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?

Berber Artisans and City Life

My trip from mountain to City was very eventful, but that’s for another day….I love to see people who can make things! I watched a leather worker in Chefchaouan make me a wallet, but in the maze of Marrakesh you can see gates being welded, chickens gutted, bed heads being carved, banjos being stretched, fabrics being woven and all within a few hundred yards of each other….well I did get lost and spent a happy 2 hours or so looking for the exit! If you have been there you will understand!  What a rich den of skilled people, they are highly inventive and recycle lots of odds and ends as part of their craft. The very narrow alleyways are surprisingly cool in the 34 degrees of last week. But watch out for the caleches, donkey carts, motorbikes and the sort of one way system of people!

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In contrast I visited the Yves Saint Laurent Jardin Majorel. I was told it was a major tourist attraction…I was there at daybreak so saw no-one else, but wow what a place! I’m not surprised it’s popular. It is the most perfectly manicured garden I have ever seen and very stunning in design and colour. And there’s a very good Berber Museum within.

Majorelle

Majorelle

Cacti Forest

Cacti Forest

So my intention to see horticulture here was more or less achieved, at least in the North, seeing the contrast of home vegetable gardening, small farms and large commercial farmers. It is a rich productive land wherever water allows in the mostly dry and rocky landscape.  Some dusty French hikers told of rich valleys in the High Atlas and Walnut groves, and where are these Argon trees…….mmmm next time…..oh and did i tell you about the air display at the airport, and the Romans at Larache, and the El Djemma Fna Concert show?

Djemma Fna

Djemma Fna

A Berber Way Of Life

Peaches

Peaches

Well where to start! I experienced a week or so of life with a berber family at  Ribat El Kheir in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. On route I passed a large commercial Apple Orchard, apparently 200 hectares or so of very closely spaced dwarf trees, all for export.  They have many deep wells to support the parched terrain and the workers are paid bonuses, so work very hard I was told.

The peaches were in flower in one of the smaller orchards around me. All the trees in this plot were headed back at about 30cm to make an upright open framework.

My week was very relaxed, looking after a few cows, many types of poultry, rabbits,  doves and pigs. And a lot of time relaxing and drinking tea with neighbours….and of course delicious tagines! All food is shared, there are no separate plates, and it is most often scooped up with bread with your right hand. The bread is flat and unleavened in Morocco and made fresh each day. We ate it a lot.The mint tea is very sweet and refreshing in the heat.

Tagine Dindons!

Tagine Dindons!

We also ate omelettes and dipped bread in olive oil, as well as a semolina in a sour milk, butter milk maybe? The daughter made it in a plastic bottle, rolling it on the floor for an hour or so. Also side dishes of sweet broad beans and a fennel paste from the buds of the wild fennel around us.

Fennel

Fennel

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The Berbers lived simply, and ate what they grew or farmed mostly. They had a bottled gas cooker and oven, but no electricity, though new pylons at the end of the farm lane forewarn of a change to come. It was very amusing to see Berber shepherds using mobile phones to communicate with each other across the hill! Samsungs are ubiquitous!

Berber Brebis

Berber Brebis

A stunning landscape was my daily view, often with these Berber sheep which are kept on the move all day to eek out the few weeds. This field will not be sown because it is too dry this year….incomes are so precarious here! The puit ( well ) is a vital element in life here; the French Colonialists in the 1920’s chose these areas to create commercial farms as they had a reliable source.

Le Source

Le Source

I saw these wooden ploughs being used behind mules and oxen in many areas. Such is the contrasting extremes easily seen in this country twixt the traditional ways and modern city life. And so to the city….

Wooden Plough

Wooden Plough

Olives and more in Chefchaouan

Chefchaouan

Chefchaouan

Yeah, its the blue town and full of tourists. And hash punters. My wee hostel was run by some  permanently stoned guys, what a waste! But what a pretty little souk of narrow blue painted alleyways, lovely at night. A wee boy put the finishing touch to a wallet I had made for me.

Leatherwork

Leatherwork

The market day drew in rows of Rifian men and women, here to sell a few cabbages and onions and buy their own shopping before returning. It’s a very hard and simple life for these people…other larger traders had oranges and apples, olives or spices. These palm shoots intrigued me.

Palm Shoots

Palm Shoots

One of the wee squares was piled up with firewood for the Hammam Public Baths, a pleasure I didn’t find time for on this occasion.

Market Day

Market Day

Hammam Baths

Hammam Baths

Heading down from Chef to Fez, I was struck by the oranges,  and beans and others cereals sown underneath the Olive groves. At lower altitudes, there were larger fields of cereals and co-operatives with a more commercial layout of large fields. Almost no hedges or fences exist in Morocco. The sheep are constantly herded to prevent straying; even the motorway verges are grazed between Fez and Rabat!

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….

Walnuts In Scotland

Walnuts

Walnuts were highly valued as a timber tree centuries ago, but 2015 was a good year in Scotland for the nuts too…our neighbours ‘Buccaneer’’ produced a good crop of nuts. So I thought I would do a bit of research on varieties and their relative merits. Maybe we should be growing more in Scotland? They can even be grown as a hedgerow system, not unlike many apple orchards around the world today.

I know of a few very big old walnut trees in Scotland, so I imagine a need for a less vigorous cultivar would be very useful for most of us. My neighbour’s tree is 8 years old and already romping away at about 12m and growing a meter a year!

It is presumably self-fertile as there are no others in the area.

We have a few seed sown trees for sale here at the nursery.

 

Walnut Tree

Walnut Tree

The Common walnut is Juglans regia, the black walnut, and is native to Persia, Juglans nigra. Is native to North America. Both can produce edible nuts.

The fruits are actually a drupe not a nut! You can expect cropping from 3 to 5 years from many varieties.

Romania is the biggest producer with production of up to 23 tonnes per hectare, but there’s a wide distribution of production from China, through India, Iran, France, and increasing production in Morocco.

( see: http://www.highatlasfoundation.org/).

Over 30 varieties are listed in Wikipaedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walnut ), but here are the most commonly available varieties in UK and abroad:

Buccaneer – A self-fertile Dutch round nut variety. Good for pickling. Upright tree.

Fernor – A new precocious flowering French variety.

Franquette – an old variety, a tip bearer! Doesn’t need much pruning.

Rond De Montignac – another old French variety with smaller nuts and late to leaf out.

Broadview – supposedly less vigorous than others.. self-fertile, precocious, and reputedly frost hardy. From Canada.

Saturn – A Czech variety 1971

Rita – From Carpathians, a smaller tree with thin -shelled nuts.

Lara- a commercial French variety, compact, needs a pollinator

There are many varieties more in France and around the world!

The RHS suggest taking out the central leader if you want to keep the trees in check. Also avoid pot bound plants as the tap -root will be damaged and they hate transplanting so don’t move them once they are planted.

Do not plant them near to apples as the roots exhibit allelopathy – preventing other trees growing. Most need at least 7m spacing between trees.

Grey squirrels, leaf gall, anthracnose and Codlin moth can all be problems with Walnut trees.

So is there anyone in Scotland interested in growing and trialling varieties for a commercial crop of walnuts, i.e. a hedge of them?

 

 

Hop production in Scotland

Hop Production in Scotland

For the beer making fraternity the subject of hops and the merits of its various clones are of great importance. To gardeners, more bent towards ornamental plants, the growing practicalities of this climber under Scottish conditions are of more interest.

What is it? Humulus lupulus is a climber related to cannabis, and has twining stems and tiny little hooks to enable it to grip onto to any upright object it can find.  It’s surprising how tough these stems are in mid season, I’m sure John Seymour would have recommended basket weaving with them!

It is a perennial, and would normally die back late in the year and send out new sprouts from a permanent root system every spring. It is a plant with purpose in several ways…the young emerging shoots can be eaten like asparagus. Professionally, four shoots are allowed to twine up from the clump of roots on 4 spaced coir strings to over 6 metres, creating a veritable vertical forest of growth by high summer.

 

Hop weed control

Well cultivated ground between rows of Hops.

I have seen an organic hop farm in Kent, where the plants are grown on a little ‘hillock’ and carefully weeded by rotavator between all the plants. The height and width of a hop wiring structure is a truly impressive structure to see!  I have also seen hop farms in Worcestershire, again on very good soil.  Overall though, the acreage is a lot smaller in the UK than even decades ago. A good deep fertile soil is ideal, perhaps the Tay Valley is the place for a Scottish Crop? Wye college in Kent developed some dwarf varieties, so the risk of wind damage might be reduced.

In late June, on the female plants, side shoots develop from the main stems and subsequently these produce the flowers which are so prized ornamentally. You don’t want male plants or you will get seeds which are undesirable!  Later the flowers form the ‘hops’ and all the stems are cut down to be taken indoors for extraction. The oast houses of Kent were once the drying rooms for the hop industry.

The hop damson aphid can be a big menace, and I’ve seen mildew on the leaves on our plant in wet summers.  Apart from that we have few problems and every year our golden-leaved hop scrambles up against a sheltered shed wall and produces little hops for us.

Propagation can be by division of the whole clump of roots, or fertile seeds can be purchased if you want to have a go of growing your own. To get a particular variety of course you would need cuttings or divisions, or layer a shoot across the ground and slightly bury it to encourage rooting. There are some lovely named clones such as White Knight, Fuggles, Goldings;  the RHS Plantfinder lists about 14 different sorts (page 365 ).

 

Hops - golden

The golden leaved hop, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’.

Seed grown plants can be supplied from plantswithpurpose, so what’s stopping you covering that horrible shed?

Ref: The RHS Plant Finder 2004-5, pub. By Dorling  Kindersley.

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

Dancing with Faeries…

I am not a great enthusiast for lawns. Nothing against grass, you understand, and even when mown and edged it has its place – for picnics, sunbathing, throwing sticks for the dog, and so on. But the lawn is not exactly exciting, is it?

Faery Ring

Unless something Goes Wrong with it. To some people, the sudden appearance of circular, dark green patches on the lawn is Something Going Wrong. And it may be – the circular patch becomes a ring, and in some disturbing cases a double ring, with fungi on the outer edge for a brief time, and dead grass (soon followed by weeds) in between the rings. This is the worst scenario, and most people just see dark green rings and, often, no fungi at all.

These rings were noticed in meadows and pastures centuries ago, and largely attributed to the pattering feet of faeries dancing round in circles. Belief in “other” folk was commonplace and accepted, as was the presumption they could do some harm if crossed.

There is an old Scottish rhyme which sums it up:
“He wha tills the fairies’ green,
Nae luck agin shall hae,
And he wha spills the fairies’ ring,
Betide him want and wae,
For wierdless days and weary nights
Are his to his deein’ day!”

The more rational (or less imaginative) put the phenomenon down to lightning, the feeding of cattle or the mating rituals of moles. The fungi sometimes seen were thought to grow on the slimy trails of slugs attracted to the greener grass. In fact, as we now know, the fungi CAUSED the faery rings.

Think about it. Nearly all fungi grow outwards in a circle from a starting point. Penicillin mould on bread. The way an apple rots, with concentric rings of fungus. That fungal skin disease isn’t called RINGWORM for nothing! Below the soil, the perennial mycelium (“roots”) of the fungus grows silently outwards. Mushrooms (toadstools if you prefer) are produced on the outer edge of the ring when conditions are right – not necessarily every year. The mycelium consumes carbohydrates and proteins in the soil as it advances, and converts some of it to ammonia, which is then converted to nitrates by bacteria. Nitrates – yes, the basis of “greening up” lawn fertilisers. No wonder there’s a dark green ring! But with some species, such as the Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasmius oreades), which is delicious but tricky to identify safely, the mycelium grows so densely in the soil it forms an impermeable layer of fibres, through which rain cannot penetrate. The grass behind the ring dies. Eventually, so does the mycelium. And as the grass and the fungal remains decompose, they in turn yield nitrogen – feeding the grass behind and forming an inner ring.

Year on year, the ring gets wider and wider, until we are scarcely aware of it. You may find Parasol Mushrooms (Lepiota), Field Mushrooms (Agaricus), Puffballs (Clavaria and Lycoperdon species) and many other edible species growing in rings – and quite a few non-edibles too! The most exciting one I ever found was as a teenager at the very start of my obsession with fungi, researching for my college project. It was a MASSIVE ring in dense woodlands, of the Giant Funnel-cap, Leucopaxillus giganteus, a species of edible mushrooms each a foot across, all glowing an eerie white in the gloom. This species can mither about below ground for half a century before producing mushrooms, so I was enthralled and very lucky.

I went home and promptly wrote a faery story…

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, September 2011