Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Forest Gardening and the Five F's

Learning all about forest gardening with Martin Crawford

In the last post I mentioned that I had been busy putting up a lot of wire mesh fencing to keep rabbits out of a portion of Fox Wood. The reason for doing so was because I have set aside about half an acre to create a forest garden. My enthusiasm for undertaking such a project was being driven by the fact that I had just returned from a three-day course on forest gardening, run by the renowned Martin Crawford (author of Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to grow Edible Crops) at the Darlington Estate, an hour and a half's drive from here near Totnes, Devon. The course was really worth the money and I got to meet lots of people from all over the world who were keen on growing their own forest gardens (FGs), as well as getting the chance to test Martin Crawford's patience with a relentless flow of questions, not all of them stupid.

And so, I returned (after two nights spent sleeping in an AirBnB shed in someone's garden) full of plans for creating a forest garden at Fox Wood. I had planned to splurge out the details of it on this blog in one go but when I actually sat down to write about it I saw that instead of just diving into the mossy green waters of forest gardening it was going to have to be split into three parts. The first part - this one - will be a survey of what a forest garden is, why we would want to grow such a thing and what benefits it offers. The second part will set out the design process and the various factors, system boundaries and unknowns I had to consider when planning the Fox Wood Forest Garden. In the third part I'll take you on a tour of what I have planted so far and show you lots of nice pictures.

So, backing up a bit, what is a forest garden? Well, before we go any further, and just to get some terminology out of the way, in America forest gardens are sometimes called food forests. This should give you a pretty good idea of what they are. They are forests where you grow food. But food forests or forest gardens still sounds a bit too namby pamby for some (especially those already involved in agriculture or those who are seeking grants) and so a further term 'agroforestry project' has been introduced. Agroforestry sounds a bit more like something you could make money from and so this is the term that most officials are happy with if one ever has to explain what one is doing to someone with a clipboard.

For the purposes of this blog, however, I'll be calling them forest gardens. Everyone likes forests, don't they, and everyone likes gardens, so put the two together and you've got something that makes people go a little bit gooey at the mere mention of it.

Anyway, forest gardens go back a long way. Before the dawn of agriculture we humans had been gathering and hunting in forests and relying on this type of ecosystem for our sustenance. Everything we needed was right there in the forests, ranging from food (obviously), to materials, tools and even spiritual sustenance. Many forest-dwelling indigenous tribes still in existence do exactly the same thing and for them the forest is the mother that sustains them; without it they would die. Clearly though, for those of us who have signed up for the great roller coaster ride we call 'civilisation', living in a forest and thinking of it as our mother is not something we would readily subscribe to. Most of the land on which we live has been given over to agriculture and infrastructure. Some of the unproductive bits have been left as nature reserves, but not many people live in them.

And yet, if we (in the temperate zones) were to abandon a field or a village or even a car park, it would turn into a forest relatively quickly. Becoming a forest is what the land wants to do, because that is its natural state. But if we look around we will see that most of the land isn't in this state because we keep it developed in a way we consider beneficial to us. To use an example close to home, Fox Wood is surrounded by fields that belong to agricultural companies. In these fields are grown annual crops - cabbages, cauliflowers, daffodils, potatoes - and all other plants are excluded to allow these crops to grow. It is common to see large pieces of agricultural machinery lumbering across these fields, harvesting and sowing, spraying herbicides and pesticides, or ploughing the soil. All in all it takes a massive amount of effort and energy to keep the land in this state of arrested development and suitable for the growing of annual crops.

Forest gardening turns this entire concept on its head because it is a method of working with the land rather than against it. In a way there exists a kind of symbiosis between the land and the forest gardener. The deal is that the land is allowed to turn itself into a forest, but only on the condition that we are allowed to design some aspects of it. We get to decide which trees, bushes, vines and perennials grow there - to a large extent - making it an unnatural system, but not as unnatural as a field of wheat or a plantation of soya. It's a method of cooperation that works very well and we can expect a forest garden to produce for us the 'Five F's' in the form of a range of food (fruits and nuts, leaves and berries, mushrooms and meat and perennial vegetables), as well as fibres, fuel, fulfilment and farmacy. Yes, I know pharmacy doesn't begin with an 'f' but it's a bit of artistic license. It will do all of this with minimum inputs of time and energy, if the design is done well enough. Proof of this is in the picture below:

Robert Adrian de Jauralde Hart (1 April 1913 – 7 March 2000) was the pioneer of forest gardening in temperate zones.
Robert Hart was considered the original pioneer of forest gardening in the UK. Having studied forest gardening techniques in the Far East (where the concept never really went away) he developed his own FG in Shropshire and managed it using simple tools amounting to no more than a saw, some pruning shears, a spade and some secateurs. No heavy machinery, chemicals or petroleum were needed to adequately grown enough food and fuel for himself and his brother from his small plot of land.

Robert Hart may have been the first to plant a FG in the UK, but nowadays there are some 2,000 in existence across the country, ranging from tiny plots of land in back yards, to field-sized woodland packed with productive species. It's amazing how the concept of forest gardening has risen up in this time.

Aside from the basic principle of allowing the land to return to a semi-wild and bounteous state (and then piggy-backing on its productivity) another key concept to take on board is that of recognising and using the different layers contained therein. Within a FG there are several layers which, taken from the top going down, comprise the canopy formed by large trees, vines,  smaller trees (including fruit trees), bushes, perennial vegetables, herbs and (below ground) the fungal layer. Each layer, apart from the fungal, is able to effectively harvest light due to way the garden is designed, with larger trees in the middle or to the north (in the northern hemisphere), and smaller plants staged beneath to maximise exposure. It's a very effective 3D way of using sunlight to the max and a mature FG should require very little maintenance. Contrast this once again with the annual crop system - which only has one layer - and the latter starts to look less and less efficient, which begs the question ...

If forest gardens are a more efficient way of producing food then why do scientists, governments and corporations pour so much money and resources into producing monocultures of staples?

That question can be answered with one word: complexity.

Forest gardens are semi-wild ecosystems, and like any ecosystem it is going to be tremendously complex. There are likely to be many variations in how plants grow in a FG depending on, amongst other things, altitude, wind exposure, geographical location, proximate plantings, mycorrhizal interaction (the local fungal network) ... and a host of other factors. Scientists don't like complexity. They like things that can be measured and held constant while one or two variables are adjusted. They don't like having thousands or even millions of variables because it hinders their ability to test hypotheses and that is not in the nature of reductive science. It is far easier (while abundant fossil energy supplies last) to eliminate as many variables as possible by reducing biodiversity and then measure the results of using different sprays and gene sequences or whatever. But it's also the least sustainable way of doing things and the way that damages the biosphere the most.

An illustration of the different productive layers in a forest garden (not showing the underground fungal layer)

Complexity aside, there's another reason why forest gardening attracts virtually no scientific interest compared to - say - genetically modified rice, and that's money. Imagine if the UK had not 2,000 forest gardens, but 20 million. Imagine if most people, instead of driving to Tesco in their cars, went into their own back yards and cooked up dishes such as organic nut-reared free-range squirrel wrapped in banana leaves and stewed in home grown red wine with shiitake mushrooms with herbs. Not only would people be a lot more healthy but biodiversity levels would rebound, carbon emissions would be slashed, unemployment would disappear and everyone's happiness levels would increase. This, of course, would be disastrous for the economy and GDP would crash through the floor. Where's the money in that? People will say such a food production scenario is unrealistic, but then so is modern farming, which is burning up natural capital faster than it can be replaced. Forest gardening cannot 'feed the world' overnight, but it can certainly feed a lot more people than petroleum based agriculture - and in the long term it may be our only option.

Anyway, I digress.

So, forest gardens (FGs) are a way of working with nature that provides ample food and other products for local people and communities. They are necessarily small scale in nature because of the relatively high level of manual labour involved, at least in the early years, and the limited amount of land available to families and communities. They can be seen as complex ecosystems that make use of the available resources and are endlessly regenerative. They build soil, thus sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, and reduce reliance on long supply chains in the process. Is there anything they are no good at? Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. FGs are not particularly good environments in which to grow crops that are high in carbohydrates. Light-loving crops such as potatoes will not do well in a FG unless a space is set aside for them where they can soak up the rays without interference from overhanging boughs or shade tolerant perennials. That's not to say that it is impossible to come by carbohydrates as there are some excellent alternatives - such as sweet chestnuts - but generally speaking annual carb crops don't grow very well in a forest environment. Which may be why we have evolved to not eat too many carbs in the first place.

There is another important factor to consider with forest gardens and that is they are resilient with a capital R. The weather and the future will no doubt be throwing plenty of spanners into the works of the world's food supply. Global weirding is already giving us extremes and we can all expect this to get worse as weather systems become more disrupted and unstable over time. In this light, relying on delicate monocultures for our food is likely to be disastrous. Pests, for example, just love the way their favourite foods are laid out mile after mile in neat rows. Hurricanes can flatten crops in minutes and floods will wash over-ploughed topsoil away just as easily. Forest gardens, by contrast, utilise maximum diversity for security. By growing a couple of hundred different types of food intensively in a compact setting, the forest gardener can afford to relax a little when contemplating heatwaves, floods, pest epidemics, big freezes and hurricanes. Of course, they're not immune to meteor strikes, nuclear war or invading aliens - but what is? But whatever the weather flings at the forest gardener's hyper-diverse little patch of paradise it will likely only affect a portion of her production, and even then only temporarily until the damage heals. By contrast, the farmer next door with his three fields of wheat may well spend the wee hours worrying about the future. If forest gardening were to have a slogan it might be: Resilience in Diversity.

A monoculture devastated by drought

Which gets me back to the reason for wanting to plant a FG at Fox Wood. By zoning off a portion of the coppice woodland and fencing it for protection against 'pests' (in my case rabbits) I'm aiming to create a system that will produce the Five F's long into the future (there's another important F). Mine will be a little unusual in that there's already a forest in place. Most FGs start with a patch of bare grass or a back garden, but I'm aiming to integrate coppice woodland management into the Fox Wood FG. This, so far, seems to be a good idea. By cutting the maidens (uncoppiced young trees) I have instantly created a space that has very few ground perennials or annuals growing on it, thus giving me a head start to place my own favoured species. The coppiced trees will be kept on a short cycle of cutting - say every three years - to prevent the regrowth from shading out the perennials. And here they are - a few of my pioneer species arriving in a cardboard box from a nursery in Wales.

In the next post I'll talk a bit about the design process and the factors I have had to consider when creating a forest garden at Fox Wood.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Root and Branch Thinking

Well, spring is rapidly turning into summer here in west Cornwall and everything is flowering, growing leaves and shooting upwards as the race begins to grab as much sunlight as possible in the months ahead. Native bluebells carpet the woods and ferns are unfurling their tender shoots to reveal the delicate lacework beauty of their fronds. Bird song can be heard everywhere and the forest is all atwitter as they flit among the trees searching for food to feed their chicks. Foxes prowl, ducks sit of the pond and buzzards hover overhead on the lookout for baby rabbits. Everything is as it should be for this time of year.

I took the picture above yesterday as I was finishing off putting up 300m of rabbit-proof fencing. This old but not particularly big oak is probably my favourite tree in the whole seven acres of woodland. Originally a boundary tree atop a long-since collapsed Cornish hedge (i.e. a dry stone wall) the tree will have been here long before the surrounding woodland. In case you are new to this blog or just need a reminder, the woodland it an exceptionally young one, the eldest of the plantation trees having only been planted around 25-27 years ago. The land used to belong to the local stately home but was sold off in parcels in order to (unsuccessfully) stave off bankruptcy. Locals tell me that after a particularly scary tractor accident in which the gentleman farmer lost control and ended up in the brook at the bottom of the valley, it was decided to turn the steep section of land into a chestnut and oak coppice. What they planned to do with the resulting wood products is anyone's guess as cheap imported wood easily outcompetes the native variety, but they decided to plant it up anyway. Perhaps they were looking ahead to times when locally grown coppice products would be restored to their rightful place, or maybe they were just experimenting - who knows. Anyway, back when it was just fields of sheep and cows, the tree above would have stood proud in the hedge. Its prominent position meant it would have received the full blast of the southwesterly winds, which is why it is shaped as though it is bending backwards, but at least there wouldn't have been anything with which to compete for the light.

But disaster befell the poor tree when the land around it was abandoned to scrub and within a couple of decades it found itself choked by ivy and with the sun blocked out by a large goat willow that had seeded next to it. Hawthorn, too, grew up around it, and when I bought the land three years ago it was clearly on its last legs - I mean trunk. This was it a couple of years ago - struggling for light and growing ever more contorted twiggy branches to reach above the canopy.

So, anyway, I coppiced the neighbouring willow last winter, using the logs for mushrooms and firewood. It has already begun to grow back and there is now a sizeable forest clearing for light to get in. I also removed one of the hawthorns and trimmed back a holly, and now the tree - free of ivy as well - is bursting back to life.

To me, this is what woodland management is all about; tinkering with the natural processes of growth in order to achieve some aim (in this case restoring the beauty of a veteran tree, getting wood for fuel and mushrooms from a low-value pioneer tree, and enhancing the biodiversity (English oaks host more life forms than any other British tree)). I'm happy with the result and pleased that my act of judicious pruning hasn't killed anything but has created space and light for a banquet of flowers to spring up (with attendant bees).

But not everyone would agree that what I did was a good thing. I met a fellow a few weeks back who told me his mission in life was to save as many life forms as possible and "Do no damage". To that end he was a committed vegan and an activist against eco-crimes and the likes of Monsanto. His commitment to these causes was laudable but when I mentioned to him that I owned a woodland and undertook management practices within it he became a bit brittle. "Woodlands don't need our management," he said, "they did just fine before we came along - why shouldn't they do fine if we left them alone again?" He went on to opine that people who owned woodlands saw themselves as gods and clearly had problems with the size of their egos.

He had a point and it got me thinking. Having observed other woodland owners on social media I can certainly identify a certain type of person who likes to buy pieces of large machinery and then brag about how many mature trees it can fell in a day. But I certainly didn't see myself or any of my woodland friends fitting into that category. I explained to him that the vast majority of woodlands in Britain were, in fact, not natural at all, and that without some form of management they would quickly lose their raison d'ĂȘtre. True, they may contain a lot of trees and birds and animals, but they are, when all is said and done, human creations. My woodland, for example, contains probably around a thousand sweet chestnut trees - a tree whose native habitat is southern Italy. In the case of the relatively slow growing chestnut, left to its own devices it would mature and eventually fall over in a storm and die (assuming it had not until then succumbed to one of the many diseases currently at large). At this point it would have very little chance of re-establishing itself in the form of seedlings because a far more fast-growing tree would have swamped the entire woodland. Sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus) is native to central and southern Europe and it can easily overtake a southern British woodland. It's a remarkably 'lucky' tree in that rabbits won't touch it, it can grow in the shade and it shoots up very rapidly. If Fox Wood was left alone for fifty years I have no doubt that it would simply revert to a sea of sycamore trees standing over the rotting trunks of everything else. The canopy above would be dense and closed, darkening the forest floor and preventing much from growing. But given that I don't want sycamore trees everywhere I have to manage the woodland in such a way as to encourage certain species to thrive and discourage others.

This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if one takes a longer view. Nature, being nature, would eventually balance out such an abundance. Some short-lifecycle species or other - perhaps a beetle - would see all this sycamore and evolve ways of feeding off it. The beetle would experience a precipitous population explosion as it expanded its range to take advantage of the defenceless sycamores, killing them en masse as it gnawed and burrowed its way across the landscape. In a relatively short period of time the beetle would go into overshoot as it exhausted its food supply, thus figuratively chewing off the branch it was sitting on and going into a steep population decline. New sycamores would grow, but there would be a residual population of sycamore-eating beetles at the ready and the two species would dance their merry population explosion and crash dance in ever decreasing magnitude until a harmonious balance was reached. In the meantime the other species of tree, which had been waiting patiently in a few specialist ecological niches where sycamores couldn't reach, would seize their chance to move into the space left behind and diversity would once again bloom, although there would likely have been local extinctions of species along the way. All this might take a very tiny moment in evolutionary time - say 500 years.

I said all this to my friend and he seemed to take it all in, nodding wisely as I explained my rationale. "500 years, you say?"

"Give or take a few hundred," I said.

"So, basically you're impatient then?"

I had to laugh because yet again he was being perfectly correct. So, yes, maybe we appear impatient, but on the other hand I don't have 500 years, and so I have to manage the woodland and act like the keystone species mankind has been for the past several aeons. The sad truth is that the original forest that covered the entirety of the large island of Britain after the last ice age is now long gone. The incalculable complexity of that ecosystem has been lost in the inky depths of evolutionary time never to return and all we can do is make approximate pale imitations that can certainly be useful and rich in biodiversity and beauty but lacking a certain unseen richness. That's the hand we have been dealt with and there's no point feeling mournful about it. Instead, if we integrate ourselves into the natural rhythms of ecology we can quite easily create a patchwork of new forests and woodlands to offset the damage industrial man has done to the land. Land after all, in temperate places like Britain, wants to become a forest if you let it. And so, if with careful stewardship, we allow this to happen, and if we manage the result wisely, the land can provide us with food and fuel and medicine and building materials and spiritual nourishment, as well as being a home to countless other organisms. And if that weren't reason enough it will also suck carbon out of the atmosphere as the soils are replenished and enriched.

That is certainly my aim on my small patch of land, and in my next post I'll be talking about agroforestry and sharing some pictures of my newly-created forest garden (I bet you were wondering why I put up 300m of rabbit fencing weren't you?)

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!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Magic Lakes and Mushrooms

Mushrooms ...

It's been a while since I updated the latest tales from Fox Wood - but never fear - it's not as if nothing has been going on there. In fact, one of the reasons for the lack of updates is that I've been too busy to attend to blogs (which are sadly quite low down on the priority list). So here is a preliminary update of what I have been up to. Alas, there are not too many pictures this time.

Firstly, as you may notice by looking to the right, I have been busy writing and publishing a book. Yes, The Path to Odin's Lake is about a journey I took last summer from Copenhagen to a forest in Sweden. It's not your average travel book - and in fact it wasn't intended to be a book at all until certain things happened to me on that journey that I felt I must record. I travelled for the most part on foot, had almost no money with me, and cut myself off completely from electronic media and gadgets. I ended up at a sacred lake in that Swedish forest and ... well, if you want to find out more you can buy the book :)

Secondly, partly as a result of that journey, I have been focusing my attention on growing mushrooms. Why? Well, Fox Wood is ideally suited to mushroom cultivation. It's damp, it's shady and I have an abundant supply of timber. So far I have begun experimenting with different types of wood (chestnut, oak, sycamore and willow) to ascertain what works best. I'm being quite scientific about it, making careful notes and observations and recording them. I hope to be able to grow a decent crop of edible mushrooms every year (that would be shiitake, oysters, lions mane and chicken of the woods) and sell them locally.

The second reason I am growing mushrooms is because they are awesome. The more I learn about them the more awesome they become. Not only are they a great source of nutrients but more and more research is pointing to the fact that they can be used as a means of bioremediation i.e. healing the Earth. Several species have been found to digest oil spills and chemicals, and there is even a suggestion out there that they could help 'clean up' radiation. They can heal sick bees, restore degraded soils and halt depression. What's not to like? Research in all of these areas is ongoing, but at the forefront of this fungus revolution is the US mycologist Paul Stamets. Check out his short film below.

But anyway, apart from the mushrooms I have been busy selectively coppicing certain areas in the woodland this winter. Alas, I didn't do as much as I had planned due to my chainsaw breaking down, nevertheless I have plenty of hazel, hawthorn and holly cut and drying ready for next winter.

Oh, and I also cut down a huge multi-stemmed sycamore with my friend and tree surgeon Nigel. It was blocking out the light to my neighbour's orchard and the wood will be used for fuel and mushroom cultivation.

The pond is finally finished, save for a few aesthetic details, and a number of newts have taken up residency there. It's looking particularly good for something dug by hand over a period of 18 months - I'm proud of it. I will take some pictures of it on my next visit.

Apart from that, I have planted up another 100 or so trees in what will be a mixed woodland area. These include seven walnut trees, plus a mixture of lime, oak, willow (including a large willow-only coppice area), beech, dogwood, silver birch and hazel.

The orchard has expanded significantly, with 12 new apple trees of different varieties, a couple of pears, a couple of plums and a medlar. The mixed edible forest/orchard is progressing nicely.

Three more rescue hedgehogs were released last week to add to the other two that were released just before winter. As hedgehogs are something of an endangered species it's great to be able to provide them with a safe haven.

Well, that's all the update for now. I will take my camera on the next visit and upload some more photos.


BTW if you are interested in reading my book you can get a free 10% sample sent by email by clicking here.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Autumn Falls

Halloween at Fox Wood, or nos calan gwaf as it's called in Cornish

Well, it's been a while since I updated this blog so here's what's been going on at Fox Wood since the summer. In July our good woodland neighbours Trev and Becky got married at the local chapel and held the reception in the woods, turning the sleepy woods into an enchanting fairy wonderland of light and music. It was quite a party and the locals will no doubt be talking about it for years to come.

The summer was long and hot. It didn't rain for weeks at a time (although Trev and Becky managed to pick the one day for their wedding when it bucketed down) meaning I had my work cut out watering the 300 or so trees I planted last winter. Luckily they have all survived and are thriving — especially the Italian alders I planted as windbreaks, which seem to be settling in well.

The hot weather was excellent for growing food and we had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year.

We also have a bumper crop of firewood.

So I've spent an awful lot of time and money installing a wood burner at our house. Given the uncertain future of gas supplies, plus the need to use a more sustainable fuel, this should stand us in good stead for the future. The copper kettle is for heating up water for hot water bottles at bed time!

A couple of months back we took home a couple of young hedgehogs from a local rescue centre. Geoffrey and Suki, as they were called, should help keep down the slug population.

Autumn is now here, although it remains very warm, and the trees are finally losing their leaves. We got quite a harvest of chestnuts this year. Some of them were for roasting on the fire, some are for cooking and some are for planting.

This is the Hog Hotel we made for the hedgehogs. The tiles are from the roof of a local church that was undergoing renovation.

The tree nursery. About 200 seedlings have been successfully grown since last year. I aim to do the same this year.

A bath of oaks. One person's trash is another's rabbit-proof tree nursery.

Plenty of birds used the houses this year. There is now a family of wrens hopping around near this one.

This one had a family of finches in it.

Chestnut shoots in a ray of sun light.

Moss growing on the woodland floor

Down in the section of wood I coppiced last winter there has been an outburst of life. Having fenced it off from rabbits and deer the plants and trees have been free to grow unhindered.

The new growth is between six and ten feet high.

The whole area has turned into a thriving patch. In among the new growth there is a riot of plant and animal life going on. I have found newts, bats and evan a weasel here, as well as solitary bees and a couple of frogs.

In this picture you can see the new growth in the foreground and the old growth behind it. I'll probably give the maidens in the background a couple more years to grow bigger before I coppice that section.

The combination of chicken wire fence and brash piles has kept out the deer and rabbits. There are hardly any deer in the area but reports of sightings are getting more common and I don't want to take the chance.

The ride leading up through the woodland.

I discovered something pretty amazing recently. Whilst studying satellite images of the land I noticed something unusual in the adjacent field. I enhanced the colour on the image and saw some circular shapes lying beneath the soil.

Some friendly pagan archaeologists were called in with dowsing rods and they discerned six or more stone hut circles, including one beneath Fox Wood. They also detected powerful energy currents running through the land connecting the site of the local church to a nearby hilltop with a stone circle. The likelihood is that a bronze age settlement was here. It's quite amazing to think that Fox Wood would have been home to families of farmers up to 4,000 years ago.

Anyway, back to the present day, and it's time for tea.

Mushrooms are popping up everywhere. I counted at least 20 different types on a quick walk around the woods and field yesterday, although I haven't identified them yet. Here are some of them.

Speaking of mushrooms, I'm planning on growing them. Lots of them. Fox Wood has the perfect conditions for growing fungus with its damp and sheltered woodland and the abundance of fresh hardwoods. I'm already growing shiitake, oyster and chicken of the woods. There's a lot to learn but I'm on the case.

Apart from growing and selling mushrooms I'm also producing charcoal. I already have an order to produce 100 bags in 2015. I have collected a number of oil drums from local garages to turn into portable charcoal kilns.

Soon it will be time to start the coppicing work again. I have given my chainsaw a service, bought some new chains and a pair of chainsaw trousers, and will start the cutting work in ernest in December. I have a lot of work to do this winter but I'm looking forward to it. There are a lot of overgrown hazels that need coppicing for a start.

But I'll be leaving this old pollard oak well alone. I regard these old trees as guardians of the forest.

I have plenty of projects not yet finished. First and foremost in the poly-tunnel. I have dug out by hand and moved about 100 trailers of soil from my basement and deposited it here. It will form the base for the poly-tunnel, although I need the local friendly farmer to dump a few loads of manure on it from his cows so it will have time to rot down over winter. The two trees you can see in the centre are avocados.

Yes, we've even got oranges growing outside here. Not the nicest oranges you will have ever seen, but oranges nevertheless.

And then there's the pond. I've almost finished digging it and have now saved up for and bought a liner. It just needs a couple days further prep work before it is ready for filling. I discovered a frog sitting in the empty pond last week ... waiting.

Last year I planted several hundred trees at Fox Wood. This year I'll be doing the same again as I turn the field from a degraded piece of exhausted farm land into a biodiverse forest garden and orchard.

Did I mention the cider making? We — being our merry band of woodlanders — made our first batch in October, filling two oak barrels with the fermenting juice from apples gleaned from unloved apple trees across west Cornwall. A first tasting will occur at Winter Solstice and then it should be ready for drinking in April.

That's it for now from Fox Wood. I hope everyone had a good Halloween and is enjoying Autumn (or Spring if you live Down Under). Oh, and watch this space for my forthcoming book about a journey I undertook through a Swedish forest this summer entitled The Path to Odin's Lake.