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Forest Garden Plants, River Irrigation, Paulownia Coppice & Garden Bees – 

Week 6 - The Polyculture Project

It has been a relaxed week here in Shipka where the main focus has stayed on the market garden, we are sowing and planting out the warm season annual crops and the garden bees are busy pollinating. The weather has been warm with cloudy cool spells and the wild vegetation is really starting to take off. The fruits are forming on the trees and shrubs and the promise of summer, albeit 6 weeks away, is in the air.

So here’s what we’ve been up to this week.

Polyculture Project Week 6
Photograph by Balkep


Ronan Delente a chef who has been travelling the world cooking across the continents has joined us for the study this year. Ronan has been experimenting with various recipes using the wild plants and perennial vegetables from the gardens. He started a blog this week to share his recipes and love for cooking with perennials. Check out his Falafel recipe here – looks very tasty!


The Forest Garden – Aponia

It’s going to be a good year for plums it seems especially the wild Prunus cerasifera – Cherry Plum that grow in abundance in our area. These plums are great, each wild tree has unique tasting plums and I reckon about 1 in 10 have the perfect amount of juiciness, sweetness and acidity that I love in these fruits.
Prunus cerasifera - Cherry Plum
Photograph by Balkep


Mespilus germanica – Medlar  is flowering. This is seedless local cultivar and provides us with great fruit from late November into December.
Mespilus germanica - Medlar 
Photograph by Balkep


Looking forward to the fruits from this Rubus fruticosus cv. – Blackberry cultivar ‘Reuben’. This cultivar is unusual for blackberry in that it produces fruit on new growth, known as a primocane. We get some great fruit from this plant in the summer and it continues to flower into late October and although the fruit does not ripen that late in the season the flowers do provide scarce forage for pollinators.

Rubus fruticosus cv. - Blackberry 
Photograph by Balkep


As the warmer season approaches we will be needing to irrigate the gardens. This week we went for a walk up the mountain to show the team the source of our irrigation, the river in the valley above us, and how the town diverts the river to supply water for gardens and farms in the area.

River Diversion in Shipka
Photograph by Balkep


Here’s a map showing the channel we use to irrigate the market garden and home garden on the west side of town . The red markers are places where the stream can be diverted to irrigate the other gardens of the town. The end of the blue line in the bottom left hand corner is the market garden. The above photo was taken at the other end of the blue line on this map.

Shipka river irrigation map
Photograph by Balkep


For the East side gardens we use a different river . Here’s a short video made by Archie, one of the students from our Design and Build a Forest Garden Course in April 2019, that shows the irrigation channels in the new forest garden that we built during the course.

I spotted the first flowering Chamomile of the season. This is one of our favourites to collect and dry for a supply of herbal teas. The first time I collected chamomile I was confused in trying to identify the plant . Browsing through herb books to look up the herb I found many names, both common and scientific. First of all the word chamomile is sometimes spelled camomile then there’s Roman (or English) chamo­mile, a perennial, and German (or Hungarian) chamomile, an annual. The German species might be listed as Matricaria chamomilla, Chamomilla recutita, or Matricaria recutita. Roman chamomile is referred to in some sources as Anthemis nobilis, in others as Chamaemelum ­nobile. I wrote a blog post years ago to help with identification. You can find it here if you are interested.
Photograph by Balkep



Paulownia Coppice Trials

I’ve been experimenting with growing Paulownia tomentosa – Foxglove Tree in the garden. Our experiments include growing the plants in the centre of our vegetable raised beds for shade and mulch, growing the plants for tipi poles, fence posts and stakes in the vegetable gardens and generally to see how much biomass these plants can produce in the polyculture garden.

Here is a photo of Paulownia tomentosa – Foxglove Tree  used for shade support in our vegetable polycultures. This photo was taken in the summer of 2016 just 3 months after planting the 1 year old whips, already providing some nice shade that helps to prevent the parsley from bolting to seed.

Foxglove Tree
Photograph by Balkep
This photo shows the trees after planting in 2016 and then in the summers of the following years.
tree planting results
Photograph by Balkep

This spring about 3 weeks ago I cut down the trees and the largest tree (shown below) was approx. 4m tall and approx. 15 cm wide at the base. You can see 3 weeks after I cut the tree the new growth is already emerging. I expect these new shoots will reach at least 1m tall by the end of the season. I’ll post some photos in the future.

Photograph by Balkep
Here’s a photo of some of the pole wood we harvested from the two beds.  We used this wood to stake the tomatoes and the thinner diameter wood for bean poles. The larger diameter wood is not shown here and will be used for fence posts at some point.
Fence Posts
Photograph by Balkep
Based on some trials with coppicing paulownia in the home garden, I expect much faster growth from the coppice stools than from the original whips we planted.
If we get enough people to sign up for our patron I’ll write up a detailed report of all of our Paulownia trials for our patrons. Speaking of Patron, if you are interested in learning how you can grow food and other resources while enhancing biodiversity then why not become a patron of our project?  As a patron we will be sharing more in depth elements of our work with you, including monthly detailed polyculture profiles (such as this), video tours of forest gardens, and we’ll provide you with access to our webinars and unique design spreadsheets. You can also participate in monthly Q&A sessions where you can bring your own projects to look over and discuss with the group.
Our goal is to educate and build a network of designers and practitioners while raising funds to help support and develop our project’s activities. Join us !


Garden Bees

We have several garden bees working away on our Permaculture Project.  Xylocopa violacea, the violet carpenter bee is one of the largest bees in Europe. These solitary bees hibernate overwinter and emerge in the spring, usually around April or May. The female creates the nest alone. The eggs are laid within a series of small cells, each of which is supplied with a pollen ball for the larvae to feed upon. The adults emerge in late summer then hibernate until the following year. They hibernate in dead wood by boring a tunnel in the material, hence they are called “carpenter bee”. They will use the same nest or an abandoned nest if available, a good reason to leave some old logs around the garden.

Violet Carpenter Bee
Photograph by Balkep

Honey bees are loving the Allium schoenoprasum – Chives in the nursery. These bees were moving very slowly over the flowers, almost as if they were drunk on the nectar.


Kale, that we sowed last year and harvested all of last summer and through to the winter, is flowering at the moment.  Not all of our kale survive the winters here (winters can be very harsh), but there is a patch in a protected spot that does well.  Kale is a biennial plant, the life cycle of which spans two years.  They flower and produce seeds in their second year after which they whither away. You can keep the plants alive for many years by cutting back the flowering growth but I like to let some plants go. As you can see below they are extremely attractive to a range of bees and other pollinators. For more info on plant life cycles see our previous post here "<yoastmark

Paul Alfrey

Hi I'm Paul, Originally from the UK I moved over to Bulgaria with my family 12 years ago and set up the Balkan Ecology Project. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance Arborist in the UK for 15 years. Balkan Ecology Project is a family project run by myself, Sophie and our two boys Dylan and Archie, and supported by the amazing volunteers we have hosted here over the years. We aim to develop and promote practices that provide nutritious affordable food while enhancing biodiversity and work to achieve this by: - Researching, designing and implementing systems on the ground - Providing working examples of our designs at our sites open for the public to visit - Providing quality education and training to aspiring growers and landscapers - Providing consultancy and design for landowners and farmers across Europe - Practicing an open source policy, whereby we disseminate our results freely and share all aspects of our work - Growing, selling and promoting the use of plants and plant communities that have high ecological and nutritional value Our activities currently include: Biological Plant Nursery, Educational Courses, Local Land Stewardship, Polyculture Research, Market Gardening​, and Consultancy and Design.

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