Tree planting extravaganza

I am feeling proud. Last week we planted around 600 trees on the farm. They are not fruit trees, but they are a part of the orchard.

Inspired by some bold planting last winter at our neighbours, Hammonds Farm, and saddened by the very ragged state of the hedge at the southern end of the orchard field, I started hatching a plan with Nat from the dairy to create a big shelterbelt to protect both the cows and the orchard. It seemed like it could be a brilliant use for a slightly odd shaped slice of the field. A slice which gets boggy at the bottom, which is encroached by brambles in parts, and which is very exposed to the prevailing wind that comes whistling straight up the valley from the Severn.

But for a while the shelterbelt idea just sat there as a hazy, and possibly over ambitious, dream.

Then back in early summer, the Tree Council, a small national charity, asked if we’d like to host one of their corporate volunteer days as part of National Tree Week. They would bring around 30 corporate volunteers to the farm for a day, organise the food, do the risk assessments, and pay for any tools and materials needed. All we needed to do was give them some jobs to do. Preferably involving planting lots and lots of trees.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, because life never is. But, after measuring, planning, consulting, emailing, sketching, coordinating, sourcing, and zooming (whilst plying my kids with library books and chocolate biscuits), over the past few months, the grand day finally dawned.

Ranks of wheelbarrows were lined up in the winter sunshine, homemade muffins and coffee were laid out in welcome, and a portaloo was installed at the end of the track. The guys from the Tree Council had done an amazing job preparing, planning and organising. And from there the day rolled on really smoothly! We had around 25 volunteers from several different companies coming from as far away as London, plus staff from the Tree Council, a strong showing from the Oakbrook enterprises, and even a group from The Grove home education project.

Between us we planted, guarded and mulched about 600 trees, including fruiting hedgerow species such as blackthorn, hawthorn and elder, faster growing species like alder, willow and poplar to give some quick height, plus lots more – hazel, rowan, birch, holly, lime, spindle… Some of them were grown by More Trees BANES, a community tree nursery who collect all their seed locally in the Bath area, and others were from larger commercial suppliers.

At the top of the field we were essentially thickening up the existing but neglected hedge. Further down the hill the planting area widens out, and here we were creating a mini woodland. The vision is that once the trees are established, it could be possible to bring the cows into the woodland for short periods, using it as a ‘green barn’ to give them shelter from sun, rain or wind, and to supplement their diet with nutritious tree leaves. In fact the trees have so many potentially benefits it’s hard to list them all.

Of course we very much hope that as they grow the trees will support wildlife on the farm, by providing food, habitat, and connectivity between other woods and hedges. They will support soil health and reduce runoff. They will store carbon. Over time they could be selectively thinned or coppiced to provide woodchip or even firewood. And, last but not least, these trees will provide shelter to the orchard trees, slowing wind speeds across this otherwise very exposed field.

Many thanks to everyone who supported this event and made the planting possible – The Tree Council, Stroud Micro Dairy, Oakbrook Farm, Zero Dig, The Grove, and The Family Meal.

One day these trees will be taller than me…

Pickaxe planting

Yesterday I was planting daffodils with the help of a pickaxe. This wasn’t the original plan.

Three years ago, with the help of many volunteers, we planted our first daffodils as an understorey to the first apple trees. Despite never being weeded or mulched, and despite being accidentally ploughed up by a contractor one year, they have thrived – far better than any of the other understorey plantings we tried. They faithfully appear through the grass each spring with their glorious yellow flags bright in the grey of end-of-winter. It almost seems a shame to pick them.

Last year, for the first time, I ran a daffodil subscription. Rather than picking flowers, carting them in to the town, and then hoping for the best, as I had done previously, I harvested twice a week for a group of loyal customers who had already paid for a five-week share of flowers and who came to the farm to collect them on their allotted day. The system worked so well, and the customers were so appreciative, I was encouraged to plant more flowers.

The plan had been to borrow a walk behind rotovator to cultivate a single strip in the grass, to make bulb planting really quick and easy. But the rotovator I’d expected to borrow turned out to be living on the other side of Stroud, and I didn’t want to use a tractor to cultivate a much wider strip than I actually needed. There were various options and complications and logistical challenges, so that in the end I thought that, whilst planting by hand with a trowel might be a bit tedious, it was probably the best solution.

So yesterday I got down on my hands and knees in the unseasonally warm sunshine and started planting. After one and half bulbs I realised a trowel was just not up to the job on our stony soil. I wasn’t getting anywhere and had not only 200 more bulbs to get through that day, but a large box of another 400 bulbs still waiting at home in my less-than-spacious sitting room.

Luckily Shem from Oakbrook’s ZeroDig project walked past at just the right moment. By then I’d collected a wrecking bar and was experimenting with making individual holes for the bulbs, but that wasn’t working so well either. I speculated out loud that a mattock or pickaxe might do the job, and a few minutes later I was collecting one from the ZeroDig tool store. Hurrah!

It was still somewhat hard going, but, relatively speaking, I was now flying along. I cut a line with the pickaxe, then came back and popped bulbs in to the loose ground, moving stones aside and getting the trowel in there as needed. Hard brown bulbs made their way in to the earth at last, and I allowed myself a moment of satisfaction.

Standing there with sweat trickling down my back and pickaxe in hand, it was hard to believe that in a few months time I’d be back, wrapped up in thermals, harvesting beautiful flowers.

Emergency measures

It was a bit like finding myself on the scene of a whodunnit crime. There I was, innocently checking the nursery beds, expecting to stroll through, happily admiring the work we’d done the week before. But the more I looked, the more certain I became that someone had been eating our precious baby trees.

At first it was just an odd leaf here and there. Nothing much to worry about. They might even have been damaged by the kids or perhaps there were a couple of caterpillars about. But this one fat green caterpillar couldn’t have removed the whole top of this tree, leaving a chewed up woody stalk, surely? And even if it could eat one tree, it couldn’t have done that one, and that one as well…

A couple of weeks ago our nursery bed was looking somewhat neglected. The thistles and docks and dandelions that we thought we had so carefully dug out were making a serious takeover bid, in league with the speedwell, grasses, and chickweed.

We called in the services of the Friday Farm Day crew, a group of home educating families who visit the farm to play and volunteer on Friday mornings. Everyone pitched in with forks, trowels, and gloves. The gloves proved no match for the thistles, but the children didn’t let that stop them. By the end of the day the freshly weeded and newly mulched beds were looking pretty smart. We even sowed some flower seeds to provide some beautiful ground cover.

Safe inside the fabulous new fence, designed to be deer proof, badger proof and rabbit proof, there couldn’t be much else to worry about for a few weeks. Except maybe a drought.

So who was eating our trees?!

There were no footprints in evidence. No hair or fur or poo. Some of the trees had been bitten off well above knee height; higher I think, than a rabbit would go. But apparently just the right height for a muntjac deer. Jason the hunter tells us there are a lot of this non-native mini deer species on and around the farm, though I’ve never seen them. Christian tells us they could easily hop through the temporary fourth side of the otherwise fabulous fence. This temporary section is the weak point in the fortress; it’s currently just a few strands of electric fencing, not yet electrified.

It’s going to take a few days to get the fence electric. So today I spent the afternoon bodging another temporary fence around the tree nursery. Many thanks to Christian of the Bee Observatory for lending us second hand fence posts, chicken wire and stock fencing. And for providing post banger, staples and hammer.

At the end of the day I stood back, sweaty, grubby and knackered, to admire my work. It looks a bit rough, but it might just be enough to make those deer think twice.

But as I headed back to the gate, running late to meet my kids, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a couple of crows flying off from the nursery bed. Could they be the culprits?! All that work and all that fencing will be in vain if the trees are actually under aerial attack.

I ran all the way home in record time. We’ll have to wait to find out whether the fence was worth it.

Scythe work

We have been a bit alarmed at the rate of growth in the orchard. The docks are already threatening to get way out of hand, and it’s only April. In September last year we sowed a special grass clover ley, with a mix of many grass species, a high proportion of clover, and a few wildflowers. I’ve been pretty sure it’s still there somewhere, but this has been more a matter of faith than anything else, because what it looks like underfoot is chickweed, speedwell, docks and old lumps of grass leftover from the old ley.

When planning the orchard, I had a vague, possibly romantic, notion, that we would manage the grass (and weeds) around the trees and soft fruit with a scythe. But faced with the immediate reality of all that grass and all those weeds and only a dim recollection of how to actually do scything, a growing feeling of panic was setting in.

Happily, I am panicking no longer.

Thanks to a bespoke scything masterclass with the really knowledgeable Al Inglis last week, we are now armed and dangerous. (But only if you’re a dock or bit of grass).

We both started our lesson eager to learn, but quickly feeling like this apparently simple scything action was just so complicated. Too many things to think about at once; frustration deepening as the tip of the scythe stuck in the ground again, whilst the grass remained unscathed.

And then we both experienced the amazing feeling when it works; when the grass falls down in neat swathes, when there is rhythm and flow, and nothing can stop you.

We should definitely still be wearing L plates. There’s a lot still to learn, and probably plenty that will yet give us cause to stop, and work around, and wonder why. But it’s a bit like riding a bike; we’ve got the feel of it now.

Managing the grass in the orchard with a scythe is starting to look like it’s not at all a romantic notion, but in fact an entirely practical reality.

It was almost with a feeling of glee that I posted off our order form yesterday to the amazing Scythe Shop. We are buying our very own brand new mini scythe blade, which is designed for working in tight spaces around trees and bushes. Thanks to my sister and parents we’ll also soon have a snath (that’s the whole wooden handle piece) and two larger blades arriving on long term loan.

Watch out docks!


The past couple of Sundays we’ve been creating a nursery at the farm. Not for kids, but for baby trees.

We’re working on a long term plan to expand the orchard beyond the current pilot phase, and for that we’re going to need more trees. Lots more trees.

We’ve ordered 100 organic apple rootstock for grafting, so that we can propagate our very own baby trees, and they are due to arrive next week.

Rather than stick these precious baby trees out in the field, where they’d be at the mercy of deer, rabbits and badgers, we’ve created a special nursery bed inside the veg growing area.

The whole horticultural zone at Oakbrook is being fenced to exclude all the glorious wildlife that would love to munch and crunch our crops. This going to make life an awful lot easier, and less stressful, for the veg growers.

Happily, the ZeroDig guys have generously given us a plot on their growing space for our nursery bed, where the little trees will be much safer and easier to tend.

We’ve dug out the weeds. Some of the weeds haven’t quite noticed and are already busy making a comeback bid. We’ve made woodchip paths. We’ve even tried it out for size with a few of last year’s trees from Jessie’s allotment. It’s all looking quite smart.

We’re ready for our rootstock and a new generation of baby trees.

Daffodil harvest

We had such a nice surprise today!

We were at the farm, preparing the nursery bed, ready for the trees we’ll be grafting next month. More on this later.

And we thought we’d just have a go at harvesting a few daffodils to see if we had enough to make up a couple of bunches for our first sales.

We worked our way steadily down the rows, and ended up with more flowers than we could hold. We had to fetch the wheelbarrow to get them off the field as we didn’t have a box or crate, not having anticipated the abundance before us.

Later, Sarah bunched them up at home and made exactly 30 bunches of ten.

Some of them will be in the Crown and Sceptre on Horns Road tomorrow.

And there will be more. From Friday you can look out for our lovely daffodils in Nell’s veg shed at the farm, as well as in Loose and Four Seasons in town.


The daffodils are coming!

We are excited – and slightly nervous. The first daffodils are opening at the orchard. This means we need to start picking and selling them really soon. Eek!

We each picked a first experimental bunch last Sunday and took them home. The straight stalks and green closed buds didn’t look much. I wasn’t certain of them. Within a day the first of them were laughing at me, unashamed bright bold yellow in the vase on the table. When I lean in close it even smells like spring time.

It can’t be that hard, but we’re figuring everything out from nothing. We’re getting the hang of when to harvest. We’re debating whether it’s ethically acceptable to use elastic bands; practically possible to use something more biodegradeable. We need some nice buckets. And labels. Nell’s opened her veg shed and a couple of the loveliest shop keepers in Stroud have offered to sell some daffs for us.

Maybe next week. Hopefully next week.

The daffodils are coming!

Woodchip therapy

On Sunday we spent a a happy couple of hours wheelbarrowing woodchip for the orchard. We are blessed with huge piles of woodchip at Oakbrook Farm, cheerfully donated by local tree surgeons who are grateful to be able to off load what to them is a waste product.

We barrowed backwards and forwards all afternoon, delivering one full barrow load to each of our 22 trees. As snow swirled around us and failed to settle, the trees started to look quite cosy in their thick woodchip blankets.

More prosaically, the woodchips have multiple practical benefits. They help to suppress weeds, retain moisture, feed the soil and create an environment to nurture the beneficial fungal connections trees need to thrive.

While we worked, we turned over plans for the orchard. Community Supported Agriculture. Crowd funding. Website. Logo. Daffodils. Legal structures. The words swirled around us like the snow, but still we barrowed woodchip, grounded in the reality of mud, shovel and just two more trees to go now.

We went home happy. Woodchip therapy for trees and people.

Once upon a time

I have to admit that I’m more interested in planting trees than creating websites.

But we’re also keen to share and document our journey. We want to sketch out our vision, and to invite you to be part of it. Let’s start at the beginning of the story.

Almost two years ago I started dreaming of an orchard.

I was keen to get back to working on the land, but struggling to get my head round how to make that possible whilst parenting and home educating my two kids and needing to earn a living. A chance sentence in a book on organic orchards caught my attention. It suggested that if you are short on time now, but likely to have more time in future, you should plant trees. They will, to some extent, at least more than vegetables do, wait for you.

The orchard idea became more attractive as I realised that to grow trees you don’t necessarily need exclusive access to land. In fact, agroforestry – combining productive trees with other crops or with livestock – is the currently one of the trendy new ideas in the world of regenerative farming.

One day I plucked up courage to casually ask Kees at Stroud Micro Dairy if he thought there was any possibility to integrate fruit trees with his dairy cows. I knew that when the farm had first been bought through a community share offer a few years earlier, there had been mention of agroforestry, but I was still rather taken aback by the enthusiasm in his response.

With no excuse not to pursue the idea, the months still ticked by alarmingly fast. I wasn’t doing nothing, but it was hard to prioritise a vague vision, and even harder to pin it down. I read up about agroforestry, about community supported agriculture, and about apple growing. I talked to farmers and growers. I had more formal discussions with the team at Oakbrook Farm, home of the micro dairy. I learned how to graft new apple trees. Everyone I spoke to was positive and supportive of the orchard idea, but it was taking its time arriving.

Then lockdown in March 2020 gave me a desperate sense of needing to do something. I ordered 75 rootstock, and took a bus to Day’s Cottage orchard. Dave and Helen, always generous with their knowledge skills and resources, gave me scions from their trees. Much to the annoyance of my kids, I spent every spare minute of the next few weeks sitting in the back garden grafting. We planted the baby trees in the allotment and waited anxiously to see if they would take. All but three came in to leaf.

Now I needed a long term home for the trees, and I knew I needed a collaborator too. I didn’t want to go it alone. I figured that I had no idea how to write a business plan, and no time either. I landed on the idea of a pilot project – a small start, which, as a trial, didn’t need to prove that it would be profitable before it was planted. And happily my friend Sarah, somewhat bemused, agreed to jump on my crazy bandwagon.

Cutting it very fine, we got a proposal in to Oakbrook Farm in the last week of August, and we were given the go ahead for a pilot project a few days later.