Our little family – James (14), Steve and myself – have been busy turning our acre strip field on the West Coast of Wales into our permaculture haven.
At the beginning of this year (2019) our young orchard had apple, pear and plum trees and, pride of place, a young walnut tree. The walnut is looking beautifully healthy, thanks to generous drinks of nettle tea, but Steve and I probably won’t live long enough to see it fruiting.
The fierce salt winds that whip across from the Irish Sea in early springtime make a good hedge essential. The wind kills leaves and buds on the seawards side of trees and does a great deal of damage to other vegetation too. We already have some mature bramble hedge and a large elderflower tree, but James has started filling the gaps and increasing the hedge height, with cuttings of osier, grey willow, flowering currant and forsythia, along with hazel and young ash trees grown from seed.
What has really helped us transform our little orchard from a grass field with trees into something much more special was the plan we hatched last year to add bees!
Over the winter we grappled with building hives and frames, and watched endless videos on bee-keeping. In spring, we started adding more bee-friendly flowers and herbs to the orchard.
As we are also building a series of wildlife ponds elsewhere, we had plenty of soil for some raised beds. We made frames from recycled wood, some obtained from our local tip and some left over from other projects, but all of it was free. Steve trimmed the grass underneath and we lined the bottom well with old cardboard boxes before filling the beds. Since we were sowing “bee mix” and other flower seeds there was no need to add extra organic matter, which would encourage grass but not flowering.
Honey bee on cornflowers.
James, who is addicted to growing cuttings, dotted some of his young currant, gooseberry and raspberry bushes around the orchard, to help diversify fruit production and provide more spring flowers for the bees. We also dug out a wide strip along the boundary of the orchard, removing the grass and sowing seeds and a few young plants, including mock orange blossom and rosemary. Eventually we’d like large parts of our field to resemble an old-fashioned flower meadow, rather than a near monoculture of ryegrass.
Steve had already been on one bee-keeping course a few years back, but come spring, and the arrival of our first nucleus of bees, the three of us spent a happy weekend on a local bee-keeping course. I wasn’t sure if I would be confident enough handling hive frames dripping with bees, but utter fascination, along with the infectious enthusiasm of the others, got the better of me.
Now, including the hive of a local more experienced keeper, our orchard proudly sports three bee-hives, complete with spectacular displays of bee-friendly flowers.
Poppies on the orchard boundary.
The flowers include cornflowers, poppies, sunflowers, godetias, nasturtiums, borage and creeping thyme, all grown from seed. Some of the sunflowers we grew directly from a bag sold for feeding wild birds. It contained very many seeds for a small cost, and they will attract wild birds when they go to seed in autumn.
Bumblebee and sunflowers.
The bees have been fascinating to watch and have had plenty of foraging. Apart from our flowers there are masses of blackberry hedges locally, several other orchards and the wonderfully floriferous village gardens. It looks as though, having pollinated our fruit and flowers, the bees are going to have a good honey crop too, which is a surprise for our first year of bee keeping. We expect to collect plenty of seeds for next summer’s annual flower display too.
Gatekeeper butterflies mating.
Honey bees are not the only bonus to our orchard. We have really noticed how many bumble bees, hover flies, butterflies and moths have been attracted to our flowers. It’s a newfound delight for us and we’ve begun to learn to take an interest in identifying the different species and watching their behaviour. It’s true that there are small tortoiseshell caterpillars all over our borage, but as Steve says, it will encourage us to plant even more next year, with the added bonus of even more butterflies!
About the author: Glynis Giddings
Glynis has a degree in science, a doctorate in genetics and diplomas in journalism, animal behaviour, mathematical modelling and advanced ecology. She has lived on three different smallholdings, with much experience of growing and keeping animals. Glynis has had a lifelong interest in wildlife and conservation, joining the Young Ornithologists Club as a young child. “On our latest smallholding we are very keen to grow as much of our own food as possible. We are also growing trees for the Coedwig Ceredigion Forest, one of our local groups providing free trees to individuals and landowners, to help reduce carbon in our atmosphere.”