All posts by gs

Tree cuttings using home-made heat mat

In January I set up a home-made under-heated cutting tray.

My purpose was to root cuttings of apples and pears. Normally these are reproduced by grafting (reproduction from seed does not give true cultivars – desired characteristics are lost). If it’s easy to grow from cuttings then this should be a faster and cheaper way to produce large numbers of trees. It’s not clear how large they will grow (normally the size of grafted trees is controlled by selecting the rootstock). I’ve got plenty of space so I want to find out. It’s not clear how soon cuttings will fruit – hopefully similar to grafted trees (which should be a load sooner than trees from seed).

I used a 137 watt waterproof LED light rope buried under the soil in a 8cm deep tray. I covered the tray with bubble-wrap and poked the cuttings (dipped in rooting hormone) through into the soil. I poked a funnel through so I could water occasionally. I placed the whole thing in an unheated out-building (by a window to give a lot of natural light. I measured the soil temperature occasionally and it was always in the low 20s (Celsius)  which I think is about right.

Results:

  • Grape vine, fig, red and white current cuttings had a good degree of success. I have propagated these before without heat so I’m not sure how much the hear really helped.
  • Two of the many apple and pear cuttings I took, that’s less than 2%. Not a good rate of success but it shows that it can be done.
  • Nothing else rooted – I tried various shrubs and trees (not huge quantities of them, so this result isn’t statistically significantly worse then the apples/pears).

Thoughts for the future:

  • Might be simpler to put the light rope under the soil tray instead of in it, like this.
  • A deeper tray would hold the heat and moisture better and would allow longer cuttings.
  • Maybe I should have sprayed the cuttings to increase moisture, the air was very dry (and the bubble-wrap on the soil surface meant very little evaporation). Or used a lid over the tray instead of the bubble-wrap on the soil)
  • The apple tree cuttings I took were mostly very thin (less then 5mm) pruning off-cuts. Thicker cuttings might have been more successful.
  • I didn’t have a thermostat, it might have been too hot or too cool.
  • Maybe I should have set it up in a warmer place (in the house instead of in an outbuilding)
  • Lots of discussion here on the soil (or other medium) to use. I used a mix of course sand and peat-free seed compost, possibly I should have used something more free-draining (also my trays had no drainage holes, I relied on watering just enough so as not to water-log but not to let it dry out – but it was under bubble-wrap so hard to tell how moist it was)

I’ll try again next year – hope for better success rate with apples and pears.

The woods – what next?

As of 29th March 2015 all of the bare-rooted trees have been planted. What next?

Lots of things to finish off, check and tidy up. In the wind a few tree-guards are blowing over – stakes not quite far enough in the ground? A small collection of potted trees still to plant (not quite as urgent as bare-rooted trees). A wild flower meadow to plant on the subsoil left from digging the pond. Grass around trees to deal with. Lots of old tree-guards and stakes from previous tree planting to collect up.

I need to think plan and construct a storage building and sort out the vehicle parking space. The ponds are draining away too fast and will probably need lining. Fencing and other infrastructure to consider.

Lots more cuttings and seedlings to go into the tree nursery and a solar-powered irrigation system to build before the summer.

Brambles are encroaching from the hedges – need to fight them back a bit. Himalayan Balsam and Ragwort to be kept in check (fortunately not very much of either).

Planning the central area that we’ve left empty – this will be an orchard and forest garden area to produce lots of fruit and other edibles for years to come. There are about 40 fruit trees so far, I expect to plant a lot more next winter.

Possibly some tree thinning in the 12-year-old woods which are now too dense in places.

A few summer leisure activities to share with everybody who’s helped get to where we are now – it’s a great place for wildlife spotting, walking and occasional nights camping.

Next winter I’ll consider replacing any of this years trees which haven’t survived. This could be 10% or more, or far less, it will depend on how well we’ve planted them and how dry the weather is over the next few months.

In a few years the hedges we’ve planted will need laying, and some of the trees will be ready to coppice – new skills to learn.

The trees are all planted

Mission accomplished! 3996 bare-rooted trees (and shrubs) all planted – about 7 acres of new native broadleaved woodland created. Thank you thank you everybody who joined me to plant trees over the last three months, and everybody else who was enthusiastic about it (I fed off your enthusiasm).

The weather was amazing, more time spent in tee-shirts than waterproofs. Now let’s have some rain – the trees will enjoy it!

Here are some photos from three months of tree planting.

January:

February:

March:

(edit – these images ate most of the disc space on my web server so I’ve compressed them a bit – if you want a copy of a picture you’re in please email me for the hi-res original)

Tree-ometer

Progress to date? We’re over 80% done. Most of what remains is to be planted with canes and spiral guards rather than stakes and tree guards, which will make then quicker and easier. We should be finished by the end of March – not a moment too early as the trees we’re planting are showing signs of root and bud growth.

 

Progress!

progressProgress with tree planting over the last fortnight has been amazing – thank you everybody! There’s still a long way to go (about a third of the trees are still to be planted) but most of the harder-to-plant stuff is done (650 oak with gnarly roots and bushy tops are now safely in the ground). What’s left is mostly slender trees which are faster to plant and over 60% of the remainder is to be planted with canes and spiral guards (much faster and simpler then stakes and tree guards as there’s no hammering and no cable ties). Everything is marked out and ready to plant.

Planting might be complete in as little as three more weekends (ie. done before the end of March) – which is good because some varieties are starting to come out of dormancy and so need to be done ASAP.

You can find regular updates and loads of photos on my facebook.

Compost Loo For Beginners

compost looNot everybody has used a compost loo before. Here’s the basics…

Inside the toilet tent you will find two bins – one with a seat on and one containing useful things.

Sit down and relax. You may deposit only things you’ve already eaten, used toilet paper and sawdust. Please don’t put any rubbish or other items in the compost loo.

The second bin contains toilet paper and sawdust. Quite possibly also some hand-wash and a good book.

When you’ve made your deposit, please sprinkle a scoop of sawdust over it so it is covered.

Put the lid down before you leave – your job is done!

It’s okay to pee in the compost loo, but if you’re happy to use pee in the hedge or behind a tree that would be even better. The compost loo is mainly intended for the brown stuff but it copes with a moderate amount of extra liquid (please add some sawdust as above).

That’s all you need to know, but here are some more interesting things about compost loos:

  • With the right level of moisture and with your deposits covered with sawdust, the compost loo doesn’t get smelly.
  • When the loo is full enough, it will be left to compost for 6 months or so. As it composts it will heat up (like a compost heap does), this helps to destroy pathogens. When the process is finished it should be crumbly and not at all smelly or sticky – bearing no resemblance to what it used to be.
  • If this kind of thing interests you then there’s a great free book online, The Humanure Handbook.
  • The compost will feed the plants – it will be emptied in the base of a hedge where nobody will have cause to disturb it. I won’t be using it near fruit trees or anywhere that it will come into contact with people, although it would be perfectly safe.
  • Your wee is also great for plants; it contains Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (Potash) which are the key ingredients of synthetic fertilizers.
  • What you’re sitting on may look somewhat similar to a food waste bin – your deposit is post-consumer food waste. We don’t need the bin at home: our ducks, geese and garden birds have some of our scraps and since we’re veggie the rest is fine for our compost heap.
  • Most of the time we all flush our business away with drinking water, seems like a terrible waste of water as well as of all those great plant nutrients. Humanure makes a lot of sense!

Later in 2015, and beyond

A large area in the middle of the field will be focussed on growing edibles: a fruit and nut orchard and a forest garden.

The fruit trees that I planted last year need to be pruned.

I have set up a tree nursery to grow more trees, shrubs and bushes. I’m learning tree grafting. There will be spare space for a few vegetables (stuff that doesn’t need to much looking after – potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, sweetcorn, onions, garlic, parsnips and more).

I need a storage building – I’ll have to apply for planning permission before I can build it.

The spoil-heaps from the ponds are ideal for planting wild flower meadows, in April.

Camping weekends in the summer – everybody who helps plant trees is invited.

I’m hoping to get a few apples from the new trees this year (not sure about that, need to read up on it, might be better to let the trees grow rather than setting fruit at this stage).

Put up some bird/bat boxes?

I want to add more hedging and some fencing over the next 12 months.

Beyond 2015

The orchard and forest garden will be established gradually over many years.

Not all of the trees we plant will thrive, some will need to be replaced.

Some of the existing trees need thinning and maintaining.

After 3-5 years the tree guards need to be removed (and can be reused).

Hedges that have been planted will need to be laid and managed.

Some areas will be coppiced, but not for at least 5 years.

At home we’re in our first year of bee keeping. Maybe if it goes well there will be bee hives in the forest garden one day?

Who knows what else, ideas developing all the time. More ideas welcome! It’s a very long term plan – most of the tree will live longer than I will – but they’ll mostly look after themselves once they’re established,

Tree planting early 2015

There’s one main task for Jauary to March – I have 3500 trees to plant. They’re native broadleaves: oak, field maple, small leaved lime, birch, aspen, alder, wild cherry, crab apple,
rowan, sweet chestnut, beech, hazel, hawthorn, goat willow, dogwood, spindle, dog rose, holly and blackthorn.

"whips"
“whips”

The trees are ‘whips’, two years old and about 60cm high with good roots. They’re bare-rooted and they’re planted in a notch – no need to dig holes, just make a slit in the ground with a spade. Each tree will have a tree shelter and stake or a spiral-guard and cane to protect them from deer, rabbits an other wildlife.

The trees need to be planted by mid-March whilst they are still dormant, after that the roots will be growing and will be easily damaged by planting. I can’t do it all myself so I’ve invited lots of friends to help. If you’re reading this and I haven’t invited you yet then please get in touch!

I’m writing this blog post on a rainy January morning from the library of a field study centre in North Wales – there’s some fabulous books here about woodlands, including one which tells me that volunteers will probably manage to plant 50 to 75 trees (with tree-guards) per person in a day. I’m expecting to allow a for bit of time for exploring, eating, playing and socialising and I think we’ll be working in teams of 2 to 4 (plus kids and dogs – optional!) so maybe we’ll be slower than their estimate, which is fine.

Some care is needed to get the trees in the right combinations and places – trees that will grow well together and will thrive in that location. We’ll be planting them 2 or 3 metres apart and leaving many paths and tracks and clearings. To make it easy I’ll be putting out stakes to mark planting positions. In a few areas, fast growing sacrificial “nurse trees” will be planted between slower growing trees to provide wind protection during early years – this will include some Spruce (aka Christmas Trees) to be cut after 7 or 8 years when they’re a good size.

Planting needs reasonable weather – on a good day the field is a beautiful sunny place (with great views) but if it’s raining then it’s no fun so wet planting days will be cancelled the evening before in consultation with the weather forecast. We also can’t plant if the round is frozen hard or covered with snow (but we can still go out there and play if you like).

tree planted with tree guard
tree planted with tree guard

Planting will involve collecting a bundle of trees, finding where they need to go, making a notch for each with a spade and inserting the roots sand the stake (or cane). Close the notch up (spade or heel). Add the tree-guard (or spiral). I’ll be practising the technique so I can demonstrate.

There’s other jobs to do besides planting – tree guards to move around the field, fires to light, hot food and drinks to make, photos to take and lot more. And of course you’re welcome to stop and play.

Comforts provided! There’s a lovely compost loo (or you’re welcome to just pee in the woods, the trees will love it). We’ve got a fantastic home-made rocket stove for boiling kettles and cooking, with conventional camping stove for backup and very probably a camp-fire too. Plenty of camp chairs and an endless supply of hot drinks and snacks. I’m hoping to sort out some shelter – but expect a large tent or gazebo rather than a cosy sitting-room. (If you really want to escape at lunch-time it’s a few minutes walk to the Upton Inn).

Parking space is a bit limited so I’m hoping for a few fairly full cars at a time rather than many/empty cars. Or if you want to cycle it’s about 10 miles from central Bristol via the railway path. Let me know when you’re thinking of coming (short notice is fine) so I can send detailed directions and also I can let you know the evening before if plans change due to weather forecasts.

Roe deer: cute but not invited to eat the trees
Roe deer: cute but not invited to eat the trees

Have fun! You can bring friends, kids and dogs, they’re very welcome. The field has plenty of open space and some woods and wildlife to explore. It isn’t particularly hazardous but there are a couple of deep ponds, a small stream, a couple of barbed wire fences around the edges and a few rabbit-holes to trip over. Kite flying, ball games and other toys are fine (away from he newly planted trees please). If you’re still around at dusk we could try badger spotting before we go home. You don’t have to plant trees, it will be nice to see you anyway!

If you’re coming you could bring:

  • Lots of warm clothes, including hats, gloves and waterproofs.
  • Boots or wellies. The field is grassy with not very much mud but if you’re planting trees you’re sure to find at least a little bit.
  • Camera, binoculars (for wildlife), kite and other toys (sledge if it’s snowy). Torch  if you want to stay after dusk.
  • I have a collection of tools for planting but if there’s a lot of people around we could make good use of one or two more spades (ideally narrow ones like border spades or planting spades but anything will do). Also mallets (to bang 3cm square wooden stakes into soft ground).
  • There will be hot drinks and snacks, quite likely hot food and more but this may vary depending on who’s coming – I’ll email to confirm so you can decide whether to bring anything more. There is no drinking water supply but I’ll take a water container for drinking and hand-washing.

What’s with the woods?

A few trees and lots of grass

In the 1980s a youthful Gavin liked playing in the woods. A few years ago I realised that I wasn’t playing in the woods as much as I used to. I wondered if I could have a wood of my own to play in. There’s plenty of nice woods for sale on Exmoor or in Wales or Scotland, but not many within a sensible cycling distance from home in Bristol. After a little research I decided to grow my own.

How to dig a pond in a weekend
How to dig a pond in a weekend

I bought a field early in 2014 and managed to plant a few trees  and a hedge before the end of the winter planting season. The rest of 2014 was spent planning, exploring, camping, cooking on fires, digging ponds and creating a tree nursery (which produced more pumpkins and potatoes than trees in it’s first season). In December I took ownership of several thousand trees to plant out before the end of March. I’ve got plenty more plans after that.

How it looked a year ago
How it looked a year ago

The land measures 10 acres (for the metric amongst us that’s about 130m by 300m). It’s a south facing slope (not steep) with a gate at the top and a stream at the bottom. About a fifth of the field was planted with trees about 15 years ago, the rest was pasture which had been mowed for hay in the years before I bought it.

The field (it doesn’t have a name yet) is on the edge of Upton Cheyney, a village between Bristol and Bath. It’s very accessible by bike, being about a mile from the Bristol-Bath railway path. I really really like it. In case anybody wondered, I’m never planning to live there –  love where I live now, and I wouldn’t be able to build a house in the field (which is good – it’s for woods not for houses).

What’s up with Gavin?

Many friends already know much or all of this story, but some people don’t like to ask and I try not to keep going on about it, so here’s a short update as of January 2014 for anybody who wants to know…

What’s wrong with Gavin?

MGUS (Monoclonal Gamopathy of Unknown Significance).

This is a fairly rare condition, my immune system is attacking my nervous system. The myelin sheath which protect my nerves throughout my body is being damaged by rogue antibodies which my own immune system is creating. Nerve signals don’t get through, the myelin sheath is like the insulation on an electric cable. The further from my brain [or possibly fro where the nerves exit my spinal column?] the signal has to travel, the less chance it has of getting through, so I have a “peripheral neuropathy” – the nerve signals to my periphery are failing.

Syptoms started in late summer 2012 with a constant “pins and needles” tingling in my feet. I saw my GP in the autumn and consultants at Southmead Hospital six months later.

My symptoms progressed to a loss of feeling in my feet, loss of muscle control in my feet and eventually ankles. Frends started tonotice that I was limping around September 2013. Tingling spread to my lower legs and started in my hands and lower arms. As the muscles in my feet have stopped responding, they’ve started to waste away – my arches are hollow now and I have little strength in my ankles.

In January 2014 I had “plasma exchange” treatment – my blood was filtered to remve antibodies. The tingling went away, but it only lasted for a couple of weeks and this treatment was classed as a failure.

I was referred to an occuptional therapist and eventually provided with orthoric insoles (which help improve my standing posture and walking gait) and “AFOs” – carbon fibre brackets to keep my feet up – which gave me a blister and haven’t been used much yet.

I was referred to a consutant in London and a drug theropy was recommended. In late August 2014 I was treated with Rituximab; any improvements were expected to take several months to become apparent. By December 2014 I started to notice slight improvement in some symptoms, but initial blood tests show limited effect. More tests and consultant’s opinions are coming in January.

What about the lung thing?

In early 2014 I had a chest scan to look for any signs of lymphoma (it’s linked to MGUS). No lymphoma was found but a small (8mm) lump was apparent on my lung. After further investigation no conclusion was reached and the surgeon removed it by keyhole surgery. After biopsy we know that it was an EHE tumour,  possible active but probably benign (we’ll never know for sure). I was out of hospital in a couple of days and fully recovered from the op in a few weeks, the tumour is gone (along with an insignificant strip of lung which has been replaced with a titanium zip) and although I’ll be monitored for many years I’m not expecting anything more to be found.