Owl pellets

Owl perch and entrance

Careful observers will notice where our visiting owl(s) have been perching. Not too difficult to see where they’ve been getting in.

Signs of birds perching on my Pole Lathe.

Signs of birds perching on my Pole Lathe.

There have been signs of a frequent visitor to our polytunnel over the Autumn.


A lot of bird droppings.

The question was what kind of bird?

A similar thing happened a couple of years ago when we were lucky enough to have a barn owl stay in a barn for the winter months.

I’ve been so tempted to think that we could have another owl. Certainly a Tawny owl has been waking me up at night recently. Very close by. Calling.

Tawny’s are the ones that go Twit Twoooo.

Could it be that a Tawny Owl has found a good place to hunt for food in our polytunnel? I’ve no doubt there are mice and other small rodents in there.

This morning, I couldn’t believe my luck, I found evidence that it is an owl! On the plastic under the hammock stand not one but five owl pellets!

Close up of owl pellet number 4. Is that a tail or spine mixed in with the fur?

Close up of owl pellet number 4. Is that a tail or spine mixed in with the fur?

Owl Pellet number 5. More small bones.

Owl Pellet number 5. More small bones.

One of the pellets, the largest, was still wet!

It’s like a dream come true!

I walked around for the rest of the day with a huge smile on my face. I’d had owl saliva on my hands! How totally cool was that?

The questions are…

How do I find out for sure what kind of owl(s) without camping out in the polytunnel? I have no motion capture camera equipment.

Will dissecting the pellets give me a clue as to which owl(s)? I have no microscope or small animal skeletal knowledge.

What about the different sized pellets? Does that indicate two different types of owls or just different sized meals?

What should I do with my tender plants? It’s kind of getting to the time of year when I should close up the polytunnel ventilation at night.

Grow your own Samphire

Once described as a poor man’s asparagus it’s now a fashionable accompaniment to many a trendy meal. That said it’s delicious too. Salty and crisp.

I’m talking about Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea). It’s an annual that grows in estuaries, marshes and other sea soaked wetland areas. You might know it as glasswort, sea asparagus, sea pickle, sampha or sampkin. Whatever you call it I’d never tried it. Never at least until I saw it for sale in a supermarket. I don’t recall ever seeing it in any of the beaches or estuaries I’d visited. Perhaps I wasn’t looking.

Gosh that stuff is expensive. Anything from £1.73 per 100grams to way over £2.50 per 100grams. So I bought a small handful of the succulent strange looking stems to find out what all the fuss is about.

Well I liked it.

Rather than eat it all I wondered if I could grow the remainder of it. So I planted it. I couldn’t find any instructions on the web on how to plant Samphire from cuttings. So I set up my own experiment…

Ready to pot up Samphire cuttings.

Ready to pot up Samphire cuttings.

Samphire cuttings all potted up and ready to be moved to the window.

Samphire cuttings all potted up carefully around the edge of the pots and ready for the propagator lid to be put on and then to be moved to the window.

Samphire cuttings five weeks later. Big differences in success rate!

Samphire cuttings five weeks later. Big differences in success rate!

Are you wondering about what the difference is between the left and right pots?

About half way through potting up the cuttings I remembered that sometimes with cuttings you take the stem you are potting up back to just under a node. I hadn’t been doing that before (on the left-hand cuttings) so I decided to with the rest (the right half) – using a clean knife to cut the stem just under a node.

I didn’t really know if either technique was going to be successful, or indeed if any would survive. After all I’d purchased these from a supermarket. They had been picked and transported many days previously (all cutting technique advice says to get them into the ground as soon as you can) and it was a few days later that I took them out of my refrigerator and planted them.

I’ve since moved the successful cuttings to the polytunnel where they are getting much more light. The nice dark green colour has returned to the stems.

I am continuing to water with salted water. About one teaspoon of sea salt mixed to one pint of water whenever they look like they need it.

When I pot them up I’ll use a sandier mix (this one had some sand mixed in but I think they could do with more) and keep them separate from the rest of my plants – the others won’t appreciate the salty water.

Will they grow enough to produce seeds or will I have to find a way to keep them growing through the winter? I don’t know. It’s been fun. Though if they fail I might just ask for samphire seeds for Christmas.

Yes it’s August and I’ve just mentioned Christmas …

Layers of a Forest Garden

How many layers in a Forest Garden? It depends on what you count!

Layers? What are you talking about? By layers we mean the different growing heights/spaces of the plants in the Forest Garden. Note height can also mean depth particularly when referring to root crops. How many layers will also depend on the size of your growing space, how old your garden is and what kind of plants you’d like to grow.

The seven (nine) layers of Forest Gardens

Most commonly seven layers of a Forest Garden are referred to. We reckon there are nine. Many of the layers will be multipurpose for example fixing nitrogen, good for bees along with providing a food harvest.

The layers also may or may not exactly fit within their height layers for example plants classed as “shrubs” are sometimes taller than small trees, root vegetables have leaves higher than herbaceous plants etc.

I’ve been designing a new logo and wanted to include all the main layers of our Forest Garden enterprise. What do you think?

Our new logo showing the nine layers of a Forest Garden.

Our new logo showing the nine layers of a Forest Garden.

#1 Canopy: The largest of all the trees. They could be large fruit or nut trees, trees for timber or windbreaks.

#2 Low trees: These are usually fruit or nut trees on dwarfing root stock, or coppiced/pollarded to keep the canopy low.

#3 Shrubs: Multi-stemmed fruit bushes, nitrogen fixing plants or indeed herbs that do not die back at the end of the growing season (like rosemary or lavender).

#4 Herbaceous plants: Herbs. Usually perennial vegetables and herbs or self-seeding biennial or annuals. The leaves and stems all die down at the end of the season with no persistent woody stem above ground during winter.

#5 Rhizosphere: Plants primarily grown for their roots and tubers.

#6 Ground cover: Plants that grow horizontally and therefore protect otherwise exposed soil.

#7 Climbers: Plants like vines that grow vertically often up the low tree or canopy layers.

#8 Fungi: Mushrooms either on inoculated logs, tree stumps or specific mushroom “beds”.

#9 Wildlife/Animals: Habitats for your unpaid workers are an essential consideration of forest gardening too – especially if you intend to eat some of their wares like honey.

For those of you wondering which layer is which, I’ve numbered the layers in the image below (not a popup sorry Wen). Hopefully that will help take some of the guesswork out of it for newbie Forest Gardeners.

For those of you guessing which Forest Garden layer is which this guide will help (can you spot the mistake?).

For those of you guessing which Forest Garden layer is which this guide will help (can you spot the mistake?).

If you are fortunate enough to have a pond, lake or other watery area in your forest garden you open up a whole new load of growing possibilities. The layers though will be similar to the ones described above.

Do I have to have all of the layers in my Forest Garden for it to be a Forest Garden? No. Forest Gardening is the concept of using different heights to your advantage and following nature’s lead. You may not have space for a canopy layer (or the neighbours hedge is effectively doing that job), or you only have space for one small fruiting apple so miss out the shrub layer, or your root layer is in containers and your herbs are growing in a vertical garden. It’s about maximising space and yield with the natural forest as your guide.

Read more about Forest Gardens …

How to build an insect hotel

Also called a bug house, insect house or wildlife stack. The insect hotel is a man made structure that anyone can make that creates “homes” for pollinating insects and other wildlife that may not have nook or cranny to live in the rest of your tidy garden.

We’ve seen insect hotels in all different shapes and sizes. Some are made from stacks of pallets, others small “designer” affairs to be attached to walls more like a piece of art. What they all have in common is that they are filled with a range of materials with varying sized holes for insects, reptiles and solitary bees to crawl into at night or to hibernate in over winter.

I’ve been wanting to create one for absolutely ages but had never gotten round to it. A mixture of not working out where best to place it and not having materials to hand to stuff the crevices. Then a few days ago it was International Day for Biodiversity and I was reminded again of my quest to create a Bug Hotel. This time I WILL do it. Okay so it’s the weekend after and we’ve started. At least though it’s a start.

Where to locate an insect house

Pallet insect house in the gardens at Llanerchaeron House (National Trust).

Pallet insect house in the gardens at Llanerchaeron House (National Trust).

Where you put your insect house will of course depend on the size of the finished hotel and the space you have available. In general terms you want some where that will be warm but not too hot and reasonably sheltered from rain and prevailing winds.

If your completed bug home is going to be large – like a stack of pallets or in our case hollow concrete blocks – you’ll need to find a solid and preferably level bit of ground to put it on as the completed insect hotel will be pretty heavy.

We chose a south facing side of an out building that is reasonably protected from the hottest sun by a beautiful Japanese acer and is close enough to a hedge to the south that it will be protected from the worst of the wind and rain. It’s a pretty sheltered spot close to where we cook, eat and relax on nice days. Which will mean that we will hopefully be able to see our buggy friends come and go from their new houses in a few months time. Who needs TV!

Materials you need to make an insect hotel

It’s best to use things that you already have or can find nearby. We’ve seen other people use man-made materials like plastics in their insect houses along with natural fillers. For us that isn’t an option as we don’t like the way plastics photodegrade (breakdown into smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight) and therefore would be a nightmare of small brittle pieces if we need to move our insect house in the future.

Our Insect Hotel. Made from old hollow concrete blocks and found natural materials.

Made from old hollow concrete blocks and found natural materials.

You’ll need some kind of frame. You can make this out of planks of wood (old shelving for example), pallets or hollow concrete blocks. We had plenty of old hollow concrete blocks around the place so we decide to use them.

You’ll also need a range of materials to arrange in the compartments. We used:

  • broken old bamboo canes,
  • stones and rubble (placed at ground level for toads),
  • dead wood with different sized holes drilled into the end,
  • dried hollow parnsip flower stalks,
  • dried hollow rosebay willow herb stalks,
  • dried hollow cow parsley stalks, and
  • weathered old plywood where they ply was coming apart.
  • As you can see we have a lot of spaces left to fill. We’ll also keep our eyes out for;

  • pine cones
  • other hollow stalks
  • Loose bark
  • broken clay pots
  • corrugated cardboard (and something waterproof to put it in)
  • We’ve also seen straw, hay, sand, wool, leaves and soil put into insect hotels but we don’t have any way to keep those kinds of things in place and out of the reach of nest making birds so we probably won’t include them in this design.

    We topped off the concrete “steps” with butterfly lavender and chives so that the bees are alerted to their possible new homes.

    Homemade willow rooting compound

    Willow sticks for making willow tea - a homemade hormone rooting compound.

    Willow sticks for making willow tea – a homemade hormone rooting compound.

    I had often heard that you can make your own hormone rooting compound from Willow (salix sp.) so after we had coppiced our willow I made sure I had enough left over for a few experiments. The first experiment was willow rooting compound.

    Before the use of synthetic rooting hormone compounds gardeners would make a willow tea to increase the likelihood of their cuttings growing (strike rate). It turns out that what we might call folklore has some scientific backing as willow steeped in water releases indolebutyric acid – a hormone that stimulates root growth, and salicylic acid which triggers the plants defenses and helps protect the plant from pathogens. Pretty cool eh?

    Now I have always been pretty useless at growing box (buxus sp.) from cuttings. It’s something that I’ve tried time after time. After all have you seen the price of decent sized box plant in nurseries? To me it makes sense to try and propagate them from plants you already have.

    After a bit of research I decided to combine the bits of many different willow tea recipes:

    Homemade rooting hormone instructions

    My box cuttings with homemade willow tea root hormone compound.

    My box cuttings with homemade willow tea root hormone compound.

    1. You’ll need a handful of sticks of willow, preferably the ends of the branch as that’s where the growing hormones are. Don’t use dead branches,
    2. Take off all the leaves and cut the sticks into short pieces (so that they’ll fit in your jar),
    3. Put the sticks into a heatproof container with a lid I used an old glass jar,
    4. Fill the jar with hot water so the water covers the sticks- be careful if you are using a glass jar you don’t want the glass to explode if the water is too hot,
    5. Seal and label the jar,
    6. Leave for at least 24 hours and up to two months – I went about a week before I moved onto the next step,
    7. Remove the willow while retaining the willow water,
    8. Put your cuttings in the willow water to drink it overnight,
    9. Plant your cuttings,
    10. Use the rest of the willow water to water the cuttings in if you wish
    11. Look after the plants in the usual way

    They grew well and I am pleased with the result.

    Perhaps you are wondering why a forest gardener is bothering with buxus sempervirens at all, after all it’s slow growing so I probably won’t be around to harvest the wood, doesn’t do much for biodiversity and you certainly can’t eat it. Truth be told I am also a sucker for a formal knot garden and a bit of ornamental topiary and I hope there will be a little space in my garden for those too.

    The second experiment? Artists Charcoal. That’s another story.

    Hanging Strawberry Planter – how to guide

    Our polytunnel in June

    Ginger keeping a close eye on the polytunnel

    Our polytunnel in June

    Our polytunnel in June

    A week or so a go I posted some photos to our facebook page that received a few comments and questions.

    Can you guess what caused all the feedback?

    The hanging strawberry planters made from old guttering :). Yes they are slug free! and yes picking them head height is easy!

    I can’t claim to be the originator of this idea. I had many a summer job when at high school picking fruit for commercial soft-fruit farmers, one of the easiest and best was picking strawberries on hanging planters in giant polytunnels. Although their solutions were a lot more expensive than mine.

    Hanging strawberry gutter planter how-to guide

    Hanging strawberry gutter planter how-to guide. Click image for larger version

    It’s a pretty easy thing to set up if you have horizontal crop-bars in your polytunnel (if you don’t have crop-bars? I don’t know. Hopefully this will be a starting point for you). Just to stress the importance of crop-bars – they are designed to take weight hanging from them. Gutters full of strawberries, soil and water are heavy, so please take care and make sure you know your polytunnel (or other growing space) isn’t going to collapse with the extra weight before you try anything like this.

    I just wanted to say a few things, things we learnt so that you can go straight to strawberry heaven in your polytunnel.

    Firstly, these gutters swing in the wind, even with doors shut. So do make sure you use a good strength string to hold them up with and a really tight knot to tie the ends of the string together. Fingers crossed and touch wood ours haven’t tipped over. We have doubled up on the string, just in case one breaks. I say string, but it’s actually some old electric fencing wire.

    Secondly, we drilled some drainage holes in some of the gutters and not in others. There hasn’t been any difference that I can see between the plants. So as long as the gutters are not absolutely horizontal – ie the water can drain, I wouldn’t bother drilling holes in the plastic if I did this again.

    Thirdly, unless you set up a sophisticated overhead watering system you’ll be watering with a watering can. Therefore work out your optimum height for lifting a full watering can and picking fruit and aim for that when tying the strings. Oh and don’t forget the plants underneath – how high are they going to grow?

    Strawberries, heaven in a bowl

    Strawberries, heaven in a bowl

    Good luck! Let me know if you try this and how you get on.

    PS We’ve been eating strawberries from the polytunnel for two weeks now. The strawberry plants outside are only just starting to set fruit. Whether the ones outside will get eaten by slugs or not only time will tell, but the strawberries hanging inside will always be slug free.

    PPS A special thanks to the team from the south-west Wales permaculture group who, after our foraging walk, helped divide, plant up and put up the planters. xx

    Springwatch swallows

    Last year we had a lot of close encounters Swallows (Hirundo rustica), it was amazing. I even promised some video footage that I had managed to take of a nest in the porch of the summer house.

    It looks like at least one couple have claimed one of the porch nests again this year, so I’ll be taking more footage. In the meantime, take a look at this shot last year (and about time too I hear you say … ).

    Foraging in early April

    Wood anemone carpet

    Beautiful Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) carpet but not much to eat

    Earlier in the year, when we agreed to hold a forage walk here with friends, we had no idea that spring was going to be so late. I have to admit to being a little nervous as I looked around our land a week before the walk. I was struggling to find more than hairy bittercress, nettles, pennywort and sorrel to eat. Even the chickweed and goosegrass hadn’t dare show their leaves.

    Time to check the books and increase my knowledge. We bought “Wild Food” by Roger Philips many years ago from a second-hand book shop (I’m not sure that it’s even in print now). It quickly gave a few more ideas for things to look out for and I kept the pocket-sized Collins gem “Food for Free” on me at all times.

    Foraged additions to our salad

    Foraged additions to our salad

    As always with gatherings my understanding about what can be eaten from the wild grew enormously on the day as everyone added their knowledge. By the end of the morning we had added to base salad with:

    • (very young) bramble leaves (Rubus fruticosa),
    • dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinale) – some people added,
    • gorse flowers (Ulex europaeus),
    • hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta),
    • hawthorn leaves (Crataegus monogyna),
    • Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris)

      Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris)

    • navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) – it’s abundant in the woods, and
    • sorrel leaves (Rumex acetosa),

    and experimented with making gorse flower tea and cleaver (Galium aparine) tea. So, maybe not up to Fergus the Forager standards yet but it’s a step. We were very lucky that Alison had made wild garlic quiche and nettle soup to further set our wild taste buds racing.

    Although one of our group had heard that celandine flowers could be eaten, none of our books covered Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), so we didn’t pick it. However is in “Culpeper’s Complete Herbal” as a cure for the eyes, piles and many other things… I’ll do a little more research before I try it …

    The road of faeries, sprites and goblins …

    If you go down to our woods today, or any day, you can be sure it will be full of magic and mystery!

    Sian Bowi (professional photographer and friend) visited in early March and captured some wonderful images. I am very lucky to be able to share Sian’s photographs with you.

    The first picture, according to another friend, Gil …

    “… be the road of faeries, sprites and goblins and the portal to ancient myths, legends and times forgot, but, be warned, ’tis also the domain of the Dark Weinci. Pass at thou’st peril. (‘weinci is Welsh for weasel)”

    We are sure he is right and that if we find the time to linger long enough we could find dragons here or be transported back to the time of the Mabinogion

    The road of faeries, sprites and goblins

    © COPYRIGHT NOTICE All rights of my work are reserved to © Siân Bowi 2013 and may not be reproduced, copied, edited, published, transmitted or uploaded in any way without my written permission.

    Further along the road you find our Ent. We are almost certain this is where the faeries, sprites, goblins and young dragons play and where Moomins come for holidays …

    Under our Ent

    Canghennau Cwm Tŷ Hen © COPYRIGHT NOTICE All rights of my work are reserved to © Siân Bowi 2013 and may not be reproduced, copied, edited, published, transmitted or uploaded in any way without my written permission.

    To see more of Sian’s beautiful work check out Sian Bowi’s flickr photostream or her website www.ffotosianbowi.co.uk

    Thank you Sian for allowing us to share these photos here. xx

    Willow coppice

    Bowles Hybrid Willow Year 1

    Bowles Hybrid Willow before coppicing

    It seems counterintuitive to coppice our willow (Salix spp.) in it’s first year of growing, but coppice it we must! Cutting it back at the end of the first year will encourage multiple shoots to form at the base. Which means that in years to come we will have a denser screen and more willow biomass. That’s the theory at least.

    We planted the 500 cm lengths of Bowles Hybrid willow back in December 2011 for a couple of reasons. Firstly to hide the very ugly farm buildings just behind our home, and also as a biomass crop to keep us self-sufficient in wood for heating in later years.

    The willow around the farm buildings grew at a tremendous rate, we were really impressed, reaching over 2.5 meters in their first year! The willow in the field did less well. Mainly because we didn’t keep the grass around the small stems down. We think the root competition combined with the grass shading out the young plants were the main causes.

    Bowles Hybrid Willow Year One

    Bowles Hybrid Willow harvest

    Now we have a lot of willow cuttings. We are going to use them in several ways;

    • to fill in any gaps where the original willow failed to take,
    • to extend our biomass plot,
    • to make a rooting hormone liquid,
    • to experiment with making artists charcoal, and if I have time
    • to practice basketry making with.

    Nice! Don’t you just love willow!

    Half-welly walk

    Coppicing willow at the National Botanic Garden Wales

    Coppicing willow at the National Botanic Garden Wales in late January

    We spent a lovely day in late January volunteering at the National Botanic Garden in Wales. We were helping to coppice the willow in the Education area near the Science building. It was a lovely fun if rather wet day (particularly nice as the Food Fair was on in their giant greenhouse – The Parsnipship vegatarian food for the 21st century was by far the best stall), but the whole day left us wanting more! Luckily for us there is a lot of work we need to do to get our woodland into some kind of managed state.

    Half-welly walk

    Half-welly walk - a more accessible section (before)

    Half-welly walk is a wide track that takes you down to part of the wood. Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the fallen trees, brambles and general overgrown junglyness in the way.

    That’s the first job decided.

    Half-welly walk is such a wonderful micro-habitat. Standing in one spot I counted seven native trees around me. If I’m right in my winter identification of trees, this could make it a species-rich hedgerow, and possibly an ancient hedgerow – more research needed. Wonderful responsibilities to have.

    Bluebells emerging

    Bluebells emerging

    Two weekends later and half-welly walk is walkable. Good timing too as the bluebells are just poking through the earth. Now we will be able to see them easily on our trips down to the river.

    Looks like we’ve got a lot research to do about the species lining this walk and the implications … not least perhaps a more respectful name if it is such an ancient hedgerow …