Spring fever

Now comes my favourite time of year.  From the winter dark, wind and rain, the days suddenly get longer and with the clock change to summer time at the end of March we also tend to get a change to dry settled weather.  Long days, wall to wall sunshine and a drying breeze soon turn the sopping muddy soil to a workable consistency and now is the opportunity to do any weeding or digging projects.  I start far too many things and still achieve half of what I want to get done!  The grass starts growing and seemingly overnight violets and celandines join the early primroses in the parade of spring flowers.

violets
First Spring Violets

It is also the time that the crofters set the hills afire.  The top growth of heather and dead grass is burnt away every few years.  This lets fresh new grass have it’s share of the sun and rain in order to feed the sheep when they return to graze on the moors after lambing.  There are rules now that should be adhered to, including not burning after mid April, so as to allow ground nesting birds to breed safely.  These (and other reasons) mean that the hills don’t get burnt so often, so every now and then the fires get a bit out of hand.  There was one that was burning at the far end of the glen for two days and nights last week, fanned by a strong breeze (it was mostly the other side of the hill).  They can sometimes set the peat underneath on fire, if it gets too dry, and can carry on burning underground, springing into life again seemingly from nowhere.  Someone locally whimsically wrote ‘here be dragons’ on one burnt road sign….

wild fire
Wild Fire Skye

I’ve been moving plants in and out of the polytunnel day and night this week, to try and harden them off ready to plant out.  I have also managed to plant out my ribes odorata or clove currant which was sat outside all winter.  This is a black fruited shrub from the US that has clove scented berries.  I hadn’t realised however, how ornamental the flowers would be.  Attractive yellow with a pleasant scent, they will make a nice show at this time of year.

Ribes odoratum flowers
Ribes Odoratum spring flowers

Unfortunately I have had to prune the bush right back after planting, since it was quite root bound in a small pot.  I have cut through the roots at the surface to try and encourage regrowth, since they are very  congested.  The top growth would have been far too much for the root ball, so I felt that removing most of the branches was the best thing.

root ball bound
Rather root bound!

Unfortunately it means I won’t be likely to get many berries this year.  I have stuck the cuttings in the ground adjacent to the bush in the hope that they will root, (removing most of the flowers and leaves) although it is really too late for that to be very likely.

Ribes odoratum planting 2019
Truncated clove currant left and hopeful cuttings right

I was excited to be given some crug zing japanese ginger roots.  Having seen this at Eden project last year, I was keen to see whether I could grow it here.  It seems likely to do well.  Jim at garden ruminations was happy to get rid of it, since it was a bit of a garden thug for him, with inconspicuous flowers at the base of luxuriant top growth.  However both spring shoots and autumn flower buds are esteemed as vegetables in Japan, so I look forwards to trying it here in future.  Since Jim gave me a substantial number of crowns (thank you!), I have been able to try it in several different places.  Notably near my Toona sinensis shrub where I may create an oriental themed planting area.  I was excited to note several Hablitzia plants sprouting along the willow bank around the fruit garden.  They actually look pretty happy so that is encouraging.  I think they could be a staple leaf crop through the spring and summer once established.

I have managed to get the steps on the drive bank completed, and am gathering up suitable plants ready to plant up the freshly bare soil before the weeds get a chance to recolonise it (hence the polytunnel daily migrations).  I was able to get a nice looking lavender and broad leaved thyme plant in Portree along with some house leeks – thanks Frances for that suggestion for wall crevice planting!  The picture below shows how much drier the soil is and how much the leaves on the sycamore have come out in just a week (even more so now).

wall plants
Gathering plants….

So much fun to be had….

 

 

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Building walls

drive bank wall
Drive bank wall

Finally the drive bank is starting to look like I’ve been working on it (see also here for earlier work).  To any person skilled in the art, it looks like a pile of stones rather than a retaining wall, however, I know I can walk securely on the top layer of stones, so am pretty happy with it.  As a happy consequence of my ineptitude, there will be plenty of planting crevices to squeeze in a few little plants in the wall itself.  As it weathers, and with some planting to soften it, I think it will look well.

The area between the ramp (unfinished – it will have steps) and the sycamore tree should be quite a favoured microclimate.  It faces south west, but is partially sheltered by the workshop on the far side of the drive from the prevailing winds, and I’m also intending to plant some shrubs at the top of the bank behind it.  It should be well drained; being a bank with loose rocks on it’s face, and these rocks will absorb the sun through the day and protect a little from the frost.  It should be shaded first thing in the morning, so any frost can gradually melt rather than having an extreme change of temperature.  I’m therefore hoping that I can try a few things in this bed that are a bit tender.  It should certainly suit some mediterranean herbs like rosemary and lavender, maybe sage.  I have an Atriplex halimus (salt bush) plant that I grew from seed, that may do well there, although it may grow a little big.  If any of my Tropaeolum speciosum seeds germinate this would look stunning clambering up the tree.  In the short term I also have some perennials that I grew from my HPS seed last year.  I’ll have a bit of an audit over the weekend, since I am hoping to go to Portree next week (I need more compost) and can get some more plants if necessary.  I’d quite like this area to be a bit more ornamental in nature, rather than the more unkempt back-to-nature look that most of my garden has!

road bank
Fuchsia root by roadside

I managed to relocate two large lumps of white fuchsia roots to the road side behind the house (the house backs onto the road so our front garden is at the back, and the rear garden is just the road verge and bank).  The dogs like to run along the fence harassing pedestrians and chasing Donnie’s truck and the odd stray sheep.  The ground therefore is challenging for hedge planting, since it is compacted and trampled as well as having almost no wind protection at all.  There may be some forward protection due to the house behind and the spruce trees by the driveway.  At some point in the past it looks like someone attempted to put a second pedestrian access down the bank behind the house.  All that remains is a zigzagging canyon, forming a trip hazard and eyesore.  I have therefore planted the fuchsia roots at the top end of this zigzag, buttressing them with rocks and rubble and backfilling with soil and stones where I have been excavating the second tier retaining wall by the drive.  In my experience, fuchsia are tough plants so I expect the roots to survive both the relocation and the location to thrive.  In the event of them failing, I have got some younger stems covered with soil which I’m intending to stick in the ground to try and take new plants from.

The strawberry plants at the top of the bank by the sycamore, which got covered with soil when I was excavating the fuchsia and the ramp a few weeks ago, seem to be surviving under their blanket.  There are several fresh leaves appearing.  These are running alpine strawberries, which I bought in to try as a ground cover and am hoping will have useful berries (no sign last year).  On the bank below, near the tree, I found a single plant of sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).  By appearance it could have been a number of things, but the aniseed fragrance is a dead give away.  I suspect that I threw a few seeds around there in the hope that some would sprout.  I didn’t notice the plant last year, but this must be it’s second year judging by the little taproot.  I’ve transplanted this a bit further back near to where I have planted a bladdernut (staphlea pinnata).  I noticed that the good king henry plants, that I planted near the bladdernut last year, seem to be coming back OK.  The other plants that have been growing around the sycamore are……more sycamores.  I’m collecting them up into a little bucket and am considering planting them down in the tree field where the ash aren’t doing so well.  I didn’t plant many sycamore (just some potted seedlings I had been given) mainly because it has the reputation of being a somewhat anti-social tree.  However, I’m now just thinking if it grows….

scyamore bud
And the buds are beautiful

Forgotten Things

polytunnel tulips
Tulip in Polytunnel

It is funny how quickly I forget what I planted where.  I had a load a bulbs that I ordered from JW Parkers this autumn.  I did manage to get most of the bulbs planted at a reasonable time (although the left over lilies were a bit late getting stuck in a pot), but with one thing and another didn’t really have much of a chance to prepare planting places for them.  Really I should have planned it better.  Anyway, when these sprouts came up in the polytunnel in February near my pineapple guava (feijoa sellowiana) I was a bit puzzled.  I convinced myself that they must be camassia as I remembered that was one of the plants I had bought several of.  However I have now remembered that they are tulips!  These were free bulbs (purple and white flowers) for making an order, and I have recently found out that tulip petals are edible (although toxic for cats and people with lily allergies, as is the rest of the plant).  With no real hope of repeat flowering outside I thought I would give them a go in the tunnel are here they are!

dogs tooth violet
Dogs tooth violet (and daffodils)

Other bulbs from the same batch are dogs tooth violet (erythronium sp.).  The bulbs of these are supposedly edible and they should like Skye pretty well, as well as having exciting flowers.  I got a couple of varieties, and I have to say that the bulbs did seem to be big enough to be worth eating on at least one of the varieties I got, although I planted them rather than eating them.  The barricading rubbish in the picture by the way, is to try and stop our dog Douglas from trampling on them.  He has a thing about birds in the trees there, and likes to dance around barking up the tree (bless him!).

I also got quite a few snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris).  Not because they are edible (although most fritillary bulbs are) but because I simply adore them.  My mum used to grow some in our garden in Oxfordshire when I was a child, and I know that they grow wild in the water meadows around Oxford.  I just didn’t think that they would stand a chance on Skye.  The soil in Oxfordshire is river silt, and in the case of my mum’s garden quite alkaline clay.  A bit of a change from the acid peaty silt that I have.  However, a couple of years ago I saw some in a local garden and established that they do indeed come back in subsequent years, so I couldn’t resist trying them.  These I haven’t spotted yet.  I have planted them in the grass banks (I think!) in the hope that they will naturalise there. I’m also hoping that they will be enough out of the way of our house extension if and when we get round to that.

camassia
Camassia in top field

What I did get in the hopes that they will a) naturalise and b) be edible as well as c) ornamental are three varieties of camassia.  These are very ornamental flowers of the pacific north west US and I am hopeful that they will like it here.  They are supposed to like damp meadows and we can certainly manage the damp bit.  I have planted some in the grass, some in the dog resistant garden and some in the fruit garden.  All three are sprouting hopefully.

onion
Woodland allium

These nice little onions flowers, that were a gift from a fellow blogger (thanks Anni), have sprouted up happily under the trees in the front garden.  I forget which they were now, I was given two sorts, the others are planted in the dog resistance garden, and are happy enough, but not yet flowering.

I tried to find the collective noun for daffodils and the official seems to be ‘bunch’ or possibly ‘host’ ala Wordsworth.  I can’t see either of these doing justice to the joy of these flowers at this time of year, and others seem to agree with me.  I would probably go for a ‘cheerfulness’ since they just elevate one’s spirits with their exuberance in the garden.  Luckily the wind and hail showers recently have not been enough to destroy them.

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The ‘tatty’ daffs are a local variety that multiplies and flowers like mad.  It has double flowers with green tinged petals and I’m not sure I always appreciate it as it deserves.

Yacon = cake

It was actually a little while ago I harvested the Yacon in the polytunnel, the ones outside were harvested before Xmas.  I hadn’t done anything with the tubers ’til now – they have been sitting rather in the way in boxes in the hallway until I got round to finishing off weighing them etc.  Some of the tubers have shrivelled slightly, but they otherwise appear fine.  Even the one that broke in half when dug from outside still had no mould growing.

I originally had two sources for the Yacon which visually look identical, but have been performing slightly differently (the better one is from real seeds, although they appear to be out of season now).  I have been growing them side by side for comparison, and do think that these are slightly more productive for me.  I think I will search out some other varieties if they become available (lubera have a couple listed, but are only available later as plants, so are more expensive).  Unfortunately the few seedlings I managed to grow from cultivariable seed did not survive the winter last year.

Inside Yacon Oct 2018
Polytunnel plants competing for light

The plants in the polytunnel were basically just replanted in the same spots last year after harvesting – so overwintered in the soil.  There were two of each source planted in adjacent beds with a little more compost dug in around them.  They were watered when I remembered, but seemed to be thriving.  There was a little bit of caterpillar damage to the leaves (those ‘silver y’ moths again) but not enough to be a problem.  I think that the plants nearest the polytunnel wall may have suffered from overcrowding or overshading – In both cases that plant was smaller that the other.

Inside Yacon harvest feb 2019
Yacon harvest (polytunnel) February 2019

Harvested at the start of February 2019, the ‘real seeds’ plants had a total usable tuber weight of 22 Oz, the other had a total weight of 10 1/2 Oz.  I did not pull all the tubers off any of the plants.  The smallest would have been a bit fiddly and may well give the plants a bit of a start in the ground next year!  One of the plants (bottom right) has naturally split into several parts.  I may divide the larger clumps as well to give myself more plants this year.

Outside Yacon May 2018
Yacon plants for outside, growing on May 2018

The plants outside were overwintered in pots and grown on till about June, when I had enough room in the tea garden extension to plant them out.  They seemed to do pretty well considering they were fairly exposed and I deliberately did not clear the other plants from around them, since they would have been giving them a bit of shelter.

Yacon outside Oct 2018
Yacon outside on Skye October 2018

The leaves were a lot smaller and less green and the plants were far more shrubby than the plants under cover.  The holes in the leaves shown above I believe is wind damage.  The plants were harvested earlier than those inside – being killed off by frosts in mid December.   The smaller plant really had no useable tubers, the other (real seeds) had about 6 Oz; which was actually pretty similar to the poorer plants in the polytunnel.

Outside Yacon harvest Dec28
Outside Yacon harvest December 2018

Last year I concluded that the tubers are better considered a fruit rather than a vegetable and we have eaten them in various ways.  It made fantastic cake last year (based on a pear crumble cake) and also added to sweet and sour vegetables, and ‘risotto’ (a family chicken recipe actually a bit more like a paella).  As I said it can tend to discolour a bit after cooking, but still tastes fine.  Raw one could grate it into a coleslaw or dice into another salad to add sweetness.

Yacon cake #2
Yacon fruit cake

I have tried another cake recipe this year.  I want to see how much I can reduce the sugar content, since the Yacon is so sweet to taste.  This cake was based on a parsnip fruit cake recipe by Jennie Rutland in an old magazine (possibly Home Farmer again).  The Yacon was substituted for the parsnip and grated coarsely, the sugar content was reduced by about half and it still tastes delicious.  S. definitely approved and more was requested!

 

 

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!

2018: Going forwards looking backwards

Being as the year is just about over, it seems appropriate to have a little look back at this point in time.

I haven’t written about some of the trivia that I’ve been doing more recently at home, partly because much of it is unfinished yet, and partly to catch up with my holiday garden visits.   Over all we have been pleased with the way the trees have grown this year.  S. managed to pick a nice tree to bring in and decorate this Xmas.  It’s getting a little more difficult to find a spruce tree that is small enough and isn’t being an important part of a windbreak.

xmas trree
Xmas spruce all dressed up

The ash and alder as usual, along with the spruce, have grown well.  You can also see how the trees with a little more shelter grow a bit better.  Even some of the hazel is growing a bit better in places.  I’m a bit worried about the ash however.  Although it grew well again this summer, as we saw, as usual there is quite a bit of die back.  This time the bark staining seems to match the characteristics of chalera.  I had a look online at the woodland trust and forestry commission sites and the way the staining goes up and down from the leaf buds does seem to match chalera, however, there is no internal staining of the wood when I split it down the middle.  I’ll send the pictures off to the woodland trust.  These ash trees were ones they helped us buy, so they should be able to give us some advice about it.

I have grown a few new unusual edibles for the first time.  Oca, wapato (sagittaria latifolia), marsh woundwort (although I also found this growing natively in the tree field I think) and edible lupin.  This last was part of Garden Organic members’ experiment.  In summary I’d have been better off eating the lupin seeds they sent rather than planting them.  I’ll do a brief post about them separately however.

I’ve managed to grow some new perennials from seed, now I just need to get them through the winter. Some of them came from the Hardy Plant Society seed distribution list, and some were bought from various suppliers.  I have a number of cornus kousa, a couple of canna indica, several akebia triloba, two different passiflora, broom, watercress, astragalus crassicarpus, a couple of campanula varieties and dahlia coccinia. A few others germinated and perished including gevuina avellana (second time of trying) and hosta. Many more seeds also never managed to germinate for me. I have quite a few little plants waiting for their “forever home”. One korean pine is still alive, but very small.  A saltbush plant is doing quite well in a pot, but I’m not sure if its atriplex halimus or a. canescens.

propagation
Propagation area in July

Crop wise I grew physalis peruviana for the first time on Skye. I seem to remember growing it in Solihull and not being particularly impressed. Here in the polytunnel it has grown quite huge and is still alive at the end of December, although with a little mildew. It could grow as a perennial if it isn’t too cold, which was one reason I gave it a go. The berries are nowhere near ripe however. Along with many of the things that needed potting on and watering it got a bit neglected due to the super hot early summer. I don’t think it was a fair trial therefore, since it didn’t get an early start. The plants have grown huge compared to the fruits produced. I seem to remember reading that this can be due to good nitrogen content of the soil (producing lush foliage and little fruit) however this does seem unlikely for me!

Another plant that got a slow start, but made good growth is tomatillo. These were so stunted when I planted the few survivors out that I nearly didn’t bother. Once in the ground they grew away fine.  I’ll have to check how they are doing now.

The tomatoes managed to ripen a few delicious fruit before I had to harvest them due to mildew on the vines. The supersweet 100 was earliest and quite prolific. The first in the field wasn’t but did pretty well for a standard salad tomato. I like it because it is a bush variety, and it stayed quite compact. This makes it easier to grow close to the edges of the tunnel. Spread out on the window sill we did get a few more fruit to ripen, but many just went mildewy there.

Achocha needs to go in earlier. I couldn’t resist ordering the giant bolivian variety from real seeds again this year even though I know it really struggles to get going for me! This year I didn’t get any fruit before the plants got killed by the frost!  S. doesn’t really like globe artichoke. He finds it a bit of a fiddle to eat. This is a pity, since I have managed to get a few more plants of a known variety to germinate and hopefully get them through the winter.  I will try one more in the tunnel and the others outside anyhow.  I want to try eating the cardoon stalks next year.  It is a case of remembering to tie them up to blanch at the appropriate time.

I’m fairly pleased with the way the apricot is growing: a bit more quickly than I was expecting. I’m hoping I may get a few blossom this spring with any luck! Still got a bit more formative pruning to do, but it’s looking good so far, as long as it stays small enough for the tunnel!  The boskoop glory grapevine did well. I didn’t manage to harvest all the grapes before they started to go mouldy. The autumn was a bit cool and windy, although not unusually so I would say. The new Zalagyongye vine started to set the single bunch very late and they stayed very small, although were quite sweet. Hopefully it will do better as it gets older.

kiwi november
Kiwi ‘Jenny’ fruit in November

I’m wondering whether to give up on the kiwi vine. I picked the fruit a week or so ago, they were starting to drop off the vine, but still don’t seem very sweet. Judging by the grape, it hasn’t been a good year for ripening, but considering the size of the vine and the use we get of the harvest (there are more pleasant jams to make) I’m not sure it’s worth the space it takes. S. wasn’t keen on getting rid of it because it is a lovely big plant. It does also produce a huge amount of large leaves which have dropped off and formed a mulch layer in the tunnel which is nice. I’ll need to rake them off the paths though. Since S. spoke up for it I’ll prune it back a bit, give it one more season and then we’ll see. If I do take it out I was thinking of replacing it further up the tunnel with a kiwi-berry actinidia arguta, or kolomitkes. These have smaller, hairless berries that ripen earlier, so are likely to be more successful for me. The plant is also a little less vigorous, so takes less pruning.

kiwi leaves
Kiwi leaf mulch in tunnel

I have two pineapple guava at the bottom end of the tunnel. These have not flowered yet, but are growing well. I have been nipping out the longer shoots to encourage the plants to grow bushily. This will stop them getting too big too soon and also maybe more dense flowering if and when that happens. I don’t know whether they will ripen fruit for me. They need a hot summer to ripen. However the flowers are supposed also to be delicious, so I would be happy to settle for those!

A number of strawberries fruited in the tunnel. I had them from two different sources, and I can’t remember now which is which! I did get a few very delicious berries, but struggled to keep them watered and lost a few plants. I have managed to pot up a number of runners from one of the successful plants, so can move those into some of the gaps.  I also have a number of different strawberries outside some of which managed to ripen a few berries, but need a big of feed and weeding really.

Still in the tunnel the asparagus is starting to look promising. It is still shooting up spears now however! I’m hoping that next year I can try and harvest a few shoots, so watch this space. Another success has been the milk vetch which I grew from seed. In one of Martin Crawford’s books he suggests it as a non competitive perennial ground cover with shallow roots. I’ve planted it in various places around the tunnel. I’m hoping it will cover the ground around the asparagus plants, since they don’t like competition from weeds. If they managed to fix a bit of nitrogen that also wouldn’t be bad!

The sweet potato harvest was rather small. I think I didn’t manage to water the plants enough. They were lovely big plants when they went in. I’m wondering whether they were actually a bit too big. One of them had rather more tubers than the other, but they were all a bit tangled up, as if the plant had been a bit pot bound and never really developed tubers beyond the roots already started. The other had longer roots, but several only just starting to thicken. Either it had been cut back by the cold too early, or it just didn’t grow quickly enough.  Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these plants or tubers are likely to survive the winter. I’ll give it a go however, since it will be silly to fork out that value again. If I can plant them out earlier, and feed and water them better, they may stand a better chance….

Somewhere near the sweet potato are two dahlias. These were dahlia coccinia. I grew them from seed from the HPS list, and they have attractive burgundy foliage and pretty red single flowers. I didn’t try eating the petals of these, although they should be edible along with the tubers.  I have a couple more that grew and flowered in pots. These need to be moved somewhere frost free over the winter so they don’t rot.  I’ll try and post about harvest another time when I’ve tried them.  Apparently the taste and texture is variable….

The climbing nasturtiums were a little slow to get started. I think they got a little dry in the hot earlier summer. Once things cooled down there were a couple that did very well, including one growing through the apricot that hasn’t got killed by the frosts yet. The one opposite this had the most beautiful tiger red flowers however. I’ll try and get seeds from this!  I’m not keen on eating them, although I believe all parts are edible, but I do like the flowers.  I also like the way outside that the circular leaves catch rainwater and form droplets.

nasturtium
This photo does not do the colour justice

The unknown citrus is still looking quite green. While it is still mild I will wrap it in some fleece to try and protect it a bit this year. Unless it has some established branches it will never flower and we won’t find out what variety of fruit it has.

The polytunnel pond has held water which is a good start considering I had to repair the liner before using it! I grew watercress, marsh woundwort and sagitaria latifolia in pots in it. The watercress has escaped from its pot and seems to be mainly floating round on the surface. I think it will die back overwinter, so am not sure whether it will return or not. The pond was also very useful as a means of soaking seeds trays and watering from the bottom. I’m very glad I designed some very shallow shelves around the edges, as well as much deeper ones! It was certainly welcomed by Mr. Toad, and although there were insect larvae and algae it never got stagnant or a noticable source of pests. Midges breed on damp vegetation of which there is plenty outside, so it didn’t contribute to those Scottish pests either!

Having seen Sagara’s successful olive fruit, I have to conclude that none of my olive flowers did set fruit. The plant itself looks pretty healthy though. It has grown a bit and bushed out. I’m hoping it will overwinter alright in the ground in the tunnel, since the soil in there should be fairly dry and it is protected fully from the wind. Fingers crossed for more flowers next year. I have read that olives fruit better with cross fertilisation, so maybe I should look out for another variety. I’m not quite sure where I would plant it though!

Since I only got one surviving five flavour berry, I have obtained another two plants from two different suppliers. They are both supposed to be self fertile, but should also fertilise each other, and the surviving seedling. Both are planted out in the tunnel and mulched now for the winter.  The passionflower and akebia were still very tiny plants as we went into the winter, so I’m not sure they will survive. I’ll try and remember to bring some into the house to overwinter as insurance if I can find the spare plants!

The yacon grew quite huge in the tunnel, at least above ground. It has pretty well died back now, but the oca is still green in there, so I may leave digging both until the oca has finished its stuff. I had not split the Yacon plants which I think did give them a better start this year. I think I will maybe try and propagate a few more plants for outside growing, but generally leave the inside plants as undisturbed as is compatible with digging up the edible tubers!  The oca and Yacon outside have been harvested (I’ll write about that together).  The oca seemed to be doing better outside, but died back more quickly.  The Yacon outside seemed a lot smaller: we’ll see what the harvest is like!

tea garden pallets
Putting up windbreaks in Tea Garden

I’m reasonably pleased with the landscaping I achieved in the tea garden extension and orchard area.  I need to carry on eliminating perennial weeds (couch grass particularly) and get on with ground cover planting.  I’m also putting up some windbreaks in the tea garden extension, thanks to our new grocery supplier at the shop, who make their delivery on a pallet.  I was particulary pleased to recieve a scarlet pallet!  Next year I also want to do a bit more work in the fruit garden to change the path layout, and maybe get rid of the autumn fruiting raspberries, which are really too late to be worth the effort.  I also have started a retaining wall along the driveway.  This gives me a nice south facing well drained site.  I need to get a good windbreak planting along the top.  I have some escallonia cuttings coming on nicely, which I know do very well here.  These have nice raspberry pink flowers. Although the plant is not edible, it is tough, quick growing, evergreen and attractive, which I think will be enough in this location.

driveway wall construction
Driveway wall under construction

I’m definitely looking forwards to 2019 and all the exciting things growing next year.

remembering summer
Remembering summer

 

 

Plants for a future: The Fern’s field

I’ve wanted to visit the field in Cornwall ever since reading Ken Fern’s book ‘Plants for a future’.  I found it so inspirational and it resonated so well with me.  ‘If only carrots grew on trees’ was the starting point for Ken, and he and Addy have made it a life’s work to try out as many useful and edible perennial plants on their land in Cornwall as will grow there.  They also publish Ken’s databases on temperate and tropical plants online.  I had a little confusion between the field, and the ‘plants for a future’ database which I have also found online.  Addy explained that they had set up the charity to promote the work they were doing on the land and support information dissemination.  Being a charity made it easier to get funding.  After a while the then trustees decided to concentrate on the information side and have largely severed ties with the land project.  Ken now maintains his own databases, but they get no financial support from the charity.

interesting and useful
Edible and Useful Plants for a Future

The field is a 28 acre site almost on the coast of south Cornwall near Lostwithiel.  When the Ferns acquired it it was a windswept field.  Now about thirty years on it is a mature woodland.  Half of the site was planted with native trees with the help of a forestry grant (“mainly a Nature reserve to give something back to Nature” says Addy), and the rest is experimental planting, orchards, soft fruit and vegetable plantings. Some of the experimental planting is used by members of the land club which is made up of volunteers who have worked on the field (see the link to the field for more information).  Addy kindly gave us a quick site tour pointing out some of the interesting plants.  There were so many useful tips that I gained from Addy as to the growth and harvest of the different crops: edible, medicinal and otherwise useful. For example the Japanese heartnut fruit ripen earlier and so may be worth a try in Skye rather than Walnut. I was so excited I forgot to take any pictures and had to go round myself later, getting pretty lost in the process!  The trees are so tall that you have no long distance markers, so it is quite easy to get disorientated.  An electricity line bisects the site which is a useful landmark.  Unfortunately the weather had turned slightly damp, so the light was not so good for photography.

sunny clearing
Sun loving shrubs at edge of clearing

Addy said that the apples were generally ripening this year about two weeks early, which had thrown out her normal harvest plans.  There were too many apples for her to harvest them all, so we were concentrating on the ones that would be the most useful to her.  Also importantly her favourite apple, which had memories connected to her mother, which although not doing well every year, had a good crop this year.  Between us, with a ladder and Addy climbing the trees, we were able to get almost all the apples from the selected trees.  They were then graded and packed away in boxes so they can be used or stored as appropriate.  Addy said that they didn’t bother trying to sell the surplus any more, since the apples weren’t perfect enough for retail.  We spent a peaceful night in the orchard, listening to the occasional thump of apples falling.  We had tried to make sure we didn’t pitch our tent directly under a tree!

compost heaps
Ginormous compost heaps

There were two orchard areas, one between fruit and vegetable cages, which seemed to be managed more intensively, and one further away near the woodland.  The garden areas need to be fully fenced against deer, and other productive plants on the site had ingenious armouring as well.  Even the monkey puzzles had been attacked!

deer defences
Deer and rabbit guards

I noticed that one of the sea buckthorn had been pollarded, which would be one way of keeping the fruit in picking height.  We did try some barberry fruit, but they were rather sharp, although still a bit underripe.  I’m rather anti-berberis, having had a few as ornamentals in my previous garden.  I remember the prickles had a habit of going perpendicularly into my fingers and snapping off, being very difficult to remove again.

big haws
The haws in front were about one inch diameter

There were at least three different sorts of fruiting haw.  One was not then ripe (so would probably not ripen at all well on Skye) one was refreshing and substantial-tasting like an apple, and one was sweeter and juicy, more like a soft fruit, almost a cherry.

fig on building
Fig on corner of shed

A kiwi vine had completely swamped the tree it was trained up, and other climbers such as grapes and figs grew against the buildings.  One fruit I am interested in is the plum yew cephalotaxus.  Unfortunately it was not quite ripe, so we were unable to try it.  The hot summer had made the fruit smaller than usual.

plum yew fruit
Plum Yew fruit not yet ripe

A particularly fragrant eleagnus scented the air by the pathways, and I was happy to spot a decaisnea fargesii, blue bean tree, in full fruiting glory.  The fruit look fascinating, and have a most peculiar feel, giving substance to another name of ‘dead mens fingers’.  They are in the same family as Akebia.  The fruit itself was lovely and ripe, sweet pulp inside a leathery skin.  I wonder if the skin is edible as well like akebia is (used as a bitter vegetable in japan).  We tried to do some research online on the train for edible uses in its native range (Nepal and Indian himalayas) but didn’t come up with any details.  The seeds have a thick jelly coating that cling to them.  AC and I shared a pod on the train, and I now have a quantity of seeds to try and germinate!  Actually I kept seed from many of the fruit we tried on the holiday.  Quite often fresh seed will germinate better.  Mostly I know what they are, but I’m not sure which of the haws is which, although they would all be worth growing out as trees if they germinate.

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The facilities at the field are somewhat basic.  Although we made use of the power to charge up the car, there is no flush toilet.  Like Sagara, the Ferns have a composting toilet, albeit a rather more basic one away in the woods.  They are hoping to improve the facilities in order to offer courses at the field and to this end have set up a fund raiser to enable more user friendly facilities to be installed and improvements to the shed for a classroom (see information here).  This has now gone live (as of November) so please consider donating to this worthwhile endeavour to enable sharing of their knowledge to more people in the future.  You can donate online here

Eden Project and Lost gardens of Heligan

These are two of the most fantastic garden in the UK, probably the world.  I visited Eden  in 2004 or thereabouts, and Heligan a little earlier, and was keen to see how they have evolved.

 

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The Eden project, for those who don’t know, was created out of an open cast china clay pit at the end of the last century.  It was designed to show that the damage we do to the earth can be (and should be) repaired.  I’m not sure whether this message has got through yet!  I think we visited in spring last time and this time it was autumn.  These pictures show the increase in tree growth in that time.

Although the bio-domes are the most striking feature of the site, on this visit I found the outside areas just as fascinating.  I don’t know whether they had the forest garden area (on the lead in between the carparks and the ticket hall) last time we came, my interests have evolved slightly since then.  This was a nice little plot, mainly of ornamental edibles.  It was interesting to see the buffalo berry (shepherdia argentea), a plant which I am considering growing this year.  This has edible black fruit, but is also nitrogen fixing, so can do well on poorer soils.  I was impressed by how tall it was growing.

forest garden eden
Forest garden with shepherdia shrub

There were lots of flowers even in late September, and the autumn leaves were also giving a good show.  Most plants were quite well labelled, but there were some interesting ones we could not find labels for, including a plant that looked rather like solomons seal, but had black berries (‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’….) (Edit:  It well may have been solomons seal.  Although the spring shoots alegedly make a good vegetable, the berries casue stomach upsets so are not recommended) Other interesting plants included tiny fuchsia and pomegranite plants and a hardy aloe: Aloe striatula which is hardy to -10, so I could grow it outside on Skye.

community allotments
chinese – british allotment

I found the allotment areas most interesting.  They had set them up to reflect the diversity of cultures of people that grow plants in the UK.  So there were chinese, african, caribbean and indian themed allotments, with plants reflecting the cuisine of these areas, as well as more traditional british vegetable plants and flowers.  There were several malabar gourd plants, (making bids to take over the crater!) vegetable spaghetti, which I remember has similar but smaller noodley fruit, fantastic displays of outdoor tomatoes and chilli, soya beans and chick peas, sweet potato (as well as the normal kinds).  There were lovely plants of yacon, mashua, oca, achocha, physalis, quinoa and amaranth.  Some I’ll have to look up to see what their growing requirements are: japanese ginger, dasheen, lemongrass, turmeric, and vietnamese coriander, which all could be interesting additions to the polytunnel, if not outside.  I think I spotted new zealand spinach growing as a ground cover, but I could not find the identifying label for it.

south american plantings
Amaranth, mashua, yacon with possibly NZ spinach at front right

They had obviously made an effort to consider the environmental consequences of the development itself.  There were several bin areas for visitors to use, with separate bins for different sorts of recyclable waste, including compostable waste too.  I’m not sure where they compost the waste – that wasn’t on display and I would have found that interesting.  There were water dispensing points to enable refills of water bottles, outside as well as water fountains inside the tropical biome.

tropical dome
Tropical biome – jungle feel

The tropical biome was just as good as I remembered.  It is difficult to believe that they used it as the ice palace in “Die another day”.  Still a fantastic bit of engineering, let alone the plants!  The jungle really feels established and doesn’t have too manicured a look to it.  There are ant colonies and little lizards as well as birds.  Less useful as a source of planting inspiration for me though!

lizard
Lizard in tropical biome

We didn’t have time for the warm temperate biome, and were getting a bit tired, but had a quick look through the microscopic world display area, which had been under construction last time I came.  The use of artworks to illustrate different aspects of microbes was fun, including beautiful hand cut paper and life size figure embroidery.  There were interactive exhibits of various kinds including a huge one dedicated to the source of chloroplasts that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.  A thirty foot metallic blue cyanobacterium billowed fragrant smoke rings to the delight of children (of all ages!).  It was quite cute to watch the kiddies trying to catch the rings, but I shan’t even try to upload the video I took.

cyanobacterium
Giant cyanobacterium blowing smoke rings

Opposite the car parks we eventually found the ‘wild chile’ area.  This was mentioned on the site maps, but there were no signs to it or to explain what was going on, until we got to the far end of it, where there appears to be a second entrance.  I have been interested in Chile since I discovered that much of that country’s interior shares a similar mild rain forest climate to the UK.  The area has been set up as a living reserve for plants that are endangered in their native range.

wild chile
Monkey puzzles were the only clue that this was the ‘wild chile’ area

There was an impressive array of young monkey puzzle trees, I judged them to be possibly 18 years old from counting their branches.  Just another twenty years or so for the nuts then!  There was also a lovely nothofagus forest.  This is another tree I’m interested in. The southern beech, as it’s known, likes a mild damp climate and grows very quickly.  It ought to be ideal for coppicing on Skye.  There were n. nervosa, n. obliqua and n. x. leonii, all doing very well.  I couldn’t get hold of these when I was planting my coppice wood, although I did manage to get hold of three n. alpina (which may be a synonym for n. nervosa) a couple of years ago, which are still very small trees (well, even ‘shrubs’ would be dignifying the plants at the moment, although they are still alive).  Another interesting chilean edible we saw was luma apiculata, an ornamental shrub with small glossy dark green leaves.  The black fruit are edible.  I have a tiny one of these, just planted a couple of years ago and doing alright.  I tried a couple of berries and they were nice raw, not too sweet, but not sharp either, just juicy.  There were several plants, and they appeared to flower better in the sunnier spots.  There were a number of huge fuchsias still flowering away.  I didn’t spot any fruit, which have a quite sweet and spicy flavour when ripe.  There was also an impressive gunnera plant, which we are asked not to plant in this part of Scotland, since it likes it too well!  The leaf stalks are edible like rhubarb, although it’s not something I’ve tried.  It would still be too windy for those enormous leaves here!

nothofagus woodland
Nothofagus woodland

On the following day I was able to have another walk round the wild chile area whilst the car was on charge, as we stopped again on our way to Heligan.  It looks like they have been recently planting a trials area for bamboos.  Without information displays it is hard to say what they are trying to achieve this time.  They were carefully planted and mulched, with a variety of bamboos judging by the attached labels.

insect hotel
Insect hotel at Heligan

Really the visit to Heligan was too short to do it justice.  We had to leave again in good time to continue our journey.  Part of the garden was closed as well unfortunately, so we couldn’t visit the hidden valley area.  They had made the most impressive ‘insect hotel’ I have ever seen in a sunny spot on the woodland walk, and we were taken by some beautiful oaks, although did not find out what variety they were.

gunnera hibernation
Protecting Gunnera

In the jungle they were putting the gunnera to bed for the winter by cutting the leaves off and putting them upside down as umbrellas.  Gunnera are fairly tender, so even in milder areas of the UK can need a bit of protection.  Massive tree ferns and palm trees are a feature of the jungle garden, and they have obviously been considering the future as well, with smaller monkey puzzles as well as the original garden’s 100 year plus specimens.

young monkey puzzle
Young and original monkey puzzles

Bamboos and bananas also give a tropical feel to the garden.  I’m sorry to have missed the hidden valley, since I remember that as one of the most atmospheric parts of the garden.  They were obviously hard at work, since we could hear chainsaws going.  I hope this is just planned maintenance, and they have not suffered losses in the hot, dry summer.

helligan vegetables
Lettuces in walled garden

We wandered back through the huge ornamental vegetable gardens.  These are bigger than I remember, with such beautiful displays of lettuce and rhubarb forcers!  I couldn’t resist the reduced plants in the sales area, although AC luckily spotted that the camellia sinensis were c. Sinensis var. assamica, rather than c. sinensis var. sinensis, so I avoided those (too tender).  I did pick up a little lady boothby climbing fuchsia which should be fun.

I would recommend a full day at Eden.  We probably didn’t start going round till nearly 12 noon.  You would certainly need more than the couple of hours we were able to spend at Heligan to make the most of the trip!

Dartington Forest Garden

forest garden layers
Forest garden layers at Dartington

The forest garden at Dartington was created over the last 24 years by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART).  A forest garden uses useful plants to mimic the layers of a natural woodland to create a stable ecosystem.  It is a popular theme in temperate climate permaculture.  The picture above illustrates the forest garden layers at the edge of the garden by the carpark, including unseen roots (of mashua and japanese yam).  The timing of our holiday was timed around the ability to participate on one of the tours that Martin runs periodically through the year.  It also had to be outside of the peak season on Skye.  I didn’t always catch the latin names of the plants during the tour, so in general I have used the common names that Martin used.  When he did give the latin names I realise that I have probably been mispronouncing them all these years, having mainly learnt them from books!

lollypop alder
Italian alder trees with lower branches removed

The canopy layer is mainly made up of italian alder trees which have had their lower branches removed in order to let more light through.  Even so the garden was much more shady than Sagara’s garden, feeling much more like a woodland with clearings, rather than a field with trees.  Martin has not used soil landscaping to create microclimates, explaining that as his plot sloped south and was sheltered at the start by a wood to the west it had not been necessary.

Having already visited Sagara’s garden many of the plants were familiar to us already, although Martin’s trees were considerably bigger.  He stressed the importance of plotting the area and planting spacing based on mature tree sizes since all the layers will require light to be productive.  Clearings form suntraps that enable Martin to grow even quite tender fruit like persimmon.  It has been a hot year this summer following a cold winter, and many of the fruit are a couple of weeks early, and some that don’t always ripen are doing well.

groundcover
False strawberry groundcover

Much of the ground under the trees was clear of plants, being covered by leaf mulch.  In the spring there are more bulbs in growth such as wild garlic.  The main spreading ground cover Martin had visible at the time we came was false strawberry.  This has a yellow flower, and although it does set some little red strawberry like fruit, they are disappointingly tasteless.  The false strawberry has the advantage of being evergreen, so protecting the soil year round.  Other shade loving ground covers included Hosta, and fiddlehead fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) both of which I fancy growing.  There was also mint, ground covering raspberries and japanese wineberry, with comfrey and turkish rocket in the sunny spots.  Martin said that turkish rocket was one of the few plants that could happily compete with comfrey.  Other ground layer plants included more of the japanese spring vegetables, solomons seal and japanese ginger, which is harvested by cutting the growing shoots rather than digging it up.  The main weed that Martin gets seeding in the garden is Ash trees.  Sadly this may not be the case for much longer, since the ash dieback has spread to the county.

hosta and fern
Hosta and fiddlehead fern thrive in the shade

 

Martin talked about the importance of soil mycellium (fungal networks)  in sharing the nutrients about the wood.  They also can spread warnings amongst the plants.  If one plant is stressed or attacked by pests it releases chemicals that, transmitted by the mycellium, stimulate other plants to increase their own chemical defences.  Martin said that generally it isn’t neccessary to innoculate the soil.  As long as it wasn’t disturbed, the fungi would already be in the soil, particularly close to existing trees.  It is however possible to buy edible fungi spawn to encourage more edible fungi in your forest garden, and he also showed us an oyster mushroom log that he had stimulated to fruit before we came.  It is possible to have a number of logs that are ready to produce mushrooms and trigger them in turn so as to have a continuous supply of mushrooms.  I have tried unsuccessfully to grow mushrooms on newspaper ‘logs’.  I think that because I wrapped them in bin liners to keep them damp the spawn was suffocated, so I may have another go.

Martin Crawford
Martin Crawford at Dartington

 

There are a number of trees that Martin grows for leaf crops, either as salad greens or as cooked vegetables.  One that I recently got is Toona sinensis or toon tree (visible as tall shrub layer in top photo).  This has leaves that when young, are eaten as a vegetable in china.  We tried a little leaf, and it tastes rather like an aromatic onion.  Salad leaves include small leaved lime (tilia cordata), which has quite pleasant mild tasting young leaves, beech (fagus sylvatica), which I always find a bit tough even when young, and white mulberry.  We tried the leaves of the latter, and again I found it a bit tough, although not unpleasant in flavour.  It may have been better when younger, or cooked though.  Martin pollards all these trees to keep a supply of young leaves in easy reach, but out of reach of browsing deer.

mulberry leaves
White mulberry leaves (at left)

Other interesting shrubs included relatives of the common bog myrtle, which itself has edible leaves used like bay leaves.  The wax myrtle has similar uses for the leaves and also the berries have a waxy coating that can be melted off and used in candles and sealing etc.  These are nitrogen fixing in boggy ground, so may be ideal in certain areas of my field!  I do have the wax myrtle on my list of ‘wants’, although I am having difficulty in getting seed to germinate.  You need male and female plants to set berries.  I do have some bog myrtle down by the river, although am not sure whether they are male or female.  It is useful if caught by midges, since they don’t like it’s aromatic foliage.

wax myrtle
Not that great a picture of wax myrtle!

Another nitrogen fixing tree is the judas tree.  We did see this at EDFG, but didn’t know what it was.  Martin had a good sized tree which I asked about.   Prior to arriving at Dartington, we saw another in a green space where we had our picnic lunch.  It has distinctive heart shaped leaves.  Apparently the flowers are edible and come out before any of the foliage on bare branches.  I collected some seedpods from the one we saw at our picnic spot, so I may see if I can get some seed to germinate.

We tried some sechuan pepper seeds, they are very peppery and made my lips and tongue numb for a few minutes.  Apparently this doesn’t happen with the dried fruit, which can be mixed with salt and ground together for salt and pepper seasoning.  I quite fancy trying to grow this.  Apparently there are lots of similar shrubs all called sechuan pepper, so I’ll have to check with Martin the one that he uses!  Nepalese pepper is quite similar, but ripens later, so is less likely to be suitable on Skye.

An interesting edible that I didn’t remember from my reading is the Trachycarpus ‘palm tree’.  Apparently it has huge flowers that can be used like cauliflower.  I know this will grow locally here on Skye, and I did have a couple but gave them away since I wasn’t sure where to put them.  I sort of regret that now!

Trees that I forgot to mention from EDFG that we also saw in the Dartington garden were alternative haws.  There are several plants closely related to our native hawthorne that have bigger and nicer berries.   I have one, Crataegus arnoldiana, although it hasn’t flowered for me yet.  Martin had several haws which we were able to sample the fruit of.  I have ordered seeds of lots of different varieties from the ART to try and grow this year.  If I find one that does well for me, I may be able to graft it on to the common hawthornes.

There was a clear area under a huge pine tree that Martin sometimes uses as an outdoor classroom.  He says it is important not to forget the people in the garden and have a space for them to use.  It was impressive that the huge tree had been grown by Martin from seed (as were most of the more unusual trees we saw).  He talked about harvesting resin from the tree and the uses it has (turpentine, rosin etc.).

edible pond
Edible pond area

A pond area was also planted with edible plants: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia – has edible tubers), mint (needs no explanation) and Houttuynia Cordata.  This last we tried a leaf of.  It has a strange fishy orange taste that I wasn’t too keen on but some others liked.  It is a popular vegetable with fish in china.  A little research reveals that in some climates it can be invasive, but I don’t think I’ll bother with it, although I do fancy developing an edible pond/bog area below the barn!

In summary, this was a truly inspirational visit again.  Such a treat for me to meet Martin Crawford who has done so much for the development of agroforestry in the UK and internationally.

East Devon Forest Garden

This garden was the first visited on our holiday.  It is one of the first forest gardens I’ve visited at all, except in my imagination.  Mine is still mainly in the fourth dimension!  There used to be one at Ryton organic gardens, but I think they found it too messy so got rid of it.

pond in sunset
Enjoying the evening sun by the sheltered pool

Sagara has created the East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG) over the last eight years or so.  I found out about it through Facebook so that does have some uses!  Despite ill health he has created a wonderful space in a bit less than three acres.  His vision is of a spiritual foraging retreat, where people can reclaim their souls through browsing in the garden.  Certainly there is a tranquil feel throughout the garden.  So many of the plants are edible, that we had to repeat a mantra ‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’ because you get used to tasting everything after a few days.  There was plenty of wildlife.  We saw butterflies and birds, evidence of moles and Sagara says they have a family of hedgehogs as well as pigeons.

colourful amaranth
Colourful amaranth in sunny spot

The main technique that I took away from the garden was probably the use of earthworks and hedges to create banks that made sheltered, sunny or shady areas and formed microclimates for plants that require different conditions.  Fast growing italian alder had been planted around the periphery of the garden.  These are now over 25 feet tall so form a screen and give the garden even more of a tranquil enclosed feel.  As a nitrogen fixer it also provides nitrogen through soil fungal networks to other plants in the garden.  A leylandii hedge screens a simple yet sophisticated composting loo and provides shelter for the herb area and main vegetable production plots, which are closer to the buildings than the more seasonal tree crops.  A mowed trackway enables vehicular access around the garden, although separate pedestrian paths meander slightly different routes.  I found it quite easy to become disoriented and the garden seemed much bigger than it is.  This is also due to the multiple circular clearings and asymmetric free form design.  The largest circle had a tall earthbank surmounted by fruiting Elaeagnus bushes and enclosing a beautiful natural swimming pool.  Steps go down into it and it is filled from a spring borehole, the water circulating through gravel beds planted with aquatic plants to keep the water clean.  Stone alcoves retain the day’s heat to protect the most tender plants here: olives, figs and citrus trees have set fruit this year.  There are also Echium and hardy bananas, grapes and palm trees, and a little pointed running alpine strawberry still has fruit ripening.

solar powered shower
Solar powered shower block

In the establishment of the garden Sagara had ploughed and seeded the plot with deep rooted plants like chiccory and plantains, before doing the earth moving and planting the larger trees, then smaller trees and shubs.  The site is loam over clay, quite flat and a bit liable to frost with cold north winds.  He is still planting the ground cover layers, which, because it requires many plants, can be a slow, labour intensive and expensive business.   We helped clear an area and plant out some perennial brassica with Sagara.

Over time the garden area should become a net carbon sink as the plants and the soil convert carbon dioxide into more stable wood and humus.  At present the garden still has quite an open feel about it, and I would love to go back in a few years to see how it matures.  I’m a bit envious of the kinder climate there compared to Skye.  My sweet chestnuts are tiny in comparison to Sagara’s.  The biggest of mine is only as tall as me, the smallest that survived is only a foot or so after nearly ten years!  Sagara’s were probably taller after three years than mine are now and now at six years old are beautiful trees of fifteen feet or so.  However, he has already had frosts that damaged the squash plants, and there are no squirrels on Skye.

sweet chestnut
Sweet chestnut fruiting at 6 years old

One of the beds was given over to edible flowers, I wasn’t aware that Gladioli and Dahlia petals are edible, and it was fascinating that each flower was also a slightly different flavour, some sweeter, some more complex.  The chinese chive flowers made a lovely addition to our supper with a sweet onion crunch.

autumn olive
Autumn olive fruit

New foods I was able to try included the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).  This has a very pleasant sweet tart taste.  The berries are a little small being a bit smaller than currants, but are borne in profusion along the branches.  They are also extremely pretty berries: orangey-red and flecked with gold!  We picked about four pounds or so which Sagara is going to use to make a jam with.  The spring fruiting Elaeagnus were in blossom and the fragrance is lovely.  We also tried sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) berries.  These are very fragile, tending to burst as you pick them and are even smaller and more profuse.

sea buckthorn
Sea buckthorn fruit

The flavour is sharper, more acidic, and Sagara had several different cultivars which all had different flavours; one had a noticable pineapple flavour, and even the unimproved form has a very pleasant mandarin taste.  They are very high in vitamin C and often used in juice form, sweetened or blended with other fruit.  Both Elaeagnus and sea buckthorn are nitrogen fixing, the sea buckthorn seeming to have a tendency to sucker.  Sagara had his first nuts on his bladdernut (Staphylea Pinnata) this year, these are a little small due to the hot summer.  Inside a one inch inflated balloon fruit is a single shiny nut.  This has a very hard but thin seed coat and a sweet flavour.  It is said to be like pistachio.

japanese spring vegetables
Petasites and Hosta on shady side of earth bank

Other plants I haven’t tried yet that Sagara is growing include several Japanese spring vegetables: Hosta, Udo (Aralia) and Petasites are all garden perennial plants that can be cooked and eaten in the spring, as is american pokeweed (Phytolacca), although I gather this last is also considered to be toxic so take care!  One plant we didn’t try was the turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis).  This was a huge dandelion like plant which is supposed to taste mustardy.  I suspect that would not go down too well in our house, although the plants did look lovely and robust, so I may give it a go anyhow!  Colourful amaranth seedheads surrounded a large fruiting medlar, and several grapes were ripening up trees and scrambling on the sunny banks.  Other perennial vegetables Sagara grows include Sea cabbage and sea kale, perennial kale and walking stick kale, oca, Yacon, mashua, japanese yams, walking onion, artichokes (both sorts) and asparagus.  Fruit includes apples, plums and other top fruit as well as sechuan pepper, quince (chaenomeles as well as cydonia) mulberry and kiwi.  Nuts include hazel, chestnut, walnut and heartnuts and there are a multitude of other purposeful plants providing fibre, shelter, food or nitrogen fixing.  I was particularly interested in the miscanthus grass that Sagara is growing as sheltering hedges.  This is like a small thin bamboo and I had been wondering if we are warm enough on Skye for it to do well.  It grows up to 2 or 3 metres tall in a year once established, creating shelter and forming woody stems that can be cut since they are renewed each year.  This produces a large amount of biomass so it has been planted for biofuels in many parts of the UK.

miscanthus grass
Miscanthus grass surmounts earthworks by trackway

As a place for people to meet, eat and communicate Sagara has a number of structures through the garden.  We were lucky enough to stay in a beautiful yurt tent, although he is in the process of taking the canvas structures down for winter.  There are sculptures and statues in various niches in the garden, but the whole thing is a work of art.  Such abundance of food now, in contrast to the now sterile seeming horse paddock it replaced.  We had a lovely discussion with Sagara about farming and hunter gathering, money and land, spirit and body which I really can’t do justice to here.  Overall an inspiring start to the holiday (and it was sunny!).

yurt
Our Yurt next to italian alder edge plants