Happy Habby garden, pH testing

Hablitzia Tamnoides plant in tea garden

I’ve had a Hablitzia Tamnoides plant for about 18 months now. To say it is not thriving, would probably be pretty accurate. It’s a relatively unknown plant in the UK, at least until quite recently. Originating from the caucasus region, it is (supposed to be) a vigorous scrambling perennial plant, growing to about 6 ft with tasty leaves that can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Steven Barstow (http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=8606) has helped to popularise the plant with his ‘around the world in eighty plants’ book, which I heartily recommend by the way. My plant came from Alison Tindale of backyard larder (http://backyardlarder.co.uk), as a swap for some local Skye plants, and I planted it in the tea garden, where I thought it would be quite sheltered. As it turns out the tea garden hasn’t been as sheltered as I’d hoped. Also, I’ve since found out it’s native range is in limestone cliffs, so it prefers quite an alkaline soil.

(edit: I seem to have made up the limestone based on this comment from Steven Barstow, https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10154986079450860&id=655215859
I think I just assumed the cliffs in the picture were limestone.  Having done some hasty research online https://www.britannica.com/place/Caucasus, does mention limestone, so perhaps my guess was right. Alison Tindale also says it dislikes acid soils (which seems to bourne out by my experience) so I think I have added 2 and 2, whether my answer is right is luck rather than judgement!  What Stephen actually says in his book is that ‘It is found in spruce and beech woods, amongst rocks and in ravines and along rivers’)

It also benefits from quite a fertile spot. I don’t think the tea garden is particularly fertile, but relatively good for round here. Because I was so keen on growing this plant, I had also obtained some seed from Mandy at incredible vegetables (http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk) this spring, and got lots to germinate.

Hablitzia Tamnoides seedlings

Potted on, they soon outgrew the fertility in their little pots and turned quite yellow. I’ve since potted them on again, and so far they are looking a bit more happy. I decided to make a ‘habby bed’ to make my hablitzia happy. This is in the shelter of the workshop by the drive. I dug out the soil and rocks as deep as I could (not very deep – a foot or before I hit bed rock). I then back filled with builder’s rubble (some of the old render from the byre which was falling off). On top of this I put compost from last year’s compost heap which was rather full of wood ash from the stove, so hopefully both nutritious and low in pH. Having mixed these two together (difficult with the stones) I topped the lot with not quite ready bracken compost, which hopefully will be relately weed free as well as adding to the nutrients in the longer term. I’ve planted three of my new hablitzia in the bed and so far they are just sitting there! Hopefully next spring I should see them putting on good growth in appreciation.  I need to think about some sort of climbing frame for them, since they should now grow quite tall.

Hopefully Happy Hablitzia in Habby bed

This week I finally got round to doing a pH test on the soil here. I’m not sure why I hadn’t done it before. I think I had just gone on the gut feeling that it is quite acidic, without needing to put a number on it, and let’s just say I was right! The hydrangea here can have lovely blue flowers, and rhododendron thrive. I’m a bit surprised now that anything else grows – it just goes to show that plants don’t read books! I took a soil sample from approximately the centre of the tree field between the royal oaks, and the pH came out as very acidic. I tested the soil in my happy habby bed as well, and at this early stage my terraforming has been successful as it has come out as alkakine. It will be interesting to see how this changes over time. Hopefully the lime from the render will keep the worst of the acidity away. If necessary, I have a ready supply of ash from the house fires which could be used to top up.

I think I will do some more pH testing nearer the house to see if there is a difference in the cultivated areas. They may have been ‘improved’ by previous gardeners, or from lime leaching from the buildings. I do occasionally dig up what seems to be a bit of chalk, so the land does seem to have been modified in the past. I can’t think of any other reason for rock chalk to be lying about anyway.


10 years on – Photos

I’ve been trying to take photos of the same views every 3 months to give a record of how things have changed over time.  I didn’t start from the word go, but some of the photos date from when we first bought the site in 2007, since they are good views!  It has been ten years that we have been here now, so I thought I would share some before and after shots.

View from above the road.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This is taken from the prevailing wind direction (South West) As you can see we have been trying to establish a wind break of trees along the top of the bank.  Our property boundary is the middle of the road  The ones by the road have done fairly well, the ones further along to the SE/right less well.  The soil is either too shallow, or too wet (the rock shelf holds the water) for them to thrive.  The spruce that were by the house have all provided their tops as christmas trees in the past to stop them getting too big (they are very close to the house).

Fruit Garden.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These aren’t quite the same angle but give an idea of how the fruit garden has evolved.  The willow fedge was planted in 2009, and is still a bit sparse in places due to the soil being a bit shallow.  I put rubbish such as dock roots and bramble thinnings on the uphill side of it to try and build up the soil.  The tree that you can see in the centre on the earlier picture was a pear tree that did not survive.  The soil is a bit shallow there, even though I had built it up a bit I think the tree got a bit dry.  The morello cherry that was planted at the same time is doing well, you can see it in silouette against the polytunnel in the recent picture.  I pruned it to open it up a bit this year.  It had one cherry last year!  The monkey puzzles here were planted as 2 ft trees in 2009.  You can’t see them in the earlier shot, but I can see two ( towards the left) in this year’s shot.

From above orchard looking towards river

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Again, not quite the same view point.  The picture from 2009 must have been just after shearing!  I can just see the fenceline at the bottom where we had started planting the trees in the pond area at the bottom.  Note no deer fence in the earlier picture.  They are definately starting to look like trees now, and even woods maybe in places!

From North corner by river towards house.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The trees here had been in a couple of years by 2012.  The deer fencing however had only just been erected, and we soon noticed a difference in the growth of the trees – or at least the growth which has survived.  Two houses to the north of us have been erected since we’ve been here.  These alders are amongst the best grown trees now.  We may consider coppicing them soon, before they get too big.

River from viewpoint

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The first picture was taken as we were planting trees along the south boundary.  You can see the temporary fence that excluded the sheep.  The deer fence on the perifery went up a few months later.  The spruce in the centre are slightly close together pehaps, but won’t grow back once cut down.  That will leave a clear space for planting something else.  It’s fairly damp there, so maybe more willow.  We’re especially pleased with the growth of the alders on the right hand side here.  In six years they have grown from foot high transplants to being able to exclude vegetation partially underneath them, and becoming an effective wind break.




Mulching away

I’ve been having trouble with my mulched areas. I love the idea of using mulch to drive back the weeds and feed the soil, however I haven’t quite cracked the practicalities.
For example:
I like using cardboard as a sheet mulch to keep grass and weeds away from newly planted shrubs and trees in the garden. It works very well as a simple solution up to a point. If the area is to revert back to grass as in the case of the field trees, it’s fine. I use brick sized stones to keep the cardboard down, which works much better than I expected against the winds we get. By not covering the cardboard, the surface keeps drying back out and it lasts up to a year without too much degradation. You need to make sure that any bits of tape and plastic labels are removed, since these do not disappear like the cardboard does.

New beach plum in cardboard mulch a few months on

The problem I have is that this does not fully work against creeping buttercup, which is almost everywhere. The buttercups then spread over the mulch, and if you are foolish enough to enjoy the flowers, they seed everywhere, and you get a lovely ground cover of buttercups! These are probably one of my least favourite weeds. The roots are so persistent, and it is too easy to pull the top off, leaving the crown (which will regrow) behind. I’ve been struggling in the tea garden, which I have fully mulched over the last two years or so. I have five stages in progression: Bare soil exposed from removing the excess soil for terracing the orchard; Reasonably intact cardboard mulch, which is gradually being reclaimed by buttercups; a rather mature buttercup mulch where the cardboard has fully degraded; an area weeded in early summer and replanted with himalayam strawberries (which I hope will replace the buttercups as a living mulch – they are fighting it out at the moment); and an area, which was replanted with root crops – (salsify, scorzonera, skirret and also the maca).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The idea of the root crop area, was that since they would need digging up in the future, I could take the opportunity to weed out the buttercups at the same time. Maybe I should have just left it till that stage, however, as well as the new buttercup seedlings and buttercups creeping in from the edges, I also noticed a lot of little dock seedlings, and (the little pink flower like londons burning) that seeds around so much. I couldn’t take it and had to start clearing the weeds early. I have left the corpses thickly around selected plants. However, since the weather has been wet and mild, unhappily the weeds have carried on growing. I’ll have to remove them and put them in the compost bin.
The new raspberries that I planted there didn’t do too well last year, only a few canes survived through to regrow. I noticed new shoots coming from the autumn bliss ones, so hopefully they will do better next year. I’m not sure why they struggled, but the survivors now seem happy enough. They should be sheltered enough there. It hasn’t been as good as I hoped in the lee of the barn. It seemed like a midge haven, but obviously they are tougher than the tea plants!
The other area which I mulched in a different way, and have been readdressing, is the orchard area to the right of the path as you look downhill. I covered around the trees and blackcurrant cuttings with cardboard, as usual, then used all the lovely cut grass from the pathways to cover the whole area thickly, including the area of card. Unfortunately it looks like it wasn’t thickly enough, since grass is now growing though in most of the area outside the cardboard sheets. I have tried mortal tree’s suggestion of lifting the mulch back over the growing shoots and adding a bit more mulch (https://mortaltree.blog/2013/06/16/group-and-conquer/). At the moment however, it just looks as though I’ve been feeding the couch grass! I think that the area of card will decompose more quickly as well – being covered in damp retaining material. I wasn’t expecting to achieve weed free straight away, since I know there is couch grass, docken and nettles as well as the ubiquitous creeping buttercup. But am a little disheartened. I’ve used up my stock of cardboard sheet to make a light proof layer and remulched with fresh grass cuttings (yes, he’s cut the pathways again) between the trees and the trackway, although I didn’t quite have enough cardboard to finish as far as I wanted to mulch.

Remulching the orchard area with cardbaord under cut grass

The only weed excluding mulch that does seem to have done pretty well is the floor underlay from the last time the hall flooded, which we were able to reclaim. It is a very thick black plastic sheet, with a slight felt on one side. I’ve laid some on the drive bank to clear back the horrid creeping grass there. I’d like to get the top bank planted, but also need to build a retaining wall to stop it all falling back into the drive again. S. wants to resurface the drive along there, and it makes sense to do that first before building the wall. We removed the sheets to scrape back the soil where S. thought it was encrouching on the drive and I’ve been pleased by how little has been growing back. I used stones, old tyres and fenceposts to keep the sheet down, and that was the only problem I had – it did tend to catch the wind exposing the soil again.

Effective black plastic mulch on driveway

If the hall floor needs replacing again, as seems likely, we’ll try and get hold of some more of that sheeting. I wonder if it would work for a water proof membrane for a green roofed car port….I’ll have to think about that.

Raining and pouring

We had a downpour on Tuesday night which resulted in, amongst other things, our community hall being flooded.  This is for the second time in five years.  A combination of high tide and unusually high rainfall (10mm plus in 1 hour) meant that most of the flood plain of the river was being used.  A family of holiday makers who unaccountably had chosen to camp next to the graveyard (!) had to call out the emergency services at 4.30 in the  morning after the vehicle was surrounded by water and started to float.  It could have been worse, the only casualty was the vehicle.  A few residents have had water ingress through houses or barns on its way downhill.  We’re a bit higher up the valley but the river was higher that we’ve seen it in ten years.  Some trees beside the river have been damaged and some torn out.  The river was going in our pond at the top and coming out at the bottom, but we’ve got away with no major damage this time.  This sort of weather event may be more common in the future of course.  The other thing I noticed was erosion of the trackway down the hill to the orchard.  The buried watermain acts as an interceptary drain and the low point at which it overflows is about at the trackway.  It’s not been so bad since I repaired the burn bed, but in heavy rain it obviously still does divert a bit.  Something to bear in mind when S. does refinish the trackway.  Since the orchard is on a slope, and I’ve raised up the level for the trees, I don’t think it will be an issue for them.

Grass caught on fence shows the flood level

Earth moving

Two barrows and a bucket

I’ve been hard at work moving soil down the hill to try and terrace the orchard area. There is a surplus of soil just below the barn where S. moved it from various locations, particularly from where the roadway now wraps around above the byre. Let’s just say the soil is of varying quality. I’m pretty sure that some of it is quite fertile. There was a quantity of nettles there, and they are an indicator of fertile soil. However as I’m digging it I am using two wheel barrows and a bucket. One wheelbarrow for the ‘good’ soil, one wheelbarrow for the pernicious weed roots (couch grass, creeping thistle, docken and nettles) and the bucket for larger bits of coal as I spot them. It seems that part of the area above the byre must have been the storage area for the house coal. There is also quite a bit of saw dust. Probably from more recent chainsawing by S. since the wood we have been using has been cut up in that sort of area in the recent past. As well as the above, there is also a sprinkling of the typical bits of glass, string, broken crockery and strange part burnt bits of possibly vehicle that we often find around the place. You must understand that until the 1970’s there was no rubbish collection in the area, so everything was disposed of locally. I have fantasies sometimes of being able to piece together ancient dinner services like a three dimensional jigsaw. In the meantime the bits get collected into piles and occasionally the ‘real’ rubbish thrown in the bin. I do love the archeological fringe of my gardening sometimes though. The best thing I’ve found was an flint arrowhead or speartip. Although I didn’t dig that up. It came to the surface when the drains for next door’s soakaway were dug just above the orchard. It makes me very humble about my significance when I think of the thousands of years that have passed since that item was made and lost. The land continues despite my little scratchings.

holmisdale flint 7 june 2012 CROP
Holmisdale Flint tool

Growing on the earth pile are several silverweed plants. One in particular has lovely long roots from last year. I’ve moved them down to where the soil has been moved to in the orchard. I’m pretty sure that I’ll have to dig it over to remove couch and other weeds, so I may as well have some goodies to dig up as well. The exposed soil after removing the top layers by the barn is nice and bare. I’ve planted out there a few skirret seedlings that have got a bit pot bound. I don’t want to get too close to the working area though, or they’ll get trampled. Although they looked tiny little plants, they seem to have little root thickenings developing anyway, poor little things! Still they should do a bit better with a bit of root room, if the slugs don’t get them.

Long root on Silverweed

This earth moving is slow work. I’m hopeful that I will have the left hand side of the path done, as you look down the hill, this year, but I’ve got a lot more soil to move. The weather more recently has been a bit wet too, which doesn’t really make for safe work. Not just working in the wet, which isn’t pleasant, but the extra weight of wet soil, and slippery steep slopes make it awkward….

More silverweed for orchard

Another crop noone’s heard of – Maca


Maca, Lepidium meyeni, is not a vegetable I set out to grow. For some reason I stumbled across the cultivariable site (https://www.cultivariable.com) run by Bill Whitson (I think I was looking for information about mashua) and got over excited when I was looking at all the interesting things he grows, as you do….. Unfortunately, since he is based in the ‘States, I did not want to order any tubers from him (worried about importing the next ash die back disease), and most of his seed had run out (it was mid spring). I ordered maca, yacon and skirret seeds from him because that was about all that was left! Only one yacon has germinated by the start of August (it is not a good grower from seed – propagated too long from tubers). I had some nice skirret already growing – two plants from pointzfield nursery, and seeds from incredible vegetables. The reasoning for getting more skirret seed was that a bit of variety wouldn’t hurt if I was going to develop a Skye skirret strain. Bill appears to have a pretty similar climate to us. Wet and mild in summer, mild frosts and windy in winter, so I reasoned that anything he can grow, should also do well here. Unfortunately he is not selling online this year, for various reasons, although hopes to be back again next year.

maca seed packet
Maca seed packet (with sand added)

Anyway, maca grows at very high elevations in the Andes. It gets a lot of wind and can have mild frosts during the growing season. The maca develops a swollen root stem similar to a turnip or radish. It is in the brassica family and it’s lifecycle seems to be unclear.  PFAF describes it as a perennial, whereas cultivariable say it is technically an annual, but may take more than one growing season to set seed. On line discussions (http://www.growfruitandveg.co.uk/grapevine/vegging-out/growing-maca-peruvian-ginseng_2761.html) seem to indicate that a radish is most comparable for size and taste, although pfaf rates it highly as a food (http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Lepidium+meyenii). This may be due to it’s nutritional content – high in carboyhdrate, protein and fibre as well as minerals. It is harvested at the end of the first season after about eight months (30 weeks), and some is semi dried for harvest and processing, whilst selected plants are grown on the following year to produce the seeds for another years crop. They self fertilise before the flowers open. Nothing much else will grow in those conditions, and the crop is sold and bartered for other produce from lower elevations. The maca is reputed to be a fertility booster amongst other things and apparently tastes of butterscotch. It may not like the milder, wetter, lower sun exposure of the UK, and/or have different taste and nutrition.  Simon Hickmott mentions it in his ‘growing unusual vegetables’ book although it didn’t strike me particularly before.
Anyway, the seed duly arrived, nicely labelled, at a reasonable carriage cost. I mixed them with damp sand and kept them in the fridge where they started germinating after just one week. I sowed them in a deep tray covering the seed with vermiculite, and left it in the fridge for another week, before moving it outside because the seedlings were a bit yellow (no light). I got a very good germination rate, so soon had to prick out the seedlings into pots. At this stage, because I have grown too many things from seed this year, I was a little short of small pots, so some seedlings were forced to share trays still.  I also planted lots of tiny seedlings out into the garden, however almost all of these were eaten quite quickly by slugs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In due course, I decided that some of the plants really needed to be planted out or potted on. I had already established through earlier losses that slugs are quite partial to the seedlings, so I planted them out with barrier protection as discussed in a previous post. The roots are very fine so I think there was a fair amount of damage to them when separating the plants in the tray.

maca roots
fine root structure
maca in tea garden
growing in tea garden with skirret and scorzonera

A nibble at the leaves confirms a hot radish flavour (cress like says pfaf). They are now growing fairly well. I.e. they haven’t all been eaten to the ground by the slugs (yet!). I should really pot on the remaining potbound seedlings again, since the information online does suggest they are quite hungry plants. As they were sown at the start of April, nominally 30 weeks takes us to the start of November. I’ll take a look at the survivors and post an update around then.

I’ve been having fun with these, although whether I’ll get an edible root remains to be seen.  In retrospect I wish I’d not sown all the seed at once, if I’d know I would get such good germination I would have saved some for later.  Bill Whitson does say that they can be sown in autumn, and they grow over winter.  Although I was reluctant to direct sow, it may be that once through the initial slug food stage (they seem to have lost interest in the plants a little now) the plants would do better without the root disturbance.  If the results seem palatable I may try and let some go to seed to try again (or get some more seed  from cultivariable when they are back up and running again).  They are quite decorative plants, but don’t seem in any danger of taking the gardening world by storm just yet!

Exploring Mashua

mashua 2016
Mashua in polytunnel 2016

I grew this for the first time last year. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because I had never, to my knowledge, seen it growing. Usually these things can turn out a little disappointing, but mashua has been an exception for me. First a little about mashua. It is a plant grown as a food crop in the Andes in South America. Although we tend to think of South America as either desert or tropical jungle, in fact much of it has a similar temperature range to the UK. The altitude keeps it cooler and damper, at least in the west. This means, much like those from the Himalayan valleys, many of the plants find themselves quite at home in Britain. Mashua is a tuberous climbing vine closely related to the nasturtium flower, and all parts of it are edible – tubers, leaves and flowers. It can grow quite tall in a single season, but will die back to the tubers over winter. Typically these tubers don’t start growing until the day length is shorter, which can be a problem in our latitudes, since that is not until later in the autumn and it can run out of growing time, so have a reduced cropping potential. This was also the case for potatoes when first introduced, and daylength neutral varieties of mashua are now available, Ken Aslet being the one usually mentioned.

leaf stalks twining
Mashua leaf stalk twining

I got tubers from two different sources, the Agroforestry Research Trust, and Pennard Plants. I’m not sure what variety either of them are, but they look similar at a glance. Because I had so few tubers I decided to plant them in the polytunnel, although unless you are exceptionally exposed, they would probably do fine outside.  I used my usual slug protection of a cut off pot, although in my experience they don’t suffer too badly from slug damage.  The foliage is bronzed, and similar to a nasturtium leaf, but lobed. If you like nasturtium leaves in salads (which we don’t), you would like mashua leaves. They have a similar peppery flavour. The plants climbed happily up netting, sticks and strings. The individual leaf stalks wrap around in a rather endearing way. Towards the end of the season I did get flowers, but this was so late that they were frosted, and I didn’t get to taste them and there was no chance of seed. I couldn’t see when the tubers started developing, the lower part of the plants being obscured by other vegetation. When the tops died back after the first hard frosts at the end of November, I could see that the tubers were formed by the tips of new shoots burying themselves back into the ground, forming a mass quite close to the plant centre. I think that earlier in the year new growth from the ground forms climbing shoots, and later in the year they form tubers.

growth habit july 2017
growing mashua shoots July 2017
forming tubers
dug up mashua plant November showing developing tubers

When dug up the tubers were of various sizes ranging from very small – an inch or so – to maybe six inches and an inch or more broad. I was impressed by the yield considering I had basically neglected them.

harvesting mashua 2016
Harvesting Mashua 2016

I got one pound of good tubers from one tuber and three pound two ounces from the other tuber, not including some smaller tubers that weren’t worth eating. Since I only grew one of each source, I wouldn’t make any conclusions based on this. It may be that one got more or less watering, or more or less of some nutrient in the soil. If the same happens again on a larger sample I will let them know – apparently they can accumulate virus infections.  After planting they got no real attention, except trying to get a bit of water to them, but as usual I struggled with my water supply at various times in the tunnel, so they probably got a bit drier than they would like. Even so the yield was more than I usually manage from potatoes outside, not great by good gardener standards, but pretty good for me! In appearance they are a bit like the smoother sorts of jerusalem artichoke you get – pointy ended and a bit scaley. Creamy coloured with pinkish tinges, they are quite attractive. When tried raw – again they have that spicy radish taste of nasturtiums, and are firm with a crunch. We did not like them raw, but if you are a fan of radish, you might like them in a salad, or grated in a coleslaw. Cooked, the spicy flavour and much of the crunchiness disappears and they become quite bland.  One of the plants (the lower yielding one) appeared to be more spicy than the other, again this could be a factor of the way it was grown rather than the variety. We didn’t have a huge amount to eat, because I was impressed enough to want to save the best tubers to grow more this year, but we tried them stir fried with spices, in stews, and pot roasted with other vegetables and meat. S. said he’s happy to eat it again, so we’re sorted. I didn’t tell him that the South Americans regard it as an anti-aphrodisiac. Apparently it may have an effect on sperm count rather than testosterone.

Weighing mashua tubers 2016

I stored the best tubers in pots of compost in the shed. This was intended to keep them cool and frost free, but since some of the scrappy tubers I planted outside did survive and grow this spring, I may experiment a bit more with that this winter – I didn’t risk any of the good tubers, so am not that upset that several disappeared in the ground over winter. They started to sprout of their own accord quite early in the spring (by Skye standards), so they came out of the shed into the polytunnel to save them getting too leggy. Some were planted out around the garden. I have not given them supports to climb up, since I have read they do not do so in South America, rather left them to scramble over the ground to smother weeds. If I was growing closer to other vegetables, I might give them canes like runner beans. Some I have planted in the polytunnel again, since they did so well last year. I have planted them along the outer edges with netting to scramble up.
So far (end of July) the ones in the tunnel are climbing at crop bar level. They are getting watered when I water the rest of those beds (I have a trickle hose system set up), although I also try and give the corner ones a bit more water, since the hose system doesn’t tend to reach that well into the corners.

polytunnel 2017
Mashua in poytunnel up netting

The ones outside are more variable. I planted some in the tea garden below the barn, where it is quite open. Two out of the four appear to have been eaten by slugs (I didn’t give them any protection), the other two are still very small. Some of the ones in the dog resistant garden have also disppeared, but at least one is doing quite well and is climbing happily with the beans up the poles. I also planted some in the fruit garden. These seem to be doing better – one of those is one that over wintered. I suppose to be fair, I should have pampered some of those more, although the ones inside haven’t been particularly pampered either. At this stage I can’t say which will do better in terms of yeild. The ones in the tunnel have certainly put on more growth above the ground, and are likely to persist later, having a little more protection from frosts and winds. However the ones outside will get more moisture, which may be more significant….

outside planting july 2017
Mashua in fruit garden
dog resistant garden
Mashua in dog resistant garden climbing with beans

The only pests I’ve seen is a bit of slug damage, although I have read that like nasturtiums they can get affected by cabbage white caterpillars. Apparently in the autumn, voles can eat the tubers in the ground, but we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Overall an exiting new crop for me that appears to tolerate a bit of neglect!

Polytunnel Perennials

I blame Martin Crawford! I’ve got over excited again planning new plants for next year already. I know it’s too early, but I recieved an e-mail from the Agroforestry Research Trust saying that they are open for plant orders. I need to try and remember whether I’ve got some plants reserved. I think I wanted Toona sinensis (a tree that grows onion flavoured leaves) but they had run out last year. I know that I fancied some Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort. Since there was an article in agroforestry news about it, I expect I won’t be alone.
What I’m really getting excited about at the moment is the idea of growing more perennial plants in the polytunnel. I’ve got on quite well with the fruiting vines. I have a kiwi (Jenny SF) and a bramble (unknown) which came with the kiwi. I was growing the kiwi in Solihull and it was one of the few plants I brought with us. When planted in the tunnel the bramble grew too. I tried digging it out several times, but it kept growing back, so the third year I left it, trained it along some overhead wires and was astounded by the fruit it produced. They are lush and sweet-tart, just like blackberries should be, but are also of a good size. The vine is not thornless unfortunately, which makes for an anti-social plant in a confined space. The roots I dug out, have fruited outside in a good summer. They may do better with a bit more shelter as well, since the local brambles have so far been pretty similar in timing for me (but much smaller). I also have a grapevine – boskoops glory, which I grew from a cutting of the vine I had on the veranda in Solihull. I don’t think it would crop to any extent outside here, unlike in Solihull, but is doing pretty well in the tunnel. I have a white grape vine also, which has yet to fruit for me. It seems to be growing well this year, so maybe next year I might get some fruit. I have also planted a couple of pineapple guava: Feijoa Sellowiana. As well as the reputed delicious fruit, which need a hot summer to ripen hence the polytunnel positioning, they also have edible flowers. I’ve not been able to try them yet, but they seem to be establishing OK near the lower doors in the tunnel.

inside polytunnel Jul08
looking downhill (east) July 2008
DSCN1807 small
looking downhill (east) July 2017

In the polytunnel when we moved in was a globe artichoke, which has produced some lovely flowers/buds. It hasn’t done so well this year. I did divide it this spring, so it may be that it is suffering from the damage and will take a while to recover, although being eaten by several hungry caterpillars probably isn’t helping! The offsets I planted outside in the fruit garden and at least two of them seem to be growing away quite well so far – we’ll see whether they survive overwinter. Also in the tunnel was an olive tree in a tub. I neglected it and thought it had died of drought, but when moved outside, it sprouted again from the base. I thought it was a privet seedling at first, and only realised the olive was alive when I tried to dig it out of the tub. Anyway, although planted in the tunnel soil this spring, I think that the tree is finally dead now. There are also a couple of marjoram plants as well, which I cut for leaves every now and then and seem to tolerate my neglect remarkably well. An aloe vera which had been on the window sill in the house, gradually getting taller and taller, is now also in the tunnel – not sure whether it will survive the winter however.
This year I planted my new apricot, which is doing well so far, and some kind of citrus, which was given to me as a rather spindly plant needing a good home. It has been grown from seed, and we are not sure what kind of citrus it is – will have to wait til it flowers!

New growth on unknown citrus in spring
Beautiful apricot leaves still growing at end of July!

I quite enjoy this kind of structure in the polytunnel, and outside come to that. I am very keen on plants that provide me with food year after year with only a little attention. Annual plants are far too liable to succumb to juvenile death due to overcrowding, slugs or lack of germination. So having been started off by Martin Crawford, I have been going through my various lists, books and getting distracted on the internet to try and come up with more perennials that will benefit from the shelter of the tunnel, and yet survive the winter and create a food forest. So far I’ve deselected again tree tomato / tamarillo: solanum betacea, pepino: solanum muricatum, Taro: colocasia esculenta var. esculenta and Eddoe: c. Esculenta var. antiquorum as being just too tender, although they all sound fascinating. I don’t (at the moment anyway) want something that will need moving indoors during the winter, and although we don’t generally get hard frosts we do get frosts that would penetrate the polytunnel’s protection.
So on my list of perennials to grow in the polytunnel are (in no particular order):

Grape (got)
Bramble (got)
Kiwi (got – but might like a kiwi berry – one of the small hairless ones)
Marjoram (got)
Apios Americana (got – maybe if it survives the slugs this year)
Chinese yam: Dioscorea batatas (got – ditto re. slugs!)
Asparagus (got)
Globe artichoke (got – but might fancy a different variety)
Chilli (got – survived one year on windowsill)
Passionfruit (need to source)
Ground plum: astragalus crassicarpus (need to source)
Aloe vera (got)
Runner beans (got – growing some heritage seeds library ones. I guess a few different ones would be required to see which over winter the best)
Yacon (got)
Fuchsia (got – fuchsia berry from my mum currently in a pot in the tunnel looking for a home)
Apricot (got)
Chufa (got)
Five flavour berry: Schisandra chinensis (got – but only one of the three plants seems to have survived, and you need a male + female for berries)
Korean mint (got – seedlings from a neighbour)
Sage (need to source)
Rosemary (need to source)
Licorice (need to source)
Blue sausage fruit: Decaisnea fargesii (need to source)
Honey berry: Lonicera caerulea (need to source)

Reasons to tolerate caterpillars

Over the last few years we have noticed more and more caterpillars on the trees.  It wasn’t something I considered very much when we started planting them.  I was thinking about the trees, growing and producing firewood and fruit, maybe doing crafty things with twigs and fibre and exciting things with tree sap. It seems daft, but I hadn’t really considered the new habitat we are creating, albeit slowly.  The insects eat the trees and other things – birds and mammals – eat the insects.  As well as learning more flowers and plant species I am therefore learning more insects as well.  It is a little frustrating, since there is lots of information about butterflies, slightly less easily available about moths, but rather less about their larva.  I spotted a new one today with a fiery bum.  I think it’s a pebble prominent moth caterpillar.  There were a few feeding on one of the aspen trees, which would fit.  I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the moths.

Prominent moth caterpilar july 2017
Possily prominent moth caterpilar

We’re getting lots of looper caterpillars on the alders as well at the moment – possibly magpie moths, which are very common here.  When they’re undisturbed they feed in a continuous stream of caterpillars, but when they sense danger they all rear up and pretend, rather unconvincingly to be twigs.  When they are larger, and single I guess it works better, but I think they’re very cute.  Funnily enough we haven’t seen many sawfly larvae on the gooseberries this year.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m also getting lots of caterpillars in the polytunnel.  Generally they are bright green ones eating the brassica, which I don’t mind much at this time of year (although I know it’s dangerous to encourage these things or you end up with a plague).  However I did find a few that had wandered onto my little apricot tree (which is still doing quite well) and were munching away, so I’m afraid they got relocated outside!

I spotted one chrysalis on a seed tray outside which I’ve left be, and I find them all the time if digging in the polytunnel.

Then there are the more glamorous adults.  These are two new ones for me this year: a  dark green fritillary and a common blue.  Neither is particularly rare, just I’ve never seen them in Glendale before.

dark green fritillery crop jul2017
Dark green fritillary on thistle
Common blue butterfly in gully

Cutting Docken and grass

Again, the weather has been kind to me. I have been cutting the docken (don’t you just love that plural?) in the orchard area. I have lots of docks around the place, and often they get to seed before I cut them, thus seedlings grow and the docken proliferate. I have discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you get the growing top off the dock they don’t tend to grow back. So my technique is to cut with a spade, aiming to get a couple of inches of the tap root, and not worry too much about the rest of the root. We also have some sort of big pinkish white grub that eats dock roots – maybe they eat the remainder?

Cutting Docken in orchard area

The orchard area was planted just over three years ago with plum, damson and cherry trees, and I added some apples 18 months ago. It is in a more sheltered dip at the top of the tree field, and I intend to add more soil to landscape the area. I wanted to give the trees as much soil as possible, and also try and keep them well drained. We get so much rain and this is one of the factors that make the fruit trees not grow so well and succumb to disease. At the moment the landscaping is partially done. The trees were planted on mounds, and I have been spreading soil between them. This is barrowed down from below the barn, where it was left from various trackway excavations. Although S. did move down some soil with the dumper, It took a lot of effort to then distribute it and dig out the couch grass and nettles that came too, so wasn’t really much of a labour saving in the end! The trackway down from the barn still needs grading, so is still a bit steep for comfortable barrowing, but at least the heavy bit’s downhill! Anyway, apparently along with the couch and nettles were also a lot of dock seeds which have subsequently germinated and done quite well (oh why aren’t they edible weeds?). So last week I and the dogs took the pink ball and the spade and barrow and set to work. One and a half days later we had cleared the docken, done a lot of fetching, discovered some nicely growing blackcurrant cuttings that I stuck in last winter, a big bone that Dougie had hidden there, a couple of very small spruce seedlings that were missed from several I had temporarily stuck in there eighteen months ago; that is the good news.

Blackcurrant cuttings in orchard area

The docken were also lovely to dig up from the new soil – many came up with complete roots, so the soil should be good for other stuff to grow in. The bad news is that I also discovered that along with the docken we also have a lot of surviving couch grass (I now know what couch grass flowers look like), nettles and of course the creeping thistle that were in the field before the trees were planted. I’m hoping that continual pulling will deter the creeping thistles. This seems to have been reasonably effective in the tea garden, I had very little come back this year. It’s not the nicest job. You need need grippy gloves to grasp the stems so as to pull as much root as possible: I like the cloth ones with latex facing. However, the palms aren’t strong enough to stop all the prickles, so every now and then you have to pick out a prickle that has broken off in the glove and is sticking in you. I just pulled out the nettles (which will probably grow back) and ignored most of the couch. I know it’s going to grow extensively, but I’m hoping to complete the landscaping, and maybe do some planting this autumn. With a good thick mulch in the meantime and relying on the lovely light soil structure, I’m hoping it will come out then reasonably completely. Anyway, it’s only grass! I’ll probably plant out some of my exciting root crops there this autumn/winter since they will subsequently need digging out anyway giving me a second opportunity to remove the couch….

It was forecast to be dry until Thursday last week, and we were keen to get the paths in the tree field cut. It’s nice to have the grass long, but it makes my trousers wet as I’m walking through (even with wellies on), and S. also has difficulty telling the trees and other plants apart, so having a defined pathway makes it easier if he does have to drive a vehicle round. To be fair the docks are still bigger than some of the trees.  I’d asked him to get the mower out ready for me, so that I could cut the paths when I got home from the shop on Wednesday. It would be quite late, but the sun doesn’t set till gone ten for us at the moment, so there is still quite a bit of daylight. Anyway, he not only got the mower out, but he and the dog-boys went round all the trackways a few times. It wasn’t quite the way I would have done it. I’m not that keen on cutting the grass at all at this time of year. I would like the flowers to have set their seed. However, for reasons of practicality, a little pathway in the centre of the track seems like a good compromise. S. however, did the main trackway with several passes, and the main side loop also with a wider cut. I went round a second time trying to keep in the centre of the track, because the scythemower doesn’t cut that cleanly the first cut, and a second cut gives a more even result. A disadvantage of doing more than the minimum is that Muggins here then has to spend longer than neccessary raking up the extra cut grass. It looks slightly surreal with the long grass, trees and flowers, a mowed path, and the mounds of gathered cut grass.

Hay mounds along mown trackway

Now I have a fair amount of material for mulching. I will have to wheelbarrow this up hill to the orchard area, where hopefully it will stop some of the noxious weeds growing back too strongly and feed the fruit trees in the longer term. If there is more than I need it can be used to mulch the trees nearest the path edge, or others strategically selected.
If we had more land I would like to cut some of it for hay. Corncrake have a hard time now on Skye, since most crofters just buy in their winter feed now and the in bye fields are now summer grazing. I heard one once here in Glendale a couple of years ago, but it didn’t stay.