Mulching away

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

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New beach plum in cardboard mulch a few months on

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

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

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Remulching the orchard area with cardbaord under cut grass

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

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Effective black plastic mulch on driveway

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

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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

Earth moving

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Two barrows and a bucket

I’ve been hard at work moving soil down the hill to try and terrace the orchard area. There is a surplus of soil just below the barn where S. moved it from various locations, particularly from where the roadway now wraps around above the byre. Let’s just say the soil is of varying quality. I’m pretty sure that some of it is quite fertile. There was a quantity of nettles there, and they are an indicator of fertile soil. However as I’m digging it I am using two wheel barrows and a bucket. One wheelbarrow for the ‘good’ soil, one wheelbarrow for the pernicious weed roots (couch grass, creeping thistle, docken and nettles) and the bucket for larger bits of coal as I spot them. It seems that part of the area above the byre must have been the storage area for the house coal. There is also quite a bit of saw dust. Probably from more recent chainsawing by S. since the wood we have been using has been cut up in that sort of area in the recent past. As well as the above, there is also a sprinkling of the typical bits of glass, string, broken crockery and strange part burnt bits of possibly vehicle that we often find around the place. You must understand that until the 1970’s there was no rubbish collection in the area, so everything was disposed of locally. I have fantasies sometimes of being able to piece together ancient dinner services like a three dimensional jigsaw. In the meantime the bits get collected into piles and occasionally the ‘real’ rubbish thrown in the bin. I do love the archeological fringe of my gardening sometimes though. The best thing I’ve found was an flint arrowhead or speartip. Although I didn’t dig that up. It came to the surface when the drains for next door’s soakaway were dug just above the orchard. It makes me very humble about my significance when I think of the thousands of years that have passed since that item was made and lost. The land continues despite my little scratchings.

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Holmisdale Flint tool

Growing on the earth pile are several silverweed plants. One in particular has lovely long roots from last year. I’ve moved them down to where the soil has been moved to in the orchard. I’m pretty sure that I’ll have to dig it over to remove couch and other weeds, so I may as well have some goodies to dig up as well. The exposed soil after removing the top layers by the barn is nice and bare. I’ve planted out there a few skirret seedlings that have got a bit pot bound. I don’t want to get too close to the working area though, or they’ll get trampled. Although they looked tiny little plants, they seem to have little root thickenings developing anyway, poor little things! Still they should do a bit better with a bit of root room, if the slugs don’t get them.

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Long root on Silverweed

This earth moving is slow work. I’m hopeful that I will have the left hand side of the path done, as you look down the hill, this year, but I’ve got a lot more soil to move. The weather more recently has been a bit wet too, which doesn’t really make for safe work. Not just working in the wet, which isn’t pleasant, but the extra weight of wet soil, and slippery steep slopes make it awkward….

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More silverweed for orchard

Cutting Docken and grass

Again, the weather has been kind to me. I have been cutting the docken (don’t you just love that plural?) in the orchard area. I have lots of docks around the place, and often they get to seed before I cut them, thus seedlings grow and the docken proliferate. I have discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you get the growing top off the dock they don’t tend to grow back. So my technique is to cut with a spade, aiming to get a couple of inches of the tap root, and not worry too much about the rest of the root. We also have some sort of big pinkish white grub that eats dock roots – maybe they eat the remainder?

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Cutting Docken in orchard area

The orchard area was planted just over three years ago with plum, damson and cherry trees, and I added some apples 18 months ago. It is in a more sheltered dip at the top of the tree field, and I intend to add more soil to landscape the area. I wanted to give the trees as much soil as possible, and also try and keep them well drained. We get so much rain and this is one of the factors that make the fruit trees not grow so well and succumb to disease. At the moment the landscaping is partially done. The trees were planted on mounds, and I have been spreading soil between them. This is barrowed down from below the barn, where it was left from various trackway excavations. Although S. did move down some soil with the dumper, It took a lot of effort to then distribute it and dig out the couch grass and nettles that came too, so wasn’t really much of a labour saving in the end! The trackway down from the barn still needs grading, so is still a bit steep for comfortable barrowing, but at least the heavy bit’s downhill! Anyway, apparently along with the couch and nettles were also a lot of dock seeds which have subsequently germinated and done quite well (oh why aren’t they edible weeds?). So last week I and the dogs took the pink ball and the spade and barrow and set to work. One and a half days later we had cleared the docken, done a lot of fetching, discovered some nicely growing blackcurrant cuttings that I stuck in last winter, a big bone that Dougie had hidden there, a couple of very small spruce seedlings that were missed from several I had temporarily stuck in there eighteen months ago; that is the good news.

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Blackcurrant cuttings in orchard area

The docken were also lovely to dig up from the new soil – many came up with complete roots, so the soil should be good for other stuff to grow in. The bad news is that I also discovered that along with the docken we also have a lot of surviving couch grass (I now know what couch grass flowers look like), nettles and of course the creeping thistle that were in the field before the trees were planted. I’m hoping that continual pulling will deter the creeping thistles. This seems to have been reasonably effective in the tea garden, I had very little come back this year. It’s not the nicest job. You need need grippy gloves to grasp the stems so as to pull as much root as possible: I like the cloth ones with latex facing. However, the palms aren’t strong enough to stop all the prickles, so every now and then you have to pick out a prickle that has broken off in the glove and is sticking in you. I just pulled out the nettles (which will probably grow back) and ignored most of the couch. I know it’s going to grow extensively, but I’m hoping to complete the landscaping, and maybe do some planting this autumn. With a good thick mulch in the meantime and relying on the lovely light soil structure, I’m hoping it will come out then reasonably completely. Anyway, it’s only grass! I’ll probably plant out some of my exciting root crops there this autumn/winter since they will subsequently need digging out anyway giving me a second opportunity to remove the couch….

It was forecast to be dry until Thursday last week, and we were keen to get the paths in the tree field cut. It’s nice to have the grass long, but it makes my trousers wet as I’m walking through (even with wellies on), and S. also has difficulty telling the trees and other plants apart, so having a defined pathway makes it easier if he does have to drive a vehicle round. To be fair the docks are still bigger than some of the trees.  I’d asked him to get the mower out ready for me, so that I could cut the paths when I got home from the shop on Wednesday. It would be quite late, but the sun doesn’t set till gone ten for us at the moment, so there is still quite a bit of daylight. Anyway, he not only got the mower out, but he and the dog-boys went round all the trackways a few times. It wasn’t quite the way I would have done it. I’m not that keen on cutting the grass at all at this time of year. I would like the flowers to have set their seed. However, for reasons of practicality, a little pathway in the centre of the track seems like a good compromise. S. however, did the main trackway with several passes, and the main side loop also with a wider cut. I went round a second time trying to keep in the centre of the track, because the scythemower doesn’t cut that cleanly the first cut, and a second cut gives a more even result. A disadvantage of doing more than the minimum is that Muggins here then has to spend longer than neccessary raking up the extra cut grass. It looks slightly surreal with the long grass, trees and flowers, a mowed path, and the mounds of gathered cut grass.

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Hay mounds along mown trackway

Now I have a fair amount of material for mulching. I will have to wheelbarrow this up hill to the orchard area, where hopefully it will stop some of the noxious weeds growing back too strongly and feed the fruit trees in the longer term. If there is more than I need it can be used to mulch the trees nearest the path edge, or others strategically selected.
If we had more land I would like to cut some of it for hay. Corncrake have a hard time now on Skye, since most crofters just buy in their winter feed now and the in bye fields are now summer grazing. I heard one once here in Glendale a couple of years ago, but it didn’t stay.

Holmisdale in May

t always amazes me how much things grow during May.  The field goes from a thatch of last years’ dead grass to a sea of pignut, grass and bluebell flowers.  I’ve selected a few of the latest photos to capture May and some of the ongoing activities to do with the trees and the tree field’

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Hawthorne in blossom

This tree is actually in the front garden and was planted in 2008.  It has been flowering for the last three years, last year it set quite a few berries.  I made some hawthorne blossom cordial this year following roughly the same recipe as for elderflower cordial.  It’s supposed to be good for the heart and digestion.  Not a strong flavour, maybe a hint of apples over the lemon that is part of the recipe.

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Worrying lack of leaves on birch

Last year we started to see a problem with several birch trees.  They had previously grown well bar a bit of die back.  This however is more than just die back!  They do seem to be alive, but the twigs are mainly dead with just a little new growth.  I’m going to contact the Woodland Trust over this for some advice.  Some of the birch seem fine, and others from different planting years are like this to a greater or lesser extent.  I need to do a bit of a survey and see if I can tell whether it is betula pendula (silver birch) or betula pubescens (downy birch) that is affected (or both).

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Flowering pine tree

This is the second or third year that these pine (also from 2008) have flowered.  I’m not sure if it is a lodgepole pine or scots pine.  I have to admit I find the new growth on the pines rather phallic in habit!  The red tips are the female flowers (that might develop into cones) and the orangey- brown fingers are the male catkins.  Note the wind scorched older leaves.  I think this is a scots pine, since what I think are lodgepole pine elsewhere are almost defoliated by the salt wind in the winter.

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Monkey puzzle in mulch mat

I’m hoping I don’t regret using this carpet underlay as mulching material.  It seems almost ideal – it is from our house in Solihull and was under the most disgusting deep pile orange carpet (that when taken up we used as bearskin props in a ‘flintstones’ scene once, but that’s another story) so reused.  It is made predominately from felted jute fibres so biodegradable.  It is permeable, so will let the rain soak through for the trees, but is mostly thick enough to exclude light and smother out the grass and other plants around the little trees.  The only downside I’ve found is that it is only mostly Jute.  It also has a very coarse scrim of polymer fibres, presumably to give it strength (or maybe mouldability – I used to work on automotive carpets which were heat formed).  These will not degrade in the short term.  I suspect that the grass will grow through and over the mat in the next year and the fibres will be concealed but ever there…..suggestions welcome.

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Pignut blossom

This is just a picture showing the density of pignut, conopodium majus, in the tree field.  It is a native wild flower here.  I have only tried the tubers raw so far, and although pleasant to eat, they tended to give me a slightly nauseous feeling afterwards.  I haven’t tried it cooked.  I love the dainty blossom which is like miniature cow parseley (of which there is very little in this area).  It’s not in full bloom yet, but quite lovely.

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Landrover mulch

This patch is where one of our Land Rovers (Lara the croft rover) had been parked for about two years previously.  The grass has been entirely shaded out, but there is plenty of pignut and creeping thistle as well as sheeps sorrel and a few buttercups that have survived, all coming back after about a month.  Perhaps an example of mortal tree’s ‘a bit blunt’ method of mulching.  I don’t think I’ll be encouraging more long term parking in the tree field however….

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Bluebell river

The bluebells (hyacintha non scripta) are just about at their peak at the end of May, start of June.  They have done really well this year.  You can see how they are concentrated at the field edge where there is the remains of a stone wall and ditch, so probably not well ploughed.  They also survived several years of being grazed and trampled by sheep prior to the trees being planted (these in 2011).  Compare to next door’s grazed field – I bet there are bluebells under there as well!  Also you can note that they are quite happy in the sunshine.  The ground is so damp, they don’t need the shade of trees on Skye.  When we bought the land, I couldn’t even tell that we had bluebells.

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Buttercup mulch

I found this plant growth quite amusing.  This is one of my ‘orchard’ apple trees, which actually bore an apple last year – although it disappeared before I had a chance at it (crows, wind, dogs….).  These trees were all mulched last year, with my favourite sheet  mulching method – sheets of cardboard from our shop, overlapped and weighed down with suitable stones.  This is quite effective, and lasts about a year.  It is quite obvious that it has worked well on the grass, but less well on the buttercups!  Whether these were not killed (they do sprout right through when buried in a few inches of soil) or have just spread over the cardboard more quickly than the grass, I’m not sure, I suspect the former.  I don’t know whether the buttercups are going to be a problem with the trees however.  We try and get rid of the grass mainly because of it’s alleopathic effects – it is known to have a detremental effect on tree growth for this reason, rather than direct competition for resources.  I think I’ll try and mulch the trees again anyway, since they are still very small.  I still have quite a bit of earth moving to do in the orchard area.  I’d like to try and finish the landscaping here this year, so I can get on with underplanting the trees next spring.