Life in a Dol house
2016 - Week 49

Shake, rattle and roll

Sunday was a beautiful day, with a clear, cloudless sky. My neighbour told me this week that the large White Mulberry, Morus Alba, which stands sentinel like at the corner of the now dismantled pig sty and the Fold yard is over 100 years old.

It seems his father (long deceased) used to collect the fruits when he was a child and lived at the house opposite. All the properties in this part of the village were owned by the Roić family, so everyone was related. In the recent past someone has pollarded the tree and the branches which have fruited well for me since I arrived are quite thin and of recent origin.

However, with a girth around the bowl of 180cm (six feet), it will have an extensive and deep root system, and it will be very close to the new buildings.

In the UK, it would have to be cut down, being so close to buildings, but here not - unless it starts to affect the foundations. But "Just in case", I decided to take some cuttings to get a replacement growing. 

Mulberry trees can be grown from semi-hardwood cuttings, taken in late autumn to early winter, or by what is called the "truncheon" method. I am going to try both, and see which works. The last of the leaves blew off this week, so in a state of dormancy now is the time. There are different methods of taking semi-hardwood cuttings, but with Mulberry, a cutting with a short heel, a sliver of bark cut from the main branch, work best. I mixed up my own cutting mix, with sharp sand, compost and soil and after cutting some suitable size branches, I trimmed some pencil thickness cuttings, dipping the heel end in hormone rooting powder before planting them in large pots in the greenhouse.

The "truncheon" method is suggested by the Royal Horticultural Society, (RHS), and a much thicker branch, around 25mm in diameter is cut, then trimmed with a sloping cut just above a bud and sealed, before the basal end is planted in a prepared trench in the garden. I have not tried this method of propagation before, so it will be interesting to see what happens. I hope that in the spring I will have at least one or two of the cuttings strike, so in case the old tree has to be felled, I will at least have some offspring to plant for the future.

On a bright and sunny Monday morning, with a range of tools in hand - very sharp knife, pruning saw, bushman saw, parrot bills, secateurs - I climbed up to the point where the new crown is growing from the old tree.

I measured it as 2.4 metres from ground level. What I found was not encouraging. At some time in the past there have been six branches where the trunk splits. All have been cut off, but not all at the same time.

A couple of cuts are extremely old and at this point the tree has become rotten with a hollow in the centre. I would not have been surprised to have found an owl inside, or perhaps one of our local squirrel like Edible Doormice. The hollow would make a perfect Drey, but it was empty.

Having killed any virus on the blades by sterilising them with bleach, I cut four 30mm to 50mm branches and brought them down to ground level. The centres of two of them were going brown, showing signs of disease in the tree, which is sad.

The south east side of the trunk is already dead and has been ravaged by boring insects.

Putting my Arborists hat on, I would condemn the tree, but the conservationist in me says that as it is still growing and producing fruit, I should leave it. I think though that it is coming to the end of its life, it is just a question of when?

That neatly brings me back to the reason why I was cutting branches, to propagate a scion for the future....

There are several varieties of Morus, the black (Morus nigra), red (Morus rubra) and my white (Morus alba), the Pakistan Long Mulberry, (Morus macroura) then the Mulberry bush of nursery rhyme fame and Morus austalis, not forgetting Morus bombycis. The success of different methods of propagation varies between species, but Morus Alba is supposedly the easiest. Which introduces the subject of Truncheons.

Whilst readers from the UK of a certain age and calling will know without any further explanation, exactly what I am talking about, but those on other continents and from different backgrounds will have no idea at all. However, one thing which was never covered at the District Training School was how to plant a Truncheon (in the ground), to get it to grow!

This is a peculiarly British English word for the wooden staff which police officers in the UK and our colonies carried from the inception of policing until the 1990's, when ASP's and Monadnock batons started to be issued. I still have my truncheon, made of Ash which I was issued with, second hand, when I was appointed. The best truncheons were made of Lignum Vitae, an incredibly dense and heavy wood, so heavy it sinks in water. But all truncheons issued to male officers were around fourteen inches long and an inch and half wide at one end.

Online there are a few discussions about Truncheoning with several writers doubting that it even works with Morus. However both the RHS and one of my go-to library resources, the Encyclopedia of Gardening by Christopheer Bricknell ( out of print but available on Abe Books ISBN 9780863189791) mention it as a possible propagation method. There are a number of tree species where you can take a length of branch, push it into the ground and watch it sprout into life. Here I am thinking about Willow, hazel, dogwoods and , collectively known as "live stakes", but it's worth a shot with Mulberry too.

I found this description in a pdf Vegetative Propagation Techniques, which states: 

Rooting a Truncheon - "Truncheons are branches, about as thick as a human arm that we can grow into new plants. The branches are cut at about 170-180 cm long. Cut the top of the branch at a slant, which prevents water from rotting the truncheon. Before planting the truncheon, it should first be kept under shade for a few days to develop a hard layer over the cut end. 

If the cut end is not covered with this hard layer, the truncheon may not root. The truncheon should be planted into a narrow hole about 60 cm deep. The best time for this method is the end of the dormant season when the plant still grows slowly. This method can be used with most trees which drip a white sap when they are cut."

A couple of authoritative sources suggest planting at the start of Spring rather than early winter, so I have kept a couple of branches on the tree, to be cut in early Spring and planted then. I have said before, but it bears repeating, that much of what I am doing is experimental. I will report back when I have some answers.

This week has seen me continue to dismantle the walls of the old stable. 

I set myself a target of removing all of the west facing wall, but as the wall gets lower, so the stones get bigger and heavier. Small, medium and large go in the wheelbarrow down to the ever growing pile in the salvage area. very large, too heavy for one person to lift, go individually on the sack barrow to a pile in the orchard and the boulder size are rolled, where possible, into the fold yard, ready for building work.

I have given some thought to how they will be lifted into place and as I have a chain hoist and long sturdy lengths of tree trunk, I think probably Sheer Legs and the hoist will be the best means, come the time... which all being well will be soon.

By Saturday I had exceeded my own weekly target by some measure. Clearly it was not SMART and sufficiently stretching! Having completed the removal of the south and west walls, I have made a start on the north wall, and about ¼ has been cleared. I need another four or five days to completely finish the dismantling process. It is always better to have someone else set the targets you have to achieve.

The west wall is down to soil level, apart from two immense stones which I cannot budge and the south wall has been reduced to the largest, almost immovable stones which form the buildings foundations. One in particular is 95cm long and almost 50cm wide and 40cm deep.

I wonder how many men it took to get all these limestone boulders into place? Equally, these buildings were erected before the days of the motor lorry and JCB. Every stone must have been hewn from a quarry, no doubt dynamite was used as an aid to the quarry men, but then the stones had to be loaded by hand and hauled by horse and cart, and you cannot get many tonnes of heavy stone in even a four wheel cart.

The origin of the stones is puzzling. While one or two are red sandstone, and in a couple of places I have exposed bedrock which is the same, quite a few stones show the unmistakable weathering of what appears to have been flowing water.

The rock is worn completely smooth, which only happens very gradually over eons. There is no permanent flowing water on the island, it being mainly a Karst landscape. The other possible answer is that it is as a result of glaciation, something I used to see in North Yorkshire, but this area of the Mediterranean was not under glaciation during the last great ice age.

The marks of glaciation also tends to leave striations on the stone and these are quite smooth. So where did all these smoothed stones come from?

But then, I'm not a geologist!

On the subject of geology, I was in my workshop just after lunch on Friday when things got interesting. 

There was a low vibration which quickly intensified and I felt the building heave and there was lots of shaking and rattling of tools as we had an earthquake

I wrote about earthquakes in Blog 44 on the 5th November . Friday's earthquake was centred at a depth of 21 kilometres just to the east of Trogir, which is where the international airport is located, on the mainland near Split, so quite close and registered 4.4 on the Richter scale,. There was no damage, no cracks have appeared, nothing fell off any shelves and there have been no aftershocks.

However it was a different story in Split and nearby communities. The EMSC website has the full story and if you look at the page of photographs you can see damage to buildings and infrastructure. 

I have also started on a new secret project. 

I began this a little while ago, with some intensive planning. Having worked out all the timber I need, I collected some lengths of Cantonela - 5 x 3 pine laths - and then cut them to size in the workshop.

One of the several things I miss (and no, Marmite isn't on the list, I can't stand it! But Pace Picante from Costco would definitely be there.) is PSE, or Planed Square Edge timber. The 5 x 3's are actually anywhere from 2.8 x 5.3 to 3.5 x 5.6 centimetres, so another job is to run the cut lengths through my thicknesser to get all the pieces to the same dimensions and at the same time give me some good surfaces to work with.

The Makita Thicknesser can only remove a maximum of 2mm per pass and practically I only remove 1½ mill at a time so I am not taxing the machine and blades. So with 21 pieces, or varying lengths, each with four faces, there was almost a couple of hours work to get them all to an exact uniform size. For this project, uniformity is key. It left a sizable pile of shavings which will be used on the wood stove.

The next stage was to create perfect 90 joints, using a dowling machine. This again took some time, to set the drilling jig up, so that it was perfectly vertical.

With 56 holes to drill, I wanted to make the process as streamlined as possible. I then realised I did not have enough wooden 7mm plugs. After an abortive attempt to get them here on the island, they have been added to my list for a visit to the mainland, which I was planning for before Christmas. With the ones I have, I was able to glue and clamp pieces of the frame together.

Winter is the time to pick Citrus Fruits.
I have an abundant supply of everything but grapefruit. 

My grapefruit trees are still small and were set back by a very cold spell in December two years ago, so it will be a little while before I can pick my own ruby grapefruit off the trees. Elsewhere in the village, the Persimmon or Kaki fruit are ripe.

My tree has only been in the ground for a year, so it will be a little while before I have my own to pick. But they do look nice at this time of year on the trees. But the prickly pears are ripe and ready!

I also picked the last of my raspberries for this year on Wednesday.

But as we approach the winter solstice, the sun will soon be making it's way north again, warming my Dol house.