Ash trees and windbreaks

ash area
Ash grove in red (April 2018)

We are concerned about the central area of the tree field where we have planted a band of ash trees.  In retrospect I wish I hadn’t planted quite so many in such a large band, but I did have my reasons.  I had read that planting larger groves of the same sort of tree is better – they look better together than smaller groves or a complete mixture.  Also the soil there seemed a little shallow, not really thin – just over a spade depth generally, and I’d read that ash trees have shallow roots, so thought logically that they wouldn’t mind the soil being shallower.  So far so good.  However, the ash hasn’t grown that quickly.  Particularly below the trackway.

view summer 2018
Ash trees on right not as well grown as those on left (August 2018)

I think there are three reasons for this. First they don’t take exposure too well – there is quite a bit of dieback overwinter and those that are more sheltered suffer less.  Secondly the area which I planted them in is just slightly well drained, and shallower on the downhill side.  This is a good thing in some ways; ash trees don’t like to be sat in water.  However in the spring when we get a nice dry spell, I wonder if the trees are getting slightly starved.  There is competition from the particularly fine vigorous grass that likes the same well drained drier conditions.  Those that we managed to mulch along the track edge have done better.  The third aspect that I wonder about is that I found what appear to be vine weevil larvae all over the field, and again they like the drier conditions in this area.  Maybe they are also eating the ash roots?

vine weevil
Evil weevil grub

In the longer term I expect that we will have to replace the ash trees with something else (something that will like shallow drier soil…).  In the meantime I’ve obtained some spruce and pine seedlings and have planted them to form extra windbreaks in the future.  Hopefully they will give the ash trees a little more protection in the medium term, and if we do need to remove the ash due to chalera dieback, will protect whatever we replace them with as they get established.  I have marked the position with hazel stick cut from new hazel trees that were a birthday present.  These were rather larger than I have planted in the past, so I trimmed them back when planting so they would not suffer too much from wind rock.  We will aim to mulch some of these new spruce to give them a head start against the grass, but there are so many other things needing doing…. at least we will be able to find them from the hazel twigs when we do get round to it.

dog help
Dog help.

Although the spruce trees are tiny, I have planted them in a double spade width hole as I did with the original plantings.  It is easy to see now which way the prevailing wind is, by the direction of the grass strands across the turf.  I managed to plant a couple of bands of spruce perpendicular to the wind direction two or three trees deep amongst the ash trees.  The pines I mostly planted at the edges of the trackway and the very edge of the tree field where the track goes next to the southern boundary.

combed grass
Easy to see wind direction
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Spring fever

Now comes my favourite time of year.  From the winter dark, wind and rain, the days suddenly get longer and with the clock change to summer time at the end of March we also tend to get a change to dry settled weather.  Long days, wall to wall sunshine and a drying breeze soon turn the sopping muddy soil to a workable consistency and now is the opportunity to do any weeding or digging projects.  I start far too many things and still achieve half of what I want to get done!  The grass starts growing and seemingly overnight violets and celandines join the early primroses in the parade of spring flowers.

violets
First Spring Violets

It is also the time that the crofters set the hills afire.  The top growth of heather and dead grass is burnt away every few years.  This lets fresh new grass have it’s share of the sun and rain in order to feed the sheep when they return to graze on the moors after lambing.  There are rules now that should be adhered to, including not burning after mid April, so as to allow ground nesting birds to breed safely.  These (and other reasons) mean that the hills don’t get burnt so often, so every now and then the fires get a bit out of hand.  There was one that was burning at the far end of the glen for two days and nights last week, fanned by a strong breeze (it was mostly the other side of the hill).  They can sometimes set the peat underneath on fire, if it gets too dry, and can carry on burning underground, springing into life again seemingly from nowhere.  Someone locally whimsically wrote ‘here be dragons’ on one burnt road sign….

wild fire
Wild Fire Skye

I’ve been moving plants in and out of the polytunnel day and night this week, to try and harden them off ready to plant out.  I have also managed to plant out my ribes odorata or clove currant which was sat outside all winter.  This is a black fruited shrub from the US that has clove scented berries.  I hadn’t realised however, how ornamental the flowers would be.  Attractive yellow with a pleasant scent, they will make a nice show at this time of year.

Ribes odoratum flowers
Ribes Odoratum spring flowers

Unfortunately I have had to prune the bush right back after planting, since it was quite root bound in a small pot.  I have cut through the roots at the surface to try and encourage regrowth, since they are very  congested.  The top growth would have been far too much for the root ball, so I felt that removing most of the branches was the best thing.

root ball bound
Rather root bound!

Unfortunately it means I won’t be likely to get many berries this year.  I have stuck the cuttings in the ground adjacent to the bush in the hope that they will root, (removing most of the flowers and leaves) although it is really too late for that to be very likely.

Ribes odoratum planting 2019
Truncated clove currant left and hopeful cuttings right

I was excited to be given some crug zing japanese ginger roots.  Having seen this at Eden project last year, I was keen to see whether I could grow it here.  It seems likely to do well.  Jim at garden ruminations was happy to get rid of it, since it was a bit of a garden thug for him, with inconspicuous flowers at the base of luxuriant top growth.  However both spring shoots and autumn flower buds are esteemed as vegetables in Japan, so I look forwards to trying it here in future.  Since Jim gave me a substantial number of crowns (thank you!), I have been able to try it in several different places.  Notably near my Toona sinensis shrub where I may create an oriental themed planting area.  I was excited to note several Hablitzia plants sprouting along the willow bank around the fruit garden.  They actually look pretty happy so that is encouraging.  I think they could be a staple leaf crop through the spring and summer once established.

I have managed to get the steps on the drive bank completed, and am gathering up suitable plants ready to plant up the freshly bare soil before the weeds get a chance to recolonise it (hence the polytunnel daily migrations).  I was able to get a nice looking lavender and broad leaved thyme plant in Portree along with some house leeks – thanks Frances for that suggestion for wall crevice planting!  The picture below shows how much drier the soil is and how much the leaves on the sycamore have come out in just a week (even more so now).

wall plants
Gathering plants….

So much fun to be had….

 

 

Mushroom logs

all together
Ready to go

Despite S’s disapproval I have stolen the bottom part of three of my freshly felled alder trunks to try out my mushroom spawn kits.  These were a present from a sister and I am very keen to see how they do for me.  I have not tried growing mushrooms on wood logs before.  I once had a home buttom mushroom kit, which was fun, albeit not that productive.  I have also tried (and failed) before with growing oyster mushrooms on newspaper logs, but I’m hoping to have another go on newspaper with the rest of this spawn kit.  The kit came from Ann Millar albeit through a third party I think.

It is important that the logs used are freshly felled.  This is partly so that they have not been infected with other non-edible competing fungi, and partly so that the moisture content is high enough for the spawn to live and grow.  The instructions with the kit suggest not more than three weeks old, which seems a very short period of viability.  The logs are a little small in diameter, but I don’t think that should matter too much – they may not last as well as a bigger log.  They are supposed to be 10 – 15 cm, and I think mine taper down to less than this.   I suppose the biggest risk is thay may dry out.

The mushroom spawn comes on wooden dowels, they have now reached their best before date – but have been sitting in the fridge so should be good to go.  The process is simple:  Drill appropriate sized holes in the fresh logs, insert spawn infected dowels, wrap in plastic and leave in a dark place for 6 to 18 months till spawn permeates logs, initiate fruiting by moving to light damp location, pick mushrooms, rest and repeat.  Since I have three sorts of mushroom spawn, I have also labelled the three logs with a metal label tied round with string.

all finished
All finished, ready to wrap

They have been placed in separate binliners (to save cross infection) under a bit of pond liner under a trailer.  They should be out of the way there for a bit.  I’ll check on them every now and then to see how they look.

tucked away
Not very exciting picture of exciting log hiding place.

Building walls

drive bank wall
Drive bank wall

Finally the drive bank is starting to look like I’ve been working on it (see also here for earlier work).  To any person skilled in the art, it looks like a pile of stones rather than a retaining wall, however, I know I can walk securely on the top layer of stones, so am pretty happy with it.  As a happy consequence of my ineptitude, there will be plenty of planting crevices to squeeze in a few little plants in the wall itself.  As it weathers, and with some planting to soften it, I think it will look well.

The area between the ramp (unfinished – it will have steps) and the sycamore tree should be quite a favoured microclimate.  It faces south west, but is partially sheltered by the workshop on the far side of the drive from the prevailing winds, and I’m also intending to plant some shrubs at the top of the bank behind it.  It should be well drained; being a bank with loose rocks on it’s face, and these rocks will absorb the sun through the day and protect a little from the frost.  It should be shaded first thing in the morning, so any frost can gradually melt rather than having an extreme change of temperature.  I’m therefore hoping that I can try a few things in this bed that are a bit tender.  It should certainly suit some mediterranean herbs like rosemary and lavender, maybe sage.  I have an Atriplex halimus (salt bush) plant that I grew from seed, that may do well there, although it may grow a little big.  If any of my Tropaeolum speciosum seeds germinate this would look stunning clambering up the tree.  In the short term I also have some perennials that I grew from my HPS seed last year.  I’ll have a bit of an audit over the weekend, since I am hoping to go to Portree next week (I need more compost) and can get some more plants if necessary.  I’d quite like this area to be a bit more ornamental in nature, rather than the more unkempt back-to-nature look that most of my garden has!

road bank
Fuchsia root by roadside

I managed to relocate two large lumps of white fuchsia roots to the road side behind the house (the house backs onto the road so our front garden is at the back, and the rear garden is just the road verge and bank).  The dogs like to run along the fence harassing pedestrians and chasing Donnie’s truck and the odd stray sheep.  The ground therefore is challenging for hedge planting, since it is compacted and trampled as well as having almost no wind protection at all.  There may be some forward protection due to the house behind and the spruce trees by the driveway.  At some point in the past it looks like someone attempted to put a second pedestrian access down the bank behind the house.  All that remains is a zigzagging canyon, forming a trip hazard and eyesore.  I have therefore planted the fuchsia roots at the top end of this zigzag, buttressing them with rocks and rubble and backfilling with soil and stones where I have been excavating the second tier retaining wall by the drive.  In my experience, fuchsia are tough plants so I expect the roots to survive both the relocation and the location to thrive.  In the event of them failing, I have got some younger stems covered with soil which I’m intending to stick in the ground to try and take new plants from.

The strawberry plants at the top of the bank by the sycamore, which got covered with soil when I was excavating the fuchsia and the ramp a few weeks ago, seem to be surviving under their blanket.  There are several fresh leaves appearing.  These are running alpine strawberries, which I bought in to try as a ground cover and am hoping will have useful berries (no sign last year).  On the bank below, near the tree, I found a single plant of sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).  By appearance it could have been a number of things, but the aniseed fragrance is a dead give away.  I suspect that I threw a few seeds around there in the hope that some would sprout.  I didn’t notice the plant last year, but this must be it’s second year judging by the little taproot.  I’ve transplanted this a bit further back near to where I have planted a bladdernut (staphlea pinnata).  I noticed that the good king henry plants, that I planted near the bladdernut last year, seem to be coming back OK.  The other plants that have been growing around the sycamore are……more sycamores.  I’m collecting them up into a little bucket and am considering planting them down in the tree field where the ash aren’t doing so well.  I didn’t plant many sycamore (just some potted seedlings I had been given) mainly because it has the reputation of being a somewhat anti-social tree.  However, I’m now just thinking if it grows….

scyamore bud
And the buds are beautiful

A Long Harvest

25th March 2019.

coppice 1
First Cut

Almost ten years to the day after planting them, I coppiced my first alders down by the river.  It was hard to do.  Moderately hard physically, but challenging mentally too.  Not so much the act of cutting the trees down; I have faith that the trees will grow back bigger and faster than before (see below).  More challenging was which trees to cut so as not to lose all the shelter, and whether to cut back fully, leave a longer stump, or just take out one trunk or more of a multi stemmed tree.  The bowsaw is a bit blunt, despite having a new blade not so long ago, so I actually used my folding pruning saw for much of the cutting.  I must look and see what small electric saws are available.  I think a rechargeable could save quite a bit of elbow grease and be kinder to the trees as well as me!

regrowth
Tree to left of dog prematurely coppiced 5 years ago

I have to cut what I am going to this week.  Leaves are starting to open and buds to swell.  The trees will find it harder to recover if they put too much life back into what I am cutting back.  Also the wood would take longer to dry out ready for burning.

The alder wood is supposed to be useful in areas that are permanently damp – like the tree itself funnily enough.  They used to use the wood for clog soles and protective boot soles in foundries even after the second world war.  I don’t think my trees are quite big enough for that, although it would be amusing to make one’s own shoes.  It’s not excellent for firewood,  supposedly it tends to smoulder, but this is less of a problem in a stove.  It has the big advantage to us of being a fast growing, nitrogen fixing tree that likes damp soil.  I wish I had planted much more of it.  When first cut the wood surface is pale in colour, but it quickly goes an orange colour that then fades to brown over a few months.

alder rings
orange staining – alder growth rings

As well as larger trunks (some of which should be good for an ‘overnight burner’ or two) there is a vast amount of smaller branches.  These will still feed a growing fire and even the tiniest make good kindling.  What I have tended to do with the prunings I have gathered to date is leave it in piles down the field, roughly where it was cut.  Over six months to a year the twigs dry out, the grass dies back a bit underneath, and grows lush nearby where it is sheltered.  Every so often when taking the dog-boys down the hill for a run, I bring back an armful of kindling and put it in the woodshed to dry.   The more twiggy bits tend to break off and get left in the grass, but that adds to the soil biomass.

pruning paths
Lower branched pruned – top loop, prior to tidying into piles
twiggy piles
Summer time pruning pile

Taking the wood up an armful at a time isn’t going to be practical for the larger stuff.  We are intending to put up little shelters and pile up the branches cut to size near to where the trees were felled.  Hopefully we have enough pallets and fenceposts together with the old roof sheets off the byre to create shelters to keep the worst of the weather off.

S. has stripped out an old Land Rover Discovery vehicle and equipped it at the back with a framework to act as a saw bench.  This is also to be used to bring the dry cut wood up to the wood shed after it has dried for a year or so.  Although whether it will be worth keeping the vehicle mobile for many more years, remains to be seen.  The engine is sweet, but the electrics and chassis are rotten!

teuchter wagon
Teuchter wagon

Anyway, I definitely felt the first warmth of the firewood today.

first heat
First warmth

Forgotten Things

polytunnel tulips
Tulip in Polytunnel

It is funny how quickly I forget what I planted where.  I had a load a bulbs that I ordered from JW Parkers this autumn.  I did manage to get most of the bulbs planted at a reasonable time (although the left over lilies were a bit late getting stuck in a pot), but with one thing and another didn’t really have much of a chance to prepare planting places for them.  Really I should have planned it better.  Anyway, when these sprouts came up in the polytunnel in February near my pineapple guava (feijoa sellowiana) I was a bit puzzled.  I convinced myself that they must be camassia as I remembered that was one of the plants I had bought several of.  However I have now remembered that they are tulips!  These were free bulbs (purple and white flowers) for making an order, and I have recently found out that tulip petals are edible (although toxic for cats and people with lily allergies, as is the rest of the plant).  With no real hope of repeat flowering outside I thought I would give them a go in the tunnel are here they are!

dogs tooth violet
Dogs tooth violet (and daffodils)

Other bulbs from the same batch are dogs tooth violet (erythronium sp.).  The bulbs of these are supposedly edible and they should like Skye pretty well, as well as having exciting flowers.  I got a couple of varieties, and I have to say that the bulbs did seem to be big enough to be worth eating on at least one of the varieties I got, although I planted them rather than eating them.  The barricading rubbish in the picture by the way, is to try and stop our dog Douglas from trampling on them.  He has a thing about birds in the trees there, and likes to dance around barking up the tree (bless him!).

I also got quite a few snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris).  Not because they are edible (although most fritillary bulbs are) but because I simply adore them.  My mum used to grow some in our garden in Oxfordshire when I was a child, and I know that they grow wild in the water meadows around Oxford.  I just didn’t think that they would stand a chance on Skye.  The soil in Oxfordshire is river silt, and in the case of my mum’s garden quite alkaline clay.  A bit of a change from the acid peaty silt that I have.  However, a couple of years ago I saw some in a local garden and established that they do indeed come back in subsequent years, so I couldn’t resist trying them.  These I haven’t spotted yet.  I have planted them in the grass banks (I think!) in the hope that they will naturalise there. I’m also hoping that they will be enough out of the way of our house extension if and when we get round to that.

camassia
Camassia in top field

What I did get in the hopes that they will a) naturalise and b) be edible as well as c) ornamental are three varieties of camassia.  These are very ornamental flowers of the pacific north west US and I am hopeful that they will like it here.  They are supposed to like damp meadows and we can certainly manage the damp bit.  I have planted some in the grass, some in the dog resistant garden and some in the fruit garden.  All three are sprouting hopefully.

onion
Woodland allium

These nice little onions flowers, that were a gift from a fellow blogger (thanks Anni), have sprouted up happily under the trees in the front garden.  I forget which they were now, I was given two sorts, the others are planted in the dog resistance garden, and are happy enough, but not yet flowering.

I tried to find the collective noun for daffodils and the official seems to be ‘bunch’ or possibly ‘host’ ala Wordsworth.  I can’t see either of these doing justice to the joy of these flowers at this time of year, and others seem to agree with me.  I would probably go for a ‘cheerfulness’ since they just elevate one’s spirits with their exuberance in the garden.  Luckily the wind and hail showers recently have not been enough to destroy them.

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The ‘tatty’ daffs are a local variety that multiplies and flowers like mad.  It has double flowers with green tinged petals and I’m not sure I always appreciate it as it deserves.

Yacon = cake

It was actually a little while ago I harvested the Yacon in the polytunnel, the ones outside were harvested before Xmas.  I hadn’t done anything with the tubers ’til now – they have been sitting rather in the way in boxes in the hallway until I got round to finishing off weighing them etc.  Some of the tubers have shrivelled slightly, but they otherwise appear fine.  Even the one that broke in half when dug from outside still had no mould growing.

I originally had two sources for the Yacon which visually look identical, but have been performing slightly differently (the better one is from real seeds, although they appear to be out of season now).  I have been growing them side by side for comparison, and do think that these are slightly more productive for me.  I think I will search out some other varieties if they become available (lubera have a couple listed, but are only available later as plants, so are more expensive).  Unfortunately the few seedlings I managed to grow from cultivariable seed did not survive the winter last year.

Inside Yacon Oct 2018
Polytunnel plants competing for light

The plants in the polytunnel were basically just replanted in the same spots last year after harvesting – so overwintered in the soil.  There were two of each source planted in adjacent beds with a little more compost dug in around them.  They were watered when I remembered, but seemed to be thriving.  There was a little bit of caterpillar damage to the leaves (those ‘silver y’ moths again) but not enough to be a problem.  I think that the plants nearest the polytunnel wall may have suffered from overcrowding or overshading – In both cases that plant was smaller that the other.

Inside Yacon harvest feb 2019
Yacon harvest (polytunnel) February 2019

Harvested at the start of February 2019, the ‘real seeds’ plants had a total usable tuber weight of 22 Oz, the other had a total weight of 10 1/2 Oz.  I did not pull all the tubers off any of the plants.  The smallest would have been a bit fiddly and may well give the plants a bit of a start in the ground next year!  One of the plants (bottom right) has naturally split into several parts.  I may divide the larger clumps as well to give myself more plants this year.

Outside Yacon May 2018
Yacon plants for outside, growing on May 2018

The plants outside were overwintered in pots and grown on till about June, when I had enough room in the tea garden extension to plant them out.  They seemed to do pretty well considering they were fairly exposed and I deliberately did not clear the other plants from around them, since they would have been giving them a bit of shelter.

Yacon outside Oct 2018
Yacon outside on Skye October 2018

The leaves were a lot smaller and less green and the plants were far more shrubby than the plants under cover.  The holes in the leaves shown above I believe is wind damage.  The plants were harvested earlier than those inside – being killed off by frosts in mid December.   The smaller plant really had no useable tubers, the other (real seeds) had about 6 Oz; which was actually pretty similar to the poorer plants in the polytunnel.

Outside Yacon harvest Dec28
Outside Yacon harvest December 2018

Last year I concluded that the tubers are better considered a fruit rather than a vegetable and we have eaten them in various ways.  It made fantastic cake last year (based on a pear crumble cake) and also added to sweet and sour vegetables, and ‘risotto’ (a family chicken recipe actually a bit more like a paella).  As I said it can tend to discolour a bit after cooking, but still tastes fine.  Raw one could grate it into a coleslaw or dice into another salad to add sweetness.

Yacon cake #2
Yacon fruit cake

I have tried another cake recipe this year.  I want to see how much I can reduce the sugar content, since the Yacon is so sweet to taste.  This cake was based on a parsnip fruit cake recipe by Jennie Rutland in an old magazine (possibly Home Farmer again).  The Yacon was substituted for the parsnip and grated coarsely, the sugar content was reduced by about half and it still tastes delicious.  S. definitely approved and more was requested!

 

 

Faffing about and Spring colours

sun break
Sun breaking through

At first glance everything appear drab and colourless at this time of year.  Admittedly the spring planters at the shop are pleasing this year, with their new crocuses and tete-a-tete daffodils, but generally things appear lifeless….Until you look closer and then some startling colours stand out.

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I’m running around spotting the new sign of life and noticing all the things I need to be getting on with.  Spring is springing, the days are getting longer and we’ve had a nice spell of weather that looks like (barring an overnight storm) continuing into next week.  I’ve been trying out an app (gardenwize) to try and keep better records this year (one of my NY resolutions) but it doesn’t look like it will do quite what I want it to do (although about the best that I found).  I think I will have to go back to hardcopy and get myself some index cards and just write a new card for each crop.  It’s either that or write my own database, and I always get on better with spreadsheets.  At least I won’t have to worry about back up.

I have already managed to sow some of my polytunnel plants in the propagator: the achocha, tomatoes and a chilli pepper.   Some of the tomato seeds and the achocha are already sprouting after less than a week.  I’ve also got some shrubby seeds that have been stratifying in the fridge for several weeks or months, which mostly may as well be planted out now into seed trays.  Then it’s more sowing and potting on ad infinitum!

first primrose
Surprising primrose on east facing bank

Plants are definately feeling the spring now.  The tree buds are starting to swell, pig nut leaves are out and the first celandine flowers are showing.  I must get down the hill and coppice some of the larger alder before the sap risies too much.  I’ve got a bit of persuading S. that some of the trees would be better cut at this age.  Admittedly it will be a pity to lose some of the shelter that has been achieved, but the trees should grow even better if fully cut back, since all their roots are sized to feed a whole tree.

frogspawn
Frogspawn in pond

Other wildlife is also feeling the changing times.  There were a couple of lumps of frogspawn down in the pond.  I haven’t seen the frogs there.  It may be a little early yet, but I expect most of the spawn would survive a light frost anyhow.  Hopefully we won’t get a hard frost anyhow because look what I’ve got in the poytunnel:

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom

The Apricot buds are blossom.  There is actually a lot more than I thought there would be:  it is also all up the main branches.  Most of the buds are tightly furled, but they are just beginning to open.  I used a tiny bit of cotton wool to dab the flowers.  They seem quite scented, so if any of the moths whose pesky caterpillars were eating it last year are about, they may fancy pollenising it for me.

Field bean and elder cutting
Elder cuttings

I took a whole lot of elder cuttings since the bush has done so well for me.  I have also got some cuttings off three other bushes: One local, one imported like mine, and one purple leaved bush.  Some of the cuttings are in the orchard area which I tried to put down to green manures last September.  The area now has a fair covering of bittercress and grass.  Pictured above is one of the two field beans that seem to have escaped the crows’ attentions.

removing pale fuchsia
Preparing the access ramp

The other major project that I am hoping to get finished in the next week or so is the driveway retaining wall.  I spent yesterday afternoon scavenging round for rocks, since I had pretty much exhausted the initial supply.   Where the spade is in the picture above is where I plan to make a pedestrian access to the bank above.  I’m not sure whether it will be a ramp or steps – probably steps, since it would be too steep for a barrow anyway, and I can also get to it from the garden to the left.  I had to dig out half a big fuchsia bush that would otherwise be a nuisance growing across the path there.  That took me most of today, but I have three big lumps of bush as well as lots of sticks to make cuttings from if I want.  I think I will propagate some, since the fuchsia is tough as old boots (that bank is quite exposed to the south so gets quite a bit of wind as well as sunshine) but when in flower looks quite pretty.  This one has pale pink flowers rather than the darker pink that is more common as hedging plants around here.  It sets less fruit, probably due to the exposed position.

Oca: a first year

spring plants june
Oca plants in June before planting in tunnel

I have harvested all the oca now.  I had three tubers given to me by Frances of island threads, who lives on one of the outer Hebrides, so just over the water from me.  Her weather is probably even milder, and windier, but just a trifle drier perhaps.  I started the tubers off in pots and planted two in the polytunnel and one outside in June.  Frances assures me that she grows hers outside, but I wanted to be safe till I have enough tubers to risk.

Oca: oxalis tuberosa, is related to wood sorrel and has similar clover-like leaves that are edible but contain oxalic acid (like rhubarb leaves) so should only be eaten sparingly.  I think they are a bit tough in my experience anyhow compared to common sorrel, and with a less sharp lemon taste.  They are grown mainly for the edible tubers which come in a range of colours.  Like potatoes, they are propagated mainly vegetatively through replanting the tubers since although they flower, they appear to rarely set seed, at least in the UK.  A number of growers are aiming to get more productive varieties in the northern hemisphere, see cultivariable and the UK oca breeders project for example.

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Oca forms tubers after the daylength is less than 12 hours – generally said to be at the end of September in the UK.  This will of course vary with latitude.  On Sept 30th in Glasgow (55deg 51min N) the daylength is 11 hrs 37 min,  London (51deg 30min N) is given as 11hours 40min long.  Here on Skye we are at 57 deg north (or thereabouts) so a little shorter in daylength than Glasgow in winter.  At the winter solstice the days are pretty much as short as they get – still pretty dark at 8am and getting dark at 4pm.  Since we can expect hard frosts by the end of November that means the oca only has about two months here to form tubers outside.

I’m pretty pleased with the results from the outside plant as a first trial.  It grew happily despite having very little shelter from the wind.  It flowered at the start of September with delicate yellow flowers.  Light frosts in late October were survived, but it was knocked back completely in December.  Although I harvested the outside plant when this happened, I since read that the tubers can carry on growing for several weeks after the foliage has apparently died down – the fleshy stalks carry on feeding them for longer, so I maybe should have left it a little longer to bulk up.  However, I got almost exactly 8 ounces and all 15 tubers are of a size that can be used: up to about 6cm (over 2 in) long.   The plant received a little compost in the hole when it was planted, and otherwise was just let to get on with it.

oca harvest outside 2018
Oca harvest from one outside plant

At the start of February I harvested the two plants in the tunnel.  The plants had stayed green much longer, and it took a prolonged frost when we had the snow in January to fully knock them back.  Although the plants had never looked quite as good as the ones outside, I was hopeful that they would do better, since they were still quite green at the end of the year.  However the yield was quite disappointing: 3 1/2 Oz from each plant.  The tubers were generally smaller, with quite a bit of slug damage (or it may have been vine weevils?)  I suspect that it was a bit too dry for them in the tunnel. I have not been watering much in there over the winter, since it tends to lead to mildew.

oca harvest polytunnel 2 plants 2018
Oca from 2 polytunnel plants

I tried the smallest from outside raw and was bit disappointed in the flavour to be honest.  I had seen them described as crunchy  and lemony sharp, getting sweeter as they are exposed to sunlight.  I would describe the taste (fresh) as having a faint raw potato flavour, with a hint of lemon perhaps, but not nice enough to serve to S.  So far I have only cooked them by boiling and that was perfectly pleasant, like a creamy salad potato. The colour does fade a bit on cooking.  They can be boiled, fried, and baked just like potatoes.  In New Zealand they are known as yams and are very popular.  I have found a few suggestions for roasting them, so I may try that next.

ready to cook
Oca ready for boiling

I have enough tubers to grow next year, and enough to experiment a bit with different ways of cooking.  Some are in the fridge, and some on a cool windowsill.  I think I won’t bother with planting any in the tunnel next year, although I may try covering with fleece or cloches at the end of the season outside, if I can work out how to stop those blowing away!  They can go in orchard borders that need digging anyway to keep couch grass at bay.  I think they will definitely be worth growing again, and I have also got some different tubers of various colours from real seeds to try some different varieties!

Jan 19

back ways in snow
Backways in snow

Winter has finally arrived, we have a little snow that has stuck around for a few days, gradually refreezing as ice as it is trampled and melts a little during the day.  I quite like a bit of quiet time to look around and see the structure of the ground under the plants.  You can see the pathways made by people and dogs as the slightly flattened grass remains whiter with snow than rougher areas.

I have done a little pruning, although you are not supposed to do this when it is frosty!  The remaining gooseberries in the fruit garden didn’t take long, and I have cut down the sapling sycamore tree that would have crowded one of the apple trees there.  It may grow back, but I can just prune it out each year for pea sticks until it gives up!  The apple that I grafted before I came to Skye and that was living in a pot for a while has unfortunately grown a little one sided.  I assume it is just the prevailing wind that has achieved this, and am not sure if it is possible to reverse….

With the freezing weather there is little plant wise to do outside, but I have been able to get a little done in the polytunnel.  As threatened I have drastically pruned back the kiwi vine.  As well as shortening it, I have also taken out some of the larger fruiting side branches. This should encourage new ones to grow and be more fruitful.  I tied the main trunk a little tighter to the overhead wires, as it was hanging a little low and even interfering with my headroom.  The grapevines are far simpler to prune.  I simply cut back all the side branches close to the main trunk.

after pruning
After pruning

I am very hopeful that what I am seeing here is flower buds on my apricot.  I’m still not really sure whether I’m doing the right thing with the pruning of this.  I think I now need to cut back the main branches by one third to an upward facing bud and tie in new branches in between the existing ones, and then I’m into ‘maintenance pruning’ whatever that means! I know I’m not supposed to prune when the plant is dormant so I need to leave it a couple of months.

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom?

There is a little weeding to do, and I also need to start watering a bit more in the tunnel as well in preparation for some early sowing.  I think the akebia is surviving nicely, but I’m not sure about the passionflowers.  I think they were a bit small and I should have brought them into the house last autumn.  The propagation area keeps expanding.  I could really use more space for putting the growing on plants. I’ll have to have a think about this.  Maybe I just need to tidy up a bit more efficiently!  Theoretically there is lots of space on my little greenhouse frame, so perhaps I’ll just concentrate on getting that properly sorted again.  It just keeps filling up with empty pots!

too many pots
Too many pots….
greenhouse frame
Mini greenhouse frame (and polytunnel pond)