Thursday, 31 January 2013

billhooks and brash

The hedge at the bottom of the orchard has been getting a bit out of hand over the last few years, so this winter I decided to lay it.  Forgot to take any ‘before’ pictures, but it was looking a lot like this…

And now it looks like this……

For any purists out there, I realise it’s not the most stylish piece of hedge laying in the world, but it is hedge laying - and I did it by myself.  You wallop your way through each stem almost all the way, leaving just a thin strip of living material that’s flexible enough to bend the whole thing over. Every metre or so you cut a few stems tall as living stakes and then weave the other stuff into and around them. Doing a whole hedge like this creates a dense stock proof barrier - the plan is to graze sheep in the orchard this year. It’s also a great resource for wildlife.

The traditional weapon of choice for this job is a billhook.  There’s something fantastically empowering and ‘don’t mess with me’ about slashing your way through a hedge with a billhook.  I would recommend it to anyone – especially since my idea of ‘women’s chainsaw group’ fell on pretty stony ground. It’s particularly gratifying as it’s almost exactly a year since I had carpal tunnel surgery on both my wrists, so it’s great to feel strong again.  I can’t believe that in less than 12 months I’ve gone from feeling like someone had swapped my hands for a pair of tiny kittens, to thinking ‘Hmm – must go lay that hedge’.  Proves there’s light at the end of the (carpal) tunnel.

The hedge is mixed native species, mostly hawthorn and hazel, so as a by-product I’ve ended up with a lovely big pile of hazel ‘brash’.  This will make fantastic pea sticks, but it's handy for all sorts of things in the meantime, like keeping the pesky woodpigeons off my brassicas.

Here is everything you could wish to know about hedge laying.  When it’s done well they are truly beautiful, and this is the perfect time of year to appreciate the craft when you’re out and about in the British countryside. There are all kinds of different regional styles to spot if you’re a big nerd like me.  As you can see from my pictures I favour the ‘make it up out of your own head’ style….

Monday, 28 January 2013

in praise of winter radish

black radishes

Some of the more modest heroes of the exceptionally lousy UK growing season that was 2012, were the winter radishes.  Now I realise they’re not the greatest lookers, but while the turnips and the carrots, (that mostly never germinated in the first place), are a distant memory – these guys have been resolutely soldiering on.  The melting snow revealed them and I thought it was definitely their time to shine. These are a variety from 1548 called ‘Black Spanish Round’, which together with their brothers ‘Black Spanish Long’, are collectively known as winter radish.  You can grow them all season but they stand well into the winter without going woody if you sow them later.

they're beautifully white inside

Now I don’t know if I should admit to this, but I always allow myself a slightly juvenile snicker at some of the veg names that have been handed down to us by our gardening ancestors.  Black Spanish Long sounds like you might find it in the ‘special equipment section’ at your local adult toystore - top shelf in between the Prince Alberts and Connover’s Colossal.  If, like me, you love words and language, the heirloom veg section of a seed catalogue is a great place to roll around.  Thomas Etty’s lovely catalogue is a particular favourite – worth a look even if he can’t ship the seeds to your country; the detail is glorious and you may be able to find a local supplier.  Who could resist a lettuce called ‘Fat Lazy Blond’ or a French bean called ‘Nun’s Bellybutton’?  Not me!

Anyway – back to the radishes.  Here is a picture of some that I have cut up ready to go into a chicken pie for tonight’s supper.  They have a very mild peppery flavour and would happily sub for turnip or swede in any stew/casserole recipe.

cut up for a pie

I started putting root veg (and a couple of surreptitious handfuls of red lentils), into my pies as a way of broadening the palate of my younger stepson, who was a bit of a teenage veg dodger when I first made his acquaintance.  I was able to produce documentary evidence that his favourite store bought Cornish pasty included swede on its ingredient list, which swung things in my favour. Six years down the track, it’s not Stepmommy’s Special Chicken Pie if it hasn’t got some chunky root veg in it – result!  Not sure if he knows about the lentils yet but he’ll never read this….. will he?  Should I take out the bit about the Prince Alberts....?!?!?

Friday, 25 January 2013

happy St Dwynwen's day

Just remembered as I sat down to write a post about pruning cuts, that it's St Dwynwen's day in Wales.  She's the patron saint of lovers and her story, (various versions available), is a tragic tale of thwarted young love and ending up in a nunnery on Anglesey.  So a happy St Dwynwen's to you all - seedy in the best possible way!

Now in a slightly strange juxtaposition - let's talk some more about pruning.......

There’s an awful lot of palaver made in gardening books about getting the angle of your pruning cuts exactly right so that the water runs off.  This has always struck me as slightly spurious – we’re not talking gate posts or shed roofs here!

I think it’s easier to remember what to do if you think about how plants grow – it’s all about the nodes.  The bit where a bud/leaf emerges from a shoot is called the node, and the bits in between are called the internodal spaces (feel free to impress your friends down the pub with that one).  In terms of growing action, the plant can only produce a new shoot from a node.

When you’re making a pruning cut, the thing you want snuggled right up close to the end of the shoot is a bud.  If you leave a stub by angling your pruning cut the ‘wrong’ way, or cutting halfway up the internodal space, the plant tissue will just die back until it gets to a viable bud.  So if you were doing something like an apple tree where you cut every single shoot, you’d end up with a halo of dead stuff all over the plant.  Your pruning cuts should leave the plant ready for action when the sap rises in the spring with a nice healthy bud at the end of each shoot.

too long
sloping wrong way

The same theory applies to taking cuttings – the thing you need at the bottom of the cutting for root production is a node.  So make the cut at the bottom of your cutting just below a bud/leaf joint. Convention has it that these cuts should be straight across rather than angled.  The main benefit of doing this is it helps you tell which way up the cutting should go when you stick it in the pot – pointy at the top, flat at the bottom.

pointy end up - flat end down

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

happiness is a full seed box

More seeds arrived today - that’s nearly everything that I ordered.  There’s a few of the more arcane things left to come from Thomas Etty. I do have moments where I think I should alphabetise my seed box – but I think maybe that’s a guy thing (correct me if I’m wrong).  It’s as much as I can do to keep all my cabbagey things together without having them filed under ‘k’ for kale, ‘c’ for collard greens and ‘b’ for broccoli. Also does corn salad go under ‘c’ for corn, ‘s’ for salad or ‘l’ for lambs lettuce?  See!?! – Bored with it already! 

The other very exciting thing that arrived today was the shallots and garlic – Yay!  In spite the old adage to ‘plant on the shortest day - harvest on the longest day’, I usually get mine in some time in early February.  They need a long growing season with a good cold spell at the beginning, which helps the bulbs split and form a proper head.

The garlic is ‘Solent Wight’, a softneck variety that reliably produces good size heads and stores really well, and the shallots are ‘Golden Gourmet’. It’s worth getting your garlic from a garden centre or mail order – planting stuff from the supermarket means you’ll be growing varieties that prefer hotter climates.  The varieties with Isle of Wight names are better adapted to our cooler, shorter growing season.

After harvesting in late July, I like to plait the garlic and string the shallots, which makes them look very fancy, (but it’s easy when someone shows you – I’ll teach you some time).  Hanging them up in a cool shed is the best way to store them. I know some people like to put them in old tights instead of stringing them -  now I’m no Martha Stewart, but I don’t wear tights, and even if I did I wouldn’t want my old ones hanging up in the kitchen with onions in them!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

more from the orchard

I’ve just been watching a DVD about pruning produced by a well known seed house; a) because I was told to, and b) even though you think you know what you’re talking about, it’s always good to check, (especially if you’re planning on dishing out advice yourself).  It claimed to be copyright 2004, but I would say by the size of the hairdos that it was probably a remastered video from the late 80’s. It was well produced and informative and I have learned the following

- Seems like I mostly do know what I’m talking about – phew! (At least on the subject of pruning anyway).
An hour is way too long for any kind of instructional film – if it’s more than 20 minutes it better have Johnny Depp in it.
- It might seem like a good idea to have men in tweed telling you that it’s all ‘quite simple really, just remember this handy rhyme…’ but after an hour they all sort of run together into ‘If it blooms before noon, then prune by June!’

So I promise I’ll try and keep the advice in bite size chunks - will maybe consider working on some rhyming mnemonics though.

Today the orchard is very snowy – it makes the tree forms stand out more though, which is handy for my next exposition:

These trees are pruned as clear stem standards – this is a traditional look which would have been used in orchards where the intention was to graze livestock under the trees.  Modern orchards look more like vineyards, with densely planted rows of tightly pruned trees on ultra dwarfing rootstocks. Being able to carry out all pruning and picking operations at ground level is a huge advantage for commercial growers.

For your own backyard orchard, both styles have their advantages.  Clear stem trees are great for lounging around underneath, attaching hammocks etc and give any space a dollop of rustic charm.  More strictly pruned forms, like the espalier and cordons pictured below, are great for formal settings or anywhere where limited space is a consideration.

So think about your rootstocks people – that’s what controls the size of the tree. Pruning controls the shape, or ‘habit’ of the tree, but not the size.  Getting both right from the start will give you the jump on getting the backyard orchard of your dreams.

To get you started - here is a useful guide to rootstocks… 

... and for all you nascent tree nerds out there – here is a guide to tree forms, as defined by the UK Horticultural Trades Association:

Thursday, 17 January 2013

a whisper and a rattle

There’s snow in the forecast for tomorrow and the landscape is deep in its winter snooze, but the first whispers of spring are emerging and they always take me by surprise.  Long before the big burst of lavish spring colour, the white flash of a snowdrop and the modest delicacy of hazel catkins catch my eye as they start to appear in the hedgerows.  The Welsh name for catkins is cynffon oen bach  - little lambs’ tails. Appropriate as they dance in the slightest breeze.


Also – collected the post this morning to find a nice fat envelope that rattled when I picked it up – seeds!  Just a few packets of tall heritage peas and some outdoor pickling cucumbers, there’ll be plenty more in the post over the next few weeks.

Now where did I put that snow shovel…???