This post took a lot longer to create than normal since WordPress has changed it’s editing software and made it very difficult to justify text. I still haven’t worked out how to centre captions either. If I don’t get the hang of it soon I will seriously consider changing platforms. I find it very frustrating, slower and annoying.
Mostly I’ve been working outside the last few weeks, doing a final cut round the paths in the tree field. We had a few nice warm days and I managed to cut a new path round the north side of the orchard, one below the hump that links up with the top loop, and one through the wych elm and ash that comes out on the main track opposite the existing cut way to the river fence on the south and east. I think that there are still a few potential paths that will enable greater flexibility in routes around the tree field.
Rather than trying to rake up all the grass cuttings, which takes so long, I have just been scooping up the larger clumps and mulching round selected trees. Down in the bottom loop near the pond, there was a lot of soft growth to cut back and I decided to mulch an area in amongst the trees to maybe plant up next spring. It doesn’t seem that constructive, however it fills in a dog walk on a nice day.
I found a cluster of buff tip moth caterpillars that were feeding on a birch tree rather than an alder this year. Some had moved to an adjacent willow as well. Although they do strip the tree they are on pretty badly, I think it is late enough in the year that they don’t do too much damage. If every tree was covered I would start to worry, however it is pretty obvious that not many of the caterpillars survive at present, otherwise there would be far more moths around, so I am pretty happy to leave them be. Other wildlife of note is the sight of several toads outside as well as lots of frogs. I assume they are trying to find good hibernation spots.
The wild bramble patch at the corner of the river has tasty ripe berries on now. Not enough to make jam with, but I have put several small punnets in the freezer so far.
As I was going round the new cut through below the hump, I noticed a hole in the grass nearby and several empty insect cases. I have now seen three such holes. There was another at the edge of the spruce patch which I found a few weeks ago, which still had several confused bumble bees scrambling about, and one down in the pond loop. I don’t know what animal has dug up the nests. Presumably it is something eating the immature bees in their cocoons. My best guesses are a stoat or a hedgehog, although I suppose it could also be birds such as crows. It may be a fox, I don’t suppose it is an otter. No sign of live bees near any of the nests now. At least it isn’t anything I can feel responsible for….just nature.
Having decided that the Kiwi vine wasn’t worth the space and the daylight it took in the Polytunnel, I spent a few wet afternoons in January and February digging it out. Since it was pretty much in the corner I had to be careful of the polytunnel sides when digging. I wasn’t certain when I started whether I was taking the bramble out as well. Actually I rather though I would be digging that out too, despite the great crop of sweet early brambles it usually gives. However in the event, it really was too close to the polytunnel corner to take out. Also it seems to be quite separate to the kiwi root mass so didn’t naturally come out at the same time.
Although I tried hard to take up as much root as possible, the kiwi roots are surprisingly fragile, so most of them got broken quite short during the excavation. Eventually the last roots going out under the tunnel wall were cut through and the rootball was undercut and freed. It was interesting that most of the larger roots were extending into the tunnel rather than out into the damper soil outside the tunnel. I think this indicates that the kiwi will prefer drier soil. That corner of the tunnel outside however, is also particularly wet, since there is a shallow drainage ditch I dug along there quite early on, which doesn’t yet have a destination except just by the corner of the tunnel. It usually fills with water there after any significant rain.
I had decided to plant the kiwi against the largest of the sycamores in the front garden. I don’t expect it to be quite as vigorous outside as it is in the warmth of the tunnel. It may not like the extra wet as well as the cooler temperatures. However I remember seeing kiwis swamping a tree in the Fern’s field, so don’t want to plant it somewhere where the trees are still establishing. In addition, it will be more difficult to prune the vine in a tree so I’m actually intending to let it run free as much as possible. This means that I may not get so many flowers, but since I am not expecting to get any fruit outside it doesn’t really matter.
I started by working out roughly where the kiwi was going to be planted; a little way from the tree trunk. It means that there will not be a way around between the tree and the road above the barn. However, there wasn’t before either due to the way the soil has been heaped up, and the clump of branches growing from the bole of the tree. I managed to get the kiwi up the drive bank and in position, with a bit of a struggle. I loosened the soil where it was to go, and dug just a little bit out, since I needed to adjust the soil levels to a bit higher there to blend them in more. I didn’t give the kiwi any extra compost; I’m expecting it, if it survives, to be quite vigorous enough already! Having backfilled the hole to level, I lifted soil from adjacent to the barn roadway to smooth out and level the area between the kiwi and the drivebank. There is quite a bit of nettles well established there. Although I pulled out quite a bit of root, there is plenty more undisturbed there still. I threw those roots I did pull out between the kiwi tree and the barn roadway. There will be a little shaded wild spot where I don’t mind the nettles staying. There were a few dock roots and couchgrass too, which will probably persist.
Luckily over the past few months I have built up quite a reserve of sheet cardboard, so was easily able to mulch the whole area pretty thoroughly. I weighed the sheets down with rocks that had been used to weigh down the cardboard at the top of the drivebank last year. That cardboard is pretty much gone, and the soil underneath looks pretty weed free. I’m now thinking about planting this area in the next few months. What I found pretty exciting is that the soil I was moving from the edge of the barn driveway was pretty dry. Despite the fact that this January was the second wettest month locally for about ten years. I can therefore think about planting things that prefer to be well drained. I’ve got several plants growing nicely already (for example those japanese and chilean plum yew may like it there) but also I’m thinking that along the drivebank edge may be just the spot for some sea buckthorne. I’ve really fancied this shrub for ages, especially after trying the fruit in Cornwall and Devon. My research so far suggests it doesn’t like a damp soil, but should be OK with salt winds, although fruiting better with some shelter. I’m intending to get some general hedging plants, but will maybe get some fruiting cultivars too. I’m not sure whether I should get these at the same time, or instead, or try out the cheaper varieties before spending a lot on something that doesn’t do well. Difficult decisions!
Starting on a positive note, I noticed the other day as I walked through the alder grove in the centre of the tree field, that the field is starting to smell like a wood. I hadn’t really appreciated that woods have a specific scent, but realised that it wasn’t just the normal fresh air smell that we get, but the damp, woodsy smell of rotting leaves and fungi. I wish that we had “smellovision” so that I could capture it! The paths in this area are also much more green than the ground under the trees either side. This is a bit deceptive I think, since the grass there hasn’t died out fully. The grass on the path was mown at least once through the year and therefore is fresh regrowth, whereas the grass under the trees is straggly mature growth, admittedly covered a bit by leaves as well.
Then the trouble – Earlier this week it was a bit windy. Not excessivly so. Nothing to write home about, I would have said, except that my polytunnel got torn! The wind was probably gusting to approaching 60mph (update – possibly a bit more; I’m told that over the hill the gusts were approaching 80mph, and since the energy goes by the cube of the speed that’s significantly more likey to cause damage), but the problem really was that earlier in the year the kiwi and the bramble had each decided that the polytunnel wasn’t big enough, and had punched their way through the cover. This had been aided by the fact that one of our cats (Harry) sometimes uses the polytunnel as a look out station, so had made several tear-along-the-dotted-line holes near the frame hoops, as he climbed about on it. I pruned out the growth from underneath and it fell outside the tunnel but left a bit of a hole, which is now rather ginormous! I’m hoping that I can patch it up, since the tunnel cover is only a few years old. Although it ripped across the width of one of the sections, it didn’t rip too far down, so at the moment is providing extra ventilation!
I hastily threw the hose across the tunnel to try and stop it flapping in the wind and hence propagating down, weighting the hose ends with car tyres. This may have helped, since we did have quite a bit more wind after it happened, but it is still only the top that is torn. Now I need a dry still day to try and patch it up. Tricky, since it is right at the top of the tunnel, so I can only really reach from the inside. I have some spare polythene from the old tunnel, so I may stretch that over the top as well, and some ‘gaffa tape’. I think I’ll need some ‘belt and braces’ if I can keep this cover going for a few more years!
I was wondering whether to harvest the Boskoop glory grapes, or whether to leave them a bit longer to sweeten up a bit. They were mainly getting ripe, just a little bit tart to the taste perhaps. Since the tunnel had ripped, I decided to cut all the bunches down and have a go at making grape molasses; see here for example method. The idea was that since we don’t get round to eating all the grapes fresh, it would be a way of preserving them, as well as a fun way of creating a sugar substitute. I did a bit of internet research and came to the conclusion that the wood ash was optional (some sites suggested adding chalk). I think the purpose of the additive is to precipitate out the tannins; perhaps making the juice sweeter and less liable to crystallise.
All went well at first. I picked all the grapes and saved three of the best bunches (1kg) for eating. There was another 6kg initially, although quite a few were a bit mouldy – I think I missed a few bunches when I was thinning them out! I crushed the grapes in a sieve and strained the juice through a jelly bag into my jam making cauldron. On the wood stove I then simmered it down from 4 litres down to 1 pint (excuse my ambi-units!), which took about 5 hours, and left it to cool overnight. We had the stove on anyhow – it is our heating source – so no extra fuel required for this operation.
The juice started off a light pink colour with terracotta flecks (not all had strained off). As it boiled it did seem to create extra flocky bits in the juice and darkened to a dark brown. It still tasted pretty sharp and hadn’t thickened much. I think my grapes aren’t very sweet (I should have measured the specific gravity, but couldn’t be bothered to climb into the attic for the hydrometer). On the following day I decided to boil it again and left it on the stove whilst I picked some achocha in the tunnel – big mistake! I came back to a kitchen (and house!) full of acrid smoke and a black gooey mess in the pan! I had left the firebox door open, so the top hot plate just got too hot! On the bright side, the black mess did seem to comprise of burnt sugar, so I know if I had done it more gently I had a chance of achieving molasses! I’m hoping I can recover the pan!
Next year (or maybe not) I may try a variety on the theme. First, maybe I’ll try adding chalk (or perhaps sodium bicarbonate) to precipitate out some of the tannins. Or maybe I’ll do that secondly, since in my research I discovered that cream of tartar comes from grapes. Actually it seems to come mainly from the bits left over from wine making. Unfortunately I had thrown my residue in the compost before I found this out! The tartaric acid salts are less soluble in cold water than hot, so precipitate out when the solution is cooled. When I had cooled the part-formed molasses overnight I did get a very small amount of crystals on the pan. Again there are lots of articles that you (eventually) find when searching for this, this is one that I think may be most useful. Since I use cream of tartar a bit in cooking, I think it would be fun to try and make my own another time!
The word sounds like a sneeze, but the fruit tastes like a cucumber. Finally I have achieved achocha heaven in the polytunnel! They are fruiting like mad, and the only pity is that it is now a little late in the year for salads (called ‘cold suppers’ in our house and not including too much green, since S. is not keen on lettuce). The Bolivian giant is living up to its name with fruit twice or three times the size of the standard achocha. It has smoother fruit with finer tentacles.
The standard one was first to set fruit, although both were flowering months ago. I just love the exotic appearance of the fruit and they taste OK, as I said just mild and cucumber like. This means to me that they taste slightly odd warm. Not unpleasant, but they don’t really substitute for courgettes in hot dishes, which I was hoping they would. I tried some on pizza and they were fine, just odd! I need to look up some more recipes! I am intending to collect seed from both varieties to ensure fresh seed next year, so I am leaving the earliest fruit to grow and ripen. They may cross however, so I could end up with something a bit unpredictable.
Another success (so far!) are the remaining tomatoes. As I said in a previous post I had to remove the stupice tomatoes, but the super sweet 100 are starting to ripen now and I’m looking forwards to picking the first fruit! These were from my saved seed and I wasn’t sure whether they would come true, since I did see somewhere, after I had planted them, that this variety was a F1 hybrid. So far it looks like the plants are all red cherries as expected, so I’m not hesitating in collecting seed again. I have still quite a few varieties of tomato seed and I don’t have space to grow very many. This is because I grow them direct in the soil and try and rotate them in the polytunnel beds so as not to build up diseases (like that virus Grrr!). My plan is to grow the oldest varieties so that the seed that I have is rejuvenated, and then I can get rid of the older seed. I was surprised how well some of the old seed did germinate, although slowly. The seedlings didn’t thrive however and (honesty now) got a bit neglected at a critical seedling stage, so I lost them.
The millefleur tomato (which came from the same source as the fated Stupice by the way) are yet to ripen. As promised they have enormous trusses of flowers, although so far not setting as well as the other multiflora tomato I used to grow (Ildi). It is still early days yet though and I would try them again before rejecting them. They are heavily shaded by the kiwi and bramble above them, which I think hasn’t helped.
Under the kiwi and grapevine the asparagus plants are growing well and some have flowered. So far just male flowers, which is supposed to be better for prolific spears. However I have read (I think it was from Bob Flowerdew) that the female plants tend to have fatter spears, which I agree with him may be preferable. Anyway the plants seem to be doing alright this year, so maybe I’ll get to harvest some next year (if they would only stop growing over the winter!). The courgettes seem to have given up actually setting fruit, so I have left the two that remain to grow into marrows. I’m pretty sure that at least one sharks fin melon has set too, although I will have to go on a gourd hunt soon to see if I can find and protect any pumpkin nut squash. If there are any they are well hidden in the undergrowth.
Other news in the polytunnel is that the black grapes, Boskoop glory, are starting to turn colour. There are a few grapes that are going mouldy, so I am trying to pick those out without damaging the rest of the bunch. I’m not sure if these got slightly damaged when I thinned the grapes out, or whether there is another reason for that, but I’m pretty happy with the crop overall. The white grapes are actually already ripe! Or at least some of them are. I felt them and they gave a little and I sampled a few from the end of the bunch! Being green and staying green means it is a bit more difficult to tell whether they are ripe and this seems extremely early to ripen, so Zalagyongye is a good variety to try if you have an early autumn!
I have hacked back both the kiwi and the bramble in the polytunnel and have definitely decided to evict the kiwi vine this winter. It has shaded that end of the polytunnel too much, and needs more than one prune in a summer to keep it from getting completely rampant. Although the flowers are very pretty and it does set quite a few fruit, these are a bit small and sharp for my taste. If I was to plant a replacement I would try a kiwiberry – Actinidia kolomitka or Actinidia arguta. The fruit of these are supposed to be smaller, not hairy, sweeter and ripen sooner than the larger kiwi fruit. They still generally need male and female plants (although there are a few self fertile varieties: issai and vitikiwi for example). I think I will leave the bramble to grow again and see how that does by itself: it will be very difficult to get rid of now anyhow! It is nice to get early sweet clean brambles, and it has done a bit better this year than last but it has still struggled to get space and light with the kiwi adjacent to it. The kiwi I will try and transplant. It can grow up one of the sycamore in the front garden. I don’t suppose the fruit (if any) will come to much outside, but I may still get flowers.
The Yacon plants that I planted out first in the tunnel (on 26th March) have grown simply HUGE! Literally some are almost taller than I am! The ones that were planted slightly later (10th June) are much smaller. I’m a bit surprised that they didn’t catch up more. None had any compost in the planting hole, although I have been liquid feeding them both on occasion. It is possible that the later ones are a bit more shaded, with large parsley going to seed nearby. The real proof will be in the harvest of course, so watch this space.
Finally I will just mention the Fuchsia berry. It has put on a lot of growth recently. The flowers are yet to open, although are getting larger. I have pinched out quite a few of the growing tips, to make the plant more bushy, the thought being more branching = more flowers. However, we are getting quite late in the year now for setting much in the way of fruit. I may try and take some cuttings. It would be good to have a back up plant or two on the windowsill in case we have a hard winter.
I can’t convince myself there are tomato fruit yet, however the tomato plants are flowering well. Since I hadn’t supported them, one or two had fallen over. Usually I use a length of string to the crop bars in the polytunnel, but this time I pulled out my lovely spiral plant supports and used those for three of the plants. These supports were a present a (cough) number of years ago and although lovely, I could never justify buying any more. You simply put the plant up the middle, and guide it into the spiral as it grows taller. For the other tomato plants I used the old washing line that snapped earlier this year. It is plastic wrapped, so should be soft enough on the plants’ stalks, and may last a few years yet.
I’m pretty happy with the tomato plants. They look nice and healthy so far, with plenty of flowers developing. Maybe I’m starting to get the hang of growing them! I think some are getting a bit shaded by the kiwi and the artichoke, so I cut the artichoke back to remove all the flowering stalks to give the tomatoes a bit more space, and pinched out a few more of the vigorous kiwi shoots.
I also had a tidy round the bed opposite one lot of the asparagus. There was a quite a bit of perpetual spinach going to seed there, so I cut back all but one of the plants. The hoverflies love the flowers. Although they are not showy – just green, they have a lovely fragrance. I noticed another physalis goldenberry plant in the bed there. It had been completely hidden in the undergrowth. Not as big as the other physalis plant (which has a flower open!) it seems to have been nibbled a bit at the base, so maybe this is regrowth.
Whilst I was there, I saw a solitary yellow bee happy at work on the milk vetch flowers. She would pull the lower lip down, suck out the nectar and move on to the next flower, until she had done the whole flowerhead. I planted the milk vetch (Astragalus glycyphyllos) to create a nitrogen fixing ground cover around the asparagus, and some of the other perennial plants in the polytunnel. It tends to want to climb in a scrambling sort of way, so I should probably have pinched out the growing tips to make it more bushy. The flowers again aren’t that special, being a pale yellowish green, but obviously appreciated by the bees! I may try and save some seed again this year. If it will grow as well outside as in the tunnel, it would be nice bulky legume for covering the soil in the summer. It does die down in winter however.
The bramble is trying a flanking movement and has sent out a couple of long shoots down the side of the tunnel. It doesn’t seem to fruiting so well this year, so I wonder whether it would be worth re-routing one of these branches to replace the main stem again. The pruning guides all suggest renewing the stem every year, which I generally don’t bother with. I’ve done it once before, when I accidentally cut through the main stem whilst pruning out new shoots. It’s still a bit early to really tell what the crop will be like, although I have noticed at least one ripe fruit. Perhaps I’ll keep one of the new stems for the time being and assess the yield later.
I’ve lost one of my apricot fruit but the other is hanging on still. It is slightly paler in colour now, but I’m trying to resist touching it in case it also falls off. I know I’m pushing it a bit having apricots this far north, but I did read about monks in Orkney that have apricots in their polytunnel, so I’m not alone in my optimism!
I have several sorts of curcubit in the polytunnel. There were three courgettes (just using up old seed) two long and one round one. I’ve lost the single ‘black beauty’ courgette that I planted out – I think Lou-Lou made a bed with it! The others all look like they are doing fine. One of the ‘Tondo de picenze’ plants already has a female flower developing which is nice – usually the first flowers are all male. These are round courgettes; hopefully it will set. The sharks fin melon are also looking OK; maybe a bit weedy but it is early days yet – they are starting to show signs of wanting to climb. I couldn’t find the labels for the pumpkin nuts (a hull-less pumpkin for seed), so am not sure where that is! Around the courgettes there is a nice groundcover of baby kale, chickweed and leef beet. It doesn’t seem to be doing any harm yet, but I can pull a bit out around the plants and either eat, or use the weedings as mulch.
I am worried about my cucumbers though. I haven’t tried growing them for a few years; although small ones would be useful to sell in the shop, we don’t really eat them ourselves. These were cucumber ‘Tamra’ from real seed, and I don’t think they have put on much growth at all since being planted out. I’m wondering at the moment if they are more susceptible to the dreaded spider mite. I know I have this in the tunnel – It was particularly a problem in the early years, attacking the grape vine, courgettes and aubergine plants. I don’t bother with aubergines any more (although never say never!). It may be that it has just been a bit cold for cucumbers. I think they prefer it a little warmer, and we’ve not had much sun this week, and only a couple of warm days last week too.
So how are the perennials in my polytunnel fairing?
Five flavour berry (Schisandra chinensis): I have three different varieties of this, but they are all quite young plants. One did have a single flower. but it doesn’t look like it has set any fruit. One is a seedling and the other two are supposed to be self fertile. Normally you need two different plants to get berries.
Olive (Olea europaea): This has survived the winter (it was pretty mild generally). It has lots of new growth, which I have been pinching back so it grows more bushy than leggy. It seems quite happy. I have it growing in the soil in the polytunnel, but haven’t watered it this year. I am assuming that it’s roots will seek out enough water going sideways at the edges of the tunnel. I thought it wasn’t going to flower this year, but this week I spotted a single bunch of flowers. This is a little disappointing, since last year there were lots of flowers (but no fruit). Maybe as it gets older it will be able to flower more. The flowers this year were on last years’ growth, whereas last year they were on same year growth I think.
Apricot: I have given this an early summer prune, according to the RHS website instructions (as best I could). Last year I didn’t prune it hard enough, so the fan frame is a bit leggy. I may have to cut back some of the branches quite hard to rejuvenate it later this summer. The early summer last year was just too nice to be inside! I did get loads of flowers in spring this year, and two green fruit are still there.
Fuchsia berry: This overwintered alright having survived sitting in it’s pot for too long last year. Now it is in the soil it is growing quite well. It has a funny trilobal growth habit. which I don’t know if it will grow out of, although I knocked one of the branches off whilst watering! No sign of flowers this year yet. I stuck the broken branch in the soil, near the parent plant. Maybe it will root.
Asparagus: These confused me by not dying down for the winter! This meant that they didn’t get a rest period when I could mulch them (if I was organised) and watch for the new shoots in spring. I compromised when tidying that part of the tunnel, by cutting back the old shoots, but I didn’t think the subsequent shoots were really fat and prolific enough to take any this year. Some of the new leaves now have flowers. I’ll have to check what sex they are. These plants were grown from seed in about 2015 and have been in position now for two years. I have two varieties: Connovers colossal and Argenteuil early. I think that Connovers colossal is slightly the more robust looking overall, although it is probably too soon to be sure.
Artichoke: The globe artichoke is flowering well again. I thought they were going to be a little small, but the first buds are a fair size now. I am thinking of selling them in the shop, since S. isn’t that fussed about eating them. I could give them a few days and then have them for my lunch if they don’t sell. I’m not sure what to price them at – probably about 80p each. I have also planted two seedlings on the drivebank, and have one ready to plant in the tunnel on the opposite side.
Goldenberry: I thought that I had two plants that survived the winter. They had died back to the base and I covered them with dead plant material to insulate them a bit. In fact it now looks like one of these is actually a weed plant which pops up both in the tunnel and outside. I think it is nipplewort. When they were both smaller they looked very similar, but now the difference in leaf shape and texture is obvious, and the weed is preparing to flower, unlike the golden berry! I think I may have weeded another goldenberry out when preparing to plant the sweetcorn. It was quite small, so may not have done well anyhow. So far I have proved that they will overwinter in a pretty mild winter, it remains to be seen whether I will achieve any sort of harvest from the one plant this year. It is certainly more developed now than seedlings would be.
Akebia: These seem to have overwintered pretty well. Both those in pots and those in the ground in the polytunnel have survived OK. They were grown from seed last year, but it doesn’t look like they die back herbaciously; they remained green despite being very small. I accidently cut back one that was growing next to the apricot, which was probably doing the best previous to that. The foliage is not that easy to spot. I expect it will take a few years before I get flowers or fruit. I planted two little plants outside on the drivebank and they seem to be quite happy there, although not growing quite so fast. It will be interesting to see if they will over winter for me there also.
Apios americana: I thought this would be a bit more robust than it has turned out to be so far. I grew it outside in the dog resistant garden a couple of years ago, but it dissappeared the first winter. I think it may like it a bit warmer, so am trying it in the polytunnel. I am worried however that it may prefer it rather damper than I generally make it in there, since one of its names is “swamp potato”. I wonder whether it would prefer it in a pot in the pond? Anyhow, I have a few tubers from Edulis growing in the bed adjacent to the apricot. They seem to start growing quite late, even in the polytunnel, only emerging at the start of June this year. I have found two shoots so far, I think there is one small tuber that is still to appear.
Grapes: Both grape vines are starting to flower now. The new one seems to have quite big bunches. There was a little scorching from overnight frost on the new growth earlier in the year, but no real damage. I have done an initial pruning: pinching out the spurs a couple of leaves beyond the flowers and taking off a few overcrowded spurs. I haven’t yet thinned out the bunches of grapes. They should be thinned to one bunch every eighteen inches or so. I think that won’t be necessary yet for the new vine, but the old one, Boskoop glory, is quite prolific so could do with a bit of thinning out.
Kiwi: Given a reprieve and being shortened, the vine has flowered beautifully. I do like the blossom; like huge cream apple blossoms that darken to peach as they fade. I’m still not sure it is worth the space, even though I have shortened it quite drastically this year. But the flowers are pretty. It is still a little early to say how good the fruit set will be.
Bramble. The first flowers on this are fully open just now. I could do with a few more training wires near the lower door to tie back the side branches to. Hopefully I won’t have such problems with flies this year, we’ll see.
Strawberries: The first fruits were the biggest! I shared the first two with S., but he doesn’t know about the others that never left the tunnel. Only one of the plants is really doing well. I find it difficult to keep them watered enough over the winter. I have transplanted into the tunnel some more plants that came from this one that have been growing in pots outside. They are blooming well, so may set a few fruit if I’m lucky.
I didn’t manage to overwinter my sharks fin melon two years ago, although potentially it is perennial. I also didn’t get any seed to germinate last year, but this year my saved seed germinated second time trying. I’m wondering whether to try digging up the parent plant after harvest, cutting it back and moving it indoors for the winter. It may mean an earlier start to growth and flowering, although it may be a pain to accommodate the plant frost free in the earlier part of the spring.
I did manage to overwinter three little chilli pepper plants that AC gave me. They had been on the study windowsill, being watered occasionally, since last spring. They gave the tiniest little chillies, that AC says are very hot, so I am rather nervous of using! One plant I cut back quite severely in early spring, the others were left. The one that was cut back seems to be budding up already. This one I repotted into a slightly larger pot with fresh compost as I did one of the others (whilst cutting that one back slightly too). These are in the tunnel now, as is the third which I have planted out into what I am thinking of as my Mediterranean bed. This is the area next to the Olive tree. I have a bench there (although it tends to get used as a dumping ground rather than a seat) and have also planted the three surviving Astragalus crassicarpus plants there. The idea is to plant things that require little water there. I don’t think the chillies will survive in the tunnel over the winter, but I may leave this one in, to see how it does. If the ground is dry it may well survive better. I have grown some less fiery, hopefully larger chillies from seed, which are now planted out. I will try potting these up in the autumn after (hopefully) fruiting to try and over winter these inside.
I never did harvest the mashua in the tunnel. I don’t think it did so well after the hot early summer last year. Although it should have overwintered OK, most of the plants seem to have disappeared over the winter. Just one bed is growing away strongly. I guess that the tubers did not form well on the other plants. I did miss at least one tuber in the tea garden extension. The foliage is very distinctive when it starts to grow! I also have a couple of oca plants growing in the tunnel, so it looks like I missed a couple of those tubers too! One of the dahlias is growing in with the tomatoes; another unharvested plant which has overwintered well. The passion flowers haven’t made it however. I should probably have overwintered them inside until the plants were a bit bigger. Maybe next year I’ll try growing some new plants.
The Yacon(s) I potted up when I harvested the tubers, splitting the crowns slightly, where they naturally wanted to break. I potted them into smallish pots in compost in the tunnel. Some were planted into the polytunnel beds either side of the Apricot, they are still pretty small. The rest are actually still in pots. One of my jobs to do is to plant these outside, although this should probably have been done a while ago, it has been so cool since March I don’t think they would have done very much growing!
One of the last plants to mention are the pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) These are growing quite lush in the lower part of the tunnel. I have been nipping back the tips of the growth to encourage a bushy habit, since I read somewhere they have a tendency to become leggy. There is no sign of flowering this year! The flowers are also supposed to be tasty, even if the fruit doesn’t ripen. I say these are one of the last, since I am hopeful that the tulip bulbs planted adjacent to the pineapple guava will come back again next year. It is not the bulbs of tulips that can be eaten, but the petals. The flowers are toxic for cats, and some people also can have a bad reaction apparently. I did have a munch on some of the petals, and they were fine – a little sweet and quite juicy. It just seems a bit of a pity to pick flowers for eating somehow!
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.
I managed to just about finish clearing the section of orchard I was aiming to. The weather has turned a bit damp now – so I’ve lost this years’ window for weeding. The soil just gets too claggy when it’s wet. I’ve left a nice sorrel plant there, and I may transplant some more in there. I have found some with lovely large leaves in various places round the field.
I have also planted a few of my seedling heath pea plants along the border which I plan to keep digging up, and a marsh woundwort plant as well. I haven’t got round to tasting the roots of this yet. It is related to crosnes (stachys affinis) and like crosnes the roots are edible. This plant was rather pot bound. It had been sitting in a puddle next to the polytunnel all year – an offset from the bought in plant. I’m hoping it will be damp enough for it at the side of the orchard there. We can get quite a bit of water coming down the track at times, as well as being generally damp climate wise. The roots certainly look like they could be quite productive – long and tender. I did snap a few bits off and popped them in the fridge, but forgot they were there when I cooked dinner yesterday. I also put a couple of seedling lathyrus tuberosa (earthnut pea) seedlings. These are from seed that I was sent (thanks Anni). Unfortunately with one thing and another (weather and neglect!) I only have four seedlings and one of these looks a bit poorly. I’ve put plant pot collars on them, since I have read that slugs really like these plants. I’m thinking that they can climb up the apple tree. Not the ideal spot for a root crop, but if they grow and like it there I can maybe propagate more plants from these.
I also spread around loads of seed: firstly some of the green manure seeds I obtained recently. I spread field beans and fodder radish fairly generally over the whole area and red clover selectively around the bases of the honeyberries and apple tree. It may be a bit late for the fodder radish, but I’m hoping that it will stay mild for long enough for them to put on a bit of growth before the winter (I can already see shoots coming on the field beans just a couple of days later!). I also sowed some other legume seeds that I collected: birds foot trefoil and bush vetch (vicia sepium). I have been enjoying the odd nibble on the latter as it has reappeared around the tree field (see here for a little foraging guide). The birds foot trefoil makes a nice low growing ground cover – it should be nitrogen fixing, but I’m not sure how well it will keep down the weeds. This is the first time I’ve tried sowing it direct. I did sow some in the spring in pots, but didn’t get a good success rate (again weather and neglect…): one plant. I also spread some sweet cicely seed and good king henry which both have done well for me in the tea garden a little up the hill. They both seeded themselves a bit up there, but I want to transplant those seedlings elsewhere.
I started trying to dig out couch grass and docken from the rest of the orchard on the north side of the track. There is a fair amount of both and I haven’t quite finished that. It’s only a rough going over. I will mulch it with newspaper and card and try and give it another go during next summer depending on priorities. I did get out some of the silver weed I planted there in the spring this year. It is still a bit early – they are in full leaf, and the roots look very white. Generally they are up to 6 inches long and up to one quarter inch diameter. I’m going to transfer some to the track border. I may see if I can use them for pathways in the orchard area. They have made a reasonable coverage after a bit of editing in the tea garden and certainly spread like mad!
It’s starting to feel a little autumnal now. The first trees to lose their leaves are the Wych elm, but some of the rowans are turning colour, and one of the beech is rather a nice yellow. I’m a bit worried by how red this apple tree is. Last year it was the best for growth, this year it looks a bit strained – the others are all still quite green. We don’t tend to get much autumn colour here – the winds strip the leaves off the trees before they can put on much of a show. It looks like it will be a bumper year for hazelnuts – I spotted the first nuts on our own trees (planted 2010), but the ones along the river bank seem quite laden. I did go along and pick up a fair few from underneath the trees, but they all seem to be empty (either shed by the tree or discarded in disgust by hopeful birds!). It’s still a bit early. Usually the birds get the nuts, which is fair enough. I would quite like to get a harvest off our own trees in due time. Although they weren’t bought as nutting cultivars, the seeds they apparently came from seemed a fair size.
The local outside brambles are starting to ripen. Funnily enough these don’t seem to be bothered by those horrid flies! There was a new bush that has seeded in at the corner of the river above the pond, which seems to have quite nice quality berries.
Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!
There was a little mildew or possibly blight on some of the leaves so I’ve pulled a few off the tomato plants. I’m hoping that I will get more tomatoes ripening over the next month or so before I have to rescue them. Some comfrey leaves are soaking in a bucket of water at the moment to add some extra tomato feed to try and give them a late boost.
Things seem to have been a bit slow in the polytunnel – It’s been a bit cooler and damper but I haven’t been out there much – just a bit of watering and thinning out the grapes. The main excitement is the number of happy caterpillars I seem to have. There are several large ones that I see in there: A bright green one, a dull browny coloured one, a dotty one with a waist stripe and one with stripes that match the stalks on the fat hen as it goes to seed. I think most of them belong to the silver y moth which I do see in there quite often. They don’t seem to be doing too much damage: They quite like the Yacon, but prefer the fat hen to the olive tree. There are a few holes in the squash leaves but nothing the plants can’t shake off.
Something has eaten part through one of my dahlia stalks – I think it is probably a slug. they don’t tend to be too much a problem these days for established plants, but I do get a few helping themselves to my seedlings in pots by the polytunnel door. The dahlia I grew from seed, which I am quite proud of myself for. They have lovely dark coloured leaves, and are just starting to form buds. The seeds are some of those that came from the Hardy Plant Society annual selection. I had pretty good germination from most of those – probably because they were so fresh. Dahlia tubers are theoretically edible, although apparently they vary a great deal as to tastiness! I’m tempted to get some from Lubera who have selected a range of better tasting ones. You get the flowers and then the tubers to eat, and can replant again for next year. I have tried some raw a while ago now, and wasn’t particularly impressed, but then you wouldn’t eat a potato raw either would you? I’ve mounded up the soil around the stem in the hope that it will re-root like a cutting. There does seem to be another shoot coming from below the damage, but I may lose the flowers of that plant.
My fuchsia berry plant is looking a lot more happy now. It is in the ground and has a fairly respectable shoot. Hopefully it is getting it’s roots down to survive there overwinter. I have pinched off the tip, since in it’s pot last year it grew a bit leggy and tended to droop down with the weight of the fruit – yes they were quite sweet and nice. My outside fuchsia that came with the house also has quite nice berries. You have to get them when they are ripe, or they taste more peppery than sweet. The downside is that they tend to ripen gradually, so there are a few for a nibble but not enough for much of a meal. I should propagate the bush a bit though, since it would be quite good as a boundary shrub. It’s a bit late this year – maybe I’ll take some hardwood cuttings overwinter and see how they get on. The fuchsia berry is supposed to be a bit more tender. I did try taking some softwood cutting last year, but none of them took – I’ll maybe try again next year, assuming it survives the winter again.
The Yacon seem to be doing pretty well. I haven’t fed them barring the initial planting with compost, but have tried to give them plenty of water – probably still not as much as they want. The single plant I put outside in the tea garden extension is also looking pretty good – the warmer start to the summer was probably to it’s liking. I’m growing Oca for the first time this year (thanks Frances!) I’ve put two in the polytunnel and one outside. So far I would say that they don’t like it too hot. The one outside seemed to do much better than the ones in the tunnel initially when we had all that hot weather. More recently it’s been a bit cooler and less sunny, and the ones inside have cheered up a bit – a little leggy perhaps. All three plants look lush and green at the moment. Apparently they don’t make tubers until the days get shorter, which for us will be at the end of September or so. At that point the extra protection of the tunnel may pay off, since it should hold off a light frost or two. I’ve never eaten them so I won’t comment on that yet.
There are flowers starting to develop on my physalis – golden berry, and a few flowers on the courgette. Those really haven’t done so well this year, but then I generally don’t have gluts to complain of! The sharks fin melon is climbing well – almost to the roof with buds forming. The japanese squash has delightful silver splashed leaves which are quite pretty, and again shows promise of buds. The mashua isn’t looking too good still. I think the hot weather was definitely not to it’s liking. They are still really small and hardly starting to climb at all. Some of the other plants will probably be too late to come to anything. For example the achocha, which I said last year needed a longer season didn’t get planted out early enough again. Tomatillo and peppers I sowed for the sake of it, but really didn’t look after them enough to get much from them. The plants are alive, but that’s about all one can say about them. My sweet potato plants seem to be doing well. I hope I’ve given them enough water. When I grew them in our polytunnel in Solihull I think that was the main problem there. They do have lovely dark coloured leaves, a bit like an ornamental bindweed. I’ve just let them scramble over the ground, although they would climb given a framework.
The bramble has not done so well this year as previous years. As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve had a lot of flies eating the berries (Alice outside remains a complete wash out!). The flies get so drunk that you can put your finger right next to them without them all flying off. I’ve still had quite a few berries – enough to make a batch of bramble and apple jelly (clear jelly not jam with bits in), but nowhere as many as previous years. The bramble and kiwi look very precarious also. I had to cut some of the support ties for the kiwi at the start of the year, and haven’t got round to replacing them properly. I had used old tights – the legs make pretty good strong soft bindings. unfortunately the weight of the vine had made them go thin, and they were cutting in to the trunk quite a lot. It was actually difficult to extract them as the kiwi was growing around them. I have started to use strips of pond liner (plenty of that left from around the mice holes!) This seems to stay more ribbon-like so doesn’t cut in. It’s a bit more difficult to tie in a knot (especially when supporting a heavy trunk with your third hand!), but seems to be kind to the plants and lasts pretty well. Tyre inner tubes are also pretty good, but I’m not sure whether they will have the same light resistance as pond liner.
The tomatoes have done really well – lots of lovely trusses have set nicely. None are ripening yet, but I remain hopeful for a reasonable harvest in the end – so far looking like my best yet here. Some of the plants have dark spots developing on the older leaves, which I think is a sign of nutrient deficiency. I probably haven’t fed them enough – just a bucket of comfrey tea between them when I can remember to do it! It’s actually also the same comfrey residue – so there’s probably not much nutrient left in it. I should have some time off later this week so will try and cut some fresh comfrey leaves then.
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!