2018: Going forwards looking backwards

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

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

xmas trree
Xmas spruce all dressed up

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

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

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

propagation
Propagation area in July

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

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

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

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

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

kiwi november
Kiwi ‘Jenny’ fruit in November

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

kiwi leaves
Kiwi leaf mulch in tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

nasturtium
This photo does not do the colour justice

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

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

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

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

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

tea garden pallets
Putting up windbreaks in Tea Garden

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

driveway wall construction
Driveway wall under construction

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

remembering summer
Remembering summer

 

 

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Catching up at home

misty dogs
Misty Isle dogs

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.

golden grass
Golden grass

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.

orchard green manure not
Failed green manure

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.

oca flowers oct 2018
Yellow Oca flowers

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.

fodder radish
Fodder radish – big roots!

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.

tea garden failed mulch
Failed mulch (including dog damage)

Orchard revisited – more pH testing

toad
Toad in orchard area

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.

orchard clearing
forking over the orchard

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!)

blueberry plot
View to holding from opposite hill (taken Sept 2017)

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!

pH testing kit
pH indicator chart

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.

pH test potential blueberry plot
pH test for potential blueberry plot

 

 

 

Editing the tree field. #2 Docken

cutting docken
Black currant bushes exposed as docken cut back

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.

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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.

young docken
Juvenile docken with buckwheat flowering behind

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.

new mulch method
Starting to mulch edge strip of tea garden extension

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.

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Mulching in the heat

summer flowers
Wild flowers in June

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.

buckwheat around skirret
Buckwheat germinating around skinny skirret plants (Yacon on left)

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.

mulching with buttercups
buttercup mulch around current bush, new path emerging to left of bush

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.

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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.

lonicera fruit
Lonicera caerulea berries

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….

scented orchid
Heath fragrant orchid

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.

Good news

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.

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Happy tomato plants ready to move on – note water canes

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!

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Newly planted tomato area – looking very messy!

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.

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New growth on Citrus tree

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!

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Big fat toad!

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.

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Olive flowerbuds

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.

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Getting a bit parched where soil is thinner

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!

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Newly cleared and seeded area ready for rain!

Mulching on a slope

Almost all our holding is sloping.  There are small level areas, but generally the land slopes down from the road to the river.  A little below the barn is one of the steeper escarpments.  I have planted this area with trees that are less likely to be coppiced for fuel wood; such as scots pine, rowan, small leaved lime, beech and holly.  Most of these species also prefer it to be well drained.  Last year I also planted 6 small juniper bushes.  I discussed in a previous post using fiber insulation underlay as mulch material.

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New Juniper May 2017

One of the reasons I was keen on it was it would stay on a 45 degree slope with no additional weighing down even in our winds.  However, it is now showing signs of composting into the bank and grass seeding into it’s surface.  The plastic reinforcing fibres are quite obvious now, but are still enmeshed with the underlay.

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Juniper with worn underlay Dec 2017

I have therefore been round all the underlay patches and mulched over the underlay with cardboard on the slopes and newspaper (very old and damp) on the flatter areas.  Hopefully this time next year the underlay will have completely gone, and I can just peel back the cardboard and rake up the plastic fibres, if they haven’t got too much in the way of roots growing through them!  The newspaper on the level does not really need weighing down now – it is pretty consolidated although the birds are digging under it a little looking for treats.  It would have been too difficult to use on the slope however, so I have used 4 large sheets of corrugated cardboard.  These are overlapping with the juniper poking out the middle, and weighed down with some spare fence post stobbs that we had left over from our temporary fencing whilst evicting the sheep.  I’m pretty pleased with the way it looks, although the dogs think there is something very exciting hidden under the cardboard  – so I don’t think it will necessarily last as long as it should!

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Cardboard mulching on a slope!

Mulching away

I’ve been having trouble with my mulched areas. I love the idea of using mulch to drive back the weeds and feed the soil, however I haven’t quite cracked the practicalities.
For example:
I like using cardboard as a sheet mulch to keep grass and weeds away from newly planted shrubs and trees in the garden. It works very well as a simple solution up to a point. If the area is to revert back to grass as in the case of the field trees, it’s fine. I use brick sized stones to keep the cardboard down, which works much better than I expected against the winds we get. By not covering the cardboard, the surface keeps drying back out and it lasts up to a year without too much degradation. You need to make sure that any bits of tape and plastic labels are removed, since these do not disappear like the cardboard does.

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New beach plum in cardboard mulch a few months on

The problem I have is that this does not fully work against creeping buttercup, which is almost everywhere. The buttercups then spread over the mulch, and if you are foolish enough to enjoy the flowers, they seed everywhere, and you get a lovely ground cover of buttercups! These are probably one of my least favourite weeds. The roots are so persistent, and it is too easy to pull the top off, leaving the crown (which will regrow) behind. I’ve been struggling in the tea garden, which I have fully mulched over the last two years or so. I have five stages in progression: Bare soil exposed from removing the excess soil for terracing the orchard; Reasonably intact cardboard mulch, which is gradually being reclaimed by buttercups; a rather mature buttercup mulch where the cardboard has fully degraded; an area weeded in early summer and replanted with himalayam strawberries (which I hope will replace the buttercups as a living mulch – they are fighting it out at the moment); and an area, which was replanted with root crops – (salsify, scorzonera, skirret and also the maca).

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The idea of the root crop area, was that since they would need digging up in the future, I could take the opportunity to weed out the buttercups at the same time. Maybe I should have just left it till that stage, however, as well as the new buttercup seedlings and buttercups creeping in from the edges, I also noticed a lot of little dock seedlings, and (the little pink flower like londons burning) that seeds around so much. I couldn’t take it and had to start clearing the weeds early. I have left the corpses thickly around selected plants. However, since the weather has been wet and mild, unhappily the weeds have carried on growing. I’ll have to remove them and put them in the compost bin.
The new raspberries that I planted there didn’t do too well last year, only a few canes survived through to regrow. I noticed new shoots coming from the autumn bliss ones, so hopefully they will do better next year. I’m not sure why they struggled, but the survivors now seem happy enough. They should be sheltered enough there. It hasn’t been as good as I hoped in the lee of the barn. It seemed like a midge haven, but obviously they are tougher than the tea plants!
The other area which I mulched in a different way, and have been readdressing, is the orchard area to the right of the path as you look downhill. I covered around the trees and blackcurrant cuttings with cardboard, as usual, then used all the lovely cut grass from the pathways to cover the whole area thickly, including the area of card. Unfortunately it looks like it wasn’t thickly enough, since grass is now growing though in most of the area outside the cardboard sheets. I have tried mortal tree’s suggestion of lifting the mulch back over the growing shoots and adding a bit more mulch (https://mortaltree.blog/2013/06/16/group-and-conquer/). At the moment however, it just looks as though I’ve been feeding the couch grass! I think that the area of card will decompose more quickly as well – being covered in damp retaining material. I wasn’t expecting to achieve weed free straight away, since I know there is couch grass, docken and nettles as well as the ubiquitous creeping buttercup. But am a little disheartened. I’ve used up my stock of cardboard sheet to make a light proof layer and remulched with fresh grass cuttings (yes, he’s cut the pathways again) between the trees and the trackway, although I didn’t quite have enough cardboard to finish as far as I wanted to mulch.

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Remulching the orchard area with cardbaord under cut grass

The only weed excluding mulch that does seem to have done pretty well is the floor underlay from the last time the hall flooded, which we were able to reclaim. It is a very thick black plastic sheet, with a slight felt on one side. I’ve laid some on the drive bank to clear back the horrid creeping grass there. I’d like to get the top bank planted, but also need to build a retaining wall to stop it all falling back into the drive again. S. wants to resurface the drive along there, and it makes sense to do that first before building the wall. We removed the sheets to scrape back the soil where S. thought it was encrouching on the drive and I’ve been pleased by how little has been growing back. I used stones, old tyres and fenceposts to keep the sheet down, and that was the only problem I had – it did tend to catch the wind exposing the soil again.

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Effective black plastic mulch on driveway

If the hall floor needs replacing again, as seems likely, we’ll try and get hold of some more of that sheeting. I wonder if it would work for a water proof membrane for a green roofed car port….I’ll have to think about that.

Cutting Docken and grass

Again, the weather has been kind to me. I have been cutting the docken (don’t you just love that plural?) in the orchard area. I have lots of docks around the place, and often they get to seed before I cut them, thus seedlings grow and the docken proliferate. I have discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you get the growing top off the dock they don’t tend to grow back. So my technique is to cut with a spade, aiming to get a couple of inches of the tap root, and not worry too much about the rest of the root. We also have some sort of big pinkish white grub that eats dock roots – maybe they eat the remainder?

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Cutting Docken in orchard area

The orchard area was planted just over three years ago with plum, damson and cherry trees, and I added some apples 18 months ago. It is in a more sheltered dip at the top of the tree field, and I intend to add more soil to landscape the area. I wanted to give the trees as much soil as possible, and also try and keep them well drained. We get so much rain and this is one of the factors that make the fruit trees not grow so well and succumb to disease. At the moment the landscaping is partially done. The trees were planted on mounds, and I have been spreading soil between them. This is barrowed down from below the barn, where it was left from various trackway excavations. Although S. did move down some soil with the dumper, It took a lot of effort to then distribute it and dig out the couch grass and nettles that came too, so wasn’t really much of a labour saving in the end! The trackway down from the barn still needs grading, so is still a bit steep for comfortable barrowing, but at least the heavy bit’s downhill! Anyway, apparently along with the couch and nettles were also a lot of dock seeds which have subsequently germinated and done quite well (oh why aren’t they edible weeds?). So last week I and the dogs took the pink ball and the spade and barrow and set to work. One and a half days later we had cleared the docken, done a lot of fetching, discovered some nicely growing blackcurrant cuttings that I stuck in last winter, a big bone that Dougie had hidden there, a couple of very small spruce seedlings that were missed from several I had temporarily stuck in there eighteen months ago; that is the good news.

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Blackcurrant cuttings in orchard area

The docken were also lovely to dig up from the new soil – many came up with complete roots, so the soil should be good for other stuff to grow in. The bad news is that I also discovered that along with the docken we also have a lot of surviving couch grass (I now know what couch grass flowers look like), nettles and of course the creeping thistle that were in the field before the trees were planted. I’m hoping that continual pulling will deter the creeping thistles. This seems to have been reasonably effective in the tea garden, I had very little come back this year. It’s not the nicest job. You need need grippy gloves to grasp the stems so as to pull as much root as possible: I like the cloth ones with latex facing. However, the palms aren’t strong enough to stop all the prickles, so every now and then you have to pick out a prickle that has broken off in the glove and is sticking in you. I just pulled out the nettles (which will probably grow back) and ignored most of the couch. I know it’s going to grow extensively, but I’m hoping to complete the landscaping, and maybe do some planting this autumn. With a good thick mulch in the meantime and relying on the lovely light soil structure, I’m hoping it will come out then reasonably completely. Anyway, it’s only grass! I’ll probably plant out some of my exciting root crops there this autumn/winter since they will subsequently need digging out anyway giving me a second opportunity to remove the couch….

It was forecast to be dry until Thursday last week, and we were keen to get the paths in the tree field cut. It’s nice to have the grass long, but it makes my trousers wet as I’m walking through (even with wellies on), and S. also has difficulty telling the trees and other plants apart, so having a defined pathway makes it easier if he does have to drive a vehicle round. To be fair the docks are still bigger than some of the trees.  I’d asked him to get the mower out ready for me, so that I could cut the paths when I got home from the shop on Wednesday. It would be quite late, but the sun doesn’t set till gone ten for us at the moment, so there is still quite a bit of daylight. Anyway, he not only got the mower out, but he and the dog-boys went round all the trackways a few times. It wasn’t quite the way I would have done it. I’m not that keen on cutting the grass at all at this time of year. I would like the flowers to have set their seed. However, for reasons of practicality, a little pathway in the centre of the track seems like a good compromise. S. however, did the main trackway with several passes, and the main side loop also with a wider cut. I went round a second time trying to keep in the centre of the track, because the scythemower doesn’t cut that cleanly the first cut, and a second cut gives a more even result. A disadvantage of doing more than the minimum is that Muggins here then has to spend longer than neccessary raking up the extra cut grass. It looks slightly surreal with the long grass, trees and flowers, a mowed path, and the mounds of gathered cut grass.

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Hay mounds along mown trackway

Now I have a fair amount of material for mulching. I will have to wheelbarrow this up hill to the orchard area, where hopefully it will stop some of the noxious weeds growing back too strongly and feed the fruit trees in the longer term. If there is more than I need it can be used to mulch the trees nearest the path edge, or others strategically selected.
If we had more land I would like to cut some of it for hay. Corncrake have a hard time now on Skye, since most crofters just buy in their winter feed now and the in bye fields are now summer grazing. I heard one once here in Glendale a couple of years ago, but it didn’t stay.

Holmisdale in May

t always amazes me how much things grow during May.  The field goes from a thatch of last years’ dead grass to a sea of pignut, grass and bluebell flowers.  I’ve selected a few of the latest photos to capture May and some of the ongoing activities to do with the trees and the tree field’

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Hawthorne in blossom

This tree is actually in the front garden and was planted in 2008.  It has been flowering for the last three years, last year it set quite a few berries.  I made some hawthorne blossom cordial this year following roughly the same recipe as for elderflower cordial.  It’s supposed to be good for the heart and digestion.  Not a strong flavour, maybe a hint of apples over the lemon that is part of the recipe.

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Worrying lack of leaves on birch

Last year we started to see a problem with several birch trees.  They had previously grown well bar a bit of die back.  This however is more than just die back!  They do seem to be alive, but the twigs are mainly dead with just a little new growth.  I’m going to contact the Woodland Trust over this for some advice.  Some of the birch seem fine, and others from different planting years are like this to a greater or lesser extent.  I need to do a bit of a survey and see if I can tell whether it is betula pendula (silver birch) or betula pubescens (downy birch) that is affected (or both).

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Flowering pine tree

This is the second or third year that these pine (also from 2008) have flowered.  I’m not sure if it is a lodgepole pine or scots pine.  I have to admit I find the new growth on the pines rather phallic in habit!  The red tips are the female flowers (that might develop into cones) and the orangey- brown fingers are the male catkins.  Note the wind scorched older leaves.  I think this is a scots pine, since what I think are lodgepole pine elsewhere are almost defoliated by the salt wind in the winter.

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Monkey puzzle in mulch mat

I’m hoping I don’t regret using this carpet underlay as mulching material.  It seems almost ideal – it is from our house in Solihull and was under the most disgusting deep pile orange carpet (that when taken up we used as bearskin props in a ‘flintstones’ scene once, but that’s another story) so reused.  It is made predominately from felted jute fibres so biodegradable.  It is permeable, so will let the rain soak through for the trees, but is mostly thick enough to exclude light and smother out the grass and other plants around the little trees.  The only downside I’ve found is that it is only mostly Jute.  It also has a very coarse scrim of polymer fibres, presumably to give it strength (or maybe mouldability – I used to work on automotive carpets which were heat formed).  These will not degrade in the short term.  I suspect that the grass will grow through and over the mat in the next year and the fibres will be concealed but ever there…..suggestions welcome.

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Pignut blossom

This is just a picture showing the density of pignut, conopodium majus, in the tree field.  It is a native wild flower here.  I have only tried the tubers raw so far, and although pleasant to eat, they tended to give me a slightly nauseous feeling afterwards.  I haven’t tried it cooked.  I love the dainty blossom which is like miniature cow parseley (of which there is very little in this area).  It’s not in full bloom yet, but quite lovely.

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Landrover mulch

This patch is where one of our Land Rovers (Lara the croft rover) had been parked for about two years previously.  The grass has been entirely shaded out, but there is plenty of pignut and creeping thistle as well as sheeps sorrel and a few buttercups that have survived, all coming back after about a month.  Perhaps an example of mortal tree’s ‘a bit blunt’ method of mulching.  I don’t think I’ll be encouraging more long term parking in the tree field however….

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Bluebell river

The bluebells (hyacintha non scripta) are just about at their peak at the end of May, start of June.  They have done really well this year.  You can see how they are concentrated at the field edge where there is the remains of a stone wall and ditch, so probably not well ploughed.  They also survived several years of being grazed and trampled by sheep prior to the trees being planted (these in 2011).  Compare to next door’s grazed field – I bet there are bluebells under there as well!  Also you can note that they are quite happy in the sunshine.  The ground is so damp, they don’t need the shade of trees on Skye.  When we bought the land, I couldn’t even tell that we had bluebells.

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Buttercup mulch

I found this plant growth quite amusing.  This is one of my ‘orchard’ apple trees, which actually bore an apple last year – although it disappeared before I had a chance at it (crows, wind, dogs….).  These trees were all mulched last year, with my favourite sheet  mulching method – sheets of cardboard from our shop, overlapped and weighed down with suitable stones.  This is quite effective, and lasts about a year.  It is quite obvious that it has worked well on the grass, but less well on the buttercups!  Whether these were not killed (they do sprout right through when buried in a few inches of soil) or have just spread over the cardboard more quickly than the grass, I’m not sure, I suspect the former.  I don’t know whether the buttercups are going to be a problem with the trees however.  We try and get rid of the grass mainly because of it’s alleopathic effects – it is known to have a detremental effect on tree growth for this reason, rather than direct competition for resources.  I think I’ll try and mulch the trees again anyway, since they are still very small.  I still have quite a bit of earth moving to do in the orchard area.  I’d like to try and finish the landscaping here this year, so I can get on with underplanting the trees next spring.