I’m running a bit behind in my posting (got distracted by online novel reading) so will try and do a bit of catchup now. I’m trying to get some preparation done for my blueberry patch down the hill. I had covered the whole area with black plastic early last year to clear the weeds so it is now time to get the beds arranged, so I can start planting.
I decided to move the black plastic out to cover the area immediately surrounding the cleared patch. I can either plant more blueberry bushes or other plants there. It will be useful to have a weed barrier of sorts to try and keep the couch and other creeping grasses at bay. There probably aren’t enough stones already selected to weight the plastic down properly. Last year I had the benefit of large branches from the driveway spruce trees, but my intention is to use these to increase the woody content of the beds, so I will need additional weights this year.
Since blueberries need well aerated soil, and the area I have chosen for them is damp and compacted with generations of sheeps trotters, I have forked over the cleared area. I din’t turn the soil, just loosened it, so that it has a chance to dry a little over the coming weeks of spring. I was a bit disappointed by the amount of couch grass that seems to be prevalent over the whole area, despite the light excluding cover. I guess it was kept going by areas outside the plastic, and the fact the water could still get to it due to the fact the plastic is in strips, rather than a larger entire piece. The other plant that seems to have survived remarkable well is pignut, Conopodium Majus. The blanched spring shoots of this are all over the area despite having been covered for the whole of last year.
The thick reeds and other groundcover plants have disappeared to form a vole dispersed layer of compost. The voles are more of a nuisance for attracting the attention of the dog(s). They like to dig underneath the plastic sheets, thus letting in light and wind, so making the sheets less effective at weed cover.
My intention is to create sort of raised beds, with the woody trimmings, bracken remains, and leaf mould/grass clipping compost from the lodge, together with soil excavated to create drainage channels and paths. As I was forking it over, I discovered that the soil depth is not consistent; it gets quite shallow at the downhill side of the patch. Probably this rock forms a bit of a bowl, which is why it seems so damp there. Until the area surrounding the cleared patch is also cleared, I won’t really be able to create the levels properly to ensure bed drainage. I’m hoping that I can clear most of the couch grass out when the soil is drier as I create the raised beds themselves.
I have ordered some more blueberry plants, but haven’t managed to find some of the varieties I wanted. If necessary, I will just sow some annuals to build up the soil structure and keep it covered and pre-order bushes for next year. I know ART will propagate fruit trees to order, so they may do fruit bushes too.
Having decided that the Kiwi vine wasn’t worth the space and the daylight it took in the Polytunnel, I spent a few wet afternoons in January and February digging it out. Since it was pretty much in the corner I had to be careful of the polytunnel sides when digging. I wasn’t certain when I started whether I was taking the bramble out as well. Actually I rather though I would be digging that out too, despite the great crop of sweet early brambles it usually gives. However in the event, it really was too close to the polytunnel corner to take out. Also it seems to be quite separate to the kiwi root mass so didn’t naturally come out at the same time.
Although I tried hard to take up as much root as possible, the kiwi roots are surprisingly fragile, so most of them got broken quite short during the excavation. Eventually the last roots going out under the tunnel wall were cut through and the rootball was undercut and freed. It was interesting that most of the larger roots were extending into the tunnel rather than out into the damper soil outside the tunnel. I think this indicates that the kiwi will prefer drier soil. That corner of the tunnel outside however, is also particularly wet, since there is a shallow drainage ditch I dug along there quite early on, which doesn’t yet have a destination except just by the corner of the tunnel. It usually fills with water there after any significant rain.
I had decided to plant the kiwi against the largest of the sycamores in the front garden. I don’t expect it to be quite as vigorous outside as it is in the warmth of the tunnel. It may not like the extra wet as well as the cooler temperatures. However I remember seeing kiwis swamping a tree in the Fern’s field, so don’t want to plant it somewhere where the trees are still establishing. In addition, it will be more difficult to prune the vine in a tree so I’m actually intending to let it run free as much as possible. This means that I may not get so many flowers, but since I am not expecting to get any fruit outside it doesn’t really matter.
I started by working out roughly where the kiwi was going to be planted; a little way from the tree trunk. It means that there will not be a way around between the tree and the road above the barn. However, there wasn’t before either due to the way the soil has been heaped up, and the clump of branches growing from the bole of the tree. I managed to get the kiwi up the drive bank and in position, with a bit of a struggle. I loosened the soil where it was to go, and dug just a little bit out, since I needed to adjust the soil levels to a bit higher there to blend them in more. I didn’t give the kiwi any extra compost; I’m expecting it, if it survives, to be quite vigorous enough already! Having backfilled the hole to level, I lifted soil from adjacent to the barn roadway to smooth out and level the area between the kiwi and the drivebank. There is quite a bit of nettles well established there. Although I pulled out quite a bit of root, there is plenty more undisturbed there still. I threw those roots I did pull out between the kiwi tree and the barn roadway. There will be a little shaded wild spot where I don’t mind the nettles staying. There were a few dock roots and couchgrass too, which will probably persist.
Luckily over the past few months I have built up quite a reserve of sheet cardboard, so was easily able to mulch the whole area pretty thoroughly. I weighed the sheets down with rocks that had been used to weigh down the cardboard at the top of the drivebank last year. That cardboard is pretty much gone, and the soil underneath looks pretty weed free. I’m now thinking about planting this area in the next few months. What I found pretty exciting is that the soil I was moving from the edge of the barn driveway was pretty dry. Despite the fact that this January was the second wettest month locally for about ten years. I can therefore think about planting things that prefer to be well drained. I’ve got several plants growing nicely already (for example those japanese and chilean plum yew may like it there) but also I’m thimking that along the drivebank edge may be just the spot for some sea buckthorne. I’ve really fancied this shrub for ages, Especially after trying the fruit in Cornwall and Devon. My research so far suggests it doesn’t like a damp soil, but should be OK with salt winds, although fruiting better with some shelter. I’m intending to get some general hedging plants, but will maybe get some fruiting cultivars too. I’m not sure whether I should get these at the same time, or instead, or try out the cheaper varieties before spending a lot on something that doesn’t do well. Difficult decisions!
The weather again hasn’t been kind recently. Not really out of the ordinary; just unrelenting rain and wind, with not enough let up to get much done. It’s not true that I’ve been doing nothing, and I probably haven’t achieved nothing, it’s just that I seem to have finished nothing! The days are getting longer however. I always feel that by Valentine’s day the worst of the winter is over.
Outside I still haven’t completed the path round the hump. Nearly there however, and the gradient of the ramp down has been improved by some of the turf that I have dug out of the widened path. I have also made a bit of a ramp half way round as an alternative route down (although again this is not finished!).
I have a number of spruce and pine seedlings to bulk up the windbreaks and make some new windbreaks in the sparse area of ash. Hopefully they will be surviving OK in the bag they are in at present, since they have been in there rather longer than I had intended. The soil is rather claggy to be planting in as yet, although I have dug quite a few square holes in preparation. I am also relocating some of the self seeded hazels that have planted themselves in less than desirable positions. I have been making a little thicket of them on the lower south side of the main track loop. This spot used to go by the unfortunate name of poo corner, since that was where Dougie usually felt inclined to relieve himself during a quick outing in the tree field. It now has the alternate name of Harry’s corner, since we buried our cat Harris there recently. He had a very quick illness, not we believe related to his ear condition, some sort of thrombosis that caused paralysis of the back legs. He died probably of heart failure at the vets a day later. Apparently it is often misdiagnosed in towns as traffic accidents, since the cats one minute are fine and the next are dragging their rear legs. Anyway, now Harris has a hazel tree on his grave.
I have also started making holes along the main trackway. I noticed the piles of cut grass that still were sitting along the track sides from last year, and it occurred to me that if I planted more berry bushes along there I could just rake up the grass and mulch them, rather than carting the grass to mulch somewhere else. I’ve got some gooseberry and black currant cuttings that can be relocated, or I can strike some new ones this year still.
I received the seeds from the HPS seed scheme, and some from the Agroforestry Research Trust at the end of February, and organised them: ones to sow in spring, ones to sow straight away and ones that needed some stratification. So some have been put away, some sown in pots outside or in the polytunnel and some have been placed in bags with damp tissue in the fridge to get a chilling. Probably these could also have been sown outside mind you, since it is almost the same temperature out there as in the fridge! Already some of my apple seeds have germinated in the fridge: saved from some UK grown russets and rather delicious cooking apples grown near Carlisle. I’ll have to transfer those seeds from the fridge to pots outside as soon as possible to give them proper growing conditions. I also noticed that some damson seeds I sowed from fruit eighteen months ago are now germinating in the polytunnel. Although another job not finished, it’s nice to make a start on growing trees that may produce fruit for us in ten years or so!
I indulgently bought myself some plants that were not on my essentials list this year. I found on ebay a seller of different Yacon varieties, who also had a different Mashua and Colocasia edulis as well as Apios americana and different tigernuts. Well it seemed worth getting a few if I was going to get any! They seem nice little tubers anyhow. I have potted them all up in the polytunnel for the moment (except the tigernut which will want warmer conditions), and have also replanted a number of the Yacons I grew myself last year in one of the polytunnel beds.
Unfortunately I’ve lost quite a few of my oca tubers to mice! They had been sitting in a basket on the sittingroom windowsill, and I noticed this week the basket was somewhat emptier than it had been last time I looked. Underneath the basket was a pile of tuber shavings! I guess they liked the juiciness of the tubers, since they don’t seem to have eaten that much, just chewed them all up. Some of the tubers were probably as big as the mice! Luckily they didn’t find the different coloured tubers in their bags, so I quickly have planted four tubers to a pot in the polytunnel. I selected four large and four small of the red tubers from Frances to see if that makes any difference to the plant yield. It may take more than one generation to see a difference, if any, from selecting for tuber size.
I have also been digging up the kiwi vine: another nice indoor job, of which more later. It will also soon be time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds. I think I have some seed compost left, but I am out of the multipurpose compost and will have to get some more for planting out seedlings and potting on. Another trip to Portree looms I guess.
For my birthday S. bought me a rechargeable reciprocating saw. I am hoping that it will be robust enough to use for most of the coppicing work. A chainsaw would be a little daunting, and using a hand saw is slow work! It has been too windy to think about cutting trees down (although it will soon be too late as the trees start to grow!), but I have christened the saw by cutting up the pile of coppiced trunks that were cut last year and have been drying up by the house. I’m pretty pleased with it. The battery pack it takes is the same as S’s tools he used on the cars, so that should be convenient. It did seem to chew through the reserves when I used it, although that was probably more intensive work than the more thoughtful process of cutting trees down.
On another happy note, my windowsill orchid seems to have enjoyed it’s holiday outside last year so much that it has put up the first flower spike in ten years! It did try when we first moved up here, but unfortunately I didn’t realise there was a flower spike, divided the plant and the flowers all dropped off. This time it seem quite content to look out the window. I must remember to holiday it outside again during the summers – it definitely looked greener and plumper than before.
I have been starting to buy some of the nice plants on my annual shopping list recently. I have also added one or two that weren’t on the list but somehow I couldn’t resist! I was very excited to find some Korean pine (Pinus Koraiensis) seedlings for sale at one of the forestry nurseries in Scotland. They are quite slow growing pine trees, but should stand exposure and have large edible seeds on mature trees. I have been trying to grow them from seed for a couple of years, but only managed to get one to germinate. That was planted in the spring, down where the main trackway hits a T-junction near the river bend. It seems to be still surviving despite being so tiny you can hardly tell it from grass seedlings! The nursery also had some juniper seedlings at a fair price, so I added those on, winced at the delivery charge and awaited with excitement a package.
The juniper seedlings look fine, but I’m not sure about the Korean pines. They look decidedly yellow. There could be a number of reason for this – lack of light, nutrients or they’ve sent me a yellow pine that may or may not be Korean pine. I’ll give them a ring tomorrow and see what they say. I don’t really want golden pines in my tree field even if they are Korean pines, and I don’t want to wait twenty years to find out they are not Korean pines either, since I am in the hope that they will produce edible seeds for me in my retirement. In the meantime, I have been down and dug twelve tree planting spaces for the pines to go in: four by the lone pine and two other patches of four interplanting the edges of the dodgy Ash areas. The baby trees are being hardened off by putting outside during the day and inside at night, on the chance that they are what they should be.
Whilst I was finding spaces for trees, I also checked on where to put the baby Junipers. I thought that I had lost three of my six original seedlings. Since I thought three was not enough of a population (you need male and female plants to set berries) I bought an extra three seedlings. However, whilst checking the previously planted Juniper and deciding where to put an extra three, I was happy to find one more of the original seedlings; making a total of four that have established well. Unfortunately, I have also found, as I suspected when I planted them, that I am regretting using that carpet underlay to mulch them. It was brilliant at staying put on the slope, and did a reasonable job of keeping down the weeds, but I hate the residual stringy bits that are almost all that is left of the original mats. I have done my best to pull it out now, but the grass and weeds had embedded themselves pretty much through it, so it was a battle.
I am now dreading the thought of removing the mulch mat roll that is fully entombed in grass from the original windbreak planting near the house. I have been delinquent in not addressing that sooner, although I suspect that unless it was removed within a year it would still have been a horrid job to do. It is easy for me to postpone a job like that that doesn’t seem constructive, if that makes sense? I’m just glad I only used one strip rather than trying to mulch all the trees.
Having prepared an additional three planting positions for the juniper, I had a start at levelling the path that winds around the hump. It follows one of the original sheep trails across the slope and makes it easier to ascend the steep bit of the hill. It is really a little bit narrow, and is awkward in places, since it has quite a cross gradient which puts pressure on your ankles. By taking a double spade cut of turf on the upwards side, and using that to back fill above and reinforce the path below, the path has virtually doubled in width. I didn’t get very far this week, but feel it is worth persevering. If I do the full path down to the flatter field below, we will be able to get the mower along the path, so making walking easier in the wet.
Well after a rather wet August, late September was not been too bad weather wise, although October is shaping up to be a bit windy (more on that in a later post!). We tried to get a final cut of the pathways done, but haven’t cracked the timing. With the wet mild weather in August the grass had grown long and lush. Strong winds with rain had led to the grass falling over making it very difficult to cut, even after a couple of days hot and dry. S. managed to go round the main trackway with the scythe mower, but with a rather poor result. Some of this was possibly due to a lack of sharpness on the blades, which has now been addressed, but we think that leaving the cut till this late in the season is just not practical. I guess if the weather had been better we may have been able to cut earlier, but still after the yellow rattle is ripe, however it often is wet at this time of year.
What took S. half a day to cut has taken me about 5 times as long to rake up, and I still haven’t finished! It is pretty hard work untangling the cut grass from the uncut turf whilst you have a dog trying to catch the rake head! I have to take a fetch toy as well, but Dyson gets tired and would rather have more direct participation! Once I have cleared the cut grass away, I can sow the collected yellow rattle seed. As I tried to explain above, I don’t know whether we will succeed in creating the right rhythm for the plant, which needs clear soil to grow anew each year. I don’t know whether we will be able to leave it long enough to ripen seeds, as we could do with cutting the grass before it gets too long.
I’m planning on taking the cut grass and using it to mulch the trees in the area of the field where they are doing less well, particularly the new trees that I planted this spring. I used fresh cut hazel twigs from my new hazels to mark the tiny new trees so that I could find them again in the long grass. Recently I have been surprised to see that some of the hazel twigs started to sprout! I don’t know whether they have actually formed roots or not. Often it takes a while for the twigs to realise that they are dead, so they may just be zombies. In the spring I will need to transplant some of the spruce, where two seedlings have survived in a single plant hole, so I will dig up the hazel twigs then as well. Thinking about it, I will need to identify the ones that are sprouting now, since they will be leafless still in early spring, I’ll tie a bit of wool around the sprouting ones this week.
The turning of year shows in the drawing in of the evenings (and the later mornings). Leaf fall gathers under the trees even though only the wych elm are practically leafless. These leaves represent the carbon and nitrogen made solid by the trees, building soil and trapping carbon. Autumn colours show briefly before being torn away by the wind.
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.