Jan 19

back ways in snow
Backways in snow

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.

after pruning
After pruning

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.

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom?

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!

too many pots
Too many pots….
greenhouse frame
Mini greenhouse frame (and polytunnel pond)

 

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Hazelnuts and truffles

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.

truffle location
Truffle tree location

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!

truffle planted
Truffle ‘tree’ with added limestone

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.

nut hunting
Hazelnut hunting ground

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.

twin kernel
Twin kernel

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.

nut production line
Nut cracking production line

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…..

Plants for a future: The Fern’s field

I’ve wanted to visit the field in Cornwall ever since reading Ken Fern’s book ‘Plants for a future’.  I found it so inspirational and it resonated so well with me.  ‘If only carrots grew on trees’ was the starting point for Ken, and he and Addy have made it a life’s work to try out as many useful and edible perennial plants on their land in Cornwall as will grow there.  They also publish Ken’s databases on temperate and tropical plants online.  I had a little confusion between the field, and the ‘plants for a future’ database which I have also found online.  Addy explained that they had set up the charity to promote the work they were doing on the land and support information dissemination.  Being a charity made it easier to get funding.  After a while the then trustees decided to concentrate on the information side and have largely severed ties with the land project.  Ken now maintains his own databases, but they get no financial support from the charity.

interesting and useful
Edible and Useful Plants for a Future

The field is a 28 acre site almost on the coast of south Cornwall near Lostwithiel.  When the Ferns acquired it it was a windswept field.  Now about thirty years on it is a mature woodland.  Half of the site was planted with native trees with the help of a forestry grant (“mainly a Nature reserve to give something back to Nature” says Addy), and the rest is experimental planting, orchards, soft fruit and vegetable plantings. Some of the experimental planting is used by members of the land club which is made up of volunteers who have worked on the field (see the link to the field for more information).  Addy kindly gave us a quick site tour pointing out some of the interesting plants.  There were so many useful tips that I gained from Addy as to the growth and harvest of the different crops: edible, medicinal and otherwise useful. For example the Japanese heartnut fruit ripen earlier and so may be worth a try in Skye rather than Walnut. I was so excited I forgot to take any pictures and had to go round myself later, getting pretty lost in the process!  The trees are so tall that you have no long distance markers, so it is quite easy to get disorientated.  An electricity line bisects the site which is a useful landmark.  Unfortunately the weather had turned slightly damp, so the light was not so good for photography.

sunny clearing
Sun loving shrubs at edge of clearing

Addy said that the apples were generally ripening this year about two weeks early, which had thrown out her normal harvest plans.  There were too many apples for her to harvest them all, so we were concentrating on the ones that would be the most useful to her.  Also importantly her favourite apple, which had memories connected to her mother, which although not doing well every year, had a good crop this year.  Between us, with a ladder and Addy climbing the trees, we were able to get almost all the apples from the selected trees.  They were then graded and packed away in boxes so they can be used or stored as appropriate.  Addy said that they didn’t bother trying to sell the surplus any more, since the apples weren’t perfect enough for retail.  We spent a peaceful night in the orchard, listening to the occasional thump of apples falling.  We had tried to make sure we didn’t pitch our tent directly under a tree!

compost heaps
Ginormous compost heaps

There were two orchard areas, one between fruit and vegetable cages, which seemed to be managed more intensively, and one further away near the woodland.  The garden areas need to be fully fenced against deer, and other productive plants on the site had ingenious armouring as well.  Even the monkey puzzles had been attacked!

deer defences
Deer and rabbit guards

I noticed that one of the sea buckthorn had been pollarded, which would be one way of keeping the fruit in picking height.  We did try some barberry fruit, but they were rather sharp, although still a bit underripe.  I’m rather anti-berberis, having had a few as ornamentals in my previous garden.  I remember the prickles had a habit of going perpendicularly into my fingers and snapping off, being very difficult to remove again.

big haws
The haws in front were about one inch diameter

There were at least three different sorts of fruiting haw.  One was not then ripe (so would probably not ripen at all well on Skye) one was refreshing and substantial-tasting like an apple, and one was sweeter and juicy, more like a soft fruit, almost a cherry.

fig on building
Fig on corner of shed

A kiwi vine had completely swamped the tree it was trained up, and other climbers such as grapes and figs grew against the buildings.  One fruit I am interested in is the plum yew cephalotaxus.  Unfortunately it was not quite ripe, so we were unable to try it.  The hot summer had made the fruit smaller than usual.

plum yew fruit
Plum Yew fruit not yet ripe

A particularly fragrant eleagnus scented the air by the pathways, and I was happy to spot a decaisnea fargesii, blue bean tree, in full fruiting glory.  The fruit look fascinating, and have a most peculiar feel, giving substance to another name of ‘dead mens fingers’.  They are in the same family as Akebia.  The fruit itself was lovely and ripe, sweet pulp inside a leathery skin.  I wonder if the skin is edible as well like akebia is (used as a bitter vegetable in japan).  We tried to do some research online on the train for edible uses in its native range (Nepal and Indian himalayas) but didn’t come up with any details.  The seeds have a thick jelly coating that cling to them.  AC and I shared a pod on the train, and I now have a quantity of seeds to try and germinate!  Actually I kept seed from many of the fruit we tried on the holiday.  Quite often fresh seed will germinate better.  Mostly I know what they are, but I’m not sure which of the haws is which, although they would all be worth growing out as trees if they germinate.

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The facilities at the field are somewhat basic.  Although we made use of the power to charge up the car, there is no flush toilet.  Like Sagara, the Ferns have a composting toilet, albeit a rather more basic one away in the woods.  They are hoping to improve the facilities in order to offer courses at the field and to this end have set up a fund raiser to enable more user friendly facilities to be installed and improvements to the shed for a classroom (see information here).  This has now gone live (as of November) so please consider donating to this worthwhile endeavour to enable sharing of their knowledge to more people in the future.  You can donate online here

Dartington Forest Garden

forest garden layers
Forest garden layers at Dartington

The forest garden at Dartington was created over the last 24 years by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART).  A forest garden uses useful plants to mimic the layers of a natural woodland to create a stable ecosystem.  It is a popular theme in temperate climate permaculture.  The picture above illustrates the forest garden layers at the edge of the garden by the carpark, including unseen roots (of mashua and japanese yam).  The timing of our holiday was timed around the ability to participate on one of the tours that Martin runs periodically through the year.  It also had to be outside of the peak season on Skye.  I didn’t always catch the latin names of the plants during the tour, so in general I have used the common names that Martin used.  When he did give the latin names I realise that I have probably been mispronouncing them all these years, having mainly learnt them from books!

lollypop alder
Italian alder trees with lower branches removed

The canopy layer is mainly made up of italian alder trees which have had their lower branches removed in order to let more light through.  Even so the garden was much more shady than Sagara’s garden, feeling much more like a woodland with clearings, rather than a field with trees.  Martin has not used soil landscaping to create microclimates, explaining that as his plot sloped south and was sheltered at the start by a wood to the west it had not been necessary.

Having already visited Sagara’s garden many of the plants were familiar to us already, although Martin’s trees were considerably bigger.  He stressed the importance of plotting the area and planting spacing based on mature tree sizes since all the layers will require light to be productive.  Clearings form suntraps that enable Martin to grow even quite tender fruit like persimmon.  It has been a hot year this summer following a cold winter, and many of the fruit are a couple of weeks early, and some that don’t always ripen are doing well.

groundcover
False strawberry groundcover

Much of the ground under the trees was clear of plants, being covered by leaf mulch.  In the spring there are more bulbs in growth such as wild garlic.  The main spreading ground cover Martin had visible at the time we came was false strawberry.  This has a yellow flower, and although it does set some little red strawberry like fruit, they are disappointingly tasteless.  The false strawberry has the advantage of being evergreen, so protecting the soil year round.  Other shade loving ground covers included Hosta, and fiddlehead fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) both of which I fancy growing.  There was also mint, ground covering raspberries and japanese wineberry, with comfrey and turkish rocket in the sunny spots.  Martin said that turkish rocket was one of the few plants that could happily compete with comfrey.  Other ground layer plants included more of the japanese spring vegetables, solomons seal and japanese ginger, which is harvested by cutting the growing shoots rather than digging it up.  The main weed that Martin gets seeding in the garden is Ash trees.  Sadly this may not be the case for much longer, since the ash dieback has spread to the county.

hosta and fern
Hosta and fiddlehead fern thrive in the shade

 

Martin talked about the importance of soil mycellium (fungal networks)  in sharing the nutrients about the wood.  They also can spread warnings amongst the plants.  If one plant is stressed or attacked by pests it releases chemicals that, transmitted by the mycellium, stimulate other plants to increase their own chemical defences.  Martin said that generally it isn’t neccessary to innoculate the soil.  As long as it wasn’t disturbed, the fungi would already be in the soil, particularly close to existing trees.  It is however possible to buy edible fungi spawn to encourage more edible fungi in your forest garden, and he also showed us an oyster mushroom log that he had stimulated to fruit before we came.  It is possible to have a number of logs that are ready to produce mushrooms and trigger them in turn so as to have a continuous supply of mushrooms.  I have tried unsuccessfully to grow mushrooms on newspaper ‘logs’.  I think that because I wrapped them in bin liners to keep them damp the spawn was suffocated, so I may have another go.

Martin Crawford
Martin Crawford at Dartington

 

There are a number of trees that Martin grows for leaf crops, either as salad greens or as cooked vegetables.  One that I recently got is Toona sinensis or toon tree (visible as tall shrub layer in top photo).  This has leaves that when young, are eaten as a vegetable in china.  We tried a little leaf, and it tastes rather like an aromatic onion.  Salad leaves include small leaved lime (tilia cordata), which has quite pleasant mild tasting young leaves, beech (fagus sylvatica), which I always find a bit tough even when young, and white mulberry.  We tried the leaves of the latter, and again I found it a bit tough, although not unpleasant in flavour.  It may have been better when younger, or cooked though.  Martin pollards all these trees to keep a supply of young leaves in easy reach, but out of reach of browsing deer.

mulberry leaves
White mulberry leaves (at left)

Other interesting shrubs included relatives of the common bog myrtle, which itself has edible leaves used like bay leaves.  The wax myrtle has similar uses for the leaves and also the berries have a waxy coating that can be melted off and used in candles and sealing etc.  These are nitrogen fixing in boggy ground, so may be ideal in certain areas of my field!  I do have the wax myrtle on my list of ‘wants’, although I am having difficulty in getting seed to germinate.  You need male and female plants to set berries.  I do have some bog myrtle down by the river, although am not sure whether they are male or female.  It is useful if caught by midges, since they don’t like it’s aromatic foliage.

wax myrtle
Not that great a picture of wax myrtle!

Another nitrogen fixing tree is the judas tree.  We did see this at EDFG, but didn’t know what it was.  Martin had a good sized tree which I asked about.   Prior to arriving at Dartington, we saw another in a green space where we had our picnic lunch.  It has distinctive heart shaped leaves.  Apparently the flowers are edible and come out before any of the foliage on bare branches.  I collected some seedpods from the one we saw at our picnic spot, so I may see if I can get some seed to germinate.

We tried some sechuan pepper seeds, they are very peppery and made my lips and tongue numb for a few minutes.  Apparently this doesn’t happen with the dried fruit, which can be mixed with salt and ground together for salt and pepper seasoning.  I quite fancy trying to grow this.  Apparently there are lots of similar shrubs all called sechuan pepper, so I’ll have to check with Martin the one that he uses!  Nepalese pepper is quite similar, but ripens later, so is less likely to be suitable on Skye.

An interesting edible that I didn’t remember from my reading is the Trachycarpus ‘palm tree’.  Apparently it has huge flowers that can be used like cauliflower.  I know this will grow locally here on Skye, and I did have a couple but gave them away since I wasn’t sure where to put them.  I sort of regret that now!

Trees that I forgot to mention from EDFG that we also saw in the Dartington garden were alternative haws.  There are several plants closely related to our native hawthorne that have bigger and nicer berries.   I have one, Crataegus arnoldiana, although it hasn’t flowered for me yet.  Martin had several haws which we were able to sample the fruit of.  I have ordered seeds of lots of different varieties from the ART to try and grow this year.  If I find one that does well for me, I may be able to graft it on to the common hawthornes.

There was a clear area under a huge pine tree that Martin sometimes uses as an outdoor classroom.  He says it is important not to forget the people in the garden and have a space for them to use.  It was impressive that the huge tree had been grown by Martin from seed (as were most of the more unusual trees we saw).  He talked about harvesting resin from the tree and the uses it has (turpentine, rosin etc.).

edible pond
Edible pond area

A pond area was also planted with edible plants: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia – has edible tubers), mint (needs no explanation) and Houttuynia Cordata.  This last we tried a leaf of.  It has a strange fishy orange taste that I wasn’t too keen on but some others liked.  It is a popular vegetable with fish in china.  A little research reveals that in some climates it can be invasive, but I don’t think I’ll bother with it, although I do fancy developing an edible pond/bog area below the barn!

In summary, this was a truly inspirational visit again.  Such a treat for me to meet Martin Crawford who has done so much for the development of agroforestry in the UK and internationally.

East Devon Forest Garden

This garden was the first visited on our holiday.  It is one of the first forest gardens I’ve visited at all, except in my imagination.  Mine is still mainly in the fourth dimension!  There used to be one at Ryton organic gardens, but I think they found it too messy so got rid of it.

pond in sunset
Enjoying the evening sun by the sheltered pool

Sagara has created the East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG) over the last eight years or so.  I found out about it through Facebook so that does have some uses!  Despite ill health he has created a wonderful space in a bit less than three acres.  His vision is of a spiritual foraging retreat, where people can reclaim their souls through browsing in the garden.  Certainly there is a tranquil feel throughout the garden.  So many of the plants are edible, that we had to repeat a mantra ‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’ because you get used to tasting everything after a few days.  There was plenty of wildlife.  We saw butterflies and birds, evidence of moles and Sagara says they have a family of hedgehogs as well as pigeons.

colourful amaranth
Colourful amaranth in sunny spot

The main technique that I took away from the garden was probably the use of earthworks and hedges to create banks that made sheltered, sunny or shady areas and formed microclimates for plants that require different conditions.  Fast growing italian alder had been planted around the periphery of the garden.  These are now over 25 feet tall so form a screen and give the garden even more of a tranquil enclosed feel.  As a nitrogen fixer it also provides nitrogen through soil fungal networks to other plants in the garden.  A leylandii hedge screens a simple yet sophisticated composting loo and provides shelter for the herb area and main vegetable production plots, which are closer to the buildings than the more seasonal tree crops.  A mowed trackway enables vehicular access around the garden, although separate pedestrian paths meander slightly different routes.  I found it quite easy to become disoriented and the garden seemed much bigger than it is.  This is also due to the multiple circular clearings and asymmetric free form design.  The largest circle had a tall earthbank surmounted by fruiting Elaeagnus bushes and enclosing a beautiful natural swimming pool.  Steps go down into it and it is filled from a spring borehole, the water circulating through gravel beds planted with aquatic plants to keep the water clean.  Stone alcoves retain the day’s heat to protect the most tender plants here: olives, figs and citrus trees have set fruit this year.  There are also Echium and hardy bananas, grapes and palm trees, and a little pointed running alpine strawberry still has fruit ripening.

solar powered shower
Solar powered shower block

In the establishment of the garden Sagara had ploughed and seeded the plot with deep rooted plants like chiccory and plantains, before doing the earth moving and planting the larger trees, then smaller trees and shubs.  The site is loam over clay, quite flat and a bit liable to frost with cold north winds.  He is still planting the ground cover layers, which, because it requires many plants, can be a slow, labour intensive and expensive business.   We helped clear an area and plant out some perennial brassica with Sagara.

Over time the garden area should become a net carbon sink as the plants and the soil convert carbon dioxide into more stable wood and humus.  At present the garden still has quite an open feel about it, and I would love to go back in a few years to see how it matures.  I’m a bit envious of the kinder climate there compared to Skye.  My sweet chestnuts are tiny in comparison to Sagara’s.  The biggest of mine is only as tall as me, the smallest that survived is only a foot or so after nearly ten years!  Sagara’s were probably taller after three years than mine are now and now at six years old are beautiful trees of fifteen feet or so.  However, he has already had frosts that damaged the squash plants, and there are no squirrels on Skye.

sweet chestnut
Sweet chestnut fruiting at 6 years old

One of the beds was given over to edible flowers, I wasn’t aware that Gladioli and Dahlia petals are edible, and it was fascinating that each flower was also a slightly different flavour, some sweeter, some more complex.  The chinese chive flowers made a lovely addition to our supper with a sweet onion crunch.

autumn olive
Autumn olive fruit

New foods I was able to try included the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).  This has a very pleasant sweet tart taste.  The berries are a little small being a bit smaller than currants, but are borne in profusion along the branches.  They are also extremely pretty berries: orangey-red and flecked with gold!  We picked about four pounds or so which Sagara is going to use to make a jam with.  The spring fruiting Elaeagnus were in blossom and the fragrance is lovely.  We also tried sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) berries.  These are very fragile, tending to burst as you pick them and are even smaller and more profuse.

sea buckthorn
Sea buckthorn fruit

The flavour is sharper, more acidic, and Sagara had several different cultivars which all had different flavours; one had a noticable pineapple flavour, and even the unimproved form has a very pleasant mandarin taste.  They are very high in vitamin C and often used in juice form, sweetened or blended with other fruit.  Both Elaeagnus and sea buckthorn are nitrogen fixing, the sea buckthorn seeming to have a tendency to sucker.  Sagara had his first nuts on his bladdernut (Staphylea Pinnata) this year, these are a little small due to the hot summer.  Inside a one inch inflated balloon fruit is a single shiny nut.  This has a very hard but thin seed coat and a sweet flavour.  It is said to be like pistachio.

japanese spring vegetables
Petasites and Hosta on shady side of earth bank

Other plants I haven’t tried yet that Sagara is growing include several Japanese spring vegetables: Hosta, Udo (Aralia) and Petasites are all garden perennial plants that can be cooked and eaten in the spring, as is american pokeweed (Phytolacca), although I gather this last is also considered to be toxic so take care!  One plant we didn’t try was the turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis).  This was a huge dandelion like plant which is supposed to taste mustardy.  I suspect that would not go down too well in our house, although the plants did look lovely and robust, so I may give it a go anyhow!  Colourful amaranth seedheads surrounded a large fruiting medlar, and several grapes were ripening up trees and scrambling on the sunny banks.  Other perennial vegetables Sagara grows include Sea cabbage and sea kale, perennial kale and walking stick kale, oca, Yacon, mashua, japanese yams, walking onion, artichokes (both sorts) and asparagus.  Fruit includes apples, plums and other top fruit as well as sechuan pepper, quince (chaenomeles as well as cydonia) mulberry and kiwi.  Nuts include hazel, chestnut, walnut and heartnuts and there are a multitude of other purposeful plants providing fibre, shelter, food or nitrogen fixing.  I was particularly interested in the miscanthus grass that Sagara is growing as sheltering hedges.  This is like a small thin bamboo and I had been wondering if we are warm enough on Skye for it to do well.  It grows up to 2 or 3 metres tall in a year once established, creating shelter and forming woody stems that can be cut since they are renewed each year.  This produces a large amount of biomass so it has been planted for biofuels in many parts of the UK.

miscanthus grass
Miscanthus grass surmounts earthworks by trackway

As a place for people to meet, eat and communicate Sagara has a number of structures through the garden.  We were lucky enough to stay in a beautiful yurt tent, although he is in the process of taking the canvas structures down for winter.  There are sculptures and statues in various niches in the garden, but the whole thing is a work of art.  Such abundance of food now, in contrast to the now sterile seeming horse paddock it replaced.  We had a lovely discussion with Sagara about farming and hunter gathering, money and land, spirit and body which I really can’t do justice to here.  Overall an inspiring start to the holiday (and it was sunny!).

yurt
Our Yurt next to italian alder edge plants

 

 

Orchard revisited – more pH testing

toad
Toad in orchard area

I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area.  I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching.  I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc.  I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together.  The soil does seem quite light.  I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much.  There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.

orchard clearing
forking over the orchard

I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid.  I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants.  I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred.  I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it.  I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial.  The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere.  I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down.  I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon.  I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant.  I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….

S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil.  Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops.  This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year.  We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility.  I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden.  Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.

On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn.  Again this has a bit of couch grass in it.  I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass.  I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short.  I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out!  Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary!  At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction.  I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)

blueberry plot
View to holding from opposite hill (taken Sept 2017)

I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass.  What would happen if I just left it be?  How competive is it as a weed?  I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch.  It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field.  I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer.  I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch).  Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!

pH testing kit
pH indicator chart

I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished.  I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart.  The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach.  All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5.  The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7.  I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time.  Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.

pH test potential blueberry plot
pH test for potential blueberry plot

 

 

 

Trees for free

This year I was going to try and back fill the tree field with more local tree stock.  The first phase was taking cuttings from the willow that seems to be growing more quickly for me.  I’m not sure what variety of willow it is but it has seeded in the tree field in the pond area, presumably from the trees that line the river bank.

set set willow by pond
Willow seeded in by pond

I had already transplanted some of the nicer seedlings that were growing in what should be the track area, but there are a lot of other seedlings coming up beside the pond and in amongst the other trees.  I’m not going to bother to move them.  Willow should take easily from cuttings, so I just selected some longish twigs, removing which should improve the shape of the trees, and cut them out.  I then removed the side branches and cut the main stem (and any thicker suitable side stems) into approx 10 inch lengths.

creating cuttings
Trimming willow cuttings

I didn’t count the number of cuttings I achieved, so I don’t know whether it was 100, 75 or 130 potential trees.  I have pushed them at fairly close spacing (6 ft?) in the damper areas where there seems to have been failure of the previous plantings.  The area by the pond which is very damp, lost a fair few birch and aspen – damaged by voles mainly I think.  That area has been infilled completely.  I have also made a start up by the southern border just under the hump.

area for replanting top
Area above conifers planted with willow cuttings

This area had birch and hazel, but is often quite damp due to springs coming out at the base of the hump.  It is also on the boundary where the prevailing wind comes from.  The hazel struggled to compete with the grass and we lost quite a few.  The ones left are starting to do better as the other trees are coming on.  The birch are some of the ones that have suffered bad die back and I think it’s that they don’t like the damp soil.  The willow however should do better.  I’ve used up all the cuttings I took from down by the pond area.  There’s still more room but some of the saplings transplanted some years there are now pretty big so I should be able to take more cuttings from these to finish off.

hopeful new willow
Newly inserted willow cutting

Mulching on a slope

Almost all our holding is sloping.  There are small level areas, but generally the land slopes down from the road to the river.  A little below the barn is one of the steeper escarpments.  I have planted this area with trees that are less likely to be coppiced for fuel wood; such as scots pine, rowan, small leaved lime, beech and holly.  Most of these species also prefer it to be well drained.  Last year I also planted 6 small juniper bushes.  I discussed in a previous post using fiber insulation underlay as mulch material.

juniper in new insulation
New Juniper May 2017

One of the reasons I was keen on it was it would stay on a 45 degree slope with no additional weighing down even in our winds.  However, it is now showing signs of composting into the bank and grass seeding into it’s surface.  The plastic reinforcing fibres are quite obvious now, but are still enmeshed with the underlay.

juniper worn mulch
Juniper with worn underlay Dec 2017

I have therefore been round all the underlay patches and mulched over the underlay with cardboard on the slopes and newspaper (very old and damp) on the flatter areas.  Hopefully this time next year the underlay will have completely gone, and I can just peel back the cardboard and rake up the plastic fibres, if they haven’t got too much in the way of roots growing through them!  The newspaper on the level does not really need weighing down now – it is pretty consolidated although the birds are digging under it a little looking for treats.  It would have been too difficult to use on the slope however, so I have used 4 large sheets of corrugated cardboard.  These are overlapping with the juniper poking out the middle, and weighed down with some spare fence post stobbs that we had left over from our temporary fencing whilst evicting the sheep.  I’m pretty pleased with the way it looks, although the dogs think there is something very exciting hidden under the cardboard  – so I don’t think it will necessarily last as long as it should!

mulching on slope
Cardboard mulching on a slope!

Happy Habby garden, pH testing

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Hablitzia Tamnoides plant in tea garden

I’ve had a Hablitzia Tamnoides plant for about 18 months now. To say it is not thriving, would probably be pretty accurate. It’s a relatively unknown plant in the UK, at least until quite recently. Originating from the caucasus region, it is (supposed to be) a vigorous scrambling perennial plant, growing to about 6 ft with tasty leaves that can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Steven Barstow (http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=8606) has helped to popularise the plant with his ‘around the world in eighty plants’ book, which I heartily recommend by the way. My plant came from Alison Tindale of backyard larder (http://backyardlarder.co.uk), as a swap for some local Skye plants, and I planted it in the tea garden, where I thought it would be quite sheltered. As it turns out the tea garden hasn’t been as sheltered as I’d hoped. Also, I’ve since found out it’s native range is in limestone cliffs, so it prefers quite an alkaline soil.

(edit: I seem to have made up the limestone based on this comment from Steven Barstow, https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10154986079450860&id=655215859
I think I just assumed the cliffs in the picture were limestone.  Having done some hasty research online https://www.britannica.com/place/Caucasus, does mention limestone, so perhaps my guess was right. Alison Tindale also says it dislikes acid soils (which seems to bourne out by my experience) so I think I have added 2 and 2, whether my answer is right is luck rather than judgement!  What Stephen actually says in his book is that ‘It is found in spruce and beech woods, amongst rocks and in ravines and along rivers’)

It also benefits from quite a fertile spot. I don’t think the tea garden is particularly fertile, but relatively good for round here. Because I was so keen on growing this plant, I had also obtained some seed from Mandy at incredible vegetables (http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk) this spring, and got lots to germinate.

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Hablitzia Tamnoides seedlings

Potted on, they soon outgrew the fertility in their little pots and turned quite yellow. I’ve since potted them on again, and so far they are looking a bit more happy. I decided to make a ‘habby bed’ to make my hablitzia happy. This is in the shelter of the workshop by the drive. I dug out the soil and rocks as deep as I could (not very deep – a foot or before I hit bed rock). I then back filled with builder’s rubble (some of the old render from the byre which was falling off). On top of this I put compost from last year’s compost heap which was rather full of wood ash from the stove, so hopefully both nutritious and low in pH. Having mixed these two together (difficult with the stones) I topped the lot with not quite ready bracken compost, which hopefully will be relately weed free as well as adding to the nutrients in the longer term. I’ve planted three of my new hablitzia in the bed and so far they are just sitting there! Hopefully next spring I should see them putting on good growth in appreciation.  I need to think about some sort of climbing frame for them, since they should now grow quite tall.

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Hopefully Happy Hablitzia in Habby bed

This week I finally got round to doing a pH test on the soil here. I’m not sure why I hadn’t done it before. I think I had just gone on the gut feeling that it is quite acidic, without needing to put a number on it, and let’s just say I was right! The hydrangea here can have lovely blue flowers, and rhododendron thrive. I’m a bit surprised now that anything else grows – it just goes to show that plants don’t read books! I took a soil sample from approximately the centre of the tree field between the royal oaks, and the pH came out as very acidic. I tested the soil in my happy habby bed as well, and at this early stage my terraforming has been successful as it has come out as alkakine. It will be interesting to see how this changes over time. Hopefully the lime from the render will keep the worst of the acidity away. If necessary, I have a ready supply of ash from the house fires which could be used to top up.

I think I will do some more pH testing nearer the house to see if there is a difference in the cultivated areas. They may have been ‘improved’ by previous gardeners, or from lime leaching from the buildings. I do occasionally dig up what seems to be a bit of chalk, so the land does seem to have been modified in the past. I can’t think of any other reason for rock chalk to be lying about anyway.

10 years on – Photos

I’ve been trying to take photos of the same views every 3 months to give a record of how things have changed over time.  I didn’t start from the word go, but some of the photos date from when we first bought the site in 2007, since they are good views!  It has been ten years that we have been here now, so I thought I would share some before and after shots.

View from above the road.

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This is taken from the prevailing wind direction (South West) As you can see we have been trying to establish a wind break of trees along the top of the bank.  Our property boundary is the middle of the road  The ones by the road have done fairly well, the ones further along to the SE/right less well.  The soil is either too shallow, or too wet (the rock shelf holds the water) for them to thrive.  The spruce that were by the house have all provided their tops as christmas trees in the past to stop them getting too big (they are very close to the house).

Fruit Garden.

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These aren’t quite the same angle but give an idea of how the fruit garden has evolved.  The willow fedge was planted in 2009, and is still a bit sparse in places due to the soil being a bit shallow.  I put rubbish such as dock roots and bramble thinnings on the uphill side of it to try and build up the soil.  The tree that you can see in the centre on the earlier picture was a pear tree that did not survive.  The soil is a bit shallow there, even though I had built it up a bit I think the tree got a bit dry.  The morello cherry that was planted at the same time is doing well, you can see it in silouette against the polytunnel in the recent picture.  I pruned it to open it up a bit this year.  It had one cherry last year!  The monkey puzzles here were planted as 2 ft trees in 2009.  You can’t see them in the earlier shot, but I can see two ( towards the left) in this year’s shot.

From above orchard looking towards river

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Again, not quite the same view point.  The picture from 2009 must have been just after shearing!  I can just see the fenceline at the bottom where we had started planting the trees in the pond area at the bottom.  Note no deer fence in the earlier picture.  They are definately starting to look like trees now, and even woods maybe in places!

From North corner by river towards house.

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The trees here had been in a couple of years by 2012.  The deer fencing however had only just been erected, and we soon noticed a difference in the growth of the trees – or at least the growth which has survived.  Two houses to the north of us have been erected since we’ve been here.  These alders are amongst the best grown trees now.  We may consider coppicing them soon, before they get too big.

River from viewpoint

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The first picture was taken as we were planting trees along the south boundary.  You can see the temporary fence that excluded the sheep.  The deer fence on the perifery went up a few months later.  The spruce in the centre are slightly close together pehaps, but won’t grow back once cut down.  That will leave a clear space for planting something else.  It’s fairly damp there, so maybe more willow.  We’re especially pleased with the growth of the alders on the right hand side here.  In six years they have grown from foot high transplants to being able to exclude vegetation partially underneath them, and becoming an effective wind break.