Now comes my favourite time of year. From the winter dark, wind and rain, the days suddenly get longer and with the clock change to summer time at the end of March we also tend to get a change to dry settled weather. Long days, wall to wall sunshine and a drying breeze soon turn the sopping muddy soil to a workable consistency and now is the opportunity to do any weeding or digging projects. I start far too many things and still achieve half of what I want to get done! The grass starts growing and seemingly overnight violets and celandines join the early primroses in the parade of spring flowers.
It is also the time that the crofters set the hills afire. The top growth of heather and dead grass is burnt away every few years. This lets fresh new grass have it’s share of the sun and rain in order to feed the sheep when they return to graze on the moors after lambing. There are rules now that should be adhered to, including not burning after mid April, so as to allow ground nesting birds to breed safely. These (and other reasons) mean that the hills don’t get burnt so often, so every now and then the fires get a bit out of hand. There was one that was burning at the far end of the glen for two days and nights last week, fanned by a strong breeze (it was mostly the other side of the hill). They can sometimes set the peat underneath on fire, if it gets too dry, and can carry on burning underground, springing into life again seemingly from nowhere. Someone locally whimsically wrote ‘here be dragons’ on one burnt road sign….
I’ve been moving plants in and out of the polytunnel day and night this week, to try and harden them off ready to plant out. I have also managed to plant out my ribes odorata or clove currant which was sat outside all winter. This is a black fruited shrub from the US that has clove scented berries. I hadn’t realised however, how ornamental the flowers would be. Attractive yellow with a pleasant scent, they will make a nice show at this time of year.
Unfortunately I have had to prune the bush right back after planting, since it was quite root bound in a small pot. I have cut through the roots at the surface to try and encourage regrowth, since they are very congested. The top growth would have been far too much for the root ball, so I felt that removing most of the branches was the best thing.
Unfortunately it means I won’t be likely to get many berries this year. I have stuck the cuttings in the ground adjacent to the bush in the hope that they will root, (removing most of the flowers and leaves) although it is really too late for that to be very likely.
I was excited to be given some crug zing japanese ginger roots. Having seen this at Eden project last year, I was keen to see whether I could grow it here. It seems likely to do well. Jim at garden ruminations was happy to get rid of it, since it was a bit of a garden thug for him, with inconspicuous flowers at the base of luxuriant top growth. However both spring shoots and autumn flower buds are esteemed as vegetables in Japan, so I look forwards to trying it here in future. Since Jim gave me a substantial number of crowns (thank you!), I have been able to try it in several different places. Notably near my Toona sinensis shrub where I may create an oriental themed planting area. I was excited to note several Hablitzia plants sprouting along the willow bank around the fruit garden. They actually look pretty happy so that is encouraging. I think they could be a staple leaf crop through the spring and summer once established.
I have managed to get the steps on the drive bank completed, and am gathering up suitable plants ready to plant up the freshly bare soil before the weeds get a chance to recolonise it (hence the polytunnel daily migrations). I was able to get a nice looking lavender and broad leaved thyme plant in Portree along with some house leeks – thanks Frances for that suggestion for wall crevice planting! The picture below shows how much drier the soil is and how much the leaves on the sycamore have come out in just a week (even more so now).
Almost ten years to the day after planting them, I coppiced my first alders down by the river. It was hard to do. Moderately hard physically, but challenging mentally too. Not so much the act of cutting the trees down; I have faith that the trees will grow back bigger and faster than before (see below). More challenging was which trees to cut so as not to lose all the shelter, and whether to cut back fully, leave a longer stump, or just take out one trunk or more of a multi stemmed tree. The bowsaw is a bit blunt, despite having a new blade not so long ago, so I actually used my folding pruning saw for much of the cutting. I must look and see what small electric saws are available. I think a rechargeable could save quite a bit of elbow grease and be kinder to the trees as well as me!
I have to cut what I am going to this week. Leaves are starting to open and buds to swell. The trees will find it harder to recover if they put too much life back into what I am cutting back. Also the wood would take longer to dry out ready for burning.
The alder wood is supposed to be useful in areas that are permanently damp – like the tree itself funnily enough. They used to use the wood for clog soles and protective boot soles in foundries even after the second world war. I don’t think my trees are quite big enough for that, although it would be amusing to make one’s own shoes. It’s not excellent for firewood, supposedly it tends to smoulder, but this is less of a problem in a stove. It has the big advantage to us of being a fast growing, nitrogen fixing tree that likes damp soil. I wish I had planted much more of it. When first cut the wood surface is pale in colour, but it quickly goes an orange colour that then fades to brown over a few months.
As well as larger trunks (some of which should be good for an ‘overnight burner’ or two) there is a vast amount of smaller branches. These will still feed a growing fire and even the tiniest make good kindling. What I have tended to do with the prunings I have gathered to date is leave it in piles down the field, roughly where it was cut. Over six months to a year the twigs dry out, the grass dies back a bit underneath, and grows lush nearby where it is sheltered. Every so often when taking the dog-boys down the hill for a run, I bring back an armful of kindling and put it in the woodshed to dry. The more twiggy bits tend to break off and get left in the grass, but that adds to the soil biomass.
Taking the wood up an armful at a time isn’t going to be practical for the larger stuff. We are intending to put up little shelters and pile up the branches cut to size near to where the trees were felled. Hopefully we have enough pallets and fenceposts together with the old roof sheets off the byre to create shelters to keep the worst of the weather off.
S. has stripped out an old Land Rover Discovery vehicle and equipped it at the back with a framework to act as a saw bench. This is also to be used to bring the dry cut wood up to the wood shed after it has dried for a year or so. Although whether it will be worth keeping the vehicle mobile for many more years, remains to be seen. The engine is sweet, but the electrics and chassis are rotten!
Anyway, I definitely felt the first warmth of the firewood today.
It is funny how quickly I forget what I planted where. I had a load a bulbs that I ordered from JW Parkers this autumn. I did manage to get most of the bulbs planted at a reasonable time (although the left over lilies were a bit late getting stuck in a pot), but with one thing and another didn’t really have much of a chance to prepare planting places for them. Really I should have planned it better. Anyway, when these sprouts came up in the polytunnel in February near my pineapple guava (feijoa sellowiana) I was a bit puzzled. I convinced myself that they must be camassia as I remembered that was one of the plants I had bought several of. However I have now remembered that they are tulips! These were free bulbs (purple and white flowers) for making an order, and I have recently found out that tulip petals are edible (although toxic for cats and people with lily allergies, as is the rest of the plant). With no real hope of repeat flowering outside I thought I would give them a go in the tunnel are here they are!
Other bulbs from the same batch are dogs tooth violet (erythronium sp.). The bulbs of these are supposedly edible and they should like Skye pretty well, as well as having exciting flowers. I got a couple of varieties, and I have to say that the bulbs did seem to be big enough to be worth eating on at least one of the varieties I got, although I planted them rather than eating them. The barricading rubbish in the picture by the way, is to try and stop our dog Douglas from trampling on them. He has a thing about birds in the trees there, and likes to dance around barking up the tree (bless him!).
I also got quite a few snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris). Not because they are edible (although most fritillary bulbs are) but because I simply adore them. My mum used to grow some in our garden in Oxfordshire when I was a child, and I know that they grow wild in the water meadows around Oxford. I just didn’t think that they would stand a chance on Skye. The soil in Oxfordshire is river silt, and in the case of my mum’s garden quite alkaline clay. A bit of a change from the acid peaty silt that I have. However, a couple of years ago I saw some in a local garden and established that they do indeed come back in subsequent years, so I couldn’t resist trying them. These I haven’t spotted yet. I have planted them in the grass banks (I think!) in the hope that they will naturalise there. I’m also hoping that they will be enough out of the way of our house extension if and when we get round to that.
What I did get in the hopes that they will a) naturalise and b) be edible as well as c) ornamental are three varieties of camassia. These are very ornamental flowers of the pacific north west US and I am hopeful that they will like it here. They are supposed to like damp meadows and we can certainly manage the damp bit. I have planted some in the grass, some in the dog resistant garden and some in the fruit garden. All three are sprouting hopefully.
These nice little onions flowers, that were a gift from a fellow blogger (thanks Anni), have sprouted up happily under the trees in the front garden. I forget which they were now, I was given two sorts, the others are planted in the dog resistance garden, and are happy enough, but not yet flowering.
I tried to find the collective noun for daffodils and the official seems to be ‘bunch’ or possibly ‘host’ ala Wordsworth. I can’t see either of these doing justice to the joy of these flowers at this time of year, and others seem to agree with me. I would probably go for a ‘cheerfulness’ since they just elevate one’s spirits with their exuberance in the garden. Luckily the wind and hail showers recently have not been enough to destroy them.
The ‘tatty’ daffs are a local variety that multiplies and flowers like mad. It has double flowers with green tinged petals and I’m not sure I always appreciate it as it deserves.
It was actually a little while ago I harvested the Yacon in the polytunnel, the ones outside were harvested before Xmas. I hadn’t done anything with the tubers ’til now – they have been sitting rather in the way in boxes in the hallway until I got round to finishing off weighing them etc. Some of the tubers have shrivelled slightly, but they otherwise appear fine. Even the one that broke in half when dug from outside still had no mould growing.
I originally had two sources for the Yacon which visually look identical, but have been performing slightly differently (the better one is from real seeds, although they appear to be out of season now). I have been growing them side by side for comparison, and do think that these are slightly more productive for me. I think I will search out some other varieties if they become available (lubera have a couple listed, but are only available later as plants, so are more expensive). Unfortunately the few seedlings I managed to grow from cultivariable seed did not survive the winter last year.
The plants in the polytunnel were basically just replanted in the same spots last year after harvesting – so overwintered in the soil. There were two of each source planted in adjacent beds with a little more compost dug in around them. They were watered when I remembered, but seemed to be thriving. There was a little bit of caterpillar damage to the leaves (those ‘silver y’ moths again) but not enough to be a problem. I think that the plants nearest the polytunnel wall may have suffered from overcrowding or overshading – In both cases that plant was smaller that the other.
Harvested at the start of February 2019, the ‘real seeds’ plants had a total usable tuber weight of 22 Oz, the other had a total weight of 10 1/2 Oz. I did not pull all the tubers off any of the plants. The smallest would have been a bit fiddly and may well give the plants a bit of a start in the ground next year! One of the plants (bottom right) has naturally split into several parts. I may divide the larger clumps as well to give myself more plants this year.
The plants outside were overwintered in pots and grown on till about June, when I had enough room in the tea garden extension to plant them out. They seemed to do pretty well considering they were fairly exposed and I deliberately did not clear the other plants from around them, since they would have been giving them a bit of shelter.
The leaves were a lot smaller and less green and the plants were far more shrubby than the plants under cover. The holes in the leaves shown above I believe is wind damage. The plants were harvested earlier than those inside – being killed off by frosts in mid December. The smaller plant really had no useable tubers, the other (real seeds) had about 6 Oz; which was actually pretty similar to the poorer plants in the polytunnel.
Last year I concluded that the tubers are better considered a fruit rather than a vegetable and we have eaten them in various ways. It made fantastic cake last year (based on a pear crumble cake) and also added to sweet and sour vegetables, and ‘risotto’ (a family chicken recipe actually a bit more like a paella). As I said it can tend to discolour a bit after cooking, but still tastes fine. Raw one could grate it into a coleslaw or dice into another salad to add sweetness.
I have tried another cake recipe this year. I want to see how much I can reduce the sugar content, since the Yacon is so sweet to taste. This cake was based on a parsnip fruit cake recipe by Jennie Rutland in an old magazine (possibly Home Farmer again). The Yacon was substituted for the parsnip and grated coarsely, the sugar content was reduced by about half and it still tastes delicious. S. definitely approved and more was requested!
Winter has finally arrived, we have a little snow that has stuck around for a few days, gradually refreezing as ice as it is trampled and melts a little during the day. I quite like a bit of quiet time to look around and see the structure of the ground under the plants. You can see the pathways made by people and dogs as the slightly flattened grass remains whiter with snow than rougher areas.
I have done a little pruning, although you are not supposed to do this when it is frosty! The remaining gooseberries in the fruit garden didn’t take long, and I have cut down the sapling sycamore tree that would have crowded one of the apple trees there. It may grow back, but I can just prune it out each year for pea sticks until it gives up! The apple that I grafted before I came to Skye and that was living in a pot for a while has unfortunately grown a little one sided. I assume it is just the prevailing wind that has achieved this, and am not sure if it is possible to reverse….
With the freezing weather there is little plant wise to do outside, but I have been able to get a little done in the polytunnel. As threatened I have drastically pruned back the kiwi vine. As well as shortening it, I have also taken out some of the larger fruiting side branches. This should encourage new ones to grow and be more fruitful. I tied the main trunk a little tighter to the overhead wires, as it was hanging a little low and even interfering with my headroom. The grapevines are far simpler to prune. I simply cut back all the side branches close to the main trunk.
I am very hopeful that what I am seeing here is flower buds on my apricot. I’m still not really sure whether I’m doing the right thing with the pruning of this. I think I now need to cut back the main branches by one third to an upward facing bud and tie in new branches in between the existing ones, and then I’m into ‘maintenance pruning’ whatever that means! I know I’m not supposed to prune when the plant is dormant so I need to leave it a couple of months.
There is a little weeding to do, and I also need to start watering a bit more in the tunnel as well in preparation for some early sowing. I think the akebia is surviving nicely, but I’m not sure about the passionflowers. I think they were a bit small and I should have brought them into the house last autumn. The propagation area keeps expanding. I could really use more space for putting the growing on plants. I’ll have to have a think about this. Maybe I just need to tidy up a bit more efficiently! Theoretically there is lots of space on my little greenhouse frame, so perhaps I’ll just concentrate on getting that properly sorted again. It just keeps filling up with empty pots!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I’m definitely looking forwards to 2019 and all the exciting things growing next year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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….
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.
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!
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.
trees cleared away from fence
one of the flood damaged trees
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!
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.