and, of course, planning & scheming and getting all ready for sowing new seeds!

That's when the first round of the seed swapping scheme happens that goes by the Twitter name of #seedypenpals; it's the brainchild of @carllegge and @ediblething and I wrote about this 2 years ago when I first joined.

Two years on, and the 4th round of swapping underway, I have had some lovely pals and received a wide range of seeds...

... from Lucy...
... Suzy ...
... and Linda!

Some of those I have grown and enjoyed already,

while others are on my sowing plan for this year, but what is it I liked most of the scheme?

I definitely loved best to receive home saved seeds. 

It has made me reflect on the skill that saving and storing seeds is: you have to pick them at the right time, clean them (so you get rid of any possible weeds, pests, or diseased material), store them so they keep alive albeit in suspended animation (not too dry and hot: they would dessicate, not too humid: they would mould) ... and you have to know your seeds, as not all are suited to be dried and stored. Yes indeed, some seeds are recalcitrant! There's also the question of seeds coming true to type (if you are an RHS member there's a very good article in The Garden November 2013 p.68, which incidentally does its best to put you off from trying to save your own).

Prettiest of all, pond iris seed
Acanthus seed an pod
Over the summer I had the opportunity to visit the Wakehurst Millennium Seed Bank, and it really opened my eyes on what an effort it is to do the work properly, the patience that's needed. It must be said, though, that it is such a pleasure to get to know all the various seeds and the engineering magic the seedheads employ to scatter them around.

My revelation this year was Acanthus: it almost caused me a heart
attack when the capsule exploded at midnight, the central rib gone stiff with drying, propelling the seed on my wooden floor with a loud thud.

I also got thinking about the value of local seeds and locally adapted plants, which thrive on the local climate and you don't have to fuss over them to keep them alive. Of the fact that seeds with scattered germination and uneven growth are more resilient: they don't risk germinating all at the same time (think what would happen in case of a late frost if they were all out and at their weakest stage, the seedling!). That is also a good thing for home gardeners, who don't normally love gluts followed by hungry gaps, but obviouly prefer a reasonable distribution of produce throughout the season - exactly the opposite of commercial growers, who need all the produce to look uniform and  be ready to pick at the same time... for so-called "efficiency". You may have heard there's a debate about a EU seed law touching just on that - I liked Lia Leendertz perspective on it most (on page 3 of 4).

All of that thinking has no doubt combined with concerns related to my career change and much reduced income. Seeds have become for me less of a collectors' item, purchasing which distracted me from a depressing London commuter's routine, while growing engaged me physically to relieve the mental stress from office work, and more of a precious source of relatively cheap (you still have to work to grow them!) and nutritious food for my family.

So... what have all those musings and reflections meant for me and my garden? 

I had always picked as many seeds as I could lay my hands on, stuffed them into envelopes and mostly forgotten about them after the first excitement (though some I have grown on, often rather carelessly, with varied amount of success). But since #seedypenpals began, I have been much more diligent in picking, cleaning and storing seeds. 

And, while I had always been shy to share them with others (as I thought they might not be viable) I have taken courage and spread some far and wide, even outside the swapping scheme, exchanging them with friends from Twitter. I have really enjoyed that. And the growing. And the eating.

If you are curious, the highlights of my extra-#seedypenpals edible swaps have been: puntarelle, red kuri squash, and some purple perilla that should be on its way!

And my first major crops from my new seed saving regime have been 10 delicious shark fin melons to cook in my soups (from seed saved last year after a Garden Organic member's experiment) and abundant achocha for my antipasti (from Heritage Seed Library seeds).

So, to the new seed sowing (and growing, and saving, and swapping) year! 

I'm off to write to my new seedy penpal, whose contact details I have just received. If you feel inspired to start on your own seedy path, this is for you!

seedy penpals

Friday 3 January 2014


Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) is not a very common vegetable, either here in the UK or indeed in Italy, where, however, they make the occasional appearance in the shops.

One of the odd and little known vegetables that are kept alive by elderly people eating them and that have seen better days, when they even had different regional names (while "cardi" is their Italian name, my mother-in-law from central Italy calls them "gobbi" or "hunchbacks" as they sometimes come in a bent shape) or maybe have ever only had primarily regional relevance (like the "bitter roots of Soncino", Cichorium intybus, my auntie loves so much, or the "lampascioni", Leopoldia comosum, my husband's granny calls such a delicacy), and are slowly being forgotten in our globalised world.

Cardoon is however a rather nice vegetable, and, what is more, it is available in the winter, when variety in the vegetable garden may be limited. C. cardunculus is a perennial, which makes it more interesting for me as less effort produces more crops. In particular, cardoon is a herbaceous perennial, which means it dies back after flowering in late summer and grows back in the new season.

My cardoons have flowered beautifully every year, rising to 2+ metres high with their mighty purple thistle-like flower heads, covered in bees. As a plant, they also attract quite a lot of green and blackfly (possibly away from other crops) and with them plenty of ladybirds (mostly harlequins, but what can you do).

Because of the flowering, they have then died back and I had no opportunity to taste them. I have been a bit downhearted because of that, until I found that Riverford the-professional-veg-growers themselves have tried and failed to grow them this year, so that cheered me up a little.

Shortly after that, I spotted one of the plants had grown back straight after flowering. This was my opportunity!

As you eat the stalks, like with rhubarb, and chlorophyll makes them rather bitter, you need to blanch them. I wrapped the leaves in some fleece and came back after a couple of months.

The stalks looked rather miserable, as the slugs had obviously had a great time with them. But I decided to have a go anyway. Oh I was so glad I did!

You need to strip the leaves and peel back any stringy fibers from the ribs (as you do with celery). Cut them in large chunks and keep them in acidic water (with lemon or vinegar) to prevent them from going black (as with artichokes). Even if you blanched them in the field, you will have to blanch them again in salty water until they are tender but not mushy.

Here is how they looked after I took them out of the water. I can assure you they looked much better after they went into the oven with some butter, mozzarella and grated parmesan on top, and came out coated in a nice, crispy cheese layer. They tasted sweet, mildly artichokey: delicious! They did not last long enough for a picture. And the husband test never fails.

Definitely something I will need to work on this year. I am going to grow more plants, and flowers buds may need to be removed, altogether, or maybe just cut back early in the season, so the plant has time to recover (I quite like the idea of the flowers). And I have to find the most suitable material for wrapping them and keep out the slugs. Unfortunately there is not much information that I could find either in books or online. Riverford went all the way to Italy to learn the tricks of growing cardoons - I tried asking them if they could share it, but I've never been too lucky getting answers from them on social media. I'll try to investigate with my Italian network... I'll get there somehow!