Tuesday, 14 April 2015

April in Ireland

The lovely and sunny Irish spring has given me the opportunity to bicycle in the mornings; I ride a few miles down the canal, from our house to the nearest village, where I pick up the bus to work in Dublin. In theory I’d love to do this all year, but during the winter it’s not possible – not only is it cold and almost constantly raining, but it’s totally black in both the morning and evenings, and of course we have no streetlights out here. As soon as spring comes, however, I can start saving fuel and exercising more, often waving to our neighbours getting their own start to the day, working in their fields as the low mist rolls around them. 

Near our house I pass the old turf rails, once used to cart peat from the bog to the canal. Peat – called turf here – looks strange to newcomers, irregular reddish bricks like dried clay. It began as sphagnum moss thousands of years ago, and in the oxygen-starved bog-waters it could not decay. People here burned it for fuel from long ago, and the canal was built through the Bog of Allen three centuries ago to harvest it on a massive scale. Workmen shovelled chunks of it out of the bog and loaded it onto wagons on the rails, where horses pulled it up tracks to the bog, other men threw it onto barges, and other horses pulled it along the canal to the cold families of Dublin at the far terminus of this canal. 

On such mornings I get to see the local wildlife, and I remember how commonplace birds and animals were for our ancestors, before we sped past them encased in metal and glass. By the turf rails I look for footprints of the fox that killed our chickens last year; my daughter remains determined to find and kill it.

My daughter and I saw a kingfisher the other day, leaping from an upper branch and plunging into the water; they must surely have padded skulls to avoid killing themselves when they hit a fish, like a kamikaze pilot hitting a boat. 

The heron that we so love to watch is back and quite visible along the canal, now joined by his (her?) mate. This is the rare time of year to see two herons at once, before they resume their solitary fishing ways. 

The cows have returned to the field next door, the hens are laying again, and our rooster has renewed his conversation with his rival in the neighbour’s yard. The sheep, whose muddy coats can blend in with the grey background during the dismal months, shine brilliant white against the green fields these days. Tiny lambs orbit each mother sheep, leaping to and fro and occasionally tumbling face-first into the grass. 

Cowslips and primroses are erupting across the edges the forest, and our apple saplings are bursting into flowers at the tips – halting my apple grafting experiments until winter. I took the opportunity of a sunny day to walk along the banks of the River Liffey, where I used to take The Girl when she was a toddler, and I picked nettles there as I used to, giving me lunches all this week. 

My daughter asked if she could begin riding her bicycle to school in the village every day, just as I do to the bus stop there earlier in the morning. In theory, I believe in a more free-range, adventurous childhood than most children get these days, but her request brought out the nervous father in me; there’s a stretch of main road where trucks roll along far too quickly, and Irish roads have no shoulders. Last weekend, though, I rode there with her, giving her advice and watching for dangers, and finally told her she could do so. She was nervous despite herself, but yesterday she made the trip solo for the first time. 

“You were right,” she said as she snuggled up with me that night. “I was scared before I did it, but once I started, I was fine. I really enjoyed it.” Yes, I said, most things in life will be like that. Enjoy everything while you can.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Everything's coming up

Savouring the blue skies and relative warmth of the last week, we have been busy reshaping our land and planning for the years to come. One corner of our property has become overgrown with brambles and elder, and I have been removing them to make way for a beehive. The elder shoots can be woven like a basket between stumps to make a good wattle fence.

We have been scooping the top layer of earth from inside our chicken run, carting it to our garden beds to top up the soil. Chicken manure is one of the best fertilisers you can get, and these days garden stores sell it in abundance. That’s fine if you have no other choice, but I find it ironic that we throw away millions of tonnes of kitchen waste per year – contributing a great deal to climate change -- then buy dried chicken manure from stores in plastic tubs. More of us, instead, could simply keep chickens, feed them the waste, and benefit from the manure.

The bees are slowly emerging in time to start work on the sally tufts, and swallows are investigating our shed to see if their old nest remains intact. It does, but I’m debating whether to allow them to nest there this year; it’s said to bring good luck, but not on the days I try to enter my shed and get smacked by a swallow going the other way.

The best part of spring, for me, is looking at the new buds. The red tips of the linden tree will soon erupt into fresh green leaves that are brilliant for salad, and for a few weeks now I have been using the hawthorn shoots as an herb. The cowslips are pushing out of the new grass, ready to be gathered for wine, and flowers are spreading across the floor of our forest, catching the window of sunlight before the trees overhead spread their canopy again.

I’m looking over the tattered hedgerows we inherited and resolving to repair them this year. They fray because they comprise a few different species of tree and bush, which grow and die at different rates, meaning the hedgerow is becoming a clump of trees. To make it a proper hedgerow wall again will require a few years, but all the more reason to start now.

First, I’ll be taking the fastest-growing members of that community – the willows – and sawing partway through their trunk at the base. Then I’ll be pulling them down until they are horizontal, but making sure that some of the inner bark that remains intact, connecting the tree to the roots. I’ll do this for each of the saplings along the row like dominoes, and they will still live and flourish on the ground.

Then, next year they will put up new shoots upward, and I will cut part-way through them, pull them down and do the whole thing again. Soon, we’ll have something more like a proper willow-wall, a living wattle fence that can offer privacy and food for us and a home for wildlife, for years to come. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

An Orchard From a Single Tree

At some point in your childhood, I hope, you ate an apple and hit upon the idea of planting the seeds. Most such experiments stop at the paper-cup stage, but if your tree survived long enough to bear fruit, you probably noticed something strange: the seeds from that Golden Delicious apple do not necessarily grow into a Golden Delicious apple tree.

Seeds, you see, come from pollinated flowers. Flowers exist to get animals to combine a plant’s DNA with that of another plant, just as fruit exist to persuade animals to eat them and drop the seeds and fertiliser somewhere else. An apple’s fruit, obviously, is determined by what kind of apple tree it is, but the seeds inside are shaped by whatever pollen came to the flower.

If the bee that pollinated that Golden Delicious tree, way back when, had been to a crab-apple tree just before, then that Golden Delicious apple contains seeds that are part crab-apple. And since there are so many wild and domesticated apples around us, and bees need to make their appointed rounds, it’s quite difficult to grow purebred apples – and many other fruits – from seeds.

Even if you succeed in growing the fruit you want, it doesn’t necessarily come on the tree you want. You want a certain size of tree, suited for your climate and resistant to disease. With fruits you want a certain size, variety and flavour, and the two don’t often come in the same package.

Each plant variety has strengths and limitations that other varieties do not, just as a golden retriever dog has advantages and limitations that their wild wolf cousins do not. Of course, you can’t simply cut off a dog’s head and plant it onto the body of a wolf, getting a healthy but friendly Franken-dog. With trees, though, you can do exactly that.

It’s called grafting, and it dates back to ancient times, and today is practiced on a vast commercial scale; when you eat fruit, it was almost certainly from a grafted tree.

If you want to graft a tree the wrong way, do what I did the first time: let the knife slip the wrong way, cut your thumb almost in half, and spend a night in the emergency room. Grafting knives are quite sharp, so be careful.

To graft a tree the right way, however, you take a root and stem of one kind of tree for your “stock,” the base of your Franken-tree. You could use a hardy wild variety of crab-apple, or more commonly these days, one of many varieties bred just to be root-stock for grafts. The stock determines what the size and shape of the tree will be – if you use the bottom of a dwarf tree sapling as your stock, you will end up with a dwarf-sized tree.

Then you take a 1-year-old cutting, from the previous year’s growth, for your “scion” – again, a Golden Delicious scion if you want Golden Delicious fruit. The best scions are straight, long, upright shoots, usually taken from young and vigorous trees; in old trees this type of growth is hard to find and usually near the top.

The tree that grows from a successful graft will have the best of both worlds; for example, as the size and shape of your root-stock variety, but yielding the fruit from your scion variety.

Apples are the fruit most commonly grafted, but you can graft pears, plums, cherries or many other fruit. Amazingly, you can even interchange certain species – stone fruit like plums, cherries and peaches are interchangeable, and you could, in theory, attach them all to one “fruit cocktail” tree. The good people at Seed Savers, County Clare, Ireland, even grow pears from their hawthorn tree.

Nor do the possibilities stop at trees; I am told you can even graft the top of a tomato plant onto the bottom of a potato plant – they are both in the nightshade family – and get both vegetables from the same organism.

Nor are you limited to one scion; in theory, you can attach as many scions as your root-stock tree has branches. You can even attach multiple kinds of apple; one man in Britain has grown a single tree, planted 25 years ago, and attached 250 separate scions onto it, making it the only tree in the world to yield that many kinds of fruit.

It’s best to graft in winter or spring, when the trees are as dormant as possible – the people at Seed Savers say they cut scions in December, store them in sand in cool dry place, and graft them in February or March. To try grafting you need the following things:
  • A scion, or a small branch from tree whose fruit you desire;
  • A root-stock, or sapling of the same fruit, but hardier and wilder – say, crab-apples if you’re grafting apples;
  • A very sharp knife (again, be careful);
  • Bandages or grafting tape;
  • A candle and matches (optional).
To graft a branch, you have to cut the scion off the desirable-fruit tree, and cut a branch of similar diameter off the hardy stock tree. If you’re trying this for the first time, the best thing might be to use a sapling, 6 months to 1 year old, as the stock, and the scion can be grafted onto its stem and become its top half.

Make a very slanted, diagonal cut at the top end of the stock, so that a long strip of bark is exposed. Then, rotate the sapling to the other side and cut it in the other direction, making an upside-down V shape. Finally, take the scion and make a similar cut the other way, so that the two dove-tail together. There are many other cuts that could be used, but this is one of the simplest.

The idea here is to expose as much of the cambium – the green layer under the bark – as possible, and to lay the stock’s and scion’s cambium touching each other. That’s the living part of the tree, where healing takes place, and that’s the part that will grow back together. The experts I talked to also recommend cutting off the tip of the scion after grafting, anything more than three buds up, so the tree will concentrate its growth into the most viable section.

Fit the two as tightly and perfectly as you can, and then make sure they stay together. Some people take sticks of wood and lay them against the dove-tailed branches to keep them in place. In any case, wrap the entire thing together in bandages or grafting tape. What you’ve done, effectively, is make a splint for the tree to grow back just as broken bones would.

Finally, light the candle – you were wondering what that was for, didn’t you? – and drip wax onto the wrapped bandages until the entire thing is sealed away from bacteria and fungus. This is an optional step, though – some grafters preferring to simply wrap the stems together or use sealing paste like Lac Balsam, which does not need to be heated. If you do use wax, use it sparingly, lest the heat damage the tissues.

If you want to try grafting yourself, it’s best to take a course or talk to an expert first, or at least look at a lot more detailed information in books and the Internet; gardening centres around you might have courses available. Once you get it right, though, you can start experimenting with turning a single tree into an orchard.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons. 

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Happy Easter

Working on something, and can't write more. God Bless all.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

New article in Grit magazine

Good news! My latest piece on fruit tree grafting has been published in Grit Magazine; check it out here.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

All hands on deck

Note: we've had some technical difficulties so far this year, so I haven't been able to write or post as much as usual -- sorry.

No matter when it officially begins, spring really starts for us the day the sky cracks open, the ashen clouds dissipate and a warm sun – sometimes the first we’ve seen in weeks or months – warms the damp ground below. Friday we saw nothing of that day’s solar eclipse; the clouds were so thick that the sky was already dark, and we could not tell when the eclipse was passing. Today winter returned, with sleet pelting me as I rode my bicycle to the bus stop. In between, though, was the weekend, when the gray parted and spring shone through.   

For us it was none too soon; we have much to do in our garden. For us the most pernicious problems are elder trees, which shoot up unnoticed until they have begun to choke out the saplings we want. Merely cutting them is not enough; they must be uprooted, and if they are disturbed they emit a foul odour. They can’t even be burned, as the smoke is said to be toxic.

Nonetheless, I have been burning all the other plants whose roots I’m excavating from the garden; long brambles with thorns thick as nails that creep in from the neighbouring fields, or ash saplings that spring up on our forest floor like bamboo. In a more natural wilderness they might fight for space and kill each other off, but I don’t have time to wait for that, and I don’t want them to choke out the shade-loving flowers at their feet.

I grow frustrated sometimes at the language of environmental activists, who treat the natural world like a fragile ornament that shatters at our touch. There are relatively untouched regions of wilderness in the world that should stay that way, of course, but the urban and suburban lands most of us see every day have been clear-cut, bulldozed, built upon and bulldozed again many times over. It would take them hundreds of years to return to an old-growth forest, if we disappeared tomorrow, and even then, invasive species and changing weather patterns would ensure that the forest that grew back would not resemble the old.

Rather than avoid nature like a contagion, we prefer to know it intimately. My daughter and I wander through our woodland together, along with the bog-lands around us, and she knows the trees by personal names – Susan, George, Olive – that she gave them long ago. She has helped me chop down the willows that border our property, and we have watched the new willow shoots emerge from the stump the next year. We have wandered through swamp-fields in our wellies (boots), searching for the fox that killed our chickens, keeping clear of cows. She knows which mushrooms to pick on our walks, and the tracks of the animals we see. And now that spring has appeared, we need to make sure our woodlands are not overrun.

We also spent the afternoon replacing boards in our garden beds; a fungus has eaten the wood and we are plugging the soil-leaks where we can. My mother-in-law does most of the work in our garden while my wife and I are working at our jobs in Dublin, and she was busy weeding while I repaired the beds. The Girl raked up the winter’s leaves and I created a leaf-mould compost bin, and then I mowed the lawn for the first time this year. I pile the clippings into the chicken run; they have been laying less lately, and I suspect they need the vitamins after the long winter.

We will be planting potatoes and chicory and uproot our berry bushes – the bushes were useless to everyone but the birds. If they had only attracted more songbirds we could have had entertainment and fertiliser, but the hedge-rows here have many blackberries already, and the birds only stay to eat our cabbages.

By the way, a big tip of the hat to Ronald Langereis, who showed me a web site to order scorzonera seeds – thank you, Ronald.

Next weekend we have trees to trim, beds to build and new crops to plant – and The Girl and I still haven’t buried our butter in the bog. For the next few weeks it will be all hands on deck, every day we have. 

Photo: Our garden last summer.