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!
I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area. I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching. I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc. I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together. The soil does seem quite light. I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much. There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.
I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid. I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants. I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred. I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it. I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial. The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere. I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down. I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon. I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant. I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….
S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil. Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops. This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year. We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility. I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden. Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.
On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn. Again this has a bit of couch grass in it. I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass. I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short. I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out! Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary! At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction. I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)
I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass. What would happen if I just left it be? How competive is it as a weed? I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch. It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field. I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer. I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch). Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!
I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished. I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart. The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach. All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5. The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7. I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time. Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.
Summer is, as yet, the fruit season for me. The orchard is a dream for the future; not a single apple this year, despite the good weather. I have been picking currants and raspberries however over the past couple of weeks. The original Ben Sarek black currants did pretty well, over 13 pounds in total. Not up to their usual quality however: quite a few split, and smaller than usual. It’s been a slightly odd year due to a relatively hot and dry early summer, and I think this affected the berries. Maybe the skins hardened too soon, since the Ben Gairn currant, which had a really good crop, had a lot split, which made the picking over quite difficult. I like to remove the remains of the petals as well as the stalks, but it was a slow messy job. I’ve made two batches of jam and still have some in the freezer. The Belorussian sweet currant I didn’t even bother picking. The fruit was the first to ripen, but was really tiny and split. Hopefully in a more normal summer it will do better. So far the Ben Sarek wins hands down. It’s only the first year for the other two to fruit properly however, so we’ll see how they do next year. The black currant bushes in the front garden didn’t have many berries. I haven’t been pruning them, and they are getting a bit leggy. I’ll try and make a point of pruning them hard this year. The cuttings in the fruit garden are now quite productive bushes. I’ve decided that the other currant next to the original Ben Sarek black currant bush must be what my friend calls the ‘nancyberry’. It grew as a seedling in my garden in Solihull (originally between the paving stones of the path as they do!), I think it is a blackcurrant-gooseberry cross. There it had lovely large sweet berries, but here it sets hardly any. I have been gradually removing the bushes again, since they obviously don’t like Skye. By removing this last bush it will give me a suitable space for my Charlotte Russe mulberry bush. That was a present from my Mum when she came up this spring. I am quite excited about this. The garden is still pretty exposed, but I’m hopeful that the fruit garden is starting to get a bit more sheltered.
The raspberries looked really promising, but the initial picking was a bit disappointing. I had a awful lot that were wormy. I have had this to a certain extent in previous years, but probably more than half were wormy to some extent. I’m not one to be too fussy about a few insects, but this was ridiculous! It’s been a bit damp to pick the berries this last week. The second picking was a bit better than the first: not so many ripe ones, but fewer with worm problems. I’ve made a big batch of strawberry and raspberry jam (strawberries from the shop as yet, although I now have some plants getting established so watch this space!). I have about four different sorts of summer raspberries, I was given a load of canes of an unknown variety from someone locally. They fruit well, but have been worst affected by the worms and have a slightly watery taste. I have another which does pretty well, some of the berries have a tendency to be slightly double, but good cosmetic quality generally. Malling Jewel is in the tea garden, struggling in a still rather exposed position. One that came with the house: Glen Prosen, which is starting to do quite well in the dog resistant garden but took a long while to get established, this is the best tasting fresh I think. I’ve found that neither of the autumn fruiting raspberries do very well in our short summers. They are too late getting started in the spring to flower in time before the weather gets colder and the days shorter.
Talking of strawberries, just a note on the himalayan strawberries in the tea garden. It looks like getting some other plants from different sources was the right thing to do, since despite being set back by my weeding at a time of hot dry weather a few fruit did set. Unexpectedly they have turned out to be white. They are like large alpine strawberries, difficult to remove from the stem, with a pleasant citrussy resinous flavour when fully ripe. They become very soft, so easy to crush. Hopefully they will fruit better next year if I can avoid digging them up at the wrong time! They do seem to make a very dense ground cover, which was their primary purpose.
I’ve now picked the last of the Haskap/honeyberries. It is impossible to tell whether they are ripe or not, until you bite into them. When ripe, they have a quite plummy sweet/sour flavour and are coloured right through. Before fully ripe they are sharper and less pleasant. I’m very pleased with how well they fruited, considering this is their first year. I’m pretty sure they will make a rather nice jam when I get a few more fruit. They should be pruned by removing about a quarter of the mature branches to avoid overcrowding and should live for decades. I need to try and not let them get taken over by weeds in the orchard area. So far they are a successful experiment I think. I’ve saved a few seeds so I can try to propagate them, they should germinate well when fresh, so I may try sowing some straight away. They also propagate by cuttings, better from summer cuttings apparently, but I may try some of the prunings this winter since that is easier for me.
I’ve not harvested the grapes in the tunnel, but have thoroughly thinned them out. I don’t think I thinned them enough last year, so I have been a bit more brutal this year. I collected the thinnings as much as possible, and had enough to make a small batch of green grape jelly. I had contemplated making verjuice, but I may try that next year. The new vine (a white, Zalagyongye, which for some reason I thought would be seedless but apparently isn’t) has just one bunch of grapes, but they are not so far along as the Boskoop glory, so I’m not sure whether they will ripen off. The vine is growing well, so I’m hoping that it will do better next year.
I still have redcurrants and gooseberries to harvest. The invicta has done quite well. The new red gooseberries, Pax, have mostly dropped, and are rather small. I have two new red currants in the tea garden: redcurrant cherry and rovada. I don’t think any of the redcurrants from Solihull survived, but I have a couple of small plants in the fruit garden. These were grown from cuttings taken from a tough little plant growing in a dry stone wall in full force of the sea winds. I’d like to take cuttings from a plant I pass going to the shop which blooms profusely, but the berries seem to either nor set or quickly get picked by birds. It is such a dwarfed plant that finding a decent bit of stem will be difficult.
The blackberry in the polytunnel is just starting to ripen, as is the new one ‘Helen’ outdoors. It looks like this may be a disappointment, as I have yet to try the berries! They are quite prolific and large but seem to be very attractive to blue flies which destroy the drops and make them discoloured and unappetising! It may be they are ripening too slowly due to the damp weather this week and may do better in drier weather. They certainly have been early, but I am at a bit of a loss about what to do about this. It looks like I will have to move the vine pretty soon anyway, since we are intending to extend the barn to where this is currently planted now. Maybe I should try it in the polytunnel? But that wasn’t the point!