Plants for a future: The Fern’s field

I’ve wanted to visit the field in Cornwall ever since reading Ken Fern’s book ‘Plants for a future’.  I found it so inspirational and it resonated so well with me.  ‘If only carrots grew on trees’ was the starting point for Ken, and he and Addy have made it a life’s work to try out as many useful and edible perennial plants on their land in Cornwall as will grow there.  They also publish Ken’s databases on temperate and tropical plants online.  I had a little confusion between the field, and the ‘plants for a future’ database which I have also found online.  Addy explained that they had set up the charity to promote the work they were doing on the land and support information dissemination.  Being a charity made it easier to get funding.  After a while the then trustees decided to concentrate on the information side and have largely severed ties with the land project.  Ken now maintains his own databases, but they get no financial support from the charity.

interesting and useful
Edible and Useful Plants for a Future

The field is a 28 acre site almost on the coast of south Cornwall near Lostwithiel.  When the Ferns acquired it it was a windswept field.  Now about thirty years on it is a mature woodland.  Half of the site was planted with native trees with the help of a forestry grant (“mainly a Nature reserve to give something back to Nature” says Addy), and the rest is experimental planting, orchards, soft fruit and vegetable plantings. Some of the experimental planting is used by members of the land club which is made up of volunteers who have worked on the field (see the link to the field for more information).  Addy kindly gave us a quick site tour pointing out some of the interesting plants.  There were so many useful tips that I gained from Addy as to the growth and harvest of the different crops: edible, medicinal and otherwise useful. For example the Japanese heartnut fruit ripen earlier and so may be worth a try in Skye rather than Walnut. I was so excited I forgot to take any pictures and had to go round myself later, getting pretty lost in the process!  The trees are so tall that you have no long distance markers, so it is quite easy to get disorientated.  An electricity line bisects the site which is a useful landmark.  Unfortunately the weather had turned slightly damp, so the light was not so good for photography.

sunny clearing
Sun loving shrubs at edge of clearing

Addy said that the apples were generally ripening this year about two weeks early, which had thrown out her normal harvest plans.  There were too many apples for her to harvest them all, so we were concentrating on the ones that would be the most useful to her.  Also importantly her favourite apple, which had memories connected to her mother, which although not doing well every year, had a good crop this year.  Between us, with a ladder and Addy climbing the trees, we were able to get almost all the apples from the selected trees.  They were then graded and packed away in boxes so they can be used or stored as appropriate.  Addy said that they didn’t bother trying to sell the surplus any more, since the apples weren’t perfect enough for retail.  We spent a peaceful night in the orchard, listening to the occasional thump of apples falling.  We had tried to make sure we didn’t pitch our tent directly under a tree!

compost heaps
Ginormous compost heaps

There were two orchard areas, one between fruit and vegetable cages, which seemed to be managed more intensively, and one further away near the woodland.  The garden areas need to be fully fenced against deer, and other productive plants on the site had ingenious armouring as well.  Even the monkey puzzles had been attacked!

deer defences
Deer and rabbit guards

I noticed that one of the sea buckthorn had been pollarded, which would be one way of keeping the fruit in picking height.  We did try some barberry fruit, but they were rather sharp, although still a bit underripe.  I’m rather anti-berberis, having had a few as ornamentals in my previous garden.  I remember the prickles had a habit of going perpendicularly into my fingers and snapping off, being very difficult to remove again.

big haws
The haws in front were about one inch diameter

There were at least three different sorts of fruiting haw.  One was not then ripe (so would probably not ripen at all well on Skye) one was refreshing and substantial-tasting like an apple, and one was sweeter and juicy, more like a soft fruit, almost a cherry.

fig on building
Fig on corner of shed

A kiwi vine had completely swamped the tree it was trained up, and other climbers such as grapes and figs grew against the buildings.  One fruit I am interested in is the plum yew cephalotaxus.  Unfortunately it was not quite ripe, so we were unable to try it.  The hot summer had made the fruit smaller than usual.

plum yew fruit
Plum Yew fruit not yet ripe

A particularly fragrant eleagnus scented the air by the pathways, and I was happy to spot a decaisnea fargesii, blue bean tree, in full fruiting glory.  The fruit look fascinating, and have a most peculiar feel, giving substance to another name of ‘dead mens fingers’.  They are in the same family as Akebia.  The fruit itself was lovely and ripe, sweet pulp inside a leathery skin.  I wonder if the skin is edible as well like akebia is (used as a bitter vegetable in japan).  We tried to do some research online on the train for edible uses in its native range (Nepal and Indian himalayas) but didn’t come up with any details.  The seeds have a thick jelly coating that cling to them.  AC and I shared a pod on the train, and I now have a quantity of seeds to try and germinate!  Actually I kept seed from many of the fruit we tried on the holiday.  Quite often fresh seed will germinate better.  Mostly I know what they are, but I’m not sure which of the haws is which, although they would all be worth growing out as trees if they germinate.

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The facilities at the field are somewhat basic.  Although we made use of the power to charge up the car, there is no flush toilet.  Like Sagara, the Ferns have a composting toilet, albeit a rather more basic one away in the woods.  They are hoping to improve the facilities in order to offer courses at the field and to this end have set up a fund raiser to enable more user friendly facilities to be installed and improvements to the shed for a classroom (see information here).  This has now gone live (as of November) so please consider donating to this worthwhile endeavour to enable sharing of their knowledge to more people in the future.  You can donate online here

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Eden Project and Lost gardens of Heligan

These are two of the most fantastic garden in the UK, probably the world.  I visited Eden  in 2004 or thereabouts, and Heligan a little earlier, and was keen to see how they have evolved.

 

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The Eden project, for those who don’t know, was created out of an open cast china clay pit at the end of the last century.  It was designed to show that the damage we do to the earth can be (and should be) repaired.  I’m not sure whether this message has got through yet!  I think we visited in spring last time and this time it was autumn.  These pictures show the increase in tree growth in that time.

Although the bio-domes are the most striking feature of the site, on this visit I found the outside areas just as fascinating.  I don’t know whether they had the forest garden area (on the lead in between the carparks and the ticket hall) last time we came, my interests have evolved slightly since then.  This was a nice little plot, mainly of ornamental edibles.  It was interesting to see the buffalo berry (shepherdia argentea), a plant which I am considering growing this year.  This has edible black fruit, but is also nitrogen fixing, so can do well on poorer soils.  I was impressed by how tall it was growing.

forest garden eden
Forest garden with shepherdia shrub

There were lots of flowers even in late September, and the autumn leaves were also giving a good show.  Most plants were quite well labelled, but there were some interesting ones we could not find labels for, including a plant that looked rather like solomons seal, but had black berries (‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’….) (Edit:  It well may have been solomons seal.  Although the spring shoots alegedly make a good vegetable, the berries casue stomach upsets so are not recommended) Other interesting plants included tiny fuchsia and pomegranite plants and a hardy aloe: Aloe striatula which is hardy to -10, so I could grow it outside on Skye.

community allotments
chinese – british allotment

I found the allotment areas most interesting.  They had set them up to reflect the diversity of cultures of people that grow plants in the UK.  So there were chinese, african, caribbean and indian themed allotments, with plants reflecting the cuisine of these areas, as well as more traditional british vegetable plants and flowers.  There were several malabar gourd plants, (making bids to take over the crater!) vegetable spaghetti, which I remember has similar but smaller noodley fruit, fantastic displays of outdoor tomatoes and chilli, soya beans and chick peas, sweet potato (as well as the normal kinds).  There were lovely plants of yacon, mashua, oca, achocha, physalis, quinoa and amaranth.  Some I’ll have to look up to see what their growing requirements are: japanese ginger, dasheen, lemongrass, turmeric, and vietnamese coriander, which all could be interesting additions to the polytunnel, if not outside.  I think I spotted new zealand spinach growing as a ground cover, but I could not find the identifying label for it.

south american plantings
Amaranth, mashua, yacon with possibly NZ spinach at front right

They had obviously made an effort to consider the environmental consequences of the development itself.  There were several bin areas for visitors to use, with separate bins for different sorts of recyclable waste, including compostable waste too.  I’m not sure where they compost the waste – that wasn’t on display and I would have found that interesting.  There were water dispensing points to enable refills of water bottles, outside as well as water fountains inside the tropical biome.

tropical dome
Tropical biome – jungle feel

The tropical biome was just as good as I remembered.  It is difficult to believe that they used it as the ice palace in “Die another day”.  Still a fantastic bit of engineering, let alone the plants!  The jungle really feels established and doesn’t have too manicured a look to it.  There are ant colonies and little lizards as well as birds.  Less useful as a source of planting inspiration for me though!

lizard
Lizard in tropical biome

We didn’t have time for the warm temperate biome, and were getting a bit tired, but had a quick look through the microscopic world display area, which had been under construction last time I came.  The use of artworks to illustrate different aspects of microbes was fun, including beautiful hand cut paper and life size figure embroidery.  There were interactive exhibits of various kinds including a huge one dedicated to the source of chloroplasts that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.  A thirty foot metallic blue cyanobacterium billowed fragrant smoke rings to the delight of children (of all ages!).  It was quite cute to watch the kiddies trying to catch the rings, but I shan’t even try to upload the video I took.

cyanobacterium
Giant cyanobacterium blowing smoke rings

Opposite the car parks we eventually found the ‘wild chile’ area.  This was mentioned on the site maps, but there were no signs to it or to explain what was going on, until we got to the far end of it, where there appears to be a second entrance.  I have been interested in Chile since I discovered that much of that country’s interior shares a similar mild rain forest climate to the UK.  The area has been set up as a living reserve for plants that are endangered in their native range.

wild chile
Monkey puzzles were the only clue that this was the ‘wild chile’ area

There was an impressive array of young monkey puzzle trees, I judged them to be possibly 18 years old from counting their branches.  Just another twenty years or so for the nuts then!  There was also a lovely nothofagus forest.  This is another tree I’m interested in. The southern beech, as it’s known, likes a mild damp climate and grows very quickly.  It ought to be ideal for coppicing on Skye.  There were n. nervosa, n. obliqua and n. x. leonii, all doing very well.  I couldn’t get hold of these when I was planting my coppice wood, although I did manage to get hold of three n. alpina (which may be a synonym for n. nervosa) a couple of years ago, which are still very small trees (well, even ‘shrubs’ would be dignifying the plants at the moment, although they are still alive).  Another interesting chilean edible we saw was luma apiculata, an ornamental shrub with small glossy dark green leaves.  The black fruit are edible.  I have a tiny one of these, just planted a couple of years ago and doing alright.  I tried a couple of berries and they were nice raw, not too sweet, but not sharp either, just juicy.  There were several plants, and they appeared to flower better in the sunnier spots.  There were a number of huge fuchsias still flowering away.  I didn’t spot any fruit, which have a quite sweet and spicy flavour when ripe.  There was also an impressive gunnera plant, which we are asked not to plant in this part of Scotland, since it likes it too well!  The leaf stalks are edible like rhubarb, although it’s not something I’ve tried.  It would still be too windy for those enormous leaves here!

nothofagus woodland
Nothofagus woodland

On the following day I was able to have another walk round the wild chile area whilst the car was on charge, as we stopped again on our way to Heligan.  It looks like they have been recently planting a trials area for bamboos.  Without information displays it is hard to say what they are trying to achieve this time.  They were carefully planted and mulched, with a variety of bamboos judging by the attached labels.

insect hotel
Insect hotel at Heligan

Really the visit to Heligan was too short to do it justice.  We had to leave again in good time to continue our journey.  Part of the garden was closed as well unfortunately, so we couldn’t visit the hidden valley area.  They had made the most impressive ‘insect hotel’ I have ever seen in a sunny spot on the woodland walk, and we were taken by some beautiful oaks, although did not find out what variety they were.

gunnera hibernation
Protecting Gunnera

In the jungle they were putting the gunnera to bed for the winter by cutting the leaves off and putting them upside down as umbrellas.  Gunnera are fairly tender, so even in milder areas of the UK can need a bit of protection.  Massive tree ferns and palm trees are a feature of the jungle garden, and they have obviously been considering the future as well, with smaller monkey puzzles as well as the original garden’s 100 year plus specimens.

young monkey puzzle
Young and original monkey puzzles

Bamboos and bananas also give a tropical feel to the garden.  I’m sorry to have missed the hidden valley, since I remember that as one of the most atmospheric parts of the garden.  They were obviously hard at work, since we could hear chainsaws going.  I hope this is just planned maintenance, and they have not suffered losses in the hot, dry summer.

helligan vegetables
Lettuces in walled garden

We wandered back through the huge ornamental vegetable gardens.  These are bigger than I remember, with such beautiful displays of lettuce and rhubarb forcers!  I couldn’t resist the reduced plants in the sales area, although AC luckily spotted that the camellia sinensis were c. Sinensis var. assamica, rather than c. sinensis var. sinensis, so I avoided those (too tender).  I did pick up a little lady boothby climbing fuchsia which should be fun.

I would recommend a full day at Eden.  We probably didn’t start going round till nearly 12 noon.  You would certainly need more than the couple of hours we were able to spend at Heligan to make the most of the trip!

Dartington Forest Garden

forest garden layers
Forest garden layers at Dartington

The forest garden at Dartington was created over the last 24 years by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART).  A forest garden uses useful plants to mimic the layers of a natural woodland to create a stable ecosystem.  It is a popular theme in temperate climate permaculture.  The picture above illustrates the forest garden layers at the edge of the garden by the carpark, including unseen roots (of mashua and japanese yam).  The timing of our holiday was timed around the ability to participate on one of the tours that Martin runs periodically through the year.  It also had to be outside of the peak season on Skye.  I didn’t always catch the latin names of the plants during the tour, so in general I have used the common names that Martin used.  When he did give the latin names I realise that I have probably been mispronouncing them all these years, having mainly learnt them from books!

lollypop alder
Italian alder trees with lower branches removed

The canopy layer is mainly made up of italian alder trees which have had their lower branches removed in order to let more light through.  Even so the garden was much more shady than Sagara’s garden, feeling much more like a woodland with clearings, rather than a field with trees.  Martin has not used soil landscaping to create microclimates, explaining that as his plot sloped south and was sheltered at the start by a wood to the west it had not been necessary.

Having already visited Sagara’s garden many of the plants were familiar to us already, although Martin’s trees were considerably bigger.  He stressed the importance of plotting the area and planting spacing based on mature tree sizes since all the layers will require light to be productive.  Clearings form suntraps that enable Martin to grow even quite tender fruit like persimmon.  It has been a hot year this summer following a cold winter, and many of the fruit are a couple of weeks early, and some that don’t always ripen are doing well.

groundcover
False strawberry groundcover

Much of the ground under the trees was clear of plants, being covered by leaf mulch.  In the spring there are more bulbs in growth such as wild garlic.  The main spreading ground cover Martin had visible at the time we came was false strawberry.  This has a yellow flower, and although it does set some little red strawberry like fruit, they are disappointingly tasteless.  The false strawberry has the advantage of being evergreen, so protecting the soil year round.  Other shade loving ground covers included Hosta, and fiddlehead fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) both of which I fancy growing.  There was also mint, ground covering raspberries and japanese wineberry, with comfrey and turkish rocket in the sunny spots.  Martin said that turkish rocket was one of the few plants that could happily compete with comfrey.  Other ground layer plants included more of the japanese spring vegetables, solomons seal and japanese ginger, which is harvested by cutting the growing shoots rather than digging it up.  The main weed that Martin gets seeding in the garden is Ash trees.  Sadly this may not be the case for much longer, since the ash dieback has spread to the county.

hosta and fern
Hosta and fiddlehead fern thrive in the shade

 

Martin talked about the importance of soil mycellium (fungal networks)  in sharing the nutrients about the wood.  They also can spread warnings amongst the plants.  If one plant is stressed or attacked by pests it releases chemicals that, transmitted by the mycellium, stimulate other plants to increase their own chemical defences.  Martin said that generally it isn’t neccessary to innoculate the soil.  As long as it wasn’t disturbed, the fungi would already be in the soil, particularly close to existing trees.  It is however possible to buy edible fungi spawn to encourage more edible fungi in your forest garden, and he also showed us an oyster mushroom log that he had stimulated to fruit before we came.  It is possible to have a number of logs that are ready to produce mushrooms and trigger them in turn so as to have a continuous supply of mushrooms.  I have tried unsuccessfully to grow mushrooms on newspaper ‘logs’.  I think that because I wrapped them in bin liners to keep them damp the spawn was suffocated, so I may have another go.

Martin Crawford
Martin Crawford at Dartington

 

There are a number of trees that Martin grows for leaf crops, either as salad greens or as cooked vegetables.  One that I recently got is Toona sinensis or toon tree (visible as tall shrub layer in top photo).  This has leaves that when young, are eaten as a vegetable in china.  We tried a little leaf, and it tastes rather like an aromatic onion.  Salad leaves include small leaved lime (tilia cordata), which has quite pleasant mild tasting young leaves, beech (fagus sylvatica), which I always find a bit tough even when young, and white mulberry.  We tried the leaves of the latter, and again I found it a bit tough, although not unpleasant in flavour.  It may have been better when younger, or cooked though.  Martin pollards all these trees to keep a supply of young leaves in easy reach, but out of reach of browsing deer.

mulberry leaves
White mulberry leaves (at left)

Other interesting shrubs included relatives of the common bog myrtle, which itself has edible leaves used like bay leaves.  The wax myrtle has similar uses for the leaves and also the berries have a waxy coating that can be melted off and used in candles and sealing etc.  These are nitrogen fixing in boggy ground, so may be ideal in certain areas of my field!  I do have the wax myrtle on my list of ‘wants’, although I am having difficulty in getting seed to germinate.  You need male and female plants to set berries.  I do have some bog myrtle down by the river, although am not sure whether they are male or female.  It is useful if caught by midges, since they don’t like it’s aromatic foliage.

wax myrtle
Not that great a picture of wax myrtle!

Another nitrogen fixing tree is the judas tree.  We did see this at EDFG, but didn’t know what it was.  Martin had a good sized tree which I asked about.   Prior to arriving at Dartington, we saw another in a green space where we had our picnic lunch.  It has distinctive heart shaped leaves.  Apparently the flowers are edible and come out before any of the foliage on bare branches.  I collected some seedpods from the one we saw at our picnic spot, so I may see if I can get some seed to germinate.

We tried some sechuan pepper seeds, they are very peppery and made my lips and tongue numb for a few minutes.  Apparently this doesn’t happen with the dried fruit, which can be mixed with salt and ground together for salt and pepper seasoning.  I quite fancy trying to grow this.  Apparently there are lots of similar shrubs all called sechuan pepper, so I’ll have to check with Martin the one that he uses!  Nepalese pepper is quite similar, but ripens later, so is less likely to be suitable on Skye.

An interesting edible that I didn’t remember from my reading is the Trachycarpus ‘palm tree’.  Apparently it has huge flowers that can be used like cauliflower.  I know this will grow locally here on Skye, and I did have a couple but gave them away since I wasn’t sure where to put them.  I sort of regret that now!

Trees that I forgot to mention from EDFG that we also saw in the Dartington garden were alternative haws.  There are several plants closely related to our native hawthorne that have bigger and nicer berries.   I have one, Crataegus arnoldiana, although it hasn’t flowered for me yet.  Martin had several haws which we were able to sample the fruit of.  I have ordered seeds of lots of different varieties from the ART to try and grow this year.  If I find one that does well for me, I may be able to graft it on to the common hawthornes.

There was a clear area under a huge pine tree that Martin sometimes uses as an outdoor classroom.  He says it is important not to forget the people in the garden and have a space for them to use.  It was impressive that the huge tree had been grown by Martin from seed (as were most of the more unusual trees we saw).  He talked about harvesting resin from the tree and the uses it has (turpentine, rosin etc.).

edible pond
Edible pond area

A pond area was also planted with edible plants: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia – has edible tubers), mint (needs no explanation) and Houttuynia Cordata.  This last we tried a leaf of.  It has a strange fishy orange taste that I wasn’t too keen on but some others liked.  It is a popular vegetable with fish in china.  A little research reveals that in some climates it can be invasive, but I don’t think I’ll bother with it, although I do fancy developing an edible pond/bog area below the barn!

In summary, this was a truly inspirational visit again.  Such a treat for me to meet Martin Crawford who has done so much for the development of agroforestry in the UK and internationally.

East Devon Forest Garden

This garden was the first visited on our holiday.  It is one of the first forest gardens I’ve visited at all, except in my imagination.  Mine is still mainly in the fourth dimension!  There used to be one at Ryton organic gardens, but I think they found it too messy so got rid of it.

pond in sunset
Enjoying the evening sun by the sheltered pool

Sagara has created the East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG) over the last eight years or so.  I found out about it through Facebook so that does have some uses!  Despite ill health he has created a wonderful space in a bit less than three acres.  His vision is of a spiritual foraging retreat, where people can reclaim their souls through browsing in the garden.  Certainly there is a tranquil feel throughout the garden.  So many of the plants are edible, that we had to repeat a mantra ‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’ because you get used to tasting everything after a few days.  There was plenty of wildlife.  We saw butterflies and birds, evidence of moles and Sagara says they have a family of hedgehogs as well as pigeons.

colourful amaranth
Colourful amaranth in sunny spot

The main technique that I took away from the garden was probably the use of earthworks and hedges to create banks that made sheltered, sunny or shady areas and formed microclimates for plants that require different conditions.  Fast growing italian alder had been planted around the periphery of the garden.  These are now over 25 feet tall so form a screen and give the garden even more of a tranquil enclosed feel.  As a nitrogen fixer it also provides nitrogen through soil fungal networks to other plants in the garden.  A leylandii hedge screens a simple yet sophisticated composting loo and provides shelter for the herb area and main vegetable production plots, which are closer to the buildings than the more seasonal tree crops.  A mowed trackway enables vehicular access around the garden, although separate pedestrian paths meander slightly different routes.  I found it quite easy to become disoriented and the garden seemed much bigger than it is.  This is also due to the multiple circular clearings and asymmetric free form design.  The largest circle had a tall earthbank surmounted by fruiting Elaeagnus bushes and enclosing a beautiful natural swimming pool.  Steps go down into it and it is filled from a spring borehole, the water circulating through gravel beds planted with aquatic plants to keep the water clean.  Stone alcoves retain the day’s heat to protect the most tender plants here: olives, figs and citrus trees have set fruit this year.  There are also Echium and hardy bananas, grapes and palm trees, and a little pointed running alpine strawberry still has fruit ripening.

solar powered shower
Solar powered shower block

In the establishment of the garden Sagara had ploughed and seeded the plot with deep rooted plants like chiccory and plantains, before doing the earth moving and planting the larger trees, then smaller trees and shubs.  The site is loam over clay, quite flat and a bit liable to frost with cold north winds.  He is still planting the ground cover layers, which, because it requires many plants, can be a slow, labour intensive and expensive business.   We helped clear an area and plant out some perennial brassica with Sagara.

Over time the garden area should become a net carbon sink as the plants and the soil convert carbon dioxide into more stable wood and humus.  At present the garden still has quite an open feel about it, and I would love to go back in a few years to see how it matures.  I’m a bit envious of the kinder climate there compared to Skye.  My sweet chestnuts are tiny in comparison to Sagara’s.  The biggest of mine is only as tall as me, the smallest that survived is only a foot or so after nearly ten years!  Sagara’s were probably taller after three years than mine are now and now at six years old are beautiful trees of fifteen feet or so.  However, he has already had frosts that damaged the squash plants, and there are no squirrels on Skye.

sweet chestnut
Sweet chestnut fruiting at 6 years old

One of the beds was given over to edible flowers, I wasn’t aware that Gladioli and Dahlia petals are edible, and it was fascinating that each flower was also a slightly different flavour, some sweeter, some more complex.  The chinese chive flowers made a lovely addition to our supper with a sweet onion crunch.

autumn olive
Autumn olive fruit

New foods I was able to try included the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).  This has a very pleasant sweet tart taste.  The berries are a little small being a bit smaller than currants, but are borne in profusion along the branches.  They are also extremely pretty berries: orangey-red and flecked with gold!  We picked about four pounds or so which Sagara is going to use to make a jam with.  The spring fruiting Elaeagnus were in blossom and the fragrance is lovely.  We also tried sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) berries.  These are very fragile, tending to burst as you pick them and are even smaller and more profuse.

sea buckthorn
Sea buckthorn fruit

The flavour is sharper, more acidic, and Sagara had several different cultivars which all had different flavours; one had a noticable pineapple flavour, and even the unimproved form has a very pleasant mandarin taste.  They are very high in vitamin C and often used in juice form, sweetened or blended with other fruit.  Both Elaeagnus and sea buckthorn are nitrogen fixing, the sea buckthorn seeming to have a tendency to sucker.  Sagara had his first nuts on his bladdernut (Staphylea Pinnata) this year, these are a little small due to the hot summer.  Inside a one inch inflated balloon fruit is a single shiny nut.  This has a very hard but thin seed coat and a sweet flavour.  It is said to be like pistachio.

japanese spring vegetables
Petasites and Hosta on shady side of earth bank

Other plants I haven’t tried yet that Sagara is growing include several Japanese spring vegetables: Hosta, Udo (Aralia) and Petasites are all garden perennial plants that can be cooked and eaten in the spring, as is american pokeweed (Phytolacca), although I gather this last is also considered to be toxic so take care!  One plant we didn’t try was the turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis).  This was a huge dandelion like plant which is supposed to taste mustardy.  I suspect that would not go down too well in our house, although the plants did look lovely and robust, so I may give it a go anyhow!  Colourful amaranth seedheads surrounded a large fruiting medlar, and several grapes were ripening up trees and scrambling on the sunny banks.  Other perennial vegetables Sagara grows include Sea cabbage and sea kale, perennial kale and walking stick kale, oca, Yacon, mashua, japanese yams, walking onion, artichokes (both sorts) and asparagus.  Fruit includes apples, plums and other top fruit as well as sechuan pepper, quince (chaenomeles as well as cydonia) mulberry and kiwi.  Nuts include hazel, chestnut, walnut and heartnuts and there are a multitude of other purposeful plants providing fibre, shelter, food or nitrogen fixing.  I was particularly interested in the miscanthus grass that Sagara is growing as sheltering hedges.  This is like a small thin bamboo and I had been wondering if we are warm enough on Skye for it to do well.  It grows up to 2 or 3 metres tall in a year once established, creating shelter and forming woody stems that can be cut since they are renewed each year.  This produces a large amount of biomass so it has been planted for biofuels in many parts of the UK.

miscanthus grass
Miscanthus grass surmounts earthworks by trackway

As a place for people to meet, eat and communicate Sagara has a number of structures through the garden.  We were lucky enough to stay in a beautiful yurt tent, although he is in the process of taking the canvas structures down for winter.  There are sculptures and statues in various niches in the garden, but the whole thing is a work of art.  Such abundance of food now, in contrast to the now sterile seeming horse paddock it replaced.  We had a lovely discussion with Sagara about farming and hunter gathering, money and land, spirit and body which I really can’t do justice to here.  Overall an inspiring start to the holiday (and it was sunny!).

yurt
Our Yurt next to italian alder edge plants

 

 

Holiday 2018

I think this may have been my first self indulgent holiday since moving to Skye.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nowhere else I would rather be, but sometimes it is difficult to have ‘me time’ when there is the shop to be seen to, food to be cooked and housework to make an effort at.  I took Wednesday to the following Wednesday off to spend a few days camping in the West Country (Devon and Cornwall) to visit some interesting gardens and see some plants that I have only seen in pictures or as my immature specimens.  I was also able to sample some of the new fruits that I am, or am thinking of, growing.

I travelled down to Birmingham by bus and train on the first Wednesday, arriving a little more than an hour late in Birmingham due to issues with signaling at Euston (delayed staff handover).  There I stayed with my friend AC, before travelling together to Tiverton in Devon by train.  This journey went via Wales due to electrification works at Bristol, so amusingly I went through three of the four ‘countries’ that make up the UK in the holiday.  Wales is technically a principality, but I’m not really sure what that means.  Cornwall also used to be a separate nation and still has the remnants of a language closely related to Breton, but also with similarities to Welsh and Gaelic languages.

Near Tiverton I had arranged to pick up an electric hire car: a BMW i3.  I have been interested in electric car technology since working in the automotive industry and since they can be considered a more environmentally friendly way of getting round (see here) I thought it would be fun (and it was!).  I will post more about the car adventures here.

bmw i3
BMW i3 – rapid charging at Eden

We picked up the car from Diggerland, which is a theme park just off the M5 motorway where you can play in various sized excavators.  It was closed since I think it is only open weekends outside of the school holidays.  Probably a fun place to take kids of all ages though! We noticed a huge monkeypuzzle growing in the lawn of the original house – a sign of gardens to come…..

We then drove the car a short distance to the East Devon Forest Garden.  This wonderful oasis in a sea of horse paddocks was conceived and created by Sagara over the past eight years. There is plenty written about Forest Gardens and permaculture, so I will just write a little review of our time here later and put some links in.  At EDFG I started to feel a little envious of the kinder climate and soil.  Sagara has sweet chestnut trees that were probably bigger at three years old than mine are at nine!  However, he has already had some mild overnight frosts and I don’t expect any till later in November….

EDFG swimming pond
Natural swimming pond at EDFG

We stayed with Sagara two nights rather than rushing off, and then drove down to the Agroforestry Research Trust’s 24 year old forest garden at Dartington.  I had booked us on a tour of the garden with one of my heroes: Martin Crawford (I’ll put a review here).  The date of this tour was what fixed the holiday date, since Martin only runs them a few times a year, and I had to fit it into off season for the shop.  I’d love to visit his other sites, maybe next time.

martin crawford dartington
Martin Crawford explaining something in his Forest Garden

We managed to charge up the car a bit at Dartington, since they have several charging units in the car park, although we arrived too late to get it set up whilst we were on the tour so didn’t manage a full charge.  AC managed to arrange to stay at Sconner Down, one of the camp sites I had obtained details for.  I think the others were pretending to be full, but had actually closed for the season.  We got to the site in time to put our tent up before it got dark.  A lovely quiet site up a single track road (sounds familiar…).  It still seems to be lighter on Skye than further south, although this will soon change….

sunrise
Campsite Dawn

We drove to the Eden Project the next day.  They have a number of charging facilities, although we had a bit of hassle with the rapid one which was a bit hidden away.  Hopefully AC will be able to get back the fine that was imposed because we were late back for the first hour’s charge.  Eden is just as fantastic as I remember (I will put a post here).  They also gave us a discount off our admission to the lost gardens of Heligan which was planned for the following day.  We wore ourselves out here; the extra trips back and forth to the distant charge point probably didn’t help.

eden domes
Eden domes

After a second (early) night at the campsite we visited the lost gardens the following day (I’ll post a review here), also stopping at Eden in both directions to charge up at the rapid facility.  The first time gave me a second chance to visit the wild Chile area, the second time we had a late lunch.  It was amusing to me that the car used only ten miles of range to cover a twenty mile round trip.  Unfortunately part of the gardens at Heligan were closed, but we probably wouldn’t have had time for them all anyway.

heligan
Tropical effect at Heligan

Our final overnight stop was at the plants for a future (PFAF) site where we helped Addy Fern harvest some apples and had a quick tour round (hopefully another review here).  I’m sorry we couldn’t stay longer, because there was much more to see, and I think Addy would have appreciated more help. We managed a top up charge using a three pin plug on the car which gave us a full(ish) battery of electricity for the return to Diggerland on our way back.

tent in orchard PFAF
Camping in the Orchard

We were able to go back via Bodmin moor, which I wanted to do since I had found one branch of my mum’s family originates from that area. A great great something….grandfather seems to have commuted with his family backwards and forwards between dockyard at Plymouth and farm work on Bodmin in the early 19th century.  I had a look in the church and both graveyards and was surprised to find some family graves still there.

cardinham church
Church at Cardinham near Bodmin

Overall I had a really great break, and have lots of exciting plants to think about and a few more seeds to sow!