Harvesting, germination and why we (sometimes) don’t like deer

I’ve not had much time in the garden recently since there are a number of issues that have arisen mostly relating to the shop.  One of my members of staff is poorly, so I had to do extra shifts.  An exciting delivery from a new supplier came during one of my afternoons off so I had to go back down to the shop again to unpack it.  Palmer and Harvey were one of my main suppliers, who have now ceased trading, so I’m having to work out where and if we can get the groceries we normally get from them.  And someone put a planning application for mirror faced cube camping pods in the Glen which I felt obliged to object to.  The weather had been better though – cool and still and a little damp.  S. has bought me for christmas (not really I hope!) two pallet loads of hardwood which arrived on Friday and we spend much of Sunday warming ourselves once by stacking it all away in the woodshed.

Back in the Polytunnel, I have managed to harvest most of the fruit.  I have four more sharks fin melons, ten bunches of ripe grapes, and a very few achocha.  I still have the kiwi to harvest.

polytunnel crops

The grapes were starting to go mouldy, it’s just getting a little cool even in the polytunnel to expect any further ripening.  I think maybe I wasn’t ruthless enough when I thinned out the bunches earlier in the year, although it felt pretty brutal at the time.  I have picked them over and placed them in a glass of water, which hopefully should enable them to keep a little longer.  I also dried some in the bottom oven to make raisins which worked pretty well.  I could do with an easy way of removing the seeds however!  I need to give the vines a good prune now.  I’ve always taken my own approach to pruning; which is to make a cordon stem of the vine from which the fruiting spurs come off.  This seems to work quite well.  I had left a lower branch as well as the high level one, but it still isn’t really growing well.  The branches that come off it are weak and tend to droop down, interfering with the crops at lower level.  This year I’m going to prune the lower branch right out, and remove the wooden framework which also gets in the way of the polytunnel beds.


I’m not sure I’ll try the achocha again.  I quite like it – it tastes like a cross between a cucumber and a courgette, but it seems not to set very many fruit with me.  Only the fruit later in the season have set.  Mind you, I have noticed a lot of spiders in the polytunnel this year and have suspected that they may be eating a lot of the pollinating insects this year.  Maybe I’ll give it one more go and try and start them off nice and early.

The sharks fin melon I consider to be a big success, despite not getting that many fruit.  They are huge and pretty, and tasty see here.  The noodles do retain their noodly texture when frozen, so I may roast the melons as I need them and freeze the noodles in portions.  I’m going to try and save seed (apparently they carry on ripening in storage) but also see whether I can overwinter the vine, since it is a perennial in warmer climates.  So far I have buried one vine root in kiwi leaves (which have mostly shed now) and covered another with it’s own vine remains.  Although it’s not been very cold for the last couple of weeks.

I seem to have got very good germination from the two lots of Akebia seeds.  Both the ones that I sowed direct and the ones I left on tissue in a polythene bag have almost all got root shoots.  I moved them inside onto a windowsill, rather than leaving them in the polytunnel.  If I can get them through the winter, then I may have rather more plants than I need!  If not then I have dried the rest of the seed and can try growing them  in the spring.

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The last few weeks have seen an intruder in the garden.  For the last few years we have seem thankfully little sign of the deer, and I have been thinking they don’t like the smell of Dyson.  However recently they have been in and caused a little damage to a few of the trees, and munched some of the greenery in the fruit garden.  Luckily I don’t grow much for ourselves outside, but I had been getting a little complacent.  We have planted a hawthorne hedge which I am hoping in the longer term will screen the garden and deter the deer, but that will be a long time before it is big enough to do any good.  I’m pretty sure I heard the stags calling in the rut this year for the first time as well.  I wonder whether one of them was looking for greenery to decorate his antlers?  I gather they do this with bracken at this time to make themselves (presumably) more attractive or impressive.  In the past when we’ve had damage to the trees it’s been in the spring, which is more likely to be them rubbing the velvet off their antlers which they grow new every year.


Lessons learnt #1 – things gone wrong.

Now that we have been here ten years we can start to look back and learn from our experiences.  I’ve tried to be objective and see what we could have done better and what worked well.

Things we would do differently:

#1 Get more local tree seed stock.

Although we tried to get trees that had been grown from Skye provenance seed, in practice when buying from a national tree wholesaler these trees have been grown for forestry planting.  They have to grow what is mostly needed for sale, and this means we have had to compromise on the tree provenance.  Since we are in an exposed maritime location, we get a lot of salt burning and winter die back on unripened twigs.  Also trees that come later into leaf have an advantage here, since the spring tends to have a period of cold drying winds that dessicate delicate new foliage.  There is a noticeable difference in coming into leaf between the indigenous rowan trees and the imported ones.  If we had spent more effort we could have a) grown more of our own trees from seed or b) found a more local source of seedlings.  I believe that these may have done better long term.

#2 Leave more field area to self seed.

We have found that the area closest to the river, which was where we started planting after the windbreaks near the house, has had several trees grow that we never planted. These are mainly willow in the damp area near where the pond was dug, and hazel within about 20 feet of the boundary fence.  If we had been a little patient we could have saved the trouble of planting this area and just let it naturally colonise.

dogs in pond_trees
Self seeded willow to left of pond

#3. Mulch, mulch, mulch.

It has been fairly obvious as time has gone on how much better the trees in general have done when we were able to mulch them properly.  When we started we had a supply of old haylage that came with the house, and we used this on top of spread out, and overlapped newspaper to cover an area about 4 ft diameter (started off square but went round later!).

main trackway to river jun 2014
Areas to either side of mown track have trees planted, but only alders are showing above the grass

It was possible to see in subsequent years that these trees did grow bigger more quickly.  Also we have quite a bit of problems with the grass simply overwhelming the trees and causing them to lean over, or even smothering them completely so that they just gave up.  Lack of time and mulching materials mean that we have never been able to mulch all the trees planted.  We have concentrated on the edge trees and windbreak rows.  Amusingly these are visible from google earth satelite views.

satelite view macphersons covert
Satellite view Macphersons covert (2017?)

#4. Protection from voles and deer at start.

In the first couple of years planting we took no provision against pest damage, with the view to seeing what was necessary.  Unfortunately the little trees can easily be completely destroyed by voles ringing the bark when young.  It was interesting to see that some tree varieties suffered much more than others.  Ash, birch, oak and aspen were definitely the favourite foods, hawthorne, pine, and alder did not seem to suffer at all.  After the second year it was very clear that it was worth putting some protection in place and retrospectively we used cut down PET bottles tied with wire to a short wooden stake.  Initially we used tiewraps through a punched hole, but a) we ran out of tiewraps and b) they tended to pull through the bottle side in the wind after a few years.  In subsequent years we purchased short plastic spiral tubes that push on top of the baby trees when planted and did not need staking.

damage by hoodies april 2012
Damage by Hoodies

We did find in the early part of the summer that the hoodies (hooded crows as known round here) had a lot of fun pulling off the shelters presumably looking for food, but possibly just playing, and pulled out or damaged quite a few young trees.

The deer are also particularly a problem in early summer when bands of young males go roaming.  They will eat anything green and we found they were particularly fond of rowan, which is quite early to leaf, and pine, larch and spruce.  They would pull up the entire young conifer trees and leave them lying.  At that time of year we get little rain, and indeed two of the early years verged on drought in the spring, so we had quite a few losses.  Although we tried to replant them this was not always successful particularly with the young larch.  Once the tree field was deer fenced this problem went away, however the garden area and gully field near the road remains unprotected.  Although in recent years we have had fewer problems (possibly due to a our dog, Dyson), we do find that older trees are used to rub off the velvet on the antlers with devastating effect on the trees.

deer damage in garden
Deer damage to older pine

#5. Not let S. dig the pond without more supervision.

This is a bit of a tongue in cheek comment, since I don’t suppose I would have done much better.  However, I am not happy about the levels of the banking around the pond, and the ditch cut across is, frankly an accident waiting to happen.  I hope to get the digger back down the hill later this summer and tidy up the landscaping slightly.  It will have to wait now until the tadpoles have left the pond, which seems to be holding water much better than it did in the first few years.

#6. Not bother plant in very thin soil areas

The soil depth does vary in different parts of the field.  The geology of the area is rock strata from consecutive lava flows from a now dead volcano.  This was then glaciated during the last ice age to form Glendale.  However, the hard and soft layers in the lava flows mean that the valley side is slightly stepped and over the years, ploughing and other soil erosion has led to thinner soil on the steps.  This was sometimes evident whilst digging the holes for the trees.  In places the soil was less than a spade depth.  I tried to select a deeper position where possible, and even bolstered up the soil depth by transferring a little soil or turf from other places.  We also selected tree varieties that were more likely to be able to tolerate drought.  However we still got high losses, and the trees that survived tend to be more stunted.  These areas would better have been left as clearings.

I’ll post about things we wouldn’t do much differently later.