Tuesday, 24 February 2015

February catkins

There’s a lot of hazel around here. That’s Kent for you. If it’s not apples, it’s cobnuts, or at least it used to be. Food fashion and falling prices have taken their toll, and you can’t help but worry that these crops will go the same way as the hops that used to cover the county. It’s not uncommon to see fields full of grubbed out trees, lying forlornly on their sides with their roots in the air. It’s a heart-rending sight, a shocking and violent end for orchard or platt, home to bats and badgers, owls and woodpeckers. The hope is that farmers markets and a growing consumer preference for locally grown food will save the day, and certainly as far as cobnuts are concerned, there seems to be a mood of cautious optimism, no doubt encouraged by the increased revenue from the bumper crops over the past two or three years.

Grubbed out orchard in a nearby field, earlier today
Several of the gardens I have worked in recently have been on the site of cobnut platts, a few of the characteristically nobbly trees remaining, pruned into the traditional open goblet shape. But, even in areas without this agricultural heritage, you don’t have to look far before you spy a hazel tree or two, on the margins, the understory of a woodland garden, or within a hedgerow. Both the wild hazel and the cultivated cobnut tree are dripping with catkins at this time of year, the conspicuous male flowers an inch or two long, apparently out of all proportion with the tiny female flowers, red styles just about visible if you look closely (close enough to poke your eye with a twig, so care is advised). The discrepancy in size is perhaps explained by the fact that the hazel relies on the wind for pollination, a far less efficient method than those more sensible plants who co-opt insects or even birds to undertake the task, and one which requires great clouds of pollen to be released to the air in the hope that at least some fraction of it will waft across to the female flowers of the next tree. As a method of procreation it’s a particularly messy business, and surely explains why the hazel chooses to go about the task unencumbered by clothing, which would only get in the way; all this happens weeks before the trees have even given thought to putting on leaves.

Wanding a cobnut platt
My own great fondness for the hazel (Corylus avellana) is less to do with the nuts than the wood. I love the long lenticels, and the metallic sheen of the young bark, so characteristic of walking sticks made from this tree.This is a tremendously versatile plant for the gardener to have access to – the traditional practice of coppicing hazel in the woodland understory provided long, straight poles for construction of light structures, barriers and for plashing hedges, tripods and bean frames in the garden and on the allotment, while the younger wands – fabulously pliable when green, are used for pea sticks and plant supports. Wanding tends to be done when the leaves are off in winter – it’s a much simpler task to accomplish when the leaves have fallen. Of course, pruning at this time of year encourages exactly this kind of long, straight growth, but as there’s always a use for the cut wands in the garden, that’s exactly what we want. Left unpruned a hazel tree will grow to a height of 12 metres given sufficient light, reaching average age of 80 years, although coppicing greatly increases life expectancy, with some hazel stools remaining productive for several hundreds of years. It both astonishes and saddens me to think that, except in a very few cases, we have ceased to manage the woodland we have left in the UK – a source of the most fantastic, renewable material for building and for fuel – instead choosing to import from overseas products such as bamboo canes for the garden and charcoal for the barbeque, while our coppices are grubbed out and built over or abandoned to become neglected and overstood. Bonkers.

All this being said, you’d think I’d have more hazel growing in my own garden, but we weren’t fortunate enough to inherit any with the garden, and have only very young plants in the hedge we planted when we moved in. Instead, I tend to filch my hazel poles, pea sticks and cobnuts from friends and clients. After all, living in Kent, I’d be crazy to pay for these things, wouldn’t I? People do, though.

Tiny female flowers (top centre), with the long, dangling male catkins

Further information
The Kentish Cobnut Association www.kentishcobnutsassociation.org.uk

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A quiet tickling

Tickled soil, tickler, and wood sorrel
A dry, still day. Not quite mild, but the lack of the usual bitingly chill gusts up here on the roughway makes a welcome change. Nothing to hear but the sound of birdsong, the occasional putter a light aircraft overhead and, every now and again, the hammering of a woodpecker from higher up in the woods. The wind is such a feature of this site that its absence is almost unsettling.

The mulching and the heavy pruning done, the garden is at a stage where I can spend this time tweaking things, doing a passable impression of someone to whom a ruthless sense of tidiness is entirely natural. And so I patrol the borders and the lawn, tutting over twigs of birch and eucalyptus and every last fallen leaf that has yet to make it to the composting area, fingertip weeding between the lavenders and even indulging in a spot of soil tickling. As to the last of these, I know I shouldn’t, but old habits die hard, the clients like the look of it, the weeds love it, and my companiable robin friend is in seventh heaven and getting rather fat on it. Everyone’s happy, and no-one has yet berated me for unnecessarily releasing a pathetic amount of additional carbon to the atmosphere – I have a border fork in my hand to deal with such ridiculousness should they try. In all seriousness, it does actually help to control the colony of creeping wood sorrel (Sleeping Beauty or Oxalis corniculata var. atropurpurea) that would otherwise run riot through this bed. Often thought of as an annual, it’s clearly not a problem in February, but as roots and straggly stems do persist throughout the winter I tend to think of it as perennial. Rather a pretty plant, with its deep bronzed leaves and yellow flowers, but something of a tiny thug nonetheless, requiring a firm hand.

I’m not blind to the fact that there’s an element of procrastination in all this micro-faffing and beautification. There are other, less immediately obvious tasks which need seeing to – for example, the huge amount of woodchip churned in with soil that the tree surgeons have left me, all of which needs barrowing away from an area we want to replant (there’s enough honey fungus in this garden without us making a giant crater-shaped buffet for it). But you have to make the most of the stillness at this time of year. Not just the stillness of the weather (naturally, you always have to make the most of a good gardening weather in winter), but this apparent pause in activity that occurs, maybe lasting no longer than a few days, as winter transitions into spring. The mornings are getting lighter, and in a matter of weeks it will kick off and every gardener will be dashing about like a whirlwind blur with a barrow on the front. Perhaps you’ll pardon me if I take full advantage of the lull, and enjoy a quiet tickling while I may.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Walled Nursery

I’m a sucker for a walled garden, and so every opportunity to visit one is met with eager anticipation. Even so, it’s been too long since I’ve visited The Walled Nursery in Hawkhurst, and so an open invitation for a guided tour, and perhaps even a cup of tea, awaited merely a suitable space in the diary. Such a space appeared invitingly upon the page for this morning, and so off I went.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Potentially Poisonous Pernettya

The sight of a bush full of fat, colourful berries on a blisteringly cold winter’s day causes sentiments of comfort and wellbeing to abound in the bosom of the beholder. I rather suspect that something in our evolutionary history has predisposed us to feelings of warm fuzziness upon identifying a potentially rich source of nutrition within a harsh and inhospitable landscape, but this suspicion does nothing to lessen the pleasure I get from gazing upon this particular shrub, especially this morning, when the overnight frost has generously dusted the plump berries, the red stems and the diminutive, deep green leaves with countless tiny crystals.

All the same, one can’t help but wonder how many of our prehistoric forbears had to drop dead before the rest of their relatives knew which berries to eat, and which to avoid. They heaven for them that they’d had have to wait several millenia for writing to be invented, because what’s written about the toxicity of Pernettya mucronta (syn. Gaultheria mucronta) is decidedly inconclusive. The taste of the berries is described most often as being sweet, but a bit, well...meh – but the very fact that the taste is often described should offer some encouragement, suggesting as it does the likelihodd of surviving at least for the few moments required to make such a description before – who knows? – either carking it on the spot, or going on to make old bones and bounce the great grandchildren upon the knee. One or the other. I do love the internet*.

I regret to admit that I’m unable to offer my personal testimony on the matter, not because in this case I’m too nervous to try, but because, until writing this, I’ve never thought to. Perhaps this is attributable to a decidedly unadventurous disposition; it never occurs to me to pop a strange object in my mouth – particularly brightly coloured, fleshy ones hanging off bushes, which tend to make me think “Ooh, poisonous”, rather than, “Yum, dinner.” Maybe I’m missing out on a whole new way to experience the garden. Well that’s a chance I’ll just have to take.

Pernettya mucronta, as you’ll usually find these plants labelled in the nursery or garden centre, is now classified in the genus Gaultheria, of which the most well-recongnised is Gaultheria procumbens, or wintergreen (the berries of which are edible and, according to James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution, rather tastier). The various cultivars of P. (or G.) macronta have either only male or only female flowers on them (known as dioecious), and so you will need one of each to ensure a decent crop of berries. There are some hermaphrodite varieties, so it pays to check the label carefully. Whatever their sexual proclivities, they’re of the ericacious family, eschewing alkaline or chalky soils and being most at home in acidic conditions. A periodic top dressing with ericaceous compost, needles from the Christmas tree, or dousing from a watering containing a sachet of sequestered iron would keep them in fine fettle. Shade is not a problem for this shrub, although you’ll notice they flower best (and consequently develop the most berries) on the parts exposed to the sun.

*Further discussion on the toxicity or otherwise of this plant can be found here, at the website written from the garden of splendigly named Paghat the Rat Girl. It’s just as inconclusive as this post, but better referenced.