Barakah Heritage Farm
Image default

North East Permaculture Ambassadors Gathering 2017 – Transition Sunderland

This is the text of the talk that took place at the Gathering held in Hendon Natural Community Garden 2/12/2017.

This garden is being designed & developed using permaculture Ethics & Principles.
A little about permaculture:

Permaculture is a design process.

It helps design intelligent systems which meet human needs whilst enhancing biodiversity, reducing our impact on the planet, and creating a fairer world for us all, humans, animals and plants.

Permaculture combines 3 key aspects:

1. An ethical framework.
2. Understandings of how nature works.
3. A design approach.

The three Ethics are;

Earth Care
People Care
Fair Share

We have hopes that the community will embrace the idea of bringing their fruit & veg food waste to the site to be composted – and, in time – buying produce, in the knowledge that they are helping the future wellbeing of the inhabitants of the planet in several ways such as:

  • Reducing waste headed for landfill or incineration
  • Increasing the fertility of land which is providing locally grown food
  • By buying local produce they will be supporting the local economy
  • Buying food of local provenance produced without chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides means they are both reducing their carbon footprint – think air miles – & removing their unintended support from the current unsustainable & destructive global food system


Planting apple trees shows that we have an eye on food security – looking forward to what promises to be a challenging future – when we may once again see thousands of orchards across the country as there once were, helping to feed a growing global population with fewer resources.

The purpose of this event is both an introduction for the wider community to our group, the garden and to Permaculture Ambassadors whose aim is to connect both with the public and each other, to eventually form interconnected regional ‘Hives’ collaborating with each other. Hives will share information with each other, and as this event is the precursor to that end, here is a list of topics that follow.

The topics are:

1. Hot & cold composting

2. Soil food web

3. No dig gardening

4. Benefits of community orchards

5. Requirements of land for growing apple trees

6. Formative pruning of 1 – 2 year-old apple trees

Composting – The Science
Composting can be thought of as coming in 2 basic methods, cold & hot with a variety of stages in between. Most of the work of breaking down material in a compost heap is done by microbes, mainly bacteria. If we classify the types of microbe from cold to hot temperatures we have -:

PSYCHROPHILES Typically act in temperature range of between 10C – 20C. Even though they are present, you may not notice any heat build up or break down of material below 13C.

MESOPHILES Grow best in temperature range between 10C – 50C. Most of the microorganisms on Earth are mesophiles. If the temperature is just right they can double their population in 30 mins!

THERMOPHILES Some thermophiles are archaea some bacteria, they work best in temperature ranges between 32C – 93C.

Composting – Practical
Cold composting – can be thought of as what takes place in the average compost heap – say, the common black bin which many people have. Material is commonly added in small quantities as it becomes available, little thought is given to layers other than perhaps adding a thin layer of soil periodically. There is nothing wrong with this process, longer time periods (between 3 – 8 months) will accomplish much the same results as a hot heap.

Hot composting – has several benefits over cold; when done correctly it speeds up the process immeasurably sometimes as quick as 4 to 8 weeks in warmer climates; it minimises the risk of pathogens and weed seeds surviving the process and it produces more nutrient dense compost. There are many ‘recipes’ for making hot heaps, below is one I have used with some success in creating up to 65C heat in the centre of the heap. It is based on the modified Indore Method championed by Sir Albert Howard, whose work you can read freely – as well as many others – on a website called a one off donation is asked for.

To create a hot heap it is necessary to accumulate all of the material beforehand in order to build the heap in as short a time as possible – preferably in one day.

This is one of my hot heaps, these need to be quite large, a minimum of 1.2 cubic Mtrs preferably larger in order to have the mass to retain the heat which is produced by the process. Hot heaps need a good supply of air into the centre to feed the microbes which are creating the heat as a byproduct of decomposition, I have three plastic pipes with holes spaced along their length, they are placed on the bottom of the heap & one vertically in the centre.

On top of the three pipes, lay a 100mm layer of twigs, straw or any substantial organic material which will allow air to pass from the pipes. Then add a 300mm layer of a mixture of hay/manure (brown), above this add a 200mm layer of (green) material. I build my heaps in May when there is lots of Comfrey available which gives us a lot of available green material when there is not much available in most gardens. If the material in the layers are dry, add water. Keep building up these layers one on top of another until you run out of material or space, ( the height of the heap will decrease by more than half eventually).

Try to finish with a layer of browns, i.e. hay/manure to the top, and cover the heap with a tarp, cardboard or similar to keep excessive rainfall off it.

Within 3 to 5 days you should notice an increase in temperature of the core, this should continue to increase over several weeks, then level off, eventually beginning to decrease. At this point you should turn the heap into another bay, ideally with similar pipe work to aid airflow.

The purpose of this turning is to redistribute the material; the core temperature is dropping because the microbes in the centre of the heap have used up their food source. Try to ensure that you move the material on the outsides of the heap into the centre & the material from the centre, onto the outsides of the new heap. This will start the process of heating the heap up again, also ensuring that as much material as possible goes through the hottest part of the heap, the centre.

You can try this turning of the heap again when the temperature begins to drop again; I only do this 2 or 3 times, then leave the heap to mature for a year until needed.

Soil Food Web
While we are talking about microbes & bacteria it might be a good time to quickly mention the Soil Food Web.

For more than 4,000 years humans have grown food using natural processes, adding manure or green manure to the soil to build fertility. It is only in recent decades that science has come to understand the processes involved.

Soil is the very foundation of life.

There is a seemingly whole other universe of life beneath our feet consisting of:

Algae & Slime Moulds

It is the constant interaction of all these lifeforms going through their lifecycle – eating one another then pooping – that produces healthy fertile soil for us to grow our crops in. More info can be found on this by following Dr Elaine Ingham’s website here; or by reading -Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.

No Dig Gardening
As we can see by our quick view of the soil food web, digging soil can be disastrous for the lifeforms which we rely on to build fertility in our soil. How would you like it if someone turned your home upside-down? Historically we have become accustomed to this practice, it helps clear weeds, aerates the soil and aids the formation of a fine tilth for seed beds. Apart from these reasons, the upside of digging the soil over is that it does work in the short term.

Turning the soil kills some of the soil life, (in the same way it might you, had your home been turned over!) it buries grass & weeds; both of these occurrences release nutrients which the gardener takes advantage of when planting his crops.

But there are also down-sides; when this process is practised year after year, (not to mention several times a year, as currently practised by mainstream farming systems) the down-sides are:

  • each turning of the soil weakens some of the soil life, in particular fungi which aid plant’s take-up of nutrients
  • allowing the soil to be uncovered with nothing growing in it, increases the potential for soil loss through run-off caused by heavy rain
  • if organic matter is not added to the soil it cannot hold onto water very well. Rain just goes right through it leaching nutrients as it goes down

To counter these problems many gardeners are turning to no dig methods which we’ll now run through.

One of the principle proponents of no dig in this country is Charles Dowding, more info can be found on his website here: Much of this info is from his book – No Dig Organic Home & Garden.

The basic idea is to take a small area of land and cut down the existing growth of grass or weeds. Leaving the cut-down material in place, cover the area with cardboard overlapping the edges by 100mm -150mm (4-6”), then 100mm (4”) depth of compost on top of the cardboard, then place young plants or sow seeds directly into the compost. If seeds, these need to be quite large, i.e. beans. You may choose to erect raised-bed edges to this area, but it’s not necessary.

The idea is that the cardboard blocks the light from the grass/weeds below stopping or at least weakening their growth. In the meantime your plants will start to grow, pushing roots down through the cardboard into the soil. The compost feeds the existing soil life below. Worms will gradually pull down some of the compost into the soil, as would happen in nature with leaves.There are variations of this basic theme such as using polythene over the top of the compost with holes cut in to insert your plants.

The concept as a whole follows organic principles that manure/green manure should be applied to the surface of the soil, not dug in, allowing natural processes to take what they need when they need it.

Benefits of Community Orchards
I’d like to read the opening paragraph of a small book – Orchards, by Claire Masset which describes their benefits much better than I could.

“Orchards are, strictly speaking, spaces devoted to the cultivation of fruit trees, but there is much more to them than productivity. They have that irresistible quality of offering both bounty & beauty – while their fruit pleases the palate, their blossom delights the eye. Over the centuries, orchards have inspired great art & poetry, and have been the setting for medieval feasts, harvest festivals and, more recently picnics. Like forests they are imbued with a sense of magic and mystery, encouraging tranquillity and contemplation and helping us commune with nature in a profound way. Old orchards are also astonishingly rich habitats, offering food and shelter for over 1,800 species of wildlife, from birds and butterflies to lichens and mosses”

Orchards have been with us since roman times, they are seeing a renaissance around the country in the last 20 years, linked no doubt to the twin challenges that climate change and peak oil promise us.

Requirements of land for Community Orchards
Perhaps the first requirement of an orchard is some soil! Apples are extraordinarily resilient and can adapt to many different soil types, ideally they would have at least 450mm (18”) of medium loam, (if a site doesn’t have this depth, all is not lost the soil can be heaped up to create this depth). One thing they don’t like is water-logged soil, good drainage is essential and if not present, some kind of drainage system must be installed.
Sunlight is also essential to the production of fruit so the land must not be shaded too much by tall buildings. Shelter from strong winds is another factor to take into account, though this may be planned for in a garden design, i.e. growing a shelter belt of suitable trees or hedge.
Frost is another problem, early flowering varieties may be caught out by a late frost, killing the flowers, no flower – no fruit. So care must be taken not to choose a site lying in a frost pocket, i.e. a low lying area surrounded by higher land, where the denser cold air has nowhere to escape.

Formative pruning of 1 – 2 year-old apple trees
In the early years apple trees need to be shaped to the desired forms. Forms can be:

  • bush
  • half standard
  • standard
  • spindlebush
  • pyramid
  • espalier
  • fan
  • cordon
  • stepover

The formative pruning of most of these is similar to bush form, and that’s what we are aiming for here. We have 5 apple trees which are:

Bloody Ploughman
Red Falstaff
James Grieve
George Cave

All are MM106, (semi vigorous) as suggested by The Tree Council. All have been chosen to flower between early, mid & late season giving a long timeline of fruit production and ensuring that at least some, will fruit, given the unexpected weather events predicted for the future.

Formative pruning is the process of shaping a young tree for the rest of its life. It’s vitally important to build up a strong, evenly spaced framework of branches that will serve the tree well in the long term. Nearly all tree forms require a certain length of clear trunk before the first laterals (branches) arise.

The bush form is the most common for apple trees, it’s easy to grow & maintain and is suitable for a variety of dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstocks.

The aim is to produce a goblet-shaped tree on top of a clear trunk. The first branches will begin between 600mm – 900mm high (2 or 3’) up to 1.2m (4’) on MM106 rootstock.

In the first year, starting with a maiden or 1 year-old-tree, prune the leader about 150mm (6”) above the height you want the first branches to emerge, assuming the leader has reached the required height – if not let it grow on and wait until next year.

One of the aims of formative pruning is the creation of a number of well spaced laterals at a wide angle to the trunk. Branches with a narrow angle to the trunk are liable to split from the trunk later in the trees life when weighed down by lots of apples.

In the second year, a number of laterals will have formed. Those emerging where you want a clear trunk can be cut back to about 3 buds. These will be cut off completely the following year. Above this, look for 3 to 5 wide-angled branches spaced evenly around the tree. These laterals can be shortened by about half of the previous seasons growth to an outward facing bud (or an upward-facing bud if the lateral is horizontal). The process of cutting to outward facing buds helps create a spreading tree with a clear centre.

This brings us, along with the pratical content of this event, to the end of this session, thank you for attending.

On – 15 Dec, 2017 By Allan Rowell

Related posts

My Favorite YouTube Channels – Steady Homegrown

Barakah Farm Staff

Give #greywater and #permaculture and #gardensnotlawns a chance. Get our best, free:

Barakah Farm Staff

Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages (Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology)

Barakah Farm Staff

Leave a Comment

Malcare WordPress Security