As is typical at this time of year, we are getting rather more rain and less sunshine. Whenever we get a still day the midges make life a misery outside, so you either need a good midge repellent, keep all skin covered, or keep running! I’m using ‘midge magic‘ at the moment which seems as good as any anti midge I’ve tried. Last week was a bit windy, gusting to about 45mph or so. The alder tree branches are very brittle, and quite a few have top branches partially or completely broken off. I have also pruned a few more of the branches lower down to make the back pathways more passable in the wet.
The coming of heavier rain last week also filled the pond back up with water. It has been much emptier this year than last, although I didn’t think it had been very dry. Douglas still likes to paddle in the puddle left when it is low, but to be frank he gets a bit stinky in the mud! The river in spate has a lovely golden colour as it goes over the stones at the rapids, and is inky black with peat in the still deeps. When the river is low it has almost no colour and is crystal clear.
We’ve had more ‘free ranging’ sheep along the river banks this year, so there has not been so many wild flowers the other side of the fence. The trees we cut back when they were felled by the floods have been browsed back as well, so there is still a good clearing letting in light. There are some hazelnuts showing – usually in large clusters, but not so many as last year by far.
The late summer flowers are making a show now, with meadowsweet, various vetches and knapweed the stars of the show. Scabious and ling heather (calluna vulgaris) are also opening their flowers. I have two of the three common forms of heather growing here: ling and bell heather (erica cincerea). The bell heather is slightly earlier and the blooms are now fading, whilst the ling heather has paler flowers and is yet to reach its peak. The third common heather, cross leaf heath, does grow up on the hills, but I’ve not see it on the holding. It has fewer, larger and paler flowers.
There are more little hazel seedlings that I have noticed near the river in the tree field. Some I can leave to grow where they are – they will probably be happiest not being disturbed. Others, which are too close to the fence, other trees, or on the paths, I will try and remember to move this winter. The trouble is they are much more difficult to find when they lose their leaves. I should take down some sturdy long sticks and mark their places! In the meantime, I try and clear the grass around them and mulch them with it, which makes them easier to find at the moment.
I have pretty much cleared the bracken growing in the tree field. There really wasn’t very much at all this year. I should get out and pull the stems growing on the river bank as well, before it starts dying back too much. The big builders bag of bracken that I pulled last year is still there down by the pond. Unfortunately it is too heavy for me to move it. I did think that as the bracken died down it would get lighter, but if it has it hasn’t made enough difference for me. It is still not well rotted enough for compost, although would do as a surface mulch if I wanted. I may wheel it up to the new blueberry patch when I get on with that. Some nice light organic material will be just what the blueberries will like.
We go through a period at midsummer where the spring flower start to fade and the late summer flowers are yet in bud. The grass is overtall and swamps the smallest trees sometimes smothering them out. We were too busy with construction projects to keep a path mown through the trackways recently. Last week, after the damp grass made my feet so wet that I was able to wring water out of my socks even in wellies, I had to do some mowing!
We had a dry spell Sunday and Monday so S. made a start before lunch and I carried on on Tuesday and was able to put a single mower track down the middle of most of the rides and backways. I made a new backway that I call the white orchid path, which matches up with one S. made to cut down from the middle to the pond area from near the royal oaks. There is only one white orchid there, which I noticed for the first time two years ago. It was quite a distance from the trackway, so it is nice to be able to take a closer look. It’s just a common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) I think, but it’s more unusual for them to be white rather than pink.
The dogs are very good about machinery, they know to trot behind, or do their own thing, however when it comes to raking up the cut grass Dyson is a bit of a pain. His game is to try and catch the rake head (or broom or vacuum nozzle) which makes the job about twice as long! I ended up putting them in for an afternoon nap, so I could get on more quickly. I hate all that mulch material going to waste rotting on the path and killing grass where I don’t want it killed. I have been raking it up into piles, then the dogs can help (they think they are helping) piling it around some of the newer or more vulnerable trees and shrubs. I’ve still got quite a bit to do, and two or three smaller paths haven’t been mown yet.
It was nice to see several mushrooms, a sign of the fungal mycelium below which distributs nutrients around the field. I guess they will be changing from grass and orchid loving fungi to tree loving fungi, but there is still quite a amount of open space from one cause or another. I also saw several butterflies, caterpillars, a dragonfly and a frog. The advantage of the scythemower is that, as well as coping with overtall grass, it is less likely to kill wildlife, since it cuts in one direction rather than circularly.
I think I’m going to have to assume that this wild cherry (below) is not going to recover. It got hit by late frosts, which are pretty unusual here, just as the buds were unfurling. I did think it would stage a comeback, but it doesn’t look like it now. There are several suckers from adjacent trees, at least one coming up in the trackway, so I could transplant one of these to replace it. Alternatively, I could put something else there.
This was going to be an update on the polytunnel, but I’m excited about some things in the tree field, so those come first.
Usually the dryish weather lasts into the middle of June, but this year it has broken a bit early. There was a nice bit of rain last weekend, and again through this week so the burns and the river are now overflowing.
The first exciting thing then (not chronologically, but logically) is that the pond at the bottom is once again full. During the week it just had a little puddle from it’s own catchment, but either the shallow springs are going again and/or the burn on that side is full enough to have water all the way down (often it disappears again on the way down). This would have been quite exciting, but more exciting (especially to the dogs unfortunately) was what we found on the pond. The dogs saw them first, and then I saw a lady mallard flying off with a squawk over the fence to the river. Left behind were about three frantically cheaping baby ducks. They are very tiny, and I have no idea where the nest is. I’m thinking it must be on the river bank, otherwise the dogs probably would have found it before now. The pond would have made quite a nice nursery swim for the babies if it wasn’t for my bad dogs. The river is in full spate after the rain, so the little ones would be swept quite away. Eventually the dogs came to me. They had been more interested in the mother than the babies, so noone was hurt. Hopefully the mum would soon have returned to the babies again. We’ll have to keep the dogs away from the pond for a bit. This is difficult, as due to some building work, part of the deer fence to the garden area is down at the moment. I was going to put some temporary fencing up anyhow, so I’ll escalate that task for when the rain clears.
On the way back up the hill again I was on the lookout for something that I had found the previous day. On the grass there had been what I thought was a tiny rotten birch twig. I wondered how it had got there and had turned it over with a twig that I was hoping to mark orchids with. To my surprise the twig moved! Not a twig but a largish moth! On that occasion I did not have my camera with me (it was raining!) so I was very glad to find the moth still in the (birch) tree to which I had moved it. Looking it up later I found it was a buff tip moth. Although quite common in the south of the UK it is less so in the north.
The other interesting thing, is that I may have seen this moth as a caterpillar. I didn’t post about it at the time, but last summer I noticed one or two alders that had clumps of caterpillars in them. They were distinctive in the way they formed a mass of caterpillars. I’m pretty sure now that they were buff tip caterpillars, so it is nice to see that at least one made it to adulthood. They pupate in the soil, so that may be why this one was on the ground. It must have just emerged.
The rain has come in good time to keep watering the seedling trees I have planted in the tree field. As well as the tiny spruce, I have also relocated about a dozen tiny rowans (why do they like to germinate in the driveway!), a couple of sycamore (ditto!) and several plums, damsons and apples from shop fruit that was past it’s best, or used for jam making. The latter’s seeds had been placed in small seed trays (actually fruit punnets) outside and I got quite a few germinating this spring. Rather than leave them to starve in the seedtrays I was able to plant them out last week, with a proper double spade square hole. They may not have good fruit that ripens here, but they may at least have blossom to cross pollinate my orchard fruit. I could try and graft good fruiters onto the trunks in the future. I am hopeful that the damson seedlings and the plums that we ate in late september in Devon may have useful fruit, if only for jamming.
When we planted the trees in 2011 we experimented with planting comfrey around some of them to see if they would act as a living mulch. I had found this quite successful in Solihull around established soft fruit so, since we had been having difficulty finding enough time to mulch the newly planted trees, I wondered whether this would be an easy way to keep the grass down. We just stuck ‘thongs’ of comfrey, of which I had plenty growing in the fruit garden, into the turf about two feet from the trees. It wasn’t that successful as it turned out. We found that although most of the comfrey took OK, it was a few years before they could out compete the grass, and by that time the trees were already established. They do make lovely flowers for the bees though through the summer.
I had read in one or two of my books that other people had found that a bank of comfrey several plants deep could be used as a weed barrier around planting areas. Last year I planted several thongs below the newly mulched orchard area to the north of the trackway, in the hopes that these would eventually keep out the worst of the couchgrass. It is dramatic that the only ones that have grown well have been the ones adjacent to the mulch. The ones planted with turf on each side are still really tiny (although mostly still there). I don’t remember there being any difference between them when planted out. So on my mental list of things to do is to mulch between the comfrey there if I get time. It’s probably not a high priority, since the comfrey will probably still grow and in a year or so form a canopy by itself.
The grass has grown lush and green with the rain, and the buttercups and pignut have started flowering. So pretty with the rain dewdrops sparkling in the sun. The buttercups seem particularly profuse in the area just below the orchard, and the pignuts in the southernmost strip along Jo’s field. The midges are here now too, so the rain is definately a mixed blessing. We change to longer hours next week in the shop next week so I will have to get to bed a bit earlier. The sun was still setting at about 9.20 last night. I could still see the sunlight on the hill opposite us.
I’ve been on holiday this week. My friends AC and DC have been staying locally and have been pottering round with me. The weather has just turned from cool and dry to warm and dry, hence the title. I have been practically running round naked, (which I think of as when I’m down to single layers of clothing) and actually showing my knees today! There is no danger of frost now, but I have noticed a little damage to the new growth on the grape vine in the polytunnel. I have bought S. a weather station recently with an extra temperature and humidity sensor for the polytunnel. We are still playing with it, since the signals are getting interfered with by our wifi, but the temperatures in the polytunnel were varying from over 30 deg. Celsius during the day to only 2 deg. Celsius at night. The temperature at night is much warmer now (about 12 degrees or so) and I’m opening the doors more to keep it a bit cooler during the day.
Although on holiday, we have managed to achieve quite a bit (even some of the things I had on my list to do). DC has been going round taking off tree shelters, and keeping the dogs amused. It’s quite nice to think that these are some of the trees that he himself helped plant just a few years ago. AC and I have been clearing and planting in the tea garden extension. The ground is lovely to weed at the moment; so dry the earth just falls off the roots of the weeds. I cleared out some docken and buttercups, but was quite pleased to find only a little couch growing in from the edge which had just been mulched last year. I pulled off the tops of the weeds, left the leaves on the beds, and threw the roots to add to the soil around the adjacent trees, where the rock is rather close to the surface. We planted the artichokes and potatoes that Frances of island threads sent me (thanks again!), as well as my saved oca (and some more from Frances). AC also re-mulched with cardboard the area by the track that I left under mulch last year. I had a trial clearing the end of the bed where I’d planted the peas. Although the couch came out nicely, there was too much of the thinner stringy grass that creeps over the surface, so I’m hoping that another year will clear that a bit more. We cut back and thinned out the kale that was flowering. I think it will regrow again to provide another crop. The tops we used to mulch around the lowest of the ‘new’ blackcurrant bushes. Hopefully they will fruit a bit better this year than last year.
The other blackcurrants in the tea garden had a lovely lush new lawn growing round them! I didn’t manage to clear out the grass in the bed next to them before it went to seed and regretted it! Hopefully cutting it back with shears and mulching with it’s own leaves and cardboard will be enough to clear it again. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of nasty weeds there, which is pleasing. I was hoping to transplant in some of the sweet cicely and good king henry that has seeded in, but that will have to wait till next year now.
The weather is really too nice to be spending much time in the polytunnel (a bit like last year), however we have managed to clear the beds for the tomatoes (although not planted yet). I have decided to plant them in the lower southern beds. There is a awful lot of parsley going to seed in there, so we stripped off the leaves and have dried about four batches in the lower oven. The kale was unfortunately a bit mildewy, which it usually is in the tunnel at this time of year, but there was a fair amount of leaf beet for spinach.
AC has sown my curcubit seeds. We ate the last sharks fin melon a few weeks ago (nearly eighteen months after harvest and still perfect!) so I scraped out and saved some of the seeds before cooking it. I have plenty of seeds as well for next year, just in case I get another failure. The curcubit seeds have all gone in the propagator, although they could probably be sown direct in the polytunnel with the temperatures as they are now. It looks like all my sweetcorn seeds have failed: both those that were sown direct, and those in the propagator. I can only assume that I drowned them. I sowed them at the same time as the peas (which have germinated well). They were fresh seed. I presoaked them for a few days to rehydrate before sowing, but maybe I soaked them for too long. It probably isn’t too late to try again. I’ll see if I have any more of that seed and just soak it overnight, and sow direct this time.
While the earth is so dry I’ve been doing more weeding/editing around the fruit garden as well, getting out some of the comfrey that is persisting. and transplanting some strawberry plants. I also was going to transplant some rowan seedlings in amongst the ash trees in the tree field. They seem to like to germinate in the rocky scree of the driveway. I managed to get out about a dozen little trees and one rather larger one, that were growing in less than optimal positions. Then I started to turn some turfs for planting holes, in between the two bands of new spruce trees (that we have been giving a little water to in this dry weather). When digging the second hole, I found my right calf muscle seize up painfully with cramp, and it has been a bit painful the last day or so. I think it was all the digging in the tea garden extension that worked it too hard. It seems a bit better now with rest and ibuprofen, but I may have to heel the little rowans in somewhere else (they are in a pot of water at the moment).
DC and AC also helped me mulch the area where I am hoping to plant blueberries in the tree field. First we had to shift all the conifer branches that I had placed there from the driveway tree pruning. The grass had started to grow through them, but it wasn’t too difficult to disentangle them yet. We then spread out several lengths of black plastic underlay (reclaimed a few years ago from the local hall when it flooded) and used the tree branches to weight them down. This was easier with a few extra pairs of hands. I’ll assess the couch grass at the end of the summer and decide whether to leave the plastic down for another year then. I’m thinking of making slightly raised beds for the blueberries (since the area there is a bit of a bowl) and planting the ‘ditches’ in between with comfrey for mulching. I’m thinking some well rotted sawdust and lots of bracken leaves is what I need to plant the blueberries into.
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.
It’s been a few weeks since I got back and I’ve not done a lot. Skye has been doing ‘misty isle’ again, just this last day or so turning colder and brighter. The tree field does have some autumn colour. Particularly down by the pond where it is a bit sheltered, the birch and willow have a few more leaves holding on. There is a lovely clumping grass turning a golden shade by the pedestrian gate to the river.
While the winds in the north we should have some fine weather, but I need to tuck some fleece or similar round the tea bushes to protect them from the winter cold. We actually had our first frost this weekend, which was a bit of a surprise. The green manures I sowed in the orchard just before the holiday have been a resounding failure. The field beans were eaten by crows, no sign of the vetch or clover, and the remaining fodder radish is going to be too small and sparse to create any coverage! I should have sown about a month earlier….I do have a nice crop of grass and buttercups coming, so I guess I’ll just have to sheet mulch in the spring, but this will kill off the desireable seeds I put in as well.
The tea garden extension is still looking quite green and lush. I’ll tidy this up a bit when we get some frosts, since I’ll need to think about harvesting the outside yacon, oca and mashua then. The oca has had some tiny yellow flowers, rather bashed by the wet winds.
Neither the oca or mashua really like the exposed position. Of the mixed selection of plants that went in, the self seeding kale has done well, and I have a few nice looking carrots along the edge. The fodder radish has some good size roots, so I may pull some of these over the winter. I think there will still be enough to give coverage. Phacelia and borage are still blooming lovely! In the original tea garden unfortunately I have a lawn of grass growing under the blackcurrant bushes, I’ll try mulching that in the spring also. The himalayan strawberries had a second flush of flowers, but none have set this time.
The experimental sheet mulching with combined paper and cardboard has not been a great success. I think that the cardboard really does need two layers. It seems to have disintegrated more quickly, and then does not keep the newspapers protected. I do have some more cardboard, and have re-mulched the bit by the tea garden, I’ll need to try and do the orchard as well whilst we’ve got this nice weather. The cardboard alone double layers have also suffered a bit, but some of this is definately dog damage, so I still think this is the better way to go.
I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area. I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching. I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc. I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together. The soil does seem quite light. I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much. There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.
I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid. I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants. I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred. I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it. I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial. The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere. I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down. I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon. I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant. I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….
S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil. Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops. This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year. We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility. I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden. Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.
On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn. Again this has a bit of couch grass in it. I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass. I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short. I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out! Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary! At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction. I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)
I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass. What would happen if I just left it be? How competive is it as a weed? I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch. It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field. I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer. I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch). Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!
I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished. I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart. The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach. All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5. The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7. I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time. Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.
Actually it’s mainly the orchard area within the tree field that I have been clearing of docks in the past few weeks. I have very nearly finished getting the levels sorted out, and managed to mulch with card some of the new surfaces (see here). Some of the area I managed to sow with some left over green manure seeds (buckwheat and clover) and these did germinate and grow to a certain extent but have not managed to outcompete the dock seed that is present in apparently vast quantities! There is also some established docken from previous years that was probably growing on the site previously, or was in the soil before it was moved down to the orchard area and regrew. The main priority was to get out the docken that were going to seed before they have a chance to spread more seed into the soil. This involved going round with a spade and cutting through the taproot of the plants. The tops were then loaded into a barrow along with a few bits of nettle and some of the couch grass that has apparently become established there also. The barrows were dumped just below the original gateway to the lower field, which still stands like the doorway in Narnia, although the gate is lying down rather than hinging. There is an area of soil below the gate which either didn’t have trees planted, or the trees didn’t take. I think it was the former, since the soil was very compacted, full of docken and stones in the gateway. Hopefully the loads of fertility in the form of weeds will help to rejuvenate the soil. I think of it as a bit like segregating nuclear waste – concentrating all the nasties in one area. I do the same with the rubbish I find: bits of rusty metal, glass, string, coal and brocken crockery get put into piles (or bags) until I can get round to deciding what to do with them.
I had to go over the cardboard I laid on the north side of the trackway, since there were several docks that had punched their way through. This has made a bit of a mess of the cardboard, so I will have to cover the area again before winter. I have cut back all the seeding docken, and made a start at pulling out the juvenile plants that would go to seed from next year. The slightly larger plants often come out cleanly with the taproot when pulled firmly with a twist. I have been twisting off the leaves and leaving them on the soil surface and putting the roots in a bucket before adding them to the weed mountain. Some may not be big enough to regrow, but there’s no point tempting fate. The smaller plants will need digging out. It seems counter intuitive, but the younger leaves tend to just come off in your hand leaving the tap root to regrow in the ground. If the soil is gently loosened with a fork then the whole plant is more likely to come cleanly. I’ve still got some of the larger plants to do, and almost all of the smaller plants. I think I will go over the whole area lightly with a fork anyway and try and remove as much as possible of the couch grass. It will probably grow back anyway, but if I can reduce a bit it will be worthwhile. I’m going to quickly order some green manure seed: fodder radish, red clover and field beans to overwinter and keep down the weed seeds. I may try and spread some of my vetch seeds and plants as well.
I’ve made a start on the final area of the tea garden extension: there was a strip along by the trackway which didn’t need levelling, so is still full of weeds: docken, nettles, couch, creeping thistles, other thistles……I’m going to take the worst out and then mulch over the whole area. The couch will grow back, but I’m hoping that the soil under the mulch will be nice and friable by spring, and a light forking will be sufficient to remove the couch. I am trying out a variation on mulching again. Since I seem to need an awful lot of cardboard to cover an area, I am going to make it go further by combining it with newspapers. Previously when I’ve used newspapers I have weighted them down with grassy materials: old haylage, grass clippings, cut reeds etc. These work to a certain extent, but there always seems to be a deal of work in cutting and moving the clippings, and then they sometimes blow off and I end up with newspaper decorating the fences. This time I am going to spread a single layer of cardboard over the newspapers and weight it down with stones as usual, of which I have a plentiful supply collected out of the tea garden extension when moving the soil earlier in the year. A double layer of cardboard does seem to last pretty well by this method, so we’ll see if a single layer with paper underneath does as well.
They say the camera doesn’t lie, but I wanted to see whether I could take a picture that made my weed infested tea garden extension look great. These pictures were taken from the same position, just crouching or standing up and show how easy it is to be misled.
The weather continues unusually hot and dry for us. One of our burns has dried up, and the other is down to a trickle. Luckily there still seems enough to fill the pipe to the polytunnel, since the sunshine makes it very hot in there, even with the doors open. The olive tree blossom has opened, and it looks like the toad has found his way into the pond which is good. I had noticed mosquito larvae in there and some strange jelly creatures with whip tails which look really disgusting, but I assume are some other sort of fly larvae. I was thinking I might have to import some fish to keep the vermin down, but maybe Mr Toad will sort them out for me. It should be cooler for him in there and more comfortable. I did make the sides sloping, so he should be able to get in and out reasonably well. I’m thinking of maybe getting a small solar powered pump to keep the water from getting stagnant.
I have mainly been working down in the tree field in the tea garden and the orchard area. I have transplanted into the newly cleared and seeded tea garden extension some rather pot bound specimens of skirret, and salsify as well as some straggly alpine strawberries, a couple of mashua and a couple of yacon plants. They will at least do better in the soil than in their pots for another year! I also had some tiny callaloo plants which came from the heritage seed library. This is a West Indian vegetable which is a selection of amaranth, grown for its succulent leaves rather than its seed. They appear to be quite colourful, but so far don’t seem to be putting on much growth. Since it has been very dry they may do better with a bit of watering in. I did give them all a little when planted, but we have had no rain in a fortnight again, so the surface of the soil is very dry. Underneath it isn’t so bad, although the surface springs have all dried up.
I still have a little more of the original tea garden to clear around the gooseberry bush (which seems to be bearing a good few berries despite still being very misshapen and small). The buttercups taken out have been used to mulch around the lowermost blackcurrent bush. I’m hoping that it has been dry enough to kill the dug up buttercup plants and that they will kill the buttercups underneath, or at least knock them back a bit. I have decided that I need to extend the path so that it flows through to join the trackway in a natural flow. Previously I had terraced the slope, so the path had to turn 90 degrees at the step. The side has now had to be built up with some supporting stones so that the path will have a smooth gradient. It still needs finishing off, but I think it will work much better.
Since it was too hot for doing much digging on Friday, I had a gentle day with the dogs mulching in the orchard area where I have been moving the soil (I had a strange virus attack on Thursday which left me feeling like I should take it easy, but feel fine now). The earth moving is not quite finished yet, but the top terrace is just about there, so I thought I’d try and mulch it to keep the surface clear and stop some of the dock seeds germinating. Hopefully it will then be ready to plant up next spring. It is amazing how much cardboard you need for what isn’t a huge area. I do like to have a fair overlap between the sheets, but I’ll need to get a few more deliveries in the shop to do the rest of the orchard! I still have a few sheets in my plastic shed, which may finish off the top terrace with luck.
On the left hand side of the trackway my new “honeyberries”, or “earlyberries” as Lubera called them, Lonicera caerulea have turned colour, and I think are getting as ripe as they are likely to be. Not over enamoured of the flavour so far – not as sweet as I’d hoped, bearing in mind the superb weather. It may be that I was hoping for too much. They are supposed to taste like blueberries when ripe, but maybe like blackcurrants they are more a berry for cooking with. I am quite happy that I got any fruit, considering this is their first year with me, and the bees loved the flowers. I have been very happy with all the plants I got from Lubera – nice quality, reasonable priced (and less than £5 delivery cost even to Skye) and some exiting selections. I’m thinking of getting a second kiwi, or kiwiberry for my polytunnel and they have several to choose from….
I always get quite excited about the orchids coming into flower at this time of year. Year on year we get more flowering, due to them not being eaten by sheep anymore. I have loads more butterfly orchids on the orchid hill, and several more popping up above the cut through drain to the pond. The most dense for blooms is the steep slope just above the pond, presumably this had not been ploughed so much. One would have thought that there would be more coming out on the hump just below the barn, but so far I have only spotted a couple of butterfly orchids near our southern boundary, on the narrow path that winds around the hump. Maybe the grazing pressure has been higher there due to being closer to the barn? I would have thought the soils were not that dissimilar. I spotted a new species of orchid as well this year – what I am fairly certain is a Heath fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia borealis) since it is the first I have found to really have a noticable sweet scent during the day. I shall have to check for more of these, since I may just have missed them.
I planted my tomatoes out this week. I have worked out now what I was doing wrong and why my plants seem so stunted compared to other people’s. I am over watering them. The compost appears dry, we are having sunny weather and the polytunnel is getting super hot (too hot for me to work in there during the days). I thought that tomato plants need lots of water and being in pots they would need more – WRONG! This peat free compost I am using seems dry at the surface, but underneath it is sopping wet still so the poor little plants were trying to grow in a tropical marsh. I transplanted them in to bigger pots (which is when I found they were not as dry as I’d thought) hardly watered them at all, and they perked right up.
The trick is to stick a length of cane or stick into some of the pots to the bottom, when you feel the urge to water, pull out the stick and feel how damp it is – that will tell you if the pots need water. After two weeks the plants were looking a lot happier and had filled their new pots with roots. Rather than pot them on again, I just planted them right out into the tunnel. That involved cutting back much of my self sown salads, which are rather past their best now. The kale still had some good pickings on and I was going to try making kale crisps (which are rather yummy) but unfortunately I just ran out of time that day and they all went rather limp. I left the roots of the plants in the soil generally, dug a good sized hole, put about three shovels of my mature compost (rather grey from all the wood and paper ash that went in that heap) in the hole and mixed it in a bit. I have found that since I’ve left the polytunnel untidy, leaving cut back plants on the surface, the soil has a better texture and doesn’t dry out as much. The plant debris also stops seeds from germinating. The tomato plants were popped in a random order, the soil level was deliberately left a little lower than the surrounding soil making it easy to water them in, and the holes can be backfilled to earth up the stems as the plants grow. Hopefully I won’t lose the little labels telling me which is which. I’m not expecting wonders from them this year, since I am late getting the plants in, but hopefully, now I know what I’m doing wrong, I can get a bit ahead next year!
While I was clearing the undergrowth in the polytunnel I found three other good things. Firstly the unknown citrus is not dead! I had cut it mostly back but not removed it, more from wishful thinking than a belief it would recover, and hey presto! new shoots from near the bottom of the trunk! I’ll tidy it up a bit once it’s a bit bigger, and perhaps fleece it next winter, but it may be that it will always die back and never flower.
Another good thing was a very welcome resident toad. It was heading into the area I’d cleared in the polytunnel, so I had to relocate it back in a quiet area for its own safety, but I was very happy to see it. A few years ago I saw a small toad in the tunnel on a number of occasions, but haven’t seen it for a while – maybe this is the same one, but it’s now rather fat and much larger! I don’t think the pond made the difference – toads prefer running water I gather. It’s funny, you would have thought, particularly over the last few weeks it would be a bit hot for it in there, but it is obviously happy enough!
Whilst I was in the tunnel taking photos I also noticed that my olive tree has flower buds. I only bought it last year so am very excited about this.
The final good thing was that it rained today. This is not normally something one cheers about on Skye, more something one takes for granted! However we have actually had about three weeks dry and rather warm weather, so the plants in the thinner soil were starting to get yellow, mostly things were fine for me though.
It was more the timing that was perfect. I have been moving soil from under the barn to my orchard area. A good exercise when the soil is nice and dry – lighter to carry and not slippery underfoot. I had reached the end of the area, bar a strip near the track which will be harder work, since there is more nettles and couch grass in that bit, together with stones mixed in from the roadway. Yesterday I dug the last little bit to make the area level, loosened the whole area to a fork depth to try and remove a bit more of the creeping thistle, marked out some paths with edging stones (I’d removed these as I went) and then broadcast all my old seed (and a little fresh seed) in the hope that at least some are still viable to compete with the weeds (I had quite a bit of green manure seeds that I bought for the allotment in Solihull and we’ve been here ten years now!). Now we have a day of soft soaking rain and it couldn’t be better to water the seeds in!