Midsummer wildflower diversity

Field of buttercups

The most striking thing about June for me is the diversity of plants that strive to take over the tree field particularly. As well as the orchids, there are lots of other flowering plants coming into bloom now. The bluebells are going over now, but the pignut is in full spate. Each flower stem has several umbels, so as one fades and turns to red seeds, another is a white disc of flowers. The buttercups are the other obvious flower that is almost everywhere on the field. We have two sorts of buttercup, the creeping sort (ranunculus repens) is pretty much in full bloom, whereas the finely divided leaves of the meadow buttercup (ranunculus acris) still have a while to go before the flowers open. Lots of vetch (the spell correct changed this to ‘fetch’ of which the dogs would approve!) and other legumes. The first are the pink flowered bitter vetch (Lathyrus linifolius), then the yellow birds foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus) on the drier bits. There’s another yellow vetch, Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), which has bigger flowers and a large blue flowered one: tufted vetch (vicia cracca). Sometimes I can remember their names, but generally I have to look them up each year. Then there are the clovers. White clover, which varies from tiny flowers no bigger than my little fingernail, to blooms as big as the top of my thumb. Red clover is a little later coming out, and can have some massive flowers.

We did have a little black medick near the house, which is an annual, but I haven’t seen it recently. It caught my eye because it had so many four leaved leaves a few years ago. The flowers are really tiny and yellow, so although it looks like a clover at first sight when you see the flowers it then obviously isn’t. Ox eye daisies seem to prefer the drier soil, along the spoil from the cut, and along the rocky cut itself where it catches the sun. The lime green flowers of ladies mantle is everywhere mixed in with the grass. I was quite excited about this at first, thinking it was the more rare alpine ladies mantle, which has leaves divided like tiny fingers, rather then cape shaped ones. I love the way the ladies mantle leaves catch dew drops, the little hairs suspending them as little globes like tiny crystal balls. The thyme and heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) are starting to bloom on the thinner drier parts of the field – along the former boundary walls and on the hump.

The bright blue speedwell is one of my favourite flowers. I always used to keep my lawn long in the hope that this would encourage the speedwell (now I don’t mow the lawn at all). There are lots of other flowers just coming into bloom – self heal, melancholy thistle by the pond and along the river fence, water avens (Geum rivale) with its lovely drooping blooms, stitchwort, lots of tormentil (potentilla erecta), a dandelion mimic: cats ear (hypochaeris radicata), daisies, and a little eyebright.

Yellow flag iris, water avens, pignut and ladies mantle in gully field

There are also a few plants that have planted themselves in the mud of the pond. A yellow one like a buttercup with blade shaperd leaves (Lesser Spearwort – Ranunculus flammula) and a reed like one, possibly deer grass I’m not sure.
Others are starting to show their promise for later in the year including heather – mostly on the sunny gully bank. Meadowsweet and yarrow are quite widespread; the former generally in damper areas and the latter in drier areas. There is also quite a bit of ragwort despite my efforts to pull it out! Ditto creeping thistle. Silverweed (potentilla answerina), is a plant I am getting more interested in. It doesn’t seem that widespread in the field but there are several plants around the house and Byre areas, as well as the ones that I have planted, generally coming into flower now. Maybe it prefers the more fertile soil from the animal houses. Maybe they are remnants from former cultivation, or maybe it couldn’t tolerate the sheep grazing it to within a few mm of the soil!
I haven’t even touched on the grasses, reeds and sedges that are coming into flower at the moment. Different forms and shades of green they deserve a post of their own.

Dogs and Tadpoles and Orchids

I went down to the bottom pond today for the first time in weeks. This was not because I didn’t want to go down there recently, in fact it is one of mine and the dogs’ favourite bits, it was because for the first year this year we have had frog spawn turn into tadpoles. In previous years it has generally just disappeared, or the pond has dried out too quickly. However, this year we had quite a few large porriwiggles in the murky depths, however, since we have had so little rain up to last week, the pond level was down to a much smaller pond with water only at the deep end. Douglas, our cross collie/Labrador (or ‘labradollie’ since he’s such a softie), loves to run down to the deep end and stands there splashing and whining with excitement. Every now and again if it is deep enough he launches off and swims round in circles. It is quite cute and quite neurotic.

Luckily the pond wasn’t this low – you get the idea!

Anyway, since the water has been so low, I didn’t want him mucking up the water and maybe suffocating the poor little tadpoles. Today however, since I was pulling bracken along the fence by the river, Douglas got bored (they had lost the fetch ball) and took himself off to the pond. Once I had finished that little stretch, Dyson and I went down to join Dougie with a spare ball (I generally take an emergency back up). Luckily it seems that the rain we have had this week has been enough to start the surface water springs off again. Although not completely full, the pond has much more water in. I didn’t see any tadpoles however. I’m not sure whether they would have already turned into frogs yet? We had a good look round whilst we were there, and took the camera down later. There are several new orchids that have appeared this year. Quite a few along the spoil line where S. dug the cut across to the pond. That was eight years ago now. So that’s about how long it takes orchids to reestablish themselves. I had wanted to level out the spoil and trackway, but I guess it’ll have to stay as it is now.

New Common spotted orchid near lower pond

We have at least four different sorts of orchid around the holding at different times of the year. I like to play orchid spotting, looking for the same ones to return, trying to keep the dogs from trampling them and S. from mowing them. I thought this had been a poorer year for butterfly orchids, the ones at the top of the gully field by the road seem more sparse than usual, but there are plenty down by the pond, so it’s still early to judge. The early purple orchids that grow along the river bank had their season cut short by browsing sheep.

New greater butterfly orchid near pond (actually on trackway)

I’ve also seen today what appears to be bunny poo by the river fence whilst pulling the bracken. We haven’t seen bunnies around here since we had our previous cat Percy, who was a vicious killing machine sweetheart whose favourite snack-toy was baby bunnies. It may be hare poo, we have had those on the land before (unfortunately it was Douglas that caught that one – although it did feed the equivalent of us for a week) I do occasionally see those elsewhere in Glendale.

Apricot training

This is not a timely post. I just thought I’d catch up with one of the new exciting plants I’ve got new this year. I’d fancied an Apricot for a long time. Although they probably would grow outside here if you had enough shelter, I’m still a long way away from that. However, I am growing more and more perennial plants in the polytunnel, so I thought I’d like to try it in there.
The plant was a present – a one year grafted whip of Early Moorpark Apricot on Torinel rootstock and was a good height, perhaps 4 feet tall. The first hard thing I had to do on planting it back in February was to cut it right down to about 1 foot tall! This is the exception to the general rule about pruning stone fruit only in summer to avoid silverleaf infection. According to the RHS “Apricots bear fruit on shoots made the previous summer and on short spurs from the older wood” and unless growing as a bush (which I thought would be impractical in the polytunnel) should be grown as fans. I rather fancied an espalier, but again that wouldn’t work for an Apricot. I found the RHS website very helpful in giving directions for training from scratch. So I planted, cut back and watered, and waited, hoping I hadn’t killed my lovely tree!

Newly planted Apricot
cut right back!

Sure enough, as promised, several new branches grew strongly from the trunk, which was a bit of a relief – I hadn’t killed it. The next step for me, was to put up some training wires. A little less straightforwards for a free standing fan, since I had no wall to come off. The arch of the polytunnel also meant that I couldn’t put in two vertical posts and string the wire between. I ended up using some random bits of wood we had lying around to create the framework. I had one nice vertical fence post by the centre path in the polytunnel, and one sloping bit as far to the side as I could manage. Since neither was in deep enough to take much strain, I have braced them with horizontal bits of wood before putting across the neccessary horizontal straining wires.
Then came another hard part. Again I had to cut back my lovely tree. This time the object is to select two branches to train in a 90 degree ‘V’ shape. I actually left two on the out board side since I couldn’t decide between them. Since then however, one has lost it’s leading point, so I think the decision has been made for me and I now need to prune that one out.

Framework and nicely branched Apricot
Newly trained tree

So far I am very happy with the health of my tree. It has grown well and has had no signs of any problems at all. Since it is undercover I need to keep an eye out for pests. Spidermite may become a problem. I have had this in the past on other plants in the tunnel and it really does stunt the growth. Also the soil I have is not very deep, generally less that two feet and usually less than that. I can’t do much about that. Since the polytunnel is slightly terraced (it slopes from end to end) I have put the Apricot in the downhill bed where the soil is slightly deeper, and I have been careful to water well but seldom, to encourage deep root formation if possible. Next year in the early spring, I will need to bite the bullet again and cut the leaders back again to encourage further branching to create more of the fan structure. I wonder whether I will get any blossom? Very exciting!

Holmisdale in May

It always amazes me how much things grow during May.  The field goes from a thatch of last years’ dead grass to a sea of pignut, grass and bluebell flowers.  I’ve selected a few of the latest photos to capture May and some of the ongoing activities to do with the trees and the tree field’

Hawthorne in blossom

This tree is actually in the front garden and was planted in 2008.  It has been flowering for the last three years, last year it set quite a few berries.  I made some hawthorne blossom cordial this year following roughly the same recipe as for elderflower cordial.  It’s supposed to be good for the heart and digestion.  Not a strong flavour, maybe a hint of apples over the lemon that is part of the recipe.

Worrying lack of leaves on birch

Last year we started to see a problem with several birch trees.  They had previously grown well bar a bit of die back.  This however is more than just die back!  They do seem to be alive, but the twigs are mainly dead with just a little new growth.  I’m going to contact the Woodland Trust over this for some advice.  Some of the birch seem fine, and others from different planting years are like this to a greater or lesser extent.  I need to do a bit of a survey and see if I can tell whether it is betula pendula (silver birch) or betula pubescens (downy birch) that is affected (or both).

Flowering pine tree

This is the second or third year that these pine (also from 2008) have flowered.  I’m not sure if it is a lodgepole pine or scots pine.  I have to admit I find the new growth on the pines rather phallic in habit!  The red tips are the female flowers (that might develop into cones) and the orangey- brown fingers are the male catkins.  Note the wind scorched older leaves.  I think this is a scots pine, since what I think are lodgepole pine elsewhere are almost defoliated by the salt wind in the winter.

Monkey puzzle in mulch mat

I’m hoping I don’t regret using this carpet underlay as mulching material.  It seems almost ideal – it is from our house in Solihull and was under the most disgusting deep pile orange carpet (that when taken up we used as bearskin props in a ‘flintstones’ scene once, but that’s another story) so reused.  It is made predominately from felted jute fibres so biodegradable.  It is permeable, so will let the rain soak through for the trees, but is mostly thick enough to exclude light and smother out the grass and other plants around the little trees.  The only downside I’ve found is that it is only mostly Jute.  It also has a very coarse scrim of polymer fibres, presumably to give it strength (or maybe mouldability – I used to work on automotive carpets which were heat formed).  These will not degrade in the short term.  I suspect that the grass will grow through and over the mat in the next year and the fibres will be concealed but ever there…..suggestions welcome.

Pignut blossom

This is just a picture showing the density of pignut, conopodium majus, in the tree field.  It is a native wild flower here.  I have only tried the tubers raw so far, and although pleasant to eat, they tended to give me a slightly nauseous feeling afterwards.  I haven’t tried it cooked.  I love the dainty blossom which is like miniature cow parseley (of which there is very little in this area).  It’s not in full bloom yet, but quite lovely.

Landrover mulch

This patch is where one of our Land Rovers (Lara the croft rover) had been parked for about two years previously.  The grass has been entirely shaded out, but there is plenty of pignut and creeping thistle as well as sheeps sorrel and a few buttercups that have survived, all coming back after about a month.  Perhaps an example of mortal tree’s ‘a bit blunt’ method of mulching.  I don’t think I’ll be encouraging more long term parking in the tree field however….

Bluebell river

The bluebells (hyacintha non scripta) are just about at their peak at the end of May, start of June.  They have done really well this year.  You can see how they are concentrated at the field edge where there is the remains of a stone wall and ditch, so probably not well ploughed.  They also survived several years of being grazed and trampled by sheep prior to the trees being planted (these in 2011).  Compare to next door’s grazed field – I bet there are bluebells under there as well!  Also you can note that they are quite happy in the sunshine.  The ground is so damp, they don’t need the shade of trees on Skye.  When we bought the land, I couldn’t even tell that we had bluebells.

Buttercup mulch

I found this plant growth quite amusing.  This is one of my ‘orchard’ apple trees, which actually bore an apple last year – although it disappeared before I had a chance at it (crows, wind, dogs….).  These trees were all mulched last year, with my favourite sheet  mulching method – sheets of cardboard from our shop, overlapped and weighed down with suitable stones.  This is quite effective, and lasts about a year.  It is quite obvious that it has worked well on the grass, but less well on the buttercups!  Whether these were not killed (they do sprout right through when buried in a few inches of soil) or have just spread over the cardboard more quickly than the grass, I’m not sure, I suspect the former.  I don’t know whether the buttercups are going to be a problem with the trees however.  We try and get rid of the grass mainly because of it’s alleopathic effects – it is known to have a detremental effect on tree growth for this reason, rather than direct competition for resources.  I think I’ll try and mulch the trees again anyway, since they are still very small.  I still have quite a bit of earth moving to do in the orchard area.  I’d like to try and finish the landscaping here this year, so I can get on with underplanting the trees next spring.



This post is for Amanda.

Leafu or leaf curd is a way of concentrating the protein in green leaves to make it accessible to humans. Apparently you can use almost any non toxic leaf, but nettle greens are what I have plenty of just at the moment. The resulting substance is up to 70% dry weight protein, which is useful for those following a vegan diet. Although not vegan myself, I fancied having a go with my nettles to see what could be achieved. The nettles here grow rather prickly and although I know you can have nettles as a green cooked vegetable, the results here are rather less than palatable. Someone else in the glen went so far as to import nettles from Yorkshire from a known good clump – but here they also grew prickly, so it seems to be something about the environment here. Maybe they need more sheltered conditions to grow nice, so perhaps when my trees are bigger and provide more shelter I will have lush nettles again.

The recipe for leafu is very simple:

1) Collect your greens (and wash them)

2) Bash them to release the cell contents

3) Strain off the liquid from the fibrous parts of the plant

4) Heat the liquid to boiling point to curdle the protein

5) Strain off the protein solids

6) Treat if necessary to preserve the leafu.

Collecting nettles was quite straightforwards. I was using a recipe from a Country Kitchen article by Fergus Drennan which I found online (http://fergustheforager.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ckjuly09curdsaway.pdf) which intimates that 12kg of nettle leaf can produce 1 kg of moist leafu. I thought as a trial this was maybe a little large, so I aimed to collect 6 kg to make a pound of leaf curd. One carrier bag of nettles seemed to weigh about a kg, and I had no problem collecting 5 bags of youngish nettles – alternatively being able to collect this amount of nettles in my fruit garden could be considered to be a problem in itself! However, hopefully picking off the tops may knock back the growth a bit anyway. I did get stung a little – the gloves I like to use in the garden are the cloth type with latex palms. The nettles do sting through the fabric, so I got a bit stung on the backs of my hands. It’s supposed to be good for the circulation, or prevent rhumatism perhaps.

To bash the leaves I used a food processor. You can use a liquidiser, or a juicer, or a pestle and mortar, and probably other devices. It was quite slow and makes a mess. I would recommend not starting this job at 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening when you have to make and eat dinner and have a bath before bedtime! I started off cutting the nettles up on a chopping board and then feeding the pieces down a funnel into the processor with a little water to help it move. I soon worked out that actually I could feed the whole stems into the top of the processor which saved a lot of time. Although I thought I had selected the stems pretty well while picking them, I had to edit them a bit to get rid of a few eaten leaves, and rooty bits of stem. When the food processor was as full as I dared with liquidised nettles, I transferred the lot into a large jelly bag in my jam cauldron.

I found the pulp was very bulky and it more than filled the maslin pan. I decanted some liquid into a mixing bowl, even so had I actually persevered and pulped the whole 5 bags collected, there is no way my jelly bag would have been big enough. Fergus suggests using a pillow case, but I suspect at this stage something coarser would be OK – may be some environmesh insect screening? But you’d also need a larger container like a baby bath, or maybe a large plastic gardening trug? Anyway, since it was getting late and the pan was getting full I stopped after 2 bags.

I managed to suspend the heavy jelly bag over my mixing bowl and left it to drain overnight. The left over nettles went in the compost heap, as did the contents of the jelly bag the next day after I had squeezed what extra moisture I could from it. The liquid was very dark, almost black. I meant to have a go at paper making with the pulp as Fergus suggests, but forgot in the excitement of leafu production!

The next step is heating the liquid gently to boiling point and simmer for about a minute. I cook on a wood fired range cooker, so I normally use the oven to heat up large quantities, so this is what I did. I guess the oven was about 170 degrees celsius (top end of the hot on my oven door thermometer) and I then went away to do something else. When I returned sometime later remembering the leafu – it was hot and steaming with a dark coloured crust. When placed on the hot side of the hot plate on the cooker top it was already boiling gently, so I guess it must have been at boiling for rather longer than a minute. The crust was the leafu protein, so it seems to be a fairly tolerant process. I guess that if the nutrients such as vitamins are crucial to your diet, then cooking the liquid the minimum amount to coagulate the protein would be better than my extra time.

Coagulated protein layer

The solid protein is very fine particles. I used a small jelly bag which has a very fine mesh. I expect a coffee filter might be suitable if big enough, but certainly the bag I used for the initial filtering of the nettle solids would not have caught the leaf protein. Again I left the bag to drip overnight and the result was about a cup of soft solids like a dark green mousse. I weighed this as about 4oz (100g). I also had a large bowl of nettle juice (less some of the protein) which I have kept to use as plant food.

Fergus gives various methods of preserving the leafu. Apparently in it’s fresh state it will not last very long, even in the refrigerator. It keeps a little longer if you add salt (about 1oz to every 4oz fresh curd) and refrigerate, or you can freeze it in portions or dry and use as stock cubes in stews, soups and sauces. I admit I got confused at this stage and both added salt and then dried the curd (sitting in a bowl on top of the cooker for a day or so with occasional stirring). The result was about 1 and a half ounces of leafu powder, of which one ounce was salt. So I’m afraid the overall taste at the end was salt. At the fresh curd stage It tasted strongly of green. Not an unpleasant taste, but I wouldn’t expect my husband to eat it neat! He won’t notice it added instead of marmite to a stew next time I do something suitable.

Dried leaf curd and plant food (in milk cartons)

Verdict: This was a fun way to use a glut of inedible nettles. I think however, if you don’t need a protein concentrate, it’s a rather long process for a little gain. On researching around on the internet for nutrient content of leaf curd, I found a reference to someone who uses dried nettles as a condiment and I think this would be a more practical way for me personally to use them in the future. I can generally dry things in the polytunnel hung from the crop bars, or on cooling trays in the bottom oven, when the stove is on. I may have a go at this later in the year. I think that you would lose less of the other nutrients in the nettles (in the ‘whey’), although would need a greater amount of dried nettles for the same amount of protein. They do seem to contain about one third protein by dry mass (from wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica), so that would only need a bit more than twice as much dried nettle to have the same protein as dried leaf curd.


DSCN1227I love May on Skye. Actually, as soon as the clocks change for summertime, life seems to get that much better. The day light gets longer and longer, technically it never gets truly dark now. The weather also starts to cheer up. Spring tends to be our dry season, and midge free whilst it lasts. Surprisingly that can actually be an extended period without rain, despite Skye’s reputation. We’ve only been here 10 years and have experienced one spring where we had about 16 weeks with no rain. This year wasn’t that dry (thankfully) and actually it didn’t dry up until towards the end of April. Then we had an idyllic week of almost unbroken sunshine, and day by day the vegetation on the croft started to unfold. I also start getting too excited and start digging and germinating far too many seeds with nowhere to put them!

This week I have shuffled almost all the logs on the log pile. For reasons I won’t go into, this particular delivery of softwood arrived sopping wet about 2 and a half years ago and we’ve been stuggling to get it away dry ever since. Finally the week of sunshine and drying north wind enabled us to get a whole lot cut and away (with a little help from our friends – thanks Dave). The ones that remain are still pretty wet, some were resting on the ground, so were getting wet from underneath, and they also have a lot of bark adhering which keeps them damp longer. So I have restacked, brushed off the loose bark as best I can, and moved the whole lot forwards back onto the ground bearing logs. As part of that exercise, I managed to bag up loose bark from under the pile to try and get some air flow through it, and also much of the sawdust created by the sawing operations. Hopefully now they are able to air off again we will get enough more dry weather to get most of the rest away soon. We’ll also have to estimate whether we will need another delivery to get us through the next winter. We do most of our cooking as well as all the hot water and heating using a wood fired range and it’ll be some time before we can harvest our own wood – although some by the river could do with a tidy up.

ground elder cover
Ground elder groundcover

I have used up the bark mulching round newly planted Glen Coe raspberries. These were belated birthday presents from my in-laws. The Glen Coe is supposed to be a clumping raspberry that fruits on this year’s growth. It has attractive dark purple berries and I’ve fancied one since I’ve seen them in gardening catalogues. Anyway, I have planted them in the front garden where hopefully they should be pretty sheltered – we have some big (well c. 25 ft, which is tall for here) sycamore trees, and I have also planted a willow ‘fedge’ to one side of the path which cuts through from the front door to the lower drive. To the north of the fedge are blackcurrant and raspberry bushes. These are under planted (well OK, I never planted them, but they make a good ground cover) with ground elder. This is also growing on the other side of the path, which is where I am starting to plant some of my ‘interesting edibles’, and these new raspberries. I have tried an experiment therefore: rather than digging out all the ground elder, I have planted the raspberries in a small hole, cut back the vegetation, then heavily mulched with cardboard weighed down with stones and covered with bark. I expect that the ground elder will grow through, which is probably OK, but it does look quite smart just now!

newly planted glencoe
Raspberries in cutback undergrowth
cardboard mulch
mulched with cardboard
finished front path 2017
finished planting and mulching

I’ve also taken a first cut of the comfrey in the fruit garden. This is on the south side of the polytunnel and again is partially enclosed by a willow fedge. This fedge was very slow to get going. Partly because the soil depth is pretty shallow in places and willow does not like to dry out, and partly I don’t think that variety of willow likes the salt wind, and it has very little shelter until the other trees on the top of the gully bank start to get a little bigger. The comfrey is interplanted around the fruit bushes. The idea is that the comfrey will grow and mulch the bushes – feeding them and keeping the weeds down, also hiding them from the birds slightly. The difficulty is in getting the spacing right. Too close and the comfrey smothers the bushes. Too far apart and they don’t keep the weeds down enough. I seem to have erred on the too close side, so I am going to have to cut the comfrey and remove the growth elsewhere. I think this is probably some of the best soil on the property. It is deep enough to have been the burying ground apparently for several dead livestock in the distant past, much to the dogs’ delight! It is almost impossible to remove comfrey once it is established. The roots are thick, long and fragile and, like dandelion, will regenerate a new plant from a small fragment of root. Luckily it does seem to be the non spreading/seeding version, possibly even Bocking14 which is supposed to be the best for green manures, but since it came with the property, I cannot be sure of this. Anyway, hopefully by cutting the comfrey, this will curtail it’s growth a little in the future so it won’t swamp the bushes so much. I have cut up some of the leaves quite finely and pressed them into two buckets in my shed, which I hope will make good tomato food later in the year. The rest is still in a wheelbarrow ready to be used to mulch around whichever plants I feel need it most.

I need to try and do a little more civil engineering in the fruit garden as well. Both nettles and couch grass are making takeover bids, as well as the creeping grass and buttercups. I have used woven fabric under the paths, but it doesn’t seem to be very effective at keeping the weeds down, and is difficult to get the roots out of. I’m thinking of using newspaper topped with sawdust on the paths. I have enough to get a fairly deep layer down, but I think I’ll have to dig as much couch as possible out first. I’m hoping to grow a load of skirret, silverweed and other exciting root vegetables in the worst weedy areas, so will have an excuse to give it another fork over in the autumn to get rid of some regrowth then.

Slug Protection Test.

black slug

All gardeners in Britain have problems with slugs and snails.  Here on Skye, because the soil has little lime, the snails are quite small and less of a problem, but the slugs can be massive!  The weather is almost constantly damp – Skye is not called the Misty Isle for no good reason!  The slugs are particularly a problem with seedlings, and new transplants.  The former being young and juicy and the latter somehow more attractive in the stress of establishing themselves.  I also find new growth of some perennials always munched – I’ve never dared trying Hosta for that reason (although they are on my list of interesting edibles perennials to try).  I am going to describe here an experiment I ran a few years ago to evaluate possible slug protection schemes for young plants.  There were only three things I tried, all barrier methods.

1) A substantial ring of eggshells.egg shell barrier

The theory is either the dryness or the sharpness of the egg shells are uncomfortable for the slugs. It happened that I had been saving my egg shells for some time so had a largish quantity of broken shells that had been oven dried.

2) A copper barrier.

Either the ‘taste’ of the copper or possibly an electric shock from some sort of battery effect are supposed to stop the slugs in their tracks. I had found in my previous garden in Solihull that the only way to keep my seedlings safe was to have them on a scaffolding frame table, so I was quite hopeful of this – the copper I used in the form of readily available (if a bit expensive) adhesive tape, stuck to the rim of a cut down large diameter plastic plant pot. This was then pushed a little into the soil around the vulnerable plant so that there were no gaps for the slugs to crawl through, and the wind was less likely to blow it out. I guess the collars were about 2 and a half inches tall and pushed in by about an inch.

pot collars
Cut down plant pots for barriers
copper collar barrier
Copper collar around plant

3) A physical barrier or wall.

This barrier was the same cut down plant pots as above, but without the tape.

victims on trial

The victims or sacrificial plants I used were lupins (I had bought the seed as tree lupin but that’s another story!) I had a quantity of these ready to plant out and previous experience had suggested that they are delicious to slugs. I planted out the plants in two different areas of the garden – some in my ‘dog resistant garden’ (our elder dog Douglas liked to help with the gardening when he was younger), the others in the fruit garden which had been mulched with cardboard. The dog resistant garden is quite shady, so both areas were pretty much slug heaven. Different plants had different slug treatments in both areas.


drg area 2 before
Plants at start in dog resistant garden
different protections before
Plants at start in fruit garden


slug deterrent trials after #7
Dog resistant garden trial after three weeks
slug deterent trials after
Fruit garden trial after three weeks

The results were both interesting and not quite what I was expecting. The eggshell barrier turned out to be pretty useless. Less than three weeks later none of these transplants survived. The plants with collars faired much better; most of these seedlings had no damage at three weeks. Interestingly the copper tape did not seem to add a great deal more to the effectiveness of the plant pot collars. Even at about 6 weeks the transplants with collars were doing well. The main issues appear to be bridging the collar with leaves and sticks, or them being displaced by excited cats etc.

At 6 weeks it is amazing how the chickweed within the collars are growing away, whilst there is no sign of these weeds in the unprotected areas! The lupins in the fruit garden didn’t do so well in the longer term – I had planted them amongst comfrey, which I use as a living mulch amongst the fruit bushes. Unfortunately these proceded to mulch and smother most of the lupins as well!

slug deterents after
Dog resistant garden at 6 weeks – note weed growth inside collar

In conclusion: a barrier of a cut down plant pot collar with or without copper tape can be a quick, cheap and effective means of protection for vulnerable plants.  I now almost routinely plant out new transplants with a collar.  It also makes them easier to spot in the garden.  The results are not 100% effective, but do make a significant difference.

Things we probably got right.

#1. Variety of trees

We deliberately planted quite a wide variety of trees in the areas that are to be coppiced. These include birch (betula pendula and betula pubescens), Common alder (alnus glutinosa), hazel (corylus avellana), Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Oak (quercus petraea and quercus robur) Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), Aspen (populus tremula), Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). We also interplanted with some conifers (larix decidua and Picea sitchensis) at closer spacing. There are also a small amount of more ‘interesting’ trees such as wild cherry, crab apple, cherry plum, as well as over flow trees from the wind break trees (see below), mostly along the ride edges, and some willow from self seeded willow near the pond. The reasoning for planting a wide range was partly not ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’ which we may well be very grateful for. The sweet chestnut, for example, we didn’t expect would set nuts for us, since we are too far north and cool and damp for it, but it just doesn’t seem to like Skye at all. It may be the salt wind, but I think the new wood is not ripening off, so we are getting a lot of die back each year, and that a miniature coppice stool is growing, rather than a tree. The ash may well succumb to Chalera die back in the future, although in the meantime (once protected from the voles which adore eating it) it is growing quite satisfactorally. We also don’t know what future weather changes hold for us, maybe the climate will get drier and hotter in which case the chestnut may do better again, who knows…

#2. Windbreak design

We used various books to create our windbreak design, mostly the late Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual, but also Ben Law’s The Woodland Way, Ken Broad’s Caring for Small Woods and Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future helping with species selection. The principle is simple – a triple row of trees planted in a staggered fashion perpendicularly to the prevailing wind direction with slow growing, fast growing, and shrubby trees planted alternately, so as to create succession in wind cover in the future. It’s a bit early to say how effective it will be. I think if I were to change the design at all it would be to include a lot more Spruce to give quicker short term protection, These could be removed in a few years once the other trees had filled out. The trouble is probably that most of the ‘fast’ growing trees aren’t that fast actually.

windbreak design schematic
Wind break design schematic

#3 Leaving unplanted areas for future planting or ponds

It seemed like a good idea at the time and we have thought of a few other ideas for these little spaces that we have left: possible shelters for temporary wood drying storage and turning areas for vehicles.

#4 Leaving rides for access

It has been lovely having these paths to walk around the woodland. Hopefully they will be wide enough for the Land Rovers to take a trailer round to pick up the wood (and other) harvests. In the meantime they give us an area where we can walk and throw fetch toys for the dogs and avoid trampling too much on the trees. We can more easily mow these areas to make the grass shorter and therefore less damp to walk on. As the trees grow up it means that we can look at the trees without being too close to them.

ride with mown path
Mown path down ride in midsummer

#5 Pruning to create unbranched stems

This has the two fold effect of creating less branched wood making the future harvest more useful, and also giving a quick harvest of kindling wood.

Pile of kindling next to freshly pruned alder

#6 Not doing too much at once

Making a virtue out of a necessity perhaps, but I think it is better for us not to have done the whole lot in one go. It means we learnt a little as we went – so we never planted sweet chestnut after the first year since it did so badly, improved on the vole guards in later years, increased the interplanting of conifers and the quantity of alder.

Lessons learnt #1 – things gone wrong.

Now that we have been here ten years we can start to look back and learn from our experiences.  I’ve tried to be objective and see what we could have done better and what worked well.

Things we would do differently:

#1 Get more local tree seed stock.

Although we tried to get trees that had been grown from Skye provenance seed, in practice when buying from a national tree wholesaler these trees have been grown for forestry planting.  They have to grow what is mostly needed for sale, and this means we have had to compromise on the tree provenance.  Since we are in an exposed maritime location, we get a lot of salt burning and winter die back on unripened twigs.  Also trees that come later into leaf have an advantage here, since the spring tends to have a period of cold drying winds that dessicate delicate new foliage.  There is a noticeable difference in coming into leaf between the indigenous rowan trees and the imported ones.  If we had spent more effort we could have a) grown more of our own trees from seed or b) found a more local source of seedlings.  I believe that these may have done better long term.

#2 Leave more field area to self seed.

We have found that the area closest to the river, which was where we started planting after the windbreaks near the house, has had several trees grow that we never planted. These are mainly willow in the damp area near where the pond was dug, and hazel within about 20 feet of the boundary fence.  If we had been a little patient we could have saved the trouble of planting this area and just let it naturally colonise.

dogs in pond_trees
Self seeded willow to left of pond

#3. Mulch, mulch, mulch.

It has been fairly obvious as time has gone on how much better the trees in general have done when we were able to mulch them properly.  When we started we had a supply of old haylage that came with the house, and we used this on top of spread out, and overlapped newspaper to cover an area about 4 ft diameter (started off square but went round later!).  It was possible to see in subsequent years that these trees did grow bigger more quickly.  Also we have quite a bit of problems with the grass simply overwhelming the trees and causing them to lean over, or even smothering them completely so that they just gave up.  Lack of time and mulching materials mean that we have never been able to mulch all the trees planted.  We have concentrated on the edge trees and windbreak rows.  Amusingly these are visible from google earth satelite views.

main trackway to river jun 2014
Areas to either side of mown track have trees planted, but only alders are showing above the grass

#4. Protection from voles and deer at start.

In the first couple of years planting we took no provision against pest damage, with the view to seeing what was necessary.  Unfortunately the little trees can easily be completely destroyed by voles ringing the bark when young.  It was interesting to see that some tree varieties suffered much more than others.  Ash, birch, oak and aspen were definitely the favourite foods, hawthorne, pine, and alder did not seem to suffer at all.  After the second year it was very clear that it was worth putting some protection in place and retrospectively we used cut down PET bottles tied with wire to a short wooden stake.  Initially we used tiewraps through a punched hole, but a) we ran out of tiewraps and b) they tended to pull through the bottle side in the wind after a few years.  In subsequent years we purchased short plastic spiral tubes that push on top of the baby trees when planted and did not need staking.

damage by hoodies april 2012
Damage by Hoodies

We did find in the early part of the summer that the hoodies (hooded crows as known round here) had a lot of fun pulling off the shelters presumably looking for food, but possibly just playing, and pulled out or damaged quite a few young trees.

The deer are also particularly a problem in early summer when bands of young males go roaming.  They will eat anything green and we found they were particularly fond of rowan, which is quite early to leaf, and pine, larch and spruce.  They would pull up the entire young conifer trees and leave them lying.  At that time of year we get little rain, and indeed two of the early years verged on drought in the spring, so we had quite a few losses.  Although we tried to replant them this was not always successful particularly with the young larch.  Once the tree field was deer fenced this problem went away, however the garden area and gully field near the road remains unprotected.  Although in recent years we have had fewer problems (possibly due to a our dog, Dyson), we do find that older trees are used to rub off the velvet on the antlers with devastating effect on the trees.

deer damage in garden
Deer damage to older pine

#5. Not let Stuart dig the pond without more supervision.

This is a bit of a tongue in cheek comment, since I don’t suppose I would have done much better.  However, I am not happy about the levels of the banking around the pond, and the ditch cut across is, frankly an accident waiting to happen.  I hope to get the digger back down the hill later this summer and tidy up the landscaping slightly.  It will have to wait now until the tadpoles have left the pond, which seems to be holding water much better than it did in the first few years.

#6. Not bother plant in very thin soil areas

The soil depth does vary in different parts of the field.  The geology of the area is rock strata from consecutive lava flows from a now dead volcano.  This was then glaciated during the last ice age to form Glendale.  However, the hard and soft layers in the lava flows mean that the valley side is slightly stepped and over the years, ploughing and other soil erosion has led to thinner soil on the steps.  This was sometimes evident whilst digging the holes for the trees.  In places the soil was less than a spade depth.  I tried to select a deeper position where possible, and even bolstered up the soil depth by transferring a little soil or turf from other places.  We also selected tree varieties that were more likely to be able to tolerate drought.  However we still got high losses, and the trees that survived tend to be more stunted.  These areas would better have been left as clearings.

I’ll post about things we wouldn’t do much differently later.

Tree Planting on Skye – Woodland Design

Most of our efforts to date have been focussed on creating a woodland area that will in the future generate most of our wood fuel requirements.  When we bought the house we put in a wood fired Esse range cooker which has a back boiler.  This we use for most of our cooking, hot water and house heating requirements.  It doesn’t really generate enough heat for the house in the winter, but the house is another story….To try and futureproof our lifestyle it seemed sensible to avoid the need for mains electric and bought in fuel as far as is practicable.  With limited time, we have planted the trees in phases, starting with shelterbelts around the house and garden area.  Then we gradually evicted the neighbour’s sheep that were keeping the grass short, about an acre at a time over 6 years.  Now I can back fill and play with more unusual plants and crops.  I’ll post about ‘lessons learnt’ or what we would have done differently as well as what went well later.

We didn’t really consider a conifer plantation, although it could be a productive way of planting – thousands of acres in Scotland have to have been planted for a reason!  I think that the uniformity of this type of planting put us off – lots of bad things to be said about monocultures…..  Also practically, we would have had to replant every 20 years or so since once cut down most evergreens are killed.  We did consider short rotation coppice, where a fast growing wood species such as willow is cut every 2 – 5 years.  This seems to suit more automated heating systems such as wood chip fed boilers, or rapid heating rocket stoves, or masonry stoves.  It didn’t really seen to suit an electric-free system that we could use for cooking with and heating a draughty old croft house.  So we have ended up with long rotation coppice, whereby mainly deciduous trees are cut down every 7 to 30 years depending on species, and allowed to regrow from the stumps.

To protect the regrowing coppice we have designed in shelterbelts every 20m or so.  These are planted roughly perpendicular to the main wind direction (I shut my eyes and faced the wind with my arms outstetched – no need for a compass), and comprise of a mixture of different species.  Using various reference books (notably The Earthcare Manual – Patrick Whitefield, The Woodland Way – Ben Law, and Caring for Small Woods – Ken Broad) I decided on a three row mix of trees, with a mix of slow growing (Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Beech (Fagus sylvestris), added Holm oak (Q. ilex), fast growing (Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), lodgepole pine (P. contorta), added whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and western red cedar (Thuja plicata)) and shrubby (yew (Taxus baccata) (did not like it here), hazel (Corylus Avellana), holly (Ilex aquifolium), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), cherry plum (Prunus ceracifera), hawthorne (Crataegus monogyna)) trees in an alternating fashion.  The idea is to slow the wind down, not to stop it, or make it go round.

The main tree coppice areas are planted with a mixture of trees, since we didn’t know what would do well.  They were selected to be mainly native broadleaved trees that should like our mild damp climate, not mind the salt wind, and grow fairly fast (again with reference to the books mentioned above).  The main species are Ash (Fraxinus Excelsior) (We had to stop planting this after a few years due to spread of ‘ash dieback’ in UK – just as well we have a mix of species), Hazel (Corylus Avellana), Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Aspen (Popular tremula), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), and Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens).  Groups of the same sort of tree are planted together, although we also experimented with interplanting the coppice trees with Spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Larch (Larix decidua).  A few xmas trees (Picea abies) did not like the salt wind and have barely struggled to survive.

In addition, we have included ‘rides’ or trackways within the planting.  These are (hopefully) wide enough to drive a vehicle round to aid in harvesting, and loop round so there should never be too far to carry the fuel to harvest it.   Along the edges of these tracks I have planted trees and shrubs that have additional or alternative uses as potential food crops – crab apple (Malus sylvestris) (some of which I have successfully (and unsuccessfully!) grafted eating and cooking apple varieties onto), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) more holly and rowan.  I have now started backfilling with some more interesting fruiting or otherwise useful trees and shrubs: sloe or backthorn (Prunus spinosa), dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucaria), chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa), also some small leaved lime (Tillia cordata) and willow (some Salix pupurea, and some sort of native dog willow that has seeded itself in.  In a slightly sheltered spot below the barn I have planted some orchard trees – probably a bit prematurely, since they really do not have enough shelter, but hopefully by the time they are ready to fruit in a few years, the shelter (a thuja plicata hedge) will also have grown up.  I have also left a clear area just below the barn for a future pond.  There is a slight plateau area, so it shouldn’t look as odd as it sounds having a pond at the top of the hill.  I have a small fruit growing area/tea garden near the barn also (more about that later).

View towards river from viewpoint of tree planting 2012

Note:  I am using ‘I’ and ‘we’ rather at random here.  My husband and I own the land, but the tree planting is mainly my project at this time – the chainsaw is his.  I have had considerable help in the planning from my friend Amanda Baker, and in the execution by Amanda and her partner David Clements.