I have harvested all the oca now. I had three tubers given to me by Frances of island threads, who lives on one of the outer Hebrides, so just over the water from me. Her weather is probably even milder, and windier, but just a trifle drier perhaps. I started the tubers off in pots and planted two in the polytunnel and one outside in June. Frances assures me that she grows hers outside, but I wanted to be safe till I have enough tubers to risk.
Oca: oxalis tuberosa, is related to wood sorrel and has similar clover-like leaves that are edible but contain oxalic acid (like rhubarb leaves) so should only be eaten sparingly. I think they are a bit tough in my experience anyhow compared to common sorrel, and with a less sharp lemon taste. They are grown mainly for the edible tubers which come in a range of colours. Like potatoes, they are propagated mainly vegetatively through replanting the tubers since although they flower, they appear to rarely set seed, at least in the UK. A number of growers are aiming to get more productive varieties in the northern hemisphere, see cultivariable and the UK oca breeders project for example.
Oca forms tubers after the daylength is less than 12 hours – generally said to be at the end of September in the UK. This will of course vary with latitude. On Sept 30th in Glasgow (55deg 51min N) the daylength is 11 hrs 37 min, London (51deg 30min N) is given as 11hours 40min long. Here on Skye we are at 57 deg north (or thereabouts) so a little shorter in daylength than Glasgow in winter. At the winter solstice the days are pretty much as short as they get – still pretty dark at 8am and getting dark at 4pm. Since we can expect hard frosts by the end of November that means the oca only has about two months here to form tubers outside.
I’m pretty pleased with the results from the outside plant as a first trial. It grew happily despite having very little shelter from the wind. It flowered at the start of September with delicate yellow flowers. Light frosts in late October were survived, but it was knocked back completely in December. Although I harvested the outside plant when this happened, I since read that the tubers can carry on growing for several weeks after the foliage has apparently died down – the fleshy stalks carry on feeding them for longer, so I maybe should have left it a little longer to bulk up. However, I got almost exactly 8 ounces and all 15 tubers are of a size that can be used: up to about 6cm (over 2 in) long. The plant received a little compost in the hole when it was planted, and otherwise was just let to get on with it.
At the start of February I harvested the two plants in the tunnel. The plants had stayed green much longer, and it took a prolonged frost when we had the snow in January to fully knock them back. Although the plants had never looked quite as good as the ones outside, I was hopeful that they would do better, since they were still quite green at the end of the year. However the yield was quite disappointing: 3 1/2 Oz from each plant. The tubers were generally smaller, with quite a bit of slug damage (or it may have been vine weevils?) I suspect that it was a bit too dry for them in the tunnel. I have not been watering much in there over the winter, since it tends to lead to mildew.
I tried the smallest from outside raw and was bit disappointed in the flavour to be honest. I had seen them described as crunchy and lemony sharp, getting sweeter as they are exposed to sunlight. I would describe the taste (fresh) as having a faint raw potato flavour, with a hint of lemon perhaps, but not nice enough to serve to S. So far I have only cooked them by boiling and that was perfectly pleasant, like a creamy salad potato. The colour does fade a bit on cooking. They can be boiled, fried, and baked just like potatoes. In New Zealand they are known as yams and are very popular. I have found a few suggestions for roasting them, so I may try that next.
I have enough tubers to grow next year, and enough to experiment a bit with different ways of cooking. Some are in the fridge, and some on a cool windowsill. I think I won’t bother with planting any in the tunnel next year, although I may try covering with fleece or cloches at the end of the season outside, if I can work out how to stop those blowing away! They can go in orchard borders that need digging anyway to keep couch grass at bay. I think they will definitely be worth growing again, and I have also got some different tubers of various colours from real seeds to try some different varieties!
Winter has finally arrived, we have a little snow that has stuck around for a few days, gradually refreezing as ice as it is trampled and melts a little during the day. I quite like a bit of quiet time to look around and see the structure of the ground under the plants. You can see the pathways made by people and dogs as the slightly flattened grass remains whiter with snow than rougher areas.
I have done a little pruning, although you are not supposed to do this when it is frosty! The remaining gooseberries in the fruit garden didn’t take long, and I have cut down the sapling sycamore tree that would have crowded one of the apple trees there. It may grow back, but I can just prune it out each year for pea sticks until it gives up! The apple that I grafted before I came to Skye and that was living in a pot for a while has unfortunately grown a little one sided. I assume it is just the prevailing wind that has achieved this, and am not sure if it is possible to reverse….
With the freezing weather there is little plant wise to do outside, but I have been able to get a little done in the polytunnel. As threatened I have drastically pruned back the kiwi vine. As well as shortening it, I have also taken out some of the larger fruiting side branches. This should encourage new ones to grow and be more fruitful. I tied the main trunk a little tighter to the overhead wires, as it was hanging a little low and even interfering with my headroom. The grapevines are far simpler to prune. I simply cut back all the side branches close to the main trunk.
I am very hopeful that what I am seeing here is flower buds on my apricot. I’m still not really sure whether I’m doing the right thing with the pruning of this. I think I now need to cut back the main branches by one third to an upward facing bud and tie in new branches in between the existing ones, and then I’m into ‘maintenance pruning’ whatever that means! I know I’m not supposed to prune when the plant is dormant so I need to leave it a couple of months.
There is a little weeding to do, and I also need to start watering a bit more in the tunnel as well in preparation for some early sowing. I think the akebia is surviving nicely, but I’m not sure about the passionflowers. I think they were a bit small and I should have brought them into the house last autumn. The propagation area keeps expanding. I could really use more space for putting the growing on plants. I’ll have to have a think about this. Maybe I just need to tidy up a bit more efficiently! Theoretically there is lots of space on my little greenhouse frame, so perhaps I’ll just concentrate on getting that properly sorted again. It just keeps filling up with empty pots!
You know the best presents? They are the things that you really would like, but don’t buy yourself because they are just that bit extravagant. Well my clever sisters got it spot on this year. First to arrive was a pack of mushroom spawn to inoculate logs. There are three different varieties of edible mushroom, and enough spawn to inoculate two largish logs. What I may do is use half to innoculate a log each, and the other half to try again with newspaper ‘logs’. I had a go a couple of years ago making huge rolled up newspaper logs fron unsold papers from the shop (we don’t get them collected so just recycle or otherwise use them locally) and incorporated spawn dowels in the layers. Nothing happened. I think that what went wrong was I was over concerned with the logs not drying out, so I wrapped the newspapers in black bin liners, and I think the mushrooms suffocated. Given our rainfall, I think I will just stack them somewhere out of the sun and just water them a bit if we do get a dry spell. In the meantime the spawn should be safe in the fridge door.
The second part of the present (it was a joint one) was a hazel tree innoculated with truffle spawn. I could be digging up my own truffles in seven years or so! I had looked at these a while ago, but decided against buying myself one since I had many other plants to spend my money on. It really is a bit of a long shot anyway. I hadn’t realised for example, that the truffle fungi likes it quite alkaline. Thin soil over chalk is what they like. I’ve got thin soil, but generally rather acidic. What I’ve done therefore is select a spot, as close to south facing as I’ve got, on a slope, so well drained. It hasn’t got a huge amount of shelter yet, but isn’t as exposed as some spots either, and as the surrounding trees grow up (other hazels and oaks) they will shelter each other.
I dug my standard, two spade width turf turned over, hole for the tree and used all of a bag of ground dolomite limestone (probably 1kg? the label had long since gone). I bought the linestone when I thought I might be doing more annual veg growing. I mixed half in the soil below the top turves, and sprinkled the other half around the tree once planted, for a distance of about a metre radius. Hopefully that will just give the truffle spawn enough of a pH change to get it started. If the truffle fungi doesn’t make it we should at least have another hazel tree!
I meant to do a separate post about hazelnuts, but it’s bit past time now. Suffice to say that I got a fair share of the bumper harvest that happened last year. In a few hours at the start of October I collected a carrier bag and all my pockets full. Normally the birds and mice strip the trees, but there was enough for everyone this year.
I dried the nuts on top of the stove (I think that some may have got a bit scorched). They have kept well in the shells, but I have shelled most of them with a hand cracker and have got about 8 Oz of hazelnut kernels. A fair proportion (maybe 20% – 30%) had no kernel, or a shrivelled up one, but the rest were fine, if a little small. Apparently getting empty nuts is quite normal for hazels. The full ones should sink in water, so I may wash them next time to save some of the labour until I get a nut cracking machine! Interestingly one of the trees appeared to have quite a few nuts with twin kernels. Not really what you want however, since they end up a little small.
Anyway, this bumper harvest has inspired me to look again at hazels as a nut crop tree. We may not have the optimum climate for nuts, but that hasn’t stopped me planting apple trees, which also won’t crop well here most years. What we do have is no squirrels, which are such a pest elsewhere in the UK as to present quite a challenge when getting any of the harvest. I’ve still got a lot of other projects on the go this year, but I think over the next nine months I will try and work out where hazels for nuts might do best. As usual they want somewhere sheltered and sunny (!), but I’ll also need to fit them into the existing tree planted areas. Maybe interplanted in with the ash is one option (if I do lose the ash, there will be plenty of space) but there are other possibilities.
To help with nut tree selection and planting planning I also asked for and got for xmas, Martin Crawford’s book on nut growing. This has got me over-excited about all the other nuts I could try. Maybe not almonds (even I’m not that optimistic, although maybe in the tunnel…) but walnuts, or japanese walnuts may be a possibility to try, and perhaps I could find a more sheltered spot for some sweet chestnut, and there’s a few cute little nut trees related to horse chestnuts that are edible and may crop here…..
Being as the year is just about over, it seems appropriate to have a little look back at this point in time.
I haven’t written about some of the trivia that I’ve been doing more recently at home, partly because much of it is unfinished yet, and partly to catch up with my holiday garden visits. Over all we have been pleased with the way the trees have grown this year. S. managed to pick a nice tree to bring in and decorate this Xmas. It’s getting a little more difficult to find a spruce tree that is small enough and isn’t being an important part of a windbreak.
The ash and alder as usual, along with the spruce, have grown well. You can also see how the trees with a little more shelter grow a bit better. Even some of the hazel is growing a bit better in places. I’m a bit worried about the ash however. Although it grew well again this summer, as we saw, as usual there is quite a bit of die back. This time the bark staining seems to match the characteristics of chalera. I had a look online at the woodland trust and forestry commission sites and the way the staining goes up and down from the leaf buds does seem to match chalera, however, there is no internal staining of the wood when I split it down the middle. I’ll send the pictures off to the woodland trust. These ash trees were ones they helped us buy, so they should be able to give us some advice about it.
I have grown a few new unusual edibles for the first time. Oca, wapato (sagittaria latifolia), marsh woundwort (although I also found this growing natively in the tree field I think) and edible lupin. This last was part of Garden Organic members’ experiment. In summary I’d have been better off eating the lupin seeds they sent rather than planting them. I’ll do a brief post about them separately however.
I’ve managed to grow some new perennials from seed, now I just need to get them through the winter. Some of them came from the Hardy Plant Society seed distribution list, and some were bought from various suppliers. I have a number of cornus kousa, a couple of canna indica, several akebia triloba, two different passiflora, broom, watercress, astragalus crassicarpus, a couple of campanula varieties and dahlia coccinia. A few others germinated and perished including gevuina avellana (second time of trying) and hosta. Many more seeds also never managed to germinate for me. I have quite a few little plants waiting for their “forever home”. One korean pine is still alive, but very small. A saltbush plant is doing quite well in a pot, but I’m not sure if its atriplex halimus or a. canescens.
Crop wise I grew physalis peruviana for the first time on Skye. I seem to remember growing it in Solihull and not being particularly impressed. Here in the polytunnel it has grown quite huge and is still alive at the end of December, although with a little mildew. It could grow as a perennial if it isn’t too cold, which was one reason I gave it a go. The berries are nowhere near ripe however. Along with many of the things that needed potting on and watering it got a bit neglected due to the super hot early summer. I don’t think it was a fair trial therefore, since it didn’t get an early start. The plants have grown huge compared to the fruits produced. I seem to remember reading that this can be due to good nitrogen content of the soil (producing lush foliage and little fruit) however this does seem unlikely for me!
Another plant that got a slow start, but made good growth is tomatillo. These were so stunted when I planted the few survivors out that I nearly didn’t bother. Once in the ground they grew away fine. I’ll have to check how they are doing now.
The tomatoes managed to ripen a few delicious fruit before I had to harvest them due to mildew on the vines. The supersweet 100 was earliest and quite prolific. The first in the field wasn’t but did pretty well for a standard salad tomato. I like it because it is a bush variety, and it stayed quite compact. This makes it easier to grow close to the edges of the tunnel. Spread out on the window sill we did get a few more fruit to ripen, but many just went mildewy there.
Achocha needs to go in earlier. I couldn’t resist ordering the giant bolivian variety from real seeds again this year even though I know it really struggles to get going for me! This year I didn’t get any fruit before the plants got killed by the frost! S. doesn’t really like globe artichoke. He finds it a bit of a fiddle to eat. This is a pity, since I have managed to get a few more plants of a known variety to germinate and hopefully get them through the winter. I will try one more in the tunnel and the others outside anyhow. I want to try eating the cardoon stalks next year. It is a case of remembering to tie them up to blanch at the appropriate time.
I’m fairly pleased with the way the apricot is growing: a bit more quickly than I was expecting. I’m hoping I may get a few blossom this spring with any luck! Still got a bit more formative pruning to do, but it’s looking good so far, as long as it stays small enough for the tunnel! The boskoop glory grapevine did well. I didn’t manage to harvest all the grapes before they started to go mouldy. The autumn was a bit cool and windy, although not unusually so I would say. The new Zalagyongye vine started to set the single bunch very late and they stayed very small, although were quite sweet. Hopefully it will do better as it gets older.
I’m wondering whether to give up on the kiwi vine. I picked the fruit a week or so ago, they were starting to drop off the vine, but still don’t seem very sweet. Judging by the grape, it hasn’t been a good year for ripening, but considering the size of the vine and the use we get of the harvest (there are more pleasant jams to make) I’m not sure it’s worth the space it takes. S. wasn’t keen on getting rid of it because it is a lovely big plant. It does also produce a huge amount of large leaves which have dropped off and formed a mulch layer in the tunnel which is nice. I’ll need to rake them off the paths though. Since S. spoke up for it I’ll prune it back a bit, give it one more season and then we’ll see. If I do take it out I was thinking of replacing it further up the tunnel with a kiwi-berry actinidia arguta, or kolomitkes. These have smaller, hairless berries that ripen earlier, so are likely to be more successful for me. The plant is also a little less vigorous, so takes less pruning.
I have two pineapple guava at the bottom end of the tunnel. These have not flowered yet, but are growing well. I have been nipping out the longer shoots to encourage the plants to grow bushily. This will stop them getting too big too soon and also maybe more dense flowering if and when that happens. I don’t know whether they will ripen fruit for me. They need a hot summer to ripen. However the flowers are supposed also to be delicious, so I would be happy to settle for those!
A number of strawberries fruited in the tunnel. I had them from two different sources, and I can’t remember now which is which! I did get a few very delicious berries, but struggled to keep them watered and lost a few plants. I have managed to pot up a number of runners from one of the successful plants, so can move those into some of the gaps. I also have a number of different strawberries outside some of which managed to ripen a few berries, but need a big of feed and weeding really.
Still in the tunnel the asparagus is starting to look promising. It is still shooting up spears now however! I’m hoping that next year I can try and harvest a few shoots, so watch this space. Another success has been the milk vetch which I grew from seed. In one of Martin Crawford’s books he suggests it as a non competitive perennial ground cover with shallow roots. I’ve planted it in various places around the tunnel. I’m hoping it will cover the ground around the asparagus plants, since they don’t like competition from weeds. If they managed to fix a bit of nitrogen that also wouldn’t be bad!
The sweet potato harvest was rather small. I think I didn’t manage to water the plants enough. They were lovely big plants when they went in. I’m wondering whether they were actually a bit too big. One of them had rather more tubers than the other, but they were all a bit tangled up, as if the plant had been a bit pot bound and never really developed tubers beyond the roots already started. The other had longer roots, but several only just starting to thicken. Either it had been cut back by the cold too early, or it just didn’t grow quickly enough. Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these plants or tubers are likely to survive the winter. I’ll give it a go however, since it will be silly to fork out that value again. If I can plant them out earlier, and feed and water them better, they may stand a better chance….
Somewhere near the sweet potato are two dahlias. These were dahlia coccinia. I grew them from seed from the HPS list, and they have attractive burgundy foliage and pretty red single flowers. I didn’t try eating the petals of these, although they should be edible along with the tubers. I have a couple more that grew and flowered in pots. These need to be moved somewhere frost free over the winter so they don’t rot. I’ll try and post about harvest another time when I’ve tried them. Apparently the taste and texture is variable….
The climbing nasturtiums were a little slow to get started. I think they got a little dry in the hot earlier summer. Once things cooled down there were a couple that did very well, including one growing through the apricot that hasn’t got killed by the frosts yet. The one opposite this had the most beautiful tiger red flowers however. I’ll try and get seeds from this! I’m not keen on eating them, although I believe all parts are edible, but I do like the flowers. I also like the way outside that the circular leaves catch rainwater and form droplets.
The unknown citrus is still looking quite green. While it is still mild I will wrap it in some fleece to try and protect it a bit this year. Unless it has some established branches it will never flower and we won’t find out what variety of fruit it has.
The polytunnel pond has held water which is a good start considering I had to repair the liner before using it! I grew watercress, marsh woundwort and sagitaria latifolia in pots in it. The watercress has escaped from its pot and seems to be mainly floating round on the surface. I think it will die back overwinter, so am not sure whether it will return or not. The pond was also very useful as a means of soaking seeds trays and watering from the bottom. I’m very glad I designed some very shallow shelves around the edges, as well as much deeper ones! It was certainly welcomed by Mr. Toad, and although there were insect larvae and algae it never got stagnant or a noticable source of pests. Midges breed on damp vegetation of which there is plenty outside, so it didn’t contribute to those Scottish pests either!
Having seen Sagara’s successful olive fruit, I have to conclude that none of my olive flowers did set fruit. The plant itself looks pretty healthy though. It has grown a bit and bushed out. I’m hoping it will overwinter alright in the ground in the tunnel, since the soil in there should be fairly dry and it is protected fully from the wind. Fingers crossed for more flowers next year. I have read that olives fruit better with cross fertilisation, so maybe I should look out for another variety. I’m not quite sure where I would plant it though!
Since I only got one surviving five flavour berry, I have obtained another two plants from two different suppliers. They are both supposed to be self fertile, but should also fertilise each other, and the surviving seedling. Both are planted out in the tunnel and mulched now for the winter. The passionflower and akebia were still very tiny plants as we went into the winter, so I’m not sure they will survive. I’ll try and remember to bring some into the house to overwinter as insurance if I can find the spare plants!
The yacon grew quite huge in the tunnel, at least above ground. It has pretty well died back now, but the oca is still green in there, so I may leave digging both until the oca has finished its stuff. I had not split the Yacon plants which I think did give them a better start this year. I think I will maybe try and propagate a few more plants for outside growing, but generally leave the inside plants as undisturbed as is compatible with digging up the edible tubers! The oca and Yacon outside have been harvested (I’ll write about that together). The oca seemed to be doing better outside, but died back more quickly. The Yacon outside seemed a lot smaller: we’ll see what the harvest is like!
I’m reasonably pleased with the landscaping I achieved in the tea garden extension and orchard area. I need to carry on eliminating perennial weeds (couch grass particularly) and get on with ground cover planting. I’m also putting up some windbreaks in the tea garden extension, thanks to our new grocery supplier at the shop, who make their delivery on a pallet. I was particulary pleased to recieve a scarlet pallet! Next year I also want to do a bit more work in the fruit garden to change the path layout, and maybe get rid of the autumn fruiting raspberries, which are really too late to be worth the effort. I also have started a retaining wall along the driveway. This gives me a nice south facing well drained site. I need to get a good windbreak planting along the top. I have some escallonia cuttings coming on nicely, which I know do very well here. These have nice raspberry pink flowers. Although the plant is not edible, it is tough, quick growing, evergreen and attractive, which I think will be enough in this location.
I’m definitely looking forwards to 2019 and all the exciting things growing next year.
I’ve wanted to visit the field in Cornwall ever since reading Ken Fern’s book ‘Plants for a future’. I found it so inspirational and it resonated so well with me. ‘If only carrots grew on trees’ was the starting point for Ken, and he and Addy have made it a life’s work to try out as many useful and edible perennial plants on their land in Cornwall as will grow there. They also publish Ken’s databases on temperate and tropical plants online. I had a little confusion between the field, and the ‘plants for a future’ database which I have also found online. Addy explained that they had set up the charity to promote the work they were doing on the land and support information dissemination. Being a charity made it easier to get funding. After a while the then trustees decided to concentrate on the information side and have largely severed ties with the land project. Ken now maintains his own databases, but they get no financial support from the charity.
The field is a 28 acre site almost on the coast of south Cornwall near Lostwithiel. When the Ferns acquired it it was a windswept field. Now about thirty years on it is a mature woodland. Half of the site was planted with native trees with the help of a forestry grant (“mainly a Nature reserve to give something back to Nature” says Addy), and the rest is experimental planting, orchards, soft fruit and vegetable plantings. Some of the experimental planting is used by members of the land club which is made up of volunteers who have worked on the field (see the link to the field for more information). Addy kindly gave us a quick site tour pointing out some of the interesting plants. There were so many useful tips that I gained from Addy as to the growth and harvest of the different crops: edible, medicinal and otherwise useful. For example the Japanese heartnut fruit ripen earlier and so may be worth a try in Skye rather than Walnut. I was so excited I forgot to take any pictures and had to go round myself later, getting pretty lost in the process! The trees are so tall that you have no long distance markers, so it is quite easy to get disorientated. An electricity line bisects the site which is a useful landmark. Unfortunately the weather had turned slightly damp, so the light was not so good for photography.
Addy said that the apples were generally ripening this year about two weeks early, which had thrown out her normal harvest plans. There were too many apples for her to harvest them all, so we were concentrating on the ones that would be the most useful to her. Also importantly her favourite apple, which had memories connected to her mother, which although not doing well every year, had a good crop this year. Between us, with a ladder and Addy climbing the trees, we were able to get almost all the apples from the selected trees. They were then graded and packed away in boxes so they can be used or stored as appropriate. Addy said that they didn’t bother trying to sell the surplus any more, since the apples weren’t perfect enough for retail. We spent a peaceful night in the orchard, listening to the occasional thump of apples falling. We had tried to make sure we didn’t pitch our tent directly under a tree!
There were two orchard areas, one between fruit and vegetable cages, which seemed to be managed more intensively, and one further away near the woodland. The garden areas need to be fully fenced against deer, and other productive plants on the site had ingenious armouring as well. Even the monkey puzzles had been attacked!
I noticed that one of the sea buckthorn had been pollarded, which would be one way of keeping the fruit in picking height. We did try some barberry fruit, but they were rather sharp, although still a bit underripe. I’m rather anti-berberis, having had a few as ornamentals in my previous garden. I remember the prickles had a habit of going perpendicularly into my fingers and snapping off, being very difficult to remove again.
There were at least three different sorts of fruiting haw. One was not then ripe (so would probably not ripen at all well on Skye) one was refreshing and substantial-tasting like an apple, and one was sweeter and juicy, more like a soft fruit, almost a cherry.
A kiwi vine had completely swamped the tree it was trained up, and other climbers such as grapes and figs grew against the buildings. One fruit I am interested in is the plum yew cephalotaxus. Unfortunately it was not quite ripe, so we were unable to try it. The hot summer had made the fruit smaller than usual.
A particularly fragrant eleagnus scented the air by the pathways, and I was happy to spot a decaisnea fargesii, blue bean tree, in full fruiting glory. The fruit look fascinating, and have a most peculiar feel, giving substance to another name of ‘dead mens fingers’. They are in the same family as Akebia. The fruit itself was lovely and ripe, sweet pulp inside a leathery skin. I wonder if the skin is edible as well like akebia is (used as a bitter vegetable in japan). We tried to do some research online on the train for edible uses in its native range (Nepal and Indian himalayas) but didn’t come up with any details. The seeds have a thick jelly coating that cling to them. AC and I shared a pod on the train, and I now have a quantity of seeds to try and germinate! Actually I kept seed from many of the fruit we tried on the holiday. Quite often fresh seed will germinate better. Mostly I know what they are, but I’m not sure which of the haws is which, although they would all be worth growing out as trees if they germinate.
The facilities at the field are somewhat basic. Although we made use of the power to charge up the car, there is no flush toilet. Like Sagara, the Ferns have a composting toilet, albeit a rather more basic one away in the woods. They are hoping to improve the facilities in order to offer courses at the field and to this end have set up a fund raiser to enable more user friendly facilities to be installed and improvements to the shed for a classroom (see information here). This has now gone live (as of November) so please consider donating to this worthwhile endeavour to enable sharing of their knowledge to more people in the future. You can donate online here
These are two of the most fantastic garden in the UK, probably the world. I visited Eden in 2004 or thereabouts, and Heligan a little earlier, and was keen to see how they have evolved.
The Eden project, for those who don’t know, was created out of an open cast china clay pit at the end of the last century. It was designed to show that the damage we do to the earth can be (and should be) repaired. I’m not sure whether this message has got through yet! I think we visited in spring last time and this time it was autumn. These pictures show the increase in tree growth in that time.
Although the bio-domes are the most striking feature of the site, on this visit I found the outside areas just as fascinating. I don’t know whether they had the forest garden area (on the lead in between the carparks and the ticket hall) last time we came, my interests have evolved slightly since then. This was a nice little plot, mainly of ornamental edibles. It was interesting to see the buffalo berry (shepherdia argentea), a plant which I am considering growing this year. This has edible black fruit, but is also nitrogen fixing, so can do well on poorer soils. I was impressed by how tall it was growing.
There were lots of flowers even in late September, and the autumn leaves were also giving a good show. Most plants were quite well labelled, but there were some interesting ones we could not find labels for, including a plant that looked rather like solomons seal, but had black berries (‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’….) (Edit: It well may have been solomons seal. Although the spring shoots alegedly make a good vegetable, the berries casue stomach upsets so are not recommended) Other interesting plants included tiny fuchsia and pomegranite plants and a hardy aloe: Aloe striatula which is hardy to -10, so I could grow it outside on Skye.
I found the allotment areas most interesting. They had set them up to reflect the diversity of cultures of people that grow plants in the UK. So there were chinese, african, caribbean and indian themed allotments, with plants reflecting the cuisine of these areas, as well as more traditional british vegetable plants and flowers. There were several malabar gourd plants, (making bids to take over the crater!) vegetable spaghetti, which I remember has similar but smaller noodley fruit, fantastic displays of outdoor tomatoes and chilli, soya beans and chick peas, sweet potato (as well as the normal kinds). There were lovely plants of yacon, mashua, oca, achocha, physalis, quinoa and amaranth. Some I’ll have to look up to see what their growing requirements are: japanese ginger, dasheen, lemongrass, turmeric, and vietnamese coriander, which all could be interesting additions to the polytunnel, if not outside. I think I spotted new zealand spinach growing as a ground cover, but I could not find the identifying label for it.
They had obviously made an effort to consider the environmental consequences of the development itself. There were several bin areas for visitors to use, with separate bins for different sorts of recyclable waste, including compostable waste too. I’m not sure where they compost the waste – that wasn’t on display and I would have found that interesting. There were water dispensing points to enable refills of water bottles, outside as well as water fountains inside the tropical biome.
The tropical biome was just as good as I remembered. It is difficult to believe that they used it as the ice palace in “Die another day”. Still a fantastic bit of engineering, let alone the plants! The jungle really feels established and doesn’t have too manicured a look to it. There are ant colonies and little lizards as well as birds. Less useful as a source of planting inspiration for me though!
We didn’t have time for the warm temperate biome, and were getting a bit tired, but had a quick look through the microscopic world display area, which had been under construction last time I came. The use of artworks to illustrate different aspects of microbes was fun, including beautiful hand cut paper and life size figure embroidery. There were interactive exhibits of various kinds including a huge one dedicated to the source of chloroplasts that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. A thirty foot metallic blue cyanobacterium billowed fragrant smoke rings to the delight of children (of all ages!). It was quite cute to watch the kiddies trying to catch the rings, but I shan’t even try to upload the video I took.
Opposite the car parks we eventually found the ‘wild chile’ area. This was mentioned on the site maps, but there were no signs to it or to explain what was going on, until we got to the far end of it, where there appears to be a second entrance. I have been interested in Chile since I discovered that much of that country’s interior shares a similar mild rain forest climate to the UK. The area has been set up as a living reserve for plants that are endangered in their native range.
There was an impressive array of young monkey puzzle trees, I judged them to be possibly 18 years old from counting their branches. Just another twenty years or so for the nuts then! There was also a lovely nothofagus forest. This is another tree I’m interested in. The southern beech, as it’s known, likes a mild damp climate and grows very quickly. It ought to be ideal for coppicing on Skye. There were n. nervosa, n. obliqua and n. x. leonii, all doing very well. I couldn’t get hold of these when I was planting my coppice wood, although I did manage to get hold of three n. alpina (which may be a synonym for n. nervosa) a couple of years ago, which are still very small trees (well, even ‘shrubs’ would be dignifying the plants at the moment, although they are still alive). Another interesting chilean edible we saw was luma apiculata, an ornamental shrub with small glossy dark green leaves. The black fruit are edible. I have a tiny one of these, just planted a couple of years ago and doing alright. I tried a couple of berries and they were nice raw, not too sweet, but not sharp either, just juicy. There were several plants, and they appeared to flower better in the sunnier spots. There were a number of huge fuchsias still flowering away. I didn’t spot any fruit, which have a quite sweet and spicy flavour when ripe. There was also an impressive gunnera plant, which we are asked not to plant in this part of Scotland, since it likes it too well! The leaf stalks are edible like rhubarb, although it’s not something I’ve tried. It would still be too windy for those enormous leaves here!
On the following day I was able to have another walk round the wild chile area whilst the car was on charge, as we stopped again on our way to Heligan. It looks like they have been recently planting a trials area for bamboos. Without information displays it is hard to say what they are trying to achieve this time. They were carefully planted and mulched, with a variety of bamboos judging by the attached labels.
Really the visit to Heligan was too short to do it justice. We had to leave again in good time to continue our journey. Part of the garden was closed as well unfortunately, so we couldn’t visit the hidden valley area. They had made the most impressive ‘insect hotel’ I have ever seen in a sunny spot on the woodland walk, and we were taken by some beautiful oaks, although did not find out what variety they were.
In the jungle they were putting the gunnera to bed for the winter by cutting the leaves off and putting them upside down as umbrellas. Gunnera are fairly tender, so even in milder areas of the UK can need a bit of protection. Massive tree ferns and palm trees are a feature of the jungle garden, and they have obviously been considering the future as well, with smaller monkey puzzles as well as the original garden’s 100 year plus specimens.
Bamboos and bananas also give a tropical feel to the garden. I’m sorry to have missed the hidden valley, since I remember that as one of the most atmospheric parts of the garden. They were obviously hard at work, since we could hear chainsaws going. I hope this is just planned maintenance, and they have not suffered losses in the hot, dry summer.
We wandered back through the huge ornamental vegetable gardens. These are bigger than I remember, with such beautiful displays of lettuce and rhubarb forcers! I couldn’t resist the reduced plants in the sales area, although AC luckily spotted that the camellia sinensis were c. Sinensis var. assamica, rather than c. sinensis var. sinensis, so I avoided those (too tender). I did pick up a little lady boothby climbing fuchsia which should be fun.
I would recommend a full day at Eden. We probably didn’t start going round till nearly 12 noon. You would certainly need more than the couple of hours we were able to spend at Heligan to make the most of the trip!
It’s been a few weeks since I got back and I’ve not done a lot. Skye has been doing ‘misty isle’ again, just this last day or so turning colder and brighter. The tree field does have some autumn colour. Particularly down by the pond where it is a bit sheltered, the birch and willow have a few more leaves holding on. There is a lovely clumping grass turning a golden shade by the pedestrian gate to the river.
While the winds in the north we should have some fine weather, but I need to tuck some fleece or similar round the tea bushes to protect them from the winter cold. We actually had our first frost this weekend, which was a bit of a surprise. The green manures I sowed in the orchard just before the holiday have been a resounding failure. The field beans were eaten by crows, no sign of the vetch or clover, and the remaining fodder radish is going to be too small and sparse to create any coverage! I should have sown about a month earlier….I do have a nice crop of grass and buttercups coming, so I guess I’ll just have to sheet mulch in the spring, but this will kill off the desireable seeds I put in as well.
The tea garden extension is still looking quite green and lush. I’ll tidy this up a bit when we get some frosts, since I’ll need to think about harvesting the outside yacon, oca and mashua then. The oca has had some tiny yellow flowers, rather bashed by the wet winds.
Neither the oca or mashua really like the exposed position. Of the mixed selection of plants that went in, the self seeding kale has done well, and I have a few nice looking carrots along the edge. The fodder radish has some good size roots, so I may pull some of these over the winter. I think there will still be enough to give coverage. Phacelia and borage are still blooming lovely! In the original tea garden unfortunately I have a lawn of grass growing under the blackcurrant bushes, I’ll try mulching that in the spring also. The himalayan strawberries had a second flush of flowers, but none have set this time.
The experimental sheet mulching with combined paper and cardboard has not been a great success. I think that the cardboard really does need two layers. It seems to have disintegrated more quickly, and then does not keep the newspapers protected. I do have some more cardboard, and have re-mulched the bit by the tea garden, I’ll need to try and do the orchard as well whilst we’ve got this nice weather. The cardboard alone double layers have also suffered a bit, but some of this is definately dog damage, so I still think this is the better way to go.
The forest garden at Dartington was created over the last 24 years by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART). A forest garden uses useful plants to mimic the layers of a natural woodland to create a stable ecosystem. It is a popular theme in temperate climate permaculture. The picture above illustrates the forest garden layers at the edge of the garden by the carpark, including unseen roots (of mashua and japanese yam). The timing of our holiday was timed around the ability to participate on one of the tours that Martin runs periodically through the year. It also had to be outside of the peak season on Skye. I didn’t always catch the latin names of the plants during the tour, so in general I have used the common names that Martin used. When he did give the latin names I realise that I have probably been mispronouncing them all these years, having mainly learnt them from books!
The canopy layer is mainly made up of italian alder trees which have had their lower branches removed in order to let more light through. Even so the garden was much more shady than Sagara’s garden, feeling much more like a woodland with clearings, rather than a field with trees. Martin has not used soil landscaping to create microclimates, explaining that as his plot sloped south and was sheltered at the start by a wood to the west it had not been necessary.
Having already visited Sagara’s garden many of the plants were familiar to us already, although Martin’s trees were considerably bigger. He stressed the importance of plotting the area and planting spacing based on mature tree sizes since all the layers will require light to be productive. Clearings form suntraps that enable Martin to grow even quite tender fruit like persimmon. It has been a hot year this summer following a cold winter, and many of the fruit are a couple of weeks early, and some that don’t always ripen are doing well.
Much of the ground under the trees was clear of plants, being covered by leaf mulch. In the spring there are more bulbs in growth such as wild garlic. The main spreading ground cover Martin had visible at the time we came was false strawberry. This has a yellow flower, and although it does set some little red strawberry like fruit, they are disappointingly tasteless. The false strawberry has the advantage of being evergreen, so protecting the soil year round. Other shade loving ground covers included Hosta, and fiddlehead fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) both of which I fancy growing. There was also mint, ground covering raspberries and japanese wineberry, with comfrey and turkish rocket in the sunny spots. Martin said that turkish rocket was one of the few plants that could happily compete with comfrey. Other ground layer plants included more of the japanese spring vegetables, solomons seal and japanese ginger, which is harvested by cutting the growing shoots rather than digging it up. The main weed that Martin gets seeding in the garden is Ash trees. Sadly this may not be the case for much longer, since the ash dieback has spread to the county.
Martin talked about the importance of soil mycellium (fungal networks) in sharing the nutrients about the wood. They also can spread warnings amongst the plants. If one plant is stressed or attacked by pests it releases chemicals that, transmitted by the mycellium, stimulate other plants to increase their own chemical defences. Martin said that generally it isn’t neccessary to innoculate the soil. As long as it wasn’t disturbed, the fungi would already be in the soil, particularly close to existing trees. It is however possible to buy edible fungi spawn to encourage more edible fungi in your forest garden, and he also showed us an oyster mushroom log that he had stimulated to fruit before we came. It is possible to have a number of logs that are ready to produce mushrooms and trigger them in turn so as to have a continuous supply of mushrooms. I have tried unsuccessfully to grow mushrooms on newspaper ‘logs’. I think that because I wrapped them in bin liners to keep them damp the spawn was suffocated, so I may have another go.
There are a number of trees that Martin grows for leaf crops, either as salad greens or as cooked vegetables. One that I recently got is Toona sinensis or toon tree (visible as tall shrub layer in top photo). This has leaves that when young, are eaten as a vegetable in china. We tried a little leaf, and it tastes rather like an aromatic onion. Salad leaves include small leaved lime (tilia cordata), which has quite pleasant mild tasting young leaves, beech (fagus sylvatica), which I always find a bit tough even when young, and white mulberry. We tried the leaves of the latter, and again I found it a bit tough, although not unpleasant in flavour. It may have been better when younger, or cooked though. Martin pollards all these trees to keep a supply of young leaves in easy reach, but out of reach of browsing deer.
Other interesting shrubs included relatives of the common bog myrtle, which itself has edible leaves used like bay leaves. The wax myrtle has similar uses for the leaves and also the berries have a waxy coating that can be melted off and used in candles and sealing etc. These are nitrogen fixing in boggy ground, so may be ideal in certain areas of my field! I do have the wax myrtle on my list of ‘wants’, although I am having difficulty in getting seed to germinate. You need male and female plants to set berries. I do have some bog myrtle down by the river, although am not sure whether they are male or female. It is useful if caught by midges, since they don’t like it’s aromatic foliage.
Another nitrogen fixing tree is the judas tree. We did see this at EDFG, but didn’t know what it was. Martin had a good sized tree which I asked about. Prior to arriving at Dartington, we saw another in a green space where we had our picnic lunch. It has distinctive heart shaped leaves. Apparently the flowers are edible and come out before any of the foliage on bare branches. I collected some seedpods from the one we saw at our picnic spot, so I may see if I can get some seed to germinate.
We tried some sechuan pepper seeds, they are very peppery and made my lips and tongue numb for a few minutes. Apparently this doesn’t happen with the dried fruit, which can be mixed with salt and ground together for salt and pepper seasoning. I quite fancy trying to grow this. Apparently there are lots of similar shrubs all called sechuan pepper, so I’ll have to check with Martin the one that he uses! Nepalese pepper is quite similar, but ripens later, so is less likely to be suitable on Skye.
An interesting edible that I didn’t remember from my reading is the Trachycarpus ‘palm tree’. Apparently it has huge flowers that can be used like cauliflower. I know this will grow locally here on Skye, and I did have a couple but gave them away since I wasn’t sure where to put them. I sort of regret that now!
Trees that I forgot to mention from EDFG that we also saw in the Dartington garden were alternative haws. There are several plants closely related to our native hawthorne that have bigger and nicer berries. I have one, Crataegus arnoldiana, although it hasn’t flowered for me yet. Martin had several haws which we were able to sample the fruit of. I have ordered seeds of lots of different varieties from the ART to try and grow this year. If I find one that does well for me, I may be able to graft it on to the common hawthornes.
There was a clear area under a huge pine tree that Martin sometimes uses as an outdoor classroom. He says it is important not to forget the people in the garden and have a space for them to use. It was impressive that the huge tree had been grown by Martin from seed (as were most of the more unusual trees we saw). He talked about harvesting resin from the tree and the uses it has (turpentine, rosin etc.).
A pond area was also planted with edible plants: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia – has edible tubers), mint (needs no explanation) and Houttuynia Cordata. This last we tried a leaf of. It has a strange fishy orange taste that I wasn’t too keen on but some others liked. It is a popular vegetable with fish in china. A little research reveals that in some climates it can be invasive, but I don’t think I’ll bother with it, although I do fancy developing an edible pond/bog area below the barn!
In summary, this was a truly inspirational visit again. Such a treat for me to meet Martin Crawford who has done so much for the development of agroforestry in the UK and internationally.
Much to my surprise, I received this award which is “peer recognition for bloggers who inspire positivity and joy” from Suzanne Craig-Whytock at mydangblog. I have followed her for a while, mainly because she makes me laugh and we all need a bit of happiness. Also her dog looks a bit like Dougie. So thank you Stephanie.
This means I have to answer questions she set and in the spirit of things pass it on, although I think she cheated, so since that must be in the spirit of the award, I’ll do that too! Some of the questions she left open for us to choose, so I’ll answer some of the ones I get asked in the shop (questions in colour). Here goes:
1) What country do you come from?
I come from England but have emigrated to the Isle of Skye which is Scotland. Before I came here I don’t think I appreciated that Scotland is a different country, now I realise how ignorant people can be south of the border, so much for United Kingdoms!
2) Which way is Neist Point?
For info. Neist Point is the most westerly point on Skye, and the reason that tourists are coming through the glen. Due to the curvature of the earth, we are actually more westerly here than Cornwall, so I sometimes amuse people by telling them that we are the most westerly shop you can drive to in the UK without taking a ferry (Skye has a bridge). I digress – take a left towards the sea, past the old school. Don’t go straight on at the next bend, bear right which is the main road. Take the second left signposted ‘light hoose’, and follow that to the end of the road and then stop (or you’ll end up over the cliff!).
3) What do people do here?
Generally tourists are interested in how people make a living on Skye. The sad fact is that most people who live on Skye don’t need to make a living, they come here to retire. Those children that are educated and brought up on Skye, often move away to university and never come back. The main employer is the council, and the main industry is tourism. Those that are left are mainly self employed, so we have a range of tradesmen, artists, archetects and webdesigners….most crofters have second or third incomes since sheep are more a way of life than a money earner.
4) Do you have a bathroom?
This is one of the examples of Britain and (particularly) the US being separated by a common language. To a Brit a bathroom is a room with a bath, to an American a bathroom is a room with a toilet. I have to grit my teeth at this one and keep on smiling, because to be frank it is a sore spot for me and the cafe over by. The powers that be have promoted Scotland and Skye as a tourist destination which is great, however, they have attracted lots of people that are trying to ‘do Scotland’ rather than have a holiday here. What I mean is they are rushing from place to place with a tight itinery not appreciating that the highlands are still quite a wild place (which is why we like it) and isn’t set up with toilets on every corner. I’ll just say there are no public toilets in Glendale and the nearest toilets are at least 20 minutes drive down a single track road and stop there shall I?
5) What is your dream destination?
If I had one flight anywhere in the world I would love to visit New Zealand. We did projects on the country several times at primary school and I have always fancied a trip there. The scenery, the wildlife and the climate all are attractive, and it isn’t filled with bitey stingy things and people. Never Australia, which is funny since I have ended up with two sisters there. Now I don’t fly for moral reasons (see here) but I will be tested in 2020 when my younger sister wants to mark a special birthday with a family reunion in NZ (my mum’s choice rather than Oz too). Do I go or not……
6) Why did you burst out laughing in a meeting on Thursday?
This was one of mydangblog’s questions and I’m trying to think of a good answer. I don’t go to meetings, so I could cheat and leave it at that. However, I was in the shop in the morning. It’s not really like working, because I consider most of our local customers my friends, they are all neighbours. Usually Brian makes me laugh with stories of things he’s been getting up to (usually involving tourists in vehicles, or BT), although I don’t think he was in that morning so I may pass on that one, sorry!
7) What is your favourite movie?
We don’t go out to the cinema much (although they do show films at the Aros centre on Skye which is only a 50 minute drive away). We also don’t watch TV and haven’t since we moved here ten years ago, so are not really up to date on any modern films! We do (very occasionally) watch DVDs and S. has been trying ‘netflicks’ recently, although that is not likely to take off due to the internet locally really falling over….For relaxing I do like a good romantic comedy: anything with Meg Ryan. Also Highlander: beautiful scenery (even if a lot of it was Ireland), Local Hero: we can really relate to that now! and Gregory’s Girl, no matter how many times we watch it it still makes me laugh (S. can recite whole passages at the right prompt words). At Xmas we watch all the James Bond films. Sometimes back to back, sometimes in random order (“tonight let’s have….bad girls” (usually Goldeneye))
8) What crazy thing did you do on Friday night?
Saturday is a working day, although in the summer we do allow ourselves an extra half hour in bed so the craziest I got was just having cheesecake for my dinner rather than a proper meal. We have taken to eating earlier, because by the time I get home from the shop I can’t be bothered to cook and it’s a bit late for a big meal. Also see Q 10.
9) Are you happy with your current life?
I am so happy 😃! I love it on Skye, the peace, quiet and scenery. I love being my own boss. I like running a shop and meeting customers (most of them anyhow!) although it’s even better now we can afford to pay people to run the shop for us sometimes and give me a bit more time at home. I love having a bit of land to play with and grow trees. That’s not to say I don’t have plans….
10) Do you have any new and interesting bathroom stories?
See Q4? On my recent trip to the west country I was able to use a couple of composting toilets. I was visiting sites without mains sewerage and they had chosen to create facilities that enabled them to return nutrients in human waste to the soil. Urine in particular is high in nitrogen and other minerals that gardeners often pay good money to give their plants the correct dose of. At EDFG Sagara had a lovely composting loo with a urine separator. It really looked like a very simple and effective system. At the field (which I have not yet ‘blogged about yet) they have an equally effective but less conventional hole in the ground system. They are trying to raise money to put in a more socially acceptable facility for visitors so as to be able to run more educational events and have more volunteers. I also got really sidetracked on Friday with a thread on permies about why some women don’t like to urinate outside – well you did ask!
About sunshine blogger award
Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blogging sites.
Answer the questions.
Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
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So mydangblog has bent the rules, we only got ten questions. I will nominate
This garden was the first visited on our holiday. It is one of the first forest gardens I’ve visited at all, except in my imagination. Mine is still mainly in the fourth dimension! There used to be one at Ryton organic gardens, but I think they found it too messy so got rid of it.
Sagara has created the East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG) over the last eight years or so. I found out about it through Facebook so that does have some uses! Despite ill health he has created a wonderful space in a bit less than three acres. His vision is of a spiritual foraging retreat, where people can reclaim their souls through browsing in the garden. Certainly there is a tranquil feel throughout the garden. So many of the plants are edible, that we had to repeat a mantra ‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’ because you get used to tasting everything after a few days. There was plenty of wildlife. We saw butterflies and birds, evidence of moles and Sagara says they have a family of hedgehogs as well as pigeons.
The main technique that I took away from the garden was probably the use of earthworks and hedges to create banks that made sheltered, sunny or shady areas and formed microclimates for plants that require different conditions. Fast growing italian alder had been planted around the periphery of the garden. These are now over 25 feet tall so form a screen and give the garden even more of a tranquil enclosed feel. As a nitrogen fixer it also provides nitrogen through soil fungal networks to other plants in the garden. A leylandii hedge screens a simple yet sophisticated composting loo and provides shelter for the herb area and main vegetable production plots, which are closer to the buildings than the more seasonal tree crops. A mowed trackway enables vehicular access around the garden, although separate pedestrian paths meander slightly different routes. I found it quite easy to become disoriented and the garden seemed much bigger than it is. This is also due to the multiple circular clearings and asymmetric free form design. The largest circle had a tall earthbank surmounted by fruiting Elaeagnus bushes and enclosing a beautiful natural swimming pool. Steps go down into it and it is filled from a spring borehole, the water circulating through gravel beds planted with aquatic plants to keep the water clean. Stone alcoves retain the day’s heat to protect the most tender plants here: olives, figs and citrus trees have set fruit this year. There are also Echium and hardy bananas, grapes and palm trees, and a little pointed running alpine strawberry still has fruit ripening.
In the establishment of the garden Sagara had ploughed and seeded the plot with deep rooted plants like chiccory and plantains, before doing the earth moving and planting the larger trees, then smaller trees and shubs. The site is loam over clay, quite flat and a bit liable to frost with cold north winds. He is still planting the ground cover layers, which, because it requires many plants, can be a slow, labour intensive and expensive business. We helped clear an area and plant out some perennial brassica with Sagara.
Over time the garden area should become a net carbon sink as the plants and the soil convert carbon dioxide into more stable wood and humus. At present the garden still has quite an open feel about it, and I would love to go back in a few years to see how it matures. I’m a bit envious of the kinder climate there compared to Skye. My sweet chestnuts are tiny in comparison to Sagara’s. The biggest of mine is only as tall as me, the smallest that survived is only a foot or so after nearly ten years! Sagara’s were probably taller after three years than mine are now and now at six years old are beautiful trees of fifteen feet or so. However, he has already had frosts that damaged the squash plants, and there are no squirrels on Skye.
One of the beds was given over to edible flowers, I wasn’t aware that Gladioli and Dahlia petals are edible, and it was fascinating that each flower was also a slightly different flavour, some sweeter, some more complex. The chinese chive flowers made a lovely addition to our supper with a sweet onion crunch.
New foods I was able to try included the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). This has a very pleasant sweet tart taste. The berries are a little small being a bit smaller than currants, but are borne in profusion along the branches. They are also extremely pretty berries: orangey-red and flecked with gold! We picked about four pounds or so which Sagara is going to use to make a jam with. The spring fruiting Elaeagnus were in blossom and the fragrance is lovely. We also tried sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) berries. These are very fragile, tending to burst as you pick them and are even smaller and more profuse.
The flavour is sharper, more acidic, and Sagara had several different cultivars which all had different flavours; one had a noticable pineapple flavour, and even the unimproved form has a very pleasant mandarin taste. They are very high in vitamin C and often used in juice form, sweetened or blended with other fruit. Both Elaeagnus and sea buckthorn are nitrogen fixing, the sea buckthorn seeming to have a tendency to sucker. Sagara had his first nuts on his bladdernut (Staphylea Pinnata) this year, these are a little small due to the hot summer. Inside a one inch inflated balloon fruit is a single shiny nut. This has a very hard but thin seed coat and a sweet flavour. It is said to be like pistachio.
Other plants I haven’t tried yet that Sagara is growing include several Japanese spring vegetables: Hosta, Udo (Aralia) and Petasites are all garden perennial plants that can be cooked and eaten in the spring, as is american pokeweed (Phytolacca), although I gather this last is also considered to be toxic so take care! One plant we didn’t try was the turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). This was a huge dandelion like plant which is supposed to taste mustardy. I suspect that would not go down too well in our house, although the plants did look lovely and robust, so I may give it a go anyhow! Colourful amaranth seedheads surrounded a large fruiting medlar, and several grapes were ripening up trees and scrambling on the sunny banks. Other perennial vegetables Sagara grows include Sea cabbage and sea kale, perennial kale and walking stick kale, oca, Yacon, mashua, japanese yams, walking onion, artichokes (both sorts) and asparagus. Fruit includes apples, plums and other top fruit as well as sechuan pepper, quince (chaenomeles as well as cydonia) mulberry and kiwi. Nuts include hazel, chestnut, walnut and heartnuts and there are a multitude of other purposeful plants providing fibre, shelter, food or nitrogen fixing. I was particularly interested in the miscanthus grass that Sagara is growing as sheltering hedges. This is like a small thin bamboo and I had been wondering if we are warm enough on Skye for it to do well. It grows up to 2 or 3 metres tall in a year once established, creating shelter and forming woody stems that can be cut since they are renewed each year. This produces a large amount of biomass so it has been planted for biofuels in many parts of the UK.
As a place for people to meet, eat and communicate Sagara has a number of structures through the garden. We were lucky enough to stay in a beautiful yurt tent, although he is in the process of taking the canvas structures down for winter. There are sculptures and statues in various niches in the garden, but the whole thing is a work of art. Such abundance of food now, in contrast to the now sterile seeming horse paddock it replaced. We had a lovely discussion with Sagara about farming and hunter gathering, money and land, spirit and body which I really can’t do justice to here. Overall an inspiring start to the holiday (and it was sunny!).