This year I have been trying to tame the next section of garden by the drivebank overlooking the barn, this is where I moved the kiwi vine to over the winter. I have been calling this The Secret Garden in my mind. It is not particularly hidden (although it will be more secluded once mature), it is just that almost all the plants in here have edible parts, although are normally grown as ornamentals in the UK. Steven Barstow has coined the word ‘edimentals’ for these sorts of plants.
I had already forked over the area and mulched it with cardboard at the same time as I planted out the kiwi vine. One of my neighbours has lots of lovely hosta, which I had been admiring and they very kindly gave me several big clumps of it, together with what I think may be Elecampane (Inula helenium), and ladies mantle. I have put most of the hosta in this area, there are at least two different varieties – one with quite blue leaves. Hopefully it won’t be too dry for it. I also planted out some of my Aralia cordata, which I had grown from seed, and my sechuan pepper (from a danish cutting), some Lady Boothby Fuchsia (from cuttings), some golden current (from cuttings) and my strawberry tree (bought as a plant). I also planted some hardy geraniums around the base of the strawberry tree. These were grown from seed from chiltern seeds: . It was supposed to be a mixed pack, but only two varieties seem to have made it – a small white flowered one and a small purple flowered one. The rest of the geraniums were planted on the drivebank.
I also got some hedging Sea buckthorne plants this spring, and have planted a number of these along the top of the bank above the barn, as well as in various places in the tree field. Hopefully these will form a protective barrier as well as fixing nitrogen, and maybe producing fruit in the future. They should grow fairly quickly, but I will probably cut them back fairly often to keep them bushy, assuming they do OK.
These plantings are all mostly doing fine. The Aralia seems to be suffering a bit from slug damage. There were three little plants, and I think one has not made it, one is OK and the other will probably be OK. The Hosta doesn’t seem to have suffered too badly from slug damage so far. One of the clumps is starting to flower, and they are all looking pretty healthy. The kiwi is not looking great, but has some new growth, so may well make it. The proof will be if it comes back into life next year! Unfortunately the sechuan pepper plant was broken by some strong north winds we had – I did not stake it since it was so tiny. It has sprouted below the broken point so I have removed the top part of the stem and stuck it in adjacent in the hope that this may form a new plant too. So far the strawberry tree is looking very happy. One of the sea buckthorne hasn’t made it, but the others look pretty happy. I may replace the failed sea buckthorne with a female good fruiting variety if the others do well in the next couple of years.
The weeds had been poking through the cardboard, so I have been going back over with some fresh cardboard, pulling out the nettles, docken and grasses that are a bit persistent. Hopefully I can weaken them enough that they don’t come back next year. I need to have more ground cover plants to stop the weeds seeding back in again (remember rule #2) The chilean plum yew plants I have are still a bit small for planting out yet I think, but could also be planted out next year. I have also thickly covered the main path through to the front garden (it comes out where I have the dog tooth violet and solomon’s seal plants growing) with old newspaper and wood chippings/bark. I still need to complete another ramp down to the barn and build a retaining wall to tidy up the join to the drivebank, however there is a Landrover parked rather long term just in the way at the moment, so this may have to wait till next year.
I can’t convince myself there are tomato fruit yet, however the tomato plants are flowering well. Since I hadn’t supported them, one or two had fallen over. Usually I use a length of string to the crop bars in the polytunnel, but this time I pulled out my lovely spiral plant supports and used those for three of the plants. These supports were a present a (cough) number of years ago and although lovely, I could never justify buying any more. You simply put the plant up the middle, and guide it into the spiral as it grows taller. For the other tomato plants I used the old washing line that snapped earlier this year. It is plastic wrapped, so should be soft enough on the plants’ stalks, and may last a few years yet.
I’m pretty happy with the tomato plants. They look nice and healthy so far, with plenty of flowers developing. Maybe I’m starting to get the hang of growing them! I think some are getting a bit shaded by the kiwi and the artichoke, so I cut the artichoke back to remove all the flowering stalks to give the tomatoes a bit more space, and pinched out a few more of the vigorous kiwi shoots.
I also had a tidy round the bed opposite one lot of the asparagus. There was a quite a bit of perpetual spinach going to seed there, so I cut back all but one of the plants. The hoverflies love the flowers. Although they are not showy – just green, they have a lovely fragrance. I noticed another physalis goldenberry plant in the bed there. It had been completely hidden in the undergrowth. Not as big as the other physalis plant (which has a flower open!) it seems to have been nibbled a bit at the base, so maybe this is regrowth.
Whilst I was there, I saw a solitary yellow bee happy at work on the milk vetch flowers. She would pull the lower lip down, suck out the nectar and move on to the next flower, until she had done the whole flowerhead. I planted the milk vetch (Astragalus glycyphyllos) to create a nitrogen fixing ground cover around the asparagus, and some of the other perennial plants in the polytunnel. It tends to want to climb in a scrambling sort of way, so I should probably have pinched out the growing tips to make it more bushy. The flowers again aren’t that special, being a pale yellowish green, but obviously appreciated by the bees! I may try and save some seed again this year. If it will grow as well outside as in the tunnel, it would be nice bulky legume for covering the soil in the summer. It does die down in winter however.
The bramble is trying a flanking movement and has sent out a couple of long shoots down the side of the tunnel. It doesn’t seem to fruiting so well this year, so I wonder whether it would be worth re-routing one of these branches to replace the main stem again. The pruning guides all suggest renewing the stem every year, which I generally don’t bother with. I’ve done it once before, when I accidentally cut through the main stem whilst pruning out new shoots. It’s still a bit early to really tell what the crop will be like, although I have noticed at least one ripe fruit. Perhaps I’ll keep one of the new stems for the time being and assess the yield later.
I’ve lost one of my apricot fruit but the other is hanging on still. It is slightly paler in colour now, but I’m trying to resist touching it in case it also falls off. I know I’m pushing it a bit having apricots this far north, but I did read about monks in Orkney that have apricots in their polytunnel, so I’m not alone in my optimism!
I have several sorts of curcubit in the polytunnel. There were three courgettes (just using up old seed) two long and one round one. I’ve lost the single ‘black beauty’ courgette that I planted out – I think Lou-Lou made a bed with it! The others all look like they are doing fine. One of the ‘Tondo de picenze’ plants already has a female flower developing which is nice – usually the first flowers are all male. These are round courgettes; hopefully it will set. The sharks fin melon are also looking OK; maybe a bit weedy but it is early days yet – they are starting to show signs of wanting to climb. I couldn’t find the labels for the pumpkin nuts (a hull-less pumpkin for seed), so am not sure where that is! Around the courgettes there is a nice groundcover of baby kale, chickweed and leef beet. It doesn’t seem to be doing any harm yet, but I can pull a bit out around the plants and either eat, or use the weedings as mulch.
I am worried about my cucumbers though. I haven’t tried growing them for a few years; although small ones would be useful to sell in the shop, we don’t really eat them ourselves. These were cucumber ‘Tamra’ from real seed, and I don’t think they have put on much growth at all since being planted out. I’m wondering at the moment if they are more susceptible to the dreaded spider mite. I know I have this in the tunnel – It was particularly a problem in the early years, attacking the grape vine, courgettes and aubergine plants. I don’t bother with aubergines any more (although never say never!). It may be that it has just been a bit cold for cucumbers. I think they prefer it a little warmer, and we’ve not had much sun this week, and only a couple of warm days last week too.
The forest garden at Dartington was created over the last 24 years by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART). A forest garden uses useful plants to mimic the layers of a natural woodland to create a stable ecosystem. It is a popular theme in temperate climate permaculture. The picture above illustrates the forest garden layers at the edge of the garden by the carpark, including unseen roots (of mashua and japanese yam). The timing of our holiday was timed around the ability to participate on one of the tours that Martin runs periodically through the year. It also had to be outside of the peak season on Skye. I didn’t always catch the latin names of the plants during the tour, so in general I have used the common names that Martin used. When he did give the latin names I realise that I have probably been mispronouncing them all these years, having mainly learnt them from books!
The canopy layer is mainly made up of italian alder trees which have had their lower branches removed in order to let more light through. Even so the garden was much more shady than Sagara’s garden, feeling much more like a woodland with clearings, rather than a field with trees. Martin has not used soil landscaping to create microclimates, explaining that as his plot sloped south and was sheltered at the start by a wood to the west it had not been necessary.
Having already visited Sagara’s garden many of the plants were familiar to us already, although Martin’s trees were considerably bigger. He stressed the importance of plotting the area and planting spacing based on mature tree sizes since all the layers will require light to be productive. Clearings form suntraps that enable Martin to grow even quite tender fruit like persimmon. It has been a hot year this summer following a cold winter, and many of the fruit are a couple of weeks early, and some that don’t always ripen are doing well.
Much of the ground under the trees was clear of plants, being covered by leaf mulch. In the spring there are more bulbs in growth such as wild garlic. The main spreading ground cover Martin had visible at the time we came was false strawberry. This has a yellow flower, and although it does set some little red strawberry like fruit, they are disappointingly tasteless. The false strawberry has the advantage of being evergreen, so protecting the soil year round. Other shade loving ground covers included Hosta, and fiddlehead fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) both of which I fancy growing. There was also mint, ground covering raspberries and japanese wineberry, with comfrey and turkish rocket in the sunny spots. Martin said that turkish rocket was one of the few plants that could happily compete with comfrey. Other ground layer plants included more of the japanese spring vegetables, solomons seal and japanese ginger, which is harvested by cutting the growing shoots rather than digging it up. The main weed that Martin gets seeding in the garden is Ash trees. Sadly this may not be the case for much longer, since the ash dieback has spread to the county.
Martin talked about the importance of soil mycellium (fungal networks) in sharing the nutrients about the wood. They also can spread warnings amongst the plants. If one plant is stressed or attacked by pests it releases chemicals that, transmitted by the mycellium, stimulate other plants to increase their own chemical defences. Martin said that generally it isn’t neccessary to innoculate the soil. As long as it wasn’t disturbed, the fungi would already be in the soil, particularly close to existing trees. It is however possible to buy edible fungi spawn to encourage more edible fungi in your forest garden, and he also showed us an oyster mushroom log that he had stimulated to fruit before we came. It is possible to have a number of logs that are ready to produce mushrooms and trigger them in turn so as to have a continuous supply of mushrooms. I have tried unsuccessfully to grow mushrooms on newspaper ‘logs’. I think that because I wrapped them in bin liners to keep them damp the spawn was suffocated, so I may have another go.
There are a number of trees that Martin grows for leaf crops, either as salad greens or as cooked vegetables. One that I recently got is Toona sinensis or toon tree (visible as tall shrub layer in top photo). This has leaves that when young, are eaten as a vegetable in china. We tried a little leaf, and it tastes rather like an aromatic onion. Salad leaves include small leaved lime (tilia cordata), which has quite pleasant mild tasting young leaves, beech (fagus sylvatica), which I always find a bit tough even when young, and white mulberry. We tried the leaves of the latter, and again I found it a bit tough, although not unpleasant in flavour. It may have been better when younger, or cooked though. Martin pollards all these trees to keep a supply of young leaves in easy reach, but out of reach of browsing deer.
Other interesting shrubs included relatives of the common bog myrtle, which itself has edible leaves used like bay leaves. The wax myrtle has similar uses for the leaves and also the berries have a waxy coating that can be melted off and used in candles and sealing etc. These are nitrogen fixing in boggy ground, so may be ideal in certain areas of my field! I do have the wax myrtle on my list of ‘wants’, although I am having difficulty in getting seed to germinate. You need male and female plants to set berries. I do have some bog myrtle down by the river, although am not sure whether they are male or female. It is useful if caught by midges, since they don’t like it’s aromatic foliage.
Another nitrogen fixing tree is the judas tree. We did see this at EDFG, but didn’t know what it was. Martin had a good sized tree which I asked about. Prior to arriving at Dartington, we saw another in a green space where we had our picnic lunch. It has distinctive heart shaped leaves. Apparently the flowers are edible and come out before any of the foliage on bare branches. I collected some seedpods from the one we saw at our picnic spot, so I may see if I can get some seed to germinate.
We tried some sechuan pepper seeds, they are very peppery and made my lips and tongue numb for a few minutes. Apparently this doesn’t happen with the dried fruit, which can be mixed with salt and ground together for salt and pepper seasoning. I quite fancy trying to grow this. Apparently there are lots of similar shrubs all called sechuan pepper, so I’ll have to check with Martin the one that he uses! Nepalese pepper is quite similar, but ripens later, so is less likely to be suitable on Skye.
An interesting edible that I didn’t remember from my reading is the Trachycarpus ‘palm tree’. Apparently it has huge flowers that can be used like cauliflower. I know this will grow locally here on Skye, and I did have a couple but gave them away since I wasn’t sure where to put them. I sort of regret that now!
Trees that I forgot to mention from EDFG that we also saw in the Dartington garden were alternative haws. There are several plants closely related to our native hawthorne that have bigger and nicer berries. I have one, Crataegus arnoldiana, although it hasn’t flowered for me yet. Martin had several haws which we were able to sample the fruit of. I have ordered seeds of lots of different varieties from the ART to try and grow this year. If I find one that does well for me, I may be able to graft it on to the common hawthornes.
There was a clear area under a huge pine tree that Martin sometimes uses as an outdoor classroom. He says it is important not to forget the people in the garden and have a space for them to use. It was impressive that the huge tree had been grown by Martin from seed (as were most of the more unusual trees we saw). He talked about harvesting resin from the tree and the uses it has (turpentine, rosin etc.).
A pond area was also planted with edible plants: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia – has edible tubers), mint (needs no explanation) and Houttuynia Cordata. This last we tried a leaf of. It has a strange fishy orange taste that I wasn’t too keen on but some others liked. It is a popular vegetable with fish in china. A little research reveals that in some climates it can be invasive, but I don’t think I’ll bother with it, although I do fancy developing an edible pond/bog area below the barn!
In summary, this was a truly inspirational visit again. Such a treat for me to meet Martin Crawford who has done so much for the development of agroforestry in the UK and internationally.
This garden was the first visited on our holiday. It is one of the first forest gardens I’ve visited at all, except in my imagination. Mine is still mainly in the fourth dimension! There used to be one at Ryton organic gardens, but I think they found it too messy so got rid of it.
Sagara has created the East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG) over the last eight years or so. I found out about it through Facebook so that does have some uses! Despite ill health he has created a wonderful space in a bit less than three acres. His vision is of a spiritual foraging retreat, where people can reclaim their souls through browsing in the garden. Certainly there is a tranquil feel throughout the garden. So many of the plants are edible, that we had to repeat a mantra ‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’ because you get used to tasting everything after a few days. There was plenty of wildlife. We saw butterflies and birds, evidence of moles and Sagara says they have a family of hedgehogs as well as pigeons.
The main technique that I took away from the garden was probably the use of earthworks and hedges to create banks that made sheltered, sunny or shady areas and formed microclimates for plants that require different conditions. Fast growing italian alder had been planted around the periphery of the garden. These are now over 25 feet tall so form a screen and give the garden even more of a tranquil enclosed feel. As a nitrogen fixer it also provides nitrogen through soil fungal networks to other plants in the garden. A leylandii hedge screens a simple yet sophisticated composting loo and provides shelter for the herb area and main vegetable production plots, which are closer to the buildings than the more seasonal tree crops. A mowed trackway enables vehicular access around the garden, although separate pedestrian paths meander slightly different routes. I found it quite easy to become disoriented and the garden seemed much bigger than it is. This is also due to the multiple circular clearings and asymmetric free form design. The largest circle had a tall earthbank surmounted by fruiting Elaeagnus bushes and enclosing a beautiful natural swimming pool. Steps go down into it and it is filled from a spring borehole, the water circulating through gravel beds planted with aquatic plants to keep the water clean. Stone alcoves retain the day’s heat to protect the most tender plants here: olives, figs and citrus trees have set fruit this year. There are also Echium and hardy bananas, grapes and palm trees, and a little pointed running alpine strawberry still has fruit ripening.
In the establishment of the garden Sagara had ploughed and seeded the plot with deep rooted plants like chiccory and plantains, before doing the earth moving and planting the larger trees, then smaller trees and shubs. The site is loam over clay, quite flat and a bit liable to frost with cold north winds. He is still planting the ground cover layers, which, because it requires many plants, can be a slow, labour intensive and expensive business. We helped clear an area and plant out some perennial brassica with Sagara.
Over time the garden area should become a net carbon sink as the plants and the soil convert carbon dioxide into more stable wood and humus. At present the garden still has quite an open feel about it, and I would love to go back in a few years to see how it matures. I’m a bit envious of the kinder climate there compared to Skye. My sweet chestnuts are tiny in comparison to Sagara’s. The biggest of mine is only as tall as me, the smallest that survived is only a foot or so after nearly ten years! Sagara’s were probably taller after three years than mine are now and now at six years old are beautiful trees of fifteen feet or so. However, he has already had frosts that damaged the squash plants, and there are no squirrels on Skye.
One of the beds was given over to edible flowers, I wasn’t aware that Gladioli and Dahlia petals are edible, and it was fascinating that each flower was also a slightly different flavour, some sweeter, some more complex. The chinese chive flowers made a lovely addition to our supper with a sweet onion crunch.
New foods I was able to try included the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). This has a very pleasant sweet tart taste. The berries are a little small being a bit smaller than currants, but are borne in profusion along the branches. They are also extremely pretty berries: orangey-red and flecked with gold! We picked about four pounds or so which Sagara is going to use to make a jam with. The spring fruiting Elaeagnus were in blossom and the fragrance is lovely. We also tried sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) berries. These are very fragile, tending to burst as you pick them and are even smaller and more profuse.
The flavour is sharper, more acidic, and Sagara had several different cultivars which all had different flavours; one had a noticable pineapple flavour, and even the unimproved form has a very pleasant mandarin taste. They are very high in vitamin C and often used in juice form, sweetened or blended with other fruit. Both Elaeagnus and sea buckthorn are nitrogen fixing, the sea buckthorn seeming to have a tendency to sucker. Sagara had his first nuts on his bladdernut (Staphylea Pinnata) this year, these are a little small due to the hot summer. Inside a one inch inflated balloon fruit is a single shiny nut. This has a very hard but thin seed coat and a sweet flavour. It is said to be like pistachio.
Other plants I haven’t tried yet that Sagara is growing include several Japanese spring vegetables: Hosta, Udo (Aralia) and Petasites are all garden perennial plants that can be cooked and eaten in the spring, as is american pokeweed (Phytolacca), although I gather this last is also considered to be toxic so take care! One plant we didn’t try was the turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). This was a huge dandelion like plant which is supposed to taste mustardy. I suspect that would not go down too well in our house, although the plants did look lovely and robust, so I may give it a go anyhow! Colourful amaranth seedheads surrounded a large fruiting medlar, and several grapes were ripening up trees and scrambling on the sunny banks. Other perennial vegetables Sagara grows include Sea cabbage and sea kale, perennial kale and walking stick kale, oca, Yacon, mashua, japanese yams, walking onion, artichokes (both sorts) and asparagus. Fruit includes apples, plums and other top fruit as well as sechuan pepper, quince (chaenomeles as well as cydonia) mulberry and kiwi. Nuts include hazel, chestnut, walnut and heartnuts and there are a multitude of other purposeful plants providing fibre, shelter, food or nitrogen fixing. I was particularly interested in the miscanthus grass that Sagara is growing as sheltering hedges. This is like a small thin bamboo and I had been wondering if we are warm enough on Skye for it to do well. It grows up to 2 or 3 metres tall in a year once established, creating shelter and forming woody stems that can be cut since they are renewed each year. This produces a large amount of biomass so it has been planted for biofuels in many parts of the UK.
As a place for people to meet, eat and communicate Sagara has a number of structures through the garden. We were lucky enough to stay in a beautiful yurt tent, although he is in the process of taking the canvas structures down for winter. There are sculptures and statues in various niches in the garden, but the whole thing is a work of art. Such abundance of food now, in contrast to the now sterile seeming horse paddock it replaced. We had a lovely discussion with Sagara about farming and hunter gathering, money and land, spirit and body which I really can’t do justice to here. Overall an inspiring start to the holiday (and it was sunny!).
I managed to just about finish clearing the section of orchard I was aiming to. The weather has turned a bit damp now – so I’ve lost this years’ window for weeding. The soil just gets too claggy when it’s wet. I’ve left a nice sorrel plant there, and I may transplant some more in there. I have found some with lovely large leaves in various places round the field.
I have also planted a few of my seedling heath pea plants along the border which I plan to keep digging up, and a marsh woundwort plant as well. I haven’t got round to tasting the roots of this yet. It is related to crosnes (stachys affinis) and like crosnes the roots are edible. This plant was rather pot bound. It had been sitting in a puddle next to the polytunnel all year – an offset from the bought in plant. I’m hoping it will be damp enough for it at the side of the orchard there. We can get quite a bit of water coming down the track at times, as well as being generally damp climate wise. The roots certainly look like they could be quite productive – long and tender. I did snap a few bits off and popped them in the fridge, but forgot they were there when I cooked dinner yesterday. I also put a couple of seedling lathyrus tuberosa (earthnut pea) seedlings. These are from seed that I was sent (thanks Anni). Unfortunately with one thing and another (weather and neglect!) I only have four seedlings and one of these looks a bit poorly. I’ve put plant pot collars on them, since I have read that slugs really like these plants. I’m thinking that they can climb up the apple tree. Not the ideal spot for a root crop, but if they grow and like it there I can maybe propagate more plants from these.
I also spread around loads of seed: firstly some of the green manure seeds I obtained recently. I spread field beans and fodder radish fairly generally over the whole area and red clover selectively around the bases of the honeyberries and apple tree. It may be a bit late for the fodder radish, but I’m hoping that it will stay mild for long enough for them to put on a bit of growth before the winter (I can already see shoots coming on the field beans just a couple of days later!). I also sowed some other legume seeds that I collected: birds foot trefoil and bush vetch (vicia sepium). I have been enjoying the odd nibble on the latter as it has reappeared around the tree field (see here for a little foraging guide). The birds foot trefoil makes a nice low growing ground cover – it should be nitrogen fixing, but I’m not sure how well it will keep down the weeds. This is the first time I’ve tried sowing it direct. I did sow some in the spring in pots, but didn’t get a good success rate (again weather and neglect…): one plant. I also spread some sweet cicely seed and good king henry which both have done well for me in the tea garden a little up the hill. They both seeded themselves a bit up there, but I want to transplant those seedlings elsewhere.
I started trying to dig out couch grass and docken from the rest of the orchard on the north side of the track. There is a fair amount of both and I haven’t quite finished that. It’s only a rough going over. I will mulch it with newspaper and card and try and give it another go during next summer depending on priorities. I did get out some of the silver weed I planted there in the spring this year. It is still a bit early – they are in full leaf, and the roots look very white. Generally they are up to 6 inches long and up to one quarter inch diameter. I’m going to transfer some to the track border. I may see if I can use them for pathways in the orchard area. They have made a reasonable coverage after a bit of editing in the tea garden and certainly spread like mad!
It’s starting to feel a little autumnal now. The first trees to lose their leaves are the Wych elm, but some of the rowans are turning colour, and one of the beech is rather a nice yellow. I’m a bit worried by how red this apple tree is. Last year it was the best for growth, this year it looks a bit strained – the others are all still quite green. We don’t tend to get much autumn colour here – the winds strip the leaves off the trees before they can put on much of a show. It looks like it will be a bumper year for hazelnuts – I spotted the first nuts on our own trees (planted 2010), but the ones along the river bank seem quite laden. I did go along and pick up a fair few from underneath the trees, but they all seem to be empty (either shed by the tree or discarded in disgust by hopeful birds!). It’s still a bit early. Usually the birds get the nuts, which is fair enough. I would quite like to get a harvest off our own trees in due time. Although they weren’t bought as nutting cultivars, the seeds they apparently came from seemed a fair size.
The local outside brambles are starting to ripen. Funnily enough these don’t seem to be bothered by those horrid flies! There was a new bush that has seeded in at the corner of the river above the pond, which seems to have quite nice quality berries.
Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!
There was a little mildew or possibly blight on some of the leaves so I’ve pulled a few off the tomato plants. I’m hoping that I will get more tomatoes ripening over the next month or so before I have to rescue them. Some comfrey leaves are soaking in a bucket of water at the moment to add some extra tomato feed to try and give them a late boost.
As I was looking up the growth habits of the various legumes that grow wild on the holding here I came across some interesting information about bitter vetch: Lathyrus linifolius. It is a perennial also known as heath pea, and in the gaelic: cairmeal, or corra-meille. As I said before, it’s one of the earliest vetch to flower, coming into bloom during May, but still with flowers to come now in early July. The little bright pink pea flowers fade to blue or beige. As the tiny pea pods ripen, they first swell then shrink a little and turn black before splitting and spiralling the tiny seeds away. The seeds are very tiny, and probably mildly poisonous – a paralysis disease can result from eating significant quantities of other lathyrus seeds unless properly treated, for example leached in water, so I wouldn’t try them.
As a legume, the Heath pea should form relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil, so adding to the soil fertility as the plant grows and dies. I was thinking of saving the seed from this and the other native vetches to see whether they would be any use as nitrogen fixing ground covers. Winter tares (Vicia sativa) is sold as an overwintering green manure crop, although it is suggested that it doesn’t like acid soil. Well as I know these vetch grow locally, logically they would make a possible alternative. Anyway, interest seems to have been sparked in Heath pea when the tubers were found by Brian Moffat during an archaeological dig of a twelfth century monastery at Soutra Aisle. His research paper proposed that the monks were using the tubers medicinally. Apparently before potatoes the cairmeal tubers were dug and dried against famine in the Highlands. The tiny tubers were alleged to save people from hunger and enable great feats of endurance, possibly being used by Roman soldiers during battle. I found various online references to this including PFAF, and my Scots Herbal book by Tess Darwin also refers to this. The tubers are said to be sweet like licorice (which is also a legume of course) and were also used to make a drink that prevented hangovers! There were several articles in the mainstream press, including the Mail and the Telegraph, although none caught my eye at the time, the possibility of a Scottish slimming aid being pretty newsworthy. It seems that there has been a bit of research going on in Scotland since. The only paper I could subsequently find online however, found no significant difference in weight change between rats fed the vetch tubers and various controls (http://strathprints.strath.ac.uk/59217/). I only could read the summary, so there may be more significant information in the rest of the article. There is also an entrepreneurial chap in Reading, who appears to be growing and selling seeds and tubers online (under the bitter-vetch tag). He (I think I’m assuming that!) gives a little information about the growing habit of the vetch: a single tuber grows the first year, if left, it bulbs up in subsequent years, and more tubers grow. The plant can be propagated from these secondary tubers as well as from the seed. Weight loss apart, I would be interested in trying the tubers. I’d come across Lathyrus tuberosa, which has larger tubers, but was put off by the fact it is described by several people as being ‘attractive to slugs’. It also prefers more alkaline soils so wouldn’t do so well here presumably. However, I know that Heath pea likes it here, although I would say it appears to prefer the slightly drier soils, possibly because it is slightly small so has less competition from more vigorous plants. I haven’t noticed slugs eating it particularly. It happily grows in grass, but presumably would grow better with less competition.
I couldn’t resist digging this tuber and have planted it in the fruit area amongst my root crops which are due for digging in autumn. There appear to be little tubers (or possibly bacteria nodules I suppose?) on the roots close to the main tuber already. I’ve collected some seed from various plants around the holding, and will try sowing some as green manures (and in pots -why not?) this autumn. If it’s edible, palatable, feeds the soil and grows well, what’s not to like? There may be some scope to increase tuber size to make it more worthwhile as a crop, but as a gourmet snack it is still interesting!
The most striking thing about June for me is the diversity of plants that strive to take over the tree field particularly. As well as the orchids, there are lots of other flowering plants coming into bloom now. The bluebells are going over now, but the pignut is in full spate. Each flower stem has several umbels, so as one fades and turns to red seeds, another is a white disc of flowers. The buttercups are the other obvious flower that is almost everywhere on the field. We have two sorts of buttercup, the creeping sort (ranunculus repens) is pretty much in full bloom, whereas the finely divided leaves of the meadow buttercup (ranunculus acris) still have a while to go before the flowers open. Lots of vetch (the spell correct changed this to ‘fetch’ of which the dogs would approve!) and other legumes. The first are the pink flowered bitter vetch (Lathyrus linifolius), then the yellow birds foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus) on the drier bits. There’s another yellow vetch, Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), which has bigger flowers and a large blue flowered one: tufted vetch (vicia cracca). Sometimes I can remember their names, but generally I have to look them up each year. Then there are the clovers. White clover, which varies from tiny flowers no bigger than my little fingernail, to blooms as big as the top of my thumb. Red clover is a little later coming out, and can have some massive flowers.
We did have a little black medick near the house, which is an annual, but I haven’t seen it recently. It caught my eye because it had so many four leaved leaves a few years ago. The flowers are really tiny and yellow, so although it looks like a clover at first sight when you see the flowers it then obviously isn’t. Ox eye daisies seem to prefer the drier soil, along the spoil from the cut, and along the rocky cut itself where it catches the sun. The lime green flowers of ladies mantle is everywhere mixed in with the grass. I was quite excited about this at first, thinking it was the more rare alpine ladies mantle, which has leaves divided like tiny fingers, rather then cape shaped ones. I love the way the ladies mantle leaves catch dew drops, the little hairs suspending them as little globes like tiny crystal balls. The thyme and heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) are starting to bloom on the thinner drier parts of the field – along the former boundary walls and on the hump.
thyme and heath bedstraw
The bright blue speedwell is one of my favourite flowers. I always used to keep my lawn long in the hope that this would encourage the speedwell (now I don’t mow the lawn at all). There are lots of other flowers just coming into bloom – self heal, melancholy thistle by the pond and along the river fence, water avens (Geum rivale) with its lovely drooping blooms, stitchwort, lots of tormentil (potentilla erecta), a dandelion mimic: cats ear (hypochaeris radicata), daisies, and a little eyebright.
There are also a few plants that have planted themselves in the mud of the pond. A yellow one like a buttercup with blade shaperd leaves (Lesser Spearwort – Ranunculus flammula) and a reed like one, possibly deer grass I’m not sure.
Others are starting to show their promise for later in the year including heather – mostly on the sunny gully bank. Meadowsweet and yarrow are quite widespread; the former generally in damper areas and the latter in drier areas. There is also quite a bit of ragwort despite my efforts to pull it out! Ditto creeping thistle. Silverweed (potentilla answerina), is a plant I am getting more interested in. It doesn’t seem that widespread in the field but there are several plants around the house and Byre areas, as well as the ones that I have planted, generally coming into flower now. Maybe it prefers the more fertile soil from the animal houses. Maybe they are remnants from former cultivation, or maybe it couldn’t tolerate the sheep grazing it to within a few mm of the soil!
I haven’t even touched on the grasses, reeds and sedges that are coming into flower at the moment. Different forms and shades of green they deserve a post of their own.