The why of fruit thinning

I hope you too enjoy this post that I am sharing post from ‘Mortal Tree’ on thinning fruit on apple trees. There is some very interesting and useful information here that I have never heard before ……

Mortal Tree

I noticed one of the apples in the food forest had finished blooming and now had tons of tiny apples clustered on its branches. I took the situation in hand and started to pick them off.

13217562 - close up of bee pollinating apple blossom photo by Jenella

Five flowers form on each spur, leaving five small fruits after pollination. They naturally fall off, one by one, until a single fruit is left to make seed. Contrary to what we might think, an apple has grown to its maximum potential within thirty days after the flower drops its petals. From this point, any ‘growth’ is just cells filling up with sap like balloons. The number of balloons to be filled with juice resulting from cell division is already decided.


I was pulling off all but one fruit on each spur. From this, I expected each apple left on the tree would have more nourishment from the tree, be larger…

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Introducing Carole’s Garden

Carole and I have been corresponding for some time now and I love to hear about and see the pictures of how her lovely garden is progressing.  I asked if she would like to write about it for a blog post and she has sent this delightful account of the garden and its ongoing journey.

Thank you very much Carole!


A small West-Yorkshire garden, April 2017

 I received Anni’s book for Christmas a couple of years ago.  I asked for it because I wanted to garden using Permaculture principles, but I only have a small garden and most of the books seem to assume you have a lot more space than I have.  My back garden in North-West Yorkshire faces North, and is wide and short with overhanging trees so it gets very little light.  This means I need to grow most of my productive veggies in a small front garden.  Our house was built on an industrial site so the soil was poor quality (whatever the builders could find) and very shallow.  We bought 8-foot planks from a farming supplies place over the road, and walked them home, much to the amusement of drivers on the busy road we had to cross.  We dug up the lawn and built raised beds.  This is what it was like soon after, in 2014:

front garden new raised beds 2014

Front garden new raised beds 2014

I also have a couple of square raised beds at the back, and am experimenting with veggies that will grow with little light.  This is where perennials make sense as it takes longer for things to grow in poor light.  Perennial veggies, once established, should be more productive in a shady space.

back bed 2016

Back bed 2016

In my first year I grew veggies in a fairly traditional format.  However, having read Anni’s book I have taken to heart some key principles which I am now applying to grow in a slightly different way.  What follows is some of these principles and how I’ve used them.

The first is polyculture – mixing up flowers and vegetables, and growing in mixed guilds rather than blocks.  I have already been mixing things up, with flowers such as borage, pot marigold, nasturtium, yarrow, verbena borienalis, and self-sown violas and snapdragons mixed in with the vegetables.  I grow runner beans and sweet peas in the same pots and plant the whole lot out together.



Growing in guilds – finding plants that benefit from growing alongside each other and that happily share the soil and other resources – is an approach that I am trying this year.  I’m planning my spare raised bed space in terms of groups of three plants, mixing flowers and edibles.  So if I have half a raised bed where the beans were last year, I’ll divide it into two and grow two groups of three different plants rather than planting all my kale there.  My kale will be scattered around the garden, teamed up with red orache and cosmos (for example).

red orache etc

Red orache etc

Another principle is growing with nature rather than against her – recognising the roles that plants (including ‘weeds’) play and appreciating the generosity of plants that readily self-seed or spread.  Over the winter, the ground was covered with chickweed and self-sown limanthes (poached egg plant).  I left it alone as it was covering the soil (bare soil is unhealthy soil) and in the spring I treated it like green manure and cut it down to wilt on top.  When I pull up dandelion leaves from paving I drop the leaves onto one of the raised beds.  After reading Anni’s book I look at dandelions in a different way – their leaves are rich in nutrients and the flowers are good for bees (and pretty!). I only loosely ‘plan’ my space, as I’m very happy for nature to take a hand and if I get gifts of, say, lambs lettuce, then I let it stay.

self sown miners lettuce and parsley

Self sown miners lettuce and parsley

I have a drift of self-sown foxgloves this year which will provide food for bees, more seed and foxglove plants, and lots of leafy biomass for the soil.  As I find more perennial veggies, and as my soil improves, I will increase the proportion of edible plants in the space.  Meanwhile, inspired by Anni’s example, I’m watching what nature does and thinking about the phases that nature is taking the garden through to improve the soil.  Nature thinks long-term, following deeper timescales than we do.

drift of foxgloves

Drift of foxgloves

Looking after the soil and the microorganisms that live there.  This includes minimising soil disturbance, and recognising and using the plants that are naturally rich in nutrients.  I have a small comfrey patch which will provide potassium rich leafy mulch and flowers for bees.  I also have a nettle seedling under the bird feeder (a gift from the birds?) which I am nurturing, because nettles are so useful for nitrogen-rich greens for us and the garden.  It might also dissuade the neighbour’s cat from settling down under the bird feeder.

No dig – minimising both soil disruption and energy input – I was interested to read the section in Anni’s book on the complexity of the soil, the worm burrows and mycorrhizal networks that develop in a healthy soil.  I’m trying to grow perennial veggies to minimise root disturbance and reduce the energy input associated with growing from scratch every year.  It is harder to find perennial veg, but so far I’ve successfully grown Paul and Becky’s Asturian tree cabbage, red sorrel, wild rocket, garlic chives and chives, welsh onion, red chicory, sweet cicely, wild strawberries and regular strawberries – and, of course, herbs.

perennial bed

Perennial bed

I also grow self-seeding annuals such as red orache, which I allowed to go to seed last year and it is certainly living up to its reputation to readily self seed.  Rather than dig up the dead plants, I chop them down leaving the roots in the soil and dropping the remains of the plant on the ground.  As it readily self-seeds, there is no energy involved in growing it again the following year – nature does the work.  There may be some ‘weeding’ involved, but as Alys Fowler says, if weeding becomes lunch, it isn’t so bad.  Again, I can cut the baby plants off at soil level to harvest them rather than pulling the whole plant up, minimising soil disruption.

red orache self sown

Red orache self sown

Thinking about productivity – because I have a small space, I am learning from experience to grow plants that are particularly productive, both for us and for wildlife.  Kale is amazing – we get baby leaves for salads, a good crop of caterpillars and therefore butterflies (we have to live with a period of ‘holy’ kale but that’s OK).  The kale then recovers and we get nutrient-rich greens through the winter.  Come spring, we get tender flower shoots that we cook in butter and eat like asparagus.  I let a couple of plants flower, to the delight of the pollinators, and hopefully will get some seed (one of my goals for this year is to learn how to save seed).  Once we really can’t eat it any more, it will go into the compost and make a good soil conditioner for us.  I’m also taking a leaf out of Anni’s book and seeing what happens if you leave kale in the ground.  This hearting kale (Shetland) is growing again from where I left the stalks in the ground.  I’ll leave it and see what happens:

back bed 2017 kale resprouting

Back bed 2017 kale resprouting

‘Pests’ are essential to a fully functioning ecosystem – for example, a good supply of slugs makes for a happy hedgehog, who may move in (and indeed has, judging by the hedgehog manure).  If we painstakingly remove all the slugs then we won’t have a hedgehog around to help us.  (We don’t use slug pellets because they kill slug predators such as hedgehogs and frogs). The first year that I grew kale, it ended up looking like doilies (my neighbour’s description).  The following year I was so ill that I couldn’t go into the garden.  It did splendidly well without my intervention.  The next year we had no problems with ‘pests’ such as slugs or caterpillars.  What had happened was that the predators had learned where there was a plentiful food supply, and they now do ‘pest’ control for us.  All we need is a little patience to wait for the predators to discover a rich food source.  We now happily share our greens with fellow dwellers in our little garden ecosystem, and there is still plenty for us.

tree cabbage slightly eaten

Tree cabbage slightly eaten

Growing for biomass – following a blog post from Anni about growing leafy plants to add biomass to the soil (chopping and adding to the soil surface), this year I’m trying Callaloo from the Heritage Seed Library.  Rather than carting everything to the compost bin, I’m laying trimmings and cuttings down on the soil surface, letting the worms do the work of digging and reducing energy outputs.

front garden april 2017 chop n drop

Front garden April 2017 chop and drop

This also follows a couple of permaculture principles which I keep in mind: keeping everything in the system, and the problem is the solution.  For example, I needed to do some pruning and was worried that the cuttings wouldn’t all fit in the compost bin – but I wanted to keep them in the system.  Another problem that I had at that time was that I needed to mulch the strawberries and didn’t have any straw.  The solution? – I used the woody cuttings (hydrangea) to mulch the strawberries with:

mulching strawberries with prunings

Mulching strawberries with prunings

Gradually, and with help from writers like Anni, I’m learning how to apply Permaculture principles to evolve a productive and thriving little ecosystem in a small space.  I’m amazed at how many species of insects I find in the garden – create the habitat, and somehow the little critters find you.  Just hanging out and watching all the activity in the garden brings me much pleasure – food for the soul.

Posted in Edible Perennial Gardening, Guest posts, Perennial Vegetables, Permaculture, Polycultures, Relationship with nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Thinking about strategies

That is to say, thinking about what strategies the plants are using in the garden and how I can appropriately respond.  Yesterday I was tidying up the edge of the lawn working my way along the ‘long border’.  As I went I was looking closely at what was growing and how the individual plants are faring.  It was not long before I saw that the mints I planted last spring were starting to take off in all directions.  ‘That’s hardly surprising!’ I can hear you thinking – we all know that is what mint does and famously that is why people always recommend putting it in a pot rather than in the actual garden.  Well, of course I have to be different – I have never grown mint in a pot – and until yesterday, however unlikely this may sound, I have not seen it do this famous spreading behaviour.

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Mint starting to spread

So there I am patiently working my way along this edge and the garden has given me something to think about, which is what I love to do.  The reason I have never confined mint to a pot is precisely to see what it does naturally.  This is my reasoning with all plants – let them be themselves and see what happens.  In my former, Telford, garden the soil was rich and fertile even before I began experimenting with forest gardening and edible perennials.  There was mint there that did not run and I have mint in one place in this Borderland garden close to the hedge that has not gone very far.  So why the different behaviour?  I am wondering if the rich soil in my old garden meant that the mint did not need to travel?  In the case of the mint near the hedge it may be constrained by the substantial roots of the damson and hawthorns and it is also a bit shady so not ideal conditions for it perhaps.

Regarding the mint in the long border my hunch is that it may be to do with plant strategies for improving the soil and also with gaining the nutrients they need.  The ‘long border’ is characteristic of this garden and this area in that it is clay mixed in with lots of stones derived from the shale rocks that lie very close to the surface and can be clearly seen in woods adjacent to where we live.

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Local rocks in the woodland

I wonder if the mint and the other plants placed in the long border by nature, like docks, dandelions and lots of self seeded salsify, are trying to break up the hard packed soil for me – the mints pushing through sideways and docks and salsify and others (like Jerusalem artichoke) pushing down vertically they are breaking up the structure.  To me that seems worth considering and so I am going to let the plants get on with growing the way they want to and see what happens.

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Mint and salsify with a bit of grass mulch and forget me not


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Dock, dandelion and forget me not


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The main strategy for this bed is to improve the soil alongside growing fruit, herbs, vegetables and flowers.  The other strand to improving the soil is to add as much biomass as possible to it – mainly by mulching with plants from the border and some other materials such as grass cuttings.  So I will use the dock and dandelion leaves as mulch; and the same goes for the chicory I planted – it gets far too large if allowed to grow unrestricted, but is a useful source of mulch.  In the meantime the roots of these plants make themselves useful below ground.

As well as adding biomass mulching between the plants I want to encourage enables me to suppress some that I am not so keen on at present (like herb Robert); in due course the flowering plants and other herbs and vegetables will close the gaps.

I do not think I will need to do much over the coming summer to keep it all in a reasonable balance and of course it will be interesting to see how far the mint does spread.  I am prepared to eat my words (as well as the mint) and find out in due course that this was a silly strategy, but the deeper point is that I will always want to find out what plants actually do in practice and not just take the ‘accepted wisdom’ as a given.  My ongoing aim to be in a co-operative agreement with nature whereby she is given as much freedom as possible and I gently ‘tweak’ the system towards the set goals.

This is the most wonderful weekend this year – warm sunshine, birdsong and such abundance spring up everywhere.  Winter is over and the world is celebrating!

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Long Border April 2017

Posted in Borderland Garden, Forest Gardening, Perennial Vegetables, Relationship with nature, Telford Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My favourite flowers – for me, for bees and for lots of other lovely insects

I may have many other ‘favourite’ plants beside these, but these three are if you like, my favourite of favourites for being utterly lovely, attracting bees and many, many other insects and they need as many as we can possibly provide for them.

Spring us just about upon us and many of us will be busy planning and planting in the coming weeks.  To feed as many bees and other insects please include these three lovely members of the apiaciae family (previously known as umbellifers):

Fennel – the herb rather than the vegetable.  I have large clumps along a path and the plants are literally buzzing through the summer.


Fennel and carrot in long border summer 2014

Carrot has the most remarkable number of individual flowers on each head and is incredibly beautiful.  For flowers this year, plant a carrot, for flowers next year sow some seed and leave the plants over the winter, they won’t die!

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Carrot in flower

Flat leafed parsley – plants purchased this year may be in either their first or their second year of growth; if they don’t flower this year, leave them in to do so next year.  Seeds sown this year will flower next year.  If you let even one plant go to seed as I did in this border you will eventually have an absolute mass of plants all flowering together which is one of the most loveliest sights I have ever seen.

Flat leafed parsley in flower

There are lots of other plants in this family which are all similarly attractive to bees and other insects.  Early in the year there is sweet cicely and angelica which can be sown this year for flowering next year.  I should have seeds of both to spare from my plants later on this spring or summer – leave a comment for me if you would like some.

DSCN6178 angelica 24 April 2014

Angelica about to flower


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Sweet cicely

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Forest gardens are natural systems

From the outset a forest garden is designed as a natural system.  We provide the physical structure – various edible trees, climbers, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and some annuals – to make the best use of the physical space and ensure a diversity of plants for the various needs of an ecosystem.  After that it is largely up to nature to work her magic.  Diversity ensures health, an abundance of biomass which is allowed to compost naturally back into the soil ensures increasing fertility.  Allowing plants to flower and set seed calls forth new generations and fills gaps and nature adds her own plants in from the wind or from the seedbank of the generations before that is sitting in the soil waiting for the opportunity to grow.  This enhances diversity and makes the system yet more resilient.

When I began my forest gardening adventure I had in mind to make minimal interventions and let nature have as free a hand as possible.  This has continued to be my practice and will remain so.  I have quickly looked through photos from 2016 from March to December to illustrate nature’s role as primary gardener – there were hundreds to choose from so here is my selection:

IMG_2013 wintry mulch of mashua stems

Last summer’s mashua stems covering the ground through the winter – habitat for insects and protection for the soil


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Blackbird feasting on ivy berries


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Ground cover beneath gooseberry bush, self sown lamb’s lettuce and salsify amidst twiggy debris


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Chives, parsley and bugle were planted here, forget me not and dandelion added by nature


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Leaf beet, self sown from the previous year’s seed


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Tree onions growing very strongly, surrounded by clover, marjoram, land cress, skirret, fennel and with some dead plant material (possibly land cress) feeding the soil behind them.


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A forest of fennel – incredible for the bees and hoverflies in summer then the seeds feed blue tits in winter


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Sunset apples on a tree which has been in the garden for three years


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Daubenton’s kale cutting from the previous year has spread to lean across the lawn and is growing strongly as the autumn approaches.


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November now and the frost has come. Plants are bending to the cold but the oca, Jerusalem artichoke and mashua here will give a harvest yet.


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December, the garden is sleeping but the structure is in place to provide habitat for wildlife over the winter months and to protect the soil.


And it was also beautiful – largely thanks to the flowers planted by nature:

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Salsify flower land cress and forget me not behind


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The ‘triangle’ bed


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Self sown Californian poppy and self sown vetch


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Self sown foxgloves



Yarrow, vetch and fennel


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Polyculture edged with nasturtiums and fennel


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Jerusalem artichoke in flower

Standing on the cusp of spring 2017 I am so looking forward to what unfolds this year.



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The rules of spacing

From one of my favourite bloggers – Luke Simon – who blogs asn ‘Mortal Tree’ – a fascinating and informative post about how trees grow. I am going to order the book he recommends right now as it looks amazing.

Mortal Tree

I was at a Christmas party in conversation with a local Timken engineer who, hearing I design food forests, wanted to pick my brain on apple trees. He had six trees in two rows of three, well spaced in his backyard. He was throwing out terms about the mainstream organic sprays he was using, and framed his questions expecting me to know some super organic spray, or spray regimen, that would fix his problems of pests and low vigor in general. I don’t think he expected the answer I gave: ‘What’s planted around the trees?’

We often think of the rules of spacing as rules for keeping other plants away from each other. In practice I find the lines blur between species, and enters a much more broad science: it’s what should be included near the plant, as well as what shouldn’t. Between these two aspects, you make or break…

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Pennard Plants

The range of suppliers that provide interesting heritage and perennial vegetables is increasing all the time.  I used to survey all the companies I knew of each year to provide a summary for readers but that would be too big a job now!  So I want to do the occasional blog post to bring attention to certain seed suppliers and plant nurseries that I think are particularly good.  Pennard Plants are one of these.

I have been ordering from them for years, since my early days of sourcing perennial vegetables and I would think I have had something every year since.  This week I have just taken delivery of three step-over fruit trees, a hydrophyllum virginianum, a Chinese celery and a mouse garlic plant – all new to me.  More about the fruit trees soon once they have been planted properly.

If you click here you will find a super range of wild and unusual edibles and here for a range of unusual edible plants.  There are plenty of other things to browse as well!

I have just spotted some perennial buckwheat and other things I did not order before, so am about to do so.

The sun has been shining this afternoon and my partner and I have been out in the garden tidying up a bit and admiring the snowdrops and aconites, the lamb’s lettuce and the many and various plants and shrubs that are preparing to burst forth soon!

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