Digging for Blueberries

I’m running a bit behind in my posting (got distracted by online novel reading) so will try and do a bit of catchup now.  I’m trying to get some preparation done for my blueberry patch down the hill.  I had covered the whole area with black plastic early last year to clear the weeds so it is now time to get the beds arranged, so I can start planting.

I decided to move the black plastic out to cover the area immediately surrounding the cleared patch.  I can either plant more blueberry bushes or other plants there.  It will be useful to have a weed barrier of sorts to try and keep the couch and other creeping grasses at bay.  There probably aren’t enough stones already selected to weight the plastic down properly.  Last year I had the benefit of large branches from the driveway spruce trees, but my intention is to use these to increase the woody content of the beds, so I will need additional weights this year.

new area
Forked area and extended mulch area

Since blueberries need well aerated soil, and the area I have chosen for them is damp and compacted with generations of sheeps trotters, I have forked over the cleared area.  I din’t turn the soil, just loosened it, so that it has a chance to dry a little over the coming weeks of spring.  I was a bit disappointed by the amount of couch grass that seems to be prevalent over the whole area, despite the light excluding cover.  I guess it was kept going by areas outside the plastic, and the fact the water could still get to it due to the fact the plastic is in strips, rather than a larger entire piece.  The other plant that seems to have survived remarkable well is pignut, Conopodium Majus.  The blanched spring shoots of this are all over the area despite having been covered for the whole of last year.

pignut blanched
Blanched pignut shoots

The thick reeds and other groundcover plants have disappeared to form a vole dispersed layer of compost.  The voles are more of a nuisance for attracting the attention of the dog(s).  They like to dig underneath the plastic sheets, thus letting in light and wind, so making the sheets less effective at weed cover.

My intention is to create sort of raised beds, with the woody trimmings, bracken remains, and leaf mould/grass clipping compost from the lodge, together with soil excavated to create drainage channels and paths.  As I was forking it over, I discovered that the soil depth is not consistent; it gets quite shallow at the downhill side of the patch.  Probably this rock forms a bit of a bowl, which is why it seems so damp there.  Until the area surrounding the cleared patch is also cleared, I won’t really be able to create the levels properly to ensure bed drainage.  I’m hoping that I can clear most of the couch grass out when the soil is drier as I create the raised beds themselves.

I have ordered some more blueberry plants, but haven’t managed to find some of the varieties I wanted.  If necessary, I will just sow some annuals to build up the soil structure and keep it covered and pre-order bushes for next year.  I know ART will propagate fruit trees to order, so they may do fruit bushes too.

Eviction

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.

kiwi roots
Kiwi roots

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.

kiwi triffid
Out of polytunnel – giant Dufflepud

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.

new position
Kiwi in new position

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.

kiwi mulched
Newly mulched and levelled

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 thimking 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!

Nothing much

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.

ramp up
Ramp up hump

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.

tree holes
Holes for windbreak improvements at top of tree field (baby monkey puzzle at left)

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.

mulch mounds
Mulch spots along trackway

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!

seed sprouts
Sprouting apple seeds

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.

new crops
New varieties

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.

new toys
New toy tool

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.

not a stick
Indoor Orchid flowers

 

 

Don’t do this

fasach view
Last leaves

I have been starting to buy some of the nice plants on my annual shopping list recently.  I have also added one or two that weren’t on the list but somehow I couldn’t resist!  I was very excited to find some Korean pine (Pinus Koraiensis) seedlings for sale at one of the forestry nurseries in Scotland.  They are quite slow growing pine trees, but should stand exposure and have large edible seeds on mature trees.  I have been trying to grow them from seed for a couple of years, but only managed to get one to germinate.  That was planted in the spring, down where the main trackway hits a T-junction near the river bend.  It seems to be still surviving despite being so tiny you can hardly tell it from grass seedlings!  The nursery also had some juniper seedlings at a fair price, so I added those on, winced at the delivery charge and awaited with excitement a package.

yellow pine
New saplings

The juniper seedlings look fine, but I’m not sure about the Korean pines.  They look decidedly yellow.  There could be a number of reason for this – lack of light, nutrients or they’ve sent me a yellow pine that may or may not be Korean pine.  I’ll give them a ring tomorrow and see what they say.  I don’t really want golden pines in my tree field even if they are Korean pines, and I don’t want to wait twenty years to find out they are not Korean pines either, since I am in the hope that they will produce edible seeds for me in my retirement.  In the meantime, I have been down and dug twelve tree planting spaces for the pines to go in: four by the lone pine and two other patches of four interplanting the edges of the dodgy Ash areas.  The baby trees are being hardened off by putting outside during the day and inside at night, on the chance that they are what they should be.

Whilst I was finding spaces for trees, I also checked on where to put the baby Junipers.  I thought that I had lost three of my six original seedlings.  Since I thought three was not enough of a population (you need male and female plants to set berries) I bought an  extra three seedlings.  However, whilst checking the previously planted Juniper and deciding where to put an extra three, I was happy to find one more of the original seedlings; making a total of four that have established well.  Unfortunately, I have also found, as I suspected when I planted them, that I am regretting using that carpet underlay to mulch them.  It was brilliant at staying put on the slope, and did a reasonable job of keeping down the weeds, but I hate the residual stringy bits that are almost all that is left of the original mats.  I have done my best to pull it out now, but the grass and weeds had embedded themselves pretty much through it, so it was a battle.

juniper mulch
Plastic threads from mulch around Juniper

I am now dreading the thought of removing the mulch mat roll that is fully entombed in grass from the original windbreak planting near the house.  I have been delinquent in not addressing that sooner, although I suspect that unless it was removed within a year it would still have been a horrid job to do.  It is easy for me to postpone a job like that that doesn’t seem constructive, if that makes sense?  I’m just glad I only used one strip rather than trying to mulch all the trees.

plastic mulch
Original mulch mat embedded in Alder

Having prepared an additional three planting positions for the juniper, I had a start at levelling the path that winds around the hump.  It follows one of the original sheep trails across the slope and makes it easier to ascend the steep bit of the hill.  It is really a little bit narrow, and is awkward in places, since it has quite a cross gradient which puts pressure on your ankles.  By taking a double spade cut of turf on the upwards side, and using that to back fill above and reinforce the path below, the path has virtually doubled in width.  I didn’t get very far this week, but feel it is worth persevering.  If I do the full path down to the flatter field below, we will be able to get the mower along the path, so making walking easier in the wet.

path cutting
Path widening

 

 

Drivebank revisited

drivebank from top aur 19
Drivebank in August

Well, I’m back safely.  The drivebank planting is now approaching the end of it’s first season growth, so I thought I’d do an update on how it is getting on.  Generally I’m pretty pleased.  I think most of the perennial plants have at least established OK.  I lost the Philadelphus, thanks to Dougie (bless him!) using it as a toy and pulling it out and chewing it, but the other shrubs seem OK.  The Elaeagnus look a bit bare – I think they lost a few leaves in the wind, which is a bit disappointing.  I thought they would be reasonably wind resistant.  The Escallonia of course is looking lush, and the Gaultheria is also doing well – just flowering and with small berries at the moment.  I have quite a few babies of this that came from cuttings I took back in the spring which are doing quite well too.    The variegated laurel, like the Elaeagnus, has lost a few leaves, but otherwise seems OK.  I’ve poked in a few cuttings from one of my murtillo (Myrtus Ugni)  in the hope that a slightly warmer spot may incline it to ripen fruit.  The bushes in the tea garden grow and flower well, but the fruit never seems to come to much, and I’d really like to try making jelly with this!  The fruit smell divine and taste like sherbert strawberries, incredible!  They are quite small and pippy though, so I think jelly will be more successful than jam.

murtilo fruit
Developing murtillo berries

At least one of the broom are doing very well, having put on quite a bit of growth this year.  Fingers crossed it survives the damp winter ahead.  I’m wondering whether to plant some of this down the hill in the patch with ash trees that don’t seem to be doing very well.  It is a native plant (I’ve seen it growing on the island), the bees love the flowers, it is a nitrogen fixer and tolerates dry soil, so should be OK where the soil is a bit shallow there.  Broom does in fact need it well drained, so won’t grow happily just anywhere here.

I was a bit disappointed with the lack of germination from the seeds I broadcast.  I was hoping to get a bit more coverage and blooms from the Calendula, but there were only a few came up early on and then some stragglers at the tail end of the season.  These are still blooming now, but rather sparse.  They all seemed to be different colours and forms too, whereas I thought I was expecting just single orange flowers from the packet.  There was more coverage from the unknown buckwheat, but these aren’t particularly colourful examples; I will leave the debris overwinter to protect the soil a little bit.  There seem to be one or two of the other herby things I broadcast, I’m not sure whether they are chervil or caraway or coriander, a bit tiny to pick the leaves from.   Maybe more will come up next year.

Initially I got quite a good coverage from the bittercress weed plants, which I just left to get on with it – they are too tiny to be a problem in my opinion.  I do try and take out the buttercup, docken and nettle seedlings and the various grasses that seem to have come back either through missed roots, or seeds.  The buttercups and docken are the worst, because the leaves come off, leaving the roots intact.  Sometimes I left them, but generally I tried to lever them out, because chances are they will regrow.  I pulled the leaves off the weeds and scattered them on the soil to create a bit of mulch, although this was pretty ineffective – actually the weeds were much less prolific than I was expecting, although I don’t suppose I have seen the last of them!  In fact, the bittercress seem to be making a second coming now in the cool of the autumn.

autumn bank
Looking a bit bare in October

A few things I planted to climb and/or spread, all of which are pretty tiny still.  I seem to have mixed up the Lathyrus linifolius and Lathyrus tuberosa when planting them.  I don’t expect this will matter too much, although the L. tuberosa should become a much taller plant, so may (hopefully?) be a bit much where I was expecting the smaller L. linifolius to be growing.  The Akebia again is very tiny, but is alive and looks healthy enough.  Hopefully it will survive the winter and do better year on year, to climb the sycamore.  The wild strawberry I planted at the top under the tree, is spreading enthusiastically.  I think this is supposed to be a better fruiting form that I bought from someone (I can’t remember where now).  No fruit yet, but maybe next year….

bee on oregano
Bee on oregano

All the perennial herbs have established well.  The little oregano plant was a mass of blooms which the bees really appreciated earlier in the year.  Again, it seems to be having a second wind with another batch of flowers now. The marjorum (unknown) from the polytunnel has been fine.  The lavender bloomed quite late.  This is a pity in a way, because it leaves it too late to take cuttings after it has bloomed.  I will have to take a few in the spring, and hope that I still get the flowers.  These are on tall stems, and I think the plant has the potential to get a bit big.  It doesn’t matter too much if it overhangs the steps a bit.  The sage also seems fine.  I left the main plant in a pot, which I have brought in to the polytunnel to keep it drier over the winter.  There were several smaller plants that I had grown from cuttings which I tucked in at the top of the main wall.  These I hope will be well enough drained to overwinter outside OK.   The chives as expected have been fine, they went in a bit late for flowers, but should look good next year.  I may get some other clumping alliums to go with them, as they generally seem to do OK here.  The little rosemary seems to be fine, and again at the top of the wall should be OK to overwinter.

drivebank flowers
Yellow Daylily, White lily and red dahlia

I have been quite pleased with most of the perennials I planted out.  The daylillies, which had never a flower in three years in the shop planters, have bloomed quite happily on and off this summer.  Indeed they still seem to have buds coming now!  The dahlia have bloomed quite well, with simple red daisies and dark foliage.  Also from the shop planters are the tall lillies.  These all seem to have white flowers, whereas the shorter ones left in the shop planters are yellow.  This is not quite the mix I was expecting, but the shop flowers match my icecream flag nicely.  The various campanula seem to be growing bigger now than they did in the summer, which is a bit unexpected.  Maybe they would prefer somewhere a bit more shady.  I did tuck some in by the pea wigwam in the front garden (which turned out too shady for peas) so they may do better there.  All I can say for the asparagus and artichoke is that they seem to be alive still.  Hopefully they are established enough to come back next year.  There is no sign of the nerines, which should be in flower just now, so I may have lost those.

Slightly tender plants include the salt bush, Atriplex canescens, which I grew from seed.  It still looks a bit small, but reasonably OK.  The leaves make quite a nice salad leaf with a salty juicy crunch.  The bush needs to get quite a bit bigger before it is useful for eating though!  The little Trachycarpus is forming new leaves.  This will be a slow growing plant I expect.  There is one I donated to Glendale Estate house, Hamera lodge, when I didn’t realise the uses of it, which is still only about eighteen inches tall after 8 years or so.  Admitedly they planted it in a rather shady spot I think, so it could have done better.  I’ve just agreed to look after the gardens there as well (excepting the lawn mowing) which should be fun!  It has a large walled garden, which has been virtually unmanaged for several decades, but has a few apple trees and a lot of potential.

herbs and steps
Strawberry steps catching the late afternoon sun

I have been very pleased with my “strawberry steps”.  I planted out some white alpine strawberry plants, which I had grown from saved seed (originally a James Wong seed grown plant).  The white strawberries are supposed to be less likely to be taken by birds, but still have a lovely sweet strawberry taste when properly ripe – they go suddenly bigger and paler, but it can be a subtle change.  These have bulked out nicely and ripened some fruit.  Next year they should do even better, and give a nice coverage to the steps.  Since the steps are a bit narrow, being made of curb stones I had dug up from the pedestrian gate path, it is a bit difficult not to step on the strawberries when ascending the steps.  Some of the sedum seeds I sowed there have also germinated.  I’ll have to decide whether to transplant those, or to leave them in situ.

All in all a pretty good first season.  My task next year is to finish off the wall around the corner by the barn, with more steps or a ramp for access there, and maybe continue above the steps to the pathway by the willow fedge.

 

 

 

 

An unexpected newcomer

yellow rattle close

Yellow rattle: flowers and ripe seedpods

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 clump
Yellow rattle clump

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.

 

Polytunnel Perennials 2019

Polytunnel 19 May
Polytunnel from Top door May 19

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.

Shisandra flower
Single Schisandra flower

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.

 

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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.

Asparagus not dying back
Asparagus – still not died down in middle of March!

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.

Globe artichoke
Globe artichoke buds swelling

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.

goldenberry year 2
Goldenberry in second year – May 27

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.

grape vines before pruning
Grape vines new (to left) and old (to right) before pruning

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.

Kiwi blossom
Worth it for the flowers?

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.

bramble blossom
Bramble blossom

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.

First Strawberries
Gardener’s treats

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.

overwintered chilli
Overwintered chilli with tiny flower buds

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!

yacon etc
Yacon with unknown citrus and one of the Schisandras

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!

Tulip
Incredible edible petals

Rainy Season

This was going to be an update on the polytunnel, but I’m excited about some things in the tree field, so those come first.

Usually the dryish weather lasts into the middle of June, but this year it has broken a bit early.  There was a nice bit of rain last weekend, and again through this week so the burns and the river are now overflowing.

The first exciting thing then (not chronologically, but logically) is that the pond at the bottom is once again full.  During the week it just had a little puddle from it’s own catchment, but either the shallow springs are going again and/or the burn on that side is full enough to have water all the way down (often it disappears again on the way down).  This would have been quite exciting, but more exciting (especially to the dogs unfortunately) was what we found on the pond.  The dogs saw them first, and then I saw a lady mallard flying off with a squawk over the fence to the river.  Left behind were about three frantically cheaping baby ducks.  They are very tiny, and I have no idea where the nest is.  I’m thinking it must be on the river bank, otherwise the dogs probably would have found it before now.  The pond would have made quite a nice nursery swim for the babies if it wasn’t for my bad dogs.  The river is in full spate after the rain, so the little ones would be swept quite away.  Eventually the dogs came to me.  They had been more interested in the mother than the babies, so noone was hurt.  Hopefully the mum would soon have returned to the babies again.  We’ll have to keep the dogs away from the pond for a bit.  This is difficult, as due to some building work, part of the deer fence to the garden area is down at the moment.  I was going to put some temporary fencing up anyhow, so I’ll escalate that task for when the rain clears.

baby duck
Baby duck in pond

On the way back up the hill again I was on the lookout for something that I had found the previous day.  On the grass there had been what I thought was a tiny rotten birch twig.  I wondered how it had got there and had turned it over with a twig that I was hoping to mark orchids with.  To my surprise the twig moved!  Not a twig but a largish moth!  On that occasion I did not have my camera with me (it was raining!) so I was very glad to find the moth still in the (birch) tree to which I had moved it.  Looking it up later I found it was a buff tip moth.  Although quite common in the south of the UK it is less so in the north.

bufftip moth
Not a twig

The other interesting thing, is that I may have seen this moth as a caterpillar.  I didn’t post about it at the time, but last summer I noticed one or two alders that had clumps of caterpillars in them.  They were distinctive in the way they formed a mass of caterpillars.  I’m pretty sure now that they were buff tip caterpillars, so it is nice to see that at least one made it to adulthood.  They pupate in the soil, so that may be why this one was on the ground.  It must have just emerged.

buff tip caterpillars
Mass of buff tip caterpillars

The rain has come in good time to keep watering the seedling trees I have planted in the tree field.  As well as the tiny spruce, I have also relocated about a dozen tiny rowans (why do they like to germinate in the driveway!), a couple of sycamore (ditto!) and several plums, damsons and apples from shop fruit that was past it’s best, or used for jam making.  The latter’s seeds had been placed in small seed trays (actually fruit punnets) outside and I got quite a few germinating this spring.  Rather than leave them to starve in the seedtrays I was able to plant them out last week, with a proper double spade square hole.  They may not have good fruit that ripens here, but they may at least have blossom to cross pollinate my orchard fruit.  I could try and graft good fruiters onto the trunks in the future.  I am hopeful that the damson seedlings and the plums that we ate in late september in Devon may have useful fruit, if only for jamming.

plum seedling
Plum seedling

When we planted the trees in 2011 we experimented with planting comfrey around some of them to see if they would act as a living mulch.  I had found this quite successful in Solihull around established soft fruit so, since we had been having difficulty finding enough time to mulch the newly planted trees, I wondered whether this would be an easy way to keep the grass down.  We just stuck ‘thongs’ of comfrey, of which I had plenty growing in the fruit garden, into the turf about two feet from the trees.  It wasn’t that successful as it turned out.  We found that although most of the comfrey took OK, it was a few years before they could out compete the grass, and by that time the trees were already established.  They do make lovely flowers for the bees though through the summer.

I had read in one or two of my books that other people had found that a bank of comfrey several plants deep could be used as a weed barrier around planting areas.  Last year I planted several thongs below the newly mulched orchard area to the north of the trackway, in the hopes that these would eventually keep out the worst of the couchgrass.  It is dramatic that the only ones that have grown well have been the ones adjacent to the mulch.  The ones planted with turf on each side are still really tiny (although mostly still there).  I don’t remember there being any difference between them when planted out.  So on my mental list of things to do is to mulch between the comfrey there if I get time.  It’s probably not a high priority, since the comfrey will probably still grow and in a year or so form a canopy by itself.

comfrey mulch
Comfrey – also between mulch and trees

The grass has grown lush and green with the rain, and the buttercups and pignut have started flowering.  So pretty with the rain dewdrops sparkling in the sun.  The buttercups seem particularly profuse in the area just below the orchard, and the pignuts in the southernmost strip along Jo’s field.  The midges are here now too, so the rain is definately a mixed blessing.  We change to longer hours next week in the shop next week so  I will have to get to bed a bit earlier.  The sun was still setting at about 9.20 last night.  I could still see the sunlight on the hill opposite us.

douglas in sun
Douglas and pignut
pignut sparkles
Pignut sparkles

Shorts and Wellies

waternish Skye
Ploughing at Trumpan, Waternish, Skye

I’ve been on holiday this week.  My friends AC and DC have been staying locally and have been pottering round with me.  The weather has just turned from cool and dry to warm and dry, hence the title.  I have been practically running round naked, (which I think of as when I’m down to single layers of clothing) and actually showing my knees today!  There is no danger of frost now, but I have noticed a little damage to the new growth on the grape vine in the polytunnel.  I have bought S. a weather station recently with an extra temperature and humidity sensor for the polytunnel.  We are still playing with it, since the signals are getting interfered with by our wifi, but the temperatures in the polytunnel were varying from over 30 deg. Celsius during the day to only 2 deg. Celsius at night.  The temperature at night is much warmer now (about 12 degrees or so) and I’m opening the doors more to keep it a bit cooler during the day.

finished tea garden
Tea garden after tidying and planting

Although on holiday, we have managed to achieve quite a bit (even some of the things I had on my list to do).  DC has been going round taking off tree shelters, and keeping the dogs amused.  It’s quite nice to think that these are some of the trees that he himself helped plant just a few years ago.  AC and I have been clearing and planting in the tea garden extension.  The ground is lovely to weed at the moment; so dry the earth just falls off the roots of the weeds.  I cleared out some docken and buttercups, but was quite pleased to find only a little couch growing in from the edge which had just been mulched last year.  I pulled off the tops of the weeds, left the leaves on the beds, and threw the roots to add to the soil around the adjacent trees, where the rock is rather close to the surface.   We planted the artichokes and potatoes that Frances of island threads sent me (thanks again!), as well as my saved oca (and some more from Frances).  AC also re-mulched with cardboard the area by the track that I left under mulch last year.  I had a trial clearing the end of the bed where I’d planted the peas.  Although the couch came out nicely, there was too much of the thinner stringy grass that creeps over the surface, so I’m hoping that another year will clear that a bit more.  We cut back and thinned out the kale that was flowering.  I think it will regrow again to provide another crop.  The tops we used to mulch around the lowest of the ‘new’ blackcurrant bushes.  Hopefully they will fruit a bit better this year than last year.

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The other blackcurrants in the tea garden had a lovely lush new lawn growing round them!  I didn’t manage to clear out the grass in the bed next to them before it went to seed and regretted it!  Hopefully cutting it back with shears and mulching with it’s own leaves and cardboard will be enough to clear it again.  There didn’t seem to be much in the way of  nasty weeds there, which is pleasing.  I was hoping to transplant in some of the sweet cicely and good king henry that has seeded in, but that will have to wait till next year now.

The weather is really too nice to be spending much time in the polytunnel (a bit like last year), however we have managed to clear the beds for the tomatoes (although not planted yet).  I have decided to plant them in the lower southern beds.  There is a awful lot of parsley going to seed in there, so we stripped off the leaves and have dried about four batches in the lower oven.  The kale was unfortunately a bit mildewy, which it usually is in the tunnel at this time of year, but there was a fair amount of leaf beet for spinach.

melon seeds
Sharks fin melon – 17 months after harvest

AC has sown my curcubit seeds.  We ate the last sharks fin melon a few weeks ago (nearly eighteen months after harvest and still perfect!) so I scraped out and saved some of the seeds before cooking it.  I have plenty of seeds as well for next year, just in case I get another failure.  The curcubit seeds have all gone in the propagator, although they could probably be sown direct in the polytunnel with the temperatures as they are now.  It looks like all my sweetcorn seeds have failed:  both those that were sown direct, and those in the propagator.  I can only assume that I drowned them.  I sowed them at the same time as the peas (which have germinated well).  They were fresh seed.  I presoaked them for a few days to rehydrate before sowing, but maybe I soaked them for too long.  It probably isn’t too late to try again.  I’ll see if I have any more of that seed and just soak it overnight, and sow direct this time.

While the earth is so dry I’ve been doing more weeding/editing around the fruit garden as well, getting out some of the comfrey that is persisting. and transplanting some strawberry plants.  I also was going to transplant some rowan seedlings in amongst the ash trees in the tree field.  They seem to like to germinate in the rocky scree of the driveway.  I managed to get out about a dozen little trees and one rather larger one, that were growing in less than optimal positions.  Then I started to turn some turfs for planting holes, in between the two bands of new spruce trees (that we have been giving a little water to in this dry weather). When digging the second hole, I found my right calf muscle seize up painfully with cramp, and it has been a bit painful the last day or so.  I think it was all the digging in the tea garden extension that worked it too hard.  It seems a bit better now with rest and ibuprofen, but I may have to heel the little rowans in somewhere else (they are in a pot of water at the moment).

finished blueberry mulch
Mulched patch for blueberries

DC and AC also helped me mulch the area where I am hoping to plant blueberries in the tree field.  First we had to shift all the conifer branches that I had placed there from the driveway tree pruning.  The grass had started to grow through them, but it wasn’t too difficult to disentangle them yet.  We then spread out several lengths of black plastic underlay (reclaimed a few years ago from the local hall when it flooded) and used the tree branches to weight them down.  This was easier with a few extra pairs of hands.  I’ll assess the couch grass at the end of the summer and decide whether to leave the plastic down for another year then.  I’m thinking of making slightly raised beds for the blueberries (since the area there is a bit of a bowl) and planting the ‘ditches’ in between with comfrey for mulching.  I’m thinking some well rotted sawdust and lots of bracken leaves is what I need to plant the blueberries into.

 

Drivebank planting

Since I started the retaining wall down the drive I have become quite excited about what I can plant here.  It’s not quite what I envisaged when I was playing fantasy gardens in my head.  Indeed it has turned out in many ways to be a far better ‘microclimate’ than I was thinking.  Because the wall gives a possibility for a well drained, south facing slope I am able to plant some of the more tender plants that would otherwise struggle to survive a wet winter here.

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Having built the wall and the main steps from the house direction, I spent a bit of time getting two minor retaining walls and some further steps from the drive in the best place.  I hope I have put the paths where the dogs are most likely to want to run, since they can be a bit heavy footed at times.  The plants that I had collected were laid out in their pots to decide a planting arrangement.  I bought a few sacks of multipurpose peat free compost to try and improve the soil a bit, that was forked in before planting the plants.  The final stage was to sprinkle over various plant seeds that will hopefully provide some infill until the plants grow big enough to cover the soil.  I still have to finish off the north east corner back to the bank behind the barn (behind the lower Land Rover in the slideshow above), with some more steps, and I have the last few plants to go in at the bottom corner and at the far side of the path at the top of the bank.

As well as the Mediterranean herbs, rosemary and sage, that I bought in Portree, I also have a number of plants that I have been propagating over the past couple of years.  The plan is to have a windbreak at the top of the bank that will provide forward shelter a bit for the plants.  Although they will still get the driving salt rain onto them on occasion, hopefully this will provide a modicum of protection.  I have some Escallonia cuttings which are pretty well grown.  I am hoping that some of these have pale coloured flowers and some the standard dark pink that is more common around here.  The Escallonia has lovely flowers in the early spring, glossy green evergreen leaves and it seems to enjoy Skye’s bracing weather.  It can get a bit big for itself, but stands cutting back if necessary also.  I have also grown from seed this year some Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) which I have seen in flower around here and am hopeful it will fruit for me.  The fruit makes very nice jelly – like a lemony flavoured apple and the flowers are lovely.  Since these have been grown from seed I won’t know what the flowers and fruit are like until they happen.  Anyway, they should also make a tough wind resistant shrub at the top of the bank.  I’ve got a couple of shrubs that my mum gave me that were looking for a home – a variegated philadelphus (which should have lovely scented flowers if I’m lucky) and a variegated cherry laurel.  Hopefully these will be tough enough to cope with the wind there.

Since I haven’t finished clearing the orchard area of couchgrass, I have made the decision to plant some of my asparagus plants on the drive bank.  It isn’t ideal, the asparagus has a reputation for not liking root competition, and I also haven’t really improved the soil much for it.  It is probably a bit too exposed also, but that should improve as the Escallonia grows (competing at the roots as it does so!)  I just don’t think that leaving the asparagus in pots for many more years will do it much good either.  It should like the well drained sunny aspect anyhow.

I’ll put the planting plans in below although I suspect that the labels won’t be legible online.

1 Planting plan by steps
Planting by steps
2 Planting plan under tree
Planting under tree
3 planting plan peninsular
Planting at lower end

The seeds that I have surface sown include a sedum mix for roofs and walls, birdsfoot trefoil, bush vetch (vicia sepium), mexican marigold (tagetes minuta – old seed that never germinated well when it was fresh!), pot marigold (calendula sp.), Broom (cytisus scoparius), Licorice (glycyrrhiza glabra), Some sort of buckwheat that was supposed to be Fagopyrus dibotrys but has turned out to be a variety of annual buckwheat, Caraway, Crithmum maritimum (rock samphire).   I’m hoping that the bank will act as a nursery for some of these plants that can then be transplanted elsewhere; particularly the broom, which seems to struggle in pots for me.

I have also sown, mainly in with the asparagus, some milk vetch saved from the polytunnel.  I have been growing it amongst my asparagus there in the hope that it will make a non-competitive ground cover.  So far it doesn’t seem to be doing any harm anyhow.  It has fairly inconspicuous flowers, and lovely curled seedpods.  Hopefully it will provide a beneficial groundcover here on the drivebank also.

At present the planting looks a bit bare.  Soon the weeds will start growing as well as the groundcover seeds and the rest of the plants.  I hope I can keep this bit of the garden looking like someone cares, so will have to try and keep on top of the weeds in the early stages.  At least I don’t think I have couch grass on this bank, although there is the very fine red tipped grass that is almost as bad!