Nothing much

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.

ramp up
Ramp up hump

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.

tree holes
Holes for windbreak improvements at top of tree field (baby monkey puzzle at left)

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.

mulch mounds
Mulch spots along trackway

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!

seed sprouts
Sprouting apple seeds

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.

new crops
New varieties

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.

new toys
New toy tool

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.

not a stick
Indoor Orchid flowers

 

 

Oca harvest 2019

oca flowers sept
Oca flowers – end September

This is only the second year of growing oca, and the first year with more than a token amount.  Mostly I grew oca saved last year from those sent to me from Frances at Island threads, but I also had a selection of tubers from real seeds.  They had been planted direct in the pallet garden with no additional soil improvement and no attention after planting.  The oca from Frances grew pretty well and flowered in early autumn (you can see them at the front of the first photo in this previous post),  the multicoloured oca got a bit swamped by adjacent kale plants, so I wasn’t expecting too much from those.

first two plants
First two plants

I harvested two of Frances’ oca plants just before xmas.  One plant did pretty well with a total of 14 ounces, the other only had one ounce.  The first had several elongated tubers with fleshy stems, but top growth was very soggy and dead.  Some of the tubers showed regrowth at ends, some had side tubers.

crisps
Oca crisps

I roasted several large tubers with veg for dinner.  They did not crisp up (our oven tends to keep things a bit moist), giving a rather soft texture but pleasant lemony-potato taste.  I tried them thinly sliced and fried to crisp up, they had a very nice salt and vinegar crisps flavour.   When just thinly sliced and dried in lower oven they taste quite bland but a bit crunchy and hard in texture.  It would be difficult to cut them more thinly sliced which may help the texture.  Thinly sliced, rubbed in oil and roasted in a tray at the top of the oven, they again turned out like nice crisps, even though they were slightly burnt.

dried slices
Dried Oca

I dug up the rest of Frances’ tubers early in the new year.  There was still quite a bit of life in the upper growth, with some leaves still apparent.  December and early January has been very mild compared to November, and the oca plants were still hanging on!  I weighed the total weight of tubers, and counted them, then weighed the larger tubers (above about 1 inch) and counted those separately.  Of the total 10 plants subsequently dug up, the average total weight was 8 ounces, with a maximum of 16 ounces and a minimum of half an ounce (!).  There were an average of 17.3 tubers per plant (maximum 25, minumum 1).  When the larger tubers were separated out they accounted for very much the majority of the weight (average 6.2 ounces) despite only having a count of 8 and a half tubers.  This means that it probably isn’t worth fussing over the little tubers, most of the eating is in the easier to handle ones.

sorting and weighing
Sorting and weighing

Most of the tubers were clean even shaped and waxy red, however there were one or two that were flattened and distorted (fasciated), one that was bifurcated, and one plant that had several tubers with tiny side tubers (not counted as part of large tubers).  There was very little slug or insect damage.

fastigiated tuber
Fasciated tuber (on left, normal on right)

As expected, the harvest of the assorted coloured tubers was rather poorer.  I only found 11 out of the 12 tubers planted, one plant also only had two tiny pea sized tubers.  There was an average of 1.59 ounces total weight (5.45 count) and there were fewer tubers of a reasonable size.  I combined the tubers of similar colour and will try and grow them all again next year, and try and give them a bit more sunshine.  I think it was daylight rather than root competition that was the problem, since one of the better cropping plants had a lot of grass weed competition, but may have had more sunshine, since it was at the end of the row, so more exposed to the evening light.

multicoloured crop
Assorted Oca harvest

One of the pink tubered plants had a couple of tubers that were half one colour and half another.  I think this is a spontaneous mutation – I may be able to get plants of different colours by propagating the shoots of each half separately.

chimeara
Chimaera

Another experiment to try is to select and grow larger tubers from one set of plants and smaller tubers from another set of plants.  I should be able to see how many years it takes for selection of plants which grow smaller or larger tubers.  I will only be able to do this with Frances’ pink tubers, since I do not have enough of the other colours to try that with yet (numbers 6 and 8 I’ll be lucky to grow at all I fear).

Living in the future

rainbow
Winter rainbow

It always astounds me at the end of the year to realise that we are in the twenty first century!  I haven’t quite got used to the 1990’s yet!  I haven’t been doing much recently at home.  Because of a staff shortage I have lost two of my afternoons off, combined with having extra to organise for Xmas, and poorly cats, it seems that I haven’t been very productive.  The weather in November was remarkably clement – dry and cold.  December has been a bit more typical with a bit of wind and rain (and some sleet, with a little snow settling on McCloud’s Tables).  The polytunnel repair stood up to winds of about 65mph this week, which I am pleased about.  I do wonder whether it will stand up to the cat standing on it, but since it was partly the cat that caused the damage I’m not too inclined to be sympathetic if it does go through.

oca tubers forming
Oca tubers developing at surface

The Yacon and Oca are really dying back.  I want to leave them as long as possible, while the weather remains fairly mild, so as to bulk up the tubers as much as possible.  I gather that even after the leaves have been killed by the frost, the stems will carry on feeding the oca tubers, and they grow significantly over a few weeks until the stems are completely gone.  I imagine that the Yacon is similar.  I will clear them out over Xmas, or at least before the frosts come back in January.

path round hump
Black line of path around hump

The tree field is just bare bones now.  I did a bit more digging around the hump, but haven’t had much time and the weather is not conducive to digging.  The path is coming on, and will really make walking along it more pleasant when finished.  When I go down the hill with Dyson I bring back an armful of kindling or a few larger branches of dry wood for the fire.  Once the kindling is in the shed for a few days it dries out nicely and starts the kitchen stove really well with a little newspaper.   A good session with a sawbench and bowsaw will be required to cut the branches to length though.

yellow pine
Golden Korean pine, with shelter and feed pellets

I managed to get in contact with the supplier of the yellow Korean pine trees and they think that the trees are just lacking in nutrients.  I’m reasonably happy with that explanation – they are quite big for the size of the pot they were in, so basically just needed potting on, or in this case planting out.  The supplier sent some slow release feed for the trees which I did use around them when planting them out.  Normally I don’t use chemical fertilizers, but I’m looking on this as medicine for the trees, which will help them catch back more quickly.  If they do not seem recovered in early summer, I am to recontact the nursery.

I have planted the trees as three clumps of four trees.  One lot are planted adjacent to the one that I grew from seed, the others a little higher up the hill.  Pines are wind pollinated, so hopefully this will give me a better chance of getting pine seeds when the trees are big enough.  I have put tree shelters around each of the trees, which will hopefully stop them rocking around too much over the winter.  I also made a start at mulching them, but the weather stopped play again.  If I have an afternoon free from the shop, I generally get home about quarter to two in the afternoon, if we have a bit of lunch it is quarter to three before I get started on anything, and it is getting dark at four, so not much time to get things done outside!

peeling birch
Peeling birch

Several of the silver birch have quite suddenly developed white bark.  The darker bark has split off revealing really pale bark underneath.  Others still have quite dark bark underneath; they may not get pale like this, or they may turn silver when they get older.  It seems odd that the bark has split at this time of year.  You would have thought it would happen in the spring, as the sap rises, not in the autumn.  Maybe it’s like the leaves falling; materials getting brittle and parting company.  I’m thinking that I may be able to do crafty things with this lovely material, if and when we coppice these trees in the future.  Most of the birch are still a few years away from being big enough to be worth cutting down as yet.

 

Podding along

Generally I find that crops that need a hot dry late summer to ripen are a waste of space on Skye.  Summer is our rainy season (along with the rest of the year!) so crops that like a cool damp climate seem to be doing better for me.  Luckily I have the polytunnel for things that like a bit more warmth and shelter (I’ll write again about that soon!).

tea garden extension 2019
Tea garden aka pallet garden

This year I managed to sow two different kinds of peas outside and one inside, which I wrote about previously when sown in the middle of May.  The purple mangetout in the front garden on the wigwam have really struggled to get going.  They germinated well, but a combination of slugs and lack of sunlight (it turned out to be much too shady once the trees had leaves on) has meant that I don’t think I will get any seed from them.  I may try that spot for some of my perennial japanese vegetables next year since many of them will be happy in shade.  I’m hoping that I have enough seed to try again either in the polytunnel or somewhere sunnier outside next year.

wigwam
Mangetout wigwam 2 months after sowing

The carlin peas in the tea garden (I need to think of a new name for this area – maybe the ‘pallet garden’ is more accurate now, since the tea bushes have not thrived) by contrast have done really well.  Sown thickly, typically they germinated well, got very little slug damage, and flowered and set pods nicely.  We have eaten several meals of fresh peas and Douglas and Dyson have benefitted from pea pods on their dinners (or straight from the vine while I’m picking).  There is still the odd flower, but I’m leaving most of the rest of the pods in the hope that they will dry and harden off enough to save for some pease pudding dishes over the winter.  Despite some strongish winds they have stood up well with the protection of the pallets and alder twigs.

carlin peas over pallet
Carlin peas cropping well early August

The ‘pallet garden’ is generally looking pretty productive in a slightly chaotic sort of way.  The perennial kale is large and leafy.  I haven’t picked much this year, although probably could have had more.  I made several batches of kale crisps (cut up, rub in a little veg oil and soy sauce and dry till crispy in moderate oven) which are really tasty and nutritious.  Again Dougie is benefitting from some of these (particularly the batch which got a bit burnt!).  There is lots of my lovely flat leaved kale as well.  Unfortunately it is growing amongst the trial oca tubers, so some of these may not have a fair trial having to compete with the kale.  Also I like the kale flower sprouts the following year, and I may have to dig all the plants up to harvest the oca, and hence get no sprouts…

windswept peas
Trial Oca under peas with kale

 

There were just a few carrots that survived last year, but were too small to be worth harvesting so I left in situ.  They have rewarded me with a flowering display all summer.  If we get a bit of nice weather into the autumn I may have fresh carrot seed, which I know from previous experience germinates far more reliably than shop bought seed.  With similar white flowers is the skirret.  I didn’t get round to actually eating very much of this last year, but I could do with digging up some to see whether it’s really worth the space.  Not that space is really an issue for me, and as a perennial there is actually no problem if I do leave it in another year!

skirret and artichoke
Skirret flowers (and jerusalem artichoke)

I have been given some jerusalem artichoke and potato tubers to try this year (thanks again Frances).  I have tried jerusalem artichokes in the past – I think in the first year we were here – but without shelter and in a new bed they disappeared in what has now become the fruit jungle.  Both tubers this year seem to have survived the slugs in the pallet garden.  I put one on the sunny side of a pallet and this has done much better than the other on the shady side, although both are looking healthy enough.  I have read that on the outer hebrides they crop well when grown for two years, so I think I won’t try digging these up this year.  Anyway they didn’t get the compost on planting, so won’t achieve much in the way of tubers anyhow; hopefully enough to regrow though.  The potatoes do grow well here – in the past they used to export seed tubers to Ireland from our holding.  I don’t usually bother with potatoes (running a shop we usually have some that need eating!), but since these were a gift it would be rude not to try them!  I need to check the variety and work out when to dig them up.  Anytime in the next month or so I expect.

I planted Yacon in various places in the pallet garden, including in the cardboard mulched area.  Some are doing well, and some are pretty slug eaten.  Again the  important bit is unseen underground, so I’ll have to wait till later in the year to find out how they have done.  There still seem to be a few mashua growing away in there as well, but they don’t seem to crop very well outside for me.  I think it is just a bit cool for them in the autumn here.

yacon slug eaten
Slug eaten Yacon

The himalayan strawberries don’t seem to have set fruit this year at all.  They did flower well, but we had that cold spell in May that maybe stopped the fruit forming.  However, they do form a nice groundcover and are starting to crowd out the buttercups quite well.  My friend A. gave me a few of her ground covering wild strawberries that she lets grow on her allotment and I can certainly confirm that they cover ground quickly!  One plant on the corner of one of the beds is now like an explosion of spiders crawling over the soil and paths.  They are yet to flower for me, but hopefully will yield the odd gardener’s treat in time!

strawberry explosion
Strawberry explosion

I broadcast lots of tiny amounts of seed in various places in the pallet garden at the start of June, most of which have yet to noticeably appear.  This is a little disappointing.  I guess I needed to rake them in to cover them with soil to prevent pests eating them or sun dessicating the fresh shoots.  They wouldn’t have grown very well in the packets either however, and many were saved seed, so no great loss really.  Maybe they will germinate in future years when they feel like it.  Most of the soil does have a pretty good groundcover of various planted and volunteered plants.  I’m not sure where the borage came from, but love it’s hairiness and joyous blue flowers.  There are a few surviving green manure plants from last year – particularly alfalfa and red clover, which although not surviving where I would have planted them, should come back again next year.

borage
Borage flowers

In the southernmost corner of the pallet garden I had a patch of fodder radish as a green manure last year.  I was initially disappointed this wasn’t the same fodder radish as I had grown in the polytunnel that made the lovely radishy seed pods.  However, unlike that one, it did form ball radishes that were quite edible when young, although a bit woody later on.  The dogs loved them however!  I would be weeding or doing something at the other end of the garden, and Douglas would present me with an emergency fetch ball.  Dyson also soon realised that these spicy balls were edible and that would keep him happy as well, munching away.  I think I probably won’t grow them again though, since the globe roots will be less good at aerating the soil than the longer pod radishes are (which did do well in the orchard area – more on that another time).  I will collect some seed just in case.

wheat
Wheat ripening

In with the radishes were a few overwintered wheat plants.  I had to remove some when I put up the pallets in the spring  The remainder have cropped very well.  If I can harvest them before the birds do I will have rejuvenated my wheat seeds.  I don’t remember now where these came from at all.  Probably saved from a volunteer from some bird seed?

 

Shorts and Wellies

waternish Skye
Ploughing at Trumpan, Waternish, Skye

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.

finished tea garden
Tea garden after tidying and planting

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.

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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.

melon seeds
Sharks fin melon – 17 months after harvest

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).

finished blueberry mulch
Mulched patch for blueberries

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.

 

Peas and Oca

For the first time in a few years, I have planted peas outside this year.  In the past they have done pretty well for me, and it was more that I didn’t really have anywhere to put them that put me off growing them.   I have grown them in the polytunnel, and they do grow well in there also.  They don’t generally make it as far as the kitchen however!  With the tea garden extension, I have a fair amount of space.  So this year I have used some longish side branches cut from the alders that I felled, and some side branches from the alder grove just below the hump at the south side, for pea sticks.

pallet fencing
Bright pallets for fencing

The pallets in the tea garden don’t quite overlap enough to give brilliant wind reduction at the moment.  I have enough pallets to finish the job, thanks to the delivery driver arranging a few spare pallets to be  dropped over.   But I still need to dig out the couch and nettles along the edge by the trackway, so the ground levels still aren’t right there to complete the fences.  Anyhow, I planted out the bare root hazels that had been ‘heeled in’ in one of the sections and cleared it in preparation.  The peas went in a row parallel to the windbreak, and the pea sticks leant up at an angle just past them.  These were carlin peas that I had saved from peas grown in the front garden in 2011.  They had been put in water to soak a couple of days prior.  There were lots of them, so I just sowed them really thickly.  Between the peas and the pallet I transplanted some good king henry and sweet cicely seedlings that had self sown near my plants in the tea garden.

finished peas and oca bed
Finished pea bed in tea garden

Along the edge by the access path I have planted the colourful oca tubers that I bought from real seeds.  I have tried to put colours not too similar next to one another so that I can keep the resulting tubers separate when it comes to harvest.  There did appear to be some duplication of tubers (as expected) so some will bulk up numbers more quickly than others.  One tuber also does look like the variety I have grown before.

oca varieties
Multicoloured oca

Also planted at the edge are a few heath pea (lathyrus linifolius) plants that I grew from seed last year.  They have been neglected in modules, but most seem remarkably to have survived no watering and little compost, they are tough little plants it seems!  Also planted in here were the last perennial kale plants.  The ones that I had planted out as soon as they rooted grew far bigger than the ones left in pots.  I also planted out an angelica plant that I had bought from Pointzfield herbs this spring.

purple mangetout
Bicolour bloom on the purple mangetout (last year in polytunnel)

I had three varieties of peas I wanted to grow this year.  As well as the carlin peas, I wanted to try the tall purple mangetout, that I have grown only in the polytunnel till now.  Because I want to try and save fresh seed from these, I have planted up a wigwam of alder peasticks in the front garden.  This is the other side of the barn from the tea garden, so there is little chance of the plants cross-pollinating.  I have also planted out in this area some of the plants that have been (mal)lingering in pots.  I put a few of my new sweet violet plants against the sycamore trunks, a little honeysuckle to grow up them, a few campanula latifolia along by the path and some rather small martagon lily seedlings that I grew from my HPS seed last year.  I’m currently debating with myself as to whether to plant one of my new mint plants in there too, or whether to confine it to a pot to keep it in restraint.

pea wigwam in front garden
Pea wigwam in front garden (still with junk guarding dog tooth violets from dogs)

The third variety of peas that I have planted are some Heritage Seed Library seeds that I didn’t grow last year.  Champion of England is a tall (could be up to 10 feet!) marrowfat pea.  Since I only have a few seeds I decided to grow these in the polytunnel.  I have planted then in the bed below the apricot (which I must read up about pruning!).  When preparing the bed I inadvertently dug up some Apios americana tubers that I had forgotten were there.  They have only just started into growth.  Hopefully I haven’t damaged the growing tips too much.

first apricots
First apricots?

It all looks great before the weeds start to grow!

Oca: a first year

spring plants june
Oca plants in June before planting in tunnel

I have harvested all the oca now.  I had three tubers given to me by Frances of island threads, who lives on one of the outer Hebrides, so just over the water from me.  Her weather is probably even milder, and windier, but just a trifle drier perhaps.  I started the tubers off in pots and planted two in the polytunnel and one outside in June.  Frances assures me that she grows hers outside, but I wanted to be safe till I have enough tubers to risk.

Oca: oxalis tuberosa, is related to wood sorrel and has similar clover-like leaves that are edible but contain oxalic acid (like rhubarb leaves) so should only be eaten sparingly.  I think they are a bit tough in my experience anyhow compared to common sorrel, and with a less sharp lemon taste.  They are grown mainly for the edible tubers which come in a range of colours.  Like potatoes, they are propagated mainly vegetatively through replanting the tubers since although they flower, they appear to rarely set seed, at least in the UK.  A number of growers are aiming to get more productive varieties in the northern hemisphere, see cultivariable and the UK oca breeders project for example.

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Oca forms tubers after the daylength is less than 12 hours – generally said to be at the end of September in the UK.  This will of course vary with latitude.  On Sept 30th in Glasgow (55deg 51min N) the daylength is 11 hrs 37 min,  London (51deg 30min N) is given as 11hours 40min long.  Here on Skye we are at 57 deg north (or thereabouts) so a little shorter in daylength than Glasgow in winter.  At the winter solstice the days are pretty much as short as they get – still pretty dark at 8am and getting dark at 4pm.  Since we can expect hard frosts by the end of November that means the oca only has about two months here to form tubers outside.

I’m pretty pleased with the results from the outside plant as a first trial.  It grew happily despite having very little shelter from the wind.  It flowered at the start of September with delicate yellow flowers.  Light frosts in late October were survived, but it was knocked back completely in December.  Although I harvested the outside plant when this happened, I since read that the tubers can carry on growing for several weeks after the foliage has apparently died down – the fleshy stalks carry on feeding them for longer, so I maybe should have left it a little longer to bulk up.  However, I got almost exactly 8 ounces and all 15 tubers are of a size that can be used: up to about 6cm (over 2 in) long.   The plant received a little compost in the hole when it was planted, and otherwise was just let to get on with it.

oca harvest outside 2018
Oca harvest from one outside plant

At the start of February I harvested the two plants in the tunnel.  The plants had stayed green much longer, and it took a prolonged frost when we had the snow in January to fully knock them back.  Although the plants had never looked quite as good as the ones outside, I was hopeful that they would do better, since they were still quite green at the end of the year.  However the yield was quite disappointing: 3 1/2 Oz from each plant.  The tubers were generally smaller, with quite a bit of slug damage (or it may have been vine weevils?)  I suspect that it was a bit too dry for them in the tunnel. I have not been watering much in there over the winter, since it tends to lead to mildew.

oca harvest polytunnel 2 plants 2018
Oca from 2 polytunnel plants

I tried the smallest from outside raw and was bit disappointed in the flavour to be honest.  I had seen them described as crunchy  and lemony sharp, getting sweeter as they are exposed to sunlight.  I would describe the taste (fresh) as having a faint raw potato flavour, with a hint of lemon perhaps, but not nice enough to serve to S.  So far I have only cooked them by boiling and that was perfectly pleasant, like a creamy salad potato. The colour does fade a bit on cooking.  They can be boiled, fried, and baked just like potatoes.  In New Zealand they are known as yams and are very popular.  I have found a few suggestions for roasting them, so I may try that next.

ready to cook
Oca ready for boiling

I have enough tubers to grow next year, and enough to experiment a bit with different ways of cooking.  Some are in the fridge, and some on a cool windowsill.  I think I won’t bother with planting any in the tunnel next year, although I may try covering with fleece or cloches at the end of the season outside, if I can work out how to stop those blowing away!  They can go in orchard borders that need digging anyway to keep couch grass at bay.  I think they will definitely be worth growing again, and I have also got some different tubers of various colours from real seeds to try some different varieties!

Polytunnel Update

dotty caterpillar
Dotty caterpillar – not a silver y

Things seem to have been a bit slow in the polytunnel – It’s been a bit cooler and damper but I haven’t been out there much – just a bit of watering and thinning out the grapes.  The main excitement is the number of happy caterpillars I seem to have.  There are several large ones that I see in there: A bright green one, a dull browny coloured one, a dotty one with a waist stripe and one with stripes that match the stalks on the fat hen as it goes to seed.   I think most of them belong to  the silver y moth which I do see in there quite often.  They don’t seem to be doing too much damage:  They quite like the Yacon, but prefer the fat hen to the olive tree.  There are a few holes in the squash leaves but nothing the plants can’t shake off.

silver y moth
Silver y moth in polytunnel

Something has eaten part through one of my dahlia stalks – I think it is probably a slug.  they don’t tend to be too much a problem these days for established plants, but I do get a few helping themselves to my seedlings in pots by the polytunnel door.  The dahlia I grew from seed, which I am quite proud of myself for.  They have lovely dark coloured leaves, and are just starting to form buds.  The seeds are some of those that came from the Hardy Plant Society annual selection.  I had pretty good germination from most of those – probably because they were so fresh.  Dahlia tubers are theoretically edible, although apparently they vary a great deal as to tastiness!  I’m tempted to get some from Lubera who have selected a range of better tasting ones.  You get the flowers and then the tubers to eat, and can replant again for next year.  I have tried some raw a while ago now, and wasn’t particularly impressed, but then you wouldn’t eat a potato raw either would you?  I’ve mounded up the soil around the stem in the hope that it will re-root like a cutting.  There does seem to be another shoot coming from below the damage, but I may lose the flowers of that plant.

My fuchsia berry plant is looking a lot more happy now.  It is in the ground and has a fairly respectable shoot.  Hopefully it is getting it’s roots down to survive there overwinter.  I have pinched off the tip, since in it’s pot last year it grew a bit leggy and tended to droop down with the weight of the fruit – yes they were quite sweet and nice.  My outside fuchsia that came with the house also has quite nice berries.  You have to get them when they are ripe, or they taste more peppery than sweet.  The downside is that they tend to ripen gradually, so there are a few for a nibble but not enough for much of a meal.  I should propagate the bush a bit though, since it would be quite good as a boundary shrub.  It’s a bit late this year – maybe I’ll take some hardwood cuttings overwinter and see how they get on.  The fuchsia berry is supposed to be a bit more tender.  I did try taking some softwood cutting last year, but none of them took – I’ll maybe try again next year, assuming it survives the winter again.

polytunnel plants aug
Miscellaneous polytunnel plants – Yacon at front with oca between, physalis and squash behind

The Yacon seem to be doing pretty well.  I haven’t fed them barring the initial planting with compost, but have tried to give them plenty of water – probably still not as much as they want.  The single plant I put outside in the tea garden extension is also looking pretty good – the warmer start to the summer was probably to it’s liking.  I’m growing Oca for the first time this year (thanks Frances!)  I’ve put two in the polytunnel and one outside.  So far I would say that they don’t like it too hot.  The one outside seemed to do much better than the ones in the tunnel initially when we had all that hot weather.  More recently it’s been a bit cooler and less sunny, and the ones inside have cheered up a bit – a little leggy perhaps.  All three plants look lush and green at the moment.  Apparently they don’t make tubers until the days get shorter, which for us will be at the end of September or so.  At that point the extra protection of the tunnel may pay off, since it should hold off a light frost or two.  I’ve never eaten them so I won’t comment on that yet.

There are flowers starting to develop on my physalis – golden berry, and a few flowers on the courgette.  Those really haven’t done so well this year, but then I generally don’t have gluts to complain of!  The sharks fin melon is climbing well – almost to the roof with buds forming.  The japanese squash has delightful silver splashed leaves which are quite pretty, and again shows promise of buds.  The mashua isn’t looking too good still.  I think the hot weather was definitely not to it’s liking.  They are still really small and hardly starting to climb at all.  Some of the other plants will probably be too late to come to anything. For example the achocha, which I said last year needed a longer season didn’t get planted out early enough again.  Tomatillo and peppers I sowed for the sake of it, but really didn’t look after them enough to get much from them.  The plants are alive, but that’s about all one can say about them.  My sweet potato plants seem to be doing well.  I hope I’ve given them enough water.  When I grew them in our polytunnel in Solihull I think that was the main problem there.  They do have lovely dark coloured leaves, a bit like an ornamental bindweed.  I’ve just let them scramble over the ground, although they would climb given a framework.

drunk flies
Drunk flies on outside Alice bramble

The bramble has not done so well this year as previous years.  As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve had a lot of flies eating the berries (Alice outside remains a complete wash out!).  The flies get so drunk that you can put your finger right next to them without them all flying off.  I’ve still had quite a few berries – enough to make a batch of bramble and apple jelly (clear jelly not jam with bits in), but nowhere as many as previous years.  The bramble and kiwi look very precarious also.  I had to cut some of the support ties for the kiwi at the start of the year, and haven’t got round to replacing them properly.  I had used old tights – the legs make pretty good strong soft bindings.  unfortunately the weight of the vine had made them go thin, and they were cutting in to the trunk quite a lot.  It was actually difficult to extract them as the kiwi was growing around them.  I have started to use strips of pond liner (plenty of that left from around the mice holes!)  This seems to stay more ribbon-like so doesn’t cut in.  It’s a bit more difficult to tie in a knot (especially when supporting a heavy trunk with your third hand!), but seems to be kind to the plants and lasts pretty well.  Tyre inner tubes are also pretty good, but I’m not sure whether they will have the same light resistance as pond liner.

tomatoes aug 12018
Promising tomato trusses

The tomatoes have done really well – lots of lovely trusses have set nicely.  None are ripening yet, but I remain hopeful for a reasonable harvest in the end – so far looking like my best yet here.  Some of the plants have dark spots developing on the older leaves, which I think is a sign of nutrient deficiency.  I probably haven’t fed them enough – just a bucket of comfrey tea between them when I can remember to do it!  It’s actually also the same comfrey residue – so there’s probably not much nutrient left in it.  I should have some time off later this week so will try and cut some fresh comfrey leaves then.

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Planting out

As usual I’m late with planting out my plants in the polytunnel.  It has just been so hot in there!  Also I’ve become programmed to work outside if the weather is at all dry, since that is normally the rarer event on Skye. The tomato plants that I managed to get in a couple of weeks ago are looking quite healthy.  I especially like the look of one called ‘first in the field’ – it has a lovely thick stem and a dark green colour (front right hand corner in photo).  All the others look good too, and a few are starting to show flowers, so hopefully they won’t be a complete disaster this year.

tomatos in July
Tomato plants growing on well

I have succeeded in planting out in the tunnel two climbing courgettes, three bush courgettes, three sharks fin melon (saved seed!) and two japanese squash.  They all had a good few scoops of home made, wood ash enriched, compost mixed in to the planting hole, so should get away now despite being rather weedy looking plants.  No sooner had they gone in than Harry decided that the planting recesses made a really comfortable bed!  Luckily the japanese squash seemed none the worse the next morning!

polytunnel squash
Curcubits planted out
cat nests
Harry’s bed

I also planted out some basil which came from a friends saved seed – the best germination I’ve ever had!  I guess it’s because the seed was nice and fresh.  I’m going to see if I can get some of mine to set seed.  That would be good to seed around in the tunnel!  There are also two oca plants, which I am growing for the first time (the third went outside in the tea garden extension).  The chilli peppers and aubergine probably won’t come to much, but they were free seed anyway.  They’re such tiny plants I’m afraid they will be swamped in the tunnel, but they never get the attention they need in pots either with me, so this is the best option.  I also had some goldenberry seeds (a type of Physalis – like the ones you sometimes get dipped in chocolate with your coffee).  I gather this is a rather tender perennial that doesn’t mind poor soils (according to PFAF it can grow more leaves than fruit if the soil is too rich).  Hopefully this will be able to over-winter in the polytunnel, so will add to my perennial plants in there.  Although the sweetcorn plants also look a bit stunted I have given them a planting hole with extra compost and we’ll see how they do.  They mostly seemed to have pretty good roots on them so may still crop albeit later in the year than they should.

sweetcorn
I promise those are courgette plants on the left and sweetcorn on the right!

In the undergrowth I found my fuchsia berry in its pot.  This was a present from my Mum and had been waiting for a permanent home.  Unfortunately it does seem to have suffered in the hot tunnel, but somewhat to my surprise was actually still alive!  I therefore have found a suitable spot near the central path for it, and will try and keep an eye on it over the next few weeks until it is established.  It does seem to have larger, sweeter berries than my garden fuchsia, although these are also quite nice when properly ripe.  With regard to ripe berries, the flavour of the ‘honeyberries’ do seem to be developing.  One of them definitely has some richer plummy flavours coming through now.  So far they are hanging on the bushes well, so I’ll keep sampling them whilst they last.

tea garden extension squash
Sharks fin melon in tea garden extension (Douglas supervising)

There were four sharks fin melon plants that I did not have room for in the tunnel, so I have popped them in outside in the tea garden extension.  I don’t suppose they will come to anything – they really need a longer season than they will get outside, but you never know, and they will be a bit more groundcover to keep some of the weeds down as well.  There were a few more goldenberry plants as well – a little on the small side, they may fruit this year, but probably won’t overwinter.  There are various seedlings appearing in this area – some of which I sowed, but a lot of docken.  These I find harder to get out when they are small – the leaves tend to pull off too easily.  When they are a little bigger the roots come too if you are lucky.  I can see quite a few buckwheat seedlings, a very few phacelia, some wheat (not grass as I found when I pulled a bit out when weeding), quite a bit of what may be clover or alfalfa (too early to tell which yet), various brassica including a lot of fodder radish (which has very tasty pods if you allow it to go to seed), the ubiquitous kale and what may be cabbage (or sprouts?).  There’s definitely a bit of leaf beet (or spinach?).  The callaloo seedlings I put in seem to be doing pretty well despite the dry weather.  I’ve never tried it before – its a sort of amaranth that is grown for it’s leaves.  It is used quite a bit in Jamaican cookery, but apparently should grow quite well outside in the UK, we’ll see.  There’s still a little bit more relatively easy weeding to do, then I need to get the paths laid and the rest of the undergrowth cut back and mulched.

seedlings in tea garden extension
Seedling mix – red ones are Callaloo

The outside soft fruit are just a little way off ripe.  The blackcurrants are changing colour.  I’m hoping for my first harvest off the new plants in the tea garden.  The berries all look a little on the small side, but plenty of them.  The first raspberries are changing colour, and again I’m hoping for a good harvest there – watch this space!

blackcurrant promise
Blackcurrants in tea garden showing colour