Jan 19

back ways in snow
Backways in snow

Winter has finally arrived, we have a little snow that has stuck around for a few days, gradually refreezing as ice as it is trampled and melts a little during the day.  I quite like a bit of quiet time to look around and see the structure of the ground under the plants.  You can see the pathways made by people and dogs as the slightly flattened grass remains whiter with snow than rougher areas.

I have done a little pruning, although you are not supposed to do this when it is frosty!  The remaining gooseberries in the fruit garden didn’t take long, and I have cut down the sapling sycamore tree that would have crowded one of the apple trees there.  It may grow back, but I can just prune it out each year for pea sticks until it gives up!  The apple that I grafted before I came to Skye and that was living in a pot for a while has unfortunately grown a little one sided.  I assume it is just the prevailing wind that has achieved this, and am not sure if it is possible to reverse….

With the freezing weather there is little plant wise to do outside, but I have been able to get a little done in the polytunnel.  As threatened I have drastically pruned back the kiwi vine.  As well as shortening it, I have also taken out some of the larger fruiting side branches. This should encourage new ones to grow and be more fruitful.  I tied the main trunk a little tighter to the overhead wires, as it was hanging a little low and even interfering with my headroom.  The grapevines are far simpler to prune.  I simply cut back all the side branches close to the main trunk.

after pruning
After pruning

I am very hopeful that what I am seeing here is flower buds on my apricot.  I’m still not really sure whether I’m doing the right thing with the pruning of this.  I think I now need to cut back the main branches by one third to an upward facing bud and tie in new branches in between the existing ones, and then I’m into ‘maintenance pruning’ whatever that means! I know I’m not supposed to prune when the plant is dormant so I need to leave it a couple of months.

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom?

There is a little weeding to do, and I also need to start watering a bit more in the tunnel as well in preparation for some early sowing.  I think the akebia is surviving nicely, but I’m not sure about the passionflowers.  I think they were a bit small and I should have brought them into the house last autumn.  The propagation area keeps expanding.  I could really use more space for putting the growing on plants. I’ll have to have a think about this.  Maybe I just need to tidy up a bit more efficiently!  Theoretically there is lots of space on my little greenhouse frame, so perhaps I’ll just concentrate on getting that properly sorted again.  It just keeps filling up with empty pots!

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

 

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2018: Going forwards looking backwards

Being as the year is just about over, it seems appropriate to have a little look back at this point in time.

I haven’t written about some of the trivia that I’ve been doing more recently at home, partly because much of it is unfinished yet, and partly to catch up with my holiday garden visits.   Over all we have been pleased with the way the trees have grown this year.  S. managed to pick a nice tree to bring in and decorate this Xmas.  It’s getting a little more difficult to find a spruce tree that is small enough and isn’t being an important part of a windbreak.

xmas trree
Xmas spruce all dressed up

The ash and alder as usual, along with the spruce, have grown well.  You can also see how the trees with a little more shelter grow a bit better.  Even some of the hazel is growing a bit better in places.  I’m a bit worried about the ash however.  Although it grew well again this summer, as we saw, as usual there is quite a bit of die back.  This time the bark staining seems to match the characteristics of chalera.  I had a look online at the woodland trust and forestry commission sites and the way the staining goes up and down from the leaf buds does seem to match chalera, however, there is no internal staining of the wood when I split it down the middle.  I’ll send the pictures off to the woodland trust.  These ash trees were ones they helped us buy, so they should be able to give us some advice about it.

I have grown a few new unusual edibles for the first time.  Oca, wapato (sagittaria latifolia), marsh woundwort (although I also found this growing natively in the tree field I think) and edible lupin.  This last was part of Garden Organic members’ experiment.  In summary I’d have been better off eating the lupin seeds they sent rather than planting them.  I’ll do a brief post about them separately however.

I’ve managed to grow some new perennials from seed, now I just need to get them through the winter. Some of them came from the Hardy Plant Society seed distribution list, and some were bought from various suppliers.  I have a number of cornus kousa, a couple of canna indica, several akebia triloba, two different passiflora, broom, watercress, astragalus crassicarpus, a couple of campanula varieties and dahlia coccinia. A few others germinated and perished including gevuina avellana (second time of trying) and hosta. Many more seeds also never managed to germinate for me. I have quite a few little plants waiting for their “forever home”. One korean pine is still alive, but very small.  A saltbush plant is doing quite well in a pot, but I’m not sure if its atriplex halimus or a. canescens.

propagation
Propagation area in July

Crop wise I grew physalis peruviana for the first time on Skye. I seem to remember growing it in Solihull and not being particularly impressed. Here in the polytunnel it has grown quite huge and is still alive at the end of December, although with a little mildew. It could grow as a perennial if it isn’t too cold, which was one reason I gave it a go. The berries are nowhere near ripe however. Along with many of the things that needed potting on and watering it got a bit neglected due to the super hot early summer. I don’t think it was a fair trial therefore, since it didn’t get an early start. The plants have grown huge compared to the fruits produced. I seem to remember reading that this can be due to good nitrogen content of the soil (producing lush foliage and little fruit) however this does seem unlikely for me!

Another plant that got a slow start, but made good growth is tomatillo. These were so stunted when I planted the few survivors out that I nearly didn’t bother. Once in the ground they grew away fine.  I’ll have to check how they are doing now.

The tomatoes managed to ripen a few delicious fruit before I had to harvest them due to mildew on the vines. The supersweet 100 was earliest and quite prolific. The first in the field wasn’t but did pretty well for a standard salad tomato. I like it because it is a bush variety, and it stayed quite compact. This makes it easier to grow close to the edges of the tunnel. Spread out on the window sill we did get a few more fruit to ripen, but many just went mildewy there.

Achocha needs to go in earlier. I couldn’t resist ordering the giant bolivian variety from real seeds again this year even though I know it really struggles to get going for me! This year I didn’t get any fruit before the plants got killed by the frost!  S. doesn’t really like globe artichoke. He finds it a bit of a fiddle to eat. This is a pity, since I have managed to get a few more plants of a known variety to germinate and hopefully get them through the winter.  I will try one more in the tunnel and the others outside anyhow.  I want to try eating the cardoon stalks next year.  It is a case of remembering to tie them up to blanch at the appropriate time.

I’m fairly pleased with the way the apricot is growing: a bit more quickly than I was expecting. I’m hoping I may get a few blossom this spring with any luck! Still got a bit more formative pruning to do, but it’s looking good so far, as long as it stays small enough for the tunnel!  The boskoop glory grapevine did well. I didn’t manage to harvest all the grapes before they started to go mouldy. The autumn was a bit cool and windy, although not unusually so I would say. The new Zalagyongye vine started to set the single bunch very late and they stayed very small, although were quite sweet. Hopefully it will do better as it gets older.

kiwi november
Kiwi ‘Jenny’ fruit in November

I’m wondering whether to give up on the kiwi vine. I picked the fruit a week or so ago, they were starting to drop off the vine, but still don’t seem very sweet. Judging by the grape, it hasn’t been a good year for ripening, but considering the size of the vine and the use we get of the harvest (there are more pleasant jams to make) I’m not sure it’s worth the space it takes. S. wasn’t keen on getting rid of it because it is a lovely big plant. It does also produce a huge amount of large leaves which have dropped off and formed a mulch layer in the tunnel which is nice. I’ll need to rake them off the paths though. Since S. spoke up for it I’ll prune it back a bit, give it one more season and then we’ll see. If I do take it out I was thinking of replacing it further up the tunnel with a kiwi-berry actinidia arguta, or kolomitkes. These have smaller, hairless berries that ripen earlier, so are likely to be more successful for me. The plant is also a little less vigorous, so takes less pruning.

kiwi leaves
Kiwi leaf mulch in tunnel

I have two pineapple guava at the bottom end of the tunnel. These have not flowered yet, but are growing well. I have been nipping out the longer shoots to encourage the plants to grow bushily. This will stop them getting too big too soon and also maybe more dense flowering if and when that happens. I don’t know whether they will ripen fruit for me. They need a hot summer to ripen. However the flowers are supposed also to be delicious, so I would be happy to settle for those!

A number of strawberries fruited in the tunnel. I had them from two different sources, and I can’t remember now which is which! I did get a few very delicious berries, but struggled to keep them watered and lost a few plants. I have managed to pot up a number of runners from one of the successful plants, so can move those into some of the gaps.  I also have a number of different strawberries outside some of which managed to ripen a few berries, but need a big of feed and weeding really.

Still in the tunnel the asparagus is starting to look promising. It is still shooting up spears now however! I’m hoping that next year I can try and harvest a few shoots, so watch this space. Another success has been the milk vetch which I grew from seed. In one of Martin Crawford’s books he suggests it as a non competitive perennial ground cover with shallow roots. I’ve planted it in various places around the tunnel. I’m hoping it will cover the ground around the asparagus plants, since they don’t like competition from weeds. If they managed to fix a bit of nitrogen that also wouldn’t be bad!

The sweet potato harvest was rather small. I think I didn’t manage to water the plants enough. They were lovely big plants when they went in. I’m wondering whether they were actually a bit too big. One of them had rather more tubers than the other, but they were all a bit tangled up, as if the plant had been a bit pot bound and never really developed tubers beyond the roots already started. The other had longer roots, but several only just starting to thicken. Either it had been cut back by the cold too early, or it just didn’t grow quickly enough.  Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these plants or tubers are likely to survive the winter. I’ll give it a go however, since it will be silly to fork out that value again. If I can plant them out earlier, and feed and water them better, they may stand a better chance….

Somewhere near the sweet potato are two dahlias. These were dahlia coccinia. I grew them from seed from the HPS list, and they have attractive burgundy foliage and pretty red single flowers. I didn’t try eating the petals of these, although they should be edible along with the tubers.  I have a couple more that grew and flowered in pots. These need to be moved somewhere frost free over the winter so they don’t rot.  I’ll try and post about harvest another time when I’ve tried them.  Apparently the taste and texture is variable….

The climbing nasturtiums were a little slow to get started. I think they got a little dry in the hot earlier summer. Once things cooled down there were a couple that did very well, including one growing through the apricot that hasn’t got killed by the frosts yet. The one opposite this had the most beautiful tiger red flowers however. I’ll try and get seeds from this!  I’m not keen on eating them, although I believe all parts are edible, but I do like the flowers.  I also like the way outside that the circular leaves catch rainwater and form droplets.

nasturtium
This photo does not do the colour justice

The unknown citrus is still looking quite green. While it is still mild I will wrap it in some fleece to try and protect it a bit this year. Unless it has some established branches it will never flower and we won’t find out what variety of fruit it has.

The polytunnel pond has held water which is a good start considering I had to repair the liner before using it! I grew watercress, marsh woundwort and sagitaria latifolia in pots in it. The watercress has escaped from its pot and seems to be mainly floating round on the surface. I think it will die back overwinter, so am not sure whether it will return or not. The pond was also very useful as a means of soaking seeds trays and watering from the bottom. I’m very glad I designed some very shallow shelves around the edges, as well as much deeper ones! It was certainly welcomed by Mr. Toad, and although there were insect larvae and algae it never got stagnant or a noticable source of pests. Midges breed on damp vegetation of which there is plenty outside, so it didn’t contribute to those Scottish pests either!

Having seen Sagara’s successful olive fruit, I have to conclude that none of my olive flowers did set fruit. The plant itself looks pretty healthy though. It has grown a bit and bushed out. I’m hoping it will overwinter alright in the ground in the tunnel, since the soil in there should be fairly dry and it is protected fully from the wind. Fingers crossed for more flowers next year. I have read that olives fruit better with cross fertilisation, so maybe I should look out for another variety. I’m not quite sure where I would plant it though!

Since I only got one surviving five flavour berry, I have obtained another two plants from two different suppliers. They are both supposed to be self fertile, but should also fertilise each other, and the surviving seedling. Both are planted out in the tunnel and mulched now for the winter.  The passionflower and akebia were still very tiny plants as we went into the winter, so I’m not sure they will survive. I’ll try and remember to bring some into the house to overwinter as insurance if I can find the spare plants!

The yacon grew quite huge in the tunnel, at least above ground. It has pretty well died back now, but the oca is still green in there, so I may leave digging both until the oca has finished its stuff. I had not split the Yacon plants which I think did give them a better start this year. I think I will maybe try and propagate a few more plants for outside growing, but generally leave the inside plants as undisturbed as is compatible with digging up the edible tubers!  The oca and Yacon outside have been harvested (I’ll write about that together).  The oca seemed to be doing better outside, but died back more quickly.  The Yacon outside seemed a lot smaller: we’ll see what the harvest is like!

tea garden pallets
Putting up windbreaks in Tea Garden

I’m reasonably pleased with the landscaping I achieved in the tea garden extension and orchard area.  I need to carry on eliminating perennial weeds (couch grass particularly) and get on with ground cover planting.  I’m also putting up some windbreaks in the tea garden extension, thanks to our new grocery supplier at the shop, who make their delivery on a pallet.  I was particulary pleased to recieve a scarlet pallet!  Next year I also want to do a bit more work in the fruit garden to change the path layout, and maybe get rid of the autumn fruiting raspberries, which are really too late to be worth the effort.  I also have started a retaining wall along the driveway.  This gives me a nice south facing well drained site.  I need to get a good windbreak planting along the top.  I have some escallonia cuttings coming on nicely, which I know do very well here.  These have nice raspberry pink flowers. Although the plant is not edible, it is tough, quick growing, evergreen and attractive, which I think will be enough in this location.

driveway wall construction
Driveway wall under construction

I’m definitely looking forwards to 2019 and all the exciting things growing next year.

remembering summer
Remembering summer

 

 

Editing the tree field. #1 bracken

I’m not sure who coined the phrase ‘editing the garden’.  It is very apt though.  I’m gradually adding and deleting plants around the holding; planting trees and encouraging flowers such as orchids and vetch, whilst removing (or trying to) bracken, creeping thistle and selectively docken and buttercups in the garden.

lephin and glendale august 2012
Dark green areas of bracken in general glen view (summer 2012)

You can tell the untended holdings around here by the rapid overtake of bracken across them. It spreads by fleshy underground runners creeping forward year on year.  It doesn’t seem to like very boggy ground or deep shade, but otherwise little seems to stop it.  The sheep don’t eat it, although their sharp little hoofs in the spring can knock it back a bit.  When we first took on the plot there was a little bracken down by the river, which was slowly creeping into the field.  On our northern side as well the bracken encroaches into our boundary.  Although grazed by sheep, the owner of the land lives away and the ‘tenant’ does not improve grassland that is not his.  I have been turning a problem into a benefit over the last few years.  The compost you can make from bracken has a far better texture than any peat free compost that I have managed to find to date.  I have heard as well that although it grows on potash poor soil, it is a potash accumulator, thus compost made from it will be relatively rich in potassium.  Although I haven’t checked this, I have been using it recently for my potting on projects in combination with a little ash-enriched general garden waste compost.

This year I have been successful in pulling all the bracken on the holding.  In order to reduce the vigour of the bracken year on year I physically go round and pull out the bracken stalks.  They come off fairly easily, although generally you need two hands (and gloves).  This should be done when the leaf is fairly well grown, but in the earlier part of the summer. Bracken spores are supposed to be carcinogenic, so it’s not good practice to spend too much time in amongst it later in the year.  Also I guess that it will be feeding the roots all the time, so it is better to stop this as soon as possible.  If you pull too early the plant simply shoots up a further load of leaves and carries on.  Generally there will be more leaves anyhow, and smaller ones that have been missed.  So it is as well to go back around after a week or so to pull this regrowth if possible.  Since I started doing this, and despite not managing to do it all every year, the bracken has reduced from being as tall as I am (over 5 feet) to waist height or less.

saving bracken
Bracken collected for compost making

What I have done this year is be more methodical and I have managed to gather the pulled leaves into a builders sack for recovery up the the garden area to rot down into compost.  All the leaves didn’t fit in however, so I’m leaving them to wilt a little in the hope that this will also reduce the weight of the bag, which is rather heavy for me to drag now!  If it doesn’t get much lighter, then I may have to decant some of the leaves out and take it up the hill in portions.  I’d quite like to be a bit more sufficient in compost next year by this method.

bracken autumn colours
Autumn colours

First frost and a different root crop

snow s
Skye Snow

Two nights running we have had a real frost.  This came together with snow, which is a little less usual for us.  So far the Yacon has sagged, the leaves on the sharks fin melon have flopped and the Achocha has had it!  The mashua doesn’t look too bad so far, although some bits are quite sad.  I have cleared out the last of the courgettes from the polytunnel.  I think the plants had died back some time ago.  One of the courgettes has a little frost damage, but the others should be alright.  One of them should be classified as a marrow rather than a courgette, but that’s fine – I love stuffed marrow!  The snow has mostly all cleared now, but the damage is done.

floppy Yacon
Floppy Yacon 😦
pond bed s
Cleared bed where polytunnel pond will be.

It’s been a bit cold and wet to work down by the river, so I have made a start clearing the bed that will become my pond/bog garden in the polytunnel.  This was much to the dogs’ disgust, since, as I have to tell Dyson quite frequently, ‘dogs aren’t allowed in the polytunnel’ and they do want to help!  The soil from this bed was covered in home made compost in the spring, and although I never got round to setting up an irrigation hose for it, it did grow a lovely crop of self seeded poppies, kale, fat hen and honesty.  The little row of lettuce leaves I sowed got swamped by everything else.  The poppies have probably self seeded again, the fat hen seed I have collected, and the honesty (Lunaria annua) dug up.  I was very surprised to see the size of the roots, up to 18 inches long and quite tender, despite having virtually no water.

roots s
Lunaria annua roots

Intrigued, I did a little research and convinced myself they were edible.  Honesty is in the brassica family which includes turnip and swede as well as cabbage and broccoli.  A tiny taste raw was quite horrid – really pungent.  I’ve not tried horse radish, but I expect that is what it tastes like, several of the references suggested it was a substitute.  However I took a few roots anyway and washed them.  I found that the skin scraped off easily with a knife like a new potato.  Cut into short lengths, I boiled the roots in water for a short time till they became tender.  I wondered a bit if I was going to regret it as I added them to my dinner of sausage casserole, but no.  Much to my surprise the roots are really quite nice with a mild turnip-like taste.  Unfortunately some of the roots are a bit stringy.  Either a core, or a skin within the root.  I guess if one was interested in this one could try and select for plants with less fibre, but I expect there are already root crops enough.  Normally honesty is grown for the flowers, not dug up after six months like these have been.  I’m really glad I tried them though, and still have plenty of roots to experiment with.

dinner s
Honesty roots and sausage casserole

Happiness and winter jobs

I hate it when the clocks change.  Suddenly the afternoons get very short so I can’t get much done on my afternoons off.  We’re not early risers (the shop doesn’t open until 11.00am. off season) so I don’t really appreciate having extra daylight at the start of the day.  We had a drop of cut logs last week, and worked very hard on Friday to get them all away in the woodshed.  We still have a very small amount of cured wood that needs cutting to length and/or splitting, but we should have enough wood so that I can have the stove ticking over most of the winter.  Happiness is a full woodshed in Autumn!

woodshed prior to last wood drop
Woodshed before latest logs added

As well as making the house more pleasant, and giving us plenty of hot water, it also means I can cook more easily rather than being restricted to kettle, microwave and toaster!  On Friday I cooked sausages, banana loaf cakes, and a huge pan of pumpkin soup.  These pumpkins were slightly bruised, but I overdid it on pumpkins in the shop, so am thinking of pumpkin chutney maybe on Sunday….

autumn colours glendale
Autums colours Skye

We had a little walk round the tree field with the dogs on Tuesday, admiring the autumn colours, seeing how well the various trees have been doing, and picking out a few of the spruce that may do for our xmas tree this year.  We also made a little list of jobs that were of higher priority – clearing summer grass from around some of the trees, a little bit of removing lower branches in places.  We had a little look at the routing for the drains for the new extension, and it looks like I may have to move one of my shrubs, I think it is a saskatoon, so I will probably do that this winter, before it grows another year.

river bank escarpment in spring
River bank escarpment in Spring

I had a fairly nice afternoon on Thursday.  I made a start on clearing back a few of the trees on the river bank.  We have an area of trees outside the deer fence that are basically self sown willow, hazel and the odd rowan.  There is an area at the south side of the pedestrian gate through the fence that is sheltered by a steep escarpment.  This is formed partly due to the rock shelves, partly due to river erosion and partly as a spring line.  There are springs along the whole length, particularly when we have had plenty of rain, but I think some are there all the time.  The springs make it rather boggy underfoot.  In the lee of the escarpment, and away from most of the muching sheep, the trees have grown moss covered and gnarled.  The hazel has naturally coppiced over the years, and has formed hollow rings, some are four feet across.  It would be fascinating to know how old they are.  Probably several centuries I should think.  It makes me want to be ten again, to build a den there!

hollow hazel stool jul 13
Hollow Hazel Stool in summer

Anyway, the reason for the clearance was that a couple of the trees between the escarpment and the river had been washed over in the floods a few weeks ago, so their rootball is perpendicular to the ground and the route through is impassable.  The idea is to cut the trees back (good slow grown firewood) and maybe settle the rootball back down, or at least clear enough out the way to gain access.  This will probably involve the chainsaw, but to get there and work safely some of the lower branches needed clearing away, and I’m going to take the opportunity of making a slightly drier path as well.

S and I have slightly different views on how to achieve this, but since I’m the one doing the work, I get to decide.  I’m intending to dig interceptary channels parallel to the spring line, and then a few main drainage channels down the bank to the river.  Hopefully this will make the ground generally a bit drier without changing the mystical character too much.  I cleared a few overhanging branches by the pond, so that you can walk along there without bending double, and did the same along the escarpment as far as the fallen trees.  There are still a few branches that need trimming back to the trunks, but the main weight is removed.  Most of the wood I cut is still to be extracted, but there’s no hurry.  It may come in for burning next winter.  It seemed wrong now to be cutting back tree growth having spent so much effort getting the trees in the tree field established!

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10 years on – Photos

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

View from above the road.

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

Fruit Garden.

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

From above orchard looking towards river

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

From North corner by river towards house.

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

River from viewpoint

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

 

 

 

Raining and pouring

We had a downpour on Tuesday night which resulted in, amongst other things, our community hall being flooded.  This is for the second time in five years.  A combination of high tide and unusually high rainfall (10mm plus in 1 hour) meant that most of the flood plain of the river was being used.  A family of holiday makers who unaccountably had chosen to camp next to the graveyard (!) had to call out the emergency services at 4.30 in the  morning after the vehicle was surrounded by water and started to float.  It could have been worse, the only casualty was the vehicle.  A few residents have had water ingress through houses or barns on its way downhill.  We’re a bit higher up the valley but the river was higher that we’ve seen it in ten years.  Some trees beside the river have been damaged and some torn out.  The river was going in our pond at the top and coming out at the bottom, but we’ve got away with no major damage this time.  This sort of weather event may be more common in the future of course.  The other thing I noticed was erosion of the trackway down the hill to the orchard.  The buried watermain acts as an interceptary drain and the low point at which it overflows is about at the trackway.  It’s not been so bad since I repaired the burn bed, but in heavy rain it obviously still does divert a bit.  Something to bear in mind when S. does refinish the trackway.  Since the orchard is on a slope, and I’ve raised up the level for the trees, I don’t think it will be an issue for them.

DSCN2483
Grass caught on fence shows the flood level

Another crop noone’s heard of – Maca

 

Maca, Lepidium meyeni, is not a vegetable I set out to grow. For some reason I stumbled across the cultivariable site (https://www.cultivariable.com) run by Bill Whitson (I think I was looking for information about mashua) and got over excited when I was looking at all the interesting things he grows, as you do….. Unfortunately, since he is based in the ‘States, I did not want to order any tubers from him (worried about importing the next ash die back disease), and most of his seed had run out (it was mid spring). I ordered maca, yacon and skirret seeds from him because that was about all that was left! Only one yacon has germinated by the start of August (it is not a good grower from seed – propagated too long from tubers). I had some nice skirret already growing – two plants from pointzfield nursery, and seeds from incredible vegetables. The reasoning for getting more skirret seed was that a bit of variety wouldn’t hurt if I was going to develop a Skye skirret strain. Bill appears to have a pretty similar climate to us. Wet and mild in summer, mild frosts and windy in winter, so I reasoned that anything he can grow, should also do well here. Unfortunately he is not selling online this year, for various reasons, although hopes to be back again next year.

maca seed packet
Maca seed packet (with sand added)

Anyway, maca grows at very high elevations in the Andes. It gets a lot of wind and can have mild frosts during the growing season. The maca develops a swollen root stem similar to a turnip or radish. It is in the brassica family and it’s lifecycle seems to be unclear.  PFAF describes it as a perennial, whereas cultivariable say it is technically an annual, but may take more than one growing season to set seed. On line discussions (http://www.growfruitandveg.co.uk/grapevine/vegging-out/growing-maca-peruvian-ginseng_2761.html) seem to indicate that a radish is most comparable for size and taste, although pfaf rates it highly as a food (http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Lepidium+meyenii). This may be due to it’s nutritional content – high in carboyhdrate, protein and fibre as well as minerals. It is harvested at the end of the first season after about eight months (30 weeks), and some is semi dried for harvest and processing, whilst selected plants are grown on the following year to produce the seeds for another years crop. They self fertilise before the flowers open. Nothing much else will grow in those conditions, and the crop is sold and bartered for other produce from lower elevations. The maca is reputed to be a fertility booster amongst other things and apparently tastes of butterscotch. It may not like the milder, wetter, lower sun exposure of the UK, and/or have different taste and nutrition.  Simon Hickmott mentions it in his ‘growing unusual vegetables’ book although it didn’t strike me particularly before.
Anyway, the seed duly arrived, nicely labelled, at a reasonable carriage cost. I mixed them with damp sand and kept them in the fridge where they started germinating after just one week. I sowed them in a deep tray covering the seed with vermiculite, and left it in the fridge for another week, before moving it outside because the seedlings were a bit yellow (no light). I got a very good germination rate, so soon had to prick out the seedlings into pots. At this stage, because I have grown too many things from seed this year, I was a little short of small pots, so some seedlings were forced to share trays still.  I also planted lots of tiny seedlings out into the garden, however almost all of these were eaten quite quickly by slugs.

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In due course, I decided that some of the plants really needed to be planted out or potted on. I had already established through earlier losses that slugs are quite partial to the seedlings, so I planted them out with barrier protection as discussed in a previous post. The roots are very fine so I think there was a fair amount of damage to them when separating the plants in the tray.

maca roots
fine root structure
maca in tea garden
growing in tea garden with skirret and scorzonera

A nibble at the leaves confirms a hot radish flavour (cress like says pfaf). They are now growing fairly well. I.e. they haven’t all been eaten to the ground by the slugs (yet!). I should really pot on the remaining potbound seedlings again, since the information online does suggest they are quite hungry plants. As they were sown at the start of April, nominally 30 weeks takes us to the start of November. I’ll take a look at the survivors and post an update around then.

I’ve been having fun with these, although whether I’ll get an edible root remains to be seen.  In retrospect I wish I’d not sown all the seed at once, if I’d know I would get such good germination I would have saved some for later.  Bill Whitson does say that they can be sown in autumn, and they grow over winter.  Although I was reluctant to direct sow, it may be that once through the initial slug food stage (they seem to have lost interest in the plants a little now) the plants would do better without the root disturbance.  If the results seem palatable I may try and let some go to seed to try again (or get some more seed  from cultivariable when they are back up and running again).  They are quite decorative plants, but don’t seem in any danger of taking the gardening world by storm just yet!

Polytunnel Perennials

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.

inside polytunnel Jul08
looking downhill (east) July 2008
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looking downhill (east) July 2017

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!

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New growth on unknown citrus in spring
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Beautiful apricot leaves still growing at end of July!

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):

Grape (got)
Bramble (got)
Kiwi (got – but might like a kiwi berry – one of the small hairless ones)
Marjoram (got)
Apios Americana (got – maybe if it survives the slugs this year)
Chinese yam: Dioscorea batatas (got – ditto re. slugs!)
Asparagus (got)
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)
Yacon (got)
Fuchsia (got – fuchsia berry from my mum currently in a pot in the tunnel looking for a home)
Apricot (got)
Chufa (got)
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)

Midsummer wildflower diversity

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Field of buttercups

The most striking thing about June for me is the diversity of plants that strive to take over the tree field particularly. As well as the orchids, there are lots of other flowering plants coming into bloom now. The bluebells are going over now, but the pignut is in full spate. Each flower stem has several umbels, so as one fades and turns to red seeds, another is a white disc of flowers. The buttercups are the other obvious flower that is almost everywhere on the field. We have two sorts of buttercup, the creeping sort (ranunculus repens) is pretty much in full bloom, whereas the finely divided leaves of the meadow buttercup (ranunculus acris) still have a while to go before the flowers open. Lots of vetch (the spell correct changed this to ‘fetch’ of which the dogs would approve!) and other legumes. The first are the pink flowered bitter vetch (Lathyrus linifolius), then the yellow birds foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus) on the drier bits. There’s another yellow vetch, Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), which has bigger flowers and a large blue flowered one: tufted vetch (vicia cracca). Sometimes I can remember their names, but generally I have to look them up each year. Then there are the clovers. White clover, which varies from tiny flowers no bigger than my little fingernail, to blooms as big as the top of my thumb. Red clover is a little later coming out, and can have some massive flowers.

We did have a little black medick near the house, which is an annual, but I haven’t seen it recently. It caught my eye because it had so many four leaved leaves a few years ago. The flowers are really tiny and yellow, so although it looks like a clover at first sight when you see the flowers it then obviously isn’t. Ox eye daisies seem to prefer the drier soil, along the spoil from the cut, and along the rocky cut itself where it catches the sun. The lime green flowers of ladies mantle is everywhere mixed in with the grass. I was quite excited about this at first, thinking it was the more rare alpine ladies mantle, which has leaves divided like tiny fingers, rather then cape shaped ones. I love the way the ladies mantle leaves catch dew drops, the little hairs suspending them as little globes like tiny crystal balls. The thyme and heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) are starting to bloom on the thinner drier parts of the field – along the former boundary walls and on the hump.

The bright blue speedwell is one of my favourite flowers. I always used to keep my lawn long in the hope that this would encourage the speedwell (now I don’t mow the lawn at all). There are lots of other flowers just coming into bloom – self heal, melancholy thistle by the pond and along the river fence, water avens (Geum rivale) with its lovely drooping blooms, stitchwort, lots of tormentil (potentilla erecta), a dandelion mimic: cats ear (hypochaeris radicata), daisies, and a little eyebright.

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Yellow flag iris, water avens, pignut and ladies mantle in gully field

There are also a few plants that have planted themselves in the mud of the pond. A yellow one like a buttercup with blade shaperd leaves (Lesser Spearwort – Ranunculus flammula) and a reed like one, possibly deer grass I’m not sure.
Others are starting to show their promise for later in the year including heather – mostly on the sunny gully bank. Meadowsweet and yarrow are quite widespread; the former generally in damper areas and the latter in drier areas. There is also quite a bit of ragwort despite my efforts to pull it out! Ditto creeping thistle. Silverweed (potentilla answerina), is a plant I am getting more interested in. It doesn’t seem that widespread in the field but there are several plants around the house and Byre areas, as well as the ones that I have planted, generally coming into flower now. Maybe it prefers the more fertile soil from the animal houses. Maybe they are remnants from former cultivation, or maybe it couldn’t tolerate the sheep grazing it to within a few mm of the soil!
I haven’t even touched on the grasses, reeds and sedges that are coming into flower at the moment. Different forms and shades of green they deserve a post of their own.