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Editorial : February 2010

For 'wassail' read 'requiem'

There was a suggestion locally that we celebrate old Twelfth Night, on January 17, with a wassailing party to serenade our apple trees. Bad weather stopped play however, but that's not all . . .

After the big freeze and the big snow we are all counting the cost in the garden. The rabbits have obviously been desperate - all remaining exposed green vegetables have gone right down to the stalks. Even the Green Wave mustard, which they previously ignored, has suffered a similar fate.  The worst damage however, has been to the newly planted apple trees we put in last spring.  These were all fitted with spiral rabbit guards, but the snow was so deep, we did not venture up the slope to the embryonic forest garden areas for several weeks. Disaster! The deep snow had enabled the rabbit population of the Wye Valley to climb higher up the young trunks and strip the bark all the way round for up to a foot above the guards.


Hasty research revealed that if you find enough of the peeled-off bark it is sometimes possible to stick it back on in patches with grafting tape, and the tree might survive. In our case all of it had vanished, presumably eaten in the desperate conditions faced by wildlife for over a month. This kind of bark damage is very bad news for trees. Nutrients from the leaves are taken back down to the roots just underneath this covering. If it is removed all the way round on the trunk, that is usually terminal.

We considered the options. I thought of cutting off the sapling trunks just below the damage, and grafting some of the branches from higher up into the lateral cut. To do this you cut down into the exposed top surface of the sawn top. Then, wedging the split open slightly, you insert two cuttings from the top ends of the branches (ideally these will have been cut in autumn and kept in a plastic bag in the fridge till early in the year), having cut away the bottom sides with a sharp knife to from a vee-shaped end. You insert these ‘scions’, one at each outer side, in the wedged incision, lining up with the outer bark on the trunk. Then remove the wedge and tape round the trunk with grafting tape (a breathable, water resistant film) to keep all together. At least one of the implanted scions should take.  You can also graft scions from other compatible varieties, and even have several kinds of apple on one tree, for example.

The accepted ‘bible’ on grafting is The Grafters Handbook – which although it seems to be out of print, can be had second hand from various web booksellers. It has all the background you need and plenty of illustrations. If you have blackthorn and hawthorn in your garden that are contenders for removal, you might consider using them as grafting stock for other species, like plums, and see if you can get them to produce more useful edible crops.

Anyway, having thought of all the options with our apple trees, I have decided to move them to somewhere else in the garden and have a play with the grafting idea. Then we will replace the affected trees with some new ones, and go in for more effective protection for the future.  If we get this amount of snow again, we will have to remember to go dig it out from around the trees, or we will have to go for the more expensive option of triangular post and netting barriers around all the young trees. Given the cost of replacing two-year old saplings, this could well be justified.

Now of course is the time to consider the next phase of the forest garden. More soft fruit has just gone in, and some unusual species are expected in March, including the edible Ostrich Fern, and a Nepal pepper tree. I have ordered a lot of seed from the Agroforestry catalogue to bring on perenniel vegetables and herbs for underplanting, and plenty of bee forage plants to help pollinate the fruit bearing species.  All this activity will tie in with this year’s plant giveaway at Rhayader Green Fair in July. MWPM kicked off at this event last July and the seedling swap was a great success. The theme of this year’s Permaculture display will be a dual one of perennial Forest Garden plants and pollinator friendly planting. We will be big on perennial alliums and herbs, nitrogen fixers, ground cover and wild flowers. I’m reliably informed that the French are doing a lot with wildflower planting on roadside verges because of recent scientific evidence that wildflowers do more for bees’ immune systems than domestic flowers, which should encourage us all to do more in this respect. All the wildflower varieties I have chosen this year also have other medicinal, culinary, or plant health indications, and they, like the perennial vegetable varieties, cover a range of favoured siting requirements, to maximise planting potential all over the forest garden plot.

Having perused the Agroforestry catalogue, it is apparent that many of the things I want to buy as plants, rather than seed, will not be available till next Autumn. You are advised to email requests for these to avoid disappointment as supplies are obviously not very plentiful for the more unusual varieties. It is possible to grow many of these from seed yourself, but take note of the very detailed requirements for preparation of some of them, especially the shrub and tree seeds, by chilling and/or heating in silver sand, sometimes for many weeks - necessary to induce germination. Some seeds also require scarifying to germinate – rubbing between sandpaper to break up the hard outer casing; all of these recommendations are listed on the online catalogue, so you can work out if you really do have time to go through the process in time for the required sowing time.  Then, if you live in Wales, especially at altitude, and are without heated propagation, you might want to add anything up to a month to sowing dates - as I found to my cost last year.

Who said gardening was easy?

Roz Brown

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