I came across a clump of a really pleasing new plant recently: Rhinanthus minor or yellow rattle. I sowed some near the orchard area, but none have appeared there. These ones appeared right down by the river on the north corner of the tree field near near where I coppiced the alder earlier in the year. There seems to be a number of plants judging by the size of the clump, so it may have been seeding around for a few years unnoticed. It wasn’t the flowers I noticed first, but the seedheads, which are a line of small inflated bladders.
Yellow rattle is a annual plant, so needs to resow itself every year. It is semi-parasitic on grasses and other plants. By reducing the vigour of grasses it enables a wider range of meadow flowers to grow. The historic practise of cutting hay for winter feed suits it’s lifecycle. When the seed is ripe they rattle in the bladders in the wind and the farmers knew it was time to cut the hay. The seeds readily fall out, or are added with the ripe hay as supplementary feed into other meadows. They need to overwinter before germinating, but have a short viability, so need to grow and set seed successfully in order to propagate. How they seem to have managed to survive in the sheep field previously I don’t know!
Since some of the seed is already ripe, I have been spreading it along the trackways a bit. If we manage to cut the grass properly in the autumn, this will expose the soil a bit (which is important to enable successful growth). We can cut just a strip of narrow path to walk along again next year and the rattle (hopefully) can grow in the rest of the trackway, set seed and be cut in autumn again. I’ll save some seed to scatter after the grass is cut this year as well.
When I read up about yellow rattle I was excited by the possibility of it reducing the vigour of couchgrass, but unfortunately it doesn’t like couch grass or other very vigorous grasses which swamp it. However it is a happy addition to the flora and hopefully will increase the diversity of wildflowers in the tree field further.
I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area. I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching. I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc. I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together. The soil does seem quite light. I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much. There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.
I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid. I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants. I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred. I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it. I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial. The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere. I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down. I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon. I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant. I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….
S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil. Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops. This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year. We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility. I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden. Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.
On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn. Again this has a bit of couch grass in it. I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass. I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short. I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out! Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary! At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction. I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)
I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass. What would happen if I just left it be? How competive is it as a weed? I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch. It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field. I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer. I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch). Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!
I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished. I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart. The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach. All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5. The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7. I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time. Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.
Actually it’s mainly the orchard area within the tree field that I have been clearing of docks in the past few weeks. I have very nearly finished getting the levels sorted out, and managed to mulch with card some of the new surfaces (see here). Some of the area I managed to sow with some left over green manure seeds (buckwheat and clover) and these did germinate and grow to a certain extent but have not managed to outcompete the dock seed that is present in apparently vast quantities! There is also some established docken from previous years that was probably growing on the site previously, or was in the soil before it was moved down to the orchard area and regrew. The main priority was to get out the docken that were going to seed before they have a chance to spread more seed into the soil. This involved going round with a spade and cutting through the taproot of the plants. The tops were then loaded into a barrow along with a few bits of nettle and some of the couch grass that has apparently become established there also. The barrows were dumped just below the original gateway to the lower field, which still stands like the doorway in Narnia, although the gate is lying down rather than hinging. There is an area of soil below the gate which either didn’t have trees planted, or the trees didn’t take. I think it was the former, since the soil was very compacted, full of docken and stones in the gateway. Hopefully the loads of fertility in the form of weeds will help to rejuvenate the soil. I think of it as a bit like segregating nuclear waste – concentrating all the nasties in one area. I do the same with the rubbish I find: bits of rusty metal, glass, string, coal and brocken crockery get put into piles (or bags) until I can get round to deciding what to do with them.
I had to go over the cardboard I laid on the north side of the trackway, since there were several docks that had punched their way through. This has made a bit of a mess of the cardboard, so I will have to cover the area again before winter. I have cut back all the seeding docken, and made a start at pulling out the juvenile plants that would go to seed from next year. The slightly larger plants often come out cleanly with the taproot when pulled firmly with a twist. I have been twisting off the leaves and leaving them on the soil surface and putting the roots in a bucket before adding them to the weed mountain. Some may not be big enough to regrow, but there’s no point tempting fate. The smaller plants will need digging out. It seems counter intuitive, but the younger leaves tend to just come off in your hand leaving the tap root to regrow in the ground. If the soil is gently loosened with a fork then the whole plant is more likely to come cleanly. I’ve still got some of the larger plants to do, and almost all of the smaller plants. I think I will go over the whole area lightly with a fork anyway and try and remove as much as possible of the couch grass. It will probably grow back anyway, but if I can reduce a bit it will be worthwhile. I’m going to quickly order some green manure seed: fodder radish, red clover and field beans to overwinter and keep down the weed seeds. I may try and spread some of my vetch seeds and plants as well.
I’ve made a start on the final area of the tea garden extension: there was a strip along by the trackway which didn’t need levelling, so is still full of weeds: docken, nettles, couch, creeping thistles, other thistles……I’m going to take the worst out and then mulch over the whole area. The couch will grow back, but I’m hoping that the soil under the mulch will be nice and friable by spring, and a light forking will be sufficient to remove the couch. I am trying out a variation on mulching again. Since I seem to need an awful lot of cardboard to cover an area, I am going to make it go further by combining it with newspapers. Previously when I’ve used newspapers I have weighted them down with grassy materials: old haylage, grass clippings, cut reeds etc. These work to a certain extent, but there always seems to be a deal of work in cutting and moving the clippings, and then they sometimes blow off and I end up with newspaper decorating the fences. This time I am going to spread a single layer of cardboard over the newspapers and weight it down with stones as usual, of which I have a plentiful supply collected out of the tea garden extension when moving the soil earlier in the year. A double layer of cardboard does seem to last pretty well by this method, so we’ll see if a single layer with paper underneath does as well.
They say the camera doesn’t lie, but I wanted to see whether I could take a picture that made my weed infested tea garden extension look great. These pictures were taken from the same position, just crouching or standing up and show how easy it is to be misled.
We continue to have a snowy winter. Showers interspersed with milder days so sometimes it’s icy and underneath the soil is sopping wet. Down the northern edge of the tree field the dogs have made a cut through path to the pond at the bottom. I sometimes use it to go down that way, and sometimes go the longer way around the main rides. Since the dogs don’t pay too much attention to where the baby trees are, some are rather close to the path.
Last year I moved an oak that was right in the path. S. mowed along the path in the summer and it was tricky to zigzag between all the trees. I therefore moved three trees to improve the line of the path and make it easier to mow should we choose to do that again. There were two birch and one hazel that were definitely in the way and I moved them to the lower windbreak line, which does still seem to have a few gaps in. I have also been given a number of lodge pole pine seedlings (thanks again Frances) and those have been safely planted, some near the byre at the top, and some down in one of the lower windbreaks.
The other things I have been doing are mainly in the polytunnel. This week I got round to pruning the apricot for it’s second year training. Again this was a rather brutal procedure, cutting both main arms down to a length of about 12 inches.
I need to be alert to how to train it during the summer growing seasons now, since this will be the last dormant pruning. From the rhs website:
“In summer, choose four shoots from each ‘arm’: one at the tip to extend the existing ‘arm’, two spaced equally on the upper side and one on the lower side. Tie them in at about 30 degrees to the main ‘arm’ so they are evenly spaced apart (using canes attached to the wires if necessary)
Rub out any shoots growing towards the wall and pinch back any others to one leaf”
Not that I’m growing on a wall, but the principle will be the same I’m sure.
The other very exciting thing that I’ve been doing in the tunnel is creating the pond, that I’ve been wanting for a while. I had some remnants of pond liner from when my mum had a large pond made in her previous house. Unfortunately during storage both sheets have been slightly damaged by mice making nests, and I didn’t think either would be quite big enough for a pond approximately 6 feet by 5 feet and 2 feet deep. The first step therefore was to mend the holes and extend the best liner so as to make it big enough. While that was curing, the hole for the pond was finished off, with shelves at various depths around the edges. I had some more bits of automotive carpet underlay which I lay mainly on the shelves and the base to protect the liner from stones in the soil. Luckily the liner extension wasn’t needed in the end – the slope of the sides meant it wasn’t quite as deep as I’d calculated – just as well, since it was impossible to stop the liner creasing at the joint, so it would have leaked anyhow! I used the wooden terrace side as one side of the pond, and another plank as a hard edge to access the pond on the opposite side. Filled with water and edged with flat stones, the pond is now settling in nicely. The few plants I’ve got so far (tigernut and sagitaria latifolia) are dormant in tiny pots at the moment, so I’ve made a very shallow shelf that they can just sit on in just a little water, as well as deeper shelves for bigger marginal plants in the future. I’m hoping to get some other plants, and of course watercress may well be worth a try, although I’m not sure that we’d use very much.
While I was in the polytunnel, I took the opportunity to tidy up a bit on the rhs as you look downhill: levelling out the soil (some of which had been heaped up from digging out the pond). I also managed to clear out a load of couch grass that had grown in the bottom corner of the tunnel near the kiwi and bramble plants. In fact it is growing around the kiwi root, and I expect it will come back again this year. It also is able to punch it’s way through the plastic walls of the tunnel. I’ll have to keep an eye out and keep knocking it back. Since I choose not to use poisons it will be impossible to eliminate in this situation. Anyway, half the tunnel us now clear and weeded. I need to start watering it a bit, it has got very dry particularly on the surface. Once it is damp again, I expect that some of the seeds will regrow – there are some nice claytonia seeds in there that prefers cooler temperatures so grows better in the tunnel in the winter.
I’ll write a post soon about the mashua and yacon harvests in the tunnel.
I’ve been hard at work moving soil down the hill to try and terrace the orchard area. There is a surplus of soil just below the barn where S. moved it from various locations, particularly from where the roadway now wraps around above the byre. Let’s just say the soil is of varying quality. I’m pretty sure that some of it is quite fertile. There was a quantity of nettles there, and they are an indicator of fertile soil. However as I’m digging it I am using two wheel barrows and a bucket. One wheelbarrow for the ‘good’ soil, one wheelbarrow for the pernicious weed roots (couch grass, creeping thistle, docken and nettles) and the bucket for larger bits of coal as I spot them. It seems that part of the area above the byre must have been the storage area for the house coal. There is also quite a bit of saw dust. Probably from more recent chainsawing by S. since the wood we have been using has been cut up in that sort of area in the recent past. As well as the above, there is also a sprinkling of the typical bits of glass, string, broken crockery and strange part burnt bits of possibly vehicle that we often find around the place. You must understand that until the 1970’s there was no rubbish collection in the area, so everything was disposed of locally. I have fantasies sometimes of being able to piece together ancient dinner services like a three dimensional jigsaw. In the meantime the bits get collected into piles and occasionally the ‘real’ rubbish thrown in the bin. I do love the archeological fringe of my gardening sometimes though. The best thing I’ve found was an flint arrowhead or speartip. Although I didn’t dig that up. It came to the surface when the drains for next door’s soakaway were dug just above the orchard. It makes me very humble about my significance when I think of the thousands of years that have passed since that item was made and lost. The land continues despite my little scratchings.
Growing on the earth pile are several silverweed plants. One in particular has lovely long roots from last year. I’ve moved them down to where the soil has been moved to in the orchard. I’m pretty sure that I’ll have to dig it over to remove couch and other weeds, so I may as well have some goodies to dig up as well. The exposed soil after removing the top layers by the barn is nice and bare. I’ve planted out there a few skirret seedlings that have got a bit pot bound. I don’t want to get too close to the working area though, or they’ll get trampled. Although they looked tiny little plants, they seem to have little root thickenings developing anyway, poor little things! Still they should do a bit better with a bit of root room, if the slugs don’t get them.
This earth moving is slow work. I’m hopeful that I will have the left hand side of the path done, as you look down the hill, this year, but I’ve got a lot more soil to move. The weather more recently has been a bit wet too, which doesn’t really make for safe work. Not just working in the wet, which isn’t pleasant, but the extra weight of wet soil, and slippery steep slopes make it awkward….
Again, the weather has been kind to me. I have been cutting the docken (don’t you just love that plural?) in the orchard area. I have lots of docks around the place, and often they get to seed before I cut them, thus seedlings grow and the docken proliferate. I have discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you get the growing top off the dock they don’t tend to grow back. So my technique is to cut with a spade, aiming to get a couple of inches of the tap root, and not worry too much about the rest of the root. We also have some sort of big pinkish white grub that eats dock roots – maybe they eat the remainder?
The orchard area was planted just over three years ago with plum, damson and cherry trees, and I added some apples 18 months ago. It is in a more sheltered dip at the top of the tree field, and I intend to add more soil to landscape the area. I wanted to give the trees as much soil as possible, and also try and keep them well drained. We get so much rain and this is one of the factors that make the fruit trees not grow so well and succumb to disease. At the moment the landscaping is partially done. The trees were planted on mounds, and I have been spreading soil between them. This is barrowed down from below the barn, where it was left from various trackway excavations. Although S. did move down some soil with the dumper, It took a lot of effort to then distribute it and dig out the couch grass and nettles that came too, so wasn’t really much of a labour saving in the end! The trackway down from the barn still needs grading, so is still a bit steep for comfortable barrowing, but at least the heavy bit’s downhill! Anyway, apparently along with the couch and nettles were also a lot of dock seeds which have subsequently germinated and done quite well (oh why aren’t they edible weeds?). So last week I and the dogs took the pink ball and the spade and barrow and set to work. One and a half days later we had cleared the docken, done a lot of fetching, discovered some nicely growing blackcurrant cuttings that I stuck in last winter, a big bone that Dougie had hidden there, a couple of very small spruce seedlings that were missed from several I had temporarily stuck in there eighteen months ago; that is the good news.
The docken were also lovely to dig up from the new soil – many came up with complete roots, so the soil should be good for other stuff to grow in. The bad news is that I also discovered that along with the docken we also have a lot of surviving couch grass (I now know what couch grass flowers look like), nettles and of course the creeping thistle that were in the field before the trees were planted. I’m hoping that continual pulling will deter the creeping thistles. This seems to have been reasonably effective in the tea garden, I had very little come back this year. It’s not the nicest job. You need need grippy gloves to grasp the stems so as to pull as much root as possible: I like the cloth ones with latex facing. However, the palms aren’t strong enough to stop all the prickles, so every now and then you have to pick out a prickle that has broken off in the glove and is sticking in you. I just pulled out the nettles (which will probably grow back) and ignored most of the couch. I know it’s going to grow extensively, but I’m hoping to complete the landscaping, and maybe do some planting this autumn. With a good thick mulch in the meantime and relying on the lovely light soil structure, I’m hoping it will come out then reasonably completely. Anyway, it’s only grass! I’ll probably plant out some of my exciting root crops there this autumn/winter since they will subsequently need digging out anyway giving me a second opportunity to remove the couch….
It was forecast to be dry until Thursday last week, and we were keen to get the paths in the tree field cut. It’s nice to have the grass long, but it makes my trousers wet as I’m walking through (even with wellies on), and S. also has difficulty telling the trees and other plants apart, so having a defined pathway makes it easier if he does have to drive a vehicle round. To be fair the docks are still bigger than some of the trees. I’d asked him to get the mower out ready for me, so that I could cut the paths when I got home from the shop on Wednesday. It would be quite late, but the sun doesn’t set till gone ten for us at the moment, so there is still quite a bit of daylight. Anyway, he not only got the mower out, but he and the dog-boys went round all the trackways a few times. It wasn’t quite the way I would have done it. I’m not that keen on cutting the grass at all at this time of year. I would like the flowers to have set their seed. However, for reasons of practicality, a little pathway in the centre of the track seems like a good compromise. S. however, did the main trackway with several passes, and the main side loop also with a wider cut. I went round a second time trying to keep in the centre of the track, because the scythemower doesn’t cut that cleanly the first cut, and a second cut gives a more even result. A disadvantage of doing more than the minimum is that Muggins here then has to spend longer than neccessary raking up the extra cut grass. It looks slightly surreal with the long grass, trees and flowers, a mowed path, and the mounds of gathered cut grass.
Now I have a fair amount of material for mulching. I will have to wheelbarrow this up hill to the orchard area, where hopefully it will stop some of the noxious weeds growing back too strongly and feed the fruit trees in the longer term. If there is more than I need it can be used to mulch the trees nearest the path edge, or others strategically selected.
If we had more land I would like to cut some of it for hay. Corncrake have a hard time now on Skye, since most crofters just buy in their winter feed now and the in bye fields are now summer grazing. I heard one once here in Glendale a couple of years ago, but it didn’t stay.