Exotic trees

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.

Food metres

There is so much talk about food miles and the environmental cost of transporting food around the world that I always enjoy eating food that has travelled as short a distance as possible… potatoes from the local farm are good, but they have still travelled miles. My favourites are things that come straight from my garden to the plate (perhaps via the oven). Purple sprouting broccoli is winning in terms of shortest distance travelled at the moment because it is planted directly outside the back door. However, I did grow the seedlings in bought compost (wool and bracken based not peat), so there were some miles associated with getting that to me. Perhaps the winner, therefore, should be the rhubarb… a few more meters away from the back door, but a perennial, propagated from a donated root, never grown in a pot and now fed solely with home-produced compost. It has moved house with me (in a bucket), but I think that’s probably ok!

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

I love it when an entire meal arrives from the garden… and has even been cooked using fuel that we have grown. Later in the season, we should be enjoying Spanish tortilla (potato, onion and eggs) cooked on our rocket stove powered by willow prunings, with fresh salad leaves straight out of the garden. The only ‘external’  inputs would be the oil and salt and pepper, plus a match to light the stove. I always forget to take photos of such feasts (I tend to be focused on the eating part of the proceedings!) but I will try to remember later in the year.

Having mentioned pepper, that’s something I would like to investigate. Martin Crawford grows various peppery shrubs and trees at the Agroforestry Research Trust and I think I’m going to try to get hold of a Zanthoxylum piperitum (Japanese pepper) this year… probably too late now. Talking of Martin, his book Creating a Forest Garden is brilliant – even if you don’t want to plant up a forest garden, the information on plants in there is fantastic. His courses are fascinating too.

Some food, however, we can’t grow ourselves, but we do try to source lots of things locally, including wholemeal flour, sweet chilli sauce (although I want to make this myself this year if the chilli crop is large enough) and fish. We do buy feed for the chickens, but because they are free ranging much of the time, they don’t need as much as if they were confined and some of their protein comes from eating slugs and snails (hurrah!). We are never going to be self-sufficient, but it is lovely to feel that pretty much every day of the year we eat something that we produced ourselves.

Rhubarb and friends – 4 May 2012

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