Turning Japanese or OK in the UK

I need to do a bit of research at the moment on Japanese cookery.  Particularly the use of Japanese spring mountain vegetables or Sansai (山菜).  There are a couple of reasons for this:  Firstly, these are predominately perennial plants gathered from the wild in Japan (or at least that was the case originally) and I am interested in perennial plant food sources.  Secondly, the climate in the mountains of Japan is a little cooler than elsewhere in Japan and these plants are likely to do OK in the UK.

Typically sansai are the fresh sprouts of leaves and flowers of perennial plants and trees that are cut and eaten when young.  Many of the plants are already grown in the UK as ornamental garden plants, and most Britons do not know that they can also be eaten.  As we also know, everything can be edible once, and edible does not always mean tasty.

For example there are believed to be links between the eating of warabi (bracken ferns, pteridium aquilinum) and various cancers, although this site says that prepared correctly, and eaten in moderation, they are both delicious and safe.  My mum says she tried bracken fern only once, so I guess she was not impressed, but maybe she did not prepare it correctly.  I think I may give it a miss just now though.  I do love to see it at this time of year as the bracken angels unfurl.  Eating it as I weed out the young shoots could be tempting!

angels
Bracken “angels”

I’ve found a couple of lists of sansei online: shizuoka gourmet  and organic growers school  for example, although some of these are not necessarily spring vegetables.  These are the plants I am most tempted by, with the Japanese vegetable name if known:

Indian cucumber root Medeola virginiana

Ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris, kogomi

Honewort Cryptotaenia canadensis, mitsuba

Bamboo Phyllostachys spp.

Japanese spikenard, Aralia cordata udo and yamaudo (bundle of blanched shoots) see here for example

Japanese pepper tree Zanthoxylum piperitum kinome

Angelica tree shoots Aralia elata tara no me

Japanese sweet coltsfoot, giant butterbur (unopened buds), Petasites japonicus giganteus, fukinoto

Plantain lily Hosta fortunei  kiboushi, Hosta montana urui, and Hosta sieboldiana

Glory bower peanut butter shrub Clerodendron harlequin kusagi

Indian plantain Cacalia delphiniifolia, C. hastata ssp. orientalis shidoke, or momijigasa

I already have varieties similar to the following:

Solomon’s seal Polygonatum commutatum and P. odoratum amadokoro

solomons seal
Solomons seal shoots at the correct age for cutting

Arrowhead Sagittaria latifolia

wapato
Sagittaria latifolia or wapato tubers

Chocolate vine (fruit) Akebia

Dogtooth violet Erythronium japonicum katakuri

dog tooth
Dogs tooth violet in flower (tubers are edible)

Orange daylily Hemerocallis fulva Nokanzou

Japanese ginger Zingiber mioga, Mioga

Japanese horseradish, Wasabia japonica, Wasabi

wasabi bed
New Wasabi bed – placed by kitchen door to receive teapot washings

Most of these are still being established so I am yet to try some of them.  The wapato tubers are slimy to clean, but taste innocuous like potatoes when cooked.  Solomons seal shoots were very bitter – I only cut a couple of shoots, so next year I will try changing the water.  Beneath the bitterness there was a sweet taste so I think they are worth trying again.

I’m not sure whether we will like wasabi, normally we’re not big eaters of mustard or horseradish, however when I read about it, wasabi seems to like conditions very similar to Skye’s normal weather – never above 15 celsius or below 5 celsius and wet all the time!  All it will require is protection from the strong winds.  Having an interest in expensive dining (having the three chimneys restaurant just over the hill from us) I thought it would be fun to try anyhow.  I have sourced plants from two different UK sources (hopefully about 4 varieties in total).  These I have put in an old wooden tub.  I changed half the compost for fresh peat free commercial compost.  The old stuff had been half and half soil and compost.  Mixed in, I hope it will be good enough for the wasabi plants.  They haven’t keeled over and died straight away, so I am hopeful that the bit of afternoon sun they will get on this corner of the house won’t be too much for them.  I tried a bit of leaf and stem, and these were surprisingly mild in flavour, so perhaps we will get to eat some of the harvest after all!

 

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Pignuts are OK to eat

Pignuts (conopodium majus) are a common wild flower in the tree field here.  I had read about them being edible; the tubers are quite pleasant to munch on raw, with a flavour a bit like hazelnuts.  When I have tried them in the past, I got a slightly unpleasant nauseous feeling, so haven’t explored eating them much.

I have a fondness for the plants.  The foliage is one of the first to show new growth in early spring, and the tiny white flowers cover the field for much of the summer.  Rather than repeat what so many others have written I’ll give a couple of links that are interesting:

https://originaloutdoors.co.uk/wild-food-directory/pignut-conopodium-majus/

https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/and-pignuts/

and a few pictures from the tree field illustrating their growth:

spring shoots
Pignut foliage growing in early spring
flowers
Pignut blossom in midsummer
seeds
Burgundy seeds in late summer

When I was digging holes for the new spruce trees I could not avoid digging up several pignut tubers.  Often they were cut in half by the spade.  I guess the field is pretty thick with them now, as can be seen in the flower picture above.  In the past I have sometimes given them to Dyson to eat (he knows them as ‘nuttys’) and he obviously enjoys them with no ill effects.  This time he had the small, or damaged ones and any larger ones I collected in a bag for me.  They were quite easy to find with my (gloved) fingers in the soil of the upturned turfs.

turning turf
Pignut – cut through on face of turf (possibly a whole one to right?)

Most foraging guides suggest you follow the roots down from the flowering stems to the tuber, so as to be sure what you are harvesting.  This would be very hard work in turf like mine!  I would suggest also, that once seen, the tubers are quite distinctive and nothing like bluebells or celandine tubers, both of which are quite white in colour, rather than covered in dark brown skin.  The lumpy shape of the pignut tubers is also quite distinctive.

measuring
Bag of tubers with rule for scale

I collected about 8 ounces of tubers once they were cleaned and trimmed.  The ones I kept were generally just over an inch in diameter, although there were a few that were nearly two inches.  Most of course were much smaller, and these I left in the turf (or Dyson ate!).  They seem to carry on growing quite happily having been inverted, if left in situ, judging by the later emerging leaves.  I believe that the plants form very small tubers in the first year of growth (about the size of a pea) and the tuber grows larger and larger year on year.  I suspect some of those I gathered may have been decades old.  I don’t suppose they grew very much when the sheep were grazing on them!

Gathering nuts was a by-product of an activity I was doing anyway.  I will point out however that digging the turf like this is quite hard work!  So although I gathered more than enough for a meal for two in a few hours, this would not compare for ease to say digging potatoes.  Also, these tubers took several years to reach this size, so you would have to leave the ground for a few years to recover and regrow sizeable tubers again.  They do self seed readily and grow happily without any intervention from me, so it is quite nice to feel there is a bit of a larder there should I need it.

washing mud
Washing tubers

Because the tubers are quite uneven in shape they were tricky to wash.  I gave them a quick rinse in a bucket outside, them scrubbed them with a brush under the kitchen tap.  I couldn’t be bothered to remove all the skins, which is quite fine, and did rub off a bit anyhow.

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Washed and halved tuber

We tried a few tubers simply boiled or baked and ate them as an accompaniment to our main meal.  They were quite pleasant, with a spongy texture not unlike parsnips, and a somewhat similar mild sweet taste.  The resemblance to their rooty relatives is more obvious when cooked.  S. preferred the roasted ones, so, having established that neither of us suffered the nauseous feeling induced by eating the raw tubers previously, we had the rest of the tubers roasted in a little oil.  Again they passed the test and we may well have them again when I need to dig holes in the field.

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.

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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…..

Orchard, Autumn and Tomatoes

I managed to just about finish clearing the section of orchard I was aiming to.  The weather has turned a bit damp now – so I’ve lost this years’ window for weeding.  The soil just gets too claggy when it’s wet.  I’ve left a nice sorrel plant there, and I may transplant some more in there.  I have found some with lovely large leaves in various places round the field.

large leaved sorrel
Large leaved Rumex acetosa – common sorrel

I have also planted a few of my seedling heath pea plants along the border which I plan to keep digging up, and a marsh woundwort plant as well.  I haven’t got round to tasting the roots of this yet.  It is related to crosnes (stachys affinis) and like crosnes the roots are edible.  This plant was rather pot bound.  It had been sitting in a puddle next to the polytunnel all year – an offset from the bought in plant.  I’m hoping it will be damp enough for it at the side of the orchard there.  We can get quite a bit of water coming down the track at times, as well as being generally damp climate wise.  The roots certainly look like they could be quite productive – long and tender.  I did snap a few bits off and popped them in the fridge, but forgot they were there when I cooked dinner yesterday.  I also put a couple of seedling lathyrus tuberosa (earthnut pea) seedlings.  These are from seed that I was sent (thanks Anni).  Unfortunately with one thing and another (weather and neglect!) I only have four seedlings and one of these looks a bit poorly.  I’ve put plant pot collars on them, since I have read that slugs really like these plants.  I’m thinking that they can climb up the apple tree.  Not the ideal spot for a root crop, but if they grow and like it there I can maybe propagate more plants from these.

orchard view north
Orchard view to North

I also spread around loads of seed: firstly some of the green manure seeds I obtained recently.  I spread field beans and fodder radish fairly generally over the whole area and red clover selectively around the bases of the honeyberries and apple tree.  It may be a bit late for the fodder radish, but I’m hoping that it will stay mild for long enough for them to put on a bit of growth before the winter (I can already see shoots coming on the field beans just a couple of days later!).  I also sowed some other legume seeds that I collected:  birds foot trefoil and bush vetch (vicia sepium).  I have been enjoying the odd nibble on the latter as it has reappeared around the tree field (see here for a little foraging guide).  The birds foot trefoil makes a nice low growing ground cover – it should be nitrogen fixing, but I’m not sure how well it will keep down the weeds.  This is the first time I’ve tried sowing it direct.  I did sow some in the spring in pots, but didn’t get a good success rate (again weather and neglect…): one plant.  I also spread some sweet cicely seed and good king henry which both have done well for me in the tea garden a little up the hill.  They both seeded themselves a bit up there, but I want to transplant those seedlings elsewhere.

birds foot
How bird’s foot trefoil gets it’s name

I started trying to dig out couch grass and docken from the rest of the orchard on the north side of the track.  There is a fair amount of both and I haven’t quite finished that.  It’s only a rough going over.  I will mulch it with newspaper and card and try and give it another go during next summer depending on priorities.  I did get out some of the silver weed I planted there in the spring this year.  It is still a bit early – they are in full leaf, and the roots look very white.  Generally they are up to 6 inches long and up to one quarter inch diameter.  I’m going to transfer some to the track border.  I may see if I can use them for pathways in the orchard area.  They have made a reasonable coverage after a bit of editing in the tea garden and certainly spread like mad!

It’s starting to feel a little autumnal now.  The first trees to lose their leaves are the Wych elm, but some of the rowans are turning colour, and one of the beech is rather a nice yellow.  I’m a bit worried by how red this apple tree is.  Last year it was the best for growth, this year it looks a bit strained – the others are all still quite green.  We don’t tend to get much autumn colour here – the winds strip the leaves off the trees before they can put on much of a show.  It looks like it will be a bumper year for hazelnuts – I spotted the first nuts on our own trees (planted 2010), but the ones along the river bank seem quite laden.  I did go along and pick up a fair few from underneath the trees, but they all seem to be empty (either shed by the tree or discarded in disgust by hopeful birds!).  It’s still a bit early.  Usually the birds get the nuts, which is fair enough.  I would quite like to get a harvest off our own trees in due time.  Although they weren’t bought as nutting cultivars, the seeds they apparently came from seemed a fair size.

bumper hazelnuts 2018
bumper crop on hazels by river

The local outside brambles are starting to ripen.  Funnily enough these don’t seem to be bothered by those horrid flies!  There was a new bush that has seeded in at the corner of the river  above the pond, which seems to have quite nice quality berries.

self sown bramble
tasty self sown bramble

Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!

ripe tomatoes
First ripe tomatoes – (super sweet 100)

There was a little mildew or possibly blight on some of the leaves so I’ve pulled a few off the tomato plants.  I’m hoping that I will get more tomatoes ripening over the next month or so before I have to rescue them.  Some comfrey leaves are soaking in a bucket of water at the moment to add some extra tomato feed to try and give them a late boost.

August progress in tree field

bees on flowers
Common knapweed (centaurea nigra) and small bee

After a week of rain we have a sunny Sunday to leisurely wander and assess the growth this year in the tree field.  The late summer flowers are giving the busy bumblebees a help towards winter supplies.  I’ve been gathering various vetch seeds again, which I’m hoping to swap for favours.  The heath pea are just about over; the warm early summer meant I had quite a crop, and managed to harvest over an ounce of seed, with plenty that I missed to further spread into the field.  I have noticed it this year even in what I consider quite damp areas.  I think the reason it was mainly in the thinner drier areas at first was simply that these had been less well ploughed and the tubers were able to survive better.

marsh woundwort
Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris) flowers in tree field

One of the plants I got from the ART last year was Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort.  It is related to Stachys affinis – crosnes or chinese artichoke.  A native plant, it likes damp meadows and spreads by thick (edible) tubers.  As this grew, I realised it did bear a strong resemblance to a plant I have seen growing on the river bank.  A second opinion on the odour (it has a strong pungant smell, but my sense of smell is pretty poor) confirmed that I already have lots of this growing round the field.  I’m happy about this, and not sad I bought a plant I already had.  For one thing, the imported plant may be better for tubers, for another it confirmed something that might otherwise always be just suspicion.  There seems to be much more of it this year than I remember in previous years, so I may try and dig a little up this autumn and see what it tastes like (watch this space).

hairy caterpillar
Knot grass moth – acronicta rumicis on willow

I remembered seeing a particulary colourful hairy caterpillar down beside the pond.  As it turned out there were a few of the same variety there.  When going for a closer look at some aspen I thought had mildew (just downy leaves catching the sun), I found another one of these pebble prominent (Notodonta ziczac) which look like a cross between a caterpillar and a rhinocerous.

rhino caterpillar
Notodonta ziczac on Aspen

The willow cuttings that I put in this spring all seem to have taken despite the dry spring.  There is still plenty of space up near the hump at the top which is damp and relatively sheltered.  I’ll try and put some more in there since it does seem to do pretty well.

ash growth 2018
S. points out this years’ growth point on a particularly fine ash tree

This year we have seen some incredible growth on some of the ash trees.  Literally some have actually doubled in height.  Hopefully they won’t break off or die back too much.  They do seem to have a tendency to die back a few years growth in one go sometimes.  It’s not the ash dieback – that hasn’t reached us (yet).  Whether it is another fungal disease or something else I don’t know, but it is a bit frustrating.  I am hoping that by the time chalara does make it here the ash will be big enough to be useful firewood.  Certainly if they can maintain this rate of growth there is a fair chance!

We’ve started to make little pedestrian paths through the trees, just picking routes like the dog’s cut through to the pond.  This means we will be able to get up close and personal with the trees, and appreciate some different viewpoints without getting our feet too wet (assuming that we bring the mower round them at some point).  My challenge to come will be getting S. to appreciate that the seedheads are just as important as the flower stems when it comes to mowing the tracks.  I have marked the orchids with bits of stick, but these have tended to get lost over time.  Douglas does have a habit of stealing them on his way past!

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Bitter vetch = Heath pea = cairmeal = Lathyrus Linifolius

vetch by river jun 13
Heath pea and bluebells

As I was looking up the growth habits of the various legumes that grow wild on the holding here I came across some interesting information about bitter vetch: Lathyrus linifolius. It is a perennial also known as heath pea, and in the gaelic: cairmeal, or corra-meille. As I said before, it’s one of the earliest vetch to flower, coming into bloom during May, but still with flowers to come now in early July. The little bright pink pea flowers fade to blue or beige. As the tiny pea pods ripen, they first swell then shrink a little and turn black before splitting and spiralling the tiny seeds away. The seeds are very tiny, and probably mildly poisonous – a paralysis disease can result from eating significant quantities of other lathyrus seeds unless properly treated, for example leached in water, so I wouldn’t try them.

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In bloom and mature pods

As a legume, the Heath pea should form relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil, so adding to the soil fertility as the plant grows and dies. I was thinking of saving the seed from this and the other native vetches to see whether they would be any use as nitrogen fixing ground covers. Winter tares (Vicia sativa) is sold as an overwintering green manure crop, although it is suggested that it doesn’t like acid soil. Well as I know these vetch grow locally, logically they would make a possible alternative. Anyway, interest seems to have been sparked in Heath pea when the tubers were found by Brian Moffat during an archaeological dig of a twelfth century monastery at Soutra Aisle. His research paper proposed that the monks were using the tubers medicinally. Apparently before potatoes the cairmeal tubers were dug and dried against famine in the Highlands. The tiny tubers were alleged to save people from hunger and enable great feats of endurance, possibly being used by Roman soldiers during battle. I found various online references to this including PFAF, and my Scots Herbal book by Tess Darwin also refers to this. The tubers are said to be sweet like licorice (which is also a legume of course) and were also used to make a drink that prevented hangovers! There were several articles in the mainstream press, including the Mail and the Telegraph, although none caught my eye at the time, the possibility of a Scottish slimming aid being pretty newsworthy. It seems that there has been a bit of research going on in Scotland since. The only paper I could subsequently find online however, found no significant difference in weight change between rats fed the vetch tubers and various controls (http://strathprints.strath.ac.uk/59217/). I only could read the summary, so there may be more significant information in the rest of the article. There is also an entrepreneurial chap in Reading, who appears to be growing and selling seeds and tubers online (under the bitter-vetch tag). He (I think I’m assuming that!) gives a little information about the growing habit of the vetch: a single tuber grows the first year, if left, it bulbs up in subsequent years, and more tubers grow. The plant can be propagated from these secondary tubers as well as from the seed. Weight loss apart, I would be interested in trying the tubers. I’d come across Lathyrus tuberosa, which has larger tubers, but was put off by the fact it is described by several people as being ‘attractive to slugs’. It also prefers more alkaline soils so wouldn’t do so well here presumably. However, I know that Heath pea likes it here, although I would say it appears to prefer the slightly drier soils, possibly because it is slightly small so has less competition from more vigorous plants. I haven’t noticed slugs eating it particularly. It happily grows in grass, but presumably would grow better with less competition.

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Heath pea tuber dug up in July

I couldn’t resist digging this tuber and have planted it in the fruit area amongst my root crops which are due for digging in autumn.  There appear to be little tubers (or possibly bacteria nodules I suppose?) on the roots close to the main tuber already.  I’ve collected some seed from various plants around the holding, and will try sowing some as green manures (and in pots -why not?) this autumn. If it’s edible, palatable, feeds the soil and grows well, what’s not to like? There may be some scope to increase tuber size to make it more worthwhile as a crop, but as a gourmet snack it is still interesting!

Holmisdale in May

t always amazes me how much things grow during May.  The field goes from a thatch of last years’ dead grass to a sea of pignut, grass and bluebell flowers.  I’ve selected a few of the latest photos to capture May and some of the ongoing activities to do with the trees and the tree field’

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Hawthorne in blossom

This tree is actually in the front garden and was planted in 2008.  It has been flowering for the last three years, last year it set quite a few berries.  I made some hawthorne blossom cordial this year following roughly the same recipe as for elderflower cordial.  It’s supposed to be good for the heart and digestion.  Not a strong flavour, maybe a hint of apples over the lemon that is part of the recipe.

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Worrying lack of leaves on birch

Last year we started to see a problem with several birch trees.  They had previously grown well bar a bit of die back.  This however is more than just die back!  They do seem to be alive, but the twigs are mainly dead with just a little new growth.  I’m going to contact the Woodland Trust over this for some advice.  Some of the birch seem fine, and others from different planting years are like this to a greater or lesser extent.  I need to do a bit of a survey and see if I can tell whether it is betula pendula (silver birch) or betula pubescens (downy birch) that is affected (or both).

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Flowering pine tree

This is the second or third year that these pine (also from 2008) have flowered.  I’m not sure if it is a lodgepole pine or scots pine.  I have to admit I find the new growth on the pines rather phallic in habit!  The red tips are the female flowers (that might develop into cones) and the orangey- brown fingers are the male catkins.  Note the wind scorched older leaves.  I think this is a scots pine, since what I think are lodgepole pine elsewhere are almost defoliated by the salt wind in the winter.

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Monkey puzzle in mulch mat

I’m hoping I don’t regret using this carpet underlay as mulching material.  It seems almost ideal – it is from our house in Solihull and was under the most disgusting deep pile orange carpet (that when taken up we used as bearskin props in a ‘flintstones’ scene once, but that’s another story) so reused.  It is made predominately from felted jute fibres so biodegradable.  It is permeable, so will let the rain soak through for the trees, but is mostly thick enough to exclude light and smother out the grass and other plants around the little trees.  The only downside I’ve found is that it is only mostly Jute.  It also has a very coarse scrim of polymer fibres, presumably to give it strength (or maybe mouldability – I used to work on automotive carpets which were heat formed).  These will not degrade in the short term.  I suspect that the grass will grow through and over the mat in the next year and the fibres will be concealed but ever there…..suggestions welcome.

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Pignut blossom

This is just a picture showing the density of pignut, conopodium majus, in the tree field.  It is a native wild flower here.  I have only tried the tubers raw so far, and although pleasant to eat, they tended to give me a slightly nauseous feeling afterwards.  I haven’t tried it cooked.  I love the dainty blossom which is like miniature cow parseley (of which there is very little in this area).  It’s not in full bloom yet, but quite lovely.

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Landrover mulch

This patch is where one of our Land Rovers (Lara the croft rover) had been parked for about two years previously.  The grass has been entirely shaded out, but there is plenty of pignut and creeping thistle as well as sheeps sorrel and a few buttercups that have survived, all coming back after about a month.  Perhaps an example of mortal tree’s ‘a bit blunt’ method of mulching.  I don’t think I’ll be encouraging more long term parking in the tree field however….

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Bluebell river

The bluebells (hyacintha non scripta) are just about at their peak at the end of May, start of June.  They have done really well this year.  You can see how they are concentrated at the field edge where there is the remains of a stone wall and ditch, so probably not well ploughed.  They also survived several years of being grazed and trampled by sheep prior to the trees being planted (these in 2011).  Compare to next door’s grazed field – I bet there are bluebells under there as well!  Also you can note that they are quite happy in the sunshine.  The ground is so damp, they don’t need the shade of trees on Skye.  When we bought the land, I couldn’t even tell that we had bluebells.

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Buttercup mulch

I found this plant growth quite amusing.  This is one of my ‘orchard’ apple trees, which actually bore an apple last year – although it disappeared before I had a chance at it (crows, wind, dogs….).  These trees were all mulched last year, with my favourite sheet  mulching method – sheets of cardboard from our shop, overlapped and weighed down with suitable stones.  This is quite effective, and lasts about a year.  It is quite obvious that it has worked well on the grass, but less well on the buttercups!  Whether these were not killed (they do sprout right through when buried in a few inches of soil) or have just spread over the cardboard more quickly than the grass, I’m not sure, I suspect the former.  I don’t know whether the buttercups are going to be a problem with the trees however.  We try and get rid of the grass mainly because of it’s alleopathic effects – it is known to have a detremental effect on tree growth for this reason, rather than direct competition for resources.  I think I’ll try and mulch the trees again anyway, since they are still very small.  I still have quite a bit of earth moving to do in the orchard area.  I’d like to try and finish the landscaping here this year, so I can get on with underplanting the trees next spring.

 

“leafu”

This post is for Amanda.

Leafu or leaf curd is a way of concentrating the protein in green leaves to make it accessible to humans. Apparently you can use almost any non toxic leaf, but nettle greens are what I have plenty of just at the moment. The resulting substance is up to 70% dry weight protein, which is useful for those following a vegan diet. Although not vegan myself, I fancied having a go with my nettles to see what could be achieved. The nettles here grow rather prickly and although I know you can have nettles as a green cooked vegetable, the results here are rather less than palatable. Someone else in the glen went so far as to import nettles from Yorkshire from a known good clump – but here they also grew prickly, so it seems to be something about the environment here. Maybe they need more sheltered conditions to grow nice, so perhaps when my trees are bigger and provide more shelter I will have lush nettles again.

The recipe for leafu is very simple:

1) Collect your greens (and wash them)

2) Bash them to release the cell contents

3) Strain off the liquid from the fibrous parts of the plant

4) Heat the liquid to boiling point to curdle the protein

5) Strain off the protein solids

6) Treat if necessary to preserve the leafu.

Collecting nettles was quite straightforwards. I was using a recipe from a Country Kitchen article by Fergus Drennan which I found online (http://fergustheforager.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ckjuly09curdsaway.pdf) which intimates that 12kg of nettle leaf can produce 1 kg of moist leafu. I thought as a trial this was maybe a little large, so I aimed to collect 6 kg to make a pound of leaf curd. One carrier bag of nettles seemed to weigh about a kg, and I had no problem collecting 5 bags of youngish nettles – alternatively being able to collect this amount of nettles in my fruit garden could be considered to be a problem in itself! However, hopefully picking off the tops may knock back the growth a bit anyway. I did get stung a little – the gloves I like to use in the garden are the cloth type with latex palms. The nettles do sting through the fabric, so I got a bit stung on the backs of my hands. It’s supposed to be good for the circulation, or prevent rhumatism perhaps.

To bash the leaves I used a food processor. You can use a liquidiser, or a juicer, or a pestle and mortar, and probably other devices. It was quite slow and makes a mess. I would recommend not starting this job at 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening when you have to make and eat dinner and have a bath before bedtime! I started off cutting the nettles up on a chopping board and then feeding the pieces down a funnel into the processor with a little water to help it move. I soon worked out that actually I could feed the whole stems into the top of the processor which saved a lot of time. Although I thought I had selected the stems pretty well while picking them, I had to edit them a bit to get rid of a few eaten leaves, and rooty bits of stem. When the food processor was as full as I dared with liquidised nettles, I transferred the lot into a large jelly bag in my jam cauldron.

I found the pulp was very bulky and it more than filled the maslin pan. I decanted some liquid into a mixing bowl, even so had I actually persevered and pulped the whole 5 bags collected, there is no way my jelly bag would have been big enough. Fergus suggests using a pillow case, but I suspect at this stage something coarser would be OK – may be some environmesh insect screening? But you’d also need a larger container like a baby bath, or maybe a large plastic gardening trug? Anyway, since it was getting late and the pan was getting full I stopped after 2 bags.

I managed to suspend the heavy jelly bag over my mixing bowl and left it to drain overnight. The left over nettles went in the compost heap, as did the contents of the jelly bag the next day after I had squeezed what extra moisture I could from it. The liquid was very dark, almost black. I meant to have a go at paper making with the pulp as Fergus suggests, but forgot in the excitement of leafu production!

The next step is heating the liquid gently to boiling point and simmer for about a minute. I cook on a wood fired range cooker, so I normally use the oven to heat up large quantities, so this is what I did. I guess the oven was about 170 degrees celsius (top end of the hot on my oven door thermometer) and I then went away to do something else. When I returned sometime later remembering the leafu – it was hot and steaming with a dark coloured crust. When placed on the hot side of the hot plate on the cooker top it was already boiling gently, so I guess it must have been at boiling for rather longer than a minute. The crust was the leafu protein, so it seems to be a fairly tolerant process. I guess that if the nutrients such as vitamins are crucial to your diet, then cooking the liquid the minimum amount to coagulate the protein would be better than my extra time.

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Coagulated protein layer

The solid protein is very fine particles. I used a small jelly bag which has a very fine mesh. I expect a coffee filter might be suitable if big enough, but certainly the bag I used for the initial filtering of the nettle solids would not have caught the leaf protein. Again I left the bag to drip overnight and the result was about a cup of soft solids like a dark green mousse. I weighed this as about 4oz (100g). I also had a large bowl of nettle juice (less some of the protein) which I have kept to use as plant food.

Fergus gives various methods of preserving the leafu. Apparently in it’s fresh state it will not last very long, even in the refrigerator. It keeps a little longer if you add salt (about 1oz to every 4oz fresh curd) and refrigerate, or you can freeze it in portions or dry and use as stock cubes in stews, soups and sauces. I admit I got confused at this stage and both added salt and then dried the curd (sitting in a bowl on top of the cooker for a day or so with occasional stirring). The result was about 1 and a half ounces of leafu powder, of which one ounce was salt. So I’m afraid the overall taste at the end was salt. At the fresh curd stage It tasted strongly of green. Not an unpleasant taste, but I wouldn’t expect my husband to eat it neat! He won’t notice it added instead of marmite to a stew next time I do something suitable.

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Dried leaf curd and plant food (in milk cartons)

Verdict: This was a fun way to use a glut of inedible nettles. I think however, if you don’t need a protein concentrate, it’s a rather long process for a little gain. On researching around on the internet for nutrient content of leaf curd, I found a reference to someone who uses dried nettles as a condiment and I think this would be a more practical way for me personally to use them in the future. I can generally dry things in the polytunnel hung from the crop bars, or on cooling trays in the bottom oven, when the stove is on. I may have a go at this later in the year. I think that you would lose less of the other nutrients in the nettles (in the ‘whey’), although would need a greater amount of dried nettles for the same amount of protein. They do seem to contain about one third protein by dry mass (from wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica), so that would only need a bit more than twice as much dried nettle to have the same protein as dried leaf curd.