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.

Which Fruit Trees Should I Grow?

I want to grow some fruit trees, but where do I start? I don’t understand pollination groups or rootstocks, or the difference between a stepover and a cordon and a maiden and a bush. Help!

It’s a familiar cry. Folk quickly get bogged down when they’re shopping for fruit trees, as there are so many varieties and options open to them if they want to do things properly, rather than nip down to the nearest B&Q and end up with the wrong type of fruit tree. I’m faced with the same problem at the moment as we consider the possibilities for our new garden, so I went back to basics…

I like these…

1. Which fruit do I/we like? Grow the fruit you want to eat! Delicious they may be to some, but I’m not very keen on Medlars – so there’s absolutely no point planting them. Although it’s easier said than done these days, try to find different varieties to taste. Although they’er not West country varieties, I’m a big fan of the apples Ashmead’s Kernel and St. Edmund’s Pippin, which we’ll be planting; I originally tried them at a local farmer’s market – no way would you find them in a supermarket.

2. What am I going to use the fruit for? Is there a keen cook in the house? If there’s someone who wants to make jams and flans it will not only influence the varieties you buy, but also the volume of fruit you can deal with. You’ll also need appreciative consumers. You might not like cider, but everyone loves home made apple juice – which you can freeze as well as drink fresh. An orchard sized apple tree can produce something like 1000lbs of fruit – that’s a lot of apple juice! If you have several of one type of fruit, make sure they ripen at different times and/or that you’re buying a variety that stores well.

3. Do I want anything else from my fruit trees? You may have secondary considerations to think about, maybe aesthetic. You might want particularly attractive blossom, of a certain colour and/or timing, or you might like nice looking fruit. In the Mann household there are other considerations too – I like early flowering varieties for my bees, which leads me to looking at more exotic options like Almonds.

Big trees for a good workout

4. How much space do I have? By grafting onto rootstocks of different vigour you can have a tree of the same variety but very different size. Obviously, you’ll get less fruit from the smaller trees, but they can be a lot more convenient. We only sell varieties grafted on larger rootstocks – see here for details of sizes and planting spaces – but you can find really dwarfing rootstocks or, alternatively, “cordons”, which can be planted under a metre apart. You can buy trained forms as well, to grow up walls and along paths.

5. What are the local conditions like? It’s no coincidence that we are surrounded by apples as we have heavy soil and wet weather, which puts paid to Quinces, for example. Perry Pears do well hereabouts too, which explains why Babycham was made down the road. Plums, on the other hand, prefer lighter soils. They will stand the wind though and, consequently, work well in exposed sites or around the edge of a mixed orchard, where they will protect other trees. By way of contrast pears need sun and shelter. If you’re not sure what will do well in your own garden, do some research. Have a look around to see what’s growing close to you, and find out if there are any trees which have either orginated from the area or were widely grown.

6. Do I need to think about pollination? Mostly not. Apples are easy; there’ll generally be another apple or crab apple within a quater of a mile to act as a pollinator. Most plums and gages are self fertile. The only tricky customer is the pear, most of which are self sterile, so will need at least another tree in the vicinity. If you’re worried consult a pollination list, but I suspect the most important thing you can do to encourage pollination is to encourage the pollinators.

7. How big a tree should I buy? This is a different question to any consideration about rootstocks. You can buy a one year old “maiden” tree, which is little more than a stick, and if it has been grafted onto a vigorous rootstock it will grow into a tree over 4m tall in no time. It’s tempting to buy as big as tree as you can find; you’ll get fruit quicker and it will look more impressive where you need it to. On balance, though, try to avoid it. It’s not so much the obvious cost differential as how well the tree will develop – you’ve got a much better chance of successfully growing a long lived and healthy tree from a small sapling as from a larger tree (say 6 foot and over) that’s been wrenched out of the ground to get to you. You won’t have to stake it or dig a whopping big hole to plant it in, and it has a much higher % of its root system intact. Simples. Within a few years the sapling will overtake the bigger tree anyway. Don’t – whatever you do – buy some fancy semi-mature or even mature fruit tree. It will cost you a fortune and it will fall over.

I’ve put a tentative fruit tree order in for this autumn’s bare root planting season. I’ll be getting the trees from me, if you see what I mean, but if you don’t buy your trees from Habitat Aid please use a specialist British nursery.

Moving On

One of the reasons I’ve not blogged as often as I should recently is that this cold snap has conspired to come at the height of my bare root delivery season. It’s hard enough to get people onto the website and then to buy. How agonizing then for their trees to sit in a courier’s depot in Hornsey for three days. Dear customer, if it’s bad for you, it’s worse for us.
The other reason is that we’re moving house in January, with all the palaver that involves. You would have thought that conveyancing solicitors might have upped their game over the last couple of years; it’s not as if they’ve been overwhelmed with work. Anyway, having cut our way through a legal Gordian knot we’re now confronted with the practical issues of moving my home office and sorting our way through years of accumulated family stuff.
This is an aspect of downsizing from our beautiful big house I’m finding very positive; I love chucking stuff into the skip when no-one’s looking. I love the idea of not spending a mortgage each year on oil bills and replacing window frames too. I love the prospect of new challenges and new land.
Of course we’re sad as well. We’ve been here for over ten years and, however unrealistic it might have been, at one point we thought we might stay until carried out in coffins. I think Caroline has just about got used to the idea of not being buried in the village church and leaving our little community on two feet. It has been brilliant fun and we’ve been very lucky to have had the chance of looking after the house for a short span of its life. We have lots of happy family memories here, as do the children.
I’ve fond memories of the land as well; renovating the orchard, making our meadow, ditching, tree planting in the field, my first efforts at hedgelaying, and Mike’s veg patch. As to the fauna, there were the Barn Owls in the box at the top of the field, my bees, pigs and sheep, mad Runner Ducks and more recently dragonflies, bats and swallows over the new pond. Looking after it all properly has been a great joy, but has also represented a huge investment in time and care.
I hadn’t realized what a threat mobility is to our relationship to the land. Would I have done the things I have if I knew we would be moving house? It’s easy to rationalize putting an orchard in when you know that there will be another generation following you in the same house. It’s trickier when you might not see the trees past 5 feet tall and there’s no prospect of financial gain from them. A friend of ours at Devon County Council says they have problems persuading retirees to plant trees as they can’t see the point.
Perhaps if there were a financial motivation it would help. As a beautiful formal garden adds to the value of a house, maybe we could also learn to appreciate the aesthetic and practical attractions of meadow areas, ponds and trees. The Estate Agent had no real idea what was happening outside the back door when they visited and wanted to describe it as “paddock”, which they thought would be more commercial. We don’t know how to value this sort of stuff.

Pink Orchards

My next FT piece came out this weekend – on the joys of half-forgotten fruit. Forgive me being rather one track minded of late, but I’m knee deep in processing fruit tree orders…

I hope I did enough in the article to persuade some people to start their own small orchard, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough space to rattle on about the biodiversity value of a traditional orchard. What is a “traditional orchard”? It’s a group of standard sized trees – as opposed to trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks – planted on permanent grassland. They’re now on the list of Priority Habitats under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), as old trees and associated grassland make for an enormously rich ecosystem. Most of our fruit trees are relatively short lived, and dead and decaying wood means not only all sorts of fungi, but also invertebrates, and refuges for birdlife. The birds enjoy the insects and fruit too, on which late season butterflies also feed as it starts to rot. In the spring, the blossom attracts a host of other pollinating insects, who will also prosper in the rich understorey of wildflowers and grasses.

The Bloody Ploughman

How many fruit trees are there in this story? Mostly varieties of apple, but with some others thrown in for good measure. You can count a variety more than once if it is repeated.

The Bloody Ploughman

They found the dead boy in the parsonage just after the coronation of George V. I remember it because I went to Ascot with my mother and nanny to see the new Queen, and came back tipsy after too many Gin Martinis. James Grieve, the young ploughman, was in the potting shed, where he had been beaten with the heavy rock which now lay beside him. There was a distinct aroma of brandy about, which had been spilt on some sacks, and signs of a struggle, including a broken hoe.

The harvest festival party was the night before and many of the revellers had stayed on, including the party from the big house, who had been enjoying Lady Henniker’s hospitality. Lord Lambourne, back home from service in the Middle East with the Grenadier Guards, had found the body. His spartan exercise regime took him on a jog around the village shortly after sunrise, and when he passed the forge he noticed a trail of blood leading under the parsonage gate on the opposite side of the road. He called for help when he found the dead youth, and old Fred the blacksmith came running. Fred was the butt of a great deal of ribbing from the jesters in the village. He was known to his friends as the Cornish Giant and to his enemies as the Missing Link. Anyway, he fetched Doctor Hogg from Sandringham, but even the great man couldn’t do anything. He did notice a curious feature of the killing, though; someone had left a cat’s head close to the body, covered by what seemed to be green custard.

The delicious Annie Elizabeth, local coquette, was the main suspect. James had rejected her advances in favour of her rival in love, the wealthy Ruby Thorn, renowned Beauty of Bath. Nothing was ever proved, however, and soon after the murder war broke out. Lord Lambourne went on to become a pilot in the RAF and was badly wounded trying to escape from his cockpit at the climax of the Battle of Britain. Ruby met Lord Derby (the Olympic gold medal winner) at the Yalta Conference, and the Reverend Wilks married them at St. Cecilia’s after the war. Annie Elizabeth died on Victory in Europe day in 1945, some say of a broken heart. Others reckoned it was the cider.

Cider Apple Picking

When we first moved into the village the noise of apples being dropped into buckets was, as much as Robins singing at dusk, one of the defining noises of autumn. Then the cider factory up the road stopped taking local apples and the orchard fell silent. Since when, though, inspired by traditional local cider makers like Hecks and Julian Temperley we have formed a village cider co-op. We now make an invigorating cider we called Bullbeggar, after our local spirit (every proper village in Somerset has a ghost). With Hecks’ help we bottle some for sale locally and in London, and sell the rest in the barrel at local fetes and festivals. The process starts with harvesting the apples, on an afternoon either on or close to the official Apple Day. Ern’s orchard is proper kit – a really nice mix of traditional cider varieties – so interesting to work in. The weather is aways glorious, as is the gossip and the tea. Community, local history, local food, habitat. Fantastic.

A Little Outing

A quick trip to the Marches last week to visit a couple of folk and the Malvern Show. I’m not going to mention any of my normal Show gripes, but concentrate on the positive. The nice thing about the trip was the strong sense of what Common Ground would call “local distinctiveness”. It’s part of the world that hasn’t sold its soul.

I got off to a good start by visiting Jenny Steel in Shropshire to have a catch up over a coffee, and thence to Plant Wild, outside Leominster. Plant Wild is the brainchild of Keith Arrowsmith and Suzanne Noble, who are growing and harvesting native plants and seeds. Keith, like me, is a refugee from an altogether different world. Fingers crossed we might work together and we can sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixtures.

Overnighted at the Three Horseshoes in Little Cowarne. The Good Pub Guide rarely lets me down, and I’m always amazed with the quality and value our best independent pubs provide. Local produce – food and drink – the watchword. Lovely Wye Valley Bitter and fantastic draft cider from Oliver’s, which as it turns out is just down the road. And some bloke came in and bought a round of a Becks and three Carlsbergs. Sigh.

Set off for the Malvern Show with some trepidation on Saturday – my thoughts on Gardening Shows are well documented, so I won’t go over them again. Gorgeous day though, and had a lovely time. Spent most of my time in and around the “Good Life” tent to avoid the tat. Met up with Ian Roger, my main fruit tree supplier, whose amazing display of traditional apple varieties won him a Gold medal. He was even more chuffed by the response from the punters to his stand. More Perry and Cider tasting, of course; particularly liked Severn Cider’s Perry and Cider – good luck to you.

This Bloke Walked into a Pub with a Szechuan Pepper...
Bravura performances by Mark Diacono and that Joe Swift (he should be on TV), and John Wright. Mark and John were promoting their new books, which are rather good. EVERYONE with an interest in food and the countryside should read them. God knows, we all need a bit of inspiration at the moment. I wonder if social historians of the future will talk about a River Cottage movement and its impact on food. And what nice people, too. Talking of which, there were various bloggers about, including Veg Plotting and the Patient Gardener, who it was nice to see – albeit briefly. I wish I could have stayed longer for a proper chat.

Heavy HorseTo cap a fine day – and before I got lost in the ludicrously unsigned carpark – I was asked to sell Perry Pear trees at the show next year. Delighted to, especially if it means another stay in Little Cowarne. I wonder if I could sell some local seed for Keith and Suzanne too. Oh – and I almost forgot – here’s a heavy horse photo for my mum.

Apple Trees and Local Distinctiveness

Kingsley the ram
Kingsley likes Ribston Pippins

It’s September, and we’ve picked our early apples for juicing – despite the sheeps’ close attention. It’s funny to think of the generations of apple pickers there have been in our orchard. It was on the earliest map of the village there is, and we’re just up the road from a late Roman settlement; I can perfectly well imagine the Saxons having the same arguments with their sheep in the same place.

We’ve recently started to value traditional orchards for their ecology; since 1997 they have been Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats:

Traditional Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity and have been shown to provide a refuge for over 1800 species from the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.

Orchard Network

We’re also now valuing traditional local fruit varieties to eat (and drink!) of course, partly for environmental reasons and no thanks to the supermarkets, which aren’t set up to deal with localised purchasing. As for their aesthetic beauty, that’s never been in doubt – our Perry Pears are every bit as amazing in flower as any of the cherry blossom I saw in Japan when we lived there. The clincher for me, though, is the local and historic context of these old trees.

The fruite of apples do differ in greatness, forme, colour and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellowe or green, varying indefinitely according to the soyle and climate; some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort; some are sweet or tastie, or something sower; most be of a middle taste betweene sweete and sower, to which to distinguish I thinke it impossible…
John Gerarde, 1597 (quoted in The Common Ground Book of Orchards)

No wonder; there are supposedly 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Like all the other varieties of traditionally grown top fruit here, they are all closely associated with their own areas and the history and social structure of their local communities. Where we are, in Somerset, the landscape is still dotted with mixed farm cider orchards full of local apple trees, many of them named after their villages. Originating within 10 miles of us, according to the Somerset Pomona we have Cadbury, Dunkerton’s Late, Honeystring, Neverblight, Norton Bitters, Pennard Bitter, Pig’s Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Silver Cup, Somerset, Sweet Pethyre, Yarlington Mill… And historical apple trees? You can still buy varieties dating back to Roman times. We sell trees grown from a graft of Isaac Newton’s tree and Hunthouse, the Yorkshire variety that Captain Cook took with him on his travels to fight scurvy.
One of the things I am most happy that we have done is to help Common Ground promote as many of these local varieties as we can and to help Ian Roger sell them. To my enormous pleasure we are now even selling Perry Pears and Mazzards (edible wild cherries) to add to traditional fruit trees like Mulberries, Medlars and Quinces and local varieties of Gages, Plums, Damsons, Pears, and Cherries. Beauty of Stoke, Claygate Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Crawley Beauty, Keswick Codlin – there will be apple trees or other fruit trees which are local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similar prices – would you buy a sofa from Ikea or one designed by a local expert for your house? Even if you’re thinking about just popping a small fruit tree into your back garden don’t just pick up something from B&Q, but find a local variety. Chances are it will do better – and you’ll be contributing to a rich and ancient local heritage.

Mazzard, my liege?

Mazzard at Harford, near Landkey

I’d never heard of a Mazzard until Ian asked me to have a look at them, but it turns out I should have done. They are edible varieties of wild cherry, historically particularly associated with the Southwest and currently undergoing a revival in North Devon. They are really beautiful, large trees which would look lovely in a mixed orchard and which all but disappeared in the 20th century. I spoke to the authority on them, Michael Gee, and subsequently bought his booklet, which finishes with a description of the Landkey Millenium Green project – a really lovely story. More than that, though, it has put these ancient and handsome trees back on the map. The varieties propagated for the project were those identified from existing local trees; Bottler, Dun, Greenstem Black, Hannaford, and Small Black. I wonder if I could squeeze a couple in somewhere…
Word of their renaissance is spreading. I bumped into another interesting chap, Stuart Peachey, who runs a business called Historical Management Associates Ltd. Among other things, Stuart will recreate a medieval feast for you and to this end grows all sorts of historic fruit for complete authenticity, including Mazzards. Fantastic.
Picture courtesy of Charles Waldron & Explore North Devon Project