It’s been a few weeks since I got back and I’ve not done a lot. Skye has been doing ‘misty isle’ again, just this last day or so turning colder and brighter. The tree field does have some autumn colour. Particularly down by the pond where it is a bit sheltered, the birch and willow have a few more leaves holding on. There is a lovely clumping grass turning a golden shade by the pedestrian gate to the river.
While the winds in the north we should have some fine weather, but I need to tuck some fleece or similar round the tea bushes to protect them from the winter cold. We actually had our first frost this weekend, which was a bit of a surprise. The green manures I sowed in the orchard just before the holiday have been a resounding failure. The field beans were eaten by crows, no sign of the vetch or clover, and the remaining fodder radish is going to be too small and sparse to create any coverage! I should have sown about a month earlier….I do have a nice crop of grass and buttercups coming, so I guess I’ll just have to sheet mulch in the spring, but this will kill off the desireable seeds I put in as well.
The tea garden extension is still looking quite green and lush. I’ll tidy this up a bit when we get some frosts, since I’ll need to think about harvesting the outside yacon, oca and mashua then. The oca has had some tiny yellow flowers, rather bashed by the wet winds.
Neither the oca or mashua really like the exposed position. Of the mixed selection of plants that went in, the self seeding kale has done well, and I have a few nice looking carrots along the edge. The fodder radish has some good size roots, so I may pull some of these over the winter. I think there will still be enough to give coverage. Phacelia and borage are still blooming lovely! In the original tea garden unfortunately I have a lawn of grass growing under the blackcurrant bushes, I’ll try mulching that in the spring also. The himalayan strawberries had a second flush of flowers, but none have set this time.
The experimental sheet mulching with combined paper and cardboard has not been a great success. I think that the cardboard really does need two layers. It seems to have disintegrated more quickly, and then does not keep the newspapers protected. I do have some more cardboard, and have re-mulched the bit by the tea garden, I’ll need to try and do the orchard as well whilst we’ve got this nice weather. The cardboard alone double layers have also suffered a bit, but some of this is definately dog damage, so I still think this is the better way to go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!
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.
Actually it’s mainly the orchard area within the tree field that I have been clearing of docks in the past few weeks. I have very nearly finished getting the levels sorted out, and managed to mulch with card some of the new surfaces (see here). Some of the area I managed to sow with some left over green manure seeds (buckwheat and clover) and these did germinate and grow to a certain extent but have not managed to outcompete the dock seed that is present in apparently vast quantities! There is also some established docken from previous years that was probably growing on the site previously, or was in the soil before it was moved down to the orchard area and regrew. The main priority was to get out the docken that were going to seed before they have a chance to spread more seed into the soil. This involved going round with a spade and cutting through the taproot of the plants. The tops were then loaded into a barrow along with a few bits of nettle and some of the couch grass that has apparently become established there also. The barrows were dumped just below the original gateway to the lower field, which still stands like the doorway in Narnia, although the gate is lying down rather than hinging. There is an area of soil below the gate which either didn’t have trees planted, or the trees didn’t take. I think it was the former, since the soil was very compacted, full of docken and stones in the gateway. Hopefully the loads of fertility in the form of weeds will help to rejuvenate the soil. I think of it as a bit like segregating nuclear waste – concentrating all the nasties in one area. I do the same with the rubbish I find: bits of rusty metal, glass, string, coal and brocken crockery get put into piles (or bags) until I can get round to deciding what to do with them.
I had to go over the cardboard I laid on the north side of the trackway, since there were several docks that had punched their way through. This has made a bit of a mess of the cardboard, so I will have to cover the area again before winter. I have cut back all the seeding docken, and made a start at pulling out the juvenile plants that would go to seed from next year. The slightly larger plants often come out cleanly with the taproot when pulled firmly with a twist. I have been twisting off the leaves and leaving them on the soil surface and putting the roots in a bucket before adding them to the weed mountain. Some may not be big enough to regrow, but there’s no point tempting fate. The smaller plants will need digging out. It seems counter intuitive, but the younger leaves tend to just come off in your hand leaving the tap root to regrow in the ground. If the soil is gently loosened with a fork then the whole plant is more likely to come cleanly. I’ve still got some of the larger plants to do, and almost all of the smaller plants. I think I will go over the whole area lightly with a fork anyway and try and remove as much as possible of the couch grass. It will probably grow back anyway, but if I can reduce a bit it will be worthwhile. I’m going to quickly order some green manure seed: fodder radish, red clover and field beans to overwinter and keep down the weed seeds. I may try and spread some of my vetch seeds and plants as well.
I’ve made a start on the final area of the tea garden extension: there was a strip along by the trackway which didn’t need levelling, so is still full of weeds: docken, nettles, couch, creeping thistles, other thistles……I’m going to take the worst out and then mulch over the whole area. The couch will grow back, but I’m hoping that the soil under the mulch will be nice and friable by spring, and a light forking will be sufficient to remove the couch. I am trying out a variation on mulching again. Since I seem to need an awful lot of cardboard to cover an area, I am going to make it go further by combining it with newspapers. Previously when I’ve used newspapers I have weighted them down with grassy materials: old haylage, grass clippings, cut reeds etc. These work to a certain extent, but there always seems to be a deal of work in cutting and moving the clippings, and then they sometimes blow off and I end up with newspaper decorating the fences. This time I am going to spread a single layer of cardboard over the newspapers and weight it down with stones as usual, of which I have a plentiful supply collected out of the tea garden extension when moving the soil earlier in the year. A double layer of cardboard does seem to last pretty well by this method, so we’ll see if a single layer with paper underneath does as well.
They say the camera doesn’t lie, but I wanted to see whether I could take a picture that made my weed infested tea garden extension look great. These pictures were taken from the same position, just crouching or standing up and show how easy it is to be misled.
I planted my tomatoes out this week. I have worked out now what I was doing wrong and why my plants seem so stunted compared to other people’s. I am over watering them. The compost appears dry, we are having sunny weather and the polytunnel is getting super hot (too hot for me to work in there during the days). I thought that tomato plants need lots of water and being in pots they would need more – WRONG! This peat free compost I am using seems dry at the surface, but underneath it is sopping wet still so the poor little plants were trying to grow in a tropical marsh. I transplanted them in to bigger pots (which is when I found they were not as dry as I’d thought) hardly watered them at all, and they perked right up.
The trick is to stick a length of cane or stick into some of the pots to the bottom, when you feel the urge to water, pull out the stick and feel how damp it is – that will tell you if the pots need water. After two weeks the plants were looking a lot happier and had filled their new pots with roots. Rather than pot them on again, I just planted them right out into the tunnel. That involved cutting back much of my self sown salads, which are rather past their best now. The kale still had some good pickings on and I was going to try making kale crisps (which are rather yummy) but unfortunately I just ran out of time that day and they all went rather limp. I left the roots of the plants in the soil generally, dug a good sized hole, put about three shovels of my mature compost (rather grey from all the wood and paper ash that went in that heap) in the hole and mixed it in a bit. I have found that since I’ve left the polytunnel untidy, leaving cut back plants on the surface, the soil has a better texture and doesn’t dry out as much. The plant debris also stops seeds from germinating. The tomato plants were popped in a random order, the soil level was deliberately left a little lower than the surrounding soil making it easy to water them in, and the holes can be backfilled to earth up the stems as the plants grow. Hopefully I won’t lose the little labels telling me which is which. I’m not expecting wonders from them this year, since I am late getting the plants in, but hopefully, now I know what I’m doing wrong, I can get a bit ahead next year!
While I was clearing the undergrowth in the polytunnel I found three other good things. Firstly the unknown citrus is not dead! I had cut it mostly back but not removed it, more from wishful thinking than a belief it would recover, and hey presto! new shoots from near the bottom of the trunk! I’ll tidy it up a bit once it’s a bit bigger, and perhaps fleece it next winter, but it may be that it will always die back and never flower.
Another good thing was a very welcome resident toad. It was heading into the area I’d cleared in the polytunnel, so I had to relocate it back in a quiet area for its own safety, but I was very happy to see it. A few years ago I saw a small toad in the tunnel on a number of occasions, but haven’t seen it for a while – maybe this is the same one, but it’s now rather fat and much larger! I don’t think the pond made the difference – toads prefer running water I gather. It’s funny, you would have thought, particularly over the last few weeks it would be a bit hot for it in there, but it is obviously happy enough!
Whilst I was in the tunnel taking photos I also noticed that my olive tree has flower buds. I only bought it last year so am very excited about this.
The final good thing was that it rained today. This is not normally something one cheers about on Skye, more something one takes for granted! However we have actually had about three weeks dry and rather warm weather, so the plants in the thinner soil were starting to get yellow, mostly things were fine for me though.
It was more the timing that was perfect. I have been moving soil from under the barn to my orchard area. A good exercise when the soil is nice and dry – lighter to carry and not slippery underfoot. I had reached the end of the area, bar a strip near the track which will be harder work, since there is more nettles and couch grass in that bit, together with stones mixed in from the roadway. Yesterday I dug the last little bit to make the area level, loosened the whole area to a fork depth to try and remove a bit more of the creeping thistle, marked out some paths with edging stones (I’d removed these as I went) and then broadcast all my old seed (and a little fresh seed) in the hope that at least some are still viable to compete with the weeds (I had quite a bit of green manure seeds that I bought for the allotment in Solihull and we’ve been here ten years now!). Now we have a day of soft soaking rain and it couldn’t be better to water the seeds in!
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.
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.
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!
I love May on Skye. Actually, as soon as the clocks change for summertime, life seems to get that much better. The day light gets longer and longer, technically it never gets truly dark now. The weather also starts to cheer up. Spring tends to be our dry season, and midge free whilst it lasts. Surprisingly that can actually be an extended period without rain, despite Skye’s reputation. We’ve only been here 10 years and have experienced one spring where we had about 16 weeks with no rain. This year wasn’t that dry (thankfully) and actually it didn’t dry up until towards the end of April. Then we had an idyllic week of almost unbroken sunshine, and day by day the vegetation on the croft started to unfold. I also start getting too excited and start digging and germinating far too many seeds with nowhere to put them!
This week I have shuffled almost all the logs on the log pile. For reasons I won’t go into, this particular delivery of softwood arrived sopping wet about 2 and a half years ago and we’ve been stuggling to get it away dry ever since. Finally the week of sunshine and drying north wind enabled us to get a whole lot cut and away (with a little help from our friends – thanks Dave). The ones that remain are still pretty wet, some were resting on the ground, so were getting wet from underneath, and they also have a lot of bark adhering which keeps them damp longer. So I have restacked, brushed off the loose bark as best I can, and moved the whole lot forwards back onto the ground bearing logs. As part of that exercise, I managed to bag up loose bark from under the pile to try and get some air flow through it, and also much of the sawdust created by the sawing operations. Hopefully now they are able to air off again we will get enough more dry weather to get most of the rest away soon. We’ll also have to estimate whether we will need another delivery to get us through the next winter. We do most of our cooking as well as all the hot water and heating using a wood fired range and it’ll be some time before we can harvest our own wood – although some by the river could do with a tidy up.
I have used up the bark mulching round newly planted Glen Coe raspberries. These were belated birthday presents from my in-laws. The Glen Coe is supposed to be a clumping raspberry that fruits on this year’s growth. It has attractive dark purple berries and I’ve fancied one since I’ve seen them in gardening catalogues. Anyway, I have planted them in the front garden where hopefully they should be pretty sheltered – we have some big (well c. 25 ft, which is tall for here) sycamore trees, and I have also planted a willow ‘fedge’ to one side of the path which cuts through from the front door to the lower drive. To the north of the fedge are blackcurrant and raspberry bushes. These are under planted (well OK, I never planted them, but they make a good ground cover) with ground elder. This is also growing on the other side of the path, which is where I am starting to plant some of my ‘interesting edibles’, and these new raspberries. I have tried an experiment therefore: rather than digging out all the ground elder, I have planted the raspberries in a small hole, cut back the vegetation, then heavily mulched with cardboard weighed down with stones and covered with bark. I expect that the ground elder will grow through, which is probably OK, but it does look quite smart just now!
I’ve also taken a first cut of the comfrey in the fruit garden. This is on the south side of the polytunnel and again is partially enclosed by a willow fedge. This fedge was very slow to get going. Partly because the soil depth is pretty shallow in places and willow does not like to dry out, and partly I don’t think that variety of willow likes the salt wind, and it has very little shelter until the other trees on the top of the gully bank start to get a little bigger. The comfrey is interplanted around the fruit bushes. The idea is that the comfrey will grow and mulch the bushes – feeding them and keeping the weeds down, also hiding them from the birds slightly. The difficulty is in getting the spacing right. Too close and the comfrey smothers the bushes. Too far apart and they don’t keep the weeds down enough. I seem to have erred on the too close side, so I am going to have to cut the comfrey and remove the growth elsewhere. I think this is probably some of the best soil on the property. It is deep enough to have been the burying ground apparently for several dead livestock in the distant past, much to the dogs’ delight! It is almost impossible to remove comfrey once it is established. The roots are thick, long and fragile and, like dandelion, will regenerate a new plant from a small fragment of root. Luckily it does seem to be the non spreading/seeding version, possibly even Bocking14 which is supposed to be the best for green manures, but since it came with the property, I cannot be sure of this. Anyway, hopefully by cutting the comfrey, this will curtail it’s growth a little in the future so it won’t swamp the bushes so much. I have cut up some of the leaves quite finely and pressed them into two buckets in my shed, which I hope will make good tomato food later in the year. The rest is still in a wheelbarrow ready to be used to mulch around whichever plants I feel need it most.
I need to try and do a little more civil engineering in the fruit garden as well. Both nettles and couch grass are making takeover bids, as well as the creeping grass and buttercups. I have used woven fabric under the paths, but it doesn’t seem to be very effective at keeping the weeds down, and is difficult to get the roots out of. I’m thinking of using newspaper topped with sawdust on the paths. I have enough to get a fairly deep layer down, but I think I’ll have to dig as much couch as possible out first. I’m hoping to grow a load of skirret, silverweed and other exciting root vegetables in the worst weedy areas, so will have an excuse to give it another fork over in the autumn to get rid of some regrowth then.