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.

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
DSCN1807 small
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!

New growth on unknown citrus in spring
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

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.

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.


DSCN1227I love May on Skye. Actually, as soon as the clocks change for summertime, life seems to get that much better. The day light gets longer and longer, technically it never gets truly dark now. The weather also starts to cheer up. Spring tends to be our dry season, and midge free whilst it lasts. Surprisingly that can actually be an extended period without rain, despite Skye’s reputation. We’ve only been here 10 years and have experienced one spring where we had about 16 weeks with no rain. This year wasn’t that dry (thankfully) and actually it didn’t dry up until towards the end of April. Then we had an idyllic week of almost unbroken sunshine, and day by day the vegetation on the croft started to unfold. I also start getting too excited and start digging and germinating far too many seeds with nowhere to put them!

This week I have shuffled almost all the logs on the log pile. For reasons I won’t go into, this particular delivery of softwood arrived sopping wet about 2 and a half years ago and we’ve been stuggling to get it away dry ever since. Finally the week of sunshine and drying north wind enabled us to get a whole lot cut and away (with a little help from our friends – thanks Dave). The ones that remain are still pretty wet, some were resting on the ground, so were getting wet from underneath, and they also have a lot of bark adhering which keeps them damp longer. So I have restacked, brushed off the loose bark as best I can, and moved the whole lot forwards back onto the ground bearing logs. As part of that exercise, I managed to bag up loose bark from under the pile to try and get some air flow through it, and also much of the sawdust created by the sawing operations. Hopefully now they are able to air off again we will get enough more dry weather to get most of the rest away soon. We’ll also have to estimate whether we will need another delivery to get us through the next winter. We do most of our cooking as well as all the hot water and heating using a wood fired range and it’ll be some time before we can harvest our own wood – although some by the river could do with a tidy up.

ground elder cover
Ground elder groundcover

I have used up the bark mulching round newly planted Glen Coe raspberries. These were belated birthday presents from my in-laws. The Glen Coe is supposed to be a clumping raspberry that fruits on this year’s growth. It has attractive dark purple berries and I’ve fancied one since I’ve seen them in gardening catalogues. Anyway, I have planted them in the front garden where hopefully they should be pretty sheltered – we have some big (well c. 25 ft, which is tall for here) sycamore trees, and I have also planted a willow ‘fedge’ to one side of the path which cuts through from the front door to the lower drive. To the north of the fedge are blackcurrant and raspberry bushes. These are under planted (well OK, I never planted them, but they make a good ground cover) with ground elder. This is also growing on the other side of the path, which is where I am starting to plant some of my ‘interesting edibles’, and these new raspberries. I have tried an experiment therefore: rather than digging out all the ground elder, I have planted the raspberries in a small hole, cut back the vegetation, then heavily mulched with cardboard weighed down with stones and covered with bark. I expect that the ground elder will grow through, which is probably OK, but it does look quite smart just now!

newly planted glencoe
Raspberries in cutback undergrowth
cardboard mulch
mulched with cardboard
finished front path 2017
finished planting and mulching

I’ve also taken a first cut of the comfrey in the fruit garden. This is on the south side of the polytunnel and again is partially enclosed by a willow fedge. This fedge was very slow to get going. Partly because the soil depth is pretty shallow in places and willow does not like to dry out, and partly I don’t think that variety of willow likes the salt wind, and it has very little shelter until the other trees on the top of the gully bank start to get a little bigger. The comfrey is interplanted around the fruit bushes. The idea is that the comfrey will grow and mulch the bushes – feeding them and keeping the weeds down, also hiding them from the birds slightly. The difficulty is in getting the spacing right. Too close and the comfrey smothers the bushes. Too far apart and they don’t keep the weeds down enough. I seem to have erred on the too close side, so I am going to have to cut the comfrey and remove the growth elsewhere. I think this is probably some of the best soil on the property. It is deep enough to have been the burying ground apparently for several dead livestock in the distant past, much to the dogs’ delight! It is almost impossible to remove comfrey once it is established. The roots are thick, long and fragile and, like dandelion, will regenerate a new plant from a small fragment of root. Luckily it does seem to be the non spreading/seeding version, possibly even Bocking14 which is supposed to be the best for green manures, but since it came with the property, I cannot be sure of this. Anyway, hopefully by cutting the comfrey, this will curtail it’s growth a little in the future so it won’t swamp the bushes so much. I have cut up some of the leaves quite finely and pressed them into two buckets in my shed, which I hope will make good tomato food later in the year. The rest is still in a wheelbarrow ready to be used to mulch around whichever plants I feel need it most.

I need to try and do a little more civil engineering in the fruit garden as well. Both nettles and couch grass are making takeover bids, as well as the creeping grass and buttercups. I have used woven fabric under the paths, but it doesn’t seem to be very effective at keeping the weeds down, and is difficult to get the roots out of. I’m thinking of using newspaper topped with sawdust on the paths. I have enough to get a fairly deep layer down, but I think I’ll have to dig as much couch as possible out first. I’m hoping to grow a load of skirret, silverweed and other exciting root vegetables in the worst weedy areas, so will have an excuse to give it another fork over in the autumn to get rid of some regrowth then.

MacPherson’s Covert.

Those with Tolkein expertise can now guess the origin of my username. We’re attempting to turn a sheep grazed, wind swept croft into a cornucopia of produce via the introduction of trees.  The name MacPherson’s Covert came from a story that was told to us by one whose family were previous residents and owners of this land.  He tells it much better than me, however…In harder times not so long ago the people of Glendale, for good and sufficient reason refused their rents to their landlord due to abuses they had undergone.  As a result the government sent a gunship and marines to put down their rebellion.  Hearing of the approach the lady of the croft, took her baby and hid in a cave on the land that they might be safe from any bloodshed.  As it happened, due to the bravery and good sense of the people, no blood was spilt but the leaders volunteered to be imprisoned such that their grievances could be properly heard.  As a result of this and other instances of  landlord abuses the crofting acts were implements in Scotland giving tenants rights and priviledges hitherto unknown.  Glendale itself became purchased by the government and sold back to its tenants as the first community buy out of a Scottish estate.

We had help to plant the trees from the Woodland Trust, in the form of discounted purchase of native trees and advice.  We then chose the name of the wood to be MacPherson’s Covert after that previous resident.