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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Winter has finally arrived, we have a little snow that has stuck around for a few days, gradually refreezing as ice as it is trampled and melts a little during the day. I quite like a bit of quiet time to look around and see the structure of the ground under the plants. You can see the pathways made by people and dogs as the slightly flattened grass remains whiter with snow than rougher areas.
I have done a little pruning, although you are not supposed to do this when it is frosty! The remaining gooseberries in the fruit garden didn’t take long, and I have cut down the sapling sycamore tree that would have crowded one of the apple trees there. It may grow back, but I can just prune it out each year for pea sticks until it gives up! The apple that I grafted before I came to Skye and that was living in a pot for a while has unfortunately grown a little one sided. I assume it is just the prevailing wind that has achieved this, and am not sure if it is possible to reverse….
With the freezing weather there is little plant wise to do outside, but I have been able to get a little done in the polytunnel. As threatened I have drastically pruned back the kiwi vine. As well as shortening it, I have also taken out some of the larger fruiting side branches. This should encourage new ones to grow and be more fruitful. I tied the main trunk a little tighter to the overhead wires, as it was hanging a little low and even interfering with my headroom. The grapevines are far simpler to prune. I simply cut back all the side branches close to the main trunk.
I am very hopeful that what I am seeing here is flower buds on my apricot. I’m still not really sure whether I’m doing the right thing with the pruning of this. I think I now need to cut back the main branches by one third to an upward facing bud and tie in new branches in between the existing ones, and then I’m into ‘maintenance pruning’ whatever that means! I know I’m not supposed to prune when the plant is dormant so I need to leave it a couple of months.
There is a little weeding to do, and I also need to start watering a bit more in the tunnel as well in preparation for some early sowing. I think the akebia is surviving nicely, but I’m not sure about the passionflowers. I think they were a bit small and I should have brought them into the house last autumn. The propagation area keeps expanding. I could really use more space for putting the growing on plants. I’ll have to have a think about this. Maybe I just need to tidy up a bit more efficiently! Theoretically there is lots of space on my little greenhouse frame, so perhaps I’ll just concentrate on getting that properly sorted again. It just keeps filling up with empty pots!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I’m definitely looking forwards to 2019 and all the exciting things growing next year.
I managed to just about finish clearing the section of orchard I was aiming to. The weather has turned a bit damp now – so I’ve lost this years’ window for weeding. The soil just gets too claggy when it’s wet. I’ve left a nice sorrel plant there, and I may transplant some more in there. I have found some with lovely large leaves in various places round the field.
I have also planted a few of my seedling heath pea plants along the border which I plan to keep digging up, and a marsh woundwort plant as well. I haven’t got round to tasting the roots of this yet. It is related to crosnes (stachys affinis) and like crosnes the roots are edible. This plant was rather pot bound. It had been sitting in a puddle next to the polytunnel all year – an offset from the bought in plant. I’m hoping it will be damp enough for it at the side of the orchard there. We can get quite a bit of water coming down the track at times, as well as being generally damp climate wise. The roots certainly look like they could be quite productive – long and tender. I did snap a few bits off and popped them in the fridge, but forgot they were there when I cooked dinner yesterday. I also put a couple of seedling lathyrus tuberosa (earthnut pea) seedlings. These are from seed that I was sent (thanks Anni). Unfortunately with one thing and another (weather and neglect!) I only have four seedlings and one of these looks a bit poorly. I’ve put plant pot collars on them, since I have read that slugs really like these plants. I’m thinking that they can climb up the apple tree. Not the ideal spot for a root crop, but if they grow and like it there I can maybe propagate more plants from these.
I also spread around loads of seed: firstly some of the green manure seeds I obtained recently. I spread field beans and fodder radish fairly generally over the whole area and red clover selectively around the bases of the honeyberries and apple tree. It may be a bit late for the fodder radish, but I’m hoping that it will stay mild for long enough for them to put on a bit of growth before the winter (I can already see shoots coming on the field beans just a couple of days later!). I also sowed some other legume seeds that I collected: birds foot trefoil and bush vetch (vicia sepium). I have been enjoying the odd nibble on the latter as it has reappeared around the tree field (see here for a little foraging guide). The birds foot trefoil makes a nice low growing ground cover – it should be nitrogen fixing, but I’m not sure how well it will keep down the weeds. This is the first time I’ve tried sowing it direct. I did sow some in the spring in pots, but didn’t get a good success rate (again weather and neglect…): one plant. I also spread some sweet cicely seed and good king henry which both have done well for me in the tea garden a little up the hill. They both seeded themselves a bit up there, but I want to transplant those seedlings elsewhere.
I started trying to dig out couch grass and docken from the rest of the orchard on the north side of the track. There is a fair amount of both and I haven’t quite finished that. It’s only a rough going over. I will mulch it with newspaper and card and try and give it another go during next summer depending on priorities. I did get out some of the silver weed I planted there in the spring this year. It is still a bit early – they are in full leaf, and the roots look very white. Generally they are up to 6 inches long and up to one quarter inch diameter. I’m going to transfer some to the track border. I may see if I can use them for pathways in the orchard area. They have made a reasonable coverage after a bit of editing in the tea garden and certainly spread like mad!
It’s starting to feel a little autumnal now. The first trees to lose their leaves are the Wych elm, but some of the rowans are turning colour, and one of the beech is rather a nice yellow. I’m a bit worried by how red this apple tree is. Last year it was the best for growth, this year it looks a bit strained – the others are all still quite green. We don’t tend to get much autumn colour here – the winds strip the leaves off the trees before they can put on much of a show. It looks like it will be a bumper year for hazelnuts – I spotted the first nuts on our own trees (planted 2010), but the ones along the river bank seem quite laden. I did go along and pick up a fair few from underneath the trees, but they all seem to be empty (either shed by the tree or discarded in disgust by hopeful birds!). It’s still a bit early. Usually the birds get the nuts, which is fair enough. I would quite like to get a harvest off our own trees in due time. Although they weren’t bought as nutting cultivars, the seeds they apparently came from seemed a fair size.
The local outside brambles are starting to ripen. Funnily enough these don’t seem to be bothered by those horrid flies! There was a new bush that has seeded in at the corner of the river above the pond, which seems to have quite nice quality berries.
Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!
There was a little mildew or possibly blight on some of the leaves so I’ve pulled a few off the tomato plants. I’m hoping that I will get more tomatoes ripening over the next month or so before I have to rescue them. Some comfrey leaves are soaking in a bucket of water at the moment to add some extra tomato feed to try and give them a late boost.
Things seem to have been a bit slow in the polytunnel – It’s been a bit cooler and damper but I haven’t been out there much – just a bit of watering and thinning out the grapes. The main excitement is the number of happy caterpillars I seem to have. There are several large ones that I see in there: A bright green one, a dull browny coloured one, a dotty one with a waist stripe and one with stripes that match the stalks on the fat hen as it goes to seed. I think most of them belong to the silver y moth which I do see in there quite often. They don’t seem to be doing too much damage: They quite like the Yacon, but prefer the fat hen to the olive tree. There are a few holes in the squash leaves but nothing the plants can’t shake off.
Something has eaten part through one of my dahlia stalks – I think it is probably a slug. they don’t tend to be too much a problem these days for established plants, but I do get a few helping themselves to my seedlings in pots by the polytunnel door. The dahlia I grew from seed, which I am quite proud of myself for. They have lovely dark coloured leaves, and are just starting to form buds. The seeds are some of those that came from the Hardy Plant Society annual selection. I had pretty good germination from most of those – probably because they were so fresh. Dahlia tubers are theoretically edible, although apparently they vary a great deal as to tastiness! I’m tempted to get some from Lubera who have selected a range of better tasting ones. You get the flowers and then the tubers to eat, and can replant again for next year. I have tried some raw a while ago now, and wasn’t particularly impressed, but then you wouldn’t eat a potato raw either would you? I’ve mounded up the soil around the stem in the hope that it will re-root like a cutting. There does seem to be another shoot coming from below the damage, but I may lose the flowers of that plant.
My fuchsia berry plant is looking a lot more happy now. It is in the ground and has a fairly respectable shoot. Hopefully it is getting it’s roots down to survive there overwinter. I have pinched off the tip, since in it’s pot last year it grew a bit leggy and tended to droop down with the weight of the fruit – yes they were quite sweet and nice. My outside fuchsia that came with the house also has quite nice berries. You have to get them when they are ripe, or they taste more peppery than sweet. The downside is that they tend to ripen gradually, so there are a few for a nibble but not enough for much of a meal. I should propagate the bush a bit though, since it would be quite good as a boundary shrub. It’s a bit late this year – maybe I’ll take some hardwood cuttings overwinter and see how they get on. The fuchsia berry is supposed to be a bit more tender. I did try taking some softwood cutting last year, but none of them took – I’ll maybe try again next year, assuming it survives the winter again.
The Yacon seem to be doing pretty well. I haven’t fed them barring the initial planting with compost, but have tried to give them plenty of water – probably still not as much as they want. The single plant I put outside in the tea garden extension is also looking pretty good – the warmer start to the summer was probably to it’s liking. I’m growing Oca for the first time this year (thanks Frances!) I’ve put two in the polytunnel and one outside. So far I would say that they don’t like it too hot. The one outside seemed to do much better than the ones in the tunnel initially when we had all that hot weather. More recently it’s been a bit cooler and less sunny, and the ones inside have cheered up a bit – a little leggy perhaps. All three plants look lush and green at the moment. Apparently they don’t make tubers until the days get shorter, which for us will be at the end of September or so. At that point the extra protection of the tunnel may pay off, since it should hold off a light frost or two. I’ve never eaten them so I won’t comment on that yet.
There are flowers starting to develop on my physalis – golden berry, and a few flowers on the courgette. Those really haven’t done so well this year, but then I generally don’t have gluts to complain of! The sharks fin melon is climbing well – almost to the roof with buds forming. The japanese squash has delightful silver splashed leaves which are quite pretty, and again shows promise of buds. The mashua isn’t looking too good still. I think the hot weather was definitely not to it’s liking. They are still really small and hardly starting to climb at all. Some of the other plants will probably be too late to come to anything. For example the achocha, which I said last year needed a longer season didn’t get planted out early enough again. Tomatillo and peppers I sowed for the sake of it, but really didn’t look after them enough to get much from them. The plants are alive, but that’s about all one can say about them. My sweet potato plants seem to be doing well. I hope I’ve given them enough water. When I grew them in our polytunnel in Solihull I think that was the main problem there. They do have lovely dark coloured leaves, a bit like an ornamental bindweed. I’ve just let them scramble over the ground, although they would climb given a framework.
The bramble has not done so well this year as previous years. As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve had a lot of flies eating the berries (Alice outside remains a complete wash out!). The flies get so drunk that you can put your finger right next to them without them all flying off. I’ve still had quite a few berries – enough to make a batch of bramble and apple jelly (clear jelly not jam with bits in), but nowhere as many as previous years. The bramble and kiwi look very precarious also. I had to cut some of the support ties for the kiwi at the start of the year, and haven’t got round to replacing them properly. I had used old tights – the legs make pretty good strong soft bindings. unfortunately the weight of the vine had made them go thin, and they were cutting in to the trunk quite a lot. It was actually difficult to extract them as the kiwi was growing around them. I have started to use strips of pond liner (plenty of that left from around the mice holes!) This seems to stay more ribbon-like so doesn’t cut in. It’s a bit more difficult to tie in a knot (especially when supporting a heavy trunk with your third hand!), but seems to be kind to the plants and lasts pretty well. Tyre inner tubes are also pretty good, but I’m not sure whether they will have the same light resistance as pond liner.
The tomatoes have done really well – lots of lovely trusses have set nicely. None are ripening yet, but I remain hopeful for a reasonable harvest in the end – so far looking like my best yet here. Some of the plants have dark spots developing on the older leaves, which I think is a sign of nutrient deficiency. I probably haven’t fed them enough – just a bucket of comfrey tea between them when I can remember to do it! It’s actually also the same comfrey residue – so there’s probably not much nutrient left in it. I should have some time off later this week so will try and cut some fresh comfrey leaves then.
Summer is, as yet, the fruit season for me. The orchard is a dream for the future; not a single apple this year, despite the good weather. I have been picking currants and raspberries however over the past couple of weeks. The original Ben Sarek black currants did pretty well, over 13 pounds in total. Not up to their usual quality however: quite a few split, and smaller than usual. It’s been a slightly odd year due to a relatively hot and dry early summer, and I think this affected the berries. Maybe the skins hardened too soon, since the Ben Gairn currant, which had a really good crop, had a lot split, which made the picking over quite difficult. I like to remove the remains of the petals as well as the stalks, but it was a slow messy job. I’ve made two batches of jam and still have some in the freezer. The Belorussian sweet currant I didn’t even bother picking. The fruit was the first to ripen, but was really tiny and split. Hopefully in a more normal summer it will do better. So far the Ben Sarek wins hands down. It’s only the first year for the other two to fruit properly however, so we’ll see how they do next year. The black currant bushes in the front garden didn’t have many berries. I haven’t been pruning them, and they are getting a bit leggy. I’ll try and make a point of pruning them hard this year. The cuttings in the fruit garden are now quite productive bushes. I’ve decided that the other currant next to the original Ben Sarek black currant bush must be what my friend calls the ‘nancyberry’. It grew as a seedling in my garden in Solihull (originally between the paving stones of the path as they do!), I think it is a blackcurrant-gooseberry cross. There it had lovely large sweet berries, but here it sets hardly any. I have been gradually removing the bushes again, since they obviously don’t like Skye. By removing this last bush it will give me a suitable space for my Charlotte Russe mulberry bush. That was a present from my Mum when she came up this spring. I am quite excited about this. The garden is still pretty exposed, but I’m hopeful that the fruit garden is starting to get a bit more sheltered.
The raspberries looked really promising, but the initial picking was a bit disappointing. I had a awful lot that were wormy. I have had this to a certain extent in previous years, but probably more than half were wormy to some extent. I’m not one to be too fussy about a few insects, but this was ridiculous! It’s been a bit damp to pick the berries this last week. The second picking was a bit better than the first: not so many ripe ones, but fewer with worm problems. I’ve made a big batch of strawberry and raspberry jam (strawberries from the shop as yet, although I now have some plants getting established so watch this space!). I have about four different sorts of summer raspberries, I was given a load of canes of an unknown variety from someone locally. They fruit well, but have been worst affected by the worms and have a slightly watery taste. I have another which does pretty well, some of the berries have a tendency to be slightly double, but good cosmetic quality generally. Malling Jewel is in the tea garden, struggling in a still rather exposed position. One that came with the house: Glen Prosen, which is starting to do quite well in the dog resistant garden but took a long while to get established, this is the best tasting fresh I think. I’ve found that neither of the autumn fruiting raspberries do very well in our short summers. They are too late getting started in the spring to flower in time before the weather gets colder and the days shorter.
Talking of strawberries, just a note on the himalayan strawberries in the tea garden. It looks like getting some other plants from different sources was the right thing to do, since despite being set back by my weeding at a time of hot dry weather a few fruit did set. Unexpectedly they have turned out to be white. They are like large alpine strawberries, difficult to remove from the stem, with a pleasant citrussy resinous flavour when fully ripe. They become very soft, so easy to crush. Hopefully they will fruit better next year if I can avoid digging them up at the wrong time! They do seem to make a very dense ground cover, which was their primary purpose.
I’ve now picked the last of the Haskap/honeyberries. It is impossible to tell whether they are ripe or not, until you bite into them. When ripe, they have a quite plummy sweet/sour flavour and are coloured right through. Before fully ripe they are sharper and less pleasant. I’m very pleased with how well they fruited, considering this is their first year. I’m pretty sure they will make a rather nice jam when I get a few more fruit. They should be pruned by removing about a quarter of the mature branches to avoid overcrowding and should live for decades. I need to try and not let them get taken over by weeds in the orchard area. So far they are a successful experiment I think. I’ve saved a few seeds so I can try to propagate them, they should germinate well when fresh, so I may try sowing some straight away. They also propagate by cuttings, better from summer cuttings apparently, but I may try some of the prunings this winter since that is easier for me.
I’ve not harvested the grapes in the tunnel, but have thoroughly thinned them out. I don’t think I thinned them enough last year, so I have been a bit more brutal this year. I collected the thinnings as much as possible, and had enough to make a small batch of green grape jelly. I had contemplated making verjuice, but I may try that next year. The new vine (a white, Zalagyongye, which for some reason I thought would be seedless but apparently isn’t) has just one bunch of grapes, but they are not so far along as the Boskoop glory, so I’m not sure whether they will ripen off. The vine is growing well, so I’m hoping that it will do better next year.
I still have redcurrants and gooseberries to harvest. The invicta has done quite well. The new red gooseberries, Pax, have mostly dropped, and are rather small. I have two new red currants in the tea garden: redcurrant cherry and rovada. I don’t think any of the redcurrants from Solihull survived, but I have a couple of small plants in the fruit garden. These were grown from cuttings taken from a tough little plant growing in a dry stone wall in full force of the sea winds. I’d like to take cuttings from a plant I pass going to the shop which blooms profusely, but the berries seem to either nor set or quickly get picked by birds. It is such a dwarfed plant that finding a decent bit of stem will be difficult.
The blackberry in the polytunnel is just starting to ripen, as is the new one ‘Helen’ outdoors. It looks like this may be a disappointment, as I have yet to try the berries! They are quite prolific and large but seem to be very attractive to blue flies which destroy the drops and make them discoloured and unappetising! It may be they are ripening too slowly due to the damp weather this week and may do better in drier weather. They certainly have been early, but I am at a bit of a loss about what to do about this. It looks like I will have to move the vine pretty soon anyway, since we are intending to extend the barn to where this is currently planted now. Maybe I should try it in the polytunnel? But that wasn’t the point!
Whilst the weather is less clement (we’ve had a reasonable amount of rain since last Friday, and it continues a bit showery at the moment), I can again spend a little time in the polytunnel and this time use the potting bench and give my cuttings and seedlings some individual space. I had quite a lot of plants grown from seeds since I have been a member of the hardy plant society (HPS) and they do a seed distribution every year. My interest is in edible plants, but more garden plants than you would think are also edible. I therefore managed to get quite a selection of seed to try and nothing lost if they don’t make it.
Two out of the three varieties of passionflower have germinated: Passiflora edulis var. flavicarpa from chiltern seeds, and Passiflora incarnata from California which was a gift. I grew these for the polytunnel in the hope that they will not only flower (and fruit!), but overwinter in there. I’ve put them mostly along the northern wall. I think last year things suffered slightly in the tunnel from lack of light, since I grew so many climbers on the south wall of the tunnel. I also planted out some of my akebia seedlings (which turned out to be Akebia trifoliata), two on the north wall, and two by the apricot. Hopefully they won’t compete too much with it. I still have several left, and a few passionflowers, which I have potted on into bigger pots, I may bring them in over winter to hedge my bets.
I had various other pots of seedlings that need pricking out. Two sorts of campanula: C. Takesimana (Korean bellflower) and C. Latifoliata, these have edible leaves and flowers. Asphodeline lutea (Yellow asphodel) is another edible (roots, shoots and flowers). Apparently slugs love it (which does seem to be an indicator of ediblility!). It prefers more dry alkaline conditions but it does tolerate maritime exposure. They did each seem to be producing a substantial little rootlet when I potted them on, despite having been a bit congested in their first pot. Also from the HPS seed were some dahlia, allium, hosta, martagon lily, angelica and fennel. The last two didn’t do anything – maybe too hot. I should have sowed earlier directly on an outside bed I think. The dahlia seed produced four lovely plants with dark coloured leaves. I have planted two directly in the polytunnel, and two just potted on into larger pots. The allium germinated well but seemed to freeze at the tiny hook seedling stage. The hosta seeds suffered from the dry weather, but I seem to have a few germinating just now. I did have quite a few martagon lilies germinating, but again had a few losses due to irregular watering, just four left. Sadly my Gevuina avellana seems to have died. I was just thinking it was time to risk potting it on, but when I inspected it I realised that the stem had rotted. I am quite upset about this, but am determined to try again! It must like it really dry as a young plant, and just couldn’t cope with the recent inundation.
I potted on a new type of globe artichoke which I think were from chiltern seeds and some wild rose seedlings which I grew from seed from a rose on the river bank which has larger hips than most of the dog roses around here. I had pricked out some self sown good king henry, but almost all the tray perished in the dry heat (it was too shallow for them to stand much neglect!) The last few survivors were potted into slightly larger pots, so they may have more chance now. I’m going to try and spread some more of the seedlings, which are still close to the mother plant, around the garden. They do seem to make a healthy plant for ground cover. I have collected some seed as well to pass on.
I have cuttings of honeysuckle, escallonia and some perennial kale cuttings. I have one surviving grape cutting (the rest all given away now). These I grew by accident! When I harvested the grapes last year, I cut them with a bit of stem attached (as recommended by Bob Flowerdew) and placed them in water, which is supposed to make the grapes last longer. All the stems subsequently rooted in the water, and I had about eight quite nice little boskoop glory grape vine plants! I have taken some cuttings of the little fuchsias that grow in my shop hanging baskets. They do so well flowering, but are about four or five years old now, so I feel the need for back up. I have also taken cuttings of some of my tea plants since I lost so many over the winter, and some more escallonia which makes a really good hedge around here.
As usual I’m late with planting out my plants in the polytunnel. It has just been so hot in there! Also I’ve become programmed to work outside if the weather is at all dry, since that is normally the rarer event on Skye. The tomato plants that I managed to get in a couple of weeks ago are looking quite healthy. I especially like the look of one called ‘first in the field’ – it has a lovely thick stem and a dark green colour (front right hand corner in photo). All the others look good too, and a few are starting to show flowers, so hopefully they won’t be a complete disaster this year.
I have succeeded in planting out in the tunnel two climbing courgettes, three bush courgettes, three sharks fin melon (saved seed!) and two japanese squash. They all had a good few scoops of home made, wood ash enriched, compost mixed in to the planting hole, so should get away now despite being rather weedy looking plants. No sooner had they gone in than Harry decided that the planting recesses made a really comfortable bed! Luckily the japanese squash seemed none the worse the next morning!
I also planted out some basil which came from a friends saved seed – the best germination I’ve ever had! I guess it’s because the seed was nice and fresh. I’m going to see if I can get some of mine to set seed. That would be good to seed around in the tunnel! There are also two oca plants, which I am growing for the first time (the third went outside in the tea garden extension). The chilli peppers and aubergine probably won’t come to much, but they were free seed anyway. They’re such tiny plants I’m afraid they will be swamped in the tunnel, but they never get the attention they need in pots either with me, so this is the best option. I also had some goldenberry seeds (a type of Physalis – like the ones you sometimes get dipped in chocolate with your coffee). I gather this is a rather tender perennial that doesn’t mind poor soils (according to PFAF it can grow more leaves than fruit if the soil is too rich). Hopefully this will be able to over-winter in the polytunnel, so will add to my perennial plants in there. Although the sweetcorn plants also look a bit stunted I have given them a planting hole with extra compost and we’ll see how they do. They mostly seemed to have pretty good roots on them so may still crop albeit later in the year than they should.
In the undergrowth I found my fuchsia berry in its pot. This was a present from my Mum and had been waiting for a permanent home. Unfortunately it does seem to have suffered in the hot tunnel, but somewhat to my surprise was actually still alive! I therefore have found a suitable spot near the central path for it, and will try and keep an eye on it over the next few weeks until it is established. It does seem to have larger, sweeter berries than my garden fuchsia, although these are also quite nice when properly ripe. With regard to ripe berries, the flavour of the ‘honeyberries’ do seem to be developing. One of them definitely has some richer plummy flavours coming through now. So far they are hanging on the bushes well, so I’ll keep sampling them whilst they last.
There were four sharks fin melon plants that I did not have room for in the tunnel, so I have popped them in outside in the tea garden extension. I don’t suppose they will come to anything – they really need a longer season than they will get outside, but you never know, and they will be a bit more groundcover to keep some of the weeds down as well. There were a few more goldenberry plants as well – a little on the small side, they may fruit this year, but probably won’t overwinter. There are various seedlings appearing in this area – some of which I sowed, but a lot of docken. These I find harder to get out when they are small – the leaves tend to pull off too easily. When they are a little bigger the roots come too if you are lucky. I can see quite a few buckwheat seedlings, a very few phacelia, some wheat (not grass as I found when I pulled a bit out when weeding), quite a bit of what may be clover or alfalfa (too early to tell which yet), various brassica including a lot of fodder radish (which has very tasty pods if you allow it to go to seed), the ubiquitous kale and what may be cabbage (or sprouts?). There’s definitely a bit of leaf beet (or spinach?). The callaloo seedlings I put in seem to be doing pretty well despite the dry weather. I’ve never tried it before – its a sort of amaranth that is grown for it’s leaves. It is used quite a bit in Jamaican cookery, but apparently should grow quite well outside in the UK, we’ll see. There’s still a little bit more relatively easy weeding to do, then I need to get the paths laid and the rest of the undergrowth cut back and mulched.
The outside soft fruit are just a little way off ripe. The blackcurrants are changing colour. I’m hoping for my first harvest off the new plants in the tea garden. The berries all look a little on the small side, but plenty of them. The first raspberries are changing colour, and again I’m hoping for a good harvest there – watch this space!
I planted my tomatoes out this week. I have worked out now what I was doing wrong and why my plants seem so stunted compared to other people’s. I am over watering them. The compost appears dry, we are having sunny weather and the polytunnel is getting super hot (too hot for me to work in there during the days). I thought that tomato plants need lots of water and being in pots they would need more – WRONG! This peat free compost I am using seems dry at the surface, but underneath it is sopping wet still so the poor little plants were trying to grow in a tropical marsh. I transplanted them in to bigger pots (which is when I found they were not as dry as I’d thought) hardly watered them at all, and they perked right up.
The trick is to stick a length of cane or stick into some of the pots to the bottom, when you feel the urge to water, pull out the stick and feel how damp it is – that will tell you if the pots need water. After two weeks the plants were looking a lot happier and had filled their new pots with roots. Rather than pot them on again, I just planted them right out into the tunnel. That involved cutting back much of my self sown salads, which are rather past their best now. The kale still had some good pickings on and I was going to try making kale crisps (which are rather yummy) but unfortunately I just ran out of time that day and they all went rather limp. I left the roots of the plants in the soil generally, dug a good sized hole, put about three shovels of my mature compost (rather grey from all the wood and paper ash that went in that heap) in the hole and mixed it in a bit. I have found that since I’ve left the polytunnel untidy, leaving cut back plants on the surface, the soil has a better texture and doesn’t dry out as much. The plant debris also stops seeds from germinating. The tomato plants were popped in a random order, the soil level was deliberately left a little lower than the surrounding soil making it easy to water them in, and the holes can be backfilled to earth up the stems as the plants grow. Hopefully I won’t lose the little labels telling me which is which. I’m not expecting wonders from them this year, since I am late getting the plants in, but hopefully, now I know what I’m doing wrong, I can get a bit ahead next year!
While I was clearing the undergrowth in the polytunnel I found three other good things. Firstly the unknown citrus is not dead! I had cut it mostly back but not removed it, more from wishful thinking than a belief it would recover, and hey presto! new shoots from near the bottom of the trunk! I’ll tidy it up a bit once it’s a bit bigger, and perhaps fleece it next winter, but it may be that it will always die back and never flower.
Another good thing was a very welcome resident toad. It was heading into the area I’d cleared in the polytunnel, so I had to relocate it back in a quiet area for its own safety, but I was very happy to see it. A few years ago I saw a small toad in the tunnel on a number of occasions, but haven’t seen it for a while – maybe this is the same one, but it’s now rather fat and much larger! I don’t think the pond made the difference – toads prefer running water I gather. It’s funny, you would have thought, particularly over the last few weeks it would be a bit hot for it in there, but it is obviously happy enough!
Whilst I was in the tunnel taking photos I also noticed that my olive tree has flower buds. I only bought it last year so am very excited about this.
The final good thing was that it rained today. This is not normally something one cheers about on Skye, more something one takes for granted! However we have actually had about three weeks dry and rather warm weather, so the plants in the thinner soil were starting to get yellow, mostly things were fine for me though.
It was more the timing that was perfect. I have been moving soil from under the barn to my orchard area. A good exercise when the soil is nice and dry – lighter to carry and not slippery underfoot. I had reached the end of the area, bar a strip near the track which will be harder work, since there is more nettles and couch grass in that bit, together with stones mixed in from the roadway. Yesterday I dug the last little bit to make the area level, loosened the whole area to a fork depth to try and remove a bit more of the creeping thistle, marked out some paths with edging stones (I’d removed these as I went) and then broadcast all my old seed (and a little fresh seed) in the hope that at least some are still viable to compete with the weeds (I had quite a bit of green manure seeds that I bought for the allotment in Solihull and we’ve been here ten years now!). Now we have a day of soft soaking rain and it couldn’t be better to water the seeds in!
I’ve said before that I don’t keep a very tidy polytunnel. A bit like Anni Kelsey, who curates glorious polycultures by letting things do their own thing a bit, I’ve been more hands off in the tunnel over the last few years. By letting the good things go to seed (fat hen, leaf beet, claytonia, chickweed, kale), and trying to remove the undesirables (nettles, docken, grasses, buttercups….). I usually have a range of lovely edible salads coming up in the empty beds. Even over the winter there has been plenty of kale, but as the day length has increased and as soon as the beds are watered a carpet of seedlings soon appear. For instance I wrote this on Friday, so as I have staff covering the shop through most of the day, I’m trying to get up to speed with my seed sowing. These are mainly the perennials and the later sown summer crops that will need potting on later. Whilst I was out there taking stock of what needs doing in the tunnel I cut a swathe of salad from this bed to go with some scrambled eggs for lunch.
Needless to say, I didn’t sow any of this, the original kale and claytonia were sown many years ago. I can’t find anything non edible in the bit I cut. Normally I would steam the fat hen for a little, but this is still pretty young and I think we’ll get away with it – too much and the saponins could give an upset stomach. I just picked over a few older leaves, rinsed for livestock, and cut out the larger kale stalks, which S would probably not appreciate (I’ll hide the greens under the eggs for him). Anyway weeds….or self sustaining salads!