Category Archives: Fruit

Permaculture in the Lea Valley

Inside the glasshouse at Hawkwood Plant Nursery the home of Organiclea, fruit and vegetable producers in the Lea Valley, Chigwell.

Tempted outside by the February sunshine last weekend, the unseasonable warmth happened to coincide with an open day at organic growers OrganicLea in Chingford.  And so it was at the very beginning of the vegetable growing season I found myself with a group of visitors exploring twelve acres of fields and glasshouses in the Lea Valley guided by Tim Mitchell, one of the garden’s organisers.

The OrganicLea market garden is to be found, somewhat incongruously, between streets of semi-detached houses typical of the outer suburbs of London and the eastern edge of Epping Forest.  It occupies what was previously Hawkwood Plant Nursery, the London borough of Waltham Forest’s propagation centre for amenity plants grown for use in local parks and gardens.  When this facility closed ten years ago, OrganicLea saw an opportunity to expand – they had previously operated from a community allotment – and they now lease the whole site from the council.

The majority of the gardens are on a slope and several large oak trees, some of which experts believe date from the 17th century, punctuate the growing area.  According to conventional horticultural wisdom, this might not be considered an ideal position for a market garden.  However, by following principles of permaculture, OrganicLea has been able to work with the existing topography to create a productive garden.

Tim’s personal interest in permaculture came out of an interest in ecology. “I was interested in how humans can work alongside other species without destroying the habitats or poisoning those other species. Ecological food-growing  seemed to be the best working model. Although other species often thrive in our absence, it would be nice if we could join the party without ruining it.” he explains.

Permaculture is a term first used in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the two Australian pioneers of the concept.  It stands for ‘permanent agriculture’ and seeks to find ways of cultivating food crops sustainably, in harmony with the natural environment.  Their book Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (1978) was followed by the establishment in 1979 of a Permaculture Institute in Tasmania.  Although Mollison spent some time as a campaigner against commercial agriculture, which he believed was damaging the environment in Tasmania, eventually he found it more worthwhile to develop ideas and teach others about sustainable growing practice, which is now a worldwide movement.

The diagram below shows how the permaculture design concept works, with the most intensive cultivation nearest to the house or settlement and much of the perimeter of the site left in a natural state, as a ‘wilderness zone’ for ‘foraging, inspiration and mediation’.

The French translation of Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (1978)

Standing at the top of Entrance field, the first part of the site to be cultivated by OrganicLea, Tim pointed out a swale, or ditch, running the length of the cultivated area.  This, he explained, is the first line of defence against the force of rainwater running off the wooded hill above, catching some of it and and preventing erosion of the soil.  Beneath this, long, curved beds of vegetables divided by bark chipping paths follow the natural contour of the hill and absorb the remaining rainwater, reducing the frequency the beds need to be hand watered.

All the outdoor crops are cultivated by hand using the ‘no dig’ method.  Compost is added to the beds annually which smothers weeds and builds up topsoil without disturbing the soil structure beneath.  These beds operate on a ten year crop rotation plan, with two years of this cycle devoted to feeding the soil using a green manure crop.

At the centre of the site are the commercial glasshouses OrganicLea inherited ten years ago.  Tim explained, “The glasshouse is a boon as it allows us to run a viable commercial operation.  We can grow higher value crops like tomatoes and chillies which are sold to the public but also to restaurants.”  Up to sixty varieties of chillies are grown and are popular at OrganicLea’s three local market stalls.  Except for some propagation tables, the glasshouse is unheated, but even in February many of the long beds bordered by old scaffolding boards are full of winter salads.

The surrounding woodland has not been cleared but is managed for wildlife.  Out of twelve acres, just six are under production and the OrganicLea team is trying to monitor and increase biodiversity.  At the edge of this ‘wilderness zone’ there’s a poet’s corner dedicated to John Clare.  Tim says, “We like to think he passed through the woods here when he was living in Epping Forest.”

So today the last word goes to Clare – these lines are from London versus Epping Forest written when Clare was resident at the High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest between 1837 – 41.  Although London has now overwhelmed so much of the natural landscape, from this spot surrounded by trees it is somehow possible to experience a sense that nature is still greater than human activity.

Thus London like a shrub among the hills
Lies hid and lower than the bushes here.
I could not bear to see the tearing plough
Root up and steal the forest from the poor,
But leave to freedom all she loves untamed,
The forest walk enjoyed and loved by all.

Rhubarb in the Old Kitchen Garden.

Lettuce, with garlic in the background.

Endive

Rocket and broad beans

Swiss chard

Propagators on heated bench. The black pots in the background will soon be used for the chillie crop.

Inside the glasshouse. The green string is used to support beans, tomatoes and cucumbers.

The glasshouse from the top of Entrance Field

Gloves drying out on trellis.

Further reading:

OrganicLea – well worth looking out for monthly open days and events.

Bill Mollison

David Holmgren

Permaculture Association (UK)

Wordsworth House and Garden

On a damp, grey day in early April it’s not every garden that tempts visitors to linger. But when I visited the walled garden at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, Cumbria at the beginning of the month there was much to see of interest, as well as providing some welcome shelter from cold winds.

Although early in the season, signs of spring were evident.  Daffodils were flowering, with tulips not far behind them; new shoots visible on the roses and perennial plants were starting to emerge from their  long winter dormancy.

Wordsworth House is the birthplace of William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), who lived here with his family in the 1770s.  The National Trust, which acquired the house in the 1930s, has designed the garden in late eighteenth century style, with plant varieties that would have been available in the period.   Attractive slate labels show the names of these plants, information about their uses and introduction to cultivation in the UK.  The apples Greenup’s Pippin (1790) and Acklam Russet (1768) are cultivated with the the dual purpose pear Williams Bon Chretien (1770), Morello Cherry (pre 1629) and the Gargarin Blue Grape.  The garden also has a collection of Orpington and Silkie hens.

Beans and peas and other household vegetables are grown in open beds at the centre of the garden and the traditional supports for these made out of local materials such as birch are already in place for the coming season.  Supports for flowers like peonies are also constructed using poles and string.

The garden backs onto the river Derwent, which looks tame enough today, but in 2009 William Wordsworth’s ‘beauteous stream’ burst its banks.  Both the house and gardens were damaged by flooding (as were other buildings in the town) with many garden plants swept away by the waters, and even the heavy wooden gates at the front of the building (now replaced) were wrenched from their hinges.  The force of the water must have been immense.

Today the re-planted garden with its fruit trees, roses, flowers and herbs looks well established, which is a tribute to the efforts of head gardener Amanda Thackeray and the National Trust’s team of volunteers.  It’s also a good reminder that it is possible to create a garden with a sense of permanence in a relatively short period of time.

Wordsworth House and Garden, Spring 2018

new shoots of lovage (Levisticum officinale)

Back home, whilst considering the old fruit varieties I was delighted to come across a catalogue of fruit trees from the relatively local grower William Pinkerton, based in Wigan, and dating from 1782.  Despite its fragile looking state it’s available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library.  The comprehensive list includes a surprising number of peaches, nectarines and apricots as well as apples, pears, plums and cherries.  Although not individually named, Pinkerton offers a staggering 74 varieties of gooseberry.  It would be fascinating to know how many of these varieties are traceable today – the Green Gage and La Mirabelle plums certainly sound familiar.  The catalogue is reproduced below.

William Pinkerton’s Catalogue of Fruit Trees, Wigan, Lancs 1782

I wonder if this nectarine variety is anything to do with Thomas Fairchild?

William Pinkerton’s Fruit Catalogue 1782

Wordsworth House and Garden

William Wordsworth

Bernwode Plants  masses of information about heritage fruit trees

A Cottage and Garden

from An Account of a Cottage and Garden in Tadcaster. Sir Thomas Bernard, 1797 (Wikimedia Commons)

Picturesque cottages might be so disposed around a park, as to ornament and enliven the scenery with much more effect, than those misplaced gothic castles, and those pigmy models of Grecian temples, that perverted taste is so busy with: but it is the unfortunate principle of ornamental buildings in England that they should be uninhabited and uninhabitable.

This impassioned call for landowners to reject the fashion for ornamental garden structures and build cottages on their estates instead, to address a rural housing shortage caused by inclosure, comes from the social reformer Sir Thomas Bernard’s fascinating text An Account of a Cottage and Garden in Tadcaster (1797).  It was published for the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor, a charity which Bernard helped to found.

The picturesque cottage garden is a powerful motif in English garden history.  The cottage garden represents a modest beauty, simplicity, a place of domestic production, supplying fruit, flowers and vegetables to the owners; perhaps some eggs, or honey.  It is unpretentious, a sanctuary, in harmony with nature and its surroundings; it possesses an essential integrity born out of hard work and self-reliance.  All these qualities are attractive, of course, and the cottage garden style is one many aspire to re-create today.

The first garden Bernard discusses belongs to Britton Abbot.  At the age of 67 Abbot is still working as an agricultural labourer.  The interview with Abbot takes place on a Saturday afternoon – his wife is sent to fetch him from a field where he is working a mile or so away.  Abbot’s fortunes had nearly collapsed when his previous house and land were enclosed.  He appealed to a local landowner, who gave him a strip of land upon which he was able to build his current house and establish the garden.  Without this generous assistance, it is likely Abbot and his family would have faced ruin.

Abbot’s garden is about a quarter of an acre and has a hedge enclosing the garden.  Cultivated by his wife and noted for its neatness, the garden contains, ‘fifteen apple-trees, one green gage, and three winesour plum-trees, two apricot-trees, several gooseberry and currant bushes, abundance of common vegetables, and three hives of bees’.

The produce the Abbots would expect to harvest annually from the garden amounts to, ‘about 40 bushels of potatoes, besides other vegetables; and his fruit, in a good year, is worth from £3 to £4 a year.  His wife occasionally goes out to work; she also spins at home, and takes care of his house and garden’.

Bernard appeals to other landowners to give land to working people to be used in the same way:

The quarter of an acre that Britton Abbot inclosed was not worth a shilling a year. It now contains a good house and a garden, abounding in fruit, vegetables, and almost every thing that constitutes the wealth of the cottager.  In such inclosures, the benefit to the country, and to the individuals of the parish, would far surpass any petty sacrifice of land to be required.  FIVE UNSIGHTLY, UNPROFITABLE, ACRES OF WASTE GROUND WOULD AFFORD HABITATION AND COMFORT TO TWENTY SUCH FAMILIES AS BRITTON ABBOT’S.

The second case study, contained in an Account of the produce of a Cottager’s Garden in Shropshire (1806) features Richard Millward’s garden.  Millward is a collier, and his wife Jane cultivates agricultural land, and a garden, which together amount to just over an acre.

The wife has managed the ground in a particular manner for thirteen years with potatoes and wheat, chiefly by her own labour; and in a way which has yielded good crops, and of late fully equal, or rather superior, to the produce of the neighbouring farms, and with little or no expense; but she has improved her mode of culture during the last six years.

Jane Millward has introduced the new cultivation method after becoming frustrated waiting for local farmers to have the time to plough the larger part of the garden for her.  Now she and her husband do all the work themselves.  In October, she sows wheat straight into the ground where potatoes have been, so the wheat over-winters in the ground.  Then the ground which has grown wheat in the previous year is dug for planting potatoes the following spring.  This excerpt gives an impression of the sheer hard work involved planting the potatoes:

The ground is dug for potatoes in the month of March and April, to the depth of about nine inches.  This digging would cost sixpence per pole, if hired.  After putting in the dung, the potatoes are planted in rows, about twelve or fourteen inches distant.  The dung is carried out in a wheelbarrow and it takes a great many days to plant the whole, generally ten days.  Her husband always assists in digging, after his hours of ordinary labour.

In the vegetable garden Jane plants peas, beans, cabbages and early potatoes for the family plus turnips which she boils for their pig.  Both accounts give us an unusual amount of detail about the gardens and the way they were arranged and used.

Sir Thomas Bernard (1750 – 1818) spent much of his working life on social projects to improve conditions for the poor.  He helped to establish the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor and was treasurer of the Foundling Hospital in London.  He also established a school for the blind.  He was an advocate of vaccination, rural allotments and was instrumental in obtaining consents for the building of the Regent’s Canal.

Below is a link to the 1806 version of Bernard’s text which is very short and well worth reading.  Also some contemporary images of rural scenes and cottage gardens and a link to Margaret Willes’s The Gardens of the Working Classes – an extraordinary survey of gardens belonging to ordinary working people in the UK.

An Account of a Cottage and Garden in Tadcaster. Sir Thomas Bernard, 1797 (Wikimedia Commons)

Account of Britton Abbot’s cottage and garden : and of a cottager’s garden in Shropshire : to which is added Jonas Hobson’s advice to his children, and the contrast between a religious and sinful life. 1806 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

The Natural History of Selborne 1789 (The Wellcome Library)

Hanging Washing with Pigs and Chickens 1797 Thomas Bewick (Wikimedia Commons)

Wheat, beans, peas

published by Yale University Press

Account of Britton Abbot’s Cottage and Garden 1806

(from the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Sir Thomas Bernard

The Gardens of the British Working Class

Blood Oranges

The beginning of February is the height of the season for citrus fruits.  My favourite of these is the blood orange and part of the attraction as well as the taste is the paper that some of these fruits are wrapped in.  Typically a box of oranges will contain a few wrapped fruit, adding to the overall attractiveness of the container.  The wrapping also turns an orange into a small gift.

I’m heartened to see that Pinterest has many collectors of these vernacular advertising artworks.  Mark Denton Esq has some particularly beautiful examples and I include a link to these at the end of this post.  The papers in my own collection are mostly from Sicily which is a traditional centre for cultivation of the blood orange and are often (but not always) red like the flesh of the fruit they enclose.  The central image is always circular so when wrapped around the fruit the roundness of the orange is emphasised.

The first design shows a luscious looking orange, against a golden sunburst design – suggesting the rays that ripened the fruit or maybe the burst of flavour experienced from the first mouthful of the orange itself.  Other designs include an antelope, a red heart set in a golden sunburst and a red rose.  Agri Etna’s wrapper shows a view of the great volcano with images of strawberries and prickly pear fruits – presumably also produced by these growers.

The red tinged flesh of the blood orange is caused by the presence of anthocyanin which is an anti-oxidant found in many fruits, but unusual in the orange family.  The red colour develops when the fruits are exposed to low night temperatures.  I wonder if this might explain why some of the fruits are unevenly coloured inside – perhaps the side of the fruit most exposed to cold on the tree develops a deeper coloured flesh?

In the UK most of our blood oranges are from Valencia or Sicily, but they are also widely grown in California.  These are not always the largest or sweetest oranges – but have a pleasing intensity to their flavour.  When we stayed in Venice a few years ago the hotel served blood orange juice for breakfast that was dark – almost beetroot coloured.  This juice may well have been from the Moro blood orange – a relatively new variety with the deepest colour and a sharp taste.

Not always the easiest fruit to find in supermarkets, our local Turkish grocer is currently selling three for a pound.  Bargain!

Mark Denton’s Fruit Wrappers

(See also Mark’s potato sack collection!)

The Blood Orange – Wikipedia

William Robinson and the fruit gardens of Paris

Apple blossom on trees trained as a Belgian Fence, Capel Manor, Enfield

Of the practices which we may with advantage, and which indeed we must, adopt from the French, those of fruit-culture command our first attention, because good fruit-culture combines the beautiful with the useful in a very high degree.  William Robinson

As an advocate of naturalistic planting, William Robinson’s admiration of the trained fruit trees he saw in France might come as a surprise.  But in Parks and Gardens of Paris (1878, published by Macmillan) as well as reviewing public parks Robinson devotes eight chapters to French methods of cultivation and training of fruit trees.  He visits and evaluates the work of various growers, including the school of horticulture at Versailles, the school of fruit-culture in the Bois de Vincennes and nurserymen such as M Jamin of Bourg-la-Reine.

In his introduction to the book Robinson discusses ways in which English growers could improve the quantity and quality of their crops by following the the French example.  He mentions winter pears, of which France sends ‘many thousands of pounds’ worth annually’ which should be wall trained rather than planted in the open, and cordon training for apples, to save space in the domestic garden.  Robinson is also enthusiastic about the French Paradise stock, which keeps fruit trees grafted onto it small enough to respond well to training (unlike the crab stock that was widely used in England at the time) and because of the Paradise stock’s hardiness enabling trees that favour warmer climates to be grown on cold, wet soils, like those in England.

But the most important improvement that should be made, he argues, concerns the education of English gardeners.  In his forthright style, Robinson complains that in the British Isles the training of fruit trees is ‘not taught at all, or only in the most imperfect manner.’  He observes of the French,

‘Many of the illustrations in this book show the mastery they possess over each detail of training  the branches of every kind of tree being conducted in any way by the trainer might desire, and with the greatest of ease.’

Pear Triomphe de Jodoigne, in Palmette form; 10 years old, 15 feet long, 8.5 feet high. M. Jamin’s garden, Bourg-la-Reine.

Winged Pyramid, Beurre Hardy; 10 years old, 13 feet high, 6.5 feet wide; average crop, 400 Pears. M. Jamin’s garden, Bourg-la-Reine.

Peach-tree with 20 vertical branches (Candleabrum form) in full bearing; variety Chevreuse tardive; 10 years of age, 33 feet long, 10 feet high; average crop, 400 Peaches of the first quality and size. M. Jamin’s garden, Bourg-la-Reine.

Crossed and Self-Supporting Espalier Pear-trees at Saulsaie.

Pear-tree trained as a Palmette Verrier. On trellis ten feet high, supports of T iron, horizontal lines slender galvanised wire (No. 12), wires united in strong ring at base to secure rigidity in end supports.

Pendulous Training of Wall Pear-tree.

View of Espalier Pear-trees and lines of Apples trained as Cordons in garden at Brunoy.

The Peach trained as an Oblique Cordon.

Pear-tree trained in U form for very high walls.

The Spiral Cordon against walls

The Pear trained as an Oblique Cordon. This form is best suited for the wall-culture of choice Winter Pears where it is desired to obtain a quick return. (Note the two end plants complete the pattern by means of grafts to the original plant which have been carefully trained.)

William Robinson (1838 – 1935) was a gardener, and a prolific author on horticulture. His best known books, The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883) contained his ideas for a new approach to planting gardens using plants to imitate nature instead of formal bedding schemes, which were so popular in Victorian gardens.  He also worked as a journalist for The Times and The Gardener’s Chronicle and following the success of The Wild Garden launched his own magazine, The Garden in 1871.  He put his theories about naturalistic planting into practice at his garden at Gravetye Manor in Sussex, (which became derelict after his death, but is now restored and managed as a hotel).

In Parks and Gardens of Paris Robinson also discusses ideas for growing trained fruit trees in unexpected places.  As well as the Parisian front garden (illustrated below), he visits fruit trees that have been grown as fences along a French railway embankment.

Of the various waste spaces where good fruit might be grown the most conspicuous are the railway-embankments.  Here we have a space quite unused, and on which for hundreds of miles fruit-trees may be planted, that will after a few years yield profit, and continue to do so for a long time with but little attention.

Robinson observes the planting of pear trees along the Chemin de fer de l’Est.

A cheap fence of galvanised wire runs on each side of the line, and on this Pear-trees are trained so that their branches cross each other; and, though only in their fourth year, they are at the top of the fence.

In time, the trees trained in this way (sometimes called a Belgian fence) become self-supporting.  Robinson notes that both apple and pear trees were commonly grown in this way along the railway lines in Belgium.  Maybe it’s time to revive this lovely idea?

Parks and Gardens of Paris

William Robinson

Oranges and Lemons

Limoen en Oranje Boomen 01

Title page

Nederlantze Hesperides was published in 1676 by Johannes Commelin and describes the cultivation of citrus trees in the Netherlands with illustrations of orange and lemon varieties that were grown in the late seventeenth century.  Also illustrated are the magnificent orangeries the trees were kept in over winter, including one at the botanical garden in Leiden, and others belonging to private individuals including the author.

These substantial buildings have rows of south facing windows, and stoves to keep the temperature above freezing in winter.  In the first orangery pictured, at Leiden, a gardener appears to be bringing buckets for watering, while a lady and gentleman admire the trees.  A boy, possibly rather bored with the garden outing, plays with a dog.  Pieter de Wolf’s grand looking orangery is also shown in the summer, with the citrus trees arranged in orderly rows in front of it.

The containers the citrus trees were kept in are shown in detail with handles on either side so that they could be moved by means of poles into their winter quarters in the orangery and then back outside the following spring.

I love the way the illustrator Cornelis Kick has included a section of glossy leaves as well as the fruits and his cross sections reveal fruits with thick rinds, some with thin, some with irregular segments, and some perfectly symmetrical.  The glass container (a wine bottle?) containing the lemon blossom has a simplicity and at the same time locates the image in 17th century Holland.

Johannes or Jan Commelin (1629 – 1692) was a trader in medicinal plants and was invited in 1682 to establish a Hortus Medicus or medicinal garden in Amsterdam.  His father and brother ran a book publishing house.  As well as writing Nederlantze Hesperides, Commelin edited other books about botany.

If you wanted to source citrus trees today, the Citrus Centre in Sussex has 30 years experience of cultivating these plants and a wide choice of varieties including blood oranges, a special favourite of mine.  I’m fascinated by their varigated lemon which looks quite similar to one pictured in Commelin’s book.

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The Citrus Centre

Burncoose Nursery

Wikipedia Jan commelin

Biodiversity Heritage Library