Archives for posts with tag: Permaculture

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a native of the Appalacian mountains of North America yet it thrives in most lands it has been introduced to.

The tree was introduced to the UK in 1636 and can now be found hidden in plain sight in many parks, municipal borders and even deep in some semi natural ancient woodlands. In many woodlands it’s overlooked by all who do not look for it – slipping in to the subconscious as if simply a native Ash.

Given it’s name by Jesuit missionaries due to its likeness to its relative the Spanish Locust, otherwise known as the carob tree, the Black Locust is actually much more toxic.

A member of the pea family and also leguminous, this tree fixes it’s own nitrogen in the soil, suckers like mad and produces an abundance of seeds – added to the the vicious thorns it can grow if grazed or pruned and you end up with a formidable tree.

The tree bears straight-ish main trunks with often zig-zagged branches and deeply furrowed grey bark.

In many areas (including states within its home country) the Black Locust is considered to be incredibly invasive.

However, as with many invasives they are often very useful in other ways. In this case the wood is outstandingly longlasting in the soil, even if untreated.

The heart wood has such a high level of flavinoids in it that it can last in the soil for a century! That’s a long time for a fence to last!

There are few snippets of folklore associated with this tree – one of which suggests that under the Black Locust is where one should bury secrets. I wonder if this originally meant under the timber and not under the tree – after all, a body or item buried under a century lasting fence post wouldn’t be discovered for a long time! No one would have need to disturb it…

The grain is often straight in the upright trunks and although fresh wood has an unpleasant and bitter odour (like if excessive tannins in bad red wine were a smell). This scent fades as it’s aged. These qualities are leading many furniture merchants to consider this wood instead of rare tropical imports – easier on the planet and the pocket.

That straight grain, dense wood and readiness to coppice also makes this tree an ideal firewood – even one that will burn while still green.

Like many trees which are relatives of the pea and bean, many of their parts will kill you if you eat them.

In this case almost all of the plant is toxic – when eaten by horses it requires immediate veterinary treatment and causes depression, cardiac arrhythmia, colic and incontinence…. I wouldn’t recommend you find out what it does to a human… unless you have a salad loving enemy.

There is, however, one part of the plant traditionally eaten – the freshly opened flowers.

These are beautiful and have a mint/citrus / bleach kind of smell and are picked and separated from all green bits apart from the small flower stalk before being eaten.

These flowers are also the primary source of ‘acacia honey’ in France (despite it’s scientific name outing it as a ‘false acacia’). The varying presence of the quantity of flowers annually means that only around one in five years gives a good honey crop.

There are some reports that the seeds are also edible. … but I find more reports that they are rather toxic…. so use caution if trying.

The flowers are only available for a little over a week each May/June are either eaten raw or fried in batter – see recipe below. This is seasonal eating at its finest.

Black Locust Flower Fritters

– Pick only the freshly opened flowers and take all green parts off other than the small stalks that attach to the flowers.

– mix a thick sweet batter – flour, water ( or milk), sugar and an optional egg, plus a little nutmeg or similar if you like.

– pour the batter on the flowers and stir in well until they are covered.

– Place spoonfuls of the mixture in to hot oil and cook until browned on both sides (a minute or two per side).

– Lift out with a slotted spoon and set to drain excess oil on a towel or paper.

– Dust with sugar and eat…. say ‘nom nom nom.’

– Congratulate yourself for not eating the toxic bits before panicking that you left too much stalk on and maybe you did eat the toxic bits….

– Enjoy a second time if you picked the right bits ūüôā

Those daring enough to try should remember that they are eating flowers and thus preventing seeds of an invasive species forming as well as eating a food known to Native Americans for centuries but thousands of miles apart.

I hope you are all daring enough – go on…. be adventurous.

 

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On 27th August,  I had the great pleasure of leading a walk and talk around Sefton Park, Liverpool.
I’ve only visited the park once before and even then only for a couple of hours, but in discussion with Moot Lord Brian (I was right… he’s too humble to like the name Moot Chief, so I thought I’d step it up one), we agreed that it was a nicely central and easily accessible location.

Sefton Park contains 235 acres ¬†of land that is devoted to trees, football pitches and even an old palm house that just screams it’s heritage as you walk past it.

Rather than recount the full five-ish hour walk, not including eating time, ¬†I thought I’d mention a couple of the more unusual ¬†finds in the park.

As we walked, we talked about the folklore and uses of some of the more commonly found plants; from yew, to juniper, to oak and sycamore and beech and beyond.

Yew of course is more than a little toxic and it’s botanical name, Taxus, even gives us the origins of the word ‘Toxic’. Taxus itself coming form the old Greek work ‘Taxa’ meaning bow. As we know, arrows and bows combine to make a deadly tool.

We also saw a nice array of other plants that would of you a good deal of harm  as we walked, but in this blog post I hope only to draw your attention to two types of trees and two types of gall.

Let’s start with the Galls.

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A Turkey Oak acorn, Quercus cerris.

Galls are distorted growths on a tree and I’ll do a more in depth blog about them in the future. Some, such as Maple blister galls, are caused by mites feeding on the leaves, but some of the most impressive ones are made by species of wasp.

Some of these wasps are tiny, while others are around the size of a housefly as an adult, but they are not the sugar loving and super stingy hornet like wasp that many fear.

On several Quercus robur, the English Oak, we spotted a number of Knopper galls. The wasp which causes Knopper galls has an interesting life cycle with female wasps laying eggs that house male grubs on the Turkey Oak, Quercus cerris, in the spring and a sexually reproductive part of the cycle involving the English Oak.

Like several wasp and be species, unfertilised eggs hatch in to male offspring.

These hatch and then make small galls on the Turkey Oak buds before mating with female wasps which lay their eggs almost exclusively on the English Oak’s developing acorns.

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Quercus robur, English Oak, with a Knopper gall acorn

 

These acorns are then distorted, and  often rendered infertile by the developing galls. Inside each of the galls is  developing wasp grub which feeds off the flesh on the inside of the gall.  The shape and form of the galls can vary massively.

Interestingly, although Turkey Oak was introduced in to the UK In 1735, ¬†Andricus quercuscalicis, the wasp responsible, only arrived in the 196os. The wasp requires the presence of both oak species before it can complete it’s life cycle.

Sadly, some English oaks are so over stocked by these funky galls that they don’t produce any fertile acorns in some years.

As an observation on my part, Turkey Oak seems to be out competing our native oaks as young saplings, as well as naturalising in to areas of previously industrial ¬†land with a greater readiness than our natives. It wouldn’t surprise me if climate change is lending a hand to the Turkey oak and it may well become a dominant tree in the landscape in years to come.

 

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Gouty / horned gall

The second gall is either a horned Gall, with few horns or a Gouty Gall with a couple of horns – both again caused by wasps and in this instance growing at the junctions of twigs on a Turkey Oak and spotted by the keen eyed Druid known as, Badger.

I’ve certainly not seen many of these in the past, but they are fascinating ( the galls as well as the Badger named Druids).

And now on to two trees.

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The first tree is the Metasequoia glyptostroboides, The Dawn Redwood. This Chinese native was only known in fossil records at least 1.5 million years old until a living one as found.

The fossil record trees were spotted in 1941 and were named as Metasequoia, meaning ‘like sequoia’, with no known specimens in the word, until in 1943¬†Zhan Wang, a Chinese forester found a huge tree as pat of the local peoples shrine in what is now¬†Moudao, Lichuan county. This huge tree was propagated and can now be found with it’s beautiful trunk and burnt caramel scented foliage all over the world, although it’s still rare.

There are at least two of these in the park, but this one has a gloriously characterful trunk.

It’s closest relatives are the Swamp and Giant redwoods of North America.

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The final highlight for me was encountering Staphlea pinnata, the European Bladdernut.  This multi-stemmed shrubby plant has beautiful pea like flowers and is a distant relation of the pea.
These flowers become air filled bladder like pods which each bear several small seeds. Seeds which look like popcorn that hasn’t fully popped but taste like pistachio mixed with fresh pea shoots.

Delightful. Obviously I gathered some seeds to sow, but the require a long period of heat and then cold and even then can be erratic to germinate. So … next time I’m in the park I’ll take a few cuttings as they root readily according to my research. These might well be guerrilla planted.

This species is apparently native to Europe, but not frequently seen. I at first, incorrectly, assumed it was the American Bladdernut.

I had seen these bladder bearing plants in a Permaculture book many years ago, but this was the first time I had seen them in the flesh… well, at least fruiting. It turns out that I had seen it’s close relative Staphlyea bumalda ¬†in flower when over in Ireland earlier in the year.

The Staphylea genus only has 11 species in it, so I can excuse myself for getting them muddled up a little.

 

Look at the picture  above  and behold my white currant bush!

Well, it’s  one of about half a dozen that line one side of the allotment. 

Some 14 years ago, in the first few months of having the allotment,  I took  lengths of prunings from the currant  plants in the family garden. These prunings were around 12 inches long. 

There were three currants there; red, white and black, and I took a dozen cuttings or more from each.

It was winter… and at sixteen I was less adept at telling the currants apart by bark and smell alone. Being a self sure teenager I was also a little  careless and clumsy. 

Somewhere and somehow , on the journey between home and the allotment, they got muddled up. So I have an allotment  hedge of mixed currants – which made mass pruning  interesting – as the different currant  species like to be pruned differently  for best results – at least until  I sussed out their differences  in scent and bark and leaf colour.

Anyway. .. these currant cuttings were stuck in spade made slits in the soil. Firmed in with the heel of my boot and watered. Well  over 90% are growing and cropping  happily to date.

So it’s  very easy to propagate currants and the rest of the Ribes  genus from these firm, hardwood  cuttings.

Yet today I’m  going  to  quickly detail how to take cuttings  from  a plant in active growth. These woody but flexible cuttings, sometimes  with some green stem tips are known as semi ripe and are taken between  midsummer and the autumn equinox, give or take a couple  of  weeks.

Pencil thick stems are better for this as the younger wood roots faster…. but it’ll  work  pretty  well  with slightly thicker stems as in the pictures. 

I’m  saving the pencil  thick stuff for The Permaculture  Convergence  in Ilkley, Yorkshire, at the start of  September. I’m  happy  to  say that I’very been provisionally  confirmed  as leading  a workshop on propagation  there! (Check out the event and Permaculture  association  here). Which is in part my reason for propagating  the currants  now – so I have some with roots on to show off at the session.

1) Choose  a healthy looking bush.This one cropped extra heavily this year.

2) Select some straight, fruit/flower free stems. Aim for this or last year’s growth  that’s  firm and not very sappy  growth. Sappy, fresh growth will sometimes  wilt before  the cutting  roots in a warm summer. Which is a waste of time and plant. 

3) Aim for cuttings between  six and eight inches in length  (15 – 18cm).  Cut what is to be the bottom of the cutting just below a leaf bud/scar. These have a lot of hormones  and totipotent cells in them, which will trigger the production  of and  become the root buds respectively.  

Having one of these leaf nodes near the bottom of the cutting will speed up  root production and reduce the amount  of  wood that is prone to dieback and ergo infection.

You can’t  really see it in the picture, but the blade is positioned  to cut just below a bud, which is coming out of the other side of the stem, away from the camera.

4) Remove all the leaves and active shoots from the lower 2/3 or 3/4 of the stem. Leave a couple of mature leaves and maybe a few smaller ones at the top.

It’s  important  to  strike  a balance here. Too many  leaves left on and the cutting loses too much  water and so stresses through dehydration. This makes it harder for it to survive  long enough  to  root. Too few and it can’t  photosynthesise at all; leaving little energy for the roots to grow.

Remember, it no longer has any roots to absorb  moisture  from the soil. All of  the water it needs has  to  come through the cut end of  the stem until it can grow more roots.

5) Fill a pot with free draining peat free compost. 9cm  square pots are used here but any will do. Gently firm the compost to get rid of large air gaps, but don’t  compact it too hard.

Gently slide your cuttings in to the pots. Placing the around  the edge of the pot makes the most of the fact that water will condense on the inside of the plastic and the little droplets will entice new roots towards them.

We are using woody growth. If you have to make a hole with something  else in order to insert your cutting  then your compost has been compacted too much and should be tipped out, loosened up and then gently firmed in to the pot. New roots don’t  grow too well in compacted soil.

Give each cutting a couple of inches of room to grow and don’t  overfill  the pots with cuttings or they’ll  compete for light and water.

6) Water them well. Place in a sheltered spot out of direct sunlight – too much of either will pull water from the leaves faster than it can be replaced by the cut stem. 
If kept moist but not wet they should start to produce roots after about a month. After six – ten weeks they should be ready to tip out of the pot, seperate and plant up  individually  in fresh pots.

I’ll  post up with the rooted cuttings I’m due time.

Worcester berry waiting

A short  blog post today…. a trip via the allotment  on the way home yielded  bumper harvests under a 35 degree sky.

 This may well be my final year with this allotment, sadly I find that I don’t  have enough time to spend there while doing the rest of what I do. I absolutely  adore growing fruit and vegetables  but with this changing climate and with seasons ever more erratic  I’m  finding  that I’d  need to be  on the plot for an hour a day or more to deal with the colors needs properly… and work won’t allow it. 

So…. I plan to super design up and change the back garden in to a propagation  space, holding  for herb plants and a mini vegetable  garden. I’m  looking at how to use the small flat roof of the extension as a strawberry and herb garden as well. 

At home I can give them more direct attention,  while sadly the allotment is too out of the way.

Fresh potatoes in a wicker basket

Yet, while I decide whether  to  let someone  else  have a go, I’ll  reap what I’ve sown this year. 

The Kiwi has flowered (Actinidia arguably issai),  there are small olives on the covered greenhouse tree, the figs, apples and pears  are swelling nicely  while the pomegranate  recuperates from a heavy chop. 

The soft fruit is doing exceptionally  well this year with all the extra moisture  but the potatoes  aren’t… the courgettes are producing  few fruit as the temperatures  haven’t  been high enough to trigger the production  of female flowers and the pumpkins and squash were eaten by slugs.

The first of Gooseberries and Worcesterberries ready to be made in to fruit leather tomorrow

The peas are doing well and so are the edible crysanths, the medlar is fruiting up well too and the bamboo I grow for canes is reaching for the skies more and more each day.

The first of many plums and an oversized courgette

But today  I wanted to sing the praises  of the relatively  unknown Worcester  berry. Otherwise known as Ribes divaricatum, this thorny member of the currant  family has dangling purple berries, like half sized gooseberries, with a musky sweet and utterly delicious  flavour. Ideal for wine, jam or just nibbling off the plant. The only thing that  could be said against  this plant is the vicious  thorns. About an inch long on an undisturbed  plant, they come in a bunch of  three – curved like outstretched  talons – on a plant that’s  been pruned. 

They don’t  seem to suffer from pests or disease, birds often leave them alone as the thorns keep them away: the berries hang  pendulously on the underside  of semi arching branches  with the thorns curling over them protectively. 

And talk about  productive! For those who’ll  barge the thorns there’s  much  in the way of bounty to claim.
Watch this space… whatever doesn’t  move to my back garden  or my parent’s  new garden on the North Wales border might be up for grabs.

Especially  to Permaculture  and food forests fanciers.

A dark dahlia grown for cut flowers and allotment colour