There is not a huge amount to be done in our garden at present apart from tidying. This is fortunate because the weather is currently not pleasant… wind and rain.
Earlier on in the week, however, we had some lovely clear, sunny days, with frost. We live less than a mile from the sea, so it’s rare to get really cold weather here, but we did get down to about -4.5°C overnight. The surface of the ground was frozen, but this was only to a depth of a couple of inches. And I know this because I had to dig some holes. After several months of waiting, my order from the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART) arrived. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining – the plants are produced to order and there are only limited numbers, so you have to order in the summer for delivery in late autumn/winter.
I am delighted to tell you that I am now the proud owner of three rather exotic (well, exotic for west Wales) plants: a Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens); a Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa); and a Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum schinifolium). Having just checked the ART website, I see all three are now out of stock, so I’m very glad that I ordered well in advance. But, why, you are probably asking, did I want these three particular plants? Why did I want them so much that I was prepared to order (and pay) for them so many months ago? First, I must say, that the Agroforestry Research Trust has a great reputation. Located on land on the Dartington Estate in Devon (not far from Totnes), it is run by the astonishingly knowledgeable Martin Crawford, and has an enviable reputation for the range and quality of plants available. Apart from anything else, I really wanted to support this brilliant organisation, but also, I wanted to buy good quality plants.
As for the three species I selected, well my motivations were based around producing crops to replace things that I currently ‘buy in’.
Siberian Pea Shrub may be the most talked about plant in permaculture and so I wanted to have a go at growing it. This is what the ART website has to say about it:
Siberian pea shrub. A large leguminous shrub from Siberia, reaching 6 m (20 ft) high and growing some 40 cm per year. The seeds, produced in numerous pods following yellow flowers, are edible when cooked (having a pea flavour), as are the young pods. A fibre is obtained from the bark. Bees visit the flowers and the species is a good fixer of nitrogen. A very hardy hedging and windbreak tree, hardy to -40°C.
It certainly sounds very versatile, but really my interest in it is for the ‘peas’, which I am hoping will make a valuable home-grown addition to the diet of my chickens. Of course, I will be delighted to see it fulfilling its role as a nitrogen-fixer, and perhaps adding a component to the diet of myself and Mr Snail-of-happiness, but it’s the chickens that I hope will get most out of it.
Similarly, I hope that Chokeberries will add an extra dimension to the diet of our chickens. Some months ago, I read an article that mentioned chickens’ love of Chokeberries. I now no longer have any recollection of where the article is to be found, but the information has stuck and so I thought it was worth giving it a go. Again, it may also be a useful addition to the human diet. The variety that I selected was ‘Nero’, about which ART says the following:
Black chokeberry. A shrub from North America, growing to 2.5 m (8 ft) high. It grows in any soil, in sun or part shade. It bears lots of black fruits, 7 mm across, which are edible with a good flavour when cooked in pies etc. Hardy to -25ºC. ‘Nero’ is a cultivar bred for large fruits with a high vitamin C content, and bears heavy yields.
The final addition is not destined for chicken consumption, but for humans. I am aware that the food miles associated with spices can certainly mount up. Admittedly, we only use them in small amounts, but I would like to do something to improve my self-sufficiency in this respect. We already grow our own chilli peppers, coriander and various herbs, but we use quite a lot of pepper and it would be satisfying to supply this need from the garden. A little research suggests that Piper nigrum, the standard source of peppercorns, is a native of India, grows to 10m and is not really suited to our climate. The best peppery alternatives are members of the genus Zanthoxylum :
Szechuan pepper. A very aromatic shrub from China and Japan growing 2 m (6 ft) or more high. The leaves can be used as a flavouring, but the main use is the peppercorn-like black seeds, which are used a spice (peppery and fragrant) – grown commercially as a spice crop in Asia. Grows well in any reasonable soil in sun or light shade; hardy to -20ºC.
And so, on a frosty day earlier this week I planted my three specimens. They don’t look like much at the moment (hence the absence of photographs), but with any luck they will settle in well and we (and the chickens) will be enjoying peas, pepper and chokeberries in the next few years.