Natural Farming on Skye

over view of farm area
Potential Natural Farming area

Sometimes I just get a bee in my bonnet or a brain worm, and it niggles at me until I`ve worked out a solution. When I read `The One Straw Revolution` by Masanobu Fukuoka it opened up a whole new way of thinking for me. The concept that humankind cannot understand nature and that we should therefore immerse ourselves back and let nature take the driving seat is beyond what I was trying to do with my perennial vegetables and `edimental` food forest. My gardening has shifted away from annuals, but I now feel I can go back to growing them in a freer style. This thread, https://permies.com/t/163437/RED-gardens-simple-garden, on simple gardens was another part of the jigsaw for me, giving the concept of a simple succession or crop rotation if you will.

Neither what Fukuoka did with a two season grain system, or what Bruce Darrell did with a successional monocrop is quite what I want to do. Neither would work here, and I`d like to avoid the plastic sheeting too. I also want to create landraces for Skye of each of the crops I grow. This is another concept that is obvious once you take off the blinkers of modern agriculture. Diversity is the tool that will overcome changing times ahead.

There are two main problems I need to overcome: being able to cover the soil adequately in winter, either with standing crops or mulch, and initial clearing of a large area of grass.

Tackling the second issue first. I am hoping that direct sowing of grazing rye, Secale cereal, into short cut turf as soon as possible (end of September) will give it enough time to get roots going overwinter and then provide enough competition during the summer to crowd out some of the perennial grasses. If this doesn’t look successful by late spring, I’ll have to try mulching out the area with plastic and/or cardboard.

I had thought of trying to rent a field locally, but really that would be a bit over ambitious, so I`m going to use the area of the treefield which had mainly ash trees, now cut right back, due to dieback. It`s a bit of an irregularly shaped area, but that won`t matter when working manually. It is well drained (which is one reason the trees haven`t thrived; the grass there is more suited to drier conditions) with a slight slope to the south east. The soil (compared to much of my land) is pretty deep, being more than 12 inches to bedrock in the main, although quite compacted and with stones that make digging slow. After growing to maturity the first summer, hopefully the rye will produce enough straw to mulch out most of the rest of the grass over the following winter.

So the basic idea is a simple rotation: grains → peas, beans and broccoli → roots → replant perennials including potatoes→ back to grains again. I`m going to encourage self seeding where possible and gradually develop landraces over time. I`m not wanting to spend too much on seeds to start off and hope to spend no more than £100 this year (much of that on the grazing rye). Some of this will be for sowing next year, I want to autumn sow, or allow self seeding where possible, as being less work than spring sowing, although more seeds will be required to allow for losses over winter.

My first step was to start ordering seeds. I`m going to try and get two new varieties of each of the crops I want to grow and combine them with whatever other seeds I can obtain in the meantime. I have a few different varieties of peas for example, saved up over the years.

My next step is already taken. In this part of the treefield the trees have not been very successful. As well as the ash, there are a few small rowans, and some relatively young spruce and pine that I planted to create an intermediate shelter belt. There are also some baby korean pines and a couple of monkey puzzle seedlings, but in the main the area is quite exposed. I am going to try to make a quick growing shelterbelt from my perennial kale. Many of the side branches have broken off in the wind this week, and I have cut them to shorter lengths, so getting two or three cuttings per bramch. These I have inserted just downwind of the embryo shelterbelt. I don`t suppose the kale will inhibit the conifer`s growth, and by the time the conifers are big enough to shade out the kale, they will be creating shelter of their own.

Monkeying around

rainbow
Wintry Showers

I’ve been a bit busy with shop projects recently, and with the daylight being so short at the moment, I haven’t actually done very much outside.  It is just past the solstice and it is dark till 8 a.m. and dark again at about 4.30 p.m.  The days are supposedly getting longer.  Usually by the start of February the difference is appreciable.  Some plants are already starting to show spring growth; the celandine leaves are already forming, others don’t seem to have realised yet that it is winter!  Some of the fuchsias still have most of their leaves.  Although the winter hasn’t been too bad yet, this week is set to be colder and drier, so at once will be frostier, but nicer for working outside.

In the former DRG I have staked the Gevuina, which is starting to rock in the wind a bit.  I’ll prune the leader out this summer coming and see if I can start a new plant from the removed tip; it is supposed to be fairly easy to take cuttings.  The two seedlings that grew this summer are still doing well.  I have just left them outside in the wet and they seem to be thriving.  I wonder if they prefer the cooler damp conditions, rather the drier, warmer conditions I tried in the polytunnel with previous seeds.  Maybe a little warmer to germinate, then outside to the wet again?  I still have several pots with seeds in that have not started to germinate but look healthy.

mature tree portree
Large female Monkey Puzzle Tree in Portree Skye (May 2019)

I am rather keen to grow many more monkey puzzle trees.  They grow so nicely and shrug off the winds here.  The plan would be to put them all down the hill (not near paths) and let them grow until they fruit.  Then the female trees can be kept to provide nuts, and the male trees harvested for timber. To this end I bought a moderate amount of Scottish harvested seeds from an ebay seller, and have put these to germinate in the kitchen.  Based on the instructions provided by the seller, I soaked the seeds overnight, placed a layer of  damp vermiculite in a couple of old strawberry punnets, pushed the seeds in about half way, put the lids back on the trays and put the trays stacked on top of each other near the stove flue.

seeds by stove
Seeds by Stove Flue

Every few days I sprayed the tops of the seeds with water to keep them damp.  After a couple of weeks I taped up most of the ventilation holes in the lids, since the seeds seemed to be getting a little dry in between sprays.  As I noticed that there were a few roots developing the other day I tipped the seeds out and sorted them.

sorting
Sorting sprouting seeds

About one third were sprouting so I potted them into small pots.  They are still in the kitchen at present to keep them warm, I’ll transfer the pots to the study windowsill in a week or so, when they seem to be settled down, and keep spraying them till then.  There were a few seeds that had rotted, so these were removed and the rest put back in the vermiculite, to carry on germinating.  It may be a few months before all those that will have started sprouting.

planted
Planted up sprouting seeds

The tomato and shark’s fin melon seem to be doing well on the window sill, however the tamarind has died. I think it was too cold for it on the window sill. I moved it through to the kitchen, but I’m pretty sure it is too late.

windowsill
Overwintering

The Third Step

tables with heather
Skye Hills in late summer

If the first step was planting, and the second harvesting wood, then the third is diversification.  I’m treading a variable line at the moment between native and conventional planting, and various interesting edibles.  I don’t want the treefield to appear to be a garden, but also want to make the most of interplanting and increasing food producing opportunities.  I think it will be a question of evolving the planting as I go.  The changing dynamics as larger trees are harvested for wood will add an extra complexity to the holding.

alder coppice regrowth
Alder coppice regrowth

The few blackcurrants I planted a few years ago in the tree field are already bearing well, particularly the ones in the orchard area, which are a few years older.  One of them is leaning at an angle now: blown over by the wind.  I’ll cut that right back when the leaves fall, and hopefully it will regrow upright with stronger roots.  I found quite a few rather leggy plants in the alder grove in the centre of the treefield.  They are struggling a bit with the light levels there.  I’m not sure whether to leave them, cut them back, or transplant them….  I may do all three to different areas.

blackcurrant treasure
Berried Treasure

I have also planted two different raspberry selections in the treefield.  One, from my friend AC, I planted in the lee of the hump above the leachfield.  They should be pretty sheltered there.  AC says her dad does well with it in Wales, so we’ll see how it likes it slightly further North.  They were planted last year, and so far have survived the winter, fruited on the small canes I left, and regrown new canes.  The fruit is rather large with a very good flavour, but I don’t know what the variety is. It doesn’t seem to be the first to ripen, but seems to be good quality.  The other variety is the summer raspberry I planted originally in the fruit jungle, which does very well there.  I have planted some canes adjacent to some of the cut throughs in the upper part of the field.  These are amongst slower growing trees: hazel and oak, so shouldn’t get crowded out too quickly, and are leeward of alders, so should be reasonably sheltered at least at first.

new raspberry
Summer raspberry

I’m quite enamoured of the Glen Prosen raspberries which were left here in a pot when we bought the house.  They are not very vigorous, and the berries tend to be small, but oh so tasty!  Just like a raspberry should taste.  I’m thinking of planting a few canes in the leachfield area.  The roots are fairy shallow, and the area is pretty sheltered under the hump.

For the first time this year I had flowers and fruit on one of my chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, bushes.  These I grew from seed from ART some years ago and got really good germination.  I planted a few out in 2013 at the edges of the main trackway.  All survived and have grown to up to 3 feet or so.  They seem to sucker about a bit, but otherwise look healthy.  They have dark burgundy leaves in spring, turning glossy dark green, and in autumn have brilliant scarlet shades.  Even without the fruit, they make attractive foliage.

aronia flowers
Aronia melanocarpa flowers

The flowers are a cluster of white flowers that look very like hawthorne.  The fruit clusters tend to ripen one berry at a time.  I found someone – maybe local birds – took several of the green fruit before they were ripe.  Bob Flowerdew said in the ‘Complete fruit’ book that they taste a bit like black currants but more piney.  I thought thay taste like sweet cranberries.  Astringent, but sweet and juicy at the same time.  Apparently the longer you leave them to ripen the tastier they are, but I don’t think I can go past the bush at the moment without sampling a couple, so I don’t think they will last that well since there are not that many fruit.  Apparently they make a jam-like preserve, good with savory dishes like cranberry and redcurrants, and were dried into cakes with other fruits by First People Americans.

aronia berries
Aronia melanocarpa berries

We stock a fruit juice from Wonky Fruit with chokeberry (they call it ‘superberry’) and apple juice in our shop which I find very refreshing and tasty.  The berries are rich in Vitamin C and also Pectin according to Ken Fern and also high in beneficial anti-oxidants and anthocyanins.  The bushes may grow well in boggy soil and are hardy down to 25 degrees Celcius.  I may try and get hold of some of the improved fruit forms that are available, since I do think that they will be worth while for me.

seedling plum
Seedling plum or damson

 

I have planted several seedling trees that I have grown from pips, in the tree field.  I can either let them grow and see what the fruit is like, or graft a known good fruiting tree onto them.  I’m still waiting for things like my unusual haw, and Amelanchier to do much.  The wild cherries have had quite a bit of fruit in the last few years; tasty if a bit small.  I might look into grafting on these, and I could also try grafting the large fruited haw onto hawthorne seedlings.  I gather bud grafting in summer is the way to do cherries.

developing cherries early summer
Wild cherries in mid summer

This year I have ordered some nutting hazel cultivars.  One or two more of the woodland hazels I planted look like they have nuts this year, but most are still too small.  Of the herbacious layers most of the plants are the native ones, along with the grasses and flowers, such as the pignut, sorrel and marsh woundwort.  The fiddlehead fern I planted in the treefield was a bit small, but is surviving and may be better now it has room to grow out of it’s pot.

DRAGONFLY
Tiny dragonfly

An insect seen for the first time this year: a small Dragonfly, probably a common darter (about 2 inches long).  I saw lots of bigger ones last year but did not manage to get a good enough picture to identify them.  Hopefully they were making a good meal from the midges, which have been quite bad this year.

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Fruit Jungle

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The fruit garden became a fruit jungle.  This is mostly because of the raspberries, which like to move around.  There is also quite a bit of nettle(s), which make it not conducive to casual browsing.  The nettles are a good sign actually, since they prefer richer soil.  Probably decades of manure from the byre in times past have increased the fertility of the area, although there has been no livestock since we’ve been here.  I’ve tried to tame various areas in the past, but am fighting a bit of a losing battle; it looks beautiful for a few months, then nature happens.  It is probably the soft herbacious layer that I don’t understand yet and haven’t got the balance for.  Hopefully in time I can get the groudcover plants established so that the nettles and docken don’t dominate quite so much.  In the meantime I have been pulling these perennial weeds out, sometimes by the root, sometimes not.  They will probably come back next year, maybe not as strong, we shall see.

strawberry patch
Strawberry flowers

The comfrey still seems to come back in patches where I thought I had removed it.  I think if I carry on digging out as much as I can it will eventually give up.  In the meantime the lush growth is useful to mulch around the fruit bushes.  I’ve got quite a nice patch of strawberries, although they tend to get damaged outside before they get a chance to ripen off.  They do much better in the polytunnel.  The Toona sinensis seems pretty happy, if not that vigorous. It can be seen sprouting earlier in the year in the strawberry picture above (at least if you know where to look).  It is only it’s second year and I haven’t tried eating any yet.  It is supposed to taste like ‘beefy onions’, used as a cooked vegetable in China.  The patches of Good King Henry have established well.  They will stop some weed seedlings coming up next year.  The Japanese Ginger is very late coming into growth again, and does not show much signs of being too vigorous in my garden.  I just hope it survives and grows enough that I can try that as a vegetable as well.  I forgot I had some Oca in by the Ribes Odoratum last year.  That seems to have come back of it’s own accord.  I have a feeling that Oca volunteers will be as much of a nuisance as potato volunteers tend to be, albeit somewhat less vigorous.

mulching lower path June
Mulching below path

I have mulched around the ‘Empress Wu’ Hosta, which I planted in the trees just beyond the fruit jungle, with cardboard.  I wanted to protect it before the grass grew and swamped it too much.  The bistort has come back nicely as well this year and set seed, which I just sprinkled close by.  I wish now I had sowed the seed in pots so I could determine where to plant out new plants if they grow.  I mulched the area between the path and the lower parking area as well.  The new large fruited haw there, Crataegus Shraderiana, is growing well, and it is underplanted with a Gaultheria Mucronata cutting and a Mrs Popple Fuchsia cutting.  The latter had been growing quite nicely, but unfortunately got broken off once planted, possibly by Dyson sitting on it, or the cardboard shifting against it.  It seems to be growing back again OK now.

elderflower
Elder in flower from above fruit jungle

The original elder bush, which came as a cutting from Solihull is coming into it’s own now.  It flowers really well, despite being on the windy side of the willow fedge that protects the fruit garden from the worst of the prevailing winds.  It doesn’t seem to have set many berries again though.  Hopefully some of the local elder cuttings that I took will cross fertilise it and help a set; it may just be the wind though.  It’s worth it’s position just from the blossom and extra shelter it provides, although fruit would also be nice.  I used to make a rather tasty cordial from elderberries…..and I read somewhere that it used to be cultivated to make a port-like drink back in the day.  Certainly I have drunk some rather good home brewed elderberry wine (not mine I hasten to add).

upper path
Purple is the colour….

The rest of the fruit jungle is living up to it’s name.  The original rhubarb has provided a batch of jam and a batch of chutney, I could have picked more… The Champagne Early rhubarb are starting to establish well with a lovely pink colouration (I made a batch of rhubarb and ginger liqueur which is maturing as I write), and the Stockbridge Arrow is coming on, although still quite small.  The Ribes Odoratum flowered well, although only one berry appears to have set.  I will maybe try and take some cuttings from these this winter.  They are very pretty while in bloom, although it would be nice to get a bit more fruit from them.  The Saskatoon remains a bit disappointing.  I was hoping it would be setting fruit better by now.  There are a few but not many.  It maybe that it requires more ‘chill days’ to flower well, since we have much milder winters here than it would be used to in it’s native North America.  A bit of research indicates that the bushes may need pruning, or just be immature.  The raspberries are starting to ripen now, and the black currants (all Ben Sarek in the fruit garden) are tempting with a heavy crop, but need a few more days yet.  There is also at least one flower on the globe artichoke which is a division from the polytunnel plant (spot it in the top photo after clearing).  It is encouraging that it is returning and getting stronger year on year.  The cardoon seems to have succumbed this year.  I don’t think any of my new seed have germinated, but I may be better getting vegetable branded seed rather than HPS seed, which is more likely to be an ornamental variety – they are rather spectacular in bloom.

apple blossom
Apple blossom

All of the apple trees also flowered well.  Only the Tom Putt apple seems to have set any fruit though.  I’m not too perturbed about that.  The Worcester Pearmain is unlikely to ripen anyhow, and the Starks Early (which I grafted myself!) is still very young.  Given a halfway reasonable summer however, I am hopeful of getting more than one apple this year.  There don’t seem to be any surviving fruit on the Morello cherry unfortunately, which is looking rather tatty.

Nancy puzzle
Monkey puzzle with yours truly for scale

The monkey puzzles as yet are far too young to expect nuts.  They were planted in 2009 and have grown really well in the fruit garden.  All three are about twice as tall as I am.  By special request from Maureen, I’ll put a photo of one of my monkey puzzle and I above.  They are also getting wider in diameter; both in trunk and in branch reach  The branches are so prickly this means that the original path at the top of where the fruit tunnel once stood is no longer viable.  I therefore need to have another think about path routeing this winter, particularly in the upper raspberry dominated area.

The Secret Garden

This year I have been trying to tame the next section of garden by the drivebank overlooking the barn, this is where I moved the kiwi vine to over the winter.  I have been calling this The Secret Garden in my mind.  It is not particularly hidden (although it will be more secluded once mature), it is just that almost all the plants in here have edible parts, although are normally grown as ornamentals in the UK.  Steven Barstow has coined the word ‘edimentals’ for these sorts of plants.

secret garden to tables
View from Garden end

I had already forked over the area and mulched it with cardboard at the same time as I planted out the kiwi vine.  One of my neighbours has lots of lovely hosta, which I had been admiring and they very kindly gave me several big clumps of it, together with what I think may be Elecampane (Inula helenium), and ladies mantle.  I have put most of the hosta in this area, there are at least two different varieties – one with quite blue leaves.  Hopefully it won’t be too dry for it.  I also planted out some of my Aralia cordata, which I had grown from seed, and my sechuan pepper (from a danish cutting), some Lady Boothby Fuchsia (from cuttings), some golden current (from cuttings) and my strawberry tree (bought as a plant). I also planted some hardy geraniums around the base of the strawberry tree.  These were grown from seed from chiltern seeds: .  It was supposed to be a mixed pack, but only two varieties seem to have made it – a small white flowered one and a small purple flowered one.  The rest of the geraniums were planted on the drivebank.

hosta shoots
Variegated Hosta shoots in spring

I  also got some hedging Sea buckthorne plants this spring, and have planted a number of these along the top of the bank above the barn, as well as in various places in the tree field.  Hopefully these will form a protective barrier as well as fixing nitrogen, and maybe producing fruit in the future.  They should grow fairly quickly, but I will probably cut them back fairly often to keep them bushy, assuming they do OK.

These plantings are all mostly doing fine.  The Aralia seems to be suffering a bit from slug damage.   There were three little plants, and I think one has not made it, one is OK and the other will probably be OK.  The Hosta doesn’t seem to have suffered too badly from slug damage so far.  One of the clumps is starting to flower, and they are all looking pretty healthy.  The kiwi is not looking great, but has some new growth, so may well make it.  The proof will be if it comes back into life next year!  Unfortunately the sechuan pepper plant was broken by some strong north winds we had – I did not stake it since it was so tiny.  It has sprouted below the broken point so I have removed the top part of the stem and stuck it in adjacent in the hope that this may form a new plant too.  So far the strawberry tree is looking very happy.  One of the sea buckthorne hasn’t made it, but the others look pretty happy.  I may replace the failed sea buckthorne with a female good fruiting variety if the others do well in the next couple of years.

secret garden path
Remulched secret garden

The weeds had been poking through the cardboard, so I have been going back over with some fresh cardboard, pulling out the nettles, docken and grasses that are a bit persistent.  Hopefully I can weaken them enough that they don’t come back next year.  I need to have more ground cover plants to stop the weeds seeding back in again (remember  rule #2)  The chilean plum yew plants I have are still a bit small for planting out yet I think, but could also be planted out next year.  I have also thickly covered the main path through to the front garden (it comes out where I have the dog tooth violet and solomon’s seal plants growing) with old newspaper and wood chippings/bark.  I still need to complete another ramp down to the barn and build a retaining wall to tidy up the join to the drivebank, however there is a Landrover parked rather long term just in the way at the moment, so this may have to wait till next year.

 

Mulch less work perhaps

pignuts
Backway through tall grass and pignuts

S. managed to cut the grass on the main trackway down to the lower junction, but when I tried to do a bit more a few days later, I found that the scythe mower was not cutting very well.  It was out of action for a few weeks, since S. found that it wasn’t just a matter of sharpening the blades or tightening things up; the bearing on the blade pivot had broken up completely.  Luckily S. is a mechanical genius and managed to source and replace some suitable bearings so the machine now cuts better than ever.  We suspect it must have been running loose for a while.

less grass
Sparse well drained area

The weather has been pretty dry this year, so despite the delay of a few weeks, S. has been able to cut all the main trackways (which didn’t happen last year) as well as most of the backways, which are single mower width paths between the trees in strategic directions.  He has also made a new backway looping round the north side of the field about half way down.

wide path mulch
Lots of lush growth near top junction

It is funny how different the grass is in different areas of the field.  Up at the top it is thick, tall and quick growing, where as towards the middle it is thin bladed and shorter.  Here it is made up of what I call “blood grass”, since it sometimes looks like the tips of the grass have been dipped in blood.  Nearer the pond is where most of the orchids grow, although there are a few bigger ones further up the field.  I marked the positions where I could identify the growing leaves (they are less ribbed than plantains, and wider than bluebells).  S. managed to avoid most, but mowed right over one of the more spectacular ones, a double headed one too!  I put the cut heads in water, so far they are looking pretty lively, so may open out in the jar eventually.

marking orchids
Sticks marking orchid positions on pond loop of trackway

I had a bit of a brainwave last winter , it occurred to me that if I had a suitable fruiting shrub or tree at the appropriate interval along the track, then as I raked I could dispose of the cut debris around the said shrubs, mulching them at least annually, without having to transport the mulch material very far.  I did distribute quite a few black currants as cuttings along to the first main junction.  The idea does seem to have worked pretty well this year.  The volume of mulch material varies according to the type of grass in the different areas as mentioned above, so when I add strategic shrubs further down they may be wider spaced than where the mulch material is produced more lushly.  In the meantime there are plenty of little spruces and pine which I planted as intermediate windbreaks in the sparse area of the field, as well as the new alder, elder, lime and sea buckthorne plantings.  I’ve tried to mulch as many of these as I can, since I know how much new plantings benefit from the grass being kept down around them.  I haven’t put a sheet material down under the cut grass, so it won’t be effective for long.

mulching tiny trees
Mulching tiny trees

On the north side of the main trackway down, there is an area planted with birch.  This has the stringy blood grass growing quite vigorously.  In fact, it seemed to swamp many of the original birch trees, so I replaced them a couple of years ago with some locally sourced ones from Skye Weavers, who had self sown birch in their meadow which they did not want.  These are now growing well, but we are still concerned that the grass is very competitive and so S. mowed between the trees.  The grass came off like a huge fleece – a great mat of tangled grass rather than individual blades.  Hopefully it will still be effective as mulch and not just carry on growing.

birch grass fleece
Grass fleece

Some of the cuttings I have put in have been further back in the trees and most of these have not yet been mulched.  I was surprised how many of these took, considering they were just stuck in with no clearance (unlike the strategic ones at the trackside, which had a clearance turf turned over to give them a start).  I’ll probably leave them rather than try to move them, since it is easy enough to strike new plants from cuttings whilst pruning in winter.

currants in grass
Unmulched cuttings in amongst trees

Second year Coppicing

lower cut after
Alder copse by river

This is the second year that we have harvested some of our own trees for firewood.  I have taken some alder down in the same corner down by the pond as last year, and some from the 2010 planting at the bottom of the main trackway by the river corner.  The ones from the bottom were selected mainly to create a more clear area.  I think that the regrowth will be better if the stumps have more light, rather than being shaded out.  Most of the alders already had some twigs growing from the base of the trunks, and I tried not to damage this when I cut the main trunks down.  This will give the regrowth a head start.

 

middle cut after
Alder copse by river corner

The new reciprocating saw definately makes the job much easier, although it does seem to chew through the battery life pretty quickly.  I cut off the main side branches from the trunks before making the main cut.  Some of the trees are pretty tall and it was tricky to get them to fall tidily.  There’s still nowhere near enough to last us very long as fuel, but we have been very pleased with the way last year’s harvest has been burning.  That is all nice and dry now, and stacked away in the wood shed.  Mostly the diameters are pretty small, so the wood tends to burn quick and hot – very good for cooking on and starting up the fire.

shelter with logs
Field Wood Shelter

I finally got round to building a little woodshelter down by the pond using some old pallets and roofing sheets from the old byre.  I’ve started cutting the newly cut wood to length and stacking it away.  This will keep the worst of the weather off the logs, keep them out of the grass/mud and let them dry in the wind a bit.  I’m pretty happy with the structure – hopefully it will last a few years and not blow away.  I got a bit of a blister on my thumb from the reciprocating saw, but it was much easier than sawing by hand.  I’ll probably make a few of these shelters in strategic places as time goes on, so that I don’t have to do too much hauling of timber as I cut it in future.  This can then go up to the house/shed in one vehicle load once cured.

New friends and Old

cuckoo sparkle
Drenched in May mists

Having missed the whole of the spring season we are already heading into summer.  2020 will be remembered by all this year for the covid-19 virus issues. The lock down restrictions have had little effect on us, although we are busy in the shop trying to source essential supplies for our loyal customers and are grateful for where we live.  One staff member is still recovering from a (different) virus infection from before xmas, and another decided to stop coming to work to protect her family. This has left us with just one person to give me time off, so more work, less time. However we are so much luckier than many people, and are hopeful of having a new member trained up soon, so I can get another afternoon per week off.

cherries
Wild Cherries

The garden outside goes from brown and dead looking to fountains of green over the months of April and May. A moderately dry spring is now turning milder and wetter, with my first midge bites of the year recently, a bit of wind last weekend with maybe warm weather for the end of the month.

pink primrose
Pink Primrose

There were a couple of different plants down by the river this spring.  I was surprised to see a bright pink primrose and have no idea how it came to be here, many hundreds of yards from any garden.  I gather that they can be pale pink sometimes, but this is really bright pink.  I can only assume that the seeds must have washed down from a garden cross upriver, so I have relocated the plant to the front garden under the fuchsia bush.

coltsfoot
Coltsfoot by pond

The other plant that I had seen, but not realised what it was is coltsfoot.  I had seen the leave in the summer, but have never noticed the flowers before, which come out before any of its leaves are visible.  There were a few in bloom on the riverbank and a couple inside the fence by the pond.  They look a bit like dandelion flowers, with scaly stems and a bit more middle.  Allegedly they taste of aniseed.  I did take a nibble of one, but I think in the future I will just let them be.

april3rd
April 3rd planting trees

In the tree field I have planted some new tree varieties: italian alder and sea buckthorne.  The latter I have been wanting to try for a while, and the former I think may do better on the swathe of field where the ash trees are not doing very well.  I now think that they are struggling partly due to the soil getting dry in that area.  I’m hoping that italian alder may do better there, since it should cope better with dry soils.  The soil is not particularly shallow, being generally greater than a spade’s depth, but is well drained.  It occurs to me that beech may be worth trying here also – maybe next year – although beech is not supposed to coppice well.  I also got more common alder to backfill the windbreaks and alder copses, and have planted a new alder copse right in the bottom south corner adjacent to the windbreak edge at Jo’s field edge.  This will quickly give shelter to the area behind, which was originally planted mainly with hazel, which did not do very well.  I’m going to back plant with some self seeded hazel and locally sourced aspen.  I have taken some root cuttings from a tree below the old school, which hopefully will do better than the bought in plants which seem to not be completely happy.

bluebell bank
Bluebell bank

I can already see fresh shoots of orchids appearing on the pathways, and the bluebells are creating scented banks in several areas of the field.  Pignuts are starting to open, and cuckoo smock flowers create little pink chandeliers dotted around the field (photo at top).  The new ramp to the mound is blending in nicely, and a number of bluebells apparently transplanted with the turf are making a blue path through the trees.

emporer hawk moth
Emporer Hawk moth

I was lucky enough to spot one of the more spectacular moths of the UK this week.  An emperor hawk moth with it’s dramatic eyes was displaying itself on the grass down by the lower trackway.  I’ve only seen one once here several years ago, although have spotted the caterpillars a few times.

violet beetle
Violet oil beetle

Another welcome return was a violet oil beetle.  These ungainly creatures are the cuckoos of the insect world and are a sign of a healthy bee population which is nice!

Digging for Blueberries

I’m running a bit behind in my posting (got distracted by online novel reading) so will try and do a bit of catchup now.  I’m trying to get some preparation done for my blueberry patch down the hill.  I had covered the whole area with black plastic early last year to clear the weeds so it is now time to get the beds arranged, so I can start planting.

I decided to move the black plastic out to cover the area immediately surrounding the cleared patch.  I can either plant more blueberry bushes or other plants there.  It will be useful to have a weed barrier of sorts to try and keep the couch and other creeping grasses at bay.  There probably aren’t enough stones already selected to weight the plastic down properly.  Last year I had the benefit of large branches from the driveway spruce trees, but my intention is to use these to increase the woody content of the beds, so I will need additional weights this year.

new area
Forked area and extended mulch area

Since blueberries need well aerated soil, and the area I have chosen for them is damp and compacted with generations of sheeps trotters, I have forked over the cleared area.  I din’t turn the soil, just loosened it, so that it has a chance to dry a little over the coming weeks of spring.  I was a bit disappointed by the amount of couch grass that seems to be prevalent over the whole area, despite the light excluding cover.  I guess it was kept going by areas outside the plastic, and the fact the water could still get to it due to the fact the plastic is in strips, rather than a larger entire piece.  The other plant that seems to have survived remarkable well is pignut, Conopodium Majus.  The blanched spring shoots of this are all over the area despite having been covered for the whole of last year.

pignut blanched
Blanched pignut shoots

The thick reeds and other groundcover plants have disappeared to form a vole dispersed layer of compost.  The voles are more of a nuisance for attracting the attention of the dog(s).  They like to dig underneath the plastic sheets, thus letting in light and wind, so making the sheets less effective at weed cover.

My intention is to create sort of raised beds, with the woody trimmings, bracken remains, and leaf mould/grass clipping compost from the lodge, together with soil excavated to create drainage channels and paths.  As I was forking it over, I discovered that the soil depth is not consistent; it gets quite shallow at the downhill side of the patch.  Probably this rock forms a bit of a bowl, which is why it seems so damp there.  Until the area surrounding the cleared patch is also cleared, I won’t really be able to create the levels properly to ensure bed drainage.  I’m hoping that I can clear most of the couch grass out when the soil is drier as I create the raised beds themselves.

I have ordered some more blueberry plants, but haven’t managed to find some of the varieties I wanted.  If necessary, I will just sow some annuals to build up the soil structure and keep it covered and pre-order bushes for next year.  I know ART will propagate fruit trees to order, so they may do fruit bushes too.

Nothing much

The weather again hasn’t been kind recently.  Not really out of the ordinary; just unrelenting rain and wind, with not enough let up to get much done.  It’s not true that I’ve been doing nothing, and I probably haven’t achieved nothing, it’s just that I seem to have finished nothing!  The days are getting longer however.  I always feel that by Valentine’s day the worst of the winter is over.

ramp up
Ramp up hump

Outside I still haven’t completed the path round the hump.  Nearly there however, and the gradient of the ramp down has been improved by some of the turf that I have dug out of the widened path.  I have also made a bit of a ramp half way round as an alternative route down (although again this is not finished!).

I have a number of spruce and pine seedlings to bulk up the windbreaks and make some new windbreaks in the sparse area of ash.  Hopefully they will be surviving OK in the bag they are in at present, since they have been in there rather longer than I had intended.  The soil is rather claggy to be planting in as yet, although I have dug quite a few square holes in preparation.  I am also relocating some of the self seeded hazels that have planted themselves in less than desirable positions.  I have been making a little thicket of them on the lower south side of the main track loop.  This spot used to go by the unfortunate name of poo corner, since that was where Dougie usually felt inclined to relieve himself during a quick outing in the tree field.  It now has the alternate name of Harry’s corner, since we buried our cat Harris there recently.  He had a very quick illness, not we believe related to his ear condition, some sort of thrombosis that caused paralysis of the back legs.  He died probably of heart failure at the vets a day later.  Apparently it is often misdiagnosed in towns as traffic accidents, since the cats one minute are fine and the next are dragging their rear legs.  Anyway, now Harris has a hazel tree on his grave.

tree holes
Holes for windbreak improvements at top of tree field (baby monkey puzzle at left)

I have also started making holes along the main trackway.  I noticed the piles of cut grass that still were sitting along the track sides from last year, and it occurred to me that if I planted more berry bushes along there I could just rake up the grass and mulch them, rather than carting the grass to mulch somewhere else.  I’ve got some gooseberry and black currant cuttings that can be relocated, or I can strike some new ones this year still.

mulch mounds
Mulch spots along trackway

I received the seeds from the HPS seed scheme, and some from the Agroforestry Research Trust at the end of February, and organised them: ones to sow in spring, ones to sow straight away and ones that needed some stratification.  So some have been put away, some sown in pots outside or in the polytunnel and some have been placed in bags with damp tissue in the fridge to get a chilling.  Probably these could also have been sown outside mind you, since it is almost the same temperature out there as in the fridge!  Already some of my apple seeds have germinated in the fridge: saved from some UK grown russets and rather delicious cooking apples grown near Carlisle.  I’ll have to transfer those seeds from the fridge to pots outside as soon as possible to give them proper growing conditions.  I also noticed that some damson seeds I sowed from fruit eighteen months ago are now germinating in the polytunnel.  Although another job not finished, it’s nice to make a start on growing trees that may produce fruit for us in ten years or so!

seed sprouts
Sprouting apple seeds

I indulgently bought myself some plants that were not on my essentials list this year.  I found on ebay a seller of different Yacon varieties, who also had a different Mashua and Colocasia edulis as well as Apios americana and different tigernuts.  Well it seemed worth getting a few if I was going to get any!  They seem nice little tubers anyhow.  I have potted them all up in the polytunnel for the moment (except the tigernut which will want warmer conditions), and have also replanted a number of the Yacons I grew myself last year in one of the polytunnel beds.

new crops
New varieties

Unfortunately I’ve lost quite a few of my oca tubers to mice!  They had been sitting in a basket on the sittingroom windowsill, and I noticed this week the basket was somewhat emptier than it had been last time I looked.  Underneath the basket was a pile of tuber shavings!  I guess they liked the juiciness of the tubers, since they don’t seem to have eaten that much, just chewed them all up.  Some of the tubers were probably as big as the mice!  Luckily they didn’t find the different coloured tubers in their bags, so I quickly have planted four tubers to a pot in the polytunnel.  I selected four large and four small of the red tubers from Frances to see if that makes any difference to the plant yield.  It may take more than one generation to see a difference, if any, from selecting for tuber size.

I have also been digging up the kiwi vine: another nice indoor job, of which more later.  It will also soon be time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds.  I think I have some seed compost left, but I am out of the multipurpose compost and will have to get some more for planting out seedlings and potting on.  Another trip to Portree looms I guess.

For my birthday S. bought me a rechargeable reciprocating saw.  I am hoping that it will be robust enough to use for most of the coppicing work.  A chainsaw would be a little daunting, and using a hand saw is slow work!  It has been too windy to think about cutting trees down (although it will soon be too late as the trees start to grow!), but I have christened the saw by cutting up the pile of coppiced trunks that were cut last year and have been drying up by the house.  I’m pretty pleased with it.  The battery pack it takes is the same as S’s tools he used on the cars, so that should be convenient.  It did seem to chew through the reserves when I used it, although that was probably more intensive work than the more thoughtful process of cutting trees down.

new toys
New toy tool

On another happy note, my windowsill orchid seems to have enjoyed it’s holiday outside last year so much that it has put up the first flower spike in ten years!  It did try when we first moved up here, but unfortunately I didn’t realise there was a flower spike, divided the plant and the flowers all dropped off.  This time it seem quite content to look out the window.  I must remember to holiday it outside again during the summers – it definitely looked greener and plumper than before.

not a stick
Indoor Orchid flowers