Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Roadside Trees

I've touched on the politics of roadside trees elsewhere, and I've talked about urban trees for the future here. Any of those trees make good roadside choices, depending on location. Obviously, I'm willing to defend my own choices for what trees should be planted in urban spaces (go look at that blog post), but I also wanted to discuss tree selection based on principles that ought to be applied. Yes, this is in part about City Deal in Cambridge - but I hope these thoughts might be of wider interest too.

If we're looking at roadsides, there are for me 7 key principles we need to bear in mind.

1. Pollution resistance - if it'll die in traffic fumes its no good here.
2. Salt, flooding, and drying out - in restricted soil space on a road thats gritted this is all important
3. Root damage - if the tree will rip up the road lets not plant it
4. Appearance - lets plant trees that are beautiful!
5. Growth and shade - the right tree for the right place
6. Ecology and habitat - we should at all times foster a better environment.
7. Durability - lets not plant a tree that'll die of a disease months after it goes in

Now of course every tree is good or bad for some of those points - there is no perfect urban tree. But I think we can pick out a few species that are all-rounders and we should discuss those. And yes, I'm leaving out some lovely trees that are currently not doing so well due to disease in the UK (ash and horse chestnut in particular). And some that are great urban trees but rather less suitable to roadsides.

I should stress again that these are my 'likes' - there are many other options, but I'm aiming to get a discussion going on suitable trees for planting. And I'm not ashamed to put my own views forward to do so - these choices (and the ones in the earlier post) are personal, but I think defensible. Please, join in with your own views - but have a think about whether your preferences make good choices for the location you're discussing. I'll follow this post up with something about the specific locations we're looking at in Cambridge (although that might be on the Cambridge Cubed blog).

London Plane

We all know this tree. While its typical of London streets its also planted across much of the UK, especially cities in Southern England. It puts on a lot of growth in the first few years after planting and can become a massive, spreading beast of a tree. Its famous for being disease and pollution resistant, and its entirely happy being pollarded hard (so you can cut it back and extend its lifespan massively in doing so). Thats all great.

But its really rather spreading - if you've got lots of space its good, so you want wide bits of earth with room for roots to go down and out. And it provides loads of shade - if you don't want that, don't plant it. 

Its not amazing for wildlife either - nothing particularly to eat and its not one to foster the growth of a wide range of fungi. Its not awful for insects, but not superb either. I like this tree but for my money its over-used, too big for many places, and therefore perhaps best used sparingly now.


I quite like hornbeams, and they thrive on roadsides in London. There's a fastigiate (sticky up rather than spready out) form thats very popular on roadsides - that makes it a great choice if you're looking for a mid to large growing tree that doesn't shade too many things out. It has quite spreading roots but I haven't seen damage caused by this. Its great for insects and encourages fungi in the soil, and it has great autumn colour. The only word of caution would be that it rather seems to struggle in full light - its great for tightly shaded urban canyons, never seems as happy establishing itself in brighter light.


Or, lime trees. Tilia. Again, great urban trees capable of surviving in hostile environments, and which can be cut back again and again and still thrive. The commonly planted hybrid forms are near ubiquitous in England, and we all know them. They're great for insects and fungi - the only issue is perhaps they're a little TOO good for them. People complain like mad when they've parked their car under one of these in summer to come back to find sap all over the windscreen. There was a time when at Camridge Station the railway responded to that by putting the bike parking under the lime trees. Thanks guys!

They're big though - or at least have the capacity to get big. Shady, cooling, and lovely - but not for a narrow gap.

Rowan and other Sorbus

Loads of cultivars of this genus do well by roads, if they can get established. Some do well on clay (rowan), some seem happy in wetter conditions (some of the whitebeams), others are resonant of older periods in our history (wild service) - they're all middling to small trees, with blossom followed by heads of red (or orange, even green) berries. Fantastic for bids, of interest to foragers, not particularly messy, they're great for tighter spots - but they do still form a canopy. I'd like to see more varieties of Sorbus planted, they're all great fun.


Pear trees. Yes, I know. Go on, click on the link there and tell me you don't want to see that narrow, tallish, flowered and fruited tree by your roadsides. It can drop a bit of fruit - not like a wet mess of horrid like those ornamental crab apple trees, but some. And can struggle to get established in the driest of conditions - but its a grand tree and worth considering.

Field Maple

A native tree that does support wildlife, its not as big as its cousin the sycamore, nor is it quite as invasive. The helicopter seeds are almost as much fun as sycamore too. And it seems to survive nearly anything hurled against it. Great choice for roadsides, but, again, does need some spreading space.

Cherry/Cherry Plum etc.

You already know cherry trees. Flowers perhaps followed by fruit (and always plant a fruiting cultivar - why ever wouldn't you want beautiful berries for birds?) But have you spotted those lovely dark red leaved trees that have a fairly similar form, with red flowers and then dark red fruits? Thats a cherry plum. They're usually green leaved, with either green, yellow, red or even purple fruit following a white flower. Gorgeous trees that the birds go mad for. Then there are assorted varieties of almond and apricot worth looking at too - choosing a variety of types to add colour and interest to a planting scheme seems obviously a good idea to me.

You'll always find one of these trees that will fit in a reasonable space, and none of them are that massive. I'd urge some caution though - they're fast growing, but few really old specimens are around. They're not the very longest lived of trees - if you're wanting a treescape for your children then cherry and its cousins is a component of that but not the dominant type.

Sophora japonica

A tree that does well in a warmer climate - and as our climate warms this might be a winner. Lovely tree, and there are specimens thriving in London. Gorgeous, big flowering tree used by roadsides in some parts of the US and the far East - well worth investigating. But, again, not one for a very small space.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Tories and Fox Hunting (and me and meat)

This is a fox. Accuse me of being a scare monger if you want, but I'd like you to look at the fox here and tell me you want it hunted by a pack of slow moving hounds until its lost the energy to continue running, and then be ripped apart in the teeth of those hounds.

I'm not about to demand that wild animals should never be killed. I'm an omnivore, and I'm a fan of game. And vermin. Seriously, rabbit, pigeon, muntjac deer, these creatures are killed as agricultural pests - if you're a veggie these creatures are dying for your dinner whether you eat them or not. So I'm not going to say 'blood sports are wrong, mkay?'. That would make me a hypocrite. Grow crops and you deprive wild animals of resources, and their young will die. That is reality. We're stuck with it. The same is true of fish, crustacea and molluscs - I've gathered winkles, cockles, mussels, I've trapped crabs and caught shimp in nets. And eaten them all. I've eaten no end of line caught wild fish too. 

My point here is that killing and eating wild animals isn't a bad thing - its just a thing. It has to be done sustainably and responsibly of course, and the way we've over-exploited many fish stocks makes that a minefield for the ethical omnivore. But if you're looking for low environmental impact, low fat, high protein, high quality food at a reasonable price the critters I've listed up above are ideal. 

Life ins't quite that simple though, and just like if you're buying farmed meat you really ought to be looking into the detail of how the animals were reared (if you care at all for animal welfare or the environment we're all in), you've got to look more closely at wild game. So when I'm buying venison, pigeon etc. I'm looking closely at the carcass, (I'll buy a whole carcass for that very purpose) and yes, I'll ask searching questions of a game dealer or hunter to make sure we're on the same page - if they're responsible in their work they'll welcome this and, probably, enthuse at you about the whole thing.

So, if you're killing an animal as cleanly as you can, taking pains not to wreck the ecosystem its in, sustainably and responsibly, thats awesome. I'm OK with that. And unless you can, hand on heart' say you're taking quite extraordinary pains to ensure your food habits and lifestyle kill no animals, you should be ok with that too.

Now back to fox hunting.

Is it cruel? Yes. I mean lets not wrap this up with cliches, the beagle is bred for stamina rather than speed, its a slow creature that'll pick up and follow a scent all day, running the fox until the brink of exhaustion. The fox is a faster animal, but it can't run forever. Add to that the fact that the beagles are fed, watered, given all the advantages of modern veterinary science whereas the fox is scavenging and hunting in a harsh environment and rarely at peak health, and what we're looking at is an immensely unequal confrontation. Even a fox who survives has been subjected to an horrific chase and will have expended significant resources just in surviving massively un-natural predation, its a dangerous and unpleasant way of handling a wild animal hunt.

Is it sustainable? Well... No, not really. Sustainability isn't some magical thing that happens when you can do the same thing next year, its also about whats going on around the event. Fox hunts have a terrible habit of trespassing on other peoples land, stretching over and damaging farm fields, and the chase isn't just a few people on horse back - there are usually scores of 'foot followers' and frequently no end of vehicles following. The chase does damage to the countryside, and the idea that feeding high quality factory farmed protein to a mass of dogs to take out a small number of foxes is in some way a sustainable solution to dealing with the occasional problem animal is a complete absurdity. The overall footprint of the practice is massive.

Is it necessary and is it a good way of dealing with pest control? No. It really isn't. The total number of foxes killed by this practice was always small - the issue isn't the number, its the fact that running an intelligent wild animal to the point of exhaustion and then ripping it apart with beying hounds is a particularly cruel form of killing. Its not a good way of targetting a problem animal worrying livestock - you've no way of getting the 'right' fox thats attacking someones chickens. Its a terrible, terrible means of pest control.

So what is it for? Well fox hunting is traditional. Bluntly. The only argument in its favour is that for some in the UK (and its a tiny minority) its a traditional practice that they enjoy. They could compare that tradition to one of, say, the Inuit hunting whales (which is in some areas protected). I've heard that comparison made - and that comparison is vacuous crap. There is no need, no cultural necessity, no strong historic link between the practice and survival of the people doing it, it was a passtime for a few. And, more importantly, the rest of us from inside the same (British) culture recognise that and mostly oppose the practice.

You can, and really should, oppose bringing fox hunting back. It isn't effective, it isn't humane, it isn't sustainable, and it isn't OK. The drive to bring it back isn't a sign of the Tories being a modern, forward looking party - its a sign that they're putting the pleasure of a very few above the quality of humanity. To bring back the obscenity of fox hunting cheapens not only the Tories, but all of us. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Blackbird Brood in the Front Hedge

So I could talk about how our little front garden is a productive little space constructed on permaculture principles to give us multiple crops of greens, berries, nuts and other produce. I'd be sort of telling the truth too. What I'd be missing is that I also designed it to be a little oasis of interesting wildlife habitat in an otherwise mown-to-oblivion suburban landscape. Its usually got hedgehogs wombling around in it all summer, and the bird feeders and sheltered nesting spaces (with spiky, cat repelling plants making up much of the planting and wild garlic on the floor that cats hate the smell of) make it a frequent nesting site. Once in a while we even get someone nesting right under our bedroom window, giving us a superb view of the baby birds. And yes, we lose plenty of fruit to the beasties, but its totally worth it.

In about a fortnight from hatching, the first blackbird brood of the year has gone from blind pink things to fluffy little fledgelings.

Its almost 'blink and you'll miss it' with blackbirds. They hatch and grow so quickly. But totally worth planting a garden with nesting birds in mind.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Urban Trees of the Future

I got talking to a guy at the City Council about their tree strategy recently, and I've got to say I was impressed - Cambridge is a fabulously green city, and the city council does want to keep it that way in what may be a rapidly changing world. They're aware that a diverse range of urban trees is far more robust against various diseases - such as the one that wiped out most of our elms, and another which is taking such a heavy toll of ash trees now. When you look at the urban trees across a lot of cities in the UK, there are certain trends that are worrying, such as the prevalence of relatively few species of often closely related trees, which might mean that the our urban tree stocks could be vulnerable to diseases or climate change in the future.

So I thought that maybe I could contribute a few thoughts on this subject. I started out with a list of suggestions for urban trees I think could do well, and after half an hour of writing and dozens of listed cultivars I decided to cut things back a bit and just list a few I'd like planted in and around our cities based on four goals.

(1) Being uncommonly planted in towns and cities in the UK now - it isn't that linden or plane are bad, but broadening out what we're planting is a good idea
(2) Provide good cover/shade/aesthetics and being maintainable in this context (including resilience to polution or a warmer climate)
(3) Be in some way of use, producing fruit, nuts, leaves or something else of practial value
(4) Support wildlife - whether by being a rarely used native tree or in some other way

Yes, I know, they aren't independent goals, indeed every tree will do all of these things to some extent or another. But its a way of looking at things that might be useful. None of the suggestions I'm making do all of these things perfectly, but they all do some of them.

One last thing - at heart I'm a forager. I love the idea of planting as diverse a range of food producing trees as we can. I tend to think if we can plant a beautiful tree, or plant a beautiful tree that at some stage might be worth someone scrumping fruit from, the latter is obviously better. I accept my choices may be skewed thus, but I'd defend the selection of fruit producing trees as better for people and for wildlife.

So here we go with my list...

'Exotic' Prunus trees

I know, 'exotic' depends on context. But what I mean here is trees of Prunus genus that aren't commonly used in urban planting schemes in the UK. That means trees other than plum, cherry plum, cherry, blackthorn and damson.

There's a variety of peach that I believe would make a great park/city tree, a cultivar called Avalon Pride. I've had one in my garden for years, and unlike every other variety of peach tree that withers under the attack of peach leaf curl when we get one of our typical humid UK summers, Avalon Pride is largely resistant to this. So as our summers get ever warmer and our season for fruit becomes shorter as cherries, plums and damsons get earlier, broadening that season with other stone fruit seems sensible. Likewise, apricot trees (Prunus armeniaca) can do well, especially in the South of England, and I see no obvious reason not to plant them where there's space for a good sized tree. Not maybe for next to the busiest of roads (they can shed a lot of fruit), but a beautiful tree in flower, leaf and fruit.

Loquat and Medlar

I do like trees that look good through different seasons, so I'm of the opinion that trees that start off with great flowers and follow up with beautiful looking fruit are among the best options - something for bees, something for birds and other animals. And generally speaking our councils plant a lot of these - depending where you are there are certainly plenty of whitebeam and rowan trees in most cities.

One that I've seen far too rarely is the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica. Not a big tree ususally, rarely more than 4m tall, but the spikes of white flowers it has in Spring are followed by distinctive yellow fruit later in the year. Great looking thing. 

Another thats planted just occasionally is the medlar, Mespilus germanica. This one has an old, old heritage in the UK and across Northern europe because the fruit stay on the tree into the dead of winter, only becoming good to eat when they go soft (or 'blet' - not as weird as it sounds, several tree fruit benefit from this). As a fruit crop it has long since been superceded - but its another tree that provides a point of interest in any planting scheme, with flowers followed by fruit that don't look like anything else you'll ever find.


We're used to the good old varieties of oak trees we find in woodlands in Britain, but many cities seem loathe to plant them. This is a real shame, they can grow to a wonderful size and have a truly extraordinary lifespan, offering a host of sub-habitats for wild animals, fungi and even other plants. If we're going to continue to diversify what is planted in our cities, I'd go for things like Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) and Hungarian oak (Quercus frainetto), being species suited to maybe slightly warmer climates and able to withstand pollarding. Beautiful, shady, majestic trees.


Black (Morus nigra) and white (Morus alba) trees are glorious things - 15-20m high when grown, but slow growing. They're big, shady beasts. Trees of real stature, shedding delicious fruit that birds go mad for, and they're excellent habitat trees for insects and birds. Yet, strangely, they're not planted all that often in our cities. As our climate gets warmer I think this one could be a winner.


I don't really know why these really delightful relatives of elm aren't grown more commonly in the UK. They have lovely dense foliage, they get to a good size, and produce some small, vaguely edible berries that birds seem to love. The species native to Southern Europe is Celtis austraulis and I see no reason it shouldn't do really well in the UK, but Celtis occidentalis is a North American species thats maybe prettier. There are a number of species of this tree though, and for any local authority looking to broaden out the range of species it has I think this is a great bet. Quite a good size, 20m or so, but fast growing too so ought to be good in urban settings where cutting back is part of the management strategy.

Blue Bean Tree

This is a real oddity (Decaisnea fargesii) but where you see it growing in the UK it seems to do well. Only a small tree but one with delicate, alien looking flowers followed by almost metallic blue bean-pod shaped fruit. Again, of only tangential use (the fruit pulp is kind of edible but unexciting), but its a great little tree that has the huge advantage of not being closely related to anything else you're likely to see planted in British cities - if we want to ruggedise our urban tree stocks against future risks, thats got to be a good thing. 

Hardy Orange

Ok, I'm going out in a limb with this, its another really weird one. But thats the point of this article. I present the most darling little tree you'll ever meet, Poncirus trifoliata.

This is presently as close as you can get to a citrus tree happily growing outdoors in the UK. Its a spiky, slow growing, massively aromatic plant. Especially when in bloom, and it can produce the most unlikely looking small, bitter oranges (that as a push could be cooked into marmalade, but its really not worth it). The real reason for wanting to see more of this one planted is for the flowers, which are a brilliant bee-magnet. They love this tree. And its a good option for roadsides and verges where something smaller, slower growing and alltogether shrubbier will grow - I doubt it ever gets to more than a 2.5m in the UK, and it takes years to get that far. I've rarely seen one in the UK that was bigger than a good sized shrub, and its not renowned for being a big tree - surely a plant like this has to be worth a punt in hedges if we're looking to diversify?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Suburban Peasants guide to the Vegetable Crisis

Allegedly we're really short of vegetables in the UK. Or something. Courgettes are out of stock, iceberg lettuce is melting away, and there's a rude shortage of aubergines.

So we're seeing 'rationing' at supermarkets where they're restricting how many of each you can buy.

I'm a big believer in eating seasonally and locally - so I'm not affected by this. At all. Even a bit. Its February so, pretty much entirely, all of those things are being grown under cover in Southern Europe and even further afield. As the pound weakens and as imports get more expensive we'll be seeing such crops get ever more expensive at this time of year - so I would suggest simply using this as an opportunity to break the habit of relying on produce that'll only get harder to afford.

Now I'll grant you, traditionally February and March are the suckiest part of the year for local produce across most of the UK. Stored stuff is starting to want to go off as the days get longer, and fewer things are left standing in the fields - its had to survive through winter and now it all wants to run to seed and be ready to produce baby plants for Spring. If you go back a few hundred years people would actually be at risk of starvation. But we're not in the 15th century any more, and we have ample varieties of good, resilient vegetables to please anyone, before even we consider whats growing wild at this time of year.

Vegetables in season to buy

Brassicas are the stalwarts of winter vegetables - savoy cabbage, hard white and red cabbages, kale (cavolo nero, red kale, green curly kale...), Brussels sprouts, and of course sprouting broccoli and winter cauliflowers are all excellent now. Thin sliced white cabbage is a super basis for a salad. Leeks are still good and will be for another month or two, and you can get freshly dug parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, and if you've a really good greengrocer maybe even salsify or scorzonera. Onions store well through winter, as do potatoes, squashes and pumpkins and its quite likely your local farm shop or market will have local ones of those. I also spotted some excellent local carrots, chard, beetroot, turnips and swedes. Oh, and the forced rhubarb is just starting. Do we really have to resort to air freighted shopping when such goodies are available? 

Cambridge Market, today.

Foraged Vegetables

The thing about February, the most amazing thing about this month, is that if you look really closely you'll see the rejuvenating shoots of Spring appearing all over the place. As the day gets longer, there are more and more green vegetables growing wild every single day - and they're young, tender, sweet and tasty, and the perfect basis for salad (I'll upload photos next time I pick some during daylight hours).

I'm gathering plenty of chickwed, three cornered leek, cow parsley, dandelions, crow garlic and Alexanders. I can go out and get a good green salad in minutes - its faster to walk down the hedgerow by the park on the way to the supermarket than it is to go to the actual supermarket. Why wouldn't I pick a salad rather than buy a more expensive one that'll not taste as good?

I'm also finding the occasional velvet shank mushroom, I'm still getting blewits, oyster mushrooms aren't unlikely and its not beyond the realms of possibility to find the odd morel near the end of the month.

I'm not suggesting here, for an instant, that you've all got to start growing all your own veg and foraging for every meal - but have we, as a nation, really got to a point where a shortage of imported lettuce holds back our eating habits? Is a lack of courgettes actually a problem? Britain, we're better than that. Can we you not all just do a bit better? Consider yourselves challenged...

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Jars and bottles... A plea for sense!

I wish to share with you the frustration felt by those who re-use bottles and jars for wine, jame, chutney, etc. And point out, at the same time, that the way we make and use glass materials is stupid.

Jars and bottles really need to do 2 things - they have to store materials for which they're constructed safely and reliably, and they have to provide a space to identify the contents and brand. And they should be reusable and recyclable.

What I don't want, either for myself or across the whole of the marketplace, is bottles and jars that can't be reused or which are so variable as to be nearly useless. I want jars which basically have the same lid sizes as each other, and bottles that are more or less re-useable. What I don't want is what I actually have - a crate each of bottles and jars of varying sizes all waiting for re-use, with a multitude of different lids for each.

Now its bad enough for those of us who make things to re-bottle, but think about the supply chain. We buy a jar of something, we send the jar back for recycling, its melted down to make another jar... Why? I mean, what's the advantage to us in spending all the energy melting glass to make more nearly identical items? 

I'd like to suggest the following. Lets have, say, 5 standard jars, and 5 standard bottles in the EU. So suppliers have got plenty of designs to choose from such that when combined with a label its very clear what the product is. And after use, rather than smashing them up and melting them down lets put an old-school deposit on them, so you can take them back to claim a deposit (or save them to use). Wouldn't that be a more sensible solution?

Oi, folk in the Green party or any other politicians wanting to do something simple and sensible... Are you listening to the pleas of a home-jam and wine maker?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Parasol Mushrooms

Lots of mushrooms around in Cambridge right now, and when we get a bit more rain there will be lots more. I haven't done a foraging video before, so let me know if this is of interest.

Among the fungi that do best in this city are the parasols - Macrolepiota rhacodes, M. procera and M. hortensis being the most common edible species. By 'edible' I mean easy to identify, delicious, versatile and useful, but a word of warning - some people do seem to 'not get on' with them, so as with any new foodstuff, try a little out first time to see if you're okay with them. I know, it seems frightening - but think how many people you know who can't eat some normal foodstuff you're fine with, and you'll start to understand that this is just how it is - a forager is exposed to hundreds of different foodstuffs that most people don't eat, and sooner or later you'll find something you don't get on with.

Anyway, here are some lovely parasols...

I won't bore you all with identification - there are better sites for this than mine. But I will say that you do need to take care you know what you're doing. Not that these look anything like death caps or destroying angels, but I'm sure you take my point...

When you've identified them, pick only what you need of course. They're fine just used as substitutes for other mushrooms, but I think you can make the most of them with dishes that rely on their light texture. Dip them in garlic flavoured batter and fry them fast and hot until golden, they're delicious. They make a lovely omelette. Or just fried with bacon. One of the finest wild mushrooms you'll find.