Common Ground

Common Ground is a wonderfully slippery fish. It’s a charity founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King, which according to its unique website “seek(s) imaginative ways to engage people with their local environment”. We’ve supported it for many years, and I very much share its philosophy and aims. I guess finding Common Ground was one of the reasons I had my conversion from City bloke to whatever the hell it is I do now.

Common GroundWhat do they do? All sorts. Art installations, practical guides, events… I first bumped into them in the early 2000s, when we set up an Apple Day in an old cider orchard in our village. Everyone gathered and harvested the apples, tea was taken, then the apples pressed and bottled to support the village church and hall.

It was Common Ground who started Apple Day and the idea of community orchards. They also worked hard to revive local varieties of fruit trees, but particularly apple trees. This fell neatly into Sue and Angela’s central objective. They want to get communities to understand and promote “local distinctiveness” through art and custom, landscape and architecture, history and environment.
Common GroundBang on message for Habitat Aid. We promote exactly the same values. I wish I had the imagination to come up with the kind of innovative ways Common Ground have done to promote them.

These days, you might associate this kind of philosophy with a small island mentality. Not at all with Common Ground. Their message is absolutely inclusive, promoting localism within a global community. The two can co-exist. And Common Ground have got things done, rather than just talk about them. Books, projects, artwork, landscape work – over a 35 year history they have produced a really significant and eclectic body of work. You can see their influence across a whole range of apparently unconnected areas, in urban and rural settings.

I heard Sue speak yesterday evening. Although these days they have handed the running of the charity on, her and Angela’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose is undimmed. Thanks both.

Jam Today

Earlier this summer a copy of Holly Farrell’s The Jam Maker’s Garden arrived for me to review. It has sat in the catering department’s in tray ever since, but now jam making time is upon us we dug it out. What a delight.
Holly FarrellThere’s a peculiar pleasure in growing and using your own produce. You can square that if you have to process it in some way. I made three small pots of beeswax polish from the cappings left over from this year’s honey harvest; fantastic.
Holly Farrell is quick to understand this. She also points out other joys of jam making – not just the delight of eating them! Enjoy the tastes of summer and autumn through the winter and the connection they make with the local – what the French would call – terroir.
There’s a lot more than celebration about this book, however. It covers “garden notes” as well as “kitchen notes”, so deals with growing the fruit you’ll cook too. Some sensible advice in this section, although I find people could always do with more help about what varieties to plant and in what volume. Everyone always plants too many apple trees and under-plants soft fruit, for example.
Rose Hip SyrupThe kitchen section is great. It’s clearly laid out into vegetable and fruit sections. The recipes are easy to follow and many highly original. Carrot jam looks delicious!
The book promotes some more obscure fruit as well – Medlars do well here and I grow them principally for their blossom, but now we’ll be making medlar fudge. I Can’t wait.

Pruning Old Apple Trees

It’s the time of year to prune apple trees. We used to have an old orchard, and I loved renovating the apple trees there; it was amazing to see them springing back into life with renewed vigour. They must have been around 80 – 90 years old, so towards the end of their time, although pruning will extend their lives. This is one of the reason why orchards are such good habitats. Apple trees don’t last long, so there is always lots of dead and rotting wood around, with their attendant flora and fauna.

There are several reasons to prune, which you should bear in mind. Firstly, remove badly placed and rubbing branches, which can be an entry point for infection. Then think about increasing the light and air flow through the tree, to reduce the risk of infection and help apples ripen properly. I also cut out diseased wood rather than spraying a tree with fungicide to help biodiversity. You also want to manage the tree’s shape so it doesn’t blow over or risk losing major limbs in windy weather.

I was always told not to be frightened of taking too much off an old tree – up to 25% as a guide is fine – and to concentrate on taking bigger branches off to reduce the number of wounds. An old apple grower in Kent used to say a well pruned tree was one you could throw your hat through!

The chances are good that when you renovate an old orchard you’ll find heritage apple varieties. Many have only gone out of fashion because they don’t keep, bruise in transit or look asymmetrical. Think about grafting from the cuttings, to perpetuate part of our rural heritage.

If you would like to know more about pruning have a look at this helpful video introduction from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species – big orchard fans because of their importance as a habitat for so many rare flora and fauna.

R.V. Roger

R.V. Roger Ltd. is one of our best suppliers, and typical of the businesses I love to work with.

R.V. Roger
Steve and Ian share a joke (Ian’s crocs?).
The nursery was founded by Royston Valentine Roger before the First War, and today his grandson Ian runs R.V. Roger in the same spot at the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales, in Pickering. There are very few British nurseries left, so they must be doing something right.
They don’t use seasonal labour, and many of the folk working on the nursery have relations there too. Rogers are deeply embedded in the local community. Their staff feel a real sense of belonging and share responsibility for the successful running of the firm.
R.V. Roger fruit trees
Fruit tree, anyone?
They have to feel that way; lifting trees in the dark and a foot of snow is not a job for the faint hearted.
Ian Roger is a passionate plantsman, and has huge knowledge ranging from the heritage fruit trees and roses which are the firm’s bread and butter to rare and exotic bulbs. He’s endlessly patient and a fantastic source of information. It’s his fruit trees and bulbs we sell, although the bulb exotica never make it onto any website as they’re snapped up by collectors.
I visited Rogers in Pickering earlier this week, mostly just to catch up and buy some bits and pieces, but to have a good sticky beak around the nursery as well.
R.V. Roger plant centre
Mary does the watering
Roses at R.V. Roger
35,000 Roses
There are new greenhouses, bizarre bulbs, a garden centre, the odd National Collection, a scion orchard, and, of course, thousands and thousands of roses and fruit trees. The fruit trees include some of the rarest you can find. Fab. R.V. Roger is a great place to visit and a great nursery to support.

Phoargh! Nice Understory…

We’re establishing a kind of mixed orchard area at our new house. I say “kind of” because I’ve slipped a few other things in there, about which more anon, but also because we’re developing a really interesting understory. I’m baffled by folk who plant trees and don’t do anything about the ground around them, which can often be barren. We hear quite a lot from people wanting wildflower meadows in traditional orchard schemes, which is a bit tricky, and we thought we would do something different to match our informal design and interesting plant choices. I started our understory planting last winter when I popped in some Rosa rugosa, together with various berries and currants, and now it’s the time of year to move on to bulbs.
I’m in the middle of planting 3,000; Bluebells (English, of course), Wild daffodils, Wood Anemones, Crocus, winter aconite, Common Snowdrops, Ramsons, Fritillaries – some of my favourite things. They’re going to be perfect as the canopy develops, and I hope there’ll naturalize freely like they’re supposed to because I’m not planting another 3,000! These bulbs have a number of fabulous qualities:
1. They’re beautiful flowers.
2. They often flower at helpful times of year, not just from an aesthetic point of view but also for…
3. …wildlife. Bees crave early season pollen for their developing brood from early flowering plants like winter aconites and crocuses, for example.
4. They generally do well in the shade, where not much else might thrive.
After these have gone in I’m getting some Meadow Cranesbill going in a sunny spot, plus native Foxgloves of course. These are great bumblebee plants; many of our bumblebee species’ natural habitat is, after all, woodland edge, where they thrive.
I’ve got Nepalese and Szechuan pepper plants coming from Otter Farm, and there’s a lot more to go in, but all in good time. We need to let the trees get going and the site develop.

Hookgate Cottage Build

We’re knee deep in building our new house at the moment, and you can follow our project at www.hookgatecottage.com. I’m not just writing about the house build but also the landscaping, which is a vital part of the project. The garden will have to wait until the dust settles next year, but we’ve already started some mixed orchard planting in our field and I’m making first steps at getting some meadow areas going out there too (where our huge heap of spoil allows). Essentially there’ll be three areas; mixed orchard, pond, and meadow. The planting particularly in the orchard areas is going to be innovative and interesting, so stand by for developments!

Nuts!

We taught the children the seventies hazel nuts jingle on a trip to Alba in Piedmont, home of Nutella, when we drove through mile after mile of Hazel plantations. I leave our wild hazel nuts in the hedgerows here to the mice and squirrels*, but try to have our cobnuts – their cultivated cousins – ourselves. They feature in our new mixed orchard scheme at Habitat Aid’s HQ, which was apparently a not uncommon feature of traditional Kentish orchards too; apple trees and smaller cobnut bushes make a very happy combination. We’re also including filberts, which are Corylus maxima rather than avellana, but their nuts are similar to cobs. They can be decorative too; we had a Red Filbert in our last place which looked lovely.

We’ve also – unsurprisingly – popped in a couple of English Walnuts (Juglans regia), which do well hereabouts. I was puzzled there weren’t more mature trees about until I heard about the local sawmill, which used to send a rep around the area offering cash for people’s trees. Yikes. You can get many grafted varieties, but I gather they’re tricky to graft unless you’re a specialist, so we stick with the Black and English Walnuts. There’s the most beautiful Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) nearby in the Bishop’s Palace garden at Wells, but this more ornamental cousin wouldn’t like the clay here.

We have gone for a grafted Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) though, ‘Marron de Lyon’, which will give us a big single nut in every case – or more correctly, cupule (great Scrabble word, fantastic if pluralized). Mrs. Mann’s eyes lit up at the prospect; roasted on their own, used in stuffing, added to casseroles, etc. etc. – check out the chestnut recipes on the BBC website. It was probably the Romans who introduced Sweet Chestnuts to Britain, and they’re still celebrated in that part of the world. We wandered up to a hill top hamlet one autumnal evening on another Italian holiday and into a Marron festival. This was close to Perugia, where the hillsides were full of chestnuts and there were stalls groaning with all things chestnut. We came back laden with gorgeous dark Sweet Chestnut honey, which you’d be struggling to make here as you only get a decent nectar flow off the trees if it’s rather warmer than a typical South Somerset summer – you can’t have everything.

I did think an Almond (Prunus dulcis) would be good for my bees though, as they flower so early. Beautiful trees too, as many nut trees are, though I’m not expecting a massive crop of almonds for next Christmas.

*This is pragmatism rather than generosity; I’m no friend of the grey squirrel

A Partridge in a Helpful Pear Tree

Like 99.99% of the population I’ve never seen a partridge in a pear tree. There are hardly gazillions of partridge around anymore and there are even fewer pear trees. I don’t understand why, as pears have so much going for them. I’m particularly fond of them because they’ve got something for all, from humans to everything else down the foodchain.

Pears as edible fruit are a bit tricksie. They’re either hard as bullets or the wasps have got them. Do not despair! Mrs. Mann has discovered the answer – mulled pears. Yummy. If you’re not talking about edible varieties but rather Perry Pears, then power to you. A good Perry is a delightful and rare thing, and like a MazzardPerry Pear is a handsome ornamental tree.

Fruit needs pollinators. Where local ecosystems are in a mess, as in places in the U.S. or in China, they’re imported in vast numbers. Millions of honeybees are driven across the States to pollinate almonds in California, blueberries in Maine and citrus fruit in Florida. But it’s a two way street; fruit trees are excellent news for bees too. They produce masses of early blossom, ergo masses of early pollen and nectar for hungry honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees.

And not so early blossom too; a well-chosen mix of “top fruit” and soft fruit can provided huge amounts of forage from February to May. The Victorians grew apple varieties like James Grieve as much for their beautiful blossom as their fruit. Pear blossom too is spectacular in early spring.

This is one of the reasons why orchards are great for wildlife – and not just because of their blossom. Different types of fruit tree decay at different rates, but they all give up the ghost quicker than our native trees, which means habitat for all sorts of interesting and endangered goodies. Pyrus (pear) decays relatively slowly, then Malus (apple), and quickest of all are Prunus (cherry, plum, etc.). A mixed orchard will provide saproxylic flora and fauna a wonderful range of niches to thrive in.

These include the Noble Chafer, who is a lovely little chap but endangered. There are also the moth caterpillars which eat fruit tree leaves, for example. Then there’s the six invertebrates associated with Mistletoe, which itself thrives in orchards. Further up the foodchain it’s no surprise that bats and a wide variety of birds love orchards, especially insectivorous and cavity nesting species.

The traditional orchard floor is rich in fungi rather than wildflowers, as its soil tends to be too rich for a diverse sward to develop. That itself makes it a valuable resource for wildlife. That’s true particularly in the autumn when covered with windfalls which are a boon for late butterflies and birds like thrushes and Blackbirds (“Colly Birds”), together with small mammals like Hedgehogs. At Habitat Aid’s HQ we have an area where there are fruit trees with an understory of fruit bushes. Many orchards used to work this way. The gardener’s happy – it looks interesting and it’s low maintenance. The cook’s happy – all sorts of interesting culinary opportunities. And as for the wildlife… biodiversity is first cousin to utility as well as it is to beauty.

The best time to plant fruit trees is now. The bare root trees we sell are not only cheaper but will also do much better than pot grown, and are best planted over the winter when the plants are dormant.

Urban Greening

I surprised myself when I managed to struggle through the science “O” Level for non-scientists – “Physical Science”, it used to be called. It did teach me to respect proper science though, and I reserve a special admiration for scientists at the top of their game who can explain what they’re up to without causing the kind of sensory shutdown induced by Mr. Ball the biology teacher*.
I heard one on Wednesday, at the RHS’s first annual John McLeod lecture. Diane Pataki is a sparky Californian academic whose interest is urban greenspace. She’s based in LA, which has its own peculiarities (not least folk nicking her monitoring kit), but some of her work has very practical application for us in the UK.
Perhaps the best reason for planting a million trees in LA, which is what they’re doing, is that there is a really nice correlation between the percentage of tree canopy cover and daytime temperatures. Trees shade and reflect and absorb radiation. Diane reckons that they will be able to reduce daytime temperatures by a whopping 5 degrees (Fahrenheit), which will mean a 15% drop in electricity usage as everyone switches their aircon off. 15%! She’s also worked out which trees to plant too. Among other considerations, different species have vastly different transpiration rates and low water using species like the Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and Jacaranda trees don’t necessarily grow the slowest.
In LA, of course, water use is a real issue, and very much an ecosystem cost rather than a service – so this kind of work is important in mitigating it. In the UK it’s more likely that too much water – and arriving too quickly – is a concern. Urban green spaces can certainly moderate stormwater run-off and absorb groundwater.
I hadn’t thought clearly about other societal benefits, which Diane grouped under Provisioning, Regulating and Cultural. This might be old hat to some of you, but it was thought provoking for eco-newbies. Local varieties of fruit trees, for example, tick all sorts of boxes in all three areas of “ecosystem services”; food (provisioning), climate/water (regulation) and aesthetic/sense of place/heritage/etc. (cultural)
One area where the message was more equivocal was carbon sequestration. It turns out you would have to plant gazillions of trees to make a minor dent in a major city’s carbon emissions. What was encouraging, though, were calculations showing the difference between playing fields and wildflower meadows. I’d assumed the emissions from the kit needed to manicure lawns meant they were less friendly. Well yes, but there are other problems with them too. First off there’s the fact that undisturbed earth absorbs much more carbon dioxide. Secondly – and most importantly – is the Nitrous Oxide (struggles to interpret notes at this point) produced by fertilisers, which is a particularly pernicious greenhouse gas. These are the fertilisers which are good for lawns and bad for meadows. Hurrah! We like this.
Diane didn’t talk much about habitat, which to be honest is a given.“Woodland edge” (in the UK often approximating to “suburban garden”) is top for a wide range of fauna.
Hats off to the RHS for putting the lecture on, and next year’s deserves wider airplay than a 2 minute slot in the Today programme (N.B. John Humphries, this isn’t “gardening”). It was a shame, too, that the introductory and closing remarks didn’t mention the RHS’s own Urban Greening initiative and sounded more like an appeal for the church roof fund. Mr. Ball would definitely have approved of Diane Pataki, though. I look forward to reading a proper write up in The Garden.

*not entirely fair. Mr. Ball was a very nice bloke.

Newsletter No.17: September 2011

We’ve got so much going on it’s difficult to know where to start. All our current projects have a single theme though – to reach a wider audience. It seems to me we’re doing OK with those folk who have an active interest in nature conservation, for whom – after all – we’re pushing all the right buttons. Where we’ll be putting most of our efforts in 2012, however, is to try to bring what we do into the commercial mainstream. That’s not to say we’re changing any of our values, but we have to broaden the appeal of what we’re promoting to improve the scale and impact of what we’re doing. I’m constantly surprised by how little most of my friends know about what is happening outside their own back doors. When they find out I’m equally startled by how quickly and enthusiastically they get switched on to what we’re trying to promote. Our new marketing push starts in October, where you’ll be able to see me at the Creating Landscapes Show.

Chelsea 2012

We’re very excited to announce that we’ve been invited by the RHS to take a stand in their “Lifelong Learning” area at Chelsea next year, where the theme will be urban greening. We will be using it to show how native plants can be used in contemporary design for urban gardens. The subtext will be the creation of different micro-habitats within the design, but the whole point of it is that it won’t be an overtly “wildlife garden”. We’ll also be using it to promote key messages from our partner charities.

Hookgate Cottage

The planning application for our building project has gone in, so we now wait with bated breath. You can see the proposed plans and initial landscape design at www.hookgatecottage.com
I’ll be writing a monthly column on the project for Build It magazine, which will also include commentary on the landscaping, as it’s such an important part of the project. As with our Chelsea stand, the theme of it is very much to bring habitat creation into the core philosophy of garden design.

Biodiversity Services

The recent White Paper on Biodiversity has probably passed most of you by, but it caused some excitement in our office. Among other things it calls for government departments to increase their efforts at helping biodiversity, as we fall further and further behind the targets set in Nagoya. Habitat Aid is putting together a new product which helps government and corporates to improve the biodiversity in their sites. More next month…

New Products

We continue to add new products and suppliers to the website. This month we welcome Cornish Apple Trees, and will be adding more apple varieties from
different regions to our ever expanding list over the next couple of weeks as well. Orders for bare root trees are beginning to pick up and I’m already beginning to fret about the availablity of some of our more obscure fruit tree varieties. We’ve also recently expanded our native aquatic plant section and native bulbs.