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.