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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
We are concerned about the central area of the tree field where we have planted a band of ash trees. In retrospect I wish I hadn’t planted quite so many in such a large band, but I did have my reasons. I had read that planting larger groves of the same sort of tree is better – they look better together than smaller groves or a complete mixture. Also the soil there seemed a little shallow, not really thin – just over a spade depth generally, and I’d read that ash trees have shallow roots, so thought logically that they wouldn’t mind the soil being shallower. So far so good. However, the ash hasn’t grown that quickly. Particularly below the trackway.
I think there are three reasons for this. First they don’t take exposure too well – there is quite a bit of dieback overwinter and those that are more sheltered suffer less. Secondly the area which I planted them in is just slightly well drained, and shallower on the downhill side. This is a good thing in some ways; ash trees don’t like to be sat in water. However in the spring when we get a nice dry spell, I wonder if the trees are getting slightly starved. There is competition from the particularly fine vigorous grass that likes the same well drained drier conditions. Those that we managed to mulch along the track edge have done better. The third aspect that I wonder about is that I found what appear to be vine weevil larvae all over the field, and again they like the drier conditions in this area. Maybe they are also eating the ash roots?
In the longer term I expect that we will have to replace the ash trees with something else (something that will like shallow drier soil…). In the meantime I’ve obtained some spruce and pine seedlings and have planted them to form extra windbreaks in the future. Hopefully they will give the ash trees a little more protection in the medium term, and if we do need to remove the ash due to chalera dieback, will protect whatever we replace them with as they get established. I have marked the position with hazel stick cut from new hazel trees that were a birthday present. These were rather larger than I have planted in the past, so I trimmed them back when planting so they would not suffer too much from wind rock. We will aim to mulch some of these new spruce to give them a head start against the grass, but there are so many other things needing doing…. at least we will be able to find them from the hazel twigs when we do get round to it.
Although the spruce trees are tiny, I have planted them in a double spade width hole as I did with the original plantings. It is easy to see now which way the prevailing wind is, by the direction of the grass strands across the turf. I managed to plant a couple of bands of spruce perpendicular to the wind direction two or three trees deep amongst the ash trees. The pines I mostly planted at the edges of the trackway and the very edge of the tree field where the track goes next to the southern boundary.
Now comes my favourite time of year. From the winter dark, wind and rain, the days suddenly get longer and with the clock change to summer time at the end of March we also tend to get a change to dry settled weather. Long days, wall to wall sunshine and a drying breeze soon turn the sopping muddy soil to a workable consistency and now is the opportunity to do any weeding or digging projects. I start far too many things and still achieve half of what I want to get done! The grass starts growing and seemingly overnight violets and celandines join the early primroses in the parade of spring flowers.
It is also the time that the crofters set the hills afire. The top growth of heather and dead grass is burnt away every few years. This lets fresh new grass have it’s share of the sun and rain in order to feed the sheep when they return to graze on the moors after lambing. There are rules now that should be adhered to, including not burning after mid April, so as to allow ground nesting birds to breed safely. These (and other reasons) mean that the hills don’t get burnt so often, so every now and then the fires get a bit out of hand. There was one that was burning at the far end of the glen for two days and nights last week, fanned by a strong breeze (it was mostly the other side of the hill). They can sometimes set the peat underneath on fire, if it gets too dry, and can carry on burning underground, springing into life again seemingly from nowhere. Someone locally whimsically wrote ‘here be dragons’ on one burnt road sign….
I’ve been moving plants in and out of the polytunnel day and night this week, to try and harden them off ready to plant out. I have also managed to plant out my ribes odorata or clove currant which was sat outside all winter. This is a black fruited shrub from the US that has clove scented berries. I hadn’t realised however, how ornamental the flowers would be. Attractive yellow with a pleasant scent, they will make a nice show at this time of year.
Unfortunately I have had to prune the bush right back after planting, since it was quite root bound in a small pot. I have cut through the roots at the surface to try and encourage regrowth, since they are very congested. The top growth would have been far too much for the root ball, so I felt that removing most of the branches was the best thing.
Unfortunately it means I won’t be likely to get many berries this year. I have stuck the cuttings in the ground adjacent to the bush in the hope that they will root, (removing most of the flowers and leaves) although it is really too late for that to be very likely.
I was excited to be given some crug zing japanese ginger roots. Having seen this at Eden project last year, I was keen to see whether I could grow it here. It seems likely to do well. Jim at garden ruminations was happy to get rid of it, since it was a bit of a garden thug for him, with inconspicuous flowers at the base of luxuriant top growth. However both spring shoots and autumn flower buds are esteemed as vegetables in Japan, so I look forwards to trying it here in future. Since Jim gave me a substantial number of crowns (thank you!), I have been able to try it in several different places. Notably near my Toona sinensis shrub where I may create an oriental themed planting area. I was excited to note several Hablitzia plants sprouting along the willow bank around the fruit garden. They actually look pretty happy so that is encouraging. I think they could be a staple leaf crop through the spring and summer once established.
I have managed to get the steps on the drive bank completed, and am gathering up suitable plants ready to plant up the freshly bare soil before the weeds get a chance to recolonise it (hence the polytunnel daily migrations). I was able to get a nice looking lavender and broad leaved thyme plant in Portree along with some house leeks – thanks Frances for that suggestion for wall crevice planting! The picture below shows how much drier the soil is and how much the leaves on the sycamore have come out in just a week (even more so now).
Finally the drive bank is starting to look like I’ve been working on it (see also here for earlier work). To any person skilled in the art, it looks like a pile of stones rather than a retaining wall, however, I know I can walk securely on the top layer of stones, so am pretty happy with it. As a happy consequence of my ineptitude, there will be plenty of planting crevices to squeeze in a few little plants in the wall itself. As it weathers, and with some planting to soften it, I think it will look well.
The area between the ramp (unfinished – it will have steps) and the sycamore tree should be quite a favoured microclimate. It faces south west, but is partially sheltered by the workshop on the far side of the drive from the prevailing winds, and I’m also intending to plant some shrubs at the top of the bank behind it. It should be well drained; being a bank with loose rocks on it’s face, and these rocks will absorb the sun through the day and protect a little from the frost. It should be shaded first thing in the morning, so any frost can gradually melt rather than having an extreme change of temperature. I’m therefore hoping that I can try a few things in this bed that are a bit tender. It should certainly suit some mediterranean herbs like rosemary and lavender, maybe sage. I have an Atriplex halimus (salt bush) plant that I grew from seed, that may do well there, although it may grow a little big. If any of my Tropaeolum speciosum seeds germinate this would look stunning clambering up the tree. In the short term I also have some perennials that I grew from my HPS seed last year. I’ll have a bit of an audit over the weekend, since I am hoping to go to Portree next week (I need more compost) and can get some more plants if necessary. I’d quite like this area to be a bit more ornamental in nature, rather than the more unkempt back-to-nature look that most of my garden has!
I managed to relocate two large lumps of white fuchsia roots to the road side behind the house (the house backs onto the road so our front garden is at the back, and the rear garden is just the road verge and bank). The dogs like to run along the fence harassing pedestrians and chasing Donnie’s truck and the odd stray sheep. The ground therefore is challenging for hedge planting, since it is compacted and trampled as well as having almost no wind protection at all. There may be some forward protection due to the house behind and the spruce trees by the driveway. At some point in the past it looks like someone attempted to put a second pedestrian access down the bank behind the house. All that remains is a zigzagging canyon, forming a trip hazard and eyesore. I have therefore planted the fuchsia roots at the top end of this zigzag, buttressing them with rocks and rubble and backfilling with soil and stones where I have been excavating the second tier retaining wall by the drive. In my experience, fuchsia are tough plants so I expect the roots to survive both the relocation and the location to thrive. In the event of them failing, I have got some younger stems covered with soil which I’m intending to stick in the ground to try and take new plants from.
The strawberry plants at the top of the bank by the sycamore, which got covered with soil when I was excavating the fuchsia and the ramp a few weeks ago, seem to be surviving under their blanket. There are several fresh leaves appearing. These are running alpine strawberries, which I bought in to try as a ground cover and am hoping will have useful berries (no sign last year). On the bank below, near the tree, I found a single plant of sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata). By appearance it could have been a number of things, but the aniseed fragrance is a dead give away. I suspect that I threw a few seeds around there in the hope that some would sprout. I didn’t notice the plant last year, but this must be it’s second year judging by the little taproot. I’ve transplanted this a bit further back near to where I have planted a bladdernut (staphlea pinnata). I noticed that the good king henry plants, that I planted near the bladdernut last year, seem to be coming back OK. The other plants that have been growing around the sycamore are……more sycamores. I’m collecting them up into a little bucket and am considering planting them down in the tree field where the ash aren’t doing so well. I didn’t plant many sycamore (just some potted seedlings I had been given) mainly because it has the reputation of being a somewhat anti-social tree. However, I’m now just thinking if it grows….
Winter has finally arrived, we have a little snow that has stuck around for a few days, gradually refreezing as ice as it is trampled and melts a little during the day. I quite like a bit of quiet time to look around and see the structure of the ground under the plants. You can see the pathways made by people and dogs as the slightly flattened grass remains whiter with snow than rougher areas.
I have done a little pruning, although you are not supposed to do this when it is frosty! The remaining gooseberries in the fruit garden didn’t take long, and I have cut down the sapling sycamore tree that would have crowded one of the apple trees there. It may grow back, but I can just prune it out each year for pea sticks until it gives up! The apple that I grafted before I came to Skye and that was living in a pot for a while has unfortunately grown a little one sided. I assume it is just the prevailing wind that has achieved this, and am not sure if it is possible to reverse….
With the freezing weather there is little plant wise to do outside, but I have been able to get a little done in the polytunnel. As threatened I have drastically pruned back the kiwi vine. As well as shortening it, I have also taken out some of the larger fruiting side branches. This should encourage new ones to grow and be more fruitful. I tied the main trunk a little tighter to the overhead wires, as it was hanging a little low and even interfering with my headroom. The grapevines are far simpler to prune. I simply cut back all the side branches close to the main trunk.
I am very hopeful that what I am seeing here is flower buds on my apricot. I’m still not really sure whether I’m doing the right thing with the pruning of this. I think I now need to cut back the main branches by one third to an upward facing bud and tie in new branches in between the existing ones, and then I’m into ‘maintenance pruning’ whatever that means! I know I’m not supposed to prune when the plant is dormant so I need to leave it a couple of months.
There is a little weeding to do, and I also need to start watering a bit more in the tunnel as well in preparation for some early sowing. I think the akebia is surviving nicely, but I’m not sure about the passionflowers. I think they were a bit small and I should have brought them into the house last autumn. The propagation area keeps expanding. I could really use more space for putting the growing on plants. I’ll have to have a think about this. Maybe I just need to tidy up a bit more efficiently! Theoretically there is lots of space on my little greenhouse frame, so perhaps I’ll just concentrate on getting that properly sorted again. It just keeps filling up with empty pots!
You know the best presents? They are the things that you really would like, but don’t buy yourself because they are just that bit extravagant. Well my clever sisters got it spot on this year. First to arrive was a pack of mushroom spawn to inoculate logs. There are three different varieties of edible mushroom, and enough spawn to inoculate two largish logs. What I may do is use half to innoculate a log each, and the other half to try again with newspaper ‘logs’. I had a go a couple of years ago making huge rolled up newspaper logs fron unsold papers from the shop (we don’t get them collected so just recycle or otherwise use them locally) and incorporated spawn dowels in the layers. Nothing happened. I think that what went wrong was I was over concerned with the logs not drying out, so I wrapped the newspapers in black bin liners, and I think the mushrooms suffocated. Given our rainfall, I think I will just stack them somewhere out of the sun and just water them a bit if we do get a dry spell. In the meantime the spawn should be safe in the fridge door.
The second part of the present (it was a joint one) was a hazel tree innoculated with truffle spawn. I could be digging up my own truffles in seven years or so! I had looked at these a while ago, but decided against buying myself one since I had many other plants to spend my money on. It really is a bit of a long shot anyway. I hadn’t realised for example, that the truffle fungi likes it quite alkaline. Thin soil over chalk is what they like. I’ve got thin soil, but generally rather acidic. What I’ve done therefore is select a spot, as close to south facing as I’ve got, on a slope, so well drained. It hasn’t got a huge amount of shelter yet, but isn’t as exposed as some spots either, and as the surrounding trees grow up (other hazels and oaks) they will shelter each other.
I dug my standard, two spade width turf turned over, hole for the tree and used all of a bag of ground dolomite limestone (probably 1kg? the label had long since gone). I bought the linestone when I thought I might be doing more annual veg growing. I mixed half in the soil below the top turves, and sprinkled the other half around the tree once planted, for a distance of about a metre radius. Hopefully that will just give the truffle spawn enough of a pH change to get it started. If the truffle fungi doesn’t make it we should at least have another hazel tree!
I meant to do a separate post about hazelnuts, but it’s bit past time now. Suffice to say that I got a fair share of the bumper harvest that happened last year. In a few hours at the start of October I collected a carrier bag and all my pockets full. Normally the birds and mice strip the trees, but there was enough for everyone this year.
I dried the nuts on top of the stove (I think that some may have got a bit scorched). They have kept well in the shells, but I have shelled most of them with a hand cracker and have got about 8 Oz of hazelnut kernels. A fair proportion (maybe 20% – 30%) had no kernel, or a shrivelled up one, but the rest were fine, if a little small. Apparently getting empty nuts is quite normal for hazels. The full ones should sink in water, so I may wash them next time to save some of the labour until I get a nut cracking machine! Interestingly one of the trees appeared to have quite a few nuts with twin kernels. Not really what you want however, since they end up a little small.
Anyway, this bumper harvest has inspired me to look again at hazels as a nut crop tree. We may not have the optimum climate for nuts, but that hasn’t stopped me planting apple trees, which also won’t crop well here most years. What we do have is no squirrels, which are such a pest elsewhere in the UK as to present quite a challenge when getting any of the harvest. I’ve still got a lot of other projects on the go this year, but I think over the next nine months I will try and work out where hazels for nuts might do best. As usual they want somewhere sheltered and sunny (!), but I’ll also need to fit them into the existing tree planted areas. Maybe interplanted in with the ash is one option (if I do lose the ash, there will be plenty of space) but there are other possibilities.
To help with nut tree selection and planting planning I also asked for and got for xmas, Martin Crawford’s book on nut growing. This has got me over-excited about all the other nuts I could try. Maybe not almonds (even I’m not that optimistic, although maybe in the tunnel…) but walnuts, or japanese walnuts may be a possibility to try, and perhaps I could find a more sheltered spot for some sweet chestnut, and there’s a few cute little nut trees related to horse chestnuts that are edible and may crop here…..