Orchard, Autumn and Tomatoes

I managed to just about finish clearing the section of orchard I was aiming to.  The weather has turned a bit damp now – so I’ve lost this years’ window for weeding.  The soil just gets too claggy when it’s wet.  I’ve left a nice sorrel plant there, and I may transplant some more in there.  I have found some with lovely large leaves in various places round the field.

large leaved sorrel
Large leaved Rumex acetosa – common sorrel

I have also planted a few of my seedling heath pea plants along the border which I plan to keep digging up, and a marsh woundwort plant as well.  I haven’t got round to tasting the roots of this yet.  It is related to crosnes (stachys affinis) and like crosnes the roots are edible.  This plant was rather pot bound.  It had been sitting in a puddle next to the polytunnel all year – an offset from the bought in plant.  I’m hoping it will be damp enough for it at the side of the orchard there.  We can get quite a bit of water coming down the track at times, as well as being generally damp climate wise.  The roots certainly look like they could be quite productive – long and tender.  I did snap a few bits off and popped them in the fridge, but forgot they were there when I cooked dinner yesterday.  I also put a couple of seedling lathyrus tuberosa (earthnut pea) seedlings.  These are from seed that I was sent (thanks Anni).  Unfortunately with one thing and another (weather and neglect!) I only have four seedlings and one of these looks a bit poorly.  I’ve put plant pot collars on them, since I have read that slugs really like these plants.  I’m thinking that they can climb up the apple tree.  Not the ideal spot for a root crop, but if they grow and like it there I can maybe propagate more plants from these.

orchard view north
Orchard view to North

I also spread around loads of seed: firstly some of the green manure seeds I obtained recently.  I spread field beans and fodder radish fairly generally over the whole area and red clover selectively around the bases of the honeyberries and apple tree.  It may be a bit late for the fodder radish, but I’m hoping that it will stay mild for long enough for them to put on a bit of growth before the winter (I can already see shoots coming on the field beans just a couple of days later!).  I also sowed some other legume seeds that I collected:  birds foot trefoil and bush vetch (vicia sepium).  I have been enjoying the odd nibble on the latter as it has reappeared around the tree field (see here for a little foraging guide).  The birds foot trefoil makes a nice low growing ground cover – it should be nitrogen fixing, but I’m not sure how well it will keep down the weeds.  This is the first time I’ve tried sowing it direct.  I did sow some in the spring in pots, but didn’t get a good success rate (again weather and neglect…): one plant.  I also spread some sweet cicely seed and good king henry which both have done well for me in the tea garden a little up the hill.  They both seeded themselves a bit up there, but I want to transplant those seedlings elsewhere.

birds foot
How bird’s foot trefoil gets it’s name

I started trying to dig out couch grass and docken from the rest of the orchard on the north side of the track.  There is a fair amount of both and I haven’t quite finished that.  It’s only a rough going over.  I will mulch it with newspaper and card and try and give it another go during next summer depending on priorities.  I did get out some of the silver weed I planted there in the spring this year.  It is still a bit early – they are in full leaf, and the roots look very white.  Generally they are up to 6 inches long and up to one quarter inch diameter.  I’m going to transfer some to the track border.  I may see if I can use them for pathways in the orchard area.  They have made a reasonable coverage after a bit of editing in the tea garden and certainly spread like mad!

It’s starting to feel a little autumnal now.  The first trees to lose their leaves are the Wych elm, but some of the rowans are turning colour, and one of the beech is rather a nice yellow.  I’m a bit worried by how red this apple tree is.  Last year it was the best for growth, this year it looks a bit strained – the others are all still quite green.  We don’t tend to get much autumn colour here – the winds strip the leaves off the trees before they can put on much of a show.  It looks like it will be a bumper year for hazelnuts – I spotted the first nuts on our own trees (planted 2010), but the ones along the river bank seem quite laden.  I did go along and pick up a fair few from underneath the trees, but they all seem to be empty (either shed by the tree or discarded in disgust by hopeful birds!).  It’s still a bit early.  Usually the birds get the nuts, which is fair enough.  I would quite like to get a harvest off our own trees in due time.  Although they weren’t bought as nutting cultivars, the seeds they apparently came from seemed a fair size.

bumper hazelnuts 2018
bumper crop on hazels by river

The local outside brambles are starting to ripen.  Funnily enough these don’t seem to be bothered by those horrid flies!  There was a new bush that has seeded in at the corner of the river  above the pond, which seems to have quite nice quality berries.

self sown bramble
tasty self sown bramble

Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!

ripe tomatoes
First ripe tomatoes – (super sweet 100)

There was a little mildew or possibly blight on some of the leaves so I’ve pulled a few off the tomato plants.  I’m hoping that I will get more tomatoes ripening over the next month or so before I have to rescue them.  Some comfrey leaves are soaking in a bucket of water at the moment to add some extra tomato feed to try and give them a late boost.

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Orchard revisited – more pH testing

toad
Toad in orchard area

I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area.  I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching.  I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc.  I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together.  The soil does seem quite light.  I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much.  There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.

orchard clearing
forking over the orchard

I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid.  I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants.  I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred.  I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it.  I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial.  The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere.  I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down.  I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon.  I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant.  I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….

S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil.  Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops.  This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year.  We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility.  I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden.  Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.

On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn.  Again this has a bit of couch grass in it.  I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass.  I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short.  I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out!  Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary!  At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction.  I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)

blueberry plot
View to holding from opposite hill (taken Sept 2017)

I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass.  What would happen if I just left it be?  How competive is it as a weed?  I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch.  It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field.  I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer.  I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch).  Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!

pH testing kit
pH indicator chart

I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished.  I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart.  The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach.  All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5.  The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7.  I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time.  Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.

pH test potential blueberry plot
pH test for potential blueberry plot

 

 

 

Polytunnel Update

dotty caterpillar
Dotty caterpillar – not a silver y

Things seem to have been a bit slow in the polytunnel – It’s been a bit cooler and damper but I haven’t been out there much – just a bit of watering and thinning out the grapes.  The main excitement is the number of happy caterpillars I seem to have.  There are several large ones that I see in there: A bright green one, a dull browny coloured one, a dotty one with a waist stripe and one with stripes that match the stalks on the fat hen as it goes to seed.   I think most of them belong to  the silver y moth which I do see in there quite often.  They don’t seem to be doing too much damage:  They quite like the Yacon, but prefer the fat hen to the olive tree.  There are a few holes in the squash leaves but nothing the plants can’t shake off.

silver y moth
Silver y moth in polytunnel

Something has eaten part through one of my dahlia stalks – I think it is probably a slug.  they don’t tend to be too much a problem these days for established plants, but I do get a few helping themselves to my seedlings in pots by the polytunnel door.  The dahlia I grew from seed, which I am quite proud of myself for.  They have lovely dark coloured leaves, and are just starting to form buds.  The seeds are some of those that came from the Hardy Plant Society annual selection.  I had pretty good germination from most of those – probably because they were so fresh.  Dahlia tubers are theoretically edible, although apparently they vary a great deal as to tastiness!  I’m tempted to get some from Lubera who have selected a range of better tasting ones.  You get the flowers and then the tubers to eat, and can replant again for next year.  I have tried some raw a while ago now, and wasn’t particularly impressed, but then you wouldn’t eat a potato raw either would you?  I’ve mounded up the soil around the stem in the hope that it will re-root like a cutting.  There does seem to be another shoot coming from below the damage, but I may lose the flowers of that plant.

My fuchsia berry plant is looking a lot more happy now.  It is in the ground and has a fairly respectable shoot.  Hopefully it is getting it’s roots down to survive there overwinter.  I have pinched off the tip, since in it’s pot last year it grew a bit leggy and tended to droop down with the weight of the fruit – yes they were quite sweet and nice.  My outside fuchsia that came with the house also has quite nice berries.  You have to get them when they are ripe, or they taste more peppery than sweet.  The downside is that they tend to ripen gradually, so there are a few for a nibble but not enough for much of a meal.  I should propagate the bush a bit though, since it would be quite good as a boundary shrub.  It’s a bit late this year – maybe I’ll take some hardwood cuttings overwinter and see how they get on.  The fuchsia berry is supposed to be a bit more tender.  I did try taking some softwood cutting last year, but none of them took – I’ll maybe try again next year, assuming it survives the winter again.

polytunnel plants aug
Miscellaneous polytunnel plants – Yacon at front with oca between, physalis and squash behind

The Yacon seem to be doing pretty well.  I haven’t fed them barring the initial planting with compost, but have tried to give them plenty of water – probably still not as much as they want.  The single plant I put outside in the tea garden extension is also looking pretty good – the warmer start to the summer was probably to it’s liking.  I’m growing Oca for the first time this year (thanks Frances!)  I’ve put two in the polytunnel and one outside.  So far I would say that they don’t like it too hot.  The one outside seemed to do much better than the ones in the tunnel initially when we had all that hot weather.  More recently it’s been a bit cooler and less sunny, and the ones inside have cheered up a bit – a little leggy perhaps.  All three plants look lush and green at the moment.  Apparently they don’t make tubers until the days get shorter, which for us will be at the end of September or so.  At that point the extra protection of the tunnel may pay off, since it should hold off a light frost or two.  I’ve never eaten them so I won’t comment on that yet.

There are flowers starting to develop on my physalis – golden berry, and a few flowers on the courgette.  Those really haven’t done so well this year, but then I generally don’t have gluts to complain of!  The sharks fin melon is climbing well – almost to the roof with buds forming.  The japanese squash has delightful silver splashed leaves which are quite pretty, and again shows promise of buds.  The mashua isn’t looking too good still.  I think the hot weather was definitely not to it’s liking.  They are still really small and hardly starting to climb at all.  Some of the other plants will probably be too late to come to anything. For example the achocha, which I said last year needed a longer season didn’t get planted out early enough again.  Tomatillo and peppers I sowed for the sake of it, but really didn’t look after them enough to get much from them.  The plants are alive, but that’s about all one can say about them.  My sweet potato plants seem to be doing well.  I hope I’ve given them enough water.  When I grew them in our polytunnel in Solihull I think that was the main problem there.  They do have lovely dark coloured leaves, a bit like an ornamental bindweed.  I’ve just let them scramble over the ground, although they would climb given a framework.

drunk flies
Drunk flies on outside Alice bramble

The bramble has not done so well this year as previous years.  As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve had a lot of flies eating the berries (Alice outside remains a complete wash out!).  The flies get so drunk that you can put your finger right next to them without them all flying off.  I’ve still had quite a few berries – enough to make a batch of bramble and apple jelly (clear jelly not jam with bits in), but nowhere as many as previous years.  The bramble and kiwi look very precarious also.  I had to cut some of the support ties for the kiwi at the start of the year, and haven’t got round to replacing them properly.  I had used old tights – the legs make pretty good strong soft bindings.  unfortunately the weight of the vine had made them go thin, and they were cutting in to the trunk quite a lot.  It was actually difficult to extract them as the kiwi was growing around them.  I have started to use strips of pond liner (plenty of that left from around the mice holes!)  This seems to stay more ribbon-like so doesn’t cut in.  It’s a bit more difficult to tie in a knot (especially when supporting a heavy trunk with your third hand!), but seems to be kind to the plants and lasts pretty well.  Tyre inner tubes are also pretty good, but I’m not sure whether they will have the same light resistance as pond liner.

tomatoes aug 12018
Promising tomato trusses

The tomatoes have done really well – lots of lovely trusses have set nicely.  None are ripening yet, but I remain hopeful for a reasonable harvest in the end – so far looking like my best yet here.  Some of the plants have dark spots developing on the older leaves, which I think is a sign of nutrient deficiency.  I probably haven’t fed them enough – just a bucket of comfrey tea between them when I can remember to do it!  It’s actually also the same comfrey residue – so there’s probably not much nutrient left in it.  I should have some time off later this week so will try and cut some fresh comfrey leaves then.

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August progress in tree field

bees on flowers
Common knapweed (centaurea nigra) and small bee

After a week of rain we have a sunny Sunday to leisurely wander and assess the growth this year in the tree field.  The late summer flowers are giving the busy bumblebees a help towards winter supplies.  I’ve been gathering various vetch seeds again, which I’m hoping to swap for favours.  The heath pea are just about over; the warm early summer meant I had quite a crop, and managed to harvest over an ounce of seed, with plenty that I missed to further spread into the field.  I have noticed it this year even in what I consider quite damp areas.  I think the reason it was mainly in the thinner drier areas at first was simply that these had been less well ploughed and the tubers were able to survive better.

marsh woundwort
Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris) flowers in tree field

One of the plants I got from the ART last year was Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort.  It is related to Stachys affinis – crosnes or chinese artichoke.  A native plant, it likes damp meadows and spreads by thick (edible) tubers.  As this grew, I realised it did bear a strong resemblance to a plant I have seen growing on the river bank.  A second opinion on the odour (it has a strong pungant smell, but my sense of smell is pretty poor) confirmed that I already have lots of this growing round the field.  I’m happy about this, and not sad I bought a plant I already had.  For one thing, the imported plant may be better for tubers, for another it confirmed something that might otherwise always be just suspicion.  There seems to be much more of it this year than I remember in previous years, so I may try and dig a little up this autumn and see what it tastes like (watch this space).

hairy caterpillar
Knot grass moth – acronicta rumicis on willow

I remembered seeing a particulary colourful hairy caterpillar down beside the pond.  As it turned out there were a few of the same variety there.  When going for a closer look at some aspen I thought had mildew (just downy leaves catching the sun), I found another one of these pebble prominent (Notodonta ziczac) which look like a cross between a caterpillar and a rhinocerous.

rhino caterpillar
Notodonta ziczac on Aspen

The willow cuttings that I put in this spring all seem to have taken despite the dry spring.  There is still plenty of space up near the hump at the top which is damp and relatively sheltered.  I’ll try and put some more in there since it does seem to do pretty well.

ash growth 2018
S. points out this years’ growth point on a particularly fine ash tree

This year we have seen some incredible growth on some of the ash trees.  Literally some have actually doubled in height.  Hopefully they won’t break off or die back too much.  They do seem to have a tendency to die back a few years growth in one go sometimes.  It’s not the ash dieback – that hasn’t reached us (yet).  Whether it is another fungal disease or something else I don’t know, but it is a bit frustrating.  I am hoping that by the time chalara does make it here the ash will be big enough to be useful firewood.  Certainly if they can maintain this rate of growth there is a fair chance!

We’ve started to make little pedestrian paths through the trees, just picking routes like the dog’s cut through to the pond.  This means we will be able to get up close and personal with the trees, and appreciate some different viewpoints without getting our feet too wet (assuming that we bring the mower round them at some point).  My challenge to come will be getting S. to appreciate that the seedheads are just as important as the flower stems when it comes to mowing the tracks.  I have marked the orchids with bits of stick, but these have tended to get lost over time.  Douglas does have a habit of stealing them on his way past!

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Editing the tree field. #2 Docken

cutting docken
Black currant bushes exposed as docken cut back

Actually it’s mainly the orchard area within the tree field that I have been clearing of docks in the past few weeks.  I have very nearly finished getting the levels sorted out, and managed to mulch with card some of the new surfaces (see here).  Some of the area I managed to sow with some left over green manure seeds (buckwheat and clover)  and these did germinate and grow to a certain extent but have not managed to outcompete the dock seed that is present in apparently vast quantities!  There is also some established docken from previous years that was probably growing on the site previously, or was in the soil before it was moved down to the orchard area and regrew.  The main priority was to get out the docken that were going to seed before they have a chance to spread more seed into the soil.  This involved going round with a spade and cutting through the taproot of the plants.  The tops were then loaded into a barrow along with a few bits of nettle and some of the couch grass that has apparently become established there also.  The barrows were dumped just below the original gateway to the lower field, which still stands like the doorway in Narnia, although the gate is lying down rather than hinging.  There is an area of soil below the gate which either didn’t have trees planted, or the trees didn’t take.  I think it was the former, since the soil was very compacted, full of docken and stones in the gateway.  Hopefully the loads of fertility in the form of weeds will help to rejuvenate the soil.  I think of it as a bit like segregating nuclear waste – concentrating all the nasties in one area.  I do the same with the rubbish I find: bits of rusty metal, glass, string, coal and brocken crockery get put into piles (or bags) until I can get round to deciding what to do with them.

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I had to go over the cardboard I laid on the north side of the trackway, since there were several docks that had punched their way through.  This has made a bit of a mess of the cardboard, so I will have to cover the area again before winter.  I have cut back all the seeding docken, and made a start at pulling out the juvenile plants that would go to seed from next year.  The slightly larger plants often come out cleanly with the taproot when pulled firmly with a twist.  I have been twisting off the leaves and leaving them on the soil surface and putting the roots in a bucket before adding them to the weed mountain.  Some may not be big enough to regrow, but there’s no point tempting fate.  The smaller plants will need digging out.  It seems counter intuitive, but the younger leaves tend to just come off in your hand leaving the tap root to regrow in the ground.  If the soil is gently loosened with a fork then the whole plant is more likely to come cleanly.  I’ve still got some of the larger plants to do, and almost all of the smaller plants.  I think I will go over the whole area lightly with a fork anyway and try and remove as much as possible of the couch grass.  It will probably grow back anyway, but if I can reduce a bit it will be worthwhile.  I’m going to quickly order some green manure seed: fodder radish, red clover and field beans to overwinter and keep down the weed seeds.  I may try and spread some of my vetch seeds and plants as well.

young docken
Juvenile docken with buckwheat flowering behind

I’ve made a start on the final area of the tea garden extension: there was a strip along by the trackway which didn’t need levelling, so is still full of weeds: docken, nettles, couch, creeping thistles, other thistles……I’m going to take the worst out and then mulch over the whole area.  The couch will grow back, but I’m hoping that the soil under the mulch will be nice and friable by spring, and a light forking will be sufficient to remove the couch.  I am trying out a variation on mulching again.  Since I seem to need an awful lot of cardboard to cover an area, I am going to make it go further by combining it with newspapers.  Previously when I’ve used newspapers I have weighted them down with grassy materials: old haylage, grass clippings, cut reeds etc.  These work to a certain extent, but there always seems to be a deal of work in cutting and moving the clippings, and then they sometimes blow off and I end up with newspaper decorating the fences.  This time I am going to spread a single layer of cardboard over the newspapers and weight it down with stones as usual, of which I have a plentiful supply collected out of the tea garden extension when moving the soil earlier in the year.  A double layer of cardboard does seem to last pretty well by this method, so we’ll see if a single layer with paper underneath does as well.

new mulch method
Starting to mulch edge strip of tea garden extension

They say the camera doesn’t lie, but I wanted to see whether I could take a picture that made my weed infested tea garden extension look great.  These pictures were taken from the same position, just crouching or standing up and show how easy it is to be misled.

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Season of soft fruitfulness

Ben Gairn blackcurrant - fruit not quite all ripe
Ben Gairn blackcurrants ripening

Summer is, as yet, the fruit season for me.  The orchard is a dream for the future; not a single apple this year, despite the good weather.  I have been picking currants and raspberries however over the past couple of weeks.  The original Ben Sarek black currants did pretty well, over 13 pounds in total.  Not up to their usual quality however: quite a few split, and smaller than usual.  It’s been a slightly odd year due to a relatively hot and dry early summer, and I think this affected the berries.  Maybe the skins hardened too soon, since the Ben Gairn currant, which had a really good crop, had a lot split, which made the picking over quite difficult.  I like to remove the remains of the petals as well as the stalks, but it was a slow messy job.  I’ve made two batches of jam and still have some in the freezer.  The Belorussian sweet currant  I didn’t even bother picking.  The fruit was the first to ripen, but was really tiny and split. Hopefully in a more normal summer it will do better.  So far the Ben Sarek wins hands down.  It’s only the first year for the other two to fruit properly however, so we’ll see how they do next year.  The black currant bushes in the front garden didn’t have many berries.  I haven’t been pruning them, and they are getting a bit leggy.  I’ll try and make a point of pruning them hard this year.  The cuttings in the fruit garden are now quite productive bushes.  I’ve decided that the other currant next to the original Ben Sarek black currant bush must be what my friend calls the ‘nancyberry’.  It grew as a seedling in my garden in Solihull (originally between the paving stones of the path as they do!), I think it is a blackcurrant-gooseberry cross.  There it had lovely large sweet berries, but here it sets hardly any.  I have been gradually removing the bushes again, since they obviously don’t like Skye.  By removing this last bush it will give me a suitable space for my Charlotte Russe mulberry bush.  That was a present from my Mum when she came up this spring.  I am quite excited about this.  The garden is still pretty exposed, but I’m hopeful that the fruit garden is starting to get a bit more sheltered.

raspberry jungle
Not so much fruit garden as raspberry jungle!

The raspberries looked really promising, but the initial picking was a  bit disappointing.  I had a awful lot that were wormy.  I have had this to a certain extent in previous years, but probably more than half were wormy to some extent.  I’m not one to be too fussy about a few insects, but this was ridiculous!  It’s been a bit damp to pick the berries this last week.  The second picking was a bit better than the first: not so many ripe ones, but fewer with worm problems.  I’ve made a big batch of strawberry and raspberry jam (strawberries from the shop as yet, although I now have some plants getting established so watch this space!).  I have about four different sorts of summer raspberries, I was given a load of canes of an unknown variety from someone locally.  They fruit well, but have been worst affected by the worms and have a slightly watery taste.  I have  another which does pretty well, some of the berries have a tendency to be slightly double, but good cosmetic quality generally.  Malling Jewel is in the tea garden, struggling in a still rather exposed position.  One that came with the house: Glen Prosen, which is starting to do quite well in the dog resistant garden but took a long while to get established,  this is the best tasting fresh I think.  I’ve found that neither of the autumn fruiting raspberries do very well in our short summers.  They are too late getting started in the spring to flower in time before the weather gets colder and the days shorter.

white himalayan strawberry
White Himalayan strawberry fruit

Talking of strawberries, just a note on the himalayan strawberries in the tea garden.  It looks like getting some other plants from different sources was the right thing to do, since despite being set back by my weeding at a time of hot dry weather a few fruit did set.  Unexpectedly they have turned out to be white.  They are like large alpine strawberries, difficult to remove from the stem, with a pleasant citrussy resinous flavour when fully ripe.  They become very soft, so easy to crush.  Hopefully they will fruit better next year if I can avoid digging them up at the wrong time!  They do seem to make a very dense ground cover, which was their primary purpose.

haskap berries
Haskap: dense fruiting in first year

I’ve now picked the last of the Haskap/honeyberries.  It is impossible to tell whether they are ripe or not, until you bite into them.  When ripe, they have a quite plummy sweet/sour flavour and are coloured right through.  Before fully ripe they are sharper and less pleasant.  I’m very pleased with how well they fruited, considering this is their first year.  I’m pretty sure they will make a rather nice jam when I get a few more fruit.  They should be pruned by removing about a quarter of the mature branches to avoid overcrowding and should live for decades.  I need to try and not let them get taken over by weeds in the orchard area.  So far they are a successful experiment I think.  I’ve saved a few seeds so I can try to propagate them, they should germinate well when fresh, so I may try sowing some straight away.  They also propagate by cuttings, better from summer cuttings apparently, but I may try some of the prunings this winter since that is easier for me.

I’ve not harvested the grapes in the tunnel, but have thoroughly thinned them out.  I don’t think I thinned them enough last year, so I have been a bit more brutal this year.  I collected the thinnings as much as possible, and had enough to make a small batch of green grape jelly.  I had contemplated making verjuice, but I may try that next year.  The new vine (a white, Zalagyongye, which for some reason I thought would be seedless but apparently isn’t) has just one bunch of grapes, but they are not so far along as the Boskoop glory, so I’m not sure whether they will ripen off.  The vine is growing well, so I’m hoping that it will do better next year.

I still have redcurrants and gooseberries to harvest.  The invicta has done quite well.  The new red gooseberries, Pax, have mostly dropped, and are rather small.  I have two new red currants in the tea garden: redcurrant cherry and rovada.  I don’t think any of the redcurrants from Solihull survived, but I have a couple of small plants in the fruit garden.  These were grown from cuttings taken from a tough little plant growing in a dry stone wall in full force of the sea winds.  I’d like to take cuttings from a plant I pass going to the shop which blooms profusely, but the berries seem to either nor set or quickly get picked by birds.  It is such a dwarfed plant that finding a decent bit of stem will be difficult.

blackberry Helen
Blackberry Helen fruiting well before the fly strike!

The blackberry in the polytunnel is just starting to ripen, as is the new one ‘Helen’ outdoors.  It looks like this may be a disappointment, as I have yet to try the berries!  They are quite prolific and large but seem to be very attractive to blue flies which destroy the drops and make them discoloured and unappetising!  It may be they are ripening too slowly due to the damp weather this week and may do better in drier weather.  They certainly have been early, but I am at a bit of a loss about what to do about this.  It looks like I will have to move the vine pretty soon anyway, since we are intending to extend the barn to where this is currently planted now.  Maybe I should try it in the polytunnel?  But that wasn’t the point!

 

Editing the tree field. #1 bracken

I’m not sure who coined the phrase ‘editing the garden’.  It is very apt though.  I’m gradually adding and deleting plants around the holding; planting trees and encouraging flowers such as orchids and vetch, whilst removing (or trying to) bracken, creeping thistle and selectively docken and buttercups in the garden.

lephin and glendale august 2012
Dark green areas of bracken in general glen view (summer 2012)

You can tell the untended holdings around here by the rapid overtake of bracken across them. It spreads by fleshy underground runners creeping forward year on year.  It doesn’t seem to like very boggy ground or deep shade, but otherwise little seems to stop it.  The sheep don’t eat it, although their sharp little hoofs in the spring can knock it back a bit.  When we first took on the plot there was a little bracken down by the river, which was slowly creeping into the field.  On our northern side as well the bracken encroaches into our boundary.  Although grazed by sheep, the owner of the land lives away and the ‘tenant’ does not improve grassland that is not his.  I have been turning a problem into a benefit over the last few years.  The compost you can make from bracken has a far better texture than any peat free compost that I have managed to find to date.  I have heard as well that although it grows on potash poor soil, it is a potash accumulator, thus compost made from it will be relatively rich in potassium.  Although I haven’t checked this, I have been using it recently for my potting on projects in combination with a little ash-enriched general garden waste compost.

This year I have been successful in pulling all the bracken on the holding.  In order to reduce the vigour of the bracken year on year I physically go round and pull out the bracken stalks.  They come off fairly easily, although generally you need two hands (and gloves).  This should be done when the leaf is fairly well grown, but in the earlier part of the summer. Bracken spores are supposed to be carcinogenic, so it’s not good practice to spend too much time in amongst it later in the year.  Also I guess that it will be feeding the roots all the time, so it is better to stop this as soon as possible.  If you pull too early the plant simply shoots up a further load of leaves and carries on.  Generally there will be more leaves anyhow, and smaller ones that have been missed.  So it is as well to go back around after a week or so to pull this regrowth if possible.  Since I started doing this, and despite not managing to do it all every year, the bracken has reduced from being as tall as I am (over 5 feet) to waist height or less.

saving bracken
Bracken collected for compost making

What I have done this year is be more methodical and I have managed to gather the pulled leaves into a builders sack for recovery up the the garden area to rot down into compost.  All the leaves didn’t fit in however, so I’m leaving them to wilt a little in the hope that this will also reduce the weight of the bag, which is rather heavy for me to drag now!  If it doesn’t get much lighter, then I may have to decant some of the leaves out and take it up the hill in portions.  I’d quite like to be a bit more sufficient in compost next year by this method.

bracken autumn colours
Autumn colours

Going forth and multiplying

Whilst the weather is less clement (we’ve had a reasonable amount of rain since last Friday, and it continues a bit showery at the moment),  I can again spend a little time in the polytunnel and this time use the potting bench and give my cuttings and seedlings some individual space.  I had quite a lot of plants grown from seeds since I have been a member of the hardy plant society (HPS) and they do a seed distribution every year.  My interest is in edible plants, but more garden plants than you would think are also edible.  I therefore managed to get quite a selection of seed to try and nothing lost if they don’t make it.

Two out of the three varieties of passionflower have germinated: Passiflora edulis var. flavicarpa from chiltern seeds, and Passiflora incarnata  from California which was a gift.  I grew these for the polytunnel in the hope that they will not only flower (and fruit!), but overwinter in there.  I’ve put them mostly along the northern wall.  I think last year things suffered slightly in the tunnel from lack of light, since I grew so many climbers on the south wall of the tunnel.  I also planted out some of my akebia seedlings (which turned out to be Akebia trifoliata), two on the north wall, and two by the apricot.  Hopefully they won’t compete too much with it.  I still have several left, and a few passionflowers, which I have potted on into bigger pots, I may bring them in over winter to hedge my bets.

polytunnel in July
New climbers planted along Left hand (North) wall

I had various other pots of seedlings that need pricking out.  Two sorts of campanula: C. Takesimana (Korean bellflower) and C. Latifoliata, these have edible leaves and flowers.  Asphodeline lutea (Yellow asphodel) is another edible (roots, shoots and flowers).  Apparently slugs love it (which does seem to be an indicator of ediblility!). It prefers more dry alkaline conditions but it does tolerate maritime exposure.  They did each seem to be producing a substantial little rootlet when I potted them on, despite having been a bit congested in their first pot.  Also from the HPS seed were some dahlia, allium, hosta, martagon lily, angelica and fennel.  The last two didn’t do anything – maybe too hot.  I should have sowed earlier directly on an outside bed I think.  The dahlia seed produced four lovely plants with dark coloured leaves.  I have planted two directly in the polytunnel, and two just potted on into larger pots.  The allium germinated well but seemed to freeze at the tiny hook seedling stage.  The hosta seeds suffered from the dry weather, but I seem to have a few germinating just now.  I did have quite a few martagon lilies germinating, but again had a few losses due to irregular watering, just four left.  Sadly my Gevuina avellana seems to have died.  I was just thinking it was time to risk potting it on, but when I inspected it I realised that the stem had rotted.  I am quite upset about this, but am determined to try again!  It must like it really dry as a young plant, and just couldn’t cope with the recent inundation.

asphodeline lutea seedlings
Rootlet on Asphodeline lutea seedlings

I potted on a new type of globe artichoke which I think were from chiltern seeds and some wild rose seedlings which I grew from seed from a rose on the river bank which has larger hips than most of the dog roses around here.  I had pricked out some self sown good king henry, but almost all the tray perished in the dry heat (it was too shallow for them to stand much neglect!)  The last few survivors were potted into slightly larger pots, so they may have more chance now.  I’m going to try and spread some more of the seedlings, which are still close to the mother plant, around the garden.  They do seem to make a healthy plant for ground cover.  I have collected some seed as well to pass on.

I have cuttings of honeysuckle, escallonia and some perennial kale cuttings.  I have one surviving grape cutting (the rest all given away now).  These I grew by accident!  When I harvested the grapes last year, I cut them with a bit of stem attached (as recommended by Bob Flowerdew) and placed them in water, which is supposed to make the grapes last longer.  All the stems subsequently rooted in the water, and I had about eight quite nice little boskoop glory grape vine plants!  I have taken some cuttings of the little fuchsias that grow in my shop hanging baskets.  They do so well flowering, but are about four or five years old now, so I feel the need for back up. I have also taken cuttings of some of my tea plants since I lost so many over the winter, and some more escallonia which makes a really good hedge around here.

multiplication
Some of the new plants.

 

Planting out

As usual I’m late with planting out my plants in the polytunnel.  It has just been so hot in there!  Also I’ve become programmed to work outside if the weather is at all dry, since that is normally the rarer event on Skye. The tomato plants that I managed to get in a couple of weeks ago are looking quite healthy.  I especially like the look of one called ‘first in the field’ – it has a lovely thick stem and a dark green colour (front right hand corner in photo).  All the others look good too, and a few are starting to show flowers, so hopefully they won’t be a complete disaster this year.

tomatos in July
Tomato plants growing on well

I have succeeded in planting out in the tunnel two climbing courgettes, three bush courgettes, three sharks fin melon (saved seed!) and two japanese squash.  They all had a good few scoops of home made, wood ash enriched, compost mixed in to the planting hole, so should get away now despite being rather weedy looking plants.  No sooner had they gone in than Harry decided that the planting recesses made a really comfortable bed!  Luckily the japanese squash seemed none the worse the next morning!

polytunnel squash
Curcubits planted out
cat nests
Harry’s bed

I also planted out some basil which came from a friends saved seed – the best germination I’ve ever had!  I guess it’s because the seed was nice and fresh.  I’m going to see if I can get some of mine to set seed.  That would be good to seed around in the tunnel!  There are also two oca plants, which I am growing for the first time (the third went outside in the tea garden extension).  The chilli peppers and aubergine probably won’t come to much, but they were free seed anyway.  They’re such tiny plants I’m afraid they will be swamped in the tunnel, but they never get the attention they need in pots either with me, so this is the best option.  I also had some goldenberry seeds (a type of Physalis – like the ones you sometimes get dipped in chocolate with your coffee).  I gather this is a rather tender perennial that doesn’t mind poor soils (according to PFAF it can grow more leaves than fruit if the soil is too rich).  Hopefully this will be able to over-winter in the polytunnel, so will add to my perennial plants in there.  Although the sweetcorn plants also look a bit stunted I have given them a planting hole with extra compost and we’ll see how they do.  They mostly seemed to have pretty good roots on them so may still crop albeit later in the year than they should.

sweetcorn
I promise those are courgette plants on the left and sweetcorn on the right!

In the undergrowth I found my fuchsia berry in its pot.  This was a present from my Mum and had been waiting for a permanent home.  Unfortunately it does seem to have suffered in the hot tunnel, but somewhat to my surprise was actually still alive!  I therefore have found a suitable spot near the central path for it, and will try and keep an eye on it over the next few weeks until it is established.  It does seem to have larger, sweeter berries than my garden fuchsia, although these are also quite nice when properly ripe.  With regard to ripe berries, the flavour of the ‘honeyberries’ do seem to be developing.  One of them definitely has some richer plummy flavours coming through now.  So far they are hanging on the bushes well, so I’ll keep sampling them whilst they last.

tea garden extension squash
Sharks fin melon in tea garden extension (Douglas supervising)

There were four sharks fin melon plants that I did not have room for in the tunnel, so I have popped them in outside in the tea garden extension.  I don’t suppose they will come to anything – they really need a longer season than they will get outside, but you never know, and they will be a bit more groundcover to keep some of the weeds down as well.  There were a few more goldenberry plants as well – a little on the small side, they may fruit this year, but probably won’t overwinter.  There are various seedlings appearing in this area – some of which I sowed, but a lot of docken.  These I find harder to get out when they are small – the leaves tend to pull off too easily.  When they are a little bigger the roots come too if you are lucky.  I can see quite a few buckwheat seedlings, a very few phacelia, some wheat (not grass as I found when I pulled a bit out when weeding), quite a bit of what may be clover or alfalfa (too early to tell which yet), various brassica including a lot of fodder radish (which has very tasty pods if you allow it to go to seed), the ubiquitous kale and what may be cabbage (or sprouts?).  There’s definitely a bit of leaf beet (or spinach?).  The callaloo seedlings I put in seem to be doing pretty well despite the dry weather.  I’ve never tried it before – its a sort of amaranth that is grown for it’s leaves.  It is used quite a bit in Jamaican cookery, but apparently should grow quite well outside in the UK, we’ll see.  There’s still a little bit more relatively easy weeding to do, then I need to get the paths laid and the rest of the undergrowth cut back and mulched.

seedlings in tea garden extension
Seedling mix – red ones are Callaloo

The outside soft fruit are just a little way off ripe.  The blackcurrants are changing colour.  I’m hoping for my first harvest off the new plants in the tea garden.  The berries all look a little on the small side, but plenty of them.  The first raspberries are changing colour, and again I’m hoping for a good harvest there – watch this space!

blackcurrant promise
Blackcurrants in tea garden showing colour

 

 

Mulching in the heat

summer flowers
Wild flowers in June

The weather continues unusually hot and dry for us.  One of our burns has dried up, and the other is down to a trickle.  Luckily there still seems enough to fill the pipe to the polytunnel, since the sunshine makes it very hot in there, even with the doors open.  The olive tree blossom has opened, and it looks like the toad has found his way into the pond which is good.  I had noticed mosquito larvae in there and some strange jelly creatures with whip tails which look really disgusting, but I assume are some other sort of fly larvae.  I was thinking I might have to import some fish to keep the vermin down, but maybe Mr Toad will sort them out for me.  It should be cooler for him in there and more comfortable.  I did make the sides sloping, so he should be able to get in and out reasonably well.  I’m thinking of maybe getting a small solar powered pump to keep the water from getting stagnant.

buckwheat around skirret
Buckwheat germinating around skinny skirret plants (Yacon on left)

I have mainly been working down in the tree field in the tea garden and the orchard area.  I have transplanted into the newly cleared and seeded tea garden extension some rather pot bound specimens of skirret, and salsify as well as some straggly alpine strawberries, a couple of mashua and a couple of yacon plants.  They will at least do better in the soil than in their pots for another year!  I also had some tiny callaloo plants which came from the heritage seed library.  This is a West Indian vegetable which is a selection of amaranth, grown for its succulent leaves rather than its seed.  They appear to be quite colourful, but so far don’t seem to be putting on much growth.  Since it has been very dry they may do better with a bit of watering in.  I did give them all a little when planted, but we have had no rain in a fortnight again, so the surface of the soil is very dry.  Underneath it isn’t so bad, although the surface springs have all dried up.

mulching with buttercups
buttercup mulch around current bush, new path emerging to left of bush

I still have a little more of the original tea garden to clear around the gooseberry bush (which seems to be bearing a good few berries despite still being very misshapen and small).  The buttercups taken out have been used to mulch around the lowermost blackcurrent bush.  I’m hoping that it has been dry enough to kill the dug up buttercup plants and that they will kill the buttercups underneath, or at least knock them back a bit.  I have decided that I need to extend the path so that it flows through to join the trackway in a natural flow. Previously I had terraced the slope, so the path had to turn 90 degrees at the step.  The side has now had to be built up with some supporting stones so that the path will have a smooth gradient.  It still needs finishing off, but I think it will work much better.

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Since it was too hot for doing much digging on Friday, I had a gentle day with the dogs mulching in the orchard area where I have been moving the soil (I had a strange virus attack on Thursday which left me feeling like I should take it easy, but feel fine now).  The earth moving is not quite finished yet, but the top terrace is just about there, so I thought I’d try and mulch it to keep the surface clear and stop some of the dock seeds germinating.  Hopefully it will then be ready to plant up next spring.  It is amazing how much cardboard you need for what isn’t a huge area.  I do like to have a fair overlap between the sheets, but I’ll need to get a few more deliveries in the shop to do the rest of the orchard!  I still have a few sheets in my plastic shed, which may finish off the top terrace with luck.

lonicera fruit
Lonicera caerulea berries

On the left hand side of the trackway my new “honeyberries”, or “earlyberries” as Lubera called them, Lonicera caerulea have turned colour, and I think are getting as ripe as they are likely to be.  Not over enamoured of the flavour so far – not as sweet as I’d hoped, bearing in mind the superb weather.  It may be that I was hoping for too much.  They are supposed to taste like blueberries when ripe, but maybe like blackcurrants they are more a berry for cooking with.  I am quite happy that I got any fruit, considering this is their first year with me, and the bees loved the flowers.  I have been very happy with all the plants I got from Lubera – nice quality, reasonable priced (and less than £5 delivery cost even to Skye) and some exiting selections.  I’m thinking of getting a second kiwi, or kiwiberry for my polytunnel and they have several to choose from….

scented orchid
Heath fragrant orchid

I always get quite excited about the orchids coming into flower  at this time of year.  Year on year we get more flowering, due to them not being eaten by sheep anymore.  I have loads more butterfly orchids on the orchid hill, and several more popping up above the cut through drain to the pond.  The most dense for blooms is the steep slope just above the pond, presumably this had not been ploughed so much.  One would have thought that there would be more coming out on the hump just below the barn, but so far I have only spotted a couple of butterfly orchids near our southern boundary, on the narrow path that winds around the hump.  Maybe the grazing pressure has been higher there due to being closer to the barn?  I would have thought the soils were not that dissimilar.  I spotted a new species of orchid as well this year – what I am fairly certain is a Heath fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia borealis) since it is the first I have found to really have a noticable sweet scent during the day.  I shall have to check for more of these, since I may just have missed them.