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Secret Permaculture in a Borrowed Garden

 
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I've been lucky enough, or foolish enough, to take on the task of volunteering to look after a garden for a holiday home owned by our estate. (Look up 'Glendale estate community Skye' for some information about the estate of which we are one of the shareholders)  The garden is a walled garden that belongs to a house that part dates back to the 18th century, athough I assume that the walls are a 19th century addition.  I don't really have much time for this work, but that's OK since for much of the year the house is let out to holiday makers so I can really only go in to tidy up for a few hours a week anyway!
I've always loved walled gardens, they just seem so romantic!  This one is just crying out for a bit of love, but with a wildness that I want to preserve as well.  Half is basically lawn and the other half is wilderness. An overgrown former copper beech hedge divides the two areas.

Someone else does the lawnmowing so my plan is to keep the lawned area, which includes some ornamental beds, reasonably tidy, whilst using the rest to do secret edimental gardening, whilst retaining the wild feeling of the garden.

One of the reasons that I was keen to take it on is that it offers a much more sheltered location than my own land.  It has more soil and established trees, so gives more opportunity for tender plants (think of those walls soaking up the sun's heat).

As well as the beech hedge there are several large sycamores, a large ash tree, a fallen ornamental cherry, several neglected apple trees around the walls and a pear tree.  Most of the apple trees seem to produce fruit of poor quality. Whether they have reverted to the root stock, or whether they just don't have a chance to ripen properly I'm not sure. One I believe is 'Arthur Turner', which I recognise from my previous garden.  This is an early ripening cooking apple. iT is a nice baking aple, but is sweet eneought to eat raw when fully ripe.  

The pear sets just a few very small pears, but since most pears need a polinating partner and this is a lone tree, I suspect they are developing seedlessly.
In the understory I have noticed brambles and raspberries, although I don't know what quality the fruit is.  There is also a purple filbert (which I think I may have donated myself ten years ago) a berberis (B. Darwinii maybe), and a sad looking gooseberry.  As groundcover there are nettles, rhubarb, strawberries, and a general covering of ground elder and golden leaved saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolia I think).
I've been in the garden at various times of the year, but although I started to work on the garden last spring, COVID made my shop more demanding, so I never really got started until this winter.  So far I have (with some help from my DH) removed a rotten beech that was leaning on the wall, together with some other fallen wood, and cut back one of the willows that was shading the apples in one corner.  The larger logs were removed as 'wages'.
So I'm hoping to post my progress and ask for advice on this forum. Please let me have any suggestions as to how I might procede.

My first request is a confirmation of identification.  I was very excited to see this plant as I believe it to be Siberian purslane (Montia siberica) can anyone confirm?
 
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Wow, what a cool opportunity! Can you judiciously prune that old pear tree? I'd try grafting in a bit of scion wood from a pollinating variety to solve the lack of fruit.

I see what you mean about those stone walls, too. Microclimate potential galore.
 
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Oh very jealous I would love a walled garden, but have you seen the price of bricks! I think that is Montia siberica, I've never seen it in the flesh but it certainly has the right flower and leaf form, and it's known to be in your area. On the gooseberry, is it surrounded by ground elder? I find that my ground elder gets taller than the gooseberries so shades them out. a good stomping all around them as the ground elder comes up to flower really helps.
 
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This is Permies, so here is your first tangetially related answer.

We have a mystery apple. The first year here, I did not know what it would look like when ripe. I Harvested the tree in 1/4 sections, for apple sauce, since it didn't taste great on my first ingesttion. Applesauce was wonderful using only 1/4 cup sugar for 8 quarts of sauce. By the time I got to the last section, Fresh eating was darned good. My friend described it as honey flavored. Ha! Yay mystery tree!

My point is, even unripe can be processed if need be. Maybe even those when ripe, that sub par fresh eating. Good luck!
 
Nancy Reading
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Thanks for your replies!

Phil Stevens said

  Can you judiciously prune that old pear tree? I'd try grafting in a bit of scion wood from a pollinating variety to solve the lack of fruit.



Judicious pruning for all of the fruit trees is a consideration.  Our area is bad for canker and scab, but the fact that the trees have reached such a mature size and at least survived suggests they are at least partially resistant.  I found it difficult to get a photo that showed them well.  One I did prune back quite a bit because of a lot of dead branches, but I'll leave the rest till next winter once I have had a chance to assess them properly.
Grafting is one possibility, but I may just invest in another pear tree. Pears are more borderline than apples here, we're really just a bit cool and damp for them to do well, so I will have to try and source a good west coast variety, which will mean some careful research.
 
Nancy Reading
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Skandi,
I'm super excited if it is Montia sibirica.  I'm pretty sure it should do well here, and as I said have wanted some for ages but have had difficulty getting seed to germinate. I've transplanted some of the smaller plants into my own garden (more 'wages'!). I've also managed to get some plants from an unrelated source, so should be able be confident in the identification soon.
The walls here are of stone, I estimate about 12 feet high. There is no clay locally, and the remoteness made bringing bricks in unfeasable.  Yes it must have cost a fortune!  There is some evidence of various lean- to structures as well. I believe that the MacClouds employed many of the crofters building walls accross the estates, so this may have been done quite early on, I will have to do more research into the history of the garden.  There is a lot of rubbish (glass and slates mostly) I have been digging up, but also signs of paths and walls, which may be fun to find.
There is ground elder in much of the garden, but the gooseberry is pretty clear of it.  It is against the SW facing wall, but in almost full shade much of the year due to the beech hedge.  It seems to be surviving OK, but no sign of flowering this year.  I suspect my best bet may be to take some cuttings next year (it's a bit late now), relocate it, and also bring in some of my own gooseberry cuttings which I know do well.
 
Nancy Reading
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Joylynn,
Thanks for your optimistic view on the apples.  As I said I don't know what varieties they are. Due to our location 57+ degrees north, and short cool summers even apples can struggle to ripen here.  They need to be an early variety to stand a chance of ripening. In the shelter of the garden they should set well regardless, since frost is less of an issue for us than wind, due to the proximity to the sea.  The walled garden is just a short walk to the beach.
Harvesting them in stages is a good idea.  It maybe that some will only ripen in a good year, and others may never reach their potential.  They may also be cider apples, rootstocks, or just seedlings that have survived against the walls.  I'll try and take some good photos of the flowers and make notes on them through the year to see how they develop, and help identification.  At the least they will provide pollen for any other apple trees I choose to import.  I have a few at home that I hope will be good varieties here, but they are more exposed and have barely yielded fruit yet.  I'm not an expert grafter (understatement!).  But have managed to get a few to take, so I'm going to plant lots of pips for rootstock with a view to grafting onto them in the future.
What concerns me a bit is training the new trees.  To get the full benefit of the walls the trees need to be trained as espaliers, or fans close to the wall.  I don't think I will have the time to do this properly.  There will be fewer visitors over the winter, but the weather is not conducive to outdoor gardening either for much of the time.  I'm leaning more towards free standing trees in the sunnier areas.  They still will be more sheltered than my trees at home due to the walls.  Then plant something else that can truly benefit from the walls.  Maybe a climber of some kind?
 
Nancy Reading
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Since I've been busy puppy sitting the last couple weekends I haven't been up to the gardens for a while, hopefully the lawn edges don't look too untidy!  I'm still in the observation mode really anyhow.  I did the following sketch of the garden last year:



Where it says S (for South) at the top, that is actually South-West when I actually checked it.  I made some more notes on the diagram since it was first drawn.
The garden is totally in the shade during the winter.  Although we have very mild winters (typical minimums of -5  to -10 Celcius) we are 57.4 degrees North here and the daylight hours are short in winter, long in summer.  There is a steep hill to the other side of the road behind the gardens which prevents the winter sun from reaching the garden at all.
In the summer the trees (which are mainly deciduous) cast quite a bit of shade. This is particularly the case under the beech hedge that separates the lawn part of the garden from the wilderness.  I think of the lawn side (to the right of the hedge) as being for the guests staying in the house, and the wilderness (on the left) for me!  The beech hedge is totally overgrown, and is as wide as it is tall.  The trees have all grown into each other with weird contorted shapes which I love.  My feeling is that you could never make it a hedge again easily and I really like it's character so am not intending to cut it back (other than to make safe any dangerous branches).  The beech does seem to set some seeds, since I have seen casings on the floor, so I will have to look out for a mast year.
The apple marked closest to the house on the lawn by the beech hedge is the one that we had to cut back to the trunk.  There are some spindly shoots growing back.  Really it is shaded rather too much by the hedge and the adjacent sycamore to do well. Of the three marked on the right hand wall only the southernmost gets much sun.  The others are badly shaded by the Sycamore by the wall.  I'd like to prune out some of its lower branches to give them more sun.
The Beech tree on the left near where I have marked a hole in the wall, is the one that fell down on the wall and we removed over winter.  Pity because that was a copper beech which would have been pretty.
I have talked to one of the indigenous locals who remembers the gardens when they were well maintained and he used to go over the wall to scrump the apples. That would probably have been in the early 1970s I guess.  I'd like to persuade him to walk round the gardens and see whag he remembers of the original layout.  I have discovered some paths buried in the grass and it might save me some heartache if I know where this sort of thing were.
 
Nancy Reading
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A few more photos taken in spring:

The three apples shaded by large sycamore. Behind the sycamore on the right you can see an old barn thst is constantly dropping bits of slate in the garden as the roof disintegrates; a useful resource.

The opposite corner: a pair of apples that get the best sun, although the ash shades them in the morning they get quite a bit of sun in the afternoon.  I coppiced the willow that had been shading them.  It's multiple trunks are fallen over and I think I'll try and make a little arbour to sit out in from it.  Between these apples and the pear was an apple marked on the sketch as a diagonal line (it was fallen over) This had completely rotted off at the base, and I think is lost now.  If it doesn't come back it leaves me with a lovely Southwest facing stretch of wall.  I would like to try another pear variety to cross fertilise with the existing pear (I'll have to take a good guess of the variety that is, so as to be sure they are different!)  I'm also wondering whether an arctic kiwi or two would do well there...Actinidia kolomitka and A. Arguta are grown in the UK as ornamentals (there are varigated leaf versions) and they are plants I think could be useful....

Thirdly, a picture of the compost area.  This I put in a shady spot under the hedge and near one of the garden gates.  It is near enough the house that guests can use it for vegetable waste from the kitchen if they are so minded. The chap who cuts the lawn dumps the cuttings in a row there already.  I'm surprised how well this has composted, being almost completely 'greens', I can only assume that the dryness under the hedge means that the grass tends to dry out well so encouraging fungal growth.  I've been able to use some of this to mulch round the rhubarb, and some of the more leaf mouldy material came home to bed in my blueberries.  I thought it would be pretty weed free, but I got a lovely 'grannies bonnet' aquilegia that grew out of one of the bags.
I've got some more recent photos during the summer and will post them soon.
 
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These trees have been there a long long time. You essentially have a mature upper canopy but no significant layers under that.

Maybe consider putting in some guilds under and around these mature trees. Some ribes, berries, rhubarb, and other shade tolerant plants & bushes that are suitable for your climate.
 
Nancy Reading
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Nick, yes, I guess the 'hedge' has been neglected for 40 years or so.  Unfortunately there is little that will grow successfully in the deep shade cast by beech.  Maybe some spring bulbs might make it, since they are fairly late into leaf.  I'll probably leave it fairly clear, it makes a nice walk under there.
I'm still establishing what is already growing in the wilderness which is quite lush at the moment:
The wilderness

Most of it is 'weeds', but I have identified several edibles, including marsh woundwort, stinging nettle (although I'm aiming to reduce this as it is a bit antisocial!) Pignuts (conopodium majus) and ground elder.  I'll do a full plant list over the year.  Here's another plant I could do with confirming the identification of is what I think may be Alexanders.  It has a faint Angelica smell:
Alexanders? -

identification confirmation required edit - Probably wild angelica


I have found a gooseberry behind the compost heap, but it is struggling in the shade there as has no sign of fruit, so whether it is a seedling, or the remains of a planted gooseberry (they can be grown in trained forms against walls).  I may try and  take some cuttings and move them to give them a chance somewhere else a bit sunnier just in case it is a rare fruiting variety.  If not I have quite a few currents at home I can propagate from.  There are definitely raspberries growing in the wilderness.  Again, they could be seedlings (raspberry is a wild fruit in Scotland) or an old cultivar.  I should be able to tell in the next week or so.
The rhubarb in the garden in the NW corner is fantastic.  It is the sweetest (if one can use such a term in respect to rhubarb) rhubarb I have ever cooked.  I don't know how to identify the variety.  It is certainly unlike the four varieties I have at home (including the huge one that came with the house).
I have planted a few 'ornamental' shrubs in the guests' side of the garden (purple filbert and amelanchier that I have grown from seed) I have only planted one herbacious plant so far in the wilderness (I've put a few herbs in the patio beds by the house), which seems to have taken well:
Trachystemon orientalis

Trachystemon orientalis could thrive in my conditions (maybe even under the beech!) and has large cucumber flavoured leaves, eaten in eastern Europe with fish according to Stephen Barstow's Edimentals 'blog  Being a borage and comfrey relative, it is probably best eaten in moderation (what isn't?) Since it may contain alkaloids.
 
Skandi Rogers
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I don't think anything really grows under mature beech wood. certainly in the large beech woods I only ever see spring ephemerals and sometimes dogs mercury, In fact not much grows under mature trees at all at that lattitude. You could try ramsons, they do very well under beech in Aberdeen. Even my solitary beech shades out almost everything under it. The alexanders will be easy to see come spring when it flowers not many umbelifers with that colour flower, I'm jealous of the pig nuts I have what looks to me the perfect place for them, I remember them growing with wild carrots/parsnips, st johns wort, medic... and I have all of them just to get the pignut seeds!
 
Nancy Reading
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Is it possible for me to post you some seeds from the UK Skandi?  If so send me a purple moosage with your snail mail address and I will have plenty of pignut seeds (and probably others) to share later in the year.
Looking at the pictures I've taken of my suspected Alexanders, and doing some web research, I think now it is more likely to be wild Angelica, Angelica syvestris.  I think it must be in it's first year now, so should flower next spring, so will be more positive then.
There are lots of more hogweedy plants flowering like mad around the garden, but I'm even less sure of an identification on these.
 
Nancy Reading
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I've now got another potential plant for the gap on the sunny wall: a fig!  Or at least I may have if one of the cuttings I have been sent grow.  They fruit not far from me on the mainland, but the donor doesn't know what the variety is, just that it came from a cutting of a plant growing near a cathedral 25 years ago.
Given how attractive fig plants are, I might actually plant one near the Arthur Turner apple on the tidy side of the garden. Although it might not get so much evening sun, this thread on Permies discusses how the leaves and immature fruit are also edible.
20210731_142820.jpg
New fig cuttings on windowsill
New fig cuttings on windowsill
 
Nancy Reading
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I managed to get up to the gardens last weekend for about a hour to have a tidy and check over.  The ornamental beds on the guest side were not as bad as I thought they'd be from my neglect over the past few weeks.  I managed to catch the lawn mower (i.e. the man who mows the lawn!) and persuaded him to strim the edge of the lawn near the patio beds which saved me a lot of time with my scythe or hand shears.  There was a little bit of cleavers and buttercups in the beds to pull up, some hogweed and dandelions going to flower, and some dead heading of aqualegia (seeds as wages!).  Other than that I pulled up some flowering ragwort and nettles around the lawn, did a bit of pulling out ground elder around the little trees I planted - just mulched around the trees with the residue there. It'll grow back soon enough, but I want to give the tree babies a bit of light whilst they are tiny.  There are quite a few apples set, I couldn't see any pears, but they will only be very tiny and it's a rather large tree.  It looks like the raspberries aren't a cultivated variety, although the canes are not particularly spiny, the berries are quite small but tasty.
 
Skandi Rogers
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Nancy Reading wrote:
Although it might not get so much evening sun, this thread on Permies discusses how the leaves and immature fruit are also edible.



I have a fig (Bornholm) growing on a SE facing wall so it gets no sun past 2pm. It has fruit which I hope will ripen It's just produced it's summer crop of tiny ones that won't do anything as well, not sure if I should take them off or not. I'll tell you if I get ripe fruit as I suspect the climate is similar although I get a bit less rain and I get a bit colder in winter.
 
Nancy Reading
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I managed to get down to the gardens again today, just to check over and remove the worst of the weeds. Again I am impressed by how good it looks generally. I need to make a better edge to the patio flowerbeds to the lawn; the grass is growing in from the lawn, and also the man who cuts the lawn leaves quite a wide strip in own at the edge.  I think this is partly due to the bumpy nature of the lawn, and also the concrete step and walls which he is trying to avoid. Making an edge with the slates which have fallen from the barn roof is a project for over the winter period, along with digging out the spreading grass from the beds.
As I was walking around, I checked the fruit trees. I suspect someone has picked most of the good apples from the Arthur Turner tree. There are only a few rather shabby looking ones left, and I think it was fruiting pretty well earlier in the year. I think they picked them a bit prematurely myself, I wouldn’t have thought they were properly ripe yet. Most of the other apples seem to be small and sour, so either crabs or rather underripe. There are two other exceptions which look like they have potential. The first is the one next to the pear tree in the wilderness. I don’t think it is ripe yet, and the apples are pretty small but plentiful. They are really pleasantly sour, and I think will make a really good cooking apple for jam or puddings. The other is the next to last tree in the sunny SE corner where I coppiced the willow. Unfortunately the weight of the fruit seems to have broken the main branch right off. It looks like the tree has really bad canker, so I don’t know whether it will be saveable. There does seem to be a bit of new growth from about 2ft on the trunk, so I think there is a chance I can rejuvenate the tree. I wonder if it is possible to take scion wood from the fallen branch this early in the year? The really exciting thing for me is that the fruit, although small, is quite a tasty eating apple, and already sweet to eat. This is as early as any apple here, so really worth making an effort to save. I will also see if I can get any seed from the fruit. I think what I need to do to give the tree a chance is to cut the main trunk back to just above the new growth. Then I need to give the tree more light by cutting back the adjacent tree, which only seems to have small sour apples of little value as yet, really hard back. This tree which is right in the corner has fallen over in the past and formed a thicket of apple tree, rather pretty but not of much use.
All the small sour apples are of use for pollinating, I remember the corner tree being particularly pretty when in blossom.
I can’t see any fruit on the pear tree, but they may be really far up.
 
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Nancy Reading wrote:I've now got another potential plant for the gap on the sunny wall: a fig!  


13/9 First ripe fig, it could probably have done with a couple of days more but I got one, it was a very cold summer this year coldest August in 18 years so I think you have a very good chance of getting ripe figs where you are. It's a Bornholm fig.
DSC_0485-1-.JPG
[Thumbnail for DSC_0485-1-.JPG]
 
Nancy Reading
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Skandi Rogers wrote:

Nancy Reading wrote:I've now got another potential plant for the gap on the sunny wall: a fig!  


13/9 First ripe fig, it could probably have done with a couple of days more but I got one, it was a very cold summer this year coldest August in 18 years so I think you have a very good chance of getting ripe figs where you are. It's a Bornholm fig.


Ooh exciting! We've actually had one of our driest and I think warmest summers here (it's been lovely!), although the midges have been bad the last few weeks.
My fig cuttings are looking promising.  I had meant to stick a few in pots but haven't got round to it.  They are opening leaves and starting to grow root buds, so fingers crossed for some plants for next year.
 
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