Ready for spring

The start of March already and the recent spell of unseasonal weather has made it feel more like May.  I am jolted into the realisation that spring is upon us and there are still several winter jobs to get done. My optimism at the start of autumn, with that long list of things we could achieve over the winter months with less watering and weeding to do, has changed to a modest acceptance that some things will just have to wait! Having said that, with a glass half full mentality, quite a lot has happened this winter.

For several years I have wanted to replace the wooden bed edges in the potager, which had rotted away long ago. What was meant to be a very geometric and symmetrical part of the garden had, with the vagaries of my grass edging, become something you might think had been cut by somebody under the influence!

From above you can see the intended design nicely.

From the ground it was a different story. But now the straight lines and even shapes have been restored and it looks pretty impressive, not to mention making it much easier to maintain with our shears. Thanks to Pete and the volunteers who helped with this rather back breaking task.

Feeling rather smug at this straight line business, we have also tackled the planting of a new willow bed. The idea is to provide a windbreak for our no-dig area of the community garden whilst also giving us a supply of coppiced willow to use around the garden and for willow weaving projects.

 

 

Admittedly they don’t look very promising yet. It looks like some sort of landing strip or a hurdle race  for snakes, but you just wait….these are willows remember and we are expecting them to grow….pretty fast.

The weed membrane is to suppress weed and grass competition, which would be the biggest threat to these plants’ survival in the first few years. We pierced holes through the fabric and planted the willow cuttings two thirds of their length (30cm)  so that they don’t dry out while developing roots.

The other big threat in the early years is rabbit and deer damage, which is why we have surrounded the whole bed with some netting.

 

By next winter they should be ready for their first light coppice, although it will be two or three years before they are producing the strong annual growth we are hoping for. From then on we must coppice them each winter (or we will have trees – yikes!) using the wood for willow projects and plant supports and offering it to local weavers who would like some interesting colours to work with. As an extra benefit, willow is good for wildlife, producing some wonderful catkins and the colours of the winter stems should look stunning.

As for varieties, we have chosen types that are suited to our growing conditions, a range of colours, vigour and applications. This was quite a task in itself, with over 300 varieties of species and hybrid willows in the National Willows Collection at Rothamsted. Our chosen types include ‘Dicky Meadows’, ‘Dark Dicks’, ‘Jagiellonka’, ‘Bori Pescara’ and ‘Netta Stratham’, to name but a few.

It is also feels rather good to be doing something to preserve the ancient craft of basket making. The earliest record in this country is of a basket maker who was subject to the Suffolk Poll Tax in 1381. The guild of basket makers was formed in 1570. Today, the majority of commercial willow growing occurs in the mid- Somerset ‘Levels’, the most important species for basketry being Salix triandra, Salix viminalis and Salix purpurea. The south-eastern counties have been better known for the growing of cricket bat willow, where they are planted at wider spacings on distinct mini pollard systems of about 1m height. Mini pollards make harvesting and weed control easier and rabbit damage less of a problem but they produce a higher proportion of curved rods, whereas a plantation close planted and coppiced to ground level provides straighter, more slender and uniform stems, suitable for basketry. Fingers crossed it all works out this way.

The last of the apple pruning must be completed this month before the trees come into leaf. To help us achieve this we hosted another apple pruning workshop, organised by Orchards East.

It was a rather dreary, windy day, but everyone got stuck in enthusiastically, with much discussion about what to chop off, what to keep, what to leave for another year and what probably shouldn’t have been done the last time!

Some brave decisions were made….

Only 20% of a tree should be pruned out each year, so this large cut was the only action taken on this tree. Renovation is best undertaken in stages over several years and one of the hardest things to do is knowing when to stop! As with all our trees, the aim is for an open centred canopy to allow as much light and air into the centre of the tree. This large cut will most likely result in a flush of vigorous watershoots, to be dealt with next winter, but it has produced a more balanced, spreading shape overall.

We are often asked about the wonderful lichens growing on the trees in our orchard. What are they and are they harmful to the tree?

A lichen is not a single organism; it is an association between a fungus, an algae and/or cyanobacteria (bacteria capable of photosynthesis) . Like all symbiotic relationships it is one which benefits both parties. The fungi requires sugar as a food source, provided by the algae via photosynthesis. Meanwhile, the algae receive protection and are provided with optimal living conditions by the fungus. They probably also benefit from mineral nutrients provided by the fungi.

Many different fungi will form lichens and there are over 100 types of algae and cyanobacteria that grow within lichen fungi. When the algae photosynthesise, up to half the carbon they make is immediately converted to fungal sugars that the algae themselves cannot access – how generous is that!

Lichens are useful indicators of good air quality and they are certainly not a sign of a diseased tree.  The pH or acidity of tree bark differs between species and will dictate what lichens colonise it. Lichens grow extremely slowly, and ancient trees and woods offer an excellent enduring habitat for them, which is one reason to protect and preserve ancient apple orchards.

There are many different types of lichen: leprose, crustose, placodioid, squamulose, foliose and fruticose (get your teeth round that! There must be a song in there somewhere!). So what sorts have we spotted at Cressing? Here is my feeble attempt at some identification:

This amazing lichen, Evernia prunastri, is very common.  It is one of the foliose type (having features resembling foliage). This is a fairly pollution tolerant lichen, it is widespread and can be found on deciduous trees across the country. It is very often found on oak trees, hence being known as oak moss lichen.

Parmotrema perlatum, another foliose type.

Xanthoria parietina, a pollution tolerant leafy type.

Maybe a Caloplaca lichen? Help….. this is getting difficult. My lichen identification skills are sorely stretched!

There are so many types. They are quite beautiful and remarkable. If anyone wants to do some more research and let me know what they discover…..I would be interested to know. We will never run out of things to learn about in the natural world.

We are trying to encourage our visitors to venture further than the tearoom and come over to see what is going on in the gardens. Our ‘Looking good in the garden’ board will be updated regularly as things change – complete with sample sprigs for anything particularly pretty or with a nice smell.

Helleborus foetidus, the stinking hellebore, gets a mention this week. It gets its name from the pungency of the foliage when crushed, but is actually a rather attractive plant and the bees never seem put off by the smell. In times gone by, the root was used to cure cattle of illness. They would bore a hole through the animal’s ear, insert a piece of hellebore root and hey presto, twenty four hours later the trouble was cured.

The glorious flowering display of the Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is another feast for the eye at this time of year and a feast for the early pollinators too.

There are feasts for the taste buds coming along in the community garden, with the first succulent stems of our forced rhubarb.

The crown of this plant has been covered to prevent light reaching the stems. This encourages them p to make early growth and the pale, forced stalks can be harvested for use in cooking when they are 20cm – 30cm long. This should only be done on established rhubarb plants. Young plants may not have sufficient energy reserves to produce the early stems, and subsequent growth may be affected.

Time for a crumble! And with that tasty thought I urge you all out into your gardens to get growing for another year.

 

 

 

 

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