I’m running a bit behind in my posting (got distracted by online novel reading) so will try and do a bit of catchup now. I’m trying to get some preparation done for my blueberry patch down the hill. I had covered the whole area with black plastic early last year to clear the weeds so it is now time to get the beds arranged, so I can start planting.
I decided to move the black plastic out to cover the area immediately surrounding the cleared patch. I can either plant more blueberry bushes or other plants there. It will be useful to have a weed barrier of sorts to try and keep the couch and other creeping grasses at bay. There probably aren’t enough stones already selected to weight the plastic down properly. Last year I had the benefit of large branches from the driveway spruce trees, but my intention is to use these to increase the woody content of the beds, so I will need additional weights this year.
Since blueberries need well aerated soil, and the area I have chosen for them is damp and compacted with generations of sheeps trotters, I have forked over the cleared area. I din’t turn the soil, just loosened it, so that it has a chance to dry a little over the coming weeks of spring. I was a bit disappointed by the amount of couch grass that seems to be prevalent over the whole area, despite the light excluding cover. I guess it was kept going by areas outside the plastic, and the fact the water could still get to it due to the fact the plastic is in strips, rather than a larger entire piece. The other plant that seems to have survived remarkable well is pignut, Conopodium Majus. The blanched spring shoots of this are all over the area despite having been covered for the whole of last year.
The thick reeds and other groundcover plants have disappeared to form a vole dispersed layer of compost. The voles are more of a nuisance for attracting the attention of the dog(s). They like to dig underneath the plastic sheets, thus letting in light and wind, so making the sheets less effective at weed cover.
My intention is to create sort of raised beds, with the woody trimmings, bracken remains, and leaf mould/grass clipping compost from the lodge, together with soil excavated to create drainage channels and paths. As I was forking it over, I discovered that the soil depth is not consistent; it gets quite shallow at the downhill side of the patch. Probably this rock forms a bit of a bowl, which is why it seems so damp there. Until the area surrounding the cleared patch is also cleared, I won’t really be able to create the levels properly to ensure bed drainage. I’m hoping that I can clear most of the couch grass out when the soil is drier as I create the raised beds themselves.
I have ordered some more blueberry plants, but haven’t managed to find some of the varieties I wanted. If necessary, I will just sow some annuals to build up the soil structure and keep it covered and pre-order bushes for next year. I know ART will propagate fruit trees to order, so they may do fruit bushes too.
I’ve been on holiday this week. My friends AC and DC have been staying locally and have been pottering round with me. The weather has just turned from cool and dry to warm and dry, hence the title. I have been practically running round naked, (which I think of as when I’m down to single layers of clothing) and actually showing my knees today! There is no danger of frost now, but I have noticed a little damage to the new growth on the grape vine in the polytunnel. I have bought S. a weather station recently with an extra temperature and humidity sensor for the polytunnel. We are still playing with it, since the signals are getting interfered with by our wifi, but the temperatures in the polytunnel were varying from over 30 deg. Celsius during the day to only 2 deg. Celsius at night. The temperature at night is much warmer now (about 12 degrees or so) and I’m opening the doors more to keep it a bit cooler during the day.
Although on holiday, we have managed to achieve quite a bit (even some of the things I had on my list to do). DC has been going round taking off tree shelters, and keeping the dogs amused. It’s quite nice to think that these are some of the trees that he himself helped plant just a few years ago. AC and I have been clearing and planting in the tea garden extension. The ground is lovely to weed at the moment; so dry the earth just falls off the roots of the weeds. I cleared out some docken and buttercups, but was quite pleased to find only a little couch growing in from the edge which had just been mulched last year. I pulled off the tops of the weeds, left the leaves on the beds, and threw the roots to add to the soil around the adjacent trees, where the rock is rather close to the surface. We planted the artichokes and potatoes that Frances of island threads sent me (thanks again!), as well as my saved oca (and some more from Frances). AC also re-mulched with cardboard the area by the track that I left under mulch last year. I had a trial clearing the end of the bed where I’d planted the peas. Although the couch came out nicely, there was too much of the thinner stringy grass that creeps over the surface, so I’m hoping that another year will clear that a bit more. We cut back and thinned out the kale that was flowering. I think it will regrow again to provide another crop. The tops we used to mulch around the lowest of the ‘new’ blackcurrant bushes. Hopefully they will fruit a bit better this year than last year.
The other blackcurrants in the tea garden had a lovely lush new lawn growing round them! I didn’t manage to clear out the grass in the bed next to them before it went to seed and regretted it! Hopefully cutting it back with shears and mulching with it’s own leaves and cardboard will be enough to clear it again. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of nasty weeds there, which is pleasing. I was hoping to transplant in some of the sweet cicely and good king henry that has seeded in, but that will have to wait till next year now.
The weather is really too nice to be spending much time in the polytunnel (a bit like last year), however we have managed to clear the beds for the tomatoes (although not planted yet). I have decided to plant them in the lower southern beds. There is a awful lot of parsley going to seed in there, so we stripped off the leaves and have dried about four batches in the lower oven. The kale was unfortunately a bit mildewy, which it usually is in the tunnel at this time of year, but there was a fair amount of leaf beet for spinach.
AC has sown my curcubit seeds. We ate the last sharks fin melon a few weeks ago (nearly eighteen months after harvest and still perfect!) so I scraped out and saved some of the seeds before cooking it. I have plenty of seeds as well for next year, just in case I get another failure. The curcubit seeds have all gone in the propagator, although they could probably be sown direct in the polytunnel with the temperatures as they are now. It looks like all my sweetcorn seeds have failed: both those that were sown direct, and those in the propagator. I can only assume that I drowned them. I sowed them at the same time as the peas (which have germinated well). They were fresh seed. I presoaked them for a few days to rehydrate before sowing, but maybe I soaked them for too long. It probably isn’t too late to try again. I’ll see if I have any more of that seed and just soak it overnight, and sow direct this time.
While the earth is so dry I’ve been doing more weeding/editing around the fruit garden as well, getting out some of the comfrey that is persisting. and transplanting some strawberry plants. I also was going to transplant some rowan seedlings in amongst the ash trees in the tree field. They seem to like to germinate in the rocky scree of the driveway. I managed to get out about a dozen little trees and one rather larger one, that were growing in less than optimal positions. Then I started to turn some turfs for planting holes, in between the two bands of new spruce trees (that we have been giving a little water to in this dry weather). When digging the second hole, I found my right calf muscle seize up painfully with cramp, and it has been a bit painful the last day or so. I think it was all the digging in the tea garden extension that worked it too hard. It seems a bit better now with rest and ibuprofen, but I may have to heel the little rowans in somewhere else (they are in a pot of water at the moment).
DC and AC also helped me mulch the area where I am hoping to plant blueberries in the tree field. First we had to shift all the conifer branches that I had placed there from the driveway tree pruning. The grass had started to grow through them, but it wasn’t too difficult to disentangle them yet. We then spread out several lengths of black plastic underlay (reclaimed a few years ago from the local hall when it flooded) and used the tree branches to weight them down. This was easier with a few extra pairs of hands. I’ll assess the couch grass at the end of the summer and decide whether to leave the plastic down for another year then. I’m thinking of making slightly raised beds for the blueberries (since the area there is a bit of a bowl) and planting the ‘ditches’ in between with comfrey for mulching. I’m thinking some well rotted sawdust and lots of bracken leaves is what I need to plant the blueberries into.
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.