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Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

I realise that by the time you read this Halloween will be over and you’ll be mentally preparing yourself for Christmas, but indulge my reflections on the gradual erosion of another piece of our food culture. Now I don’t feel old enough yet to say “in my youth”, but you know what I mean, when trick or treating we’d expect a haul for our bonfire feast that was roughly divided like this – a tenth money for sweets; a tenth Penguin Bars or Wagon Wheels; a tenth assorted other bars and sweets, and about three quarters and apples and nuts. Before heading out into the darkness with our friends we’d have enjoyed a family evening of humourous apple games and, never owning a nutcracker, tried a multitude of unsatisfactory nut opening techniques. These days, cash is expected and handfuls of minitreats are offered as a sweetener to encourage a song or rhyme before departure (Note: success in this cultural request is usually instantly regretted). But have you seen the look you get if you proffer an apple nowadays? Blank disbelief. I’m a bit saddened at this loss and it’s not just nostalgia. In my experience, Cadbury’s Minitreats taste exactly the same every day of the year, but apples certainly don’t – there is absolutely nothing like biting into a sharp, tangy Irish apple to remind me that though the natural world is fading to winter, it has taken care to store away its sweetness and strength.

 

This week I visited Paul McCormick and Jacinta French at Woodkerne Nurseries near Skibbereen who are trying to rekindle our interest in growing apples and nuts. The couple rear organic cattle and grow fruit and nut trees on the organic farm they share with Paul’s brother’s family and his parents. The cattle they rear are Angus and Angus Kerry cross, but they will soon be introducing Droimeann, which are a rare Irish breed. When I ask Paul about his interest in the project to restore this breed, his answer sums up a lot of what the couple are about – “We have a small farm and are never going to have a big herd, if we are going to make a difference, then we need do something different.” Paul and Jacinta both have a long standing interest in the environment, particularly trees. Jacinta worked as a volunteer in the Rainforest Movement in Canada before moving back to Ireland and has been involved with the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation in West Cork. Paul worked as a mechanic before moving to Ireland but has always been planting trees – “From the early days of the environmental movement in the 1980s, planting trees was the thing to do to save the planet. But at the same time, farmers were clearing them because they didn’t produce food. I thought maybe they do. We’re very interested in this idea of the forest garden. Fruit and nuts contain proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and sugars – in fact, most of the necessary components of a balanced diet. Together with meat and fish, fruit and nuts form the basis of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet to which our bodies have evolved. A lot of people think that we may be less well adapted to the grain/flour based diet than we assume – it’s a diet that stems from a 10,000 year experiment with grain agriculture.”

Paul and Jacinta take me out to walk their farm which they describe as a long term, small scale research project in which they are trialling dozens of varieties of fruit and nut trees. Near their home, they have set an orchard, which in years to come will provide apples, pears and plums at arms reach, as well as being a valuable wind break. We cross a ditch that has had its boundaries widened to accommodate the interspersed planting of hazels, cobnuts, apple trees and large fruiting hawthorn. Paul reckons that the loss of grass on the margins is made up for in improved grass quality owing to the shelter provided. In the next field a large corner has been planted with Heartnuts or Japanese Walnut. Of the four species of walnut suited to the Irish climate, these seem to be the most commercially attractive, and have been proven to thrive on Fota Island in Cork. We stroll down a laneway on which the ditches have also been put to use and stop at an area of hazel coppicing. “Hazel used to be a valuable crop. It was coppiced for sticks. Every time the stems were cut back to a few inches they would burst up in a multitude of shoots the next year. These were cut for use in building and furniture making. Alison Ospina in Skibbereen buys some from us to make her green wood chairs but no-one else uses them now. In other countries they have maintained their woodland traditions, like coppicing, but in Ireland that was lost after the Tudor plantations when the forests were cleared. Between 1600 and 1700, forest cover went from 25% down to 1%. That’s why we picked the name Woodkerne for our project – at that time it referred to people of the older culture who hid out as rebels in the woods.”

Further down the lane, we reach the old railway line and the trees take over. The old line, now naturally regenerated with ash trees leads to a pocket of natural woodland which Paul and Jacinta have interspersed with Sweet Chestnut trees, mainly French in origin. They have also grown some from seed collected from local trees and hybrids grown in north western USA. The undergrowth is dense and I wonder how one could harvest nuts among the briars, but Paul explains that as the trees spread the undergrowth will disappear. “We have grown cuttings from a huge walnut tree in Ballydehob. There is almost no growth under it, about two inches of grass and that’s all. You can literally sweep up nuts by the bucket load every year.”

A lot of the trees at Woodkearne Nurseries are grown from cuttings grafted on to roots from smaller, hardier specimens like crab apple trees. The method Paul and Jacinta use to compensate for poor soils is to grow trees on their own roots by planting the tree deeper than usual so that the graft is buried thus allowing scion roots to form. This contrasts to the general practice and gardening advice of leaving the graft above the soil. This method can produce trees that are larger than usual but given poor soils and sometimes difficult growing conditions extra tree vigour is not usually a problem. Eager to improve tree breeding, Jacinta and Paul are very keen to hear from anyone that has well cropping nut trees or native fruit tree varieties from which cuttings could be taken. If you are interested in growing fruit and nut trees in your own garden, you can buy bare root trees directly from Paul and Jacinta at Skibbereen and Bantry farmers markets from December to April or arrange to visit them at Woodkearne Nurseries near Skibbereen. Their full catalogue is available online at woodkerne.net

As Paul and I walk back to the car, we return to the environmental imperative for their project. “With oil running out rapidly it seems clear that we’re all going to have to start producing more of our own food. What I’d really love to see is all of our parks being planted with fruit and nut trees. They have that in some countries and people can just go in and take what they want.” Now, if they could just host the bonfires in those parks too wouldn’t they be ideal for Halloween parties!

 

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