Category: Gardening

Notes from a riverside garden – July 2021

Many summer plants in the garden border

At last the cool, wet weather has changed to warmth and sunshine, such a welcome change. Not least for the hope that the growth of the lawns may subside as keeping on top of the mowing has been challenging to say the least! The Island being particularly troublesome as the grass is lush and as quite enclosed by trees and riverside plants, it takes some while to dry off to a suitable level for mowing. However, by dodging the rain and making the most of dry days we have managed to keep everywhere mown. The areas we leave unmown are still looking spectacular with the seed heads and the variety of grasses with different heights and seed head shapes forming a feature of their own. We were delighted to find a single orchid bravely making its debut appearance in one of the uncut areas. We think it is a Piramidal orchid.

Pyramidal Orchid

Pyramidal Orchid

Elsewhere the weeds have also benefitted from the high rainfall with hedge bindweed entwining itself around so many plants and extending its range with stems which seem to be far longer searching for the next plant to climb. On the plus side the herbaceous borders are looking fabulous, despite the attempts of the hedge bindweed in some, to steal the glory! The border on the back lawn is a mass of vibrant colour, hard to belief a few months ago it was frequently underwater during the floods!

It has been a distressing time watching the struggles of the ducks to raise their broods, very few have made it to maturity. We watched a duck bravely fighting off the attentions of a carrion crow as it attempted to carry off a duckling. Sadly I think it eventually succeeded as there was one less in the brood of three a short while later. There have been terrible territorial battles amongst the swans with fatalities. We have never known such a time of intense territorial encounters in all the years we have lived here. However, on a more positive note I noticed yesterday a new brood of moorhen chicks and a duck with four small ducklings.

Clematis growing up a wall

Clematis

We have been thrilled to find hedgehog droppings in various parts of the garden. With slugs and snails, now munching their way through dahlias, runner bean plants and brassicas, there is much food available for the hedgehogs. We have never used slug pellets in this garden, nature usually keeps everything balanced.

On warm, sunny days I have encountered one or two grass snakes, curled up sunbathing on tops of low walls and on pathways. I’m afraid they always give me a start as their camouflage is so effective when they suddenly slither away as one approaches! We have seen one swimming in the river too. Strangely we rarely see any frogs, despite having what appears to be the perfect conditions for them in this garden, perhaps the number of grass snakes may account for this. We do see the occasional toad. SB

Apples by Dave Hodgson

Apple trees in bloom at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.
Apple trees in the snow at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

Apple trees in the snow at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

In the foreground of the above photo is a Blenheim Orange and behind to the left, a Bramley. Further back is a D’Arcy Spice. To the right is a James Grieve then behind that is a Sturmer Pippin. There is a Monarch off in the picture to the left. Five days after I had finished pruning these trees, the snow came and settled on every branch and twig. I could not resist a photo opportunity.

The varieties of apple tree you see in this photo are five of the twenty varieties of apple we manage here at Old Hall Community here in the Stour Valley. A total of ninety apple trees in three orchards covering about six acres. Most of the trees are over forty five years old and with careful management will continue to bear fruit for years to come. No chemical fertilizers or nutrients have ever been used on these trees to encourage growth, combat disease or increase storage time. Not since I have been here and that is thirty two years. Some varieties of apple, like for instance the Monarch, are prone to canker attack. Canker is not going to kill a tree if you prune it regularly and cut away cantankerous growth. After forty five years our monarchs have survived and the older the tree the more resilient it becomes. It might look ugly but the trees learn to live with it.

Most of the apple varieties you buy in shops these days are produced for mass consumption. Indeed did you know that many supermarket apples that are sold as fresh can be up to a year old. What keeps them looking fresh is the use of 1-methylcyclopropene. A so-called safe chemical used to prohibit ripening for up to a year from harvesting. However this synthetic chemical that is marketed as being ‘no risk non toxic’ to humans, animals and the environment is strictly regulated regarding its application. Despite it being explosive when warm it is restricted for use in an enclosed environment only, not outside. The people working with it must wear protective PPE and when finished, must not enter the space for thirty minutes after the environment has been vented. It has been found that two of the impurities found in the chemical are also carcinogenic. So much for ‘no risk non toxic’. Since it was first patented in 1996 1-methylcyclopropene has been used extensively on a whole raft of fruit and vegetables found in our supermarkets across the world. Indeed on any perishable goods that need to be stored and transported long distance and across borders to reach our supermarket shelves. All the more reason why we should strive to eat organically grown locally sourced produce. So this wonder chemical is ‘no risk if you wear PPE’ and ‘non toxic if you don’t release it into the environment’.

Back to our own trees starting with the Monarch apple, no longer available in shops. Between the years 1939 and 1947 people in Britain were allowed five teaspoonfuls of sugar per day or two pounds of sugar per month. This level of rationing made it very difficult to make cakes and fruit jams, blackberry, plum, greengage and the like without sugar. Enter the monarch apple. One thing the monarch has is a very high sugar content, in fact the highest sugar content of all culinary apples. This fruit was grown extensively during the war making it the most popular apple around. It makes an excellent baked apple too. Sadly now in the 2020’s it is known only to the apple enthusiasts. We have two trees of this variety both producing good biennial crops.

The Blenheim Orange was found in about 1740 in Oxfordshire near Blenheim Palace. It is one of the most vigorous of all apple trees and if not kept in check will grow to thirty feet (ten metres) or more in height. Hence it needs heavy pruning every few years to keep it down to a manageable height for picking. It produces a heavy crop but about once in every four years will take a rest. Good for making a puree for freezing or to eat with yogurt.

The Bramley needs no introduction. The UK’s most important cooking apple. The original tree in Nottinghamshire was grown from seed in 1809 and is still standing despite it being knocked over in a violent storm in 1900. More than two centuries later this tree is still bearing fruit though sadly in 2016 it was reported to be dying due to a fungal infection.

Next is the D’Arcy Spice. Found around 1785 near Colchester this is our most indigenious apple. A small biennial yellow russetted fruit traditionally picked on Lord Mayors day November 9th. Has a nutty flavour.

The James Grieve was first recorded in 1893. A lovely tasting apple but prone to bruising and should be handled carefully. Very good for juicing. Moderate cropper. Should be ready early to mid September. Prone to canker.

Lastly the Sturmer Pippin. Another native variety was found in 1827 near Haverhill close to the Suffolk border. A late fruit which if looked after and stored well will keep into the following spring. It should be picked in late October or Early November when it is hard, green and almost inedible.

I hope you have enjoyed this little potted history of a few of our apples here at Old Hall Community. I leave you with a photo of the blossom on a Discovery apple. Eat well.

Apple trees in bloom at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

Apple trees in bloom at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

Valley Farm Kitchen Garden, National Trust, Flatford by Brian Willis

Rhubarb growing in plot number 2, Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

About ten years ago, when the National Trust leased Valley Farm to The Field Study Council, it was discovered that a completely overgrown piece of ground behind the farm building had clearly once been a kitchen garden. A grant of £1,000 was awarded in 2010 towards the restoration of this garden, as part of National Trust’s ‘Eat Into Green Living’ initiative, a task undertaken by National Trust volunteers. During the restoration, original brick paths and box hedges were uncovered.

Ever since, volunteer gardeners have worked to maintain and develop the garden – or gardens, to be more precise. As far as possible, we try to maintain the gardens in as traditional way as possible, respecting the garden’s heritage. At the moment, we have four teams of gardeners, working on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

It is an idyllic place in which to work, set, as it is, in the heart of John Constable’s beloved countryside, in the beautiful and historic hamlet of Flatford. Tucked away, the garden remains unknown to many, even locals, some of whom, when they do discover us, remark that they’d been coming to Flatford for years, without realising we were there!

Valley Farm at Flatford, Suffolk. Valley Farm is a mid-15th century, medieval Great Hall House that was home to wealthy yeoman farmers up until the early 1900s.

Photo credit: Jemma Finch

We grow, organically, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, much of which is used by the Tearoom in their recipes. Two of my all-time favourites are the rhubarb and ginger, and the raspberry and white chocolate scones! Produce which is not needed by the Tearoom is offered for sale to the public on our market barrow outside Bridge Cottage.

What do we grow?

Broad beans, runner beans, French beans, potatoes, red and white onions, Spring onions, garlic, leeks, courgettes, squashes, rhubarb, herbs, salad crops, including lettuce, beetroot, tomatoes and cucumbers. Have you ever tried ‘Crystal Lemon’ apple cucumbers? They’re delicious!

We also grow flowers, such as Sweet Peas, Dahlias, Cornflowers, Sweet Williams and an interesting variety of poppies. We collect seed from some of the flowers, including from our spectacular poppies, which we also offer for sale on the barrow. We also have a soft fruit garden, in which we grow raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, loganberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries.

Visitors exploring Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

Photo credit: Trevor Ray Hart

On Open Days, we organise activities for children, and, among new schemes in the pipeline, we are planning to set aside two of our raised beds for children to tend, grow crops, and learn about gardening and nature.

The gardeners are always glad to welcome visitors to our garden between 10 am and 12 noon on our working mornings. The entrance to the garden can be found just past Willy Lott’s House.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Brian Willis, volunteer gardener
National Trust, Flatford

Growing Barley by Cliff Jordan

Plot at Old Hall with Barley crops just beginning to germinate

Many people who want to grow their own food start with herbs, and then vegetables and fruit. Some are ambitious and keep animals for meat and milk. But an enormous part of our diet is made up of cereals – grains such as wheat and oats – virtually all of which are produced by industrial scale monocrop agriculture, with huge fields and huge machines. I became curious – what would it take to grow just enough for a household’s
consumption?

In the UK, we each eat an average of nearly 50kg wheat in a year. Say you want to produce enough for a household of four: that would require maybe a tenth of an acre – a plot 50 yards by 10 yards in size. Way bigger than your usual garden, but miniscule compared to modern arable fields. I live in a community by the River Stour where we collectively farm 70 acres, within which I found a strip of land about half that size to experiment with.

Modern industrial agriculture is amazing; its constant leaps in productivity rely on new and better machines, new techniques and continual improvement of varieties. These are bred repeatedly to provide a crop that the machines can handle well. But unless you have half a million pounds worth of combine harvester, new varieties may not suit you. They tend to be fussier than old varieties, needing the right nutrients and weed control regime to produce optimum results. Partly fuelled by artisan bakers, and many people discovering intolerances to contemporary wheat, there has been a resurgence in interest in recent years in old varieties of wheat, and in landraces – a mix of different varieties grown together, rather than a field full of plants each with an identical genetic makeup.

You might be familiar with pearl barley – this is a barley grown for human consumption (most barley grown in this country is for feeding animals and for brewing beer) that has been through a machine to remove the hulls – a hard outer casing on each and every grain. Pioneers in this country have started in the last three years to grow ‘naked barley’ again. The yield is thought to be lower than modern barley varieties, but it does not require that stage of processing to make it good for human consumption. This is what I decided to experiment with.

I waited until the winter rains had finished, and the ground had dried out enough to work and then cultivated my plot (with a tractor and power harrow, because we have that equipment and it would be purist and perverse not to take advantage of it. That said, I spent as much time attaching the harrow to the tractor, and turning at the end of each row, as I did actually cultivating the plot.) I marked out some lines with sticks and string, and used a manual push- along seed dispenser to sow each row of barley seed. I did this during that magical week in late March when it seemed summer had arrived. It has been cold ever since and no rain has fallen. I look each day to see if the seed has germinated. If I were a subsistence farmer I might be praying by now, or sacrificing to the gods.

My hope is that the soil will warm up and that April showers will cause tiny roots and shoots to burst out of the buried grains, and I will have rows of barley popping up. I imagine having to hoe between the rows once or twice, to hold back the weeds that I know are lurking, but I hope that, once established, the barley will out-compete them. I can already picture a golden summer’s day with scythes, harvesting the barley and gathering it into stooks to dry out, and then bringing it into a barn to thresh and winnow. All being well, we will harvest a hundredweight or two of grain to last us the year. Even if reaping, threshing and winnowing with hand tools prove too difficult for us, we have chickens that will gladly glean the plot for us, so the efforts will not all be wasted.

Fingers crossed.

Cliff Jordan. April 2021

Carrots by David Hodgson

A crop of early organic carrots at Old Hall

There is a common myth that carrots are good for your eyesight and in particular for
night vision. Indeed the RAF pilots were persuaded to eat copious amounts of carrots
every day during the early years of the Second World War as were all service
personnel. The myth was created, not because eating them improved your night vision
when you were out on bombing missions, but because the government had mistakenly
set such a high price for carrots in 1941 that farmers produced a huge glut to capitalise
on the inflated price. The armed forces were forced to eat the lot.

Mind you, carrots are good for you and if you have ever taken a supermarket carrot and
eaten it raw alongside a fresh home grown organic carrot you might never want to
waste your money buying supermarket carrots again. The difference is truly a
gastronomic delight.

Which brings me on to growing your own. Here in the Stour Valley, here at the Old Hall
community, we have been growing our own organic carrots for more than forty five
years. I have only grown them for twenty of those years however. If you want some
figures we grow about eight rows and each row is about eighty metres long. That is
enough carrots to feed 60 people from early June one year to February the next year
assuming the carrot fly don’t get to them first.

Carrot fly love carrots. They travel several miles in search of carrots and can smell them
from a mile away. Considering that they are poor fliers and cannot fly higher than
eighteen inches, 450mm to you millennials, that means one hell of a sensitive nose for a
creature smaller than a small fly. When they find your carrots in early spring they will lay
their eggs in the ground around the carrot heads. The larvae hatch and burrow their way
into the carrot, where they eat, live and grow. Rendering them inedible to you and me.
Job done.

Four tips to avoid carrot fly.
One. Never plant your carrots in the same place year on year. Rotate your site on a four
year rotation if you can. There may well be larvae left in the ground over winter.

Two. Companion plant carrots alongside your onions and garlic. The smell throws them
into confusion. A sensory overload so to speak.

Three. Cover your carrots in carrot fly netting once the shoots appear, or better still, as
soon as you have sewn them. Carrot fly are a bit predictable, they hit carrots twice a
year. Once in early spring and then again in late summer. So avoid the early spring by
planting late April and May when the first wave offensive has waned. I usually plant my
Early Nantes on the first May bank holiday and my Autumn King on the last May bank
holiday. Or I pick the full moon closest to these dates. But that’s just the old hippy in me.

Four. Stop thinning and weeding your carrots once the onions have been lifted and
keep the netting on all the time after that. This way you will avoid the autumn attack.
Remember digging up or thinning or weeding around a carrot increases the smell. Push
the soil back around any carrots disturbed by this process to avoid this. Most important
in the autumn when the onions are gone.

Long rows in a garden ready to be planted with carrots

Rows at Old Hall ready to be planted with carrots

Carrots seeds love a warm sunny sandy soil. Do not plant in clay. Dig, rake to a fine tilth
before planting, removing stones and weeds. Do not compost. April is a good time to do
this. Not once, not twice, but three times over a couple of weeks and your bed should
be perfect, ready for planting. Shallow drills, half inch deep should do it. If you want, mix
your seed with five times as much dry sand or bone meal. This helps spread the seed
more evenly and sparingly along the drill resulting in less thinning, therefore less
exposure to the squadrons attacking your carrots while you remove the netting to weed
and thin them. Watering twice a day is a must, early morning and again at sunset.

The River Stour Festival this year has a theme which encourages us to source our food
from as local a source as is possible. Eat all your food for thirty days from sources
grown no more than thirty miles away. Food miles being important factors. The best
thing you can do is to grow your own organic fruit and vegetables. Healthy eating, zero
carbon footprint, healthy planet.

David Hodgson