Yellow Rattle Harvest

dscn4063Volunteers have been harvesting Yellow Rattle seed (rhinanthus minorat St Margaret’s Open space this week in our latest effort to manage the meadows and orchards organically.

Yellow Rattle is a herbaceous annual plant with yellow flowers. It is also a parasite to grass or other neighbouring plants, withdrawing nutrients from their root system. In doing so, Yellow Rattle restricts grass growth and increases biodiversity.

The effects are clearly visible where Yellow Rattle is in abundance; grass is less vigorous and other plants such as white clover get a chance, too.

We plan to sow the seed in autumn at St Margaret’s Orchard and The Piggeries Orchard, improving biodiversity and saving ourselves some hay making work.



Ox-Eye Daisy

ox-eyed-daisyOx-Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is widespread across the meadows along the orchard trail, and we are lucky to have them not only for their beauty but also for their record-breaking pollen production, which attracts bees to the site.

I like how Wikipedia describes this wonder of nature in scientific terms yet maintains a notion of the wonder:

Leucanthemum vulgare was top-ranked for pollen production per floral unit sampled at the level of the entire capitulum, with a value of 15.9 ± 2μl, in a UK study of meadow flowers. The corn poppy, Papaver rhoeas, was top-ranked for the per flower rate at 13.3 ± 2.8μl.

We were surprised to see pollen measured by volume but otherwise enjoy both description and display.


It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

DSCN2324Songs have been sung about the fact that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. The song does not refer to spring when life returns in abundance, or summer when living is easy, or autumn when we harvest much of the year’s produce. It is of course about Christmas but for me, right now most certainly is one of the most wonderful times of the year.

Many trees are still in flower and the meadows are a sea of green, waving in the breeze and dotted with yellow, white, blue and purple flowers. Life emerges in abundance and with vigour wherever you look. There’s almost no holding back on the nettles or bramble, Giant Hogweed or indeed on apples, cherries, pears, plums or quinces, or anything else.

Why not explore the orchard trail this weekend?

Alone and in peaceful silence, with friends, with dogs, with kids. We have tried all these variants and everyone came out thumbs up and with a smile, every time.

You can view or download our brochure here for guidance.

You will also notice that the spring meadow cutting is under way across the orchard trail, an important and invigorating step in managing a meadow’s annual life cycle. Volunteers are always welcome!  We offer perfect opportunities to work up a sweat, to get stung, to get a suntan, to do something good, to be part of it. And we are very nice people (according to us). Why not join our ranks, once, or twice, or sometimes, or regularly?

Some Degree!

DSCN3180_kindlephoto-159357232Many of you will have stood upon the 0° longitude line, our very own Meridian in Greenwich. Quite a few will have crossed the 0° latitude line, the equator. Some will have heard of the 47th parallel, famous for defining part of the border between the USA and Canada.

Many have drawn a right angle and some view everything under a different angle.

But do you know the magic of the 137.5° angle?

A 137.5° angle is known as the golden angle, because it occurs when cutting a circle into two pieces under the golden ratio: 360° – 360° / φ ≈ 137.5°, where the golden ration φ ≈ 1.61803, or (1 + sqrt(5))/2 precisely.

Many plants grow according to the golden angle, for example by growing a new leaf rotated around the stem from the previous leaf by 137.5°. The effect is that the leaves grow with minimum overlap, therefore maximising sun exposure on every leaf. Not just little overlap but the minimum overlap mathematically possible. Isn’t that clever?

I don’t think our fruit trees show much appreciation for the golden angle, but one might still find other more mathematically-minded plants out there. I am inclined to give the nettles a closer look, or the Giant Hogweed and its relatives, also the horsetail’s thin leaves, raspberries and blackberries, or the dandelion and hop flower maybe?

Get It While You Can

DSCN3958We were out and about in the Piggeries Orchard this week, with the usual agenda of looking after things in general and looking after re-emerging bramble, enthusiastically growing bindweed and the new horsetail growth in particular. All in all we collected two wheelbarrows of the unwanted flora.

Most importantly though, we learned what to do, and what not to do, with the Giant Hogweed that grows in the back right corner.

Giant Hogweed, or Heracleum mantegazzianum, is an invasive plant. The phototoxic sap causes severe skin burns in contact with sunlight, sometimes with lasting scars. Burns can occur several days after contact with the sap and are quite unpleasant at best and horrific at worst. Wikipedia has more details about the plant and the skin reactions, which are called phytophotodermatitis.

The bottomline for us is fairly straight-forward:

  • Remove the plants as early as possible using a spade, taking as much root with you as possible. The plants die easily and compost.
  • Never touch the sap, a broken leaf stem or root. Use gloves and touch only the leaf itself. Don’t lick your gloves.
  • Don’t hack at the plants, shred them, or use a power strimmer of any sort as these can spread sap uncontrollably.
  • When in contact with sap, rinse, stay out of sunlight and seek medical advise.

It all sounds more dangerous than it is if handled with care, but the danger is not to be taken lightly and a good dose of careful responsible handling is prudent.

Similar risk and precautions apply to related “friends”, the Common Hogweed and Hemlock, also common in the Grand Union Canal corridor.

I don’t actually know the statistical risk profile but I would feel confident to say that you are more likely to stumble across a rabbit hole and break an ankle than suffer from severe phytophotodermatitis caused by accidental contact. But still, when you’re out there chasing the bramble invasion or chasing after your dog, whether you are taking a sunbatch in the meadows or flying a kite with your children – just be careful, OK?

Climate Change


First I want it cold, now I want it warm. You’d think I am in a hormonal transition! But truly, we need climate change, and we need it now.

We got through the winter all right, even though the Beast From The East threatens with a chill over the Easter weekend.

Our next challenge is pollination.

Trees are very sensitive to cold weather at flowering time and a night of frost can wipe out a large proportion of the crop. Even without frost, damp and outright wet conditions prevent many pollinators from flying: While bees can fly in the rain for limited distances, they like cold rain about as much as you or I. And there is the temperature to consider:

Pollen germination requires at least ~5 C, and the all-important pollen tube grows very slowly below 10 C. When it grows too slowly, the pollen deteriorates before fertilisation occurs.

So, we need 10 C at least, and reasonably dry conditions for the pollinators to fly and do their job. Honey bees fly from ~16 or 18 C, bumble bees and solitary bees begin 5 degrees earlier.

In other words: we need climate change.

We need a warm spring with just the right amount of rain, followed by those sunny long summer days and balmy evenings before a glorious golden autumn awaits us, full of sunshine and full of fruit which somehow managed to grow and ripen against all these odds and challenges.

Having said all that:

Happy Easter!

Join us after the Easter celebrations for our first Tree Tending Tuesday of the year!

We’ll meet Tuesday April 3rd, 18:30 o’clock at Elthorne Triangles by the Trumpers Way Scout Hut. No tools or experience necessary!

A Chilling Thought

daffThey forecast another cold spell for this weekend as I write these lines. After this past week’s balmy weather, this could spell trouble for early opening buds.

But did you know that cold is good, if done right, for fruit trees and biennial plants like cabbage, sugar beet, celery or carrot? These plants all need to reach deep sleep through a cold period before they can blossom. Much like we rest through the night, apple trees, for example, typically need 1000 hours below 6 or 7 C, and not too much below 0 degrees through the dark season.

Of course we all know that much below freezing is called “freezing” for a reason! It’s no longer a chill, and much above 6 or 7 degrees makes some boys peel their shirts off. A chill is between 0 and 6 or 7 degrees, give or take.

1000 hours, that’s 42 days or a month and a half to you and me. The chill units don’t have to be sustained just like we don’t need to slumber through 6 to 8 hours of deep sleep every night (scientifically known as NREM Stage 3). It seems obvious, but is not clear to me, just how much fluctuation in temperature the trees can take before they are stuck in light sleep and fail to reach full dormancy.

Please let us know if you are a local fruit tree whisperer.

Different varieties and different species have varying chill unit requirements. Local weather records shows that most of February, much of January and some of December should qualify for plenty of apple tree chill hours, albeit not always continuously.

A third of the orchard trail has been planted three years ago and trees are looking fabulous, so we should see those trees bear a reasonable harvest thanks to the lovely cold. Provided the bees will fly at the time of blossom, and no hard frost will hit late, and the many other factors that make successful organic fruit growing a bit of a game of chance won’t come to fruition. Fingers crossed!

At least it’s nice to know that we have been shivering for a good cause, don’t you agree?

Oh Deer

not-a-deerThe BBC opened its Winterwatch programme with a report on Muntjac deer, reminding us that our resident park ranger James reported a possible sighting of a Muntjac in the Hanwell Meadows some while ago.

Before anyone gets excited one way or another, let me say that that reported sighting was from a great distance and is as yet unconfirmed. Reeve’s Muntjac are a modern times invasive species without natural predators in Britain, and sightings have been reported all over West London.

It seems quite plausible that a some Muntjac made the orchard trail their home though. We have no shortage of thicket, some even safe from dogs behind fencing along the railway line in the Hanwell Meadows. Muntjac are small deer with a shoulder at human knee height, but they are certainly big enough to explain some of the rabbit bite damage we have seen and couldn’t quite explain the enormous size of the rabbits required.

Muntjacs live alone or in pairs and are shy, making them difficult to find. You might be lucky to spot one, or hear its laughter-like bark. Please let us know if, where and when you do. Dare I hope you snap a picture, too?

The picture accompanying this article does not show a Muntjac deer.


Mangement Speak

dscn2923_kindlephoto-227171838Let’s talk about management strategies today!

I am of course referring to urban scrubland management in general and our orchard trail in the Grand Union Canal corridor in particular. No hollow phrases or Powerpoint slides in this management speak!

Research of biodiversity in urban environments confirms that biodiversity depends on habitat diversity.

By cutting back scrubland in selected areas in the Grand Union Canal corridor while leaving large areas of scrubland undisturbed, we add pockets of habitats through the introduction of open areas with small meadows and new trees, encouraging fauna and flora to complement the life hidden among the mostly thorny and stingy world of London’s wild west.

We have no biodiversity statistics for the area but personal observation shows that the area is rich in small mammals, amphibians, songbirds, bats and larger birds such as the heron, cormorant or the occasional green woodpecker and plenty of waterfowl. Oh, and the insects regularly introduce themselves in abundance, including the occasional nest of wasps or wild bees.

Perhaps you have photos documenting biodiversity in the area of the orchard trail?

We’d welcome contributions! Please submit photos to hanwell orchard (in one word) at gmail dot com including your full name, a short description of the variety or species shown, and where and when the picture was taken, and we’ll create a public photo gallery documenting biodiversity along the Grand Union Canal corridor between Osterley Lock and Bixley Triangle.

Can’t wait!


Funny Fungi

dog-vomit-fungusIt’s late in the mushroom foraging season, but with luck you might still come across these funny fungi, sometimes aptly called the dog vomit mushroom.

It’s neither dog vomit nor fungus. You might have been carefully looking away from a slime mould, entirely harmless and natural albeit visually unappealing to most of us. There’s a good chance of finding some around the wood chip and bark used for mulching all along the orchard trail.

Fuligo septica is able to actively move to better food sources! How cool is that! Wikipedia describes it as a multinucleate mass of undifferentiated cells that may move in an ameboid-like fashion. Now it not longer sound quite so cool, but still… fascinating, don’t you agree?