Carpet berries

There are lots of reasons to plant spring-fruiting elaeagnus, but flavour, sadly, is not one of them.


I have inherited in my garden several hedges made of this elaeagnus – it is, I think, Elaeagnus x ebbingei, a plant widely used in gardens and landscaping.  Its leaves have a pleasant silvery sheen and it is a well behaved yet strongly growing evergreen tree.  It is a nitrogen-fixing plant, which makes it very useful to have near fruit bushes and trees because it cuts down on the need to fertilise.  The most compelling reason to grow this plant however, is the beautiful fragrance which lingers around it in mid-late autumn.

In March this year I noticed lots of oval fruits, 1-2cm long hanging on the bushes. Having confirmed that they were edible, I immediately tasted one of the silvery-green berries, ignoring the footnote about the fruit being astringent when unripe.  The most extraordinary thing happened – my mouth turned in to a carpet!  It was both surprising and unpleasant.  Not like a lemon, which causes you to pucker; or a chilli, which gives the sensation of heat; or rhubarb, which makes tooth enamel feel gritty.  No, it was a definite carpet sensation.

Concluding (insightfully) that the berries were not ripe, I left them for another week by which time the fruits were pink.  I sampled them again:  Carpet-mouth.

A week or two later, the berries were red, plump and well, ripe.  Although the carpet sensation had mostly disappeared (lingering just a little in the skin of the berry), the flavour was disappointing and quite honestly, not worth the risk of eating an under-ripe fruit by mistake.

Ken Fern, in his enormously useful book ‘Plants for a Future’, describes eating this fruit by the handful upon finding it on the central reservation of a dual carriageway near Heathrow, before being moved on by a policeman.  Perhaps the fruit of the Heathrow bush was a variation which tastes nicer than my garden hedge (perhaps some time I’ll try it and find out).

I would like to be enthusiastic about a fruit which appears at such a useful time of year, so I won’t write it off just yet.  However, I’ve limited my plans for planting it in the field to areas where the fragrance will be appreciated.

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Willow on a cold day

5 degrees Celsius.  I can’t muster the necessary spirit to plant any of the bare-root trees which are drunkenly waiting in the vegetable beds for a proper home.

Instead I wander round the field and find to my delight, the tips of the Osier willows (Salix viminalis) are covered in delicate white catkins.  They extend gracefully upwards; tall spires against the blue, blue sky.


Osier willow (Salix viminalis)

If I had pruned the willow in the early Winter as I had intended, this would not have happened.  So I won’t be doing that, then.

The other willows are also interesting and lively in the otherwise dreary field.

I love willow!  I resolve to buy more varieties.  Luckily there is still a whopping 60m of hedge space still available to play with…


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Winter vision

The same thing happened last year.  Standing in the field in the depths of winter, planting trees in the mud under a grey sky, I began to wonder if the whole concept was valid.  My idea of a beautiful Eden-like garden, filled with lovely things to eat and pretty things to look at seems, at times, so far away.  And walking in the empty-seeming field today with the cold clay literally squelching under my boots is definitely one of those times.  Was it through a veil of insanity that I imagined the colours and the butterflies, the sunbeams and the smell of lavender…?


The trouble, I think, is that the field has so little structure at the moment and so in winter everything dies back to a uniform, flat, brownness.  But we have recently planted some hedges and with a few more to go in this winter, some more branches on the trees as they mature a little, and the Olympian growth of the willow hedge/tunnel this will soon improve.

Last year my thoughts became full of hope and excitement again the moment the spring arrived and my plan became, well, if not exactly sensible, at least credible.  So for the time being I’ll just keep planting the little bare-root trees, shrubs and other stick-like things in to holes in the mud, follow the paper plans, and try not to think too much beyond the next cup of tea.


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Two special trees

Lizzie and Purple Candy

I went today to collect two fruit trees from our local nursery, Blackmoor.  Bare-root trees are arriving thick and fast from a range of suppliers at the moment and I had forgotten that these two trees would be particularly exciting ones.  Not just another apple tree or anything ordinary like that.  No!  These are trees of unfamiliar and exotic fruits:  an Asian plum called Lizzie, and a Pluot – a cross between a plum and an apricot.

When I collected the them, the slightly muddy, stick-like trees with their roots wrapped in a black plastic bad had on their labels the following descriptions:

Lizzie:  A new Asian plum that has been bred in America. It’s medium-sized fruit are remarkably sweet and juicy – they’re almost candy-like and unlike any other plum we know.

Pluot Purple Candy:  Pluots are a cross between a Plum and an Apricot with a Plum being the dominant cross. The fruit is as big as a peach and gets its taste rather on the side of apricot while its juicy texture comes from the plum. The variety takes its name from its dark skin, between purple and violet, and has very sweet flesh. These are large fruit with yellow flesh of excellent flavour.

How could I not be excited?!  Sometimes I worry that I’m becoming addicted to browsing the catalogue descriptions, imagining tasting the fruits and wandering around the orchard.  Is it possible that I love the process of selecting the varieties of tree more than the actual growing and eating of the fruit?  It’s too soon to know since our entire crop this year was just one single apple – but I did derive a lot of pleasure form eating my quarter of that apple, so I think it may not be as bad as I fear.

I arrived home from Blackmoor to find a bundle of 26 trees from Keepers Nursery on the drive.  Now for the planting…

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Bringing in the pumpkins

Pumpkin harvest 2014

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It’s all true about the figs

This really is a story about the eating of a superbly delicious fig, warm from the sun, picked directly from a tree on a sun-baked Greek island…

Island of Kea

I have read many accounts of the deliciousness of figs and yet I remain sceptical.  I can’t match the accounts with the insipid, juice-less Brown Turkey figs we have been growing for several years.   We eat them because we feel obliged to, having gone to the effort of growing them, but there’s no pleasure in it.  Perhaps the variety is to blame; perhaps the pot.  Perhaps the general lack of care – or sun, but whatever the reason my fig experience to date has been very disappointing.  The dark figs which appear sometimes in the grocer or supermarket are better, but still nothing to get excited about.

My conversion took place last week during a holiday on the Greek island of Kea.  Figs grow like weeds on the hillside, suckering in to disorganised thickets.  The fig tree next to our lodging was diseased and unpromising but a walk in to the surrounding countryside, baked golden and dry after the summer gave me plenty of chances to sample some others

FigBy luck, the first one I picked was The One – brownish blue on the outside and dark red and juicy on the inside when I pulled it apart.  Popping half in to my mouth without expectation of success, I was completely taken by surprise! The warm, sticky fig had an interesting and significant flavour and it was deeply sweet and well, fig like.  I ate three more before I began to feel a teeny bit sick from the sweetness.

I tried lots more while I was on the island.  The dark ones were the best.  The green ones with white insides were nice but not in the same league.  I could taste the figginess of fig rolls – a childhood treat containing dried fig paste – but this was the actual, real taste before it became dried and pureed and put in a biscuit in my lunch box.

So, the million dollar question: Can I recreate this at home?  I don’t know but I do know I need to try.  I’ve found a supplier of figs, Reads Nursery,  with good descriptions of the many varieties they sell.  I have selected one called ‘Sugar 12’ for a prime, sheltered spot in the garden, and ‘Dauphine’ for the orchard, where I’m hoping it will prosper as a large standard tree – to be picnicked under, surrounded by suitably evocative ground cover (rosemary, thyme, lavender…)

All I need now (in addition to quite a lot of grit for the heavy clay soil) is lots of sunshine. Perhaps then this little corner of Hampshire might fulfil its alter-destiny as a glorious souvenir of my Mediterranean holiday.  What could possibly go wrong?!

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On the making of raised beds

raised beds

In the dark, cold days of winter we embarked on the making of our raised vegetable beds.  I drew three tiny rectangles on the plan of the field and began to search around for something to make the edges from which wouldn’t be crazily expensive. So that’s a no to durable, hardwood sleepers then.  In the end I settled on a combination of eco-treated softwood sleepers and cheap bits of wood for the less visible edges.

I began to mark out the edges of the beds with posts and string.  It was immediately obvious that my usual hap-hazard approach of pacing out and judging by eye was not going to work because the distances involved were causing lines to converge in a slightly alarming manner.  The result was a giant spider’s web of coloured threads containing no right-angles.

The second attempt involved my husband and was surely foolproof; he is a practical man, living in a world of precise measurements and clearly defined events.  His approach involved Measuring The Diagonals. The result was a lessening of the spider’s web effect but there were still no right angles!  We gave up, slightly shaken (me) and very cold (us both).

A friend came to stay:  The challenge was issued.  Much indoor measuring and knotting of string ensued.  Surely the application of a masters degree, further qualifications in physics and a longer tape measure would solve the problem.  It did.  (Although I suspect this may have been at least partly due to a general averaging out of mistakes and a lowering of my expectations.)

Anyway, this post wasn’t intended to be a cataloguing of our surveying mistakes.  Rather, I wanted to record the success of the Charles Dowding method of raised bed construction.  The method was as follows:  Once the rectangles had been marked out, the sides of the bed were fixed together and placed directly on to the grass.  They were filled with organic matter – mostly horse manure from our kind neighbours – to a depth of 4”.  And that was that.


I should mention at this point that it quickly became apparent as I tried to fill the beds using wheelbarrows of manure, that my ‘tiny rectangles’ were actually enormous and would require equally enormous volumes of horse poo to fill.  We bought a trailer…  And even after this it took us many weekends of shovelling, transporting and recovering to fill the beds, resulting in a ‘just in time’ scenario where the beds were being planted up at one end and still being filled at the other.  Consequently the manure was a bit fresher than it would have ideally been but lots of things have grown well despite this (potatoes, squash, beans). Some things fared very badly (lettuce, direct sowings of seeds) but most seedlings just seemed to turn a sad shade of yellow on planting out, before settling in happily (strawberries, tomatoes, nasturtiums).

More significantly, the grass has not grown through the manure and neither have most weeds.  There are a few things which I am having to remove by hand, including thistles, field bindweed and the odd dock, but generally the whole area has been very manageable and good to work with.  A more challenging problem is that the heavy mulching has resulted in a booming earthworm population, causing much interest by the local badgers who are repeatedly digging craters in the bed to find the worms.  Our initial hope is to deter them using a sprinkle of manly hormones in liquid form, but that’s another story…

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The first blossom in the orchard!

dessert cherry Hertford

Dessert cherry ‘Hertford’


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Thanking my lucky rabbit

NThis post, misleadingly, is nothing to do with rabbits.  No, it’s about the 66m of hedging between the field and the road – or more accurately, the lack of 63m of it.

Very excited by selecting the components of the mixed native hedge we plan to grow (think ‘child in sweet shop’), I had saved the somewhat complex order, ready to send to Glebe Farm Hedging, when I noticed a neighbour had put in a new hedge around one of their paddocks.  WITH RABBIT GUARDS.  Rabbit guards!  How could this have dropped off my radar?  (In the spirit of not turning the field into a fortress following many dire predictions of rabbit/deer/badger apocalypse certain to befall my fruit and vegetables, I think I may have moved quickly past this chapter of the hedge planting manual.)

My husband sensibly suggested that we just try a trial section of the hedge without guards and see what happens to it.  All very good.  So I cut down the order from 66m to…12m, and then getting in to the spirit of it, in half again to 6m (24 plants).  The whips (small trees) arrived last week and we planned to plant them on Saturday.

We began by removing the turf from the 1m x 6m strip.  Well, I say ‘we’, but in this case, I didn’t have much to do with it (being well acquainted with the difficulty of this particular operation having just finished making the raspberry beds).  Then I forked the strip over – by myself because my husband was feeling it a little by this point.  The forking was Not Easy due to the enormous quantity of flint mini-boulders lying just beneath the turf level.  Having extracted the boulders, we then had to dig two parallel trenches in which to plant the whips – at which point we discovered that I hadn’t quite removed all the boulders.  3 meters and a large pile of rubble later we could both barely stand any more and was apparent that this was the maximum length of hedge we could realistically plant in one weekend.

So, in view of this, I’m really very glad I didn’t order all 66m of plants in one go.  And thank you to the (real or imagined) rabbits for pointing this out.

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A peach-coloured haze of uncertainty

When I think about it, this whole orchard project may have come about as a result of a conversation with a lady named Celia…

Celia and I were out walking one day when we began chatting about our mutual passion for peaches and bemoaning how difficult it is to find a good one without going to France.  She told me of a large peach tree in the garden of her childhood from which she had picked and eaten delicious peaches.  A free-standing peach tree!  In England!  The idea was astonishing to me.  The notion of having desirable fruit of all types growing in my garden took hold and, well, the rest is history.

The thought of growing peaches in this way makes me swoon a little.  However, technically there are a number of challenges to be overcome:

Firstly, let’s not beat around the bush: Peach leaf curl.  It isn’t possible to grow peaches outside in this country without taking evasive action against this disease.  The options are either spraying several times each year with Bordeaux Mixture (which I don’t want to do because I’m intending to garden without the use of chemicals) or covering the leaves of the tree between December and May to keep them dry (some kind of polytunnel or similar cover).

But is this true?  The new variety Avalon Pride is “resistant” to peach leaf curl.  What does this mean?  That it doesn’t mind it?  That it will endure for longer before finally succumbing?  That it will need help for the first few years but after this it will be ok?  Resistant?  Resistant.  We all know what happens to frost-resistant pots…  Michael Phillips in his book The Holistic Orchard hints that it is possible to overcome the disease by growing strong, healthy trees and boosting their own ability to resist the disease by spraying them with organic remedies.  On the other hand, Mark Diacono writing in the Telegraph states “Don’t be tempted by ‘Avalon Pride’ – sold as offering good resistance to leaf curl, my 40 trees became riddled with it from year one and have never really recovered.”  I think my answer is to start with one or two trees and protect them while they are small.

The second issue is hardiness.  It is standard practice in this country to train peaches against a wall.  The extra warmth radiated by the wall gives some protection to the blossom against frost and helps the fruit to ripen.  However, I tracked down a second hand copy of Peach Orchards in England by Justin Brooke (1947) which describes how the author established and managed a peach orchard (of free-standing trees) for commercial purposes – which leads me to believe that a wall really isn’t necessary for peaches to grow and fruit well.

And what of Celia’s tree?  It was growing long before the time of peach leaf curl-resistant varieties and fruiting successfully in the English countryside.  Possibly environmental conditions have changed, and in their wake corresponding disease concerns. But with a prize such as this, what risk would not be worth taking?!

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