Rainy Season

This was going to be an update on the polytunnel, but I’m excited about some things in the tree field, so those come first.

Usually the dryish weather lasts into the middle of June, but this year it has broken a bit early.  There was a nice bit of rain last weekend, and again through this week so the burns and the river are now overflowing.

The first exciting thing then (not chronologically, but logically) is that the pond at the bottom is once again full.  During the week it just had a little puddle from it’s own catchment, but either the shallow springs are going again and/or the burn on that side is full enough to have water all the way down (often it disappears again on the way down).  This would have been quite exciting, but more exciting (especially to the dogs unfortunately) was what we found on the pond.  The dogs saw them first, and then I saw a lady mallard flying off with a squawk over the fence to the river.  Left behind were about three frantically cheaping baby ducks.  They are very tiny, and I have no idea where the nest is.  I’m thinking it must be on the river bank, otherwise the dogs probably would have found it before now.  The pond would have made quite a nice nursery swim for the babies if it wasn’t for my bad dogs.  The river is in full spate after the rain, so the little ones would be swept quite away.  Eventually the dogs came to me.  They had been more interested in the mother than the babies, so noone was hurt.  Hopefully the mum would soon have returned to the babies again.  We’ll have to keep the dogs away from the pond for a bit.  This is difficult, as due to some building work, part of the deer fence to the garden area is down at the moment.  I was going to put some temporary fencing up anyhow, so I’ll escalate that task for when the rain clears.

baby duck
Baby duck in pond

On the way back up the hill again I was on the lookout for something that I had found the previous day.  On the grass there had been what I thought was a tiny rotten birch twig.  I wondered how it had got there and had turned it over with a twig that I was hoping to mark orchids with.  To my surprise the twig moved!  Not a twig but a largish moth!  On that occasion I did not have my camera with me (it was raining!) so I was very glad to find the moth still in the (birch) tree to which I had moved it.  Looking it up later I found it was a buff tip moth.  Although quite common in the south of the UK it is less so in the north.

bufftip moth
Not a twig

The other interesting thing, is that I may have seen this moth as a caterpillar.  I didn’t post about it at the time, but last summer I noticed one or two alders that had clumps of caterpillars in them.  They were distinctive in the way they formed a mass of caterpillars.  I’m pretty sure now that they were buff tip caterpillars, so it is nice to see that at least one made it to adulthood.  They pupate in the soil, so that may be why this one was on the ground.  It must have just emerged.

buff tip caterpillars
Mass of buff tip caterpillars

The rain has come in good time to keep watering the seedling trees I have planted in the tree field.  As well as the tiny spruce, I have also relocated about a dozen tiny rowans (why do they like to germinate in the driveway!), a couple of sycamore (ditto!) and several plums, damsons and apples from shop fruit that was past it’s best, or used for jam making.  The latter’s seeds had been placed in small seed trays (actually fruit punnets) outside and I got quite a few germinating this spring.  Rather than leave them to starve in the seedtrays I was able to plant them out last week, with a proper double spade square hole.  They may not have good fruit that ripens here, but they may at least have blossom to cross pollinate my orchard fruit.  I could try and graft good fruiters onto the trunks in the future.  I am hopeful that the damson seedlings and the plums that we ate in late september in Devon may have useful fruit, if only for jamming.

plum seedling
Plum seedling

When we planted the trees in 2011 we experimented with planting comfrey around some of them to see if they would act as a living mulch.  I had found this quite successful in Solihull around established soft fruit so, since we had been having difficulty finding enough time to mulch the newly planted trees, I wondered whether this would be an easy way to keep the grass down.  We just stuck ‘thongs’ of comfrey, of which I had plenty growing in the fruit garden, into the turf about two feet from the trees.  It wasn’t that successful as it turned out.  We found that although most of the comfrey took OK, it was a few years before they could out compete the grass, and by that time the trees were already established.  They do make lovely flowers for the bees though through the summer.

I had read in one or two of my books that other people had found that a bank of comfrey several plants deep could be used as a weed barrier around planting areas.  Last year I planted several thongs below the newly mulched orchard area to the north of the trackway, in the hopes that these would eventually keep out the worst of the couchgrass.  It is dramatic that the only ones that have grown well have been the ones adjacent to the mulch.  The ones planted with turf on each side are still really tiny (although mostly still there).  I don’t remember there being any difference between them when planted out.  So on my mental list of things to do is to mulch between the comfrey there if I get time.  It’s probably not a high priority, since the comfrey will probably still grow and in a year or so form a canopy by itself.

comfrey mulch
Comfrey – also between mulch and trees

The grass has grown lush and green with the rain, and the buttercups and pignut have started flowering.  So pretty with the rain dewdrops sparkling in the sun.  The buttercups seem particularly profuse in the area just below the orchard, and the pignuts in the southernmost strip along Jo’s field.  The midges are here now too, so the rain is definately a mixed blessing.  We change to longer hours next week in the shop next week so  I will have to get to bed a bit earlier.  The sun was still setting at about 9.20 last night.  I could still see the sunlight on the hill opposite us.

douglas in sun
Douglas and pignut
pignut sparkles
Pignut sparkles
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May days

dry pond
Dry Pond

It’s been staying dry.  Not bone dry but misty-isle dry.  We’ve had a bit of mizzle, even some proper rain, but not enough to make the burns run again yet.  It’s a bit odd that the burns went dry so soon.  I can only assume that it must have been quite a dry winter – although it didn’t seem that way at the time.  This year the pond by the river has dried up completely.  I don’t know whether our tadpoles managed to survive or not….  We are forecast to have rain again on Saturday night, so maybe it will be enough to water the plants a bit.  So far, the rain just makes the surface of the soil wet, rather than soaking in.  Luckily our burn in the gully is fed by a deep spring so although down to a trickle, it still flows.  I am using one of the pools there as a dipping pond; filling the watering can there when I do the patrol with the dog-boys.  Then I can use the water on my pot plants or in the polytunnel.

dipping pond
Dyson in dipping pool

The bluebells are now putting on a lovely show in the tree field.  In places it looks like a bluebell wood!  Since it has also been staying quite cool (about 9 degrees celsius overnight and 11 during the day) the flowers are lasting well.

bluebell woods
Bluebell woods!

I am starting to see the orchids coming up in various places.  Some I remember from year to year, others are a surprise.  Unfortunately one of the big ones (probably a hybrid) in Dougie’s field got caught by frost.  That’s the first time I know that has happened.  Where I see them in the trackways, I have been marking them with sticks again so that S. can easily avoid them if he takes the mower down again.

marking orchid
Marking Orchids in trackways

I am hopeful that we have had a better set of cherries this year. It is still too early to tell yet really, however there definately seem to be cherries on this tree in the orchard area, and although I thought the morello in the fruit garden had none, I can now see those developing too.

cherries
Hopeful orchard cherries

More of the first planted trees are reaching maturity.  There is blossom on more of the hawthorne, and wild cherries.  Also and for the first time, there was blossom on at least one of the cherry plums, and a couple of saskatoons.  Maybe they liked the warm weather last year, or maybe they have just reached a critical size.  I don’t expect that there will be much, if any fruit, but it bodes well for future years.  One of the more exciting flowers for me was one of the hollies in the front garden has blossomed.  Holly trees are usually either male or female, and judging by the pollen on these flowers this plant is a male.  No berries yet then this year, but hopefully one or more of his neighbours will be female, and eventually there will be berries.

holly flowers
Male holly blossom

At this time of year the sycamores also come into bloom.  They are not really showy flowers, just a pale green chandelier, but the insects love them.  As you walk round the garden you become aware of a humming, and it is coming from the sycamores.  As well as bees there are wasps feeding on the pollen, and hoverflies and other flies.

buzzing tree
Bumblebee enjoying sycamore flowers

On the drive bank things seem to be holding on.  It has been difficult to water the plants on a slope, but they all got watered in pretty well when planted, so hopefully will survive OK.  The cooler weather means they are less stressed anyhow.  The bulbs leaves have faded as expected, and some of the tiny escallonia have flowers!  There are some signs of seeds germinating, the buckwheat and calendula I can identify, but there are also weed seeds as expected.  Not much grass yet so that’s good.  It will be nice to see the earth covered.

seedlings
Buckwheat seedlings on drivebank

My hablitzia are springing forth.  I think that this year I will try harvesting some, so watch this space….

happy habby
Happy habby bed

 

Faffing about and Spring colours

sun break
Sun breaking through

At first glance everything appear drab and colourless at this time of year.  Admittedly the spring planters at the shop are pleasing this year, with their new crocuses and tete-a-tete daffodils, but generally things appear lifeless….Until you look closer and then some startling colours stand out.

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I’m running around spotting the new sign of life and noticing all the things I need to be getting on with.  Spring is springing, the days are getting longer and we’ve had a nice spell of weather that looks like (barring an overnight storm) continuing into next week.  I’ve been trying out an app (gardenwize) to try and keep better records this year (one of my NY resolutions) but it doesn’t look like it will do quite what I want it to do (although about the best that I found).  I think I will have to go back to hardcopy and get myself some index cards and just write a new card for each crop.  It’s either that or write my own database, and I always get on better with spreadsheets.  At least I won’t have to worry about back up.

I have already managed to sow some of my polytunnel plants in the propagator: the achocha, tomatoes and a chilli pepper.   Some of the tomato seeds and the achocha are already sprouting after less than a week.  I’ve also got some shrubby seeds that have been stratifying in the fridge for several weeks or months, which mostly may as well be planted out now into seed trays.  Then it’s more sowing and potting on ad infinitum!

first primrose
Surprising primrose on east facing bank

Plants are definately feeling the spring now.  The tree buds are starting to swell, pig nut leaves are out and the first celandine flowers are showing.  I must get down the hill and coppice some of the larger alder before the sap risies too much.  I’ve got a bit of persuading S. that some of the trees would be better cut at this age.  Admittedly it will be a pity to lose some of the shelter that has been achieved, but the trees should grow even better if fully cut back, since all their roots are sized to feed a whole tree.

frogspawn
Frogspawn in pond

Other wildlife is also feeling the changing times.  There were a couple of lumps of frogspawn down in the pond.  I haven’t seen the frogs there.  It may be a little early yet, but I expect most of the spawn would survive a light frost anyhow.  Hopefully we won’t get a hard frost anyhow because look what I’ve got in the poytunnel:

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom

The Apricot buds are blossom.  There is actually a lot more than I thought there would be:  it is also all up the main branches.  Most of the buds are tightly furled, but they are just beginning to open.  I used a tiny bit of cotton wool to dab the flowers.  They seem quite scented, so if any of the moths whose pesky caterpillars were eating it last year are about, they may fancy pollenising it for me.

Field bean and elder cutting
Elder cuttings

I took a whole lot of elder cuttings since the bush has done so well for me.  I have also got some cuttings off three other bushes: One local, one imported like mine, and one purple leaved bush.  Some of the cuttings are in the orchard area which I tried to put down to green manures last September.  The area now has a fair covering of bittercress and grass.  Pictured above is one of the two field beans that seem to have escaped the crows’ attentions.

removing pale fuchsia
Preparing the access ramp

The other major project that I am hoping to get finished in the next week or so is the driveway retaining wall.  I spent yesterday afternoon scavenging round for rocks, since I had pretty much exhausted the initial supply.   Where the spade is in the picture above is where I plan to make a pedestrian access to the bank above.  I’m not sure whether it will be a ramp or steps – probably steps, since it would be too steep for a barrow anyway, and I can also get to it from the garden to the left.  I had to dig out half a big fuchsia bush that would otherwise be a nuisance growing across the path there.  That took me most of today, but I have three big lumps of bush as well as lots of sticks to make cuttings from if I want.  I think I will propagate some, since the fuchsia is tough as old boots (that bank is quite exposed to the south so gets quite a bit of wind as well as sunshine) but when in flower looks quite pretty.  This one has pale pink flowers rather than the darker pink that is more common as hedging plants around here.  It sets less fruit, probably due to the exposed position.

Orchard, Autumn and Tomatoes

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.

large leaved sorrel
Large leaved Rumex acetosa – common sorrel

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.

orchard view north
Orchard view to North

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.

birds foot
How bird’s foot trefoil gets it’s name

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.

bumper hazelnuts 2018
bumper crop on hazels by river

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.

self sown bramble
tasty self sown bramble

Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!

ripe tomatoes
First ripe tomatoes – (super sweet 100)

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.

Orchard revisited – more pH testing

toad
Toad in orchard area

I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area.  I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching.  I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc.  I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together.  The soil does seem quite light.  I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much.  There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.

orchard clearing
forking over the orchard

I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid.  I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants.  I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred.  I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it.  I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial.  The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere.  I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down.  I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon.  I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant.  I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….

S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil.  Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops.  This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year.  We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility.  I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden.  Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.

On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn.  Again this has a bit of couch grass in it.  I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass.  I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short.  I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out!  Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary!  At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction.  I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)

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

I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass.  What would happen if I just left it be?  How competive is it as a weed?  I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch.  It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field.  I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer.  I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch).  Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!

pH testing kit
pH indicator chart

I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished.  I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart.  The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach.  All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5.  The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7.  I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time.  Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.

pH test potential blueberry plot
pH test for potential blueberry plot

 

 

 

Editing the tree field. #2 Docken

cutting docken
Black currant bushes exposed as docken cut back

Actually it’s mainly the orchard area within the tree field that I have been clearing of docks in the past few weeks.  I have very nearly finished getting the levels sorted out, and managed to mulch with card some of the new surfaces (see here).  Some of the area I managed to sow with some left over green manure seeds (buckwheat and clover)  and these did germinate and grow to a certain extent but have not managed to outcompete the dock seed that is present in apparently vast quantities!  There is also some established docken from previous years that was probably growing on the site previously, or was in the soil before it was moved down to the orchard area and regrew.  The main priority was to get out the docken that were going to seed before they have a chance to spread more seed into the soil.  This involved going round with a spade and cutting through the taproot of the plants.  The tops were then loaded into a barrow along with a few bits of nettle and some of the couch grass that has apparently become established there also.  The barrows were dumped just below the original gateway to the lower field, which still stands like the doorway in Narnia, although the gate is lying down rather than hinging.  There is an area of soil below the gate which either didn’t have trees planted, or the trees didn’t take.  I think it was the former, since the soil was very compacted, full of docken and stones in the gateway.  Hopefully the loads of fertility in the form of weeds will help to rejuvenate the soil.  I think of it as a bit like segregating nuclear waste – concentrating all the nasties in one area.  I do the same with the rubbish I find: bits of rusty metal, glass, string, coal and brocken crockery get put into piles (or bags) until I can get round to deciding what to do with them.

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I had to go over the cardboard I laid on the north side of the trackway, since there were several docks that had punched their way through.  This has made a bit of a mess of the cardboard, so I will have to cover the area again before winter.  I have cut back all the seeding docken, and made a start at pulling out the juvenile plants that would go to seed from next year.  The slightly larger plants often come out cleanly with the taproot when pulled firmly with a twist.  I have been twisting off the leaves and leaving them on the soil surface and putting the roots in a bucket before adding them to the weed mountain.  Some may not be big enough to regrow, but there’s no point tempting fate.  The smaller plants will need digging out.  It seems counter intuitive, but the younger leaves tend to just come off in your hand leaving the tap root to regrow in the ground.  If the soil is gently loosened with a fork then the whole plant is more likely to come cleanly.  I’ve still got some of the larger plants to do, and almost all of the smaller plants.  I think I will go over the whole area lightly with a fork anyway and try and remove as much as possible of the couch grass.  It will probably grow back anyway, but if I can reduce a bit it will be worthwhile.  I’m going to quickly order some green manure seed: fodder radish, red clover and field beans to overwinter and keep down the weed seeds.  I may try and spread some of my vetch seeds and plants as well.

young docken
Juvenile docken with buckwheat flowering behind

I’ve made a start on the final area of the tea garden extension: there was a strip along by the trackway which didn’t need levelling, so is still full of weeds: docken, nettles, couch, creeping thistles, other thistles……I’m going to take the worst out and then mulch over the whole area.  The couch will grow back, but I’m hoping that the soil under the mulch will be nice and friable by spring, and a light forking will be sufficient to remove the couch.  I am trying out a variation on mulching again.  Since I seem to need an awful lot of cardboard to cover an area, I am going to make it go further by combining it with newspapers.  Previously when I’ve used newspapers I have weighted them down with grassy materials: old haylage, grass clippings, cut reeds etc.  These work to a certain extent, but there always seems to be a deal of work in cutting and moving the clippings, and then they sometimes blow off and I end up with newspaper decorating the fences.  This time I am going to spread a single layer of cardboard over the newspapers and weight it down with stones as usual, of which I have a plentiful supply collected out of the tea garden extension when moving the soil earlier in the year.  A double layer of cardboard does seem to last pretty well by this method, so we’ll see if a single layer with paper underneath does as well.

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

They say the camera doesn’t lie, but I wanted to see whether I could take a picture that made my weed infested tea garden extension look great.  These pictures were taken from the same position, just crouching or standing up and show how easy it is to be misled.

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Mulching in the heat

summer flowers
Wild flowers in June

The weather continues unusually hot and dry for us.  One of our burns has dried up, and the other is down to a trickle.  Luckily there still seems enough to fill the pipe to the polytunnel, since the sunshine makes it very hot in there, even with the doors open.  The olive tree blossom has opened, and it looks like the toad has found his way into the pond which is good.  I had noticed mosquito larvae in there and some strange jelly creatures with whip tails which look really disgusting, but I assume are some other sort of fly larvae.  I was thinking I might have to import some fish to keep the vermin down, but maybe Mr Toad will sort them out for me.  It should be cooler for him in there and more comfortable.  I did make the sides sloping, so he should be able to get in and out reasonably well.  I’m thinking of maybe getting a small solar powered pump to keep the water from getting stagnant.

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

I have mainly been working down in the tree field in the tea garden and the orchard area.  I have transplanted into the newly cleared and seeded tea garden extension some rather pot bound specimens of skirret, and salsify as well as some straggly alpine strawberries, a couple of mashua and a couple of yacon plants.  They will at least do better in the soil than in their pots for another year!  I also had some tiny callaloo plants which came from the heritage seed library.  This is a West Indian vegetable which is a selection of amaranth, grown for its succulent leaves rather than its seed.  They appear to be quite colourful, but so far don’t seem to be putting on much growth.  Since it has been very dry they may do better with a bit of watering in.  I did give them all a little when planted, but we have had no rain in a fortnight again, so the surface of the soil is very dry.  Underneath it isn’t so bad, although the surface springs have all dried up.

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

I still have a little more of the original tea garden to clear around the gooseberry bush (which seems to be bearing a good few berries despite still being very misshapen and small).  The buttercups taken out have been used to mulch around the lowermost blackcurrent bush.  I’m hoping that it has been dry enough to kill the dug up buttercup plants and that they will kill the buttercups underneath, or at least knock them back a bit.  I have decided that I need to extend the path so that it flows through to join the trackway in a natural flow. Previously I had terraced the slope, so the path had to turn 90 degrees at the step.  The side has now had to be built up with some supporting stones so that the path will have a smooth gradient.  It still needs finishing off, but I think it will work much better.

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Since it was too hot for doing much digging on Friday, I had a gentle day with the dogs mulching in the orchard area where I have been moving the soil (I had a strange virus attack on Thursday which left me feeling like I should take it easy, but feel fine now).  The earth moving is not quite finished yet, but the top terrace is just about there, so I thought I’d try and mulch it to keep the surface clear and stop some of the dock seeds germinating.  Hopefully it will then be ready to plant up next spring.  It is amazing how much cardboard you need for what isn’t a huge area.  I do like to have a fair overlap between the sheets, but I’ll need to get a few more deliveries in the shop to do the rest of the orchard!  I still have a few sheets in my plastic shed, which may finish off the top terrace with luck.

lonicera fruit
Lonicera caerulea berries

On the left hand side of the trackway my new “honeyberries”, or “earlyberries” as Lubera called them, Lonicera caerulea have turned colour, and I think are getting as ripe as they are likely to be.  Not over enamoured of the flavour so far – not as sweet as I’d hoped, bearing in mind the superb weather.  It may be that I was hoping for too much.  They are supposed to taste like blueberries when ripe, but maybe like blackcurrants they are more a berry for cooking with.  I am quite happy that I got any fruit, considering this is their first year with me, and the bees loved the flowers.  I have been very happy with all the plants I got from Lubera – nice quality, reasonable priced (and less than £5 delivery cost even to Skye) and some exiting selections.  I’m thinking of getting a second kiwi, or kiwiberry for my polytunnel and they have several to choose from….

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Heath fragrant orchid

I always get quite excited about the orchids coming into flower  at this time of year.  Year on year we get more flowering, due to them not being eaten by sheep anymore.  I have loads more butterfly orchids on the orchid hill, and several more popping up above the cut through drain to the pond.  The most dense for blooms is the steep slope just above the pond, presumably this had not been ploughed so much.  One would have thought that there would be more coming out on the hump just below the barn, but so far I have only spotted a couple of butterfly orchids near our southern boundary, on the narrow path that winds around the hump.  Maybe the grazing pressure has been higher there due to being closer to the barn?  I would have thought the soils were not that dissimilar.  I spotted a new species of orchid as well this year – what I am fairly certain is a Heath fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia borealis) since it is the first I have found to really have a noticable sweet scent during the day.  I shall have to check for more of these, since I may just have missed them.

Good news

I planted my tomatoes out this week.  I have worked out now what I was doing wrong and why my plants seem so stunted compared to other people’s.  I am over watering them.  The compost appears dry, we are having sunny weather and the polytunnel is getting super hot (too hot for me to work in there during the days).  I thought that tomato plants need lots of water and being in pots they would need more – WRONG!  This peat free compost I am using seems dry at the surface, but underneath it is sopping wet still so the poor little plants were trying to grow in a tropical marsh.  I transplanted them in to bigger pots (which is when I found they were not as dry as I’d thought) hardly watered them at all, and they perked right up.

healthy tomatoes
Happy tomato plants ready to move on – note water canes

The trick is to stick a length of cane or stick into some of the pots to the bottom, when you feel the urge to water, pull out the stick and feel how damp it is – that will tell you if the pots need water.  After two weeks the plants were looking a lot happier and had filled their new pots with roots.  Rather than pot them on again, I just planted them right out into the tunnel.  That involved cutting back much of my self sown salads, which are rather past their best now.  The kale still had some good pickings on and I was going to try making kale crisps (which are rather yummy) but unfortunately I just ran out of time that day and they all went rather limp.  I left the roots of the plants in the soil generally, dug a good sized hole, put about three shovels of my mature compost (rather grey from all the wood and paper ash that went in that heap) in the hole and mixed it in a bit.  I have found that since I’ve left the polytunnel untidy, leaving cut back plants on the surface, the soil has a better texture and doesn’t dry out as much.  The plant debris also stops seeds from germinating.  The tomato plants were popped in a random order, the soil level was deliberately left a little lower than the surrounding soil making it easy to water them in, and the holes can be backfilled to earth up the stems as the plants grow.  Hopefully I won’t lose the little labels telling me which is which.  I’m not expecting wonders from them this year, since I am late getting the plants in, but hopefully, now I know what I’m doing wrong, I can get a bit ahead next year!

newly planted tomatoes
Newly planted tomato area – looking very messy!

While I was clearing the undergrowth in the polytunnel I found three other good things.  Firstly the unknown citrus is not dead!  I had cut it mostly back but not removed it, more from wishful thinking than a belief it would recover, and hey presto! new shoots from near the bottom of the trunk!  I’ll tidy it up a bit once it’s a bit bigger, and perhaps fleece it next winter, but it may be that it will always die back and never flower.

new shoots on citrus
New growth on Citrus tree

Another good thing was a very welcome resident toad.  It was heading into the area I’d cleared in the polytunnel, so I had to relocate it back in a quiet area for its own safety, but I was very happy to see it.  A few years ago I saw a small toad in the tunnel on a number of occasions, but haven’t seen it for a while – maybe this is the same one, but it’s now rather fat and much larger!  I don’t think the pond made the difference – toads prefer running water I gather.  It’s funny, you would have thought, particularly over the last few weeks it would be a bit hot for it in there, but it is obviously happy enough!

big fat toad
Big fat toad!

Whilst I was in the tunnel taking photos I also noticed that my olive tree has flower buds.  I only bought it last year so am very excited about this.

olive flower buds
Olive flowerbuds

The final good thing was that it rained today.  This is not normally something one cheers about on Skye, more something one takes for granted!  However we have actually had about three weeks dry and rather warm weather, so the plants in the thinner soil were starting to get yellow, mostly things were fine for me though.

dried grasses
Getting a bit parched where soil is thinner

It was more the timing that was perfect.  I have been moving soil from under the barn to my orchard area.  A good exercise when the soil is nice and dry – lighter to carry and not slippery underfoot.  I had reached the end of the area, bar a strip near the track which will be harder work, since there is more nettles and couch grass in that bit, together with stones mixed in from the roadway.  Yesterday I dug the last little bit to make the area level, loosened the whole area to a fork depth to try and remove a bit more of the creeping thistle, marked out some paths with edging stones (I’d removed these as I went) and then broadcast all my old seed (and a little fresh seed) in the hope that at least some are still viable to compete with the weeds (I had quite a bit of green manure seeds that I bought for the allotment in Solihull and we’ve been here ten years now!).  Now we have a day of soft soaking rain and it couldn’t be better to water the seeds in!

ready for rain
Newly cleared and seeded area ready for rain!

Mulching away

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

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New beach plum in cardboard mulch a few months on

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

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

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Remulching the orchard area with cardbaord under cut grass

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

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Effective black plastic mulch on driveway

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

Raining and pouring

We had a downpour on Tuesday night which resulted in, amongst other things, our community hall being flooded.  This is for the second time in five years.  A combination of high tide and unusually high rainfall (10mm plus in 1 hour) meant that most of the flood plain of the river was being used.  A family of holiday makers who unaccountably had chosen to camp next to the graveyard (!) had to call out the emergency services at 4.30 in the  morning after the vehicle was surrounded by water and started to float.  It could have been worse, the only casualty was the vehicle.  A few residents have had water ingress through houses or barns on its way downhill.  We’re a bit higher up the valley but the river was higher that we’ve seen it in ten years.  Some trees beside the river have been damaged and some torn out.  The river was going in our pond at the top and coming out at the bottom, but we’ve got away with no major damage this time.  This sort of weather event may be more common in the future of course.  The other thing I noticed was erosion of the trackway down the hill to the orchard.  The buried watermain acts as an interceptary drain and the low point at which it overflows is about at the trackway.  It’s not been so bad since I repaired the burn bed, but in heavy rain it obviously still does divert a bit.  Something to bear in mind when S. does refinish the trackway.  Since the orchard is on a slope, and I’ve raised up the level for the trees, I don’t think it will be an issue for them.

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Grass caught on fence shows the flood level