When we moved to Somerset in 2001 picked apples falling into buckets was the defining sound of autumn. We live opposite a traditional cider orchard, and for weeks from the beginning of September farmer and father-in-law picked for the local factory. The road to Shepton was full of tractors pulling apple carts. Then one year it was quiet; the factory had started to import concentrate from China, and there was no market for any local apples at all.
It seemed a shame, not just economically. The orchard, typical of local cider orchards, has a good mix of mature trees and is a real asset, not least in terms of its biodiversity value. In 2007 a group of us decided to form a village co-op and turn cider makers to keep it alive. We chose the name of the cider from an ancient local legend; the Bullbeggar of Creech Hill (which overlooks the village) is a restless spirit who waylays folk late at night. The history of human settlement on the hill goes back to the neolithic, so no-one’s quite sure where he came from.
Every year now we invite everyone to come along to pick on Apple Day and lay on a little spread for helpers. In 2008 we harvested about two and a half tonnes in no time at all, as we had half the village turn out. We don’t have our own press – yet – so we haul it off to Hecks Cider Farm for pressing, then bring the juice back to our own cider barn to ferment and rack. Some we then carbonate and bottle, some we leave in the wood for local events.
We’ve nearly recouped our investment now, thanks largely to the indefatigable Nick Smallwood, and we’ll be donating any profits to the village hall and church. The cider’s not bad either.
Sometimes my nerve nearly fails me. Perhaps it is a symptom of the world we live in that there are too many generalists about, and that they seem to have too much front. In my previous incarnation that’s exactly what I was, knowing a little about a broad spectrum of Japanese / investment topics and a little about how stock prices behaved, and now on a bad day it seems I am reinventing myself as a kind of unqualified eco-generalist.
I recently blithely started to research a range of historical herb garden collections to be sold to help raise funds for the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University, about whom more another time. Bees love herbs and herbalists love bees; it’s a natural love affair that has persisted since well before Antony and Cleopatra, and as complicated.
Fortunately I keep stumbling across really good people to help me. I was looking for some Viola odorata the other day, and it turned out there was a supplier just up the road – Arne Herbs, run by the affable Anthony Lyman-Dixon. I should have known about Anthony who, it turns out, is the expert’s expert in historical gardens. His specialty is the Medieval and early Renaissance, but unsurprisingly he’s no slouch outside his period and full of super-informed advice. He suggested Linda Farrar’s “Ancient Roman Gardens” as an introduction and the polymath (most definitely not “generalist”) Pliny the Elder as a principal source for a “Roman garden collection”. Pliny loved bees, specifically honeybees, but although his nephew was an engaging enough read as an A level text, Alan Titchmarsh he ain’t. Thank goodness, Antony is continuing to help me through textual interpretations and the practical difficulties of plant selection.
Another area, another supplier, and I’m just pleased to be able to promote them. We hope to be able to launch our range of historic herb garden collections later in the autumn. I should stop worrying and just believe in serendipity.
It’s nearly September and there seems to be a new urgency in the air. Now we have taken our honey the honeybees, battling wasps at the hive entrance, are building up stores ready for winter. The butterflies now look very ragged and faded, as do this year’s Bumblebees – although the new queens look pristine, and are feeding frantically to build up fat for their hibernation.
I’m acutely aware of the need for nectar flow before the ivy flowers, and for us although Verbena and some Asters seem to do well for insects at this time of year the plant that ticks all the boxes is Sedum, or Stonecrop (spectabile) and Orpine (telephium). The large flowerheads with their scores of florets are perfect for most pollinators. We’ve devoted a nice big section of a sunny southwest facing border to it, where I grow three different varieties in order to ensure seamless foraging from late August to October. As ever, the fancier the cultivar the less helpful it is – I’ve had several failed experiments.
I’m cursing because I can’t remember the name of the more prostrate plant shown right- can you help me out ? Incidentally, there are many more of the smaller male bumblebees about at this time of year. Having mated they have nothing to do; lacking pollen baskets all they do is feed. Sedum telephium ‘Purple Emperor’ (pictured right), named after its foliage rather than flower colour, is in full flower at the moment and attracting a wide range of pollinators. Or at least I think that’s what it is; it might just be Orpine, Sedum telephium ‘Matrona’, which is another fabulous nectar plant. The odd honeybee and Carder bee are trying to winkle open ‘Autumn Joy’ (below right) already – in a week or so the flowerheads will be heaving with honeybees once the sun hits them. Excuse all the bumblebee photos by the way – I’m honing my identification skills, and I’m seemingly no better at picking different kinds of Sedum than I am Carder bees…
I’m a big fan – and member of – the Cottage Garden Society. The CGS is a group of about 6,000 friendly and typically experienced gardeners, organized into small regional groups in the UK. Without being preachy they have an underlying philosophy I absolutely empathise with:
Gardens now provide vital habitats for wildlife, as a result of changes in farming methods, increased use of chemicals, destruction of orchards, hedges and ponds. By growing simpler, traditional cottage garden flowers such as lavender, thyme and other herbs, foxgloves, pinks and single varieties of flowers, rather than modern, double-flowered varieties, we can help to maintain a variety of birds, butterflies, insects etc. Modern hybrid flowers are often sterile and produce no nectar for insects, who have an important role in pollinating our fruit and flowers. Bees in particular need gardeners help in providing nectar-rich flowers – bumble bees are especially affected by the loss of food plants, and their numbers have declined. Other beneficial insects, birds, frogs, toads, hedgehogs also contribute to our gardens in helping to keep down insect pests, slugs and snails. By encouraging biodiversity in our gardens, we can help maintain the precarious balance of nature.
This might very well have come from our own website. Membership is from a very reasonable £9, for which you get a range of benefits adding up to a lot of practical help.
We live round the corner from Shepton Mallet, home of Babycham and now Brothers Pear Cider, so you might think that perry, to pears what cider is to apples, is big around here.
It’s not. The new pear ciders are either made from imported concentrated pear juice with sugar added, or they’re cider with synthetic pear flavouring. Traditional perry is actually pretty much impossible to produce commercially as the trees are difficult to harvest and the juice difficult to ferment. The pears are inedible and crops erratic. In any case the trees are too big to spray. So why bother with it?
Perry is part of our heritage. It was most likely introduced to the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border by either the Romans or Normans. Local conditions suited the trees; rain and sunshine, and deep soils. Its long history means that there are estimated to be over 100 varieties in Gloucestershire, with many more synonyms rich in local meaning. Thus Yellow Huffcap is also Black Huffcap, Chandos Huffcap, Green Huffcap, Kings Arms and Yellow Longland. Other varieties are Mumblehead, Merrylegs, Lumberskull, Drunkers and Devildrink, Pint, Ducksbarn, Green Horse, Holmer and Nailer.
The trees are beautiful. We have planted Thorn, Butt, Brandy and Parsonage in our orchard and they are all very healthy looking trees, even given recent wet summers. No disease and good strong growth; Parsonage is the biggest variety we have, which will grow to the size of a reasonable sized oak. Even if you completely disregarded the fruit, they are worth growing for their blossom alone, which is early and fantastically plentiful.
It’s not just the blossom (great for our bees!) that makes them a really good tree for biodiversity. They are typically much longer lived than apple trees, and – as a rule of thumb – veteran trees will support more species. Traditional apple orchards are themselves great havens of biodiversity, but Jon Ardle quotes a 2004 survey of just 13.3 acres of three traditional perry orchards which recorded an amazing 1,800 species of plants, animals, and fungi.
Lastly, the perry itself. To be honest, I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent perry – but then I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent cider over the years. And I’ve tasted some lovely perry too. The shows are a good place to sample it; I had a lovely drop at the Royal Welsh and there is a Festival of Perry at the Malvern Show, 26-27 September.
We currently sell a perry tree collection and will be selling individual varieties later in the year – do let us know if you might be interested.
I spent a very happy time today on Salisbury Plain with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Pippa Rayner and a group of enthusiasts learning about bumblebee identification. There are 14,000 Hectares of unimproved chalk downland – or 20% of Europe’s total – on the plain, which means it is bumblebee central. Although gardeners can do a lot, restoration of species rich grassland habitat is the key to restoring the fortunes of many bumblebees.
Pippa is particularly working on saving the Shrill Carder Bee, which looks as if it could be the next of our bumblebees to go extinct. It’s clinging on in pockets of the South West, including around us, and we’re hoping that our meadow projects might help save this once common bee. Thanks to Pippa’s tuition, now I think I ‘d be able to identify one if we are lucky enough to come across it.
Ern’s sheep have grazed our field and orchard forever but he’s found himself short of ewes and long of pasture this year, so it was a good opportunity for us to tentatively diversify by buying some new stock. Sheep are important to us as we need their tidy grazing to keep the grass under control, but they are also increasingly helpful to open up our meadow sward after mowing and before growth restarts in Spring. Wildflowers need help if they’re not to be overwhelmed by grasses.
For this reason Poll Dorsets suggested themselves; the breed is unusual in that they will lamb at any time of year, so if we get our timing right we will have have lambs ready to graze the meadow aftermath from September next year. Not only that but they’re a good looking quality local sheep known for their wool, and bred from the historic Dorset Horn.
Ern currently has 20 odd Mule ewes, so we thought we could add another 5 Poll Dorsets to the flock. First port of call was the Breeder’s Association, which led us to Graham Langford’s Blackdown Flock. We were smitten – and impressed by the economic potential of such immaculately bred sheep.
They’re now helping graze our existing meadow area and a new section of field, which has been chain harrowed and sown with seed we have collected. The plan is to have lambs for next Autumn, ready for market in early 2011 – once we’ve found a good quality ram. We’ll keep some to increase the flock size and, over time, maybe even persuade Ern to get into the pedigree sheep business.