Saturday, March 5, 2016

Something Stirs ...

You might have been thinking that not much has been happening at Fox Wood given the dearth of posts over the last year. Luckily, nothing could be further from the truth! I've been so busy working on it that I forgot to tell people what has been happening. It's hard to tell all that's been going on there so I shall just give you a brief summary and then upload lots of pictures. I'll promise to update more regularly in future.

Firstly, and possibly most importantly, I've cleared out a large area of overgrown and bramble/choked trees and am turning the area into a forest garden. This is my new focus. I've begun a permaculture design course with Patrick Whitefield Associates, and then in May I'll be going on a forest garden design course with Martin Crawford in Devon. I decided that I needed to have a more formal education in this area as it will allow me to boost my confidence and credentials.

Secondly, I have been adding to my orchard. I now have around thirty apple trees, some of which are rare Cornish varieties. In addition to the apples I have about thirty other fruit trees, including pears, quinces, medlars, plums, gages, figs and peaches.

Thirdly, I have been madly planting trees to make a small mixed woodland in the centre of what is now a field. A couple of readers have been kind enough to donate funds for this using the 'Plant a Tree' button, and I have planted, as requested, walnuts and silver birches.

Fourthly, another aim of mine is create a green woodworking area for use by the woodland association we set up (SWOC). We aim to build/construct a sheltered workspace where people can learn green carpentry, basket making, charcoal making etc. in the woodland setting. I now have a few clients for charcoal, and the woodland mushrooms are still doing their thing (i.e. growing slowly).

Anyway, time for some more pictures.

Storm the dog admires the recently-cleared forest garden space. Storm is the latest addition to the family, and is my constant companion when working in the woodland. A springer spaniel from a nearby farm, his parents are working dogs, hence the docked tail. He's only seven-months old at the moment but dreams of one day catching a rabbit.

A pile of seasoned wood I dragged out of hedges that will be used for charcoal production when summer comes. Dry wood is at a premium in this wet and soggy climate.

Looking at the newly-cleared area from a different angle. There are plenty of coppice stools dotted around but I'll keep them on a short rotation so that the whole area isn't crowded out. The slender stems make great bean poles, for which there is a ready market at the local organic gardeners' association.

This is a raised bed I made from some of the chestnut wood. I've called it a hugel raised bed because the bottom level is lined with wood. I have yet to fill it with soil but plans are that it will be used to grow herbs. I'm generally using seaweed collected from local beaches as soil enricher, although the soils are already in pretty good shape.

A section that is overgrown with brambles. The brambles inhibit the growth of the trees and damage them with their thorns when the wind blows (which is often). Brambles are useful for wildlife - as well as great for the blackberries -  so I won't eliminate them all.

When I cut down trees I aim to use as much of the product as I can without wasting anything. Branches and limbs are put on one side for charcoal and smaller sticks are cut up for use at home in the woodburner. Only the really small bits of brash get burned, and even then I'm trying to charcoalise them and turn them into biochar using old oil drums, which will be dug back into the soils. Any remaining wood ash is spread around the fruit trees.

A local supermarket is selling bird boxes for only £3 each. I've bought quite a few, to add to the ones that are already up. There is now a large diversity of birdlife in the woodland, although I'm not a twitcher so I don't know what many of them are :-)

This old pollarded oak is my favourite tree in the woodland. There is so much life in it, including ferns growing out of the deep green moss on the branches. I tried to get mistletoe growing on some of the old oaks by squishing seeds into the bark. Nothing happened, however, and then someone pointed out that mistletoe will not grow in the presence of salt, of which there is a lot here as it is blown in on the winds from the Atlantic, which is only a couple of miles away as the crow flies.

This is a large willow I coppiced. It was getting so big it was blocking out the light to my favourite oak. I have inoculated these logs with oyster mushroom mycelium using a new method I read about. Instead of hammering spore plugs into it using a drill and hammer, I've simply cut deep grooves in the logs using the chainsaw. Into each cut I've slotted a piece of cardboard inoculated with oyster mycelium which I grew myself at home. We'll see if it's successful or not in about a year. If it is then it's a much more efficient way to work.

The woodland is beginning to green up after a very, very wet winter.

Down in the chestnut coppice. Worryingly, a friend who owns a nearby woodland (about two miles away) discovered his trees were infected with the disease phytophthora ramorum. A destruction order was issued on his entire woodland and he has had to bear the whole cost himself. I have to consider that this disease may reach my woodland at some point, which would mean the compulsory felling of at least 500 sweet chestnut trees. This is just one reason why I'm aiming to diversify as much as possible - tree diseases are sweeping Britain at present and it would be unrealistic to think Fox Wood is immune.

Sometimes the trees look a bit like they are having a party ... or is it just me?

Since introducing hedgehogs I've been building up big piles of fallen sticks to create habitat. These will also provide a plenty of food for birds and other life in the form of grubs and insects. They will eventually rot down into the forest floor and provide further fertility

This is a section of a large sycamore a tree-surgeon friend felled for me a few weeks ago. The tree was blocking out light to our neighbour's orchard, and also threatening some telephone wires leading to the nearby farm house. I've inoculated it with mushrooms, and left the rest to rot. It will grow back soon enough. Many people hate sycamore and call it a weed tree. I'm not one of them. Sycamore grows very fast, the rabbits won't touch it, and it makes great firewood. If left to get out of hand it can overwhelm a native woodland, so the trick is not to let it get out of hand.

During general clearing work I uncovered these old granite gateposts that were covered in ivy. It's a reminder that the woodland used to be open fields in the past.

Speaking of ivy, some of the veteran trees were being choked to death by it. I've severed a lot of the ivy around the trunks, and the trees are bouncing back. Ivy has its place in the woodland and the berries provide food for birds in the winter, but like sycamore, it can overwhelm if given half a chance.

I have also been removing much of the barbed wire which was strangling the woodland. I've found the easiest way to do this is to cut it into short lengths with bolt cutters - otherwise it is hard to manage. I really don't like barbed wire and will not be reusing it. Instead I'll take it to the dump and throw it in the metal container for recycling.

This is a section of woodland I have just coppiced. At about 1/4 acre it now requires processing. But we have various building to construct on the land so much of the straight trunks will be used for that. I'm nervous about the disease possibilities mentioned above, so will be replanting some extra trees in a more diverse way.

The coppiced section viewed from above. The field opposite, which must be about five acres in size, has two horses in it that are used for leisure. On a piece of land this size, using permaculture methods, you could feed at least five families in a very biodiverse habitat. It's amazing how much productive land and biodiversity is sacrificed for people's hobbies!

Foxgloves coming up. Two years ago I collected hundreds of seeds and walked around the woodland throwing them in handfuls. You can see exactly where each handful landed.

A small oak I pollarded two years ago. I like pollarding (i.e. cutting the tree a bit higher up) as it stops rabbits and deer damaging them. I have seen one deer in the woodland in the past year, although there are reports of herds of them spreading from the east.

I'm not sure what has happened here. This large fern has been flattened by something. Perhaps it was a deer sleeping on it, or something ...

My mushroom experimentation zone. So far none have grown, but the mycelium has spread throughout the wood so I'm hopeful we'll see some mushrooms when the temperatures increase.

An old border oak. This is a huge tree. Behind it is a sunken lane that would have been used by sheep and cattle for centuries. The more I get to know this piece of land, the more secrets it throws up from the past.

Every year the grey squirrels get the nuts before I do. Here is a stash of hazels I uncovered. Frustrating, but on the other hand hazelnut-fed grey squirrel cooked in red wine casserole isn't bad.

A fence I put up using freshly cut oak for stakes. Even though I only put this up 18 months ago the oak has been CONSUMED by turkey tail fungus. No good at all. I'm glad I discovered this susceptibility before I built anything a bit larger with oak.

Branches of an elder growing through a badger skull. There must be up to 100 elder trees and bushes growing around Fox Wood. I don't mess with it. Elder has many ancient and mystical associations and cutting it down is a pretty unwise thing to do if you don't want to end up like this badger.

[Update: I've been googling skulls and it actually looks more like a fox than a badger. Badgers have much smaller eye orbits.]

The newest additions in the orchard include a number of rare varieties. Last autumn we made 180 gallons of cider using apples foraged from the local area. We have a cider barn now, complete with oak barrels and presses. These trees are exposed at the moment but the windbreak I planted using Italian alder grows at least twice as fast so they should be nice and sheltered soon. I started off planting my orchard in a higgledy piggledy fashion, but now I'm planting in the more traditional diamond pattern in order to maximise the efficient usage of the available space.

What do you do if you find a fishing box washed up on the beach and then pick up a couple of pocketfuls of holm oak acorns from the street? I'll probably use these as evergreen hedging around my forest garden.

The pond. If this were a holiday brochure it would be called an 'infinity pond'. It's been attracting a lot of wildlife since I filled it. It will shortly have lots of frog and toad spawn in it when I go and collect some from a nearby pond. There are already newts. In the summer there were swallows swooping over it during the day and bats fluttering around by night. It even had some passing ducks on it once.

It's a bit uninspiring at present but this will be the new copse area. In it are silver birch, beech, oak, dogwood, dog rose, sea buckthorn, pine, yew, broad-leaved lime, walnut and alder.

A buzzard soars over Fox Wood.

Down in the forest garden I've planted this Chinese dogwood. Some of these plants are quite pricey, so I've put a wire mesh fence around it (not in the picture) to protect it. Nearby I've also planted gingko, Sichuan peppers, passion fruit, kiwis and grapes. There's plenty more planting to do.

So, as you can see, things are progressing at Fox Wood. The wood, and all the skills I have learned and am still learning, is now the main plank of my livelihood and this year I aim to grow a much larger proportion of food there and earn more funds from the production of charcoal and other products. By the summer I hope to be able to offer the forest garden as a venue for woodland craft courses, and there are also a few other projects scribbled on the back of envelopes. I'll keep you posted!


  1. Looks like a lot of hard work is beginning to pay off, thanks for the update!

    1. Work seems to be the wrong word for something that's so enjoyable!

  2. Very inspiring and beautiful!

  3. Wow, you´ve gotten a lot done! Congratulations on creating such a productive space.

    I have a couple of questions myself. There´s a young oak growing in our hedge - to pollard it do I just cut it off 8 or so feet from the ground and let nature take it´s course? It´s only about 4 inches in diameter - too old or young? Do oaks transplant? Got lots of saplings I could plug into gaps in the hedge.

    We have a big old apple tree that´s on it´s last legs and covered in ivy. I´m terrified if I cut the thousands of little ivy stems I´ll girdle the tree. Worth it?

    Thanks, and keep updating us on your progress. Very inspiring.

    1. You can cut the oak wherever you think is necessary, just so long as it is still dormant i.e. without leaves. Bear in mind that one day the new shoots will turn into thick new stems and there may be a risk of it toppling in high winds (maybe in 50 years or so). They can be coppiced or pollarded even when they are very young, so yours sounds fine.

      They don't like to be transplanted unless they are young, otherwise it should be fine.

      As for the ivy, you could just go round and snip it with a pair of secateurs, taking care not to cut into the bark. I'd leave a bit of a gap so that the cut ivy doesn't manage to grow together again.

  4. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for the update as I had been wondering about your continuing adventures.

    The course is a good idea and I hope that you learn quite a bit from it. I'll be very interested to hear about your developing forest knowledge if you decide to share that story. Forests are a very complex ecology and like you I’m constantly learning as I go.

    Enjoy your medlar fruit, I converted our harvest here into a very tidy medlar wine and it is very good. The fruit tastes like dates to me and they are very nice when bletted properly.

    Out of interest with the walnut, did you provide much shade for that young tree as I've had trouble with mine and have unfortunately killed a few - but that may be a water thing over the hot summer too? Dunno really.

    Storm looks like a very alert dog and an excellent judge of character! :-)!

    Are those chestnut logs from the nut bearing chestnut tree or another sort of chestnut? The raised bed looks very good. I dream of seaweed as an additive. Great stuff! You are very lucky to have access to it.

    That is a very wise idea to convert the small brush to charcoal and then dig it in. I haven't tried that but have to instead burn them off during the winter and then spread the wood ash around the entire property - I get a lot of it. I tend to spread the ash in the drip lines of the fruit trees and not against the trunk, but for no particular reason really, other than a mild fear of changing the pH too rapidly for the tree. Dunno.

    The bird boxes are a bargain and a true gift to the birds.

    I look forward to reading in the future about your experiments with the mushrooms. Top work! They should do very well in your climate.

    Yes, phytophthora is a problem no doubts about it. A form of that called cinnamon fungus is present in soils in this area too. I reckon such things are nature’s way of speeding up the recycling of organic matter back into the soils. The deeper the soils, the more hardy your trees will be. Sorry to say that, but it is true. Up on the main ridge here some of the wombats have a form of mange, but it is because the richest soils are used for gardens and the wombats are shut out of them. Over in this part of the mountain range, the wombats are feral through the garden and orchard and they have very shiny healthy coats - even though the mange is present, it does not present on the wombats. I have a hard time convincing people up there to let the animals rampage through their gardens too. The tree diseases are an indicator of the health - or lack of - in your soils. I watch Grand Designs UK and have for the many years that it has been aired and I'm always interested in the state of your soils which you can see every time they break ground for a project. It isn't good, sorry to say. It is not good here either...

    Allowing a diversity of wildlife into your forest is a real credit to you.

    The sycamore trees can form an under-story tree here and they cannot out-compete the Eucalyptus over-story. I should get a photo of them one day as it is quite an interesting and also unusual forest ecology.

    The horses are very hard on the soil too as they compact it. I could show you a thing or two down here about that - the paddocks that they're kept in by some people this year are looking really bad.

    The fern was squashed by a wallaby no doubts at all about that! Hehe!

    The squirrels are also converting the hazelnuts and other plant material into quality soil.

    Thanks for the tip with the elder. I grow them here and they are very hardy. I haven't quite got my head around propagating them yet. They were supplied by a friend who just brought some cuttings up one day as a gift.

    Ah! You line your pond with plastic. The same situation applies here. It is a very neat job too. Can your area hold water above ground normally or does a pond usually turn into a swale with the water infiltrating into the soil?

    Those are some good trees that you have purchased too. It is looking good and I envy you your rainfall!



    1. Part 1.

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your lengthy comment - I will address it point by point.

      - The course is already proving very interesting as I learn all about soils. Truly, soil is amazing stuff and we all depend on it for our survival. Perhaps someone needs to make a Hollywood movie where the protagonist is shrunk to the size of a microbe and sets off on an adventure in a teaspoon of soil.

      - As for forests - yes - they are very complex ecosystems and they are different everywhere in the world. I count myself very lucky to be learning all about forest gardening as I consider that growing much of our food in this way allows for the coexistence of much biodiversity, and doesn't overlook the importance of beauty.

      - I got a handful of medlars last year, so I'm hoping for two handfuls this year. Doubling my yield every year for the next five or six is what I'm hoping for. They were very popular here in medieval times, I've read.

      - Not a problem with the walnuts. The strength of sun over here is not powerful enough to cause serious problems. I have, however, had a problem with what I assume to be a deer, which ate the top of one of them. It was either that or a giant rabbit.

      - Yes, Storm is very clever and alert. Perhaps too clever IMO.

      - The chestnuts logs are from the regular sweet chestnut trees that are planted on the land. The species is native to Italy and was introduced by the Romans. They do well in this climate but the nuts don't get too big as they need a lot of sunlight for that to happen. I assumed I would be overwhelmed with nuts when I first bought the land but have since found out that trees grown in coppice conditions put all their energy into growing tall and straight in order not to get left in the shade - leaving little energy to go into growing nuts. That's why I'm leaving a few standards that can spread out and relax a little (and produce decent sized nuts).

      - The bio-charcoaling of brash is an experiment of mine. The aim is to make the whole coppicing process carbon-negative, and enrich the soils in the process. I probably won't dig it in so as not to disturb the soils, but instead scatter it on the surface. It will soon be buried in the leaf litter at any rate. Any ash gets scattered around the fruit trees. I'm growing mushrooms in the logs in-situ - I'll update on my experiment in the next post. The whole objective is to make a productive system that can be executed by one person and avoids the need for any heavy machinery. The end products - charcoal and mushrooms - are both light and can be transported easily. Basically, I hate moving heavy things ;-)

    2. Part 2. (this is the first comment I've ever written that was too long for Blogger)

      - Phytophthora is a major problem here. There are so many diseases going around at present and many species of tree are threatened. Ash trees are already on the way out ... as are many others. The government is completely ineffective. They have introduced regulations where you have to wash your tools and boots etc, but at the same time allow unregulated imports of plants and trees from all over the world. Open topped trucks carry thousands of tons of bark chips all over the country, allowing the wind-borne disease to spread with impunity.

      Incidentally, the Victorians never had problems with plant diseases despite their fondness for exotic plants - the reason being that they grew everything from seed.

      - I'd love a wombat or two at Fox Wood :-) Sad to hear that your locals have for scabies, though.

      - Sycamores are another Mediterranean import here and they will out-compete native trees. For that reason they are hated by some (I had a little rant on Facebook earlier about woodland managers using glyphosate all the time and claiming that they 'don't like it but have to do it'). I like them because they grow fast, are rabbit proof and they provide great fire wood. You just have to keep on top of them.

      - Fox Wood was pasture land for several hundred years and is only now young woodland. So - yes - the soils are compacted. Some places are worse than others but the tree roots, rabbits, moles, worms and other critters are doing a good job of decompacting it.

      - The squirrels play their part in the ecosystem too but they are also quite destructive. They ring-bark oaks and nibble new chestnut growth to death. They will destroy an entire coppice given half a chance. A recent solution has been to re-introduce pine martens, which eat the American grey squirrels but leave the native reds alone. They have been trialling it in Ireland with great success.

      - As for elder, I have been mixing with and working with woodsmen now for a couple of years and they seem to fall into two categories. 1) Those who will blithely cut down elders (or any other tree) and 2) Those who would rather be fired and lose a month's income rather than cut down an elder. They *do* grow prolifically here as they are a pioneer shrub/tree at the edge of woodlands. Eventually though they get crowded out by taller trees and just die naturally. I am providing space and light for a few big ones so that I can harvest all of the lovely flowers, fruits and medicines they produce.

      - Yes - the pond liner was an agonising decision. There are clay soils on the land but they are not dense enough to properly hold water, in my opinion. I needed to put the pond high up on the slope so that gravity would take the water down to the fruits trees and the polytunnel. Sometimes you just have to compromise a bit. I'm in the process of dragging large rocks from a nearby field to build a rockery around the pond and hide the plastic. I'll plant it up with a few succulents and give a home to a few lizards and insects.

      - Some of my trees are 'good' and from a reputable nursery, and the others I purchased at rock-bottom prices at Poundstretcher! We'll see which ones perform best in the long run.



    3. Hi Jason,

      Many thanks for the extensive reply and I really do appreciate that.

      Very few people have experiences with the sorts of activities that you and I are undertaking. The experiences make for fascinating reading, no doubts about it, but I also wonder about many of the things that you are currently experimenting with on your plot of forest and I really appreciate swapping notes and hearing about your experiences and things that you have learned.

      It is challenging isn't it, but at the same time very rewarding.



    4. The funny thing is, I don't really find a it a challenge, as such. Of course, there are a lot of things that are hard to learn, but that's most of the fun. There have been so many things in my life that have been difficult challenges (many of which i failed at), but working intimately with nature simply feels like what I should be doing.

      That's what gets me out there even on the windiest, coldest, wettest of days, at least. To me, a day spent working in the woodland is a day of bliss.

    5. Hi jason,

      Of course, you are totally correct. It is a pleasure and a priviledge to work in such an environment and I get plenty of things wrong too and that I believe is a good sign. ;-)!

      I may have been referring to my anxieties about the warming climate (February was the warmest on record for the globe, I believe) and the constant threat from arsonists living in the area.

  5. A tip about elder and the curse it may bring: you may cut it down, but must first address the spirit of the tree, respectfully, thus:

    'Old Lady,let me have your wood and you may have mine when I'm a tree.'

    But, when cut,it may not be brought indoors or burnt, even outside. Make things from it or leave it to rot. The curse is a death curse.

    1. Thanks. From a friend I heard about a friend of his cutting it. Basically it was "I'll take a piece of you and, when I pass, you can take a piece of me."

    2. Which is, after all, how it works! The Cycle....

  6. Hi, Jason!

    What a fantastic post! And thanks so much for the photos that go with it. So very much useful information here. So again - thanks!