Friday, 24 February 2017

Soil Temperature and Seed Germination

A few days ago we sowed the tomato seeds for this season's market and home garden. It never ceases to amaze me what little indoor space you need to rear thousands of seedlings. We use two 50 cm x 30 cm x 15 cm trays to germinate approx 150 seedlings from 10 cultivars. When they get bigger we move them into two 1.3 x 8 m beds covered with polythene to rear them before they take their permanent positions in the gardens in early - mid April.

Tomato seedlings 

Many of the plants we grow I prefer to sow directly outside and one of the most important things to consider when sowing is that the temperature of the soil is high enough for the seed to germinate.

Other important considerations include:
  • whether the seed requires any pre-treatment before it will germinate, i.e stratification and scarification (mainly relevant for perennial plants particularly trees and shrubs).
  • how deep you sow the seed - too shallow is better than too deep. 
  • that the correct moisture levels are kept constant during the germination phase - not too wet, not too dry and with the ideal moisture levels similar to that of a wrung out cloth.

Elaeagnus commutata -  Epigeal germination 

This post we'll focus on soil temperature for germinating seeds. We'll look at why this is important, how to take soil temperature, and I've included a table showing the minimum and preferred soil temperatures for germination of some common plants.

Eruca sativa - Rocket germinating 

Often you will find a monthly guide on a seed pack indicating when to sow seeds and this generally works okay, but can be misleading. If you have a long cold winter and the soil is cold, germination will be delayed and in some cases the seeds may rot in the ground.  On the other hand, if the soil is unusually warm in the spring, it's possible to seed earlier. Being able to tell the soil temperature and being aware of the preferences of each plant will result in more or your seeds germinating.

Measuring Soil Temperature

You want to measure the temperature at seeding depth and this will differ for each seed you sow. The general rule is sow to a depth of no more than twice the diameter of the seed, but like I said above it's better to go too shallow than too deep.

Any thermometer that will measure temperature at a specific depth can be used to measure soil temperature. Insert the thermometer into the area where the seeds will be sown and wait a few minutes before you take a reading.

Bear in mind that each area of your garden will probably have a different temperature. The soil temperature is influenced by the following factors:
  • Bare soil warms much faster than mulched soil and vegetated soil.
  • Dry soil will be warmer than wet soils.
  • South facing soils will be warmer than north facing, and the amount of shade cast on the soil will affect the temperature considerably. 

Gingko biloba seedling 

Warming up the Soil

As the air temperature starts to warm up in early spring you may like to get a head start with your sowing and accelerate the warming of the soil. If you have a mulch on your soil for the winter you can temporarily remove the mulch. The dark coloured soil will absorb all wavelengths of light and convert them into heat, warming the soil much faster. Another alternative is to leave the mulch on and cover the bed with a plastic sheet or glass pane. On a sunny day this will provide considerable heat. Of course you can also remove the mulch and use the sheet or glass on the bare soil and this has the added benefit of germinating any seeds in the patch that can be pulled before you start sowing.

Here's a table providing the minimum and preferred soil temperature for a number of crop seeds and the estimated time it takes the seeds to germinate

 Minimum and Preferred Temperatures for Common Crops

Basil Seedlings

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Friday, 10 February 2017

Trees for Bees

Trees are the bee's knees, and I'm pretty fond of bees too :)

Trees are an important, stable source of food for bees and other pollinators providing thousands of flower heads all in one place.

I could go on and list their other virtues but the fact you're on my blog leads me to assume that  you already have a pretty good appreciation of both trees and bees so let's get straight to the point of this post and find out which trees attract bees.

Bees from our Garden

The good news is there are trees that provide nectar and pollen for bees pretty much all year round. Better news is that most of them are very easy to grow and suitable for growing in a wide range of conditions including small and large gardens and in the wild.

I've put together five lists of trees that you'll find below;
  1. Trees for Bees that also provide fruit or nuts 
  2. Nitrogen Fixing Trees for Bees 
  3. Ornamental Trees for Bees   
  4. Master list including all of the above in alphabetical order
  5. Master list including all of the above in order that trees flower 
Indicated on the lists are when the trees are in flower, what they offer the bees, i.e pollen, nectar or honey dew (see below for honey dew description), and whether and when the trees offer fruits, nuts or other wildlife foods. I've also included a link to plant profiles of trees that we stock in our bio nursery. You can find details of a bee tree multi pack below that we are offering from the nursery this spring.  

Trees for Bees that also provide fruit or nuts

Nitrogen Fixing Trees for Bees

Ornamental Trees for Bees  

Master list including all of the above in alphabetical order

Master list including all of the above in order that the trees flower 

It's no coincidence that flowering and bee activity are triggered by warming temperature, During long cold winters in locations at high altitude or regions of high latitude, plants will not follow the sequence as illustrated below. In our gardens at approx. 580 m above sea level on the 42nd parallel north, the below table is an accurate representation, although there is a lot of variation within the month.

If you know of a tree or shrub that is great for bees and is not on the above lists please share it in the comments section below. Also if you see any mistakes in the list, I'd really appreciate it if you could let me know also in the comments section below.

Honey Dew 

If you have ever parked your car under a tree and arrived back to find it covered in a sticky substance, you have come across honey dew. You have the sap-sucking psyllids or aphids to thank for this.

An aphid feeds by inserting its straw-like mouthpart (proboscis) into the cells of a plant and draws up the plant’s juices or sap. Most aphids seem to take in from the plant sap more sugar than they can assimilate and excrete a sweet syrup, honey dew, that is passed out of the anus.

For many other insects including ants, wasps, and of course the bees, this is a valuable source of food. Ants harvest it directly from the aphids, bees generally collect it from where it falls.

Ant drinking "Honey Dew" - I could not find the original source of this photo to give credit

Check out our previous blog here where I profile a polyculture design dedicated to bees and other pollinators 

Polyculture for Pollination Support 

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Trees for Bees Multipack

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Thursday, 2 February 2017

A unique learning opportunity studying the productivity of polyculture market gardens in the beautiful Balkans.

Encouraged by high yields and high levels of biodiversity that we have been recording in our home gardens we have extended our research to look at how we can provide nutritious affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity in polyculture market gardens. We are delighted to be offering a unique opportunity to take part in this study. Would you like to join us?

What are we doing ?

We are undertaking a multi year study of market gardening growing herbs, vegetables and perennial fruit and nut polycultures. The study aims to compare our polyculture plots with conventional organic plots, record levels of biodiversity in the gardens and look at set up and running costs (in terms of finances and time) and outputs in terms of produce and income.

Diversity of high quality biologically produced food from our polyculture gardens 

The approach we take to market gardening goes way beyond "organic". We design biological systems that rely on the native ecology to function as opposed to external manufactured inputs, and as a result our gardens service not only our needs but the needs of other organisms too.

Permaculture/Polyculture Market Garden @Balkan Ecology Project

What will you be doing ?

You'll be working closely as a team producing food from the market garden for yourself, local markets, and a food co-operative and will be recording all aspects of the process including how long it takes to develop, maintain and manage the associated costs, the fertility requirements, the returns in produce weight and income derived from the sale of the produce.

Our Polyculture Market Garden - photo by Huma

Spring 2017 we will also begin development of a new experimental garden growing perennial polycultures providing fruits, nuts, vegetables, biomass, timber and wildlife habitat. We'll install a gravity fed irrigation system, wildlife/irrigation ponds, living fences of native species, several habitat features for current species on site, and 6 trial beds that will house 4 perennial polycultures, designed to be highly productive and wildlife enhancing.

Perennial Polycuture Trial Garden

Click here for the Garden location (labelled as  East Side Trial Garden on our Project map)

We are planning to record all aspects of the project including observed levels of invertebrate diversity, weather data and soil analysis. We’ll be looking closely at inputs i.e set up/running costs, fertility/water requirements and time, and outputs i.e produce, income, soil fertility and invertebrate diversity.

The aim of the trials is to test the ecological and economical viability of growing these polycultures in market gardens and farms in order to meet the following needs/wants:
  • production of high quality, high value food 
  • cash crops from secondary/ tertiary polyculture partner species
  • improvement of soil fertility
  • provision of biomass for use as mulch
  • timber supply for use as vegetable supports and larger round wood material for farm infrastructure
  • enhanced levels of biodiversity

Some of the resident wildlife from our permaculture market garden. 

Why should you take part ?

​This is an excellent opportunity if you are considering starting a garden and/or are interested in ways to provide affordable healthy food whilst increasing biodiversity.

As a participant of this study -

  • You will gain valuable insight into what it takes to actually run a market garden. As well as the practical skills you will develop, we'll dedicate time each week to covering essential theory including site design and implementation, plant propagation, polyculture management, basic botany, record keeping, harvesting, irrigation, marketing and advertising, and budgeting/financial planning. 
  • Enrollment to the 6 month program entitles you to participate in courses and training events that take place during the program. 
  • You will be contributing to an area of research where little information exists i.e the productivity of polycultures and associated biodiversity dynamics. 
  • This study will be published online and freely available to all for future reference and you will be credited accordingly.
  • You will be spending time in a truly unique area of the world, working as part of a dynamic team of fellow enthusiasts in an inspiring environment.

2015 team in the gardens  

Where will you be?

The project is based in the town of Shipka, Bulgaria on the foothills of the Central Balkan mountain range in the Rose Valley. It's an area of high biodiversity, beautiful countryside and historical sites of global, cultural and scientific significance. The project site is located on an abandoned piece of agricultural land on the western outskirts of the town that we call the Paulownia Garden. See Map for Paulownia Garden Location.

Shipka Town - home to Balkan Ecology Project 

You'll also be learning from our existing garden, a 10 year old residential property with a highly productive and well established forest garden composed of over 400 species of plants. Our central garden is a good example of small scale intensive ecological design and includes examples of rainwater harvesting, grey water reed beds, wildlife ponds, multiple composting facilities and hosts a small plant nursery. We practice various methods of biological vegetable production including guild planting and crop rotation, and rear pigs, chickens and rabbits from this property.

The Home Garden

How to take part?

The study will run from April 1st - September 30th. Ideally you will be able to commit to the project for the full duration of time. We are also willing to accept applications for shorter periods of time if you feel passionate about joining the project but cannot dedicate 6 months.

The contribution for joining the study for the full 6 month period ( April 1st - September 30th) is €650. This includes rent and bills for the whole period and admission to all courses and events held during those dates.

If you would like to participate for less than the full 6 months the fee is €150 per month, including rent and bills.

Once we have received your registration we will contact you and arrange a Skype meeting to talk through the process and answer any questions that may arise.

Following this, if you decide you would like to take part, the fee for the duration of your stay should be paid in full to secure your place. Payment can be made via PayPal (processing fees apply ) or bank transfer in £,€ or BGN.


Our self catering volunteer house is basic but comfortable in a beautiful location at the edge of Shipka and around 15 - 20 minutes walk away from the project site. The house has Wi-Fi internet, a shared kitchen and bathrooms and a garden. ​

The Volunteer House -  a view from the east 

Fruits and vegetables produced from the gardens are available to you from June onwards, and quality products such as eggs, milk, cheese, honey and meat can be purchased from local producers. The cost of living is relatively low here and estimates of living costs based on the experience of previous participants is between €90 - €120 per month.

There is plenty to do around Shipka and our location is perfect for exploring. The wild coasts of the Black and Adriatic Sea are just a few hours away, extensive trails deep into the Balkan mountains start from your doorstep. Istanbul, Bucharest and Thessaloniki are a bus ride away and there are great day trips includng Koprinka Lake, Kalofer waterfalls, Buzludja and Etara living Museum to name but a few.

Why are we undertaking this study ?

Industrial agricultural practices often result in destruction of habitat for many organisms. We believe this is unnecessary, and want to provide healthier models of agriculture that can provide nutritious affordable food while at the same time promoting biodiversity and general ecosystem health.

Industrial methods are heavily researched and funded, and there is a general belief among many farmers that this is the only practical way of operating. Following 12 years of cultivating polyculture gardens we are seeing that small scale biologically cultivated polyculture gardens are a realistic and practical way of providing food for humans whilst preserving biodiversity in the environment. Furthermore we believe this type of agriculture can help create thriving local economies that strengthen community and enhance the amenity value of an area.

Little data exists showing the productive capacity of polyculture systems and the economic viability of them. There is a big need to fill this gap and provide solid data and concise coherent models that can be replicated easily and provide real solutions to the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. This project intends to go some of the way in filling this gap.

Registration is now open. Register here.

Here's what previous year's participants said!

Last years polyculture study team 

"Taking part in the Polyculture Study was a life-changing and inspiring time for me. I learned loads about permaculture, about Bulgaria and to reconnect with the simple things in life. On top of that Paul, Sophie and their kids are awesome people! I'd recommend this to anyone wanting to learn more about permaculture, experiencing rural life or just thinking of a change of career and lifestyle!" - Ute Villavicencio

"I took part in the 2016 Polyculture Market Garden Study with the Balkan Ecology Project. I started without much knowledge of gardening at all, but the hands-on work at the study sites, alongside the weekly theory lessons, helped me build an understanding of permaculture principles. By putting these into practice, I learnt how to create a productive polyculture market garden, and how to apply sustainable, eco-friendly design to a plot of land.
I also had time to complete an online Introduction to Permaculture course, travel to other Bulgarian towns on weekends, walk in the mountains and work in the home garden. Paul, Sophie and the boys are wonderfully warm, supportive and knowledgeable hosts, the study team were fantastic and Shipka is a very special place. I highly recommend getting involved! " - Marika Wanklyn

" Being a part of the Polyculture Study was a very special period of my life. I realized how inspiring it is to be in touch with soil and plants, and creatures inhabiting the garden I worked in, and also to be in good touch with the people I worked with. I am happy to have had this opportunity to support the Study and the wonderful family behind it, and to be supported by them in return." Anna Boncheva

    Want to learn how to create regenerative landscapes?  Join us this summer for our Regenerative Landscape Design Course.

    We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens. Delivery to all over Europe available from Nov - March

    Monday, 23 January 2017

    The Early Polleniser Polyculture - A Support Polyculture for Orchards, Farms and Gardens

    We're extending our Polyculture Project to include experimental perennial polycultures. Our aim is to develop models that are low cost to establish and maintain, can produce healthy affordable nutritious food and will enhance biodiversity.

    This spring we'll be including the Early Polleniser Polyculture as presented here. The design aims to provide pollination support for farms and gardens, yields of nutritious fruits and nuts, valuable nesting sites for endangered native bees, and spectacular flower displays to shake off the winter blues :)

    As the title suggests the primary purpose of the Early Polleniser Polyculture is to provide an early source of pollen/nectar to a wide diversity of pollinating insects. The majority of the plants in this polyculture bloom when there is little other sources of nectar/pollen available. This encourages pollinating insects in and around our gardens to fulfill their vital role when the crops (particularly fruit trees) start to flower in the early spring.

    The polyculture also provides a source of produce in its own right and with proper cultivar selection and plant care, should provide high yields of nutritious fruits and nuts as well as habitat for a wide range of wildlife and pollinators.

    The Early Polleniser Polyculture 

    Before we go any further I'll quickly clarify the meaning of the term Polleniser.

    A polleniser (sometimes pollenizer, pollinizer or polliniser) is simply a plant that provides pollen. The word pollinator is often mistakenly used instead of polleniser, but a pollinator is the biotic agent that moves the pollen, such as bees, moths, bats, and birds. Bees are thus often referred to as 'pollinating insects'.

     Bee (Pollinator) and flowering plant (Polleniser) 

    Flowering Period 

    All species included in the polyculture apart from Trifolium repens - White Clover, flower during the months of January - March and provide valuable pollen or nectar forage for bees and other pollinators during this period.

    Early Polleniser Guild species in flower 

    Flowering Periods
    Pollen/Nectar Availability
    Species JanFeb MarSpecies JanFeb Mar
    Cornus mas
    Cornelian Cherry
    Bellis perennis
    Corylus avellana
    Primula vulgaris
    Mahonia aquifolium
    Oregon Grape
    Scilla bifolia
    Alpine Squill
    Chaenomeles speciosa
    Japanese Quince
    Galanthus gracilis
    Alnus cordata
    Italian Alder
    Corydalis bulbosa
    Crested Lark

    Design Considerations

    Design Goals -  As well as pollination support, wildlife habitat and fruit production the design goals include 
    • For the polyculture to be functional on marginal sites i.e shady areas, low fertility soils, areas exposed to wind. The early polleniser guild is primarily a support polyculture with the primary function of providing main crops with pollination support so we may not want to allocate the most productive land to it. 
    •  That the polyculture should have relatively low time/cost inputs. Once established the polyculture should require little to no external fertility and approx. 5-7 hrs of maintenance per year in the late autumn. (not including harvest times). Maintenance and management of this polyculture is further discussed below.  
    • That the polyculture can be of use on a small and broad scale. The design presented above represents one unit and can work well "stand alone" in any garden. Multiple units of this polyculture can also be used in orchards and farms to provide better pollination coverage for the crops. (see layout options below)

    Light and Aspect  - All of the plants included tolerate some shade or utilise light when other plants are not in demand of it. The polyculture can therefore be positioned on marginal areas with lower light levels whilst still serving a purpose, however if you would like to obtain maximum pollinator attraction and a higher yield of fruits and nuts, choose a site with at least 6 - 8 hrs a day and orientate from east - west.

    Water - Optimal irrigation is a key to healthy and productive plants. This polyculture is not well suited to semi wetlands and areas with a high water table and will not thrive in very dry areas with no access to irrigation. In dry climates irrigation will be essential but selecting a position for the polyculture that maximizes the absorption of rainfall will help considerably and can be achieved by planting on contour and using simple earthworks to keep rain water around the root zones of plants.

    N.B. All of the plants are relatively drought tolerant but the fruiting plants will not be high yielding without proper irrigation.

    Access - Access from within the polyculture is required for pruning, weeding and harvesting. Two 50 cm wide paths running within and parallel to each other provide this access. The periphery of the polyculture should also be accessible from the outside.  

    Pollinator Habitat - Native bees are very important pollinators and are some the most endangered species in our ecosystems . Including habitat for the bees to nest as well as providing good quality forage is essential,  accordingly this polyculture includes bee nesting habitat, but having other such habitat around a site is recommended.

    Species Selection - Our plant selection takes into account the following;
    • Climatic compatibility with the site
    • Drought tolerance
    • Shade Tolerance
    • Early nectar/pollen provision
    • Other benefits to wildlife and production for humans
    • Flowering periods that do not have significant overlap with crops on the site.  
    • Shrub species that respond well to regular pruning/coppicing   

    Proximity to crops - Bees will forage where high quality food is available and presumably shorter foraging trips are both safer and more energy-efficient for all bees. Studies show that Honey Bees - Apis spp. will forage many kms away from nesting sites. Bumblebees - Bombus spp. and most solitary bees will typically forage much shorter distances, according to some reports 100 m - 800 m.

    Bees from the gardens (photos by Peter Alfrey)

    Given that there is little consensus within studies of pollinator foraging behaviour, it's difficult to state how far from the crops and to what density this polyculture should be used to achieve the best pollination results. As a presumptive guide, in areas where suitable forage and nesting habitat is lacking assume a beneficial radius of 100 - 300 m  and in areas where there are lots of established early forage and nesting sites assume a beneficial radius of 500 m - 1000 m.  You can never really have too much early pollinator forage available, but you can have too little. Priorities of budget and time, and the crops that are being grown are other factors that will guide unit quantity and crop proximity decisions.

    It's worth noting that plants are in competition for pollinators attention and for this reason the flowering period of the plants in the polyculture do not overlap significantly with crop plants.

    Location/Layout  -  The polyculture unit presented above can work well as a stand alone unit in any garden. Multiple units of this polyculture can also be used in orchards and farms to provide better pollination coverage for the crops. Below you can find three suggested layouts for the broad scale application of this polyculture 1.Border, Island and 3 Alley.

    1.Border Layout - The polyculture can be planted on the inside of a fence or outside of a track to form a "wrap around" for the entire orchard/market garden etc. or for subdivision boundaries within a site.  Being composed of shade tolerant plants the polyculture will, to some extent, function regardless of aspect. Each unit as pictured above can be repeated to form a border planting. 

    2. Island Layout -  The island layout intersperses the units around the site. For already developed sites the islands can be positioned in difficult to access nooks and corners, shady spots and areas of marginal value, or on the periphery of crops that will benefit the most from enhanced pollination.      

    3. Alley Layout - The alley layout entails planting the polycultures in an alley cropping or orchard system at intervals among the main crops. For example, an apple and pear orchard may have every 10th row composed of early polleniser units.

    So lets take a closer look at the species involved and the management and maintenance tasks required for this polyculture

    The Polyculture Components 

    I've divided the  polyculture into 5 main components based on the purpose that each component serves.

    1. Fruiting Trees and Shrubs
    2. Ground Cover
    3. Early Flowering Bulbs 
    4. Fertility Plants 
    5. Pollinator Habitat 

    1. Fruiting Trees and Shrubs - The Polyculture Components 

    The fruiting trees and shrubs component include Cornus mas and Corylus avellana in the upper canopy, and Chaenomeles speciosa and Mahonia japonica in the lower canopy/shrub layer and are the main productive units in the guild. With good cultivar selection these plants can provide yields of excellent fruits and nuts.

    Fruiting Trees and Shrubs
    SpeciesFamily LayerCultivars USDA Hardiness Soil pH Space (HxW)Light Root Behaviour
    Cornus mas
    Cornelian Cherry
    CornaceaeCanopy available 5Acid
    5m x 5mFull Sun
    Med Shade
    Reticulated root ball with deep taproot
    Corylus avellana
    Betulaceae Canopy available 4 - 8Acid
    6m x 3mFull Sun
    Med Shade
    A spreading root system associated with spreading basal growth
    Mahonia aquifolium
    Oregon Grape
    2m x 1.5mFull Sun
    Med Shade
    Full Shade
    Deep anchor roots
    Suckers freely
    Chaenomeles speciosa
    Japanese Quince
    RosaceaeShrubavailable 5Acid
    3m x 5m Full Sun
    Med Shade
    Full Shade
    Roots extending deep into the subsoil
    Suckers freely 

    Cornus mas - Cornelian Cherry

    Species Overview - Cornus mas is one of my favorite plants. The hum of the bees under our Cornus mas trees on a sunny day in late winter is just one of the reasons I love this plant.  It's a  medium sized hardy tree and an excellent polleniser producing a bounty of flowers rich in nectar from Feb - March. The plant is self fertile and the flowers go on to form wonderful grape shaped fruits in late summer delicious when fully ripe.

    Four seasons of Cornus mas from our home garden.

    Uses: Excellent fruit when ripe and great for making cordial or syrups. Nutritional analysis indicates that Cornelian cherry juices are rich in various essential elements and might be considered as an important dietary mineral supplementation. There are some fabulous cultivars available with larger sweeter fruit.
    The seeds can be roasted, ground into a powder and used as a coffee substitute and a small amount of edible oil can be extracted from the seed.  A dye is obtained from the bark and the leaves are a good source of tannin. The wood is very hard, it is highly valued by turners and has a history of use for tools, machine parts, etc. We use the twigs to feed rabbits and goats all year around. 

    Biodiversity - One of the earliest trees to flower, attracting a wide range of pollen and nectar feeding invertebrates from Feb - March. We often see great tits, blue tits and long tailed tits in our trees during the winter. I'm not sure whether they are feeding on the buds, dried fruit  or perhaps the invertebrates sheltering under the bark and crevices.

    For more on this plant see our Cornelian Cherry plant profile 

    Corylus avellana - Hazelnut

    Species Overview - A fast growing deciduous shrub with rounded leaves, producing yellow male catkins in the early spring followed by delicious edible nuts in the autumn. Typically reaching 3–8 m tall but may reach 15 m. 

    Corylus avellana  - Hazelnut 

    Uses: One of the finest temperate nuts eaten roasted or raw. The wood from hazel is also commonly used. Soft, easy to split but not very durable it is mainly used for small items of furniture, hurdles, wattles, basketry, pea sticks etc. The tree is very suitable for coppice. The twigs can be used to feed rabbits and goats all year around   The nuts also contain 65% of a non-drying oil that can be used in paints, cosmetics etc. The finely ground seeds are used as an ingredient of face masks in cosmetics. 

    Biodiversity - The pollen-bearing catkins can be available to pollinators from as early as late Jan - late March. Hazel leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths. Hazel nuts are used by dormice to fatten up for hibernation and in spring the leaves are a good source of food for caterpillars, which dormice also eat. Hazel nuts are also eaten by woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits, wood pigeons, jays and a number of small mammals.

    For more on this plant see our Hazelnut plant profile We also have a range of excellent cultivars available

    Chaenomeles speciosa - Japanese Quince

    Species Overview - A thorny deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub native to eastern Asia, usually growing to about 2 m tall and generally exhibiting a rounded outline, but is somewhat variable in form. The plants establish a very dense crown with a tangled jumble of branches which are either spiny or with spurs. The flowers come before the leaves and are usually red, but may be white or pink. The fruit is fragrant and looks similar to a small apple although some cultivars have much larger pearish shaped fruits. The leaves do not change colour in the autumn.

    Chaenomeles speciosa - Japanese Quince 

    Uses - The fruits don't make great eating and are generally extremely hard but following a cold spell I found the Japanese Quince softened enough to squeeze like a lemon, and the juice being very acidic makes them an excellent alternative to lemon juice. Another plus for this fruit is that they have a delicious and somewhat addictive aroma that lingers around for a few days resembling that of pineapples, lemons and vanilla. We leave the fruits in the car or around a room to act as a natural air freshener.

    Biodiversity - The flowers are attractive to a wide range of pollen and nectar feeding invertebrates from March- April, sometimes in February. With regular pruning the shrubs become dense providing suitable nesting habitat for birds such as wren - Troglodytes troglodytes, chiffchaff - Phylloscopus collybita and robin - Erithacus rubecula. The diets of these birds include some common vegetable pests and can help keep pest populations in check.

    For more on Chaeonomeles spp. see our previous blog article here.

    Mahonia aquifolium - Oregon Grape

    Species Overview - A great little shade tolerant evergreen shrub growing to 1 m tall by 1.5 m wide that can cope with most soils and thrive in shady spots where many other plants succumb. It is resistant to summer drought and tolerates wind. The plant produces dense clusters of yellow flowers in early spring, followed by dark bluish-black berries. Once the plant gets going it's very vigorous and produces many suckers.

    Mahonia aquifolium - Oregon Grape

    Uses -  The small purplish-black fruits can be used to make jelly or juice that can be fermented to make wine. The inner bark of the larger stems and roots of Oregon-grape yield a yellow dye; the berries give purple dye. The holly-like evergreen leaves are sometimes used by florists to add to bouquets. It makes a great under story shrub for densely shaded areas.

    Biodiversity - Excellent early-flowering nectar source for bees and bumblebees.  The nectar and pollen may be taken by blackcaps, blue tits and house sparrows. Berries are eaten by blackbirds and mistle thrushes.  Good caterpillar food plant.

    For more on this plant see our Mahonia aquifolium plant profile

    Fruiting Trees and Shrubs - Unit Management 

    The table below indicates the quantity of trees and shrubs per unit and some information on how to establish and maintain this component of the polyculture.

    Fruiting Trees and Shrubs - Management
    SpeciesProduceQuantity per unitYield at maturityMaintenanceHarvest PeriodEstablishing
    Cornus mas Fruit1 plant50+kgPrune- Lift lower branches to allow light in bottom layersAug-Sep
    Planting can take place from October to March
    Apply top dressing of compost and mulch
    Keep area around plants weed free for first two years
    Irrigate when dry
    Corylus avellanaNut1 plant5 - 10 kgRemove basal growthAug-Sep
    Chaenomeles speciosaFruit2 plants2-3 kgPrune to shape, Cut back suckers and use for mulchSep -Oct
    Mahonia japonicaFruit2 plants500gRemove basal growth and use for mulch Aug - Sep

    Planting scheme for Fruiting Trees and Shrub component

    2. Ground Cover - The Polyculture Components 

    The ground cover plants include Primula vulgaris and Bellis perennis, both herbaceous perennials with low growing and spreading habits that over time should form large patches of cover under and around the shrubs and trees. A ground cover can prevent unwanted plants from moving in and protects the soil from erosion.

    SpeciesFamily LayerCultivars USDA Hardiness Soil pH Space (HxW)Light Root Behaviour
    Primula vulgaris
    PrimulaceaeGround n/a 5Acid
    0.3m x 0.3m Full Sun
    Light Shade
    Clump forming and slowly spreading
    Bellis perennis
    Asteraceae or CompositaeGround available 4Acid
    0.2m x 0.2mFull Sun
    Light Shade
    Shallow rooted, Rhizomatous 

    Primula vulgaris

    Species Overview - A herbaceous perennial, loving cool, damp banks and glades, and thriving in coppice woodland where they can form a stunningly attractive carpet. They like wet soil best, with lots of shade in the summer. The drier and hotter the climate, the more they need shade. Summer drought is not a big problem as long as they get plenty of moisture in autumn and the first part of the year. 

    Primula vulgaris - Primrose ground cover under a Cornus mas in our garden

    Uses: Both flowers and leaves are edible, the flavour ranging between mild lettuce and more bitter salad greens. The leaves can also be used for tea, and the young flowers can be made into primrose wine.

    Biodiversity - Primroses are one of the earliest spring flowers. They may be found flowering in warm sheltered nooks as early as the end of January, although most flower from March to May. Because they flower so early in the year, they provide a vital source of nectar at a time when there are few other flowers around for insects to feed on such as adult Brimstone butterflies which have hibernated over the winter and often emerge on warmer winter days.

    For more on this plant see our Primula vulgaris plant profile

    Bellis perennis 

    Species Overview - An abundant, small, low-lying herbaceous perennial plant with white flowers with yellow centres and pink flecks, that appear most of the year, except in freezing conditions. The plants habitually colonise lawns and grassland. 

    Bellis perennis - Daisy growing in our lawn 

    Uses: May be used as a potherb and young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked, noting that the leaves become increasingly astringent with age. Flower buds and petals can be eaten raw in sandwiches, soups and salads. It is also used as a tea and as a vitamin supplement. Medicinally, the plant is known for its healing properties and can be used on small wounds, sores and scratches to speed up the healing process. The spreading habit of the plant makes it a good ground cover option.

    Biodiversity - A valuable addition to grassland areas managed for wildflowers and wildlife attracting a good deal of attention from pollinators when little other forage is available.

    For more on this plant see our Bellis perennis plant profile 

    Ground Cover - Unit Management 

    The table below indicates the quantity ground cover plants per unit and some information on how to establish and maintain this component of the polyculture.

    Ground Cover - Management
    Species Produce Quantity per unitYield at maturity Maintenance Harvest Period Establishing
    Bellis perennis Edible flowers 10 plants n/an/aAll year
    Planting can take place from September to June
    Keep weed free for the first year - Irrigate when dry
    Primula vulgaris Edible flowers 10 plants n/aDivide when crowded Feb - April

    Planting scheme for ground cover is mixed patches of the species between the shrubs and trees

    3. Early Flowering Bulbs - The Polyculture Components

    The early flowering bulbs flower in January - February taking advantage of the light pouring through the leafless tree and shrub canopy. These plants offer nectar and pollen rewards to pollinators venturing out during the warmer late winter days. The bulbs also serve to retain nutrients in the rhizosphere, the top 10- 20 cm of soil where most plants feed and the majority of the microbiological activity takes place. They do so by up taking nutrients that would otherwise wash through the soil with the winter rains and snow melt, and fixing these nutrients to their leaf and flowering tissue. When the plants wither and decompose in the spring just when the other plants awaken from winter dormancy, the tissue is assimilated back into the rhizosphere, eventually to become available to the other plants. You can consider these plants a nutrient store preventing minerals leaching out of the soil and locking them away for when they are needed later. We've selected 3 native plants commonly found in the woodlands and hedgerows in our area.

    Early Flowering Bulbs
    SpeciesFamily LayerCultivars USDA Hardiness Soil pH Space (HxW)Light Root Behaviour
    Scilla bifolia
    Alpine Squill
    AsparagaceaeUnderground available 5Acid
    0.2m x 0.1mFull Sun
    Short fleshy root systems - good for the early winter utilisation of nutrients in the soil that would otherwise wash away with snow melt and rains
    Galanthus gracilis
    AmaryllidaceaeUnderground available 5Acid
    0.2m x 0.1mFull Sun
    Corydalis bulbosa
    Crested Lark
    Papaveraceae Underground available 5Acid
    0.2m x 0.1mFull Sun

    Scilla bifolia - Alpine Squill

    Species Overview - A herbaceous perennial growing from an underground bulb. A native to Europe and western Russia south through Turkey to Syria. The plant is found in shady places, woods of beech or deciduous trees, and mountain grasslands.

    Scilla bifolia - Alpine Squill growing through the mulch on the forest floor

    Uses: I could not find much info on this elegant little beauty. It grows all over the woodlands in our region and we inherited many patches in our garden perhaps cultivated from the wild by previous owners or remnants from the wild past of the land.  I did find one report stating that ingestion may cause severe discomfort so I doubt they taste as good as they look :)

    Biodiversity - Early source of nectar for pollinators when little else is in flower

    For more on this plant see our Scilla bifolia plant profile.

    Galanthus gracilis - Snowdrop

    Species Overview -  Early spring flowering bulbs, even sometimes emerging through the snow in the late winter, providing a very welcome source of food for bees and other pollinators. Popular as an ornamental plant, snowdrops are often cultivated in gardens and parks but are also a great choice for light or deep woodland ground cover.

    Galanthus gracilis - Snowdrop from our garden

    Uses:  The plant has insecticidal properties and can be used against pests in the orders Coleoptera (beetles), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and Hemiptera (true bugs including aphids and leafhoppers). Common snowdrop contains an alkaloid, galanthamine, which has been approved for use in the management of Alzheimer’s disease in a number of countries. The plant and bulb are poisonous to humans and should not be consumed.

    Biodiversity:  Snowdrops are pollinated by bees during February and March.  The miniature white seeds produce substances which attract ants. These insects collect and transfer seed via underground tunnels.

    For more on this plant see our Galanthus gracilis plant profile 

    Corydalis bulbosa - Spring Fumewort

    Species Overview - A subtle but stunningly beautiful bulbous perennial, blooming from February. A spring ephemeral with foliage that appears in spring and dies down to its tuberous rootstock in summer. The plant spreads and forms a pretty white to purple carpet.

    Corydalis bulbosa growing through the forest mulch 

    Uses: A good choice for borders, under planting ​or the woodland garden. Fumewort has been used as a painkiller in Chinese medicine for over 1,000 year. The root or tuber is used internally as a sedative for insomnia and as a stimulant and painkiller, especially in painful menstruation or traumatic injury. Caution should be exercised when using this plant for medicinal purposes as the plant is reportedly toxic.

    Biodiversity - A reliable and early source of food for bees.  Corydalis spp. are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species (butterflies), especially the clouded Apollo.

    For more on this plant see our Corydalis bulbosa plant profile 

    Early Flowering Bulbs - Unit Management 

    The table below indicates the quantity of early flowering bulbs per unit and some information on how to establish and maintain this component of the polyculture.

    Early Flowering Bulbs - Management
    Species Produce Quantity per unitYield at maturity Maintenance Harvest Period Establishing
    Scilla bifolia Flowers 30 bulbs n/a
    Divide when crowded
    n/aPlant in Spring or Autumn 10-12cm deep
    Galanthus gracilis Flowers 30 bulbs n/an/aPlant in Spring or Autumn 10-12cm deep
    Corydalis bulbosaFlowers 30 bulbs n/an/aPlant in Spring or Autumn 10-12cm deep

    Scattered plantings of early flowering bulbs 

    4. Fertility Plants - The Polyculture Components

    The fertility plants include two very different nitrogen fixing species. The first of these is Alnus cordata, a tree that can grow to 25 m high but should be maintained as a small shrub within this polyculture. Trimmed each autumn, the biomass can be applied to the base of the neighboring fruit bearing plants. The second plant Trifolium repens is creeping herbaceous perennial that can be sown into the pathways, mowed annually and applied to the fruiting plants as mulch.

    For more on Nitrogen fixing plants and how they work see our previous post here.

    Fertility Plants
    SpeciesFamily LayerCultivars USDA Hardiness Soil pH Space (HxW)Light Root Behaviour
    Alnus cordata
    Italian Alder
    Betulaceae Shrubn/a5Acid
    25m x 8mFull Sun
    Med Shade
    Deep taproot with dense subsidiary rootlets
    Trifolium repens
    White Clover
    FabaceaeGround available 5Acid
    0.1m x 1mFull Sun
    Light Shade
    Stoloniferous - Rooting from creeping stems above ground 

    Alnus cordata - Italian Alder

    Species Overview -  A medium-sized tree growing up to 25 m tall. The leaves are deciduous but with a very long season in leaf, from April to December. Like other members of Alnus genus, it is able to fix nitrogen from the air. It thrives on much drier soils than most other alders, and grows rapidly even under very unfavourable circumstances, which renders it extremely valuable for landscape planting on poor soils and heavily compacted sites.

    Uses:   The tree is sometimes used as an ornamental in large gardens and parks for its majestic appearance and fast growth, or as a road-side or street tree, because it establishes rapidly in exposed positions, is reasonably compact and tolerates dry conditions as well as a dusty atmosphere. It is also commonly grown as a windbreak. Its timber can be used for construction purposes in wet conditions, since alder wood is virtually resistant to decay under water. Its poles have been used as foundation poles for the houses and bridges of Venice. It can also be used for firewood.  The plant makes a medium to large bonsai, a quick grower it responds well to pruning with branches ramifying well and leaf size reducing quite rapidly.

    Biodiversity - Alnus spp. shed pollen from catkins in late winter and early spring some of which bees and other pollinators feed upon.

    Nitrogen Fixing Potential - Alnus cordata is not listed on the USDA database but others species in this genus are classified by USDA as being a HIGH Nitrogen fixer with estimated yields of +160lbs/acre or +72kg/4050m² or 0.018g /m2.

    For more on this plant see our Alnus cordata plant profile

    Trifolium repens - White Clover 

    Species Overview - White clover is a dwarf, prostrate, mat-forming perennial that can spread via stems which freely root along the ground at the nodes. Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Prefers moist soils in light shade, but tolerates full sun and moderately dry soils.

    Trifolium repens ground cover 

    Uses: White clover has been described as the most important forage legume of the temperate zones. Besides making an excellent forage crop for livestock, clovers are a valuable survival food: they are high in proteins and although not easy for humans to digest raw, this is easily fixed by boiling the harvested plants for 5–10 minutes. Dried flower heads and seedpods can also be ground up into a nutritious flour and mixed with other foods, or can be steeped into an herbal tea. The plant's ability to spread aggressively by creeping stems makes it good for ground cover and its tolerance of foot traffic make this my favourite plant for pathways.

    Biodiversity -  The plants provide a source of nectar and pollen for a number of native bees as well as the honey bee.

    Nitrogen Fixing Potential - The species is classified by USDA as being a HIGH Nitrogen fixer with estimated yields of +160lbs/acre or +72kg/4050m² or 0.018g /m2.

    Other sources state up to 545 kg of N per hectare per year is possible.

    For more on this plant see our Trifolium repens plant profile.

    Fertility Plants - Unit Management 

    The table below indicates the quantity of fertility plants per unit and some information on how to establish and maintain this component of the polyculture.

    Fertility Plants - Management
    Species Produce Quantity per unitYield at maturity Maintenance Harvest Period Establishing
    Alnus cordata Biomass/ N input 4 plants n/aReduce by 50% in the 2nd spring and apply as mulch
    Thereafter trim regrowth every autumn and apply as mulch
    Planting can take place from October to March
    Keep weed free for first two years - Irrigate when dry
    Trifolium repensN Input - 0.014g /m2 per year12gn/aMow in the autumn n/aSow 1.5 g /m2 in the spring onto tilled pathways 
    Trifolium repens sown into the pathways and Alnus cordata pruned to shrub size 

    5. Pollinator Habitat - The Polyculture Components

    Pollinators provide an important link in our ecosystems by moving pollen between flowers and ensuring the growth of seeds and fruits. Native bees form the most important group of pollinators and as I'm sure you've heard they're currently threatened by changes in our landscapes, especially the loss of nesting sites. The general desire for neatness results in the removal of bare ground, dead trees, and untidy corners of rough grass—all important nesting sites for bees. Our polyculture design takes this into account and includes some important nesting habitats for the bees, namely logs, bare earth patches and rock crevices.

    Water is also necessary for pollinators and including a small pond will be very beneficial, even essential if the site does not have a water source nearby. For this reason we've included a small tyre pond in the centre of the polyculture.

    Tyre pond and log from our Market Garden

    Wildlife Habitat - Management
    Item FunctionQuantity per unitMaintenance Establishing
    Bird nesting boxPest control1Replace when worn Add when Cornus mas is large enough fix a box to the main trunk. 1 - 3 m from ground
    Tyre Pond Water1Thin out aquatic plants and clear out dead organic matter annually Dig a 1.10m diameter hole to fit a car tyre , line tyre, add plants and water, line boundary with rocks and plant local aquatic species into the pond
    Rock Border with sand infill Bee Nesting Sites
    Reptile basking
    1Pull weeds from between cracks to allow access to nesting sites Lay a 50cm wide strip of of landscapers mat around the edge of the pond and cover with rocks of various sizes. Include large flat surfaced rocks. Fill the crevices in the rocks with sand
    Logs Bee Nesting 1Replace when decomposed Place old logs in a sunny area with a few upright, like dead trees, to ensure some deadwood habitat stays dry.
    Drill holes on the southeast side of the log
    Bare earthBee Nesting 1m2 move 1m2 mat each year Lay a 50cm x 50cm dark, heavy mat on a patch on ground away from the access routes. Move the mat to a new location when the vegetation has died back, and lightly till the soil.  
    Logs, Tyres ponds, Rock borders and strips of bare earth provide bee nesting sites and beneficial habitat

    All components of the Early Polleniser Polyculture

    Design Variations

    The plants and habitat in this polyculture can be assembled in many ways. You can consider the plants and habitat listed above as a "palette" from which you can create many forms.

    Here are a few variations on the design for where space is limited.

    The first design is a 20 m2 circle with all of the plantings fitting under the mature canopy of the Cornus mas. It's very similar to the first early polleniser polyculture I designed during the development of a 5 ha polyculture/permaculture orchard  I was working on a few years ago. The plan was to include some early forage perennials and habitat for bees and other pollinators to support the fruit trees and shrubs, and I was pondering how best to integrate these plants. As the design developed it turned out there were odd spaces where the tree alleys converged with access tracks and the headlands. The spaces were not big enough for fruit trees to fit without blocking access. They were quite evenly dispersed across the site and seemed perfect for placing the polyculture.

     Early Polleniser Design - 20 m2    

     Under plantings of the Early Polleniser Design - 20 m2    

    The plants can also be planted denser for hedge row plantings and sub division hedges. The following planting scheme would work well for hedging with a 20 cm strip of flowering bulbs and ground cover running parallel with the hedge. The Cornelian Cherry and Hazelnuts may be left to grow out.

    Early Polleniser Hedge - An 8 m stretch of single row hedging

    Here's a list of other species that provide early nectar/pollen rewards to bees and other pollinators. I've not personally grown all of the plants from this list but they seem suitable.

    The Polyculture Project 

    It's well worth remembering that this is not a tried and tested design. Based on our experience and practice we are confident that the polyculture will meet the design goals we have set, but only experience of the living system will reveal the true strengths and weaknesses and where improvements can be made. Therefore, we'll be planting out 3 units of the design in our upcoming perennial polculture study in Shipka this spring and recording the performance over the coming years.

    Later in the year we'll be posting a blog on our experience establishing the polyculture and aim to lay out step by step how to prepare the site, plant out, prune, irrigate and harvest.

    Illustration of our new Perennial Polyculture Trials Garden coming in 2017 

    Keep in touch

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    All of the plants from the Early Polleniser Polyculture are available from our Bionursery. We offer discounts to farms and orchards. 

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    Acknowledgement and gratitude to Ken Fern for establishing the excellent plants for a future database that we use extensively both for rearing and caring for our plants and for writing our plant profiles, and to Martin Crawford, Director of Agroforestry Research Trust for the excellent quarterly publication Agroforestry News. I highly recommend subscription to this journal as essential reading for all who are interested in temperate tree crops, agroforestry, agroecology and perennial polycultures.

    Web References
    • Bee Foraging Research -
    • Bee Nesting Sites -
    • file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/Alnus_cordata.pdf
    • Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 2: Ecological Design And Practice For Temperate-Climate Permaculture by Dave Jacke , Eric Toensmeier

    We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens.