We’re creating an organic, native tree nursery

As you may know, we’re in the process of setting up our own little tree nursery at the farm. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been mashing hawthorn berries, picking rosehips, crawling around on the woodland floor looking for beech nuts, pouring over books and grappling with spreadsheets.  Whilst we have plenty of experience of growing veg, and between us we’ve planted thousands of trees, none of us has ever grown native trees from seed. 

So what is this all about?

One of the things we learned in our first year at the farm is that it is either difficult or impossible to buy organic fruit bushes, walnut trees, cobnut trees, or native broadleaves. We had grand plans for agroforestry and hedge planting, and wanted to be able to buy organic trees. And we thought there must be lots of other people who’d want the same. Not only other organic farmers and growers with grand plans, but also ordinary local people who might like a tree for their garden, or a couple of fruit bushes for their allotment.

The more we looked into it, the clearer it seemed that there must be a gap in the market. I discovered one company doing organic hedging plants and trees, but surely they couldn’t singlehandedly supply the entire UK demand for organic trees? There was no one doing organic walnut or cobnut plants, and very little UK grown supply of nut trees at all.

So an idea began to emerge. What if we started growing organic soft fruit plants from cuttings, and grafting organic walnut trees? What if we started growing organic native trees from seed collected from the farm, with real local provenance? Healthy resilient trees grown in healthy soil, naturally inoculated with beneficial mycorrhizae and adapted to local conditions… Sounds like a great idea!

What also became clearer and clearer is that there are some really good reasons why there are few, if any, other people grafting named walnut cultivars in the UK, growing broadleaf trees from seed, or producing soft fruit plants organically. Grafting walnuts is really difficult – much harder than apples, pears or plums. They need a fairly constant temperature of around 27oC for several weeks in order for the graft to heal. Growing trees from seed is challenging not least from the perspective that they often need a pre-treatment of weeks, or even months, and can take over a year to germinate. And when it comes to propagating soft fruit in an organic system, perennial weeds are often an increasing issue over time.

So, we decided to go ahead anyway and attempt the potentially impossible. 

Last autumn we started by creating three 10m beds in a paddock by the barn – one for walnuts, one for soft fruit and one for the broadleaved trees. It was kind of a little experiment on the side. We harvested our first oak, hazel and alder seed last autumn and quickly discovered that birds and voles had serious designs on them. We lost the hazel and alder, but the oaks are still with us, protected from the birds now by gabion cages.

In the winter Eric built a hot pipe callusing system and I grafted 25 walnuts. Three of them took. Not an amazing success rate, but a success rate nonetheless. 

We collected cuttings of gooseberries and currants from the farm and from the gardens of friends and stuck them in the ground, hoping for the best. These have been a runaway success, growing from pencil sized little sticks to waist high in a single season. 

Encouraged, disappointed, frustrated and excited in turn, we are now entering our second year with a little bit more experience, a total of 18 x 10m beds (currently mostly sown to green manure), an improvised but very successful deer fence, some beautiful compost heaps, and a somewhat more detailed and ambitious plan to set up a tree nursery. 

This summer I bud grafted 25 more walnuts, and we rigged up a temporary polytunnel using sheep hurdles and some tunnel plastic to help keep the temperature up. We’ll have to wait for next spring to see if they’ve taken, but the early signs are hopeful. And we are now in the middle of seed harvesting in earnest, mapping the mother trees on the farm, brushing up on tree id, figuring out how to process the seed, and referring frequently to our now dogeared copy of the Good Seed Guide. As with the walnuts, it will be a few months – or even years – before we know for sure if we’ve got it roughly right…

We’ll keep you posted!