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.

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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.

 

May

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

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

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Ground elder groundcover

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

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Raspberries in cutback undergrowth
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mulched with cardboard
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finished planting and mulching

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

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

Lessons learnt #1 – things gone wrong.

Now that we have been here ten years we can start to look back and learn from our experiences.  I’ve tried to be objective and see what we could have done better and what worked well.

Things we would do differently:

#1 Get more local tree seed stock.

Although we tried to get trees that had been grown from Skye provenance seed, in practice when buying from a national tree wholesaler these trees have been grown for forestry planting.  They have to grow what is mostly needed for sale, and this means we have had to compromise on the tree provenance.  Since we are in an exposed maritime location, we get a lot of salt burning and winter die back on unripened twigs.  Also trees that come later into leaf have an advantage here, since the spring tends to have a period of cold drying winds that dessicate delicate new foliage.  There is a noticeable difference in coming into leaf between the indigenous rowan trees and the imported ones.  If we had spent more effort we could have a) grown more of our own trees from seed or b) found a more local source of seedlings.  I believe that these may have done better long term.

#2 Leave more field area to self seed.

We have found that the area closest to the river, which was where we started planting after the windbreaks near the house, has had several trees grow that we never planted. These are mainly willow in the damp area near where the pond was dug, and hazel within about 20 feet of the boundary fence.  If we had been a little patient we could have saved the trouble of planting this area and just let it naturally colonise.

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Self seeded willow to left of pond

#3. Mulch, mulch, mulch.

It has been fairly obvious as time has gone on how much better the trees in general have done when we were able to mulch them properly.  When we started we had a supply of old haylage that came with the house, and we used this on top of spread out, and overlapped newspaper to cover an area about 4 ft diameter (started off square but went round later!).  It was possible to see in subsequent years that these trees did grow bigger more quickly.  Also we have quite a bit of problems with the grass simply overwhelming the trees and causing them to lean over, or even smothering them completely so that they just gave up.  Lack of time and mulching materials mean that we have never been able to mulch all the trees planted.  We have concentrated on the edge trees and windbreak rows.  Amusingly these are visible from google earth satelite views.

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Areas to either side of mown track have trees planted, but only alders are showing above the grass

#4. Protection from voles and deer at start.

In the first couple of years planting we took no provision against pest damage, with the view to seeing what was necessary.  Unfortunately the little trees can easily be completely destroyed by voles ringing the bark when young.  It was interesting to see that some tree varieties suffered much more than others.  Ash, birch, oak and aspen were definitely the favourite foods, hawthorne, pine, and alder did not seem to suffer at all.  After the second year it was very clear that it was worth putting some protection in place and retrospectively we used cut down PET bottles tied with wire to a short wooden stake.  Initially we used tiewraps through a punched hole, but a) we ran out of tiewraps and b) they tended to pull through the bottle side in the wind after a few years.  In subsequent years we purchased short plastic spiral tubes that push on top of the baby trees when planted and did not need staking.

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Damage by Hoodies

We did find in the early part of the summer that the hoodies (hooded crows as known round here) had a lot of fun pulling off the shelters presumably looking for food, but possibly just playing, and pulled out or damaged quite a few young trees.

The deer are also particularly a problem in early summer when bands of young males go roaming.  They will eat anything green and we found they were particularly fond of rowan, which is quite early to leaf, and pine, larch and spruce.  They would pull up the entire young conifer trees and leave them lying.  At that time of year we get little rain, and indeed two of the early years verged on drought in the spring, so we had quite a few losses.  Although we tried to replant them this was not always successful particularly with the young larch.  Once the tree field was deer fenced this problem went away, however the garden area and gully field near the road remains unprotected.  Although in recent years we have had fewer problems (possibly due to a our dog, Dyson), we do find that older trees are used to rub off the velvet on the antlers with devastating effect on the trees.

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Deer damage to older pine

#5. Not let Stuart dig the pond without more supervision.

This is a bit of a tongue in cheek comment, since I don’t suppose I would have done much better.  However, I am not happy about the levels of the banking around the pond, and the ditch cut across is, frankly an accident waiting to happen.  I hope to get the digger back down the hill later this summer and tidy up the landscaping slightly.  It will have to wait now until the tadpoles have left the pond, which seems to be holding water much better than it did in the first few years.

#6. Not bother plant in very thin soil areas

The soil depth does vary in different parts of the field.  The geology of the area is rock strata from consecutive lava flows from a now dead volcano.  This was then glaciated during the last ice age to form Glendale.  However, the hard and soft layers in the lava flows mean that the valley side is slightly stepped and over the years, ploughing and other soil erosion has led to thinner soil on the steps.  This was sometimes evident whilst digging the holes for the trees.  In places the soil was less than a spade depth.  I tried to select a deeper position where possible, and even bolstered up the soil depth by transferring a little soil or turf from other places.  We also selected tree varieties that were more likely to be able to tolerate drought.  However we still got high losses, and the trees that survived tend to be more stunted.  These areas would better have been left as clearings.

I’ll post about things we wouldn’t do much differently later.