This has been the coldest spell we’ve had in several years. Freezing temperatures both night and day, for several weeks. The sky’s have been clear; Blue cloudless days and stunning starry nights. I’m hoping that I haven’t lost many plants, I think the minimum we reached was about -8 degrees Celsius. Everything looks really dessicated, although it’s not been windy, everything is freeze dried. Despite the time of year there have been several wild fires on Skye and the outer isles, leading to road closures in the middle of Skye last week. I don’t know whether they were deliberate (muirburn to regenerate grazing) or accidental fires.
My wasabi has died back, and the luma apiculata’s leaves have dried up. I forgot to wrap the unknown citrus in the polytunnel and that has shrivelled leaves too. Hopefully these will all sprout back in spring, I do hope so. There was a little snow but most of it melted before it froze again. There is snow on the tops of the hills still, which look like Mt. Fuji.
As the ground is frozen, I can’t really get on with planting anything, but I’ve made some progress with coppicing. I’ve cleared a little of the alder copse at the top by the cut through. I cut those between the windbreak and the cut through, so the regrowth should have a bit of shelter.
Some of the birch are getting pretty big now. I have taken out some of the lower branches; singling the stems so they will make straighter logs in time perhaps.
Further down again I singled out more alder along the top of the river bank and in the pond area, also taking out completely one multistemmed tree. I think that’s all I’ll do for this year. I don’t want to overdo things, especially until I know how well the regrowth will do. We won’t have enough to be self sufficient in wood I don’t think, however it’s nice to feel like we’re making a step in that direction, especially with it having been so cold recently.
If the first step was planting, and the second harvesting wood, then the third is diversification. I’m treading a variable line at the moment between native and conventional planting, and various interesting edibles. I don’t want the treefield to appear to be a garden, but also want to make the most of interplanting and increasing food producing opportunities. I think it will be a question of evolving the planting as I go. The changing dynamics as larger trees are harvested for wood will add an extra complexity to the holding.
The few blackcurrants I planted a few years ago in the tree field are already bearing well, particularly the ones in the orchard area, which are a few years older. One of them is leaning at an angle now: blown over by the wind. I’ll cut that right back when the leaves fall, and hopefully it will regrow upright with stronger roots. I found quite a few rather leggy plants in the alder grove in the centre of the treefield. They are struggling a bit with the light levels there. I’m not sure whether to leave them, cut them back, or transplant them…. I may do all three to different areas.
I have also planted two different raspberry selections in the treefield. One, from my friend AC, I planted in the lee of the hump above the leachfield. They should be pretty sheltered there. AC says her dad does well with it in Wales, so we’ll see how it likes it slightly further North. They were planted last year, and so far have survived the winter, fruited on the small canes I left, and regrown new canes. The fruit is rather large with a very good flavour, but I don’t know what the variety is. It doesn’t seem to be the first to ripen, but seems to be good quality. The other variety is the summer raspberry I planted originally in the fruit jungle, which does very well there. I have planted some canes adjacent to some of the cut throughs in the upper part of the field. These are amongst slower growing trees: hazel and oak, so shouldn’t get crowded out too quickly, and are leeward of alders, so should be reasonably sheltered at least at first.
I’m quite enamoured of the Glen Prosen raspberries which were left here in a pot when we bought the house. They are not very vigorous, and the berries tend to be small, but oh so tasty! Just like a raspberry should taste. I’m thinking of planting a few canes in the leachfield area. The roots are fairy shallow, and the area is pretty sheltered under the hump.
For the first time this year I had flowers and fruit on one of my chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, bushes. These I grew from seed from ART some years ago and got really good germination. I planted a few out in 2013 at the edges of the main trackway. All survived and have grown to up to 3 feet or so. They seem to sucker about a bit, but otherwise look healthy. They have dark burgundy leaves in spring, turning glossy dark green, and in autumn have brilliant scarlet shades. Even without the fruit, they make attractive foliage.
The flowers are a cluster of white flowers that look very like hawthorne. The fruit clusters tend to ripen one berry at a time. I found someone – maybe local birds – took several of the green fruit before they were ripe. Bob Flowerdew said in the ‘Complete fruit’ book that they taste a bit like black currants but more piney. I thought thay taste like sweet cranberries. Astringent, but sweet and juicy at the same time. Apparently the longer you leave them to ripen the tastier they are, but I don’t think I can go past the bush at the moment without sampling a couple, so I don’t think they will last that well since there are not that many fruit. Apparently they make a jam-like preserve, good with savory dishes like cranberry and redcurrants, and were dried into cakes with other fruits by First People Americans.
We stock a fruit juice from Wonky Fruit with chokeberry (they call it ‘superberry’) and apple juice in our shop which I find very refreshing and tasty. The berries are rich in Vitamin C and also Pectin according to Ken Fern and also high in beneficial anti-oxidants and anthocyanins. The bushes may grow well in boggy soil and are hardy down to 25 degrees Celcius. I may try and get hold of some of the improved fruit forms that are available, since I do think that they will be worth while for me.
I have planted several seedling trees that I have grown from pips, in the tree field. I can either let them grow and see what the fruit is like, or graft a known good fruiting tree onto them. I’m still waiting for things like my unusual haw, and Amelanchier to do much. The wild cherries have had quite a bit of fruit in the last few years; tasty if a bit small. I might look into grafting on these, and I could also try grafting the large fruited haw onto hawthorne seedlings. I gather bud grafting in summer is the way to do cherries.
This year I have ordered some nutting hazel cultivars. One or two more of the woodland hazels I planted look like they have nuts this year, but most are still too small. Of the herbacious layers most of the plants are the native ones, along with the grasses and flowers, such as the pignut, sorrel and marsh woundwort. The fiddlehead fern I planted in the treefield was a bit small, but is surviving and may be better now it has room to grow out of it’s pot.
An insect seen for the first time this year: a small Dragonfly, probably a common darter (about 2 inches long). I saw lots of bigger ones last year but did not manage to get a good enough picture to identify them. Hopefully they were making a good meal from the midges, which have been quite bad this year.
This is the second year that we have harvested some of our own trees for firewood. I have taken some alder down in the same corner down by the pond as last year, and some from the 2010 planting at the bottom of the main trackway by the river corner. The ones from the bottom were selected mainly to create a more clear area. I think that the regrowth will be better if the stumps have more light, rather than being shaded out. Most of the alders already had some twigs growing from the base of the trunks, and I tried not to damage this when I cut the main trunks down. This will give the regrowth a head start.
The new reciprocating saw definately makes the job much easier, although it does seem to chew through the battery life pretty quickly. I cut off the main side branches from the trunks before making the main cut. Some of the trees are pretty tall and it was tricky to get them to fall tidily. There’s still nowhere near enough to last us very long as fuel, but we have been very pleased with the way last year’s harvest has been burning. That is all nice and dry now, and stacked away in the wood shed. Mostly the diameters are pretty small, so the wood tends to burn quick and hot – very good for cooking on and starting up the fire.
I finally got round to building a little woodshelter down by the pond using some old pallets and roofing sheets from the old byre. I’ve started cutting the newly cut wood to length and stacking it away. This will keep the worst of the weather off the logs, keep them out of the grass/mud and let them dry in the wind a bit. I’m pretty happy with the structure – hopefully it will last a few years and not blow away. I got a bit of a blister on my thumb from the reciprocating saw, but it was much easier than sawing by hand. I’ll probably make a few of these shelters in strategic places as time goes on, so that I don’t have to do too much hauling of timber as I cut it in future. This can then go up to the house/shed in one vehicle load once cured.
The weather again hasn’t been kind recently. Not really out of the ordinary; just unrelenting rain and wind, with not enough let up to get much done. It’s not true that I’ve been doing nothing, and I probably haven’t achieved nothing, it’s just that I seem to have finished nothing! The days are getting longer however. I always feel that by Valentine’s day the worst of the winter is over.
Outside I still haven’t completed the path round the hump. Nearly there however, and the gradient of the ramp down has been improved by some of the turf that I have dug out of the widened path. I have also made a bit of a ramp half way round as an alternative route down (although again this is not finished!).
I have a number of spruce and pine seedlings to bulk up the windbreaks and make some new windbreaks in the sparse area of ash. Hopefully they will be surviving OK in the bag they are in at present, since they have been in there rather longer than I had intended. The soil is rather claggy to be planting in as yet, although I have dug quite a few square holes in preparation. I am also relocating some of the self seeded hazels that have planted themselves in less than desirable positions. I have been making a little thicket of them on the lower south side of the main track loop. This spot used to go by the unfortunate name of poo corner, since that was where Dougie usually felt inclined to relieve himself during a quick outing in the tree field. It now has the alternate name of Harry’s corner, since we buried our cat Harris there recently. He had a very quick illness, not we believe related to his ear condition, some sort of thrombosis that caused paralysis of the back legs. He died probably of heart failure at the vets a day later. Apparently it is often misdiagnosed in towns as traffic accidents, since the cats one minute are fine and the next are dragging their rear legs. Anyway, now Harris has a hazel tree on his grave.
I have also started making holes along the main trackway. I noticed the piles of cut grass that still were sitting along the track sides from last year, and it occurred to me that if I planted more berry bushes along there I could just rake up the grass and mulch them, rather than carting the grass to mulch somewhere else. I’ve got some gooseberry and black currant cuttings that can be relocated, or I can strike some new ones this year still.
I received the seeds from the HPS seed scheme, and some from the Agroforestry Research Trust at the end of February, and organised them: ones to sow in spring, ones to sow straight away and ones that needed some stratification. So some have been put away, some sown in pots outside or in the polytunnel and some have been placed in bags with damp tissue in the fridge to get a chilling. Probably these could also have been sown outside mind you, since it is almost the same temperature out there as in the fridge! Already some of my apple seeds have germinated in the fridge: saved from some UK grown russets and rather delicious cooking apples grown near Carlisle. I’ll have to transfer those seeds from the fridge to pots outside as soon as possible to give them proper growing conditions. I also noticed that some damson seeds I sowed from fruit eighteen months ago are now germinating in the polytunnel. Although another job not finished, it’s nice to make a start on growing trees that may produce fruit for us in ten years or so!
I indulgently bought myself some plants that were not on my essentials list this year. I found on ebay a seller of different Yacon varieties, who also had a different Mashua and Colocasia edulis as well as Apios americana and different tigernuts. Well it seemed worth getting a few if I was going to get any! They seem nice little tubers anyhow. I have potted them all up in the polytunnel for the moment (except the tigernut which will want warmer conditions), and have also replanted a number of the Yacons I grew myself last year in one of the polytunnel beds.
Unfortunately I’ve lost quite a few of my oca tubers to mice! They had been sitting in a basket on the sittingroom windowsill, and I noticed this week the basket was somewhat emptier than it had been last time I looked. Underneath the basket was a pile of tuber shavings! I guess they liked the juiciness of the tubers, since they don’t seem to have eaten that much, just chewed them all up. Some of the tubers were probably as big as the mice! Luckily they didn’t find the different coloured tubers in their bags, so I quickly have planted four tubers to a pot in the polytunnel. I selected four large and four small of the red tubers from Frances to see if that makes any difference to the plant yield. It may take more than one generation to see a difference, if any, from selecting for tuber size.
I have also been digging up the kiwi vine: another nice indoor job, of which more later. It will also soon be time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds. I think I have some seed compost left, but I am out of the multipurpose compost and will have to get some more for planting out seedlings and potting on. Another trip to Portree looms I guess.
For my birthday S. bought me a rechargeable reciprocating saw. I am hoping that it will be robust enough to use for most of the coppicing work. A chainsaw would be a little daunting, and using a hand saw is slow work! It has been too windy to think about cutting trees down (although it will soon be too late as the trees start to grow!), but I have christened the saw by cutting up the pile of coppiced trunks that were cut last year and have been drying up by the house. I’m pretty pleased with it. The battery pack it takes is the same as S’s tools he used on the cars, so that should be convenient. It did seem to chew through the reserves when I used it, although that was probably more intensive work than the more thoughtful process of cutting trees down.
On another happy note, my windowsill orchid seems to have enjoyed it’s holiday outside last year so much that it has put up the first flower spike in ten years! It did try when we first moved up here, but unfortunately I didn’t realise there was a flower spike, divided the plant and the flowers all dropped off. This time it seem quite content to look out the window. I must remember to holiday it outside again during the summers – it definitely looked greener and plumper than before.
The weather doesn’t know if it’s coming or going at the moment. We are swinging from hard frosts of -5 Celsius, to overnight temperatures of nearly +10 Celsius. However, the frosts have been hard enough already to damage some of the sharks fin melon fruit. Three of them had fallen off the vines before I could collect them, resulting in a little bruising, and a couple more were obviously frost damaged: The skin was soft and darker in colour. Since these won’t keep, I have cooked a couple, and there are a couple in the fridge that I will cook sooner rather than later. The noodley flesh, I have established freezes well. There are also four good fruit that I have placed on the windowsill to keep for as long as I can. Two of them however, I am not sure are sharks fin melon: they are darker green, and the flower scar is much bigger. Either they are ripe fruit of the Tondo de picenze courgette that I didn’t spot climbing, or they are a sport of the sharks fin melon crossed with something else, or possibly the lost pumpkin nut squash. I guess I’ll find out when I cut into them.
I have also harvested all the ripe goldenberry (Physalis peruviana) fruit. There were many more on the plant that are not going to ripen now, and it is still flowering! I have probably had about 15 or 20 fruit in total from the bush. They are tasty, but maybe not that productive. I have discovered that there is a dwarf form of goldenberry that may fruit earlier and so be more worthwhile. I’ll maybe see next year if I can get seed for that, although getting my existing plant through another winter will be a priority. I have bent over some of the branches to insulate the crown of the plant a bit, although the weather is mild again just at the minute.
I also harvested all the chilli fruit off the plant that is in the ‘mediterranean area’ of the polytunnel. It lost all it’s leaves in the cold, so I thought it was time. I’m hoping that it will over winter OK there. I have cut it back quite severely, and will put a cloche or fleece over it as well. I do have the two other chilli plants in pots inside as back up. Now I need to research how to preserve and use the chillies (ripe and unripe). I’m thinking drying may be best. In the meantime the fruit are in the fridge.
I also did a little bit of pruning in the treefield. Some of the trees were overhanging the pathways enough to be a nuisance if driving a vehicle around, so I cleared these branches back. There were also some self set willows down near the pond that made the track a bit narrow and an aspen that wasn’t very well anchored. It rocked around in the wind leaving a hollow in the soil by its trunk. I have taken this tree back to a stump, in the hope that when it regrows the top, the roots will also have strengthened.
I took back one of the purple osier willows as well. This time I left a short trunk. These have a tendency to grow very spindly, as you’d expect from a willow grown for weaving! I will use some of the longer stems I cut out as the basis for one or two Xmas wreaths. Next year it should grown back strong and tall, with lots of potential weaving stems should I chose to do something a bit more exciting. I have had a little weaving experience: enough to appreciate how much hard work it is!
While I had the pruning saw and secateurs out, I cleared a new path in the front garden. I can now go from the area under the trees by the front door to the top of the drivebank. Hopefully this won’t affect the shelter from the wind too much. There is a sycamore that had been pollarded some time before we came. Possibly it had been damaged by the hurricane in 2004. There is now quite a bit of regrowth from the bottom of the trunk, as well as branches further up. I’ve left most of them, just cleared enough to get through. I had to take a bit off one of the rowans as well. I noticed that the japanese ginger that had sprouted there was looking a bit sad from the frost now. The new path goes just past my new Mrs Popple fuchsia, which is starting to look a bit sad in the cold too.
For the first time in a few years, I have planted peas outside this year. In the past they have done pretty well for me, and it was more that I didn’t really have anywhere to put them that put me off growing them. I have grown them in the polytunnel, and they do grow well in there also. They don’t generally make it as far as the kitchen however! With the tea garden extension, I have a fair amount of space. So this year I have used some longish side branches cut from the alders that I felled, and some side branches from the alder grove just below the hump at the south side, for pea sticks.
The pallets in the tea garden don’t quite overlap enough to give brilliant wind reduction at the moment. I have enough pallets to finish the job, thanks to the delivery driver arranging a few spare pallets to be dropped over. But I still need to dig out the couch and nettles along the edge by the trackway, so the ground levels still aren’t right there to complete the fences. Anyhow, I planted out the bare root hazels that had been ‘heeled in’ in one of the sections and cleared it in preparation. The peas went in a row parallel to the windbreak, and the pea sticks leant up at an angle just past them. These were carlin peas that I had saved from peas grown in the front garden in 2011. They had been put in water to soak a couple of days prior. There were lots of them, so I just sowed them really thickly. Between the peas and the pallet I transplanted some good king henry and sweet cicely seedlings that had self sown near my plants in the tea garden.
Along the edge by the access path I have planted the colourful oca tubers that I bought from real seeds. I have tried to put colours not too similar next to one another so that I can keep the resulting tubers separate when it comes to harvest. There did appear to be some duplication of tubers (as expected) so some will bulk up numbers more quickly than others. One tuber also does look like the variety I have grown before.
Also planted at the edge are a few heath pea (lathyrus linifolius) plants that I grew from seed last year. They have been neglected in modules, but most seem remarkably to have survived no watering and little compost, they are tough little plants it seems! Also planted in here were the last perennial kale plants. The ones that I had planted out as soon as they rooted grew far bigger than the ones left in pots. I also planted out an angelica plant that I had bought from Pointzfield herbs this spring.
I had three varieties of peas I wanted to grow this year. As well as the carlin peas, I wanted to try the tall purple mangetout, that I have grown only in the polytunnel till now. Because I want to try and save fresh seed from these, I have planted up a wigwam of alder peasticks in the front garden. This is the other side of the barn from the tea garden, so there is little chance of the plants cross-pollinating. I have also planted out in this area some of the plants that have been (mal)lingering in pots. I put a few of my new sweet violet plants against the sycamore trunks, a little honeysuckle to grow up them, a few campanula latifolia along by the path and some rather small martagon lily seedlings that I grew from my HPS seed last year. I’m currently debating with myself as to whether to plant one of my new mint plants in there too, or whether to confine it to a pot to keep it in restraint.
The third variety of peas that I have planted are some Heritage Seed Library seeds that I didn’t grow last year. Champion of England is a tall (could be up to 10 feet!) marrowfat pea. Since I only have a few seeds I decided to grow these in the polytunnel. I have planted then in the bed below the apricot (which I must read up about pruning!). When preparing the bed I inadvertently dug up some Apios americana tubers that I had forgotten were there. They have only just started into growth. Hopefully I haven’t damaged the growing tips too much.
It all looks great before the weeds start to grow!
Despite S’s disapproval I have stolen the bottom part of three of my freshly felled alder trunks to try out my mushroom spawn kits. These were a present from a sister and I am very keen to see how they do for me. I have not tried growing mushrooms on wood logs before. I once had a home buttom mushroom kit, which was fun, albeit not that productive. I have also tried (and failed) before with growing oyster mushrooms on newspaper logs, but I’m hoping to have another go on newspaper with the rest of this spawn kit. The kit came from Ann Millar albeit through a third party I think.
It is important that the logs used are freshly felled. This is partly so that they have not been infected with other non-edible competing fungi, and partly so that the moisture content is high enough for the spawn to live and grow. The instructions with the kit suggest not more than three weeks old, which seems a very short period of viability. The logs are a little small in diameter, but I don’t think that should matter too much – they may not last as well as a bigger log. They are supposed to be 10 – 15 cm, and I think mine taper down to less than this. I suppose the biggest risk is thay may dry out.
The mushroom spawn comes on wooden dowels, they have now reached their best before date – but have been sitting in the fridge so should be good to go. The process is simple: Drill appropriate sized holes in the fresh logs, insert spawn infected dowels, wrap in plastic and leave in a dark place for 6 to 18 months till spawn permeates logs, initiate fruiting by moving to light damp location, pick mushrooms, rest and repeat. Since I have three sorts of mushroom spawn, I have also labelled the three logs with a metal label tied round with string.
They have been placed in separate binliners (to save cross infection) under a bit of pond liner under a trailer. They should be out of the way there for a bit. I’ll check on them every now and then to see how they look.
Almost ten years to the day after planting them, I coppiced my first alders down by the river. It was hard to do. Moderately hard physically, but challenging mentally too. Not so much the act of cutting the trees down; I have faith that the trees will grow back bigger and faster than before (see below). More challenging was which trees to cut so as not to lose all the shelter, and whether to cut back fully, leave a longer stump, or just take out one trunk or more of a multi stemmed tree. The bowsaw is a bit blunt, despite having a new blade not so long ago, so I actually used my folding pruning saw for much of the cutting. I must look and see what small electric saws are available. I think a rechargeable could save quite a bit of elbow grease and be kinder to the trees as well as me!
I have to cut what I am going to this week. Leaves are starting to open and buds to swell. The trees will find it harder to recover if they put too much life back into what I am cutting back. Also the wood would take longer to dry out ready for burning.
The alder wood is supposed to be useful in areas that are permanently damp – like the tree itself funnily enough. They used to use the wood for clog soles and protective boot soles in foundries even after the second world war. I don’t think my trees are quite big enough for that, although it would be amusing to make one’s own shoes. It’s not excellent for firewood, supposedly it tends to smoulder, but this is less of a problem in a stove. It has the big advantage to us of being a fast growing, nitrogen fixing tree that likes damp soil. I wish I had planted much more of it. When first cut the wood surface is pale in colour, but it quickly goes an orange colour that then fades to brown over a few months.
As well as larger trunks (some of which should be good for an ‘overnight burner’ or two) there is a vast amount of smaller branches. These will still feed a growing fire and even the tiniest make good kindling. What I have tended to do with the prunings I have gathered to date is leave it in piles down the field, roughly where it was cut. Over six months to a year the twigs dry out, the grass dies back a bit underneath, and grows lush nearby where it is sheltered. Every so often when taking the dog-boys down the hill for a run, I bring back an armful of kindling and put it in the woodshed to dry. The more twiggy bits tend to break off and get left in the grass, but that adds to the soil biomass.
Taking the wood up an armful at a time isn’t going to be practical for the larger stuff. We are intending to put up little shelters and pile up the branches cut to size near to where the trees were felled. Hopefully we have enough pallets and fenceposts together with the old roof sheets off the byre to create shelters to keep the worst of the weather off.
S. has stripped out an old Land Rover Discovery vehicle and equipped it at the back with a framework to act as a saw bench. This is also to be used to bring the dry cut wood up to the wood shed after it has dried for a year or so. Although whether it will be worth keeping the vehicle mobile for many more years, remains to be seen. The engine is sweet, but the electrics and chassis are rotten!
Anyway, I definitely felt the first warmth of the firewood today.