One thing after another!

green path
Green path

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.

polytunnel hole
Excessive ventilation in Polytunnel

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!

strapped down
Limiting the damage

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!

ripe enough
Ripe enough!

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.

cooking juice
At start of heating

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!

black death
Not pekmezi

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!

So, not the best of week all in all!

 

 

Tidying up the Tomatoes

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.

tomato spirals
Tomato spiral supports

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.

milk vetch apricot and peas
milk vetch flowers, apricot new growth and peas!

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.

curcubits
Courgette Tondo di picenze on left, all green bush on right. Sharks fin melon at back

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.

cucumber
rather sorry cucumber (courgette leaf on right)

 

Planting out

As usual I’m late with planting out my plants in the polytunnel.  It has just been so hot in there!  Also I’ve become programmed to work outside if the weather is at all dry, since that is normally the rarer event on Skye. The tomato plants that I managed to get in a couple of weeks ago are looking quite healthy.  I especially like the look of one called ‘first in the field’ – it has a lovely thick stem and a dark green colour (front right hand corner in photo).  All the others look good too, and a few are starting to show flowers, so hopefully they won’t be a complete disaster this year.

tomatos in July
Tomato plants growing on well

I have succeeded in planting out in the tunnel two climbing courgettes, three bush courgettes, three sharks fin melon (saved seed!) and two japanese squash.  They all had a good few scoops of home made, wood ash enriched, compost mixed in to the planting hole, so should get away now despite being rather weedy looking plants.  No sooner had they gone in than Harry decided that the planting recesses made a really comfortable bed!  Luckily the japanese squash seemed none the worse the next morning!

polytunnel squash
Curcubits planted out
cat nests
Harry’s bed

I also planted out some basil which came from a friends saved seed – the best germination I’ve ever had!  I guess it’s because the seed was nice and fresh.  I’m going to see if I can get some of mine to set seed.  That would be good to seed around in the tunnel!  There are also two oca plants, which I am growing for the first time (the third went outside in the tea garden extension).  The chilli peppers and aubergine probably won’t come to much, but they were free seed anyway.  They’re such tiny plants I’m afraid they will be swamped in the tunnel, but they never get the attention they need in pots either with me, so this is the best option.  I also had some goldenberry seeds (a type of Physalis – like the ones you sometimes get dipped in chocolate with your coffee).  I gather this is a rather tender perennial that doesn’t mind poor soils (according to PFAF it can grow more leaves than fruit if the soil is too rich).  Hopefully this will be able to over-winter in the polytunnel, so will add to my perennial plants in there.  Although the sweetcorn plants also look a bit stunted I have given them a planting hole with extra compost and we’ll see how they do.  They mostly seemed to have pretty good roots on them so may still crop albeit later in the year than they should.

sweetcorn
I promise those are courgette plants on the left and sweetcorn on the right!

In the undergrowth I found my fuchsia berry in its pot.  This was a present from my Mum and had been waiting for a permanent home.  Unfortunately it does seem to have suffered in the hot tunnel, but somewhat to my surprise was actually still alive!  I therefore have found a suitable spot near the central path for it, and will try and keep an eye on it over the next few weeks until it is established.  It does seem to have larger, sweeter berries than my garden fuchsia, although these are also quite nice when properly ripe.  With regard to ripe berries, the flavour of the ‘honeyberries’ do seem to be developing.  One of them definitely has some richer plummy flavours coming through now.  So far they are hanging on the bushes well, so I’ll keep sampling them whilst they last.

tea garden extension squash
Sharks fin melon in tea garden extension (Douglas supervising)

There were four sharks fin melon plants that I did not have room for in the tunnel, so I have popped them in outside in the tea garden extension.  I don’t suppose they will come to anything – they really need a longer season than they will get outside, but you never know, and they will be a bit more groundcover to keep some of the weeds down as well.  There were a few more goldenberry plants as well – a little on the small side, they may fruit this year, but probably won’t overwinter.  There are various seedlings appearing in this area – some of which I sowed, but a lot of docken.  These I find harder to get out when they are small – the leaves tend to pull off too easily.  When they are a little bigger the roots come too if you are lucky.  I can see quite a few buckwheat seedlings, a very few phacelia, some wheat (not grass as I found when I pulled a bit out when weeding), quite a bit of what may be clover or alfalfa (too early to tell which yet), various brassica including a lot of fodder radish (which has very tasty pods if you allow it to go to seed), the ubiquitous kale and what may be cabbage (or sprouts?).  There’s definitely a bit of leaf beet (or spinach?).  The callaloo seedlings I put in seem to be doing pretty well despite the dry weather.  I’ve never tried it before – its a sort of amaranth that is grown for it’s leaves.  It is used quite a bit in Jamaican cookery, but apparently should grow quite well outside in the UK, we’ll see.  There’s still a little bit more relatively easy weeding to do, then I need to get the paths laid and the rest of the undergrowth cut back and mulched.

seedlings in tea garden extension
Seedling mix – red ones are Callaloo

The outside soft fruit are just a little way off ripe.  The blackcurrants are changing colour.  I’m hoping for my first harvest off the new plants in the tea garden.  The berries all look a little on the small side, but plenty of them.  The first raspberries are changing colour, and again I’m hoping for a good harvest there – watch this space!

blackcurrant promise
Blackcurrants in tea garden showing colour