Winter has finally arrived, we have a little snow that has stuck around for a few days, gradually refreezing as ice as it is trampled and melts a little during the day. I quite like a bit of quiet time to look around and see the structure of the ground under the plants. You can see the pathways made by people and dogs as the slightly flattened grass remains whiter with snow than rougher areas.
I have done a little pruning, although you are not supposed to do this when it is frosty! The remaining gooseberries in the fruit garden didn’t take long, and I have cut down the sapling sycamore tree that would have crowded one of the apple trees there. It may grow back, but I can just prune it out each year for pea sticks until it gives up! The apple that I grafted before I came to Skye and that was living in a pot for a while has unfortunately grown a little one sided. I assume it is just the prevailing wind that has achieved this, and am not sure if it is possible to reverse….
With the freezing weather there is little plant wise to do outside, but I have been able to get a little done in the polytunnel. As threatened I have drastically pruned back the kiwi vine. As well as shortening it, I have also taken out some of the larger fruiting side branches. This should encourage new ones to grow and be more fruitful. I tied the main trunk a little tighter to the overhead wires, as it was hanging a little low and even interfering with my headroom. The grapevines are far simpler to prune. I simply cut back all the side branches close to the main trunk.
I am very hopeful that what I am seeing here is flower buds on my apricot. I’m still not really sure whether I’m doing the right thing with the pruning of this. I think I now need to cut back the main branches by one third to an upward facing bud and tie in new branches in between the existing ones, and then I’m into ‘maintenance pruning’ whatever that means! I know I’m not supposed to prune when the plant is dormant so I need to leave it a couple of months.
There is a little weeding to do, and I also need to start watering a bit more in the tunnel as well in preparation for some early sowing. I think the akebia is surviving nicely, but I’m not sure about the passionflowers. I think they were a bit small and I should have brought them into the house last autumn. The propagation area keeps expanding. I could really use more space for putting the growing on plants. I’ll have to have a think about this. Maybe I just need to tidy up a bit more efficiently! Theoretically there is lots of space on my little greenhouse frame, so perhaps I’ll just concentrate on getting that properly sorted again. It just keeps filling up with empty pots!
Summer is, as yet, the fruit season for me. The orchard is a dream for the future; not a single apple this year, despite the good weather. I have been picking currants and raspberries however over the past couple of weeks. The original Ben Sarek black currants did pretty well, over 13 pounds in total. Not up to their usual quality however: quite a few split, and smaller than usual. It’s been a slightly odd year due to a relatively hot and dry early summer, and I think this affected the berries. Maybe the skins hardened too soon, since the Ben Gairn currant, which had a really good crop, had a lot split, which made the picking over quite difficult. I like to remove the remains of the petals as well as the stalks, but it was a slow messy job. I’ve made two batches of jam and still have some in the freezer. The Belorussian sweet currant I didn’t even bother picking. The fruit was the first to ripen, but was really tiny and split. Hopefully in a more normal summer it will do better. So far the Ben Sarek wins hands down. It’s only the first year for the other two to fruit properly however, so we’ll see how they do next year. The black currant bushes in the front garden didn’t have many berries. I haven’t been pruning them, and they are getting a bit leggy. I’ll try and make a point of pruning them hard this year. The cuttings in the fruit garden are now quite productive bushes. I’ve decided that the other currant next to the original Ben Sarek black currant bush must be what my friend calls the ‘nancyberry’. It grew as a seedling in my garden in Solihull (originally between the paving stones of the path as they do!), I think it is a blackcurrant-gooseberry cross. There it had lovely large sweet berries, but here it sets hardly any. I have been gradually removing the bushes again, since they obviously don’t like Skye. By removing this last bush it will give me a suitable space for my Charlotte Russe mulberry bush. That was a present from my Mum when she came up this spring. I am quite excited about this. The garden is still pretty exposed, but I’m hopeful that the fruit garden is starting to get a bit more sheltered.
The raspberries looked really promising, but the initial picking was a bit disappointing. I had a awful lot that were wormy. I have had this to a certain extent in previous years, but probably more than half were wormy to some extent. I’m not one to be too fussy about a few insects, but this was ridiculous! It’s been a bit damp to pick the berries this last week. The second picking was a bit better than the first: not so many ripe ones, but fewer with worm problems. I’ve made a big batch of strawberry and raspberry jam (strawberries from the shop as yet, although I now have some plants getting established so watch this space!). I have about four different sorts of summer raspberries, I was given a load of canes of an unknown variety from someone locally. They fruit well, but have been worst affected by the worms and have a slightly watery taste. I have another which does pretty well, some of the berries have a tendency to be slightly double, but good cosmetic quality generally. Malling Jewel is in the tea garden, struggling in a still rather exposed position. One that came with the house: Glen Prosen, which is starting to do quite well in the dog resistant garden but took a long while to get established, this is the best tasting fresh I think. I’ve found that neither of the autumn fruiting raspberries do very well in our short summers. They are too late getting started in the spring to flower in time before the weather gets colder and the days shorter.
Talking of strawberries, just a note on the himalayan strawberries in the tea garden. It looks like getting some other plants from different sources was the right thing to do, since despite being set back by my weeding at a time of hot dry weather a few fruit did set. Unexpectedly they have turned out to be white. They are like large alpine strawberries, difficult to remove from the stem, with a pleasant citrussy resinous flavour when fully ripe. They become very soft, so easy to crush. Hopefully they will fruit better next year if I can avoid digging them up at the wrong time! They do seem to make a very dense ground cover, which was their primary purpose.
I’ve now picked the last of the Haskap/honeyberries. It is impossible to tell whether they are ripe or not, until you bite into them. When ripe, they have a quite plummy sweet/sour flavour and are coloured right through. Before fully ripe they are sharper and less pleasant. I’m very pleased with how well they fruited, considering this is their first year. I’m pretty sure they will make a rather nice jam when I get a few more fruit. They should be pruned by removing about a quarter of the mature branches to avoid overcrowding and should live for decades. I need to try and not let them get taken over by weeds in the orchard area. So far they are a successful experiment I think. I’ve saved a few seeds so I can try to propagate them, they should germinate well when fresh, so I may try sowing some straight away. They also propagate by cuttings, better from summer cuttings apparently, but I may try some of the prunings this winter since that is easier for me.
I’ve not harvested the grapes in the tunnel, but have thoroughly thinned them out. I don’t think I thinned them enough last year, so I have been a bit more brutal this year. I collected the thinnings as much as possible, and had enough to make a small batch of green grape jelly. I had contemplated making verjuice, but I may try that next year. The new vine (a white, Zalagyongye, which for some reason I thought would be seedless but apparently isn’t) has just one bunch of grapes, but they are not so far along as the Boskoop glory, so I’m not sure whether they will ripen off. The vine is growing well, so I’m hoping that it will do better next year.
I still have redcurrants and gooseberries to harvest. The invicta has done quite well. The new red gooseberries, Pax, have mostly dropped, and are rather small. I have two new red currants in the tea garden: redcurrant cherry and rovada. I don’t think any of the redcurrants from Solihull survived, but I have a couple of small plants in the fruit garden. These were grown from cuttings taken from a tough little plant growing in a dry stone wall in full force of the sea winds. I’d like to take cuttings from a plant I pass going to the shop which blooms profusely, but the berries seem to either nor set or quickly get picked by birds. It is such a dwarfed plant that finding a decent bit of stem will be difficult.
The blackberry in the polytunnel is just starting to ripen, as is the new one ‘Helen’ outdoors. It looks like this may be a disappointment, as I have yet to try the berries! They are quite prolific and large but seem to be very attractive to blue flies which destroy the drops and make them discoloured and unappetising! It may be they are ripening too slowly due to the damp weather this week and may do better in drier weather. They certainly have been early, but I am at a bit of a loss about what to do about this. It looks like I will have to move the vine pretty soon anyway, since we are intending to extend the barn to where this is currently planted now. Maybe I should try it in the polytunnel? But that wasn’t the point!
I’ve not had much time in the garden recently since there are a number of issues that have arisen mostly relating to the shop. One of my members of staff is poorly, so I had to do extra shifts. An exciting delivery from a new supplier came during one of my afternoons off so I had to go back down to the shop again to unpack it. Palmer and Harvey were one of my main suppliers, who have now ceased trading, so I’m having to work out where and if we can get the groceries we normally get from them. And someone put a planning application for mirror faced cube camping pods in the Glen which I felt obliged to object to. The weather had been better though – cool and still and a little damp. S. has bought me for christmas (not really I hope!) two pallet loads of hardwood which arrived on Friday and we spend much of Sunday warming ourselves once by stacking it all away in the woodshed.
Back in the Polytunnel, I have managed to harvest most of the fruit. I have four more sharks fin melons, ten bunches of ripe grapes, and a very few achocha. I still have the kiwi to harvest.
The grapes were starting to go mouldy, it’s just getting a little cool even in the polytunnel to expect any further ripening. I think maybe I wasn’t ruthless enough when I thinned out the bunches earlier in the year, although it felt pretty brutal at the time. I have picked them over and placed them in a glass of water, which hopefully should enable them to keep a little longer. I also dried some in the bottom oven to make raisins which worked pretty well. I could do with an easy way of removing the seeds however! I need to give the vines a good prune now. I’ve always taken my own approach to pruning; which is to make a cordon stem of the vine from which the fruiting spurs come off. This seems to work quite well. I had left a lower branch as well as the high level one, but it still isn’t really growing well. The branches that come off it are weak and tend to droop down, interfering with the crops at lower level. This year I’m going to prune the lower branch right out, and remove the wooden framework which also gets in the way of the polytunnel beds.
I’m not sure I’ll try the achocha again. I quite like it – it tastes like a cross between a cucumber and a courgette, but it seems not to set very many fruit with me. Only the fruit later in the season have set. Mind you, I have noticed a lot of spiders in the polytunnel this year and have suspected that they may be eating a lot of the pollinating insects this year. Maybe I’ll give it one more go and try and start them off nice and early.
The sharks fin melon I consider to be a big success, despite not getting that many fruit. They are huge and pretty, and tasty see here. The noodles do retain their noodly texture when frozen, so I may roast the melons as I need them and freeze the noodles in portions. I’m going to try and save seed (apparently they carry on ripening in storage) but also see whether I can overwinter the vine, since it is a perennial in warmer climates. So far I have buried one vine root in kiwi leaves (which have mostly shed now) and covered another with it’s own vine remains. Although it’s not been very cold for the last couple of weeks.
I seem to have got very good germination from the two lots of Akebia seeds. Both the ones that I sowed direct and the ones I left on tissue in a polythene bag have almost all got root shoots. I moved them inside onto a windowsill, rather than leaving them in the polytunnel. If I can get them through the winter, then I may have rather more plants than I need! If not then I have dried the rest of the seed and can try growing them in the spring.
The last few weeks have seen an intruder in the garden. For the last few years we have seem thankfully little sign of the deer, and I have been thinking they don’t like the smell of Dyson. However recently they have been in and caused a little damage to a few of the trees, and munched some of the greenery in the fruit garden. Luckily I don’t grow much for ourselves outside, but I had been getting a little complacent. We have planted a hawthorne hedge which I am hoping in the longer term will screen the garden and deter the deer, but that will be a long time before it is big enough to do any good. I’m pretty sure I heard the stags calling in the rut this year for the first time as well. I wonder whether one of them was looking for greenery to decorate his antlers? I gather they do this with bracken at this time to make themselves (presumably) more attractive or impressive. In the past when we’ve had damage to the trees it’s been in the spring, which is more likely to be them rubbing the velvet off their antlers which they grow new every year.
I blame Martin Crawford! I’ve got over excited again planning new plants for next year already. I know it’s too early, but I recieved an e-mail from the Agroforestry Research Trust saying that they are open for plant orders. I need to try and remember whether I’ve got some plants reserved. I think I wanted Toona sinensis (a tree that grows onion flavoured leaves) but they had run out last year. I know that I fancied some Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort. Since there was an article in agroforestry news about it, I expect I won’t be alone.
What I’m really getting excited about at the moment is the idea of growing more perennial plants in the polytunnel. I’ve got on quite well with the fruiting vines. I have a kiwi (Jenny SF) and a bramble (unknown) which came with the kiwi. I was growing the kiwi in Solihull and it was one of the few plants I brought with us. When planted in the tunnel the bramble grew too. I tried digging it out several times, but it kept growing back, so the third year I left it, trained it along some overhead wires and was astounded by the fruit it produced. They are lush and sweet-tart, just like blackberries should be, but are also of a good size. The vine is not thornless unfortunately, which makes for an anti-social plant in a confined space. The roots I dug out, have fruited outside in a good summer. They may do better with a bit more shelter as well, since the local brambles have so far been pretty similar in timing for me (but much smaller). I also have a grapevine – boskoops glory, which I grew from a cutting of the vine I had on the veranda in Solihull. I don’t think it would crop to any extent outside here, unlike in Solihull, but is doing pretty well in the tunnel. I have a white grape vine also, which has yet to fruit for me. It seems to be growing well this year, so maybe next year I might get some fruit. I have also planted a couple of pineapple guava: Feijoa Sellowiana. As well as the reputed delicious fruit, which need a hot summer to ripen hence the polytunnel positioning, they also have edible flowers. I’ve not been able to try them yet, but they seem to be establishing OK near the lower doors in the tunnel.
In the polytunnel when we moved in was a globe artichoke, which has produced some lovely flowers/buds. It hasn’t done so well this year. I did divide it this spring, so it may be that it is suffering from the damage and will take a while to recover, although being eaten by several hungry caterpillars probably isn’t helping! The offsets I planted outside in the fruit garden and at least two of them seem to be growing away quite well so far – we’ll see whether they survive overwinter. Also in the tunnel was an olive tree in a tub. I neglected it and thought it had died of drought, but when moved outside, it sprouted again from the base. I thought it was a privet seedling at first, and only realised the olive was alive when I tried to dig it out of the tub. Anyway, although planted in the tunnel soil this spring, I think that the tree is finally dead now. There are also a couple of marjoram plants as well, which I cut for leaves every now and then and seem to tolerate my neglect remarkably well. An aloe vera which had been on the window sill in the house, gradually getting taller and taller, is now also in the tunnel – not sure whether it will survive the winter however.
This year I planted my new apricot, which is doing well so far, and some kind of citrus, which was given to me as a rather spindly plant needing a good home. It has been grown from seed, and we are not sure what kind of citrus it is – will have to wait til it flowers!
I quite enjoy this kind of structure in the polytunnel, and outside come to that. I am very keen on plants that provide me with food year after year with only a little attention. Annual plants are far too liable to succumb to juvenile death due to overcrowding, slugs or lack of germination. So having been started off by Martin Crawford, I have been going through my various lists, books and getting distracted on the internet to try and come up with more perennials that will benefit from the shelter of the tunnel, and yet survive the winter and create a food forest. So far I’ve deselected again tree tomato / tamarillo: solanum betacea, pepino: solanum muricatum, Taro: colocasia esculenta var. esculenta and Eddoe: c. Esculenta var. antiquorum as being just too tender, although they all sound fascinating. I don’t (at the moment anyway) want something that will need moving indoors during the winter, and although we don’t generally get hard frosts we do get frosts that would penetrate the polytunnel’s protection.
So on my list of perennials to grow in the polytunnel are (in no particular order):
Kiwi (got – but might like a kiwi berry – one of the small hairless ones)
Apios Americana (got – maybe if it survives the slugs this year)
Chinese yam: Dioscorea batatas (got – ditto re. slugs!)
Globe artichoke (got – but might fancy a different variety)
Chilli (got – survived one year on windowsill)
Passionfruit (need to source)
Ground plum: astragalus crassicarpus (need to source)
Aloe vera (got)
Runner beans (got – growing some heritage seeds library ones. I guess a few different ones would be required to see which over winter the best)
Fuchsia (got – fuchsia berry from my mum currently in a pot in the tunnel looking for a home)
Five flavour berry: Schisandra chinensis (got – but only one of the three plants seems to have survived, and you need a male + female for berries)
Korean mint (got – seedlings from a neighbour)
Sage (need to source)
Rosemary (need to source)
Licorice (need to source)
Blue sausage fruit: Decaisnea fargesii (need to source)
Honey berry: Lonicera caerulea (need to source)