Tonight’s the Night. For Wassailing.

We wassailed on Saturday at Gowanhill in Stirling, where Transition Stirling have created a community orchard. It was an icy, searing, brilliant, sun-soaked morning, with snow underfoot and the tracks of rabbits, deer, foxes mingling with the human and dog ones. Claire’s  mulled apple juice was zinging, and we all toasted the young trees (which had just been pruned under Andrew’s guidance), and bellowed our wassail to the ancient and productive apple tree, relic of an older orchard, at the centre.

By rights it should have been tonight, but there’s no tradition of wassailing in Scotland and therefore we can bend all the rules and make our own customs. Tonight is Twelfth Night in the “old” calendar, which had Christmas Day on January 6th.

Wassailing (making a lot of noise, singing to a load of fruit trees and drinking a lot of cider at its simplest) is steadily insinuating itself into the calendar of the Scottish winter party which begins on St. Andrew’s Day at the end of November, and continues through yule and the midwinter solstice, Christmas, Hogmanay and New Year’s Day, to stagger to a halt around Burns night – technically January 25th  but tends to stretch to incorporate the weekends before and after it. Aside from the obvious gap in excuses around mid-January, the growth of wassailing is largely thanks to the huge number of new community and private orchards planted in the last decade that are now blessing us with copious harvests.

The thing is, you have to keep wassailing to ensure the harvests continue. Grab a jug of cider and a slice of toast, choose your King Apple (or whatever) Tree in your garden or nearest orchard and get out there!

Wassail! Drink Hail! Sing!

(https://dochub.com/andrewlear/63bBXm/wassailing1  AND  https://dochub.com/andrewlear/8p3NL6/wassailing2  will take you to our favourite wassailing songs. You’re on your own finding the music!

cider

Morning sun gets the cider bubbling

 

Walnuts in Scotland

walnuts

The nice thing about Catriona’s walnuts is how easy they are to crack open. Christmas childhood walnut memories for me are of battles against wee brown rocks, broken nutcrackers, bruised fingers and mashed nuts I could never pick out of the remains of the shell.

Maybe in Scotland the shells don’t get quite so granitic. Anyway, Catriona’s walnuts break neatly and easily along the centre line and come out whole. Little wrinkled ovals of russety-brown, rustling with the papery bit that divides the cotyledons. Not the biggest walnuts in the world, but they taste fantastic. Any thoughts of making another nut roast (like the Christmas one I made to offset the goose) dissipate because they just go straight in the mouth like sweeties.

The variety is ‘Buccaneer’, and it’s about 10 years old, certainly not much more. It started bearing nuts the year after planting. Contrary to everything I believed about planting walnuts for your grandchildren! We once saw a massive walnut tree in a square in one of the east Sutherland towns – maybe Dornoch – and assumed it was very old. Since then we’ve found quite a few around the country (Scotland, that is) – all thriving, but I doubt many are as prolific as Catriona’s ‘Buccaneer’. There’s another variety called ‘Broadview’ which is said to best for the UK. I wonder?

At a Hogmanay party, we tried Ann’s pickled walnuts. Never realised it is the whole immature fruit (nut and its embryo shell and its thick green seed case) that gets pickled – or that several steepings in brine are needed before the actual pickling. Wow – amazing flavour and texture. Catriona’s walnut tree needs to be raided next year before the nuts start to ripen!

Andrew’s sowing some wild walnut seed, with a view to grafting with ‘Buccaneer’ scions….one day. How long for the straight Walnut tree-lets to germinate and grow? How long for my very own, pickled and unpickled, walnuts?

It isn’t Spring. Really it isn’t.

The clouds hang low across Birnam Hill in the sulky twilight and the air is turgid and heavy. Patches of pinkish light to the north, but the grey, oozy mist soon covers them. The oak and the sycamore on the lane stand out indignantly, black and convoluted against the gloaming.

I’ve been cleaning the wee greenhouse ready for seed sowing, unsurprised by the enthusiasm of shamrock spreading greenly in the gravel, but ecstatic to note that my Caucasian Climbing Spinach – the one in a pot – is already shooting. Alive! No sign of the outdoor ones yet, though they were more vigorous last summer.

In the garden. the rhubarb is up, leaves unfurling. Including the Lochgelly Miners’ Rhubarb. Little weeds everywhere I spread the compost rampage like they’ve never heard of frost. ice, snow, winter…. When I clear a border of overgrown perennials for replanting in spring, marching armies of daffodil shoots stand to attention.

Darkness deepens, I come in, the television news blares an icy message, not the latest pish from Trump this time, but of snow in Greek islands, temperatures of -30 degrees and freezing blasts and storms from Turkey across to Georgia, USA.

I wonder  if it is coming this way, any time soon.

Spotting the first Hazel flowers

I realised the other day that I now need my reading glasses if I’m going to be the first in the family to spot the 2016 female hazel flowers. I have to be a certain distance away from the tree to be able to focus on the bulging, pink-flushed flower buds. But, at that distance, I don’t stand a prayer of spotting the flowers, on account on them being so minute – not much more than pin-head sized. In their favour, they’re bright red, and very pretty, like tiny wee starfish.

corylus contorta

Hazels are monoecious (male and female flowers are separate, but borne on the same tree), and the male catkins have been there since before Christmas. Up to now, they have been tightly furled, but are showing signs of opening. Wind will blow clouds of ripe pollen onto the female flowers, and nuts will follow! Wild hazels are self-incompatible, so you need more than one bush to get a harvest and generally the more the merrier. Our local hazel copse – which we don’t own but just act as though we do – has a hundred or so, and many seedlings coming along. I planted a single wild hazel in my garden 12 years ago, and have never seen a nut on it – not surprisingly!

Named hazelnut or filbert cultivars like ‘Cosford’, ‘Hall’s Giant’ and ‘Nottingham’ are often claimed to be self-fertile, and we’ve now added a couple of these to the vicinity of my first, barren attempt at nut growing, so things should change! But the one variety in my garden that’s started producing nuts is the one I least expected to – my Contorted Hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’). I know “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick”, as it’s also known, is a bit of a Marmite shrub – but I love it for the sheer weirdness of the twisty branches seen from the kitchen window in winter – and its precocity in producing real, home-grown hazelnuts!

Meantime, must remember the specs on the next walk round the hazel copse….

The Tree Nursery in Winter

Appletreeman rarely has a day off in winter! We are still lifting trees for delivery as bare root trees, and this can continue as long as the soil is not frozen solid and when all the trees are sold and delivered of course.  We are also in the process of cutting back 4,000 rootstocks, which are about 1.8m high, to the bottom bud. So there is quite a sizable bonfire to deal with at some stage! This job is done come rain or snow, though a half day is allowed in bad weather.

Appletreeman's Nursery In Winter

Appletreeman’s Nursery In Winter

These stocks were budded (a form of grafting) in August, so we have also been taking the polythene off which has been protecting the bud from drying out. These stocks will then sit as little 10cm high stumps until the bud opens up (hopefully) in May, and forms a new shoot and hence your named apple tree variety.

Budded Tree In January

Budded Tree In January

If only the ground would dry up, we would also be ploughing a new patch of field (we move every year) and be planting our next batch of rootstocks for grafting and budding heritage varieties for 2015. So no winter hibernation here!

Birdseed Bonanza

Goldfinches came to the garden this morning and dithered for ages in front of the window industriously gathering seed from the dead heads of meadowsweet. I was so glad I had not cut them back yet. Nature does not share our compulsion to order and tidiness, so seed-eaters such as finches, buntings and sparrows thrive in neglected gardens like mine. They really appreciate it when we are slow to tidy up and good seed-bearing plants tower gaunt and brown into the winter!

Apart from meadowsweet, I have found goldfinches to be particularly fond of the dead but still fragrant heads of wild oregano, and the copious, fluffy seeds on Hemp Agrimony. This is a tall, stately native plant with big, brush-like heads of purple flowers in late summer and autumn. It likes to grow in damp places but does well in most garden soils. The flowers are much visited by bees and butterflies, making it excellent value for wildlife gardening.

Milk Thistle

Most of the thistle family provide good birdseed once the flowers have faded. Here you will note a conflict of interests – the last thing a gardener needs is weed thistles running to seed in the hope the birds will enjoy them, because for every fattened bird there will be a hundred new thistles choking up your border next spring! However, there are several attractive, non-invasive thistles you can happily allow to run their course – the low growing Carline Thistle, the towering Scots or Cotton Thistle (Onopordon acanthium), or the variegated Milk Thistle for example. Spectacular Cardoons or Globe Artichokes have massive thistly heads which look great even when gone over and will bring in goldfinches and chaffinches. Of course, you might have eaten the globe artichokes yourself, but it’s worth leaving some to feed the birds as well as enjoy the sight of the lovely purple flowers! Globe Thistles are related, but bear spherical heads in blue or white that bees and hoverflies love, and provide substantial seeds when they ripen.

Sparrows, linnets and yellowhammers all enjoy seeds from grasses and cereals, and there are many attractive varieties, from the delicate Golden Millet to the chunky Pampas Grass, which will meet their needs. Seeds from the edible members of the goosefoot, or spinach family are always appreciated – such as Good King Henry, Red Orache and spinach beet that has bolted.

Finally, if you have ever bought wild bird seed you will know that sunflower seed is a big favourite. As the big flowers bend over and the petals fade, don’t bin them! Let the seed gradually ripen for the birds to find. I must admit that I kept banging my head on mine, though, as they keeled over at 45 degrees – a neat and tidy answer was to cut off the heads and hang them to dry from the shed roof, where I expect the Bankfoot Sparrow Gang will eventually decimate them!

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, October 2009.

Of Coltsfoot and Liquorice

Yesterday I found the first scaly-stemmed flower of Coltsfoot pushing itself up through the disturbed ground of a plantation in Bankfoot. The plant, also called “Son-afore-the-Father” due to the fact that the flowers appear many weeks before the hoof-shaped, hairy leaves, is a spring herald. It’s particularly welcomed here because by mid-February I have always been caught by one of those coughs that cling to the tail of a winter cold and threaten to sit on your chest for months. This year is no exception.

Coltsfoot leaves and the sunny, dandelion-like flowers are equally useful for treating coughs, though personally I can’t bear to pick the brave flowers and collect and dry leaves all summer instead to see me through. They can be made into a tea, or a decoction. Of old, they have been used in herbal tobacco, too, but it beats me how smoking anything can cure a cough, so I’ll stick to tea. It doesn’t have much flavour, so I add evergreen thyme (also good for coughs!) in winter, and in summer a few leaves of mint, lemon balm or meadowsweet. Fresh coltsfoot leaves can also be used as a vegetable and even yield a yellow-green dye.

This winter, thanks to an excellent evening class in herbal medicine I have discovered another cough-soothing delight – liquorice.  I have never liked liquorice allsorts, and for all I respect the monks of Pontefract, their “cakes” and the long tradition of growing and processing liquorice in that district, NOTHING would have persuaded me to chew liquorice root if I’d known what it was. But the unprepossessing and rock-hard root is something else entirely. The flavour is sweet and delicate; I’ve been boiling chopped root for ten minutes, then adding coltsfoot leaves. On Bad Throat Days, in goes a spoonful of honey from my bees too. Liquorice has been used medicinally for over three thousand years, for constipation and stomach ulcers as well as bronchial complaints. It’s a substance called glycyrrhizin in the roots, sweeter by far than sugar, which accounts for its use in confectionery. I don’t know which bit makes foam, but it’s also used in fire extinguishers!

Coltsfoot is best gathered in the wild unless you have a large garden – it spreads most obligingly. Liquorice, a native of south-eastern Europe, is slow to germinate, the seeds are expensive, and it will take a while to produce worthwhile roots. But it has pretty foliage and pea-like flowers to enjoy while you are waiting, so is well worth growing.

Today, five inches of snow covered 2005’s first coltsfoot, and I’m still coughing, so spring had better get a move on. The hedgerow pharmacy is in demand!

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, March 2005

Cider for Christmas?

I am not sure if any of the cider will be ready for Christmas. Some of it should be. We racked it off this weekend, but one or two gallons are still fermenting furiously. It is astonishing that although every gallon was made on the same day, in the same conditions, and all with assorted apples, no two jars are alike. They have all been on the same windowsill, but some started late, some finished early, the colours all vary slightly and the taste – as far as we have tested – also varies from very sweet to getting dry. NONE – so far – taste sour or vinegary I’m glad to say!

Morning sun gets the cider bubbling

A slight thaw towards the end of last week – many wild birds are very glad of the food we are all putting out, and now finding more that had been covered by the snow. The blackbirds are especially fond of the apples that are not going to last in storage. Waxwings are about in the oak tree at the top of our road, and spotted woodpeckers have been seen (but not by me). Tremendous icicles formed hanging gardens and broke gutters; now it has turned icy cold again and the partially melted snow has refrozen to a skating rink. I never took to skating.

Hanging Gardens

Picking apples in the snow

On Thursday we woke to snow, not more than a centimetre, but snow. Frosts and wind over the preceding week had taken the last leaves off fruit trees, leaving roadside late apples looking like pre-Christmassy hung with the green or golden baubles of the later-ripening fruit. The Mysterious Large Apple in our front garden was no exception. For 9 years it has produced a small number of dense green fruit streaked with grey because it is in the shade; it is meant to be Ribston Pipin, but apart from the lateness of the crop (left to their own devices the apples will cling on till January and never get any riper) it bears no resemblance. Hence Mystery. Yet it grows like topsy, the blossom is magnificent and loved by bees.

This year it grew hundreds of apples, and they got to a decent size and some went a slightly golder shade of green – one or two even got rosy flushes. Whether this was due to a warm, sunny summer or the deep freeze of last winter I am not sure, but with snow falling, we decided to pick the lot and store them (they do store very well, possibly for eternity). They all had to be washed and polished free of the grey streaks, and made baskets of pretty green apples which taste just OK but the skins are tough; peeled and cooked, they do the job. Update on taste progression at Christmas.

And now, Sunday, we have 15cm snow and falling fast, thunder and lightning bizarrely, and strange lights in the sky last night, amid a glut of crazy frozen stars.

snowed under…

There is a lot of snow. Several inches over the week or two before Christmas, and a couple of massive falls in the past four days. 30cm last night. Temperatures: -11.2 the lowest so far recorded in the garden, -8.5 today. It went up to -4.2 and felt quite warm. Small birds are suffering. I have been feeding them; especially on apples. There are still two crates of random apples in the back porch and birds and possibly small mammals have helped themselves. The apples have frozen and thawed a few times, but seem still usable. Blackbirds love them, and I have had two fieldfares coming to the bird table every day, beautiful, fluffed up creatures looking for fruit and seeds. Sparkly speckly starlings come, too and a wood pigeon joins the collared doves who are resident. James over the road has had a spotted woodpecker.

There is no foraging to be done but we reap the rewards of a year spent squirreling away wild foods. At Christmas we broached the cider – it is sparkling, and not at all bad, but think will be even better in a couple more weeks. Got freshly pressed apple juice out of the freezer, too, and had plenty of rowan jelly for the turkey (yes, succumbed to a turkey even though we have home raised cockerels in the freezer), chutney for the sausage rolls, blaeberries and raspberries for the trifle and more home made wine and sloe gin that we can decently drink. Roasted hazelnuts from the copse, and a late jarring of rose hip syrup to keep up the vitamin C levels. Log foraging has sort of paid off – plenty of fuel for the stove but would be a darned sight more useful had Someone agreed with my desire to build a new log store out the back – wet logs in plastic fertiliser bags that fill with snow are limited in value.

My nursery is covered in snow. I cannot do anything about it and probably will lose a lot of plants in the extreme cold. I am going through the seed catalogues half-heartedly but not counting on an early start to production!