Any gardener in temperate regions will understand the reference above. As autumn eases into winter we start to think about bringing in the last of the tomato fruit and tucking up more tender perennials to protect them from the cold. For us on Skye it has been rather more of a jolt into winter than normal. Early December is more likely to be the first penetrating frosts, but several times in the last week it has already been freezing hard as I come home from the shop at about half seven in the evening. I have therefore spent an hour or so this afternoon tidying up a bit in the polytunnel.
The Yacon are starting to look a bit sorry for themselves, as are the sharks fin melon vines and achocha. So far the nasturtium and mashua are still looking fairly OK. There were rather more sharks fin melon fruit than I spotted before. I’m thinking I should really bring these fruit in before the frost damages them, but this time my priority were the achocha, which already look a bit the worse for wear.
Some of the achocha fruit is definitely frost damaged, and since it is predominately close to the plastic skin of the tunnel, it will be about the coldest in the tunnel. There was a lot of fruit from the Bolivian giant achocha. Much of the smaller fat baby one is overripe for eating, it turns a more yellow colour, so I have left that for the moment, since I was limited for time. I managed to get a large box of Bolivian giant, and a smallish punnet crammed full of the fat baby achocha. I haven’t decided what to do with the fruit. I don’t think we will get round to eating it all fresh, so I might use it in a chutney at the weekend (it’s lovely to have a glut of something at last!). I have the marrow (that got slightly crushed when the ladder slipped as I was mending the polytunnel roof) and some overripe apples from the shop, as a good basis for some chutney. I also found this post which suggests making jam with it, from an adapted cucumber jam recipe.
The tomatoes were looking a bit mouldery, so I cleared those out as well. They hadn’t got frost damage, but it is too dark and cool for them to ripen off now. Having removed the fruit and separated off the various supports, I could pull the plants out of the soil. It is one case where it is worth removing most of the roots, since there are various soil borne diseases that affect tomatoes. I do try and plant them in a different part of the tunnel each year, so that it is only in a bed for one year in four to give the soil a rest. I’m pretty pleased that the roots of the supersweet 100 plants looked quite healthy. In the past, particularly earlier in my growing in the tunnel, the roots have been stunted and corky, but these were definitely much better. The multiflora tomato plants less so. I’m not inclined to choose them again over ildi. They seem to have been quite late ripening and the set was quite poor too for the number of flowers.
Although there was no sign of damage yet, I was nervous about the frost harming my unknown citrus tree (see previous post), so I wrapped that up in windbreak fabric after giving it a bit of a prune. Hopefully that will keep the worst of the cold at bay. In the photo you can see the tall Yacon is quite burnt by the cold. I will leave it in situ and let the top growth protect the roots, which will still be developing the edible tubers (I hope). The longer they are left the better.
Starting on a positive note, I noticed the other day as I walked through the alder grove in the centre of the tree field, that the field is starting to smell like a wood. I hadn’t really appreciated that woods have a specific scent, but realised that it wasn’t just the normal fresh air smell that we get, but the damp, woodsy smell of rotting leaves and fungi. I wish that we had “smellovision” so that I could capture it! The paths in this area are also much more green than the ground under the trees either side. This is a bit deceptive I think, since the grass there hasn’t died out fully. The grass on the path was mown at least once through the year and therefore is fresh regrowth, whereas the grass under the trees is straggly mature growth, admittedly covered a bit by leaves as well.
Then the trouble – Earlier this week it was a bit windy. Not excessivly so. Nothing to write home about, I would have said, except that my polytunnel got torn! The wind was probably gusting to approaching 60mph (update – possibly a bit more; I’m told that over the hill the gusts were approaching 80mph, and since the energy goes by the cube of the speed that’s significantly more likey to cause damage), but the problem really was that earlier in the year the kiwi and the bramble had each decided that the polytunnel wasn’t big enough, and had punched their way through the cover. This had been aided by the fact that one of our cats (Harry) sometimes uses the polytunnel as a look out station, so had made several tear-along-the-dotted-line holes near the frame hoops, as he climbed about on it. I pruned out the growth from underneath and it fell outside the tunnel but left a bit of a hole, which is now rather ginormous! I’m hoping that I can patch it up, since the tunnel cover is only a few years old. Although it ripped across the width of one of the sections, it didn’t rip too far down, so at the moment is providing extra ventilation!
I hastily threw the hose across the tunnel to try and stop it flapping in the wind and hence propagating down, weighting the hose ends with car tyres. This may have helped, since we did have quite a bit more wind after it happened, but it is still only the top that is torn. Now I need a dry still day to try and patch it up. Tricky, since it is right at the top of the tunnel, so I can only really reach from the inside. I have some spare polythene from the old tunnel, so I may stretch that over the top as well, and some ‘gaffa tape’. I think I’ll need some ‘belt and braces’ if I can keep this cover going for a few more years!
I was wondering whether to harvest the Boskoop glory grapes, or whether to leave them a bit longer to sweeten up a bit. They were mainly getting ripe, just a little bit tart to the taste perhaps. Since the tunnel had ripped, I decided to cut all the bunches down and have a go at making grape molasses; see here for example method. The idea was that since we don’t get round to eating all the grapes fresh, it would be a way of preserving them, as well as a fun way of creating a sugar substitute. I did a bit of internet research and came to the conclusion that the wood ash was optional (some sites suggested adding chalk). I think the purpose of the additive is to precipitate out the tannins; perhaps making the juice sweeter and less liable to crystallise.
All went well at first. I picked all the grapes and saved three of the best bunches (1kg) for eating. There was another 6kg initially, although quite a few were a bit mouldy – I think I missed a few bunches when I was thinning them out! I crushed the grapes in a sieve and strained the juice through a jelly bag into my jam making cauldron. On the wood stove I then simmered it down from 4 litres down to 1 pint (excuse my ambi-units!), which took about 5 hours, and left it to cool overnight. We had the stove on anyhow – it is our heating source – so no extra fuel required for this operation.
The juice started off a light pink colour with terracotta flecks (not all had strained off). As it boiled it did seem to create extra flocky bits in the juice and darkened to a dark brown. It still tasted pretty sharp and hadn’t thickened much. I think my grapes aren’t very sweet (I should have measured the specific gravity, but couldn’t be bothered to climb into the attic for the hydrometer). On the following day I decided to boil it again and left it on the stove whilst I picked some achocha in the tunnel – big mistake! I came back to a kitchen (and house!) full of acrid smoke and a black gooey mess in the pan! I had left the firebox door open, so the top hot plate just got too hot! On the bright side, the black mess did seem to comprise of burnt sugar, so I know if I had done it more gently I had a chance of achieving molasses! I’m hoping I can recover the pan!
Next year (or maybe not) I may try a variety on the theme. First, maybe I’ll try adding chalk (or perhaps sodium bicarbonate) to precipitate out some of the tannins. Or maybe I’ll do that secondly, since in my research I discovered that cream of tartar comes from grapes. Actually it seems to come mainly from the bits left over from wine making. Unfortunately I had thrown my residue in the compost before I found this out! The tartaric acid salts are less soluble in cold water than hot, so precipitate out when the solution is cooled. When I had cooled the part-formed molasses overnight I did get a very small amount of crystals on the pan. Again there are lots of articles that you (eventually) find when searching for this, this is one that I think may be most useful. Since I use cream of tartar a bit in cooking, I think it would be fun to try and make my own another time!
This week I chose to spend a few hours in the polytunnel tidying up and sorting out some of the various pots and trays that I have been attempting to grow new plants in this year. I bought three bags of compost in Portree at Skyeshrubs last week, together with three plants, and the compost is already more than half gone! I have potted on lots of the plants and seedlings that have been languishing outside the polytunnel for most of the summer. Some of them were rather pot bound, including the remaining honeyberry that never made it to the orchard (I took some cuttings of this when repotting). Some actually looked as if they had plenty of room, but will probably benefit from fresh compost anyhow. Some are showing no signs of life in the pots other than the usual weed plants, which include lots of what I believe to be willow seedlings. I think I’ve lost the wild garlic that came free with one of my plants bought earlier this year – there seemed to be nothing in the pot when I inspected it. I’m not too worried about that, since it would be pretty easy to get hold of if I choose to introduce it.
I also potted on my window sill plants: not the orchid (which is fine), or the christmas cactus (which I made a branched log pot for earlier in the summer), but the money plant (which I don’t know the proper name of) and the cuttings of Sechuan pepper and Chillean myrtle. The money plant actually only seemed to have been using the top half of its pot despite being quite a large plant. The cuttings have rooted very well, but I’m intending to overwinter them indoors to try and give them a good start.
The first of the new plants I bought in Portree is a Phormium tenax: Maori queen, which is a lovely striped pink New Zealand flax plant. It will grow to about 5ft high and wide, which is maybe a bit big, but the lovely thing about these plants, as Martin Crawford demonstrated in his forest garden, is that the leaves can be cut and split to make handy biodegradable garden twine. I’ve planted the main plant up by the road, where it should make good ornamental screening. Phormium are supposed to be pretty wind and water resistant so I think it’ll do OK there. You can also see the good growth and flowers of the white fuchsia that I moved to the roadside earlier in the summer. As I expected, it has settled in there pretty well. I chose a flax plant that had several offsets growing in the same pot, so now have another 5 baby plants for free! These I will leave in the polytunnel for the moment until they have established roots in the pots, then I think I’ll put about three more on the road bank to the north side of the house.
The second plant is a Fuchsia: Mrs Popple. I wasn’t going to get another Fuchsia, but this one looks really strong, with large bicoloured pink flowers and (the real selling point for me!) large fairly sweet berries. They are perhaps slightly insipid, not so peppery in flavour as my thin flowered plants’, but quite pleasant. I have planted this plant in the front garden near the failed mangetout peas and had to pull out several raspberries to make room for it. It is a little bit shady for it there perhaps, but it is reasonably sheltered which is probably at least as important. It is also quite near my established white and dark pink Fuchsias. After planting I cut back some of the non flowering shoots and made several of them into cuttings, so hopefully again I will have several plants for my money. While I was at it I took some cuttings of my murtilo (Myrtus ugni) which is flowering well at the moment. I’d like to put some on the drivebank, since I think a bit more heat may be required to get the fruit to ripen here for me.
The third plant is a blueberry: Vaccinium floribundum, also known as mortiño or Andean blueberry, you can see it in the top photo next to the shelves. Having since looked it up I am pretty happy that I bought this. I wasn’t quite sure what it was when I saw it, but again I thought what a healthy looking plant it was – and you can’t go wrong with a blueberry can you? Although the fruit should be black or red on this variety not blue! I need to have a think about where to plant this. It is slightly tender, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem here (they wouldn’t sell it at Skyeshrubs if they thought it was too tender for the island), but it will fruit better with a bit of sun. I’m wondering if I can find a spot for it in the pallet garden, although it is so pretty, it is worth a place in the front garden: maybe near the front path near the snowbell tree (which seems to have survived this time – the first one I planted didn’t survive its first winter). I will have to clear a space for it in the grass though! I’ll try and take some cuttings from this plant, but it looks like these are less likely to take. They apparently are more difficult to propagate.
Now I’m in the mood to plan my planting for next year. I have already ordered some more Gevuina avellana seed (eventually found with an US ebay seller) and excitingly both japanese and chillean plum yew, which I’ll post a bit more about another time. I’ve got a little spreadsheet of plants and potential sourcing that I try and stick to, but inevitably some extra exciting plants get bought that aren’t on the list!
Remember the mushroom logs I made back in March? Well so did I this week. I checked on them as I was passing the trailer on the way to get wood in from the woodshed. Peeling back the rubber mats covering them, I found that the ends of the logs were all covered nicely in mycelium. I am hopeful therefore that the logs are now ready to start fruiting. It was quite warm in the early part of the summer, and cool latterly but the location I chose seems to have protected the logs suitably. The instructions say to put them somewhere shady now and they should start fruiting. I have leant them against the north end of the workshop behind the Hablizia trellis, where I found (to yet more excitement!) that the Hablitzia has set seed. The only odd thing is that the logs still haven’t realised they’re dead; as well as patches of mycelium on the trunks, all the logs had little twig shoots. I’ll try and remember to check them more often now for mushrooms forming, so watch this space!
The word sounds like a sneeze, but the fruit tastes like a cucumber. Finally I have achieved achocha heaven in the polytunnel! They are fruiting like mad, and the only pity is that it is now a little late in the year for salads (called ‘cold suppers’ in our house and not including too much green, since S. is not keen on lettuce). The Bolivian giant is living up to its name with fruit twice or three times the size of the standard achocha. It has smoother fruit with finer tentacles.
The standard one was first to set fruit, although both were flowering months ago. I just love the exotic appearance of the fruit and they taste OK, as I said just mild and cucumber like. This means to me that they taste slightly odd warm. Not unpleasant, but they don’t really substitute for courgettes in hot dishes, which I was hoping they would. I tried some on pizza and they were fine, just odd! I need to look up some more recipes! I am intending to collect seed from both varieties to ensure fresh seed next year, so I am leaving the earliest fruit to grow and ripen. They may cross however, so I could end up with something a bit unpredictable.
Another success (so far!) are the remaining tomatoes. As I said in a previous post I had to remove the stupice tomatoes, but the super sweet 100 are starting to ripen now and I’m looking forwards to picking the first fruit! These were from my saved seed and I wasn’t sure whether they would come true, since I did see somewhere, after I had planted them, that this variety was a F1 hybrid. So far it looks like the plants are all red cherries as expected, so I’m not hesitating in collecting seed again. I have still quite a few varieties of tomato seed and I don’t have space to grow very many. This is because I grow them direct in the soil and try and rotate them in the polytunnel beds so as not to build up diseases (like that virus Grrr!). My plan is to grow the oldest varieties so that the seed that I have is rejuvenated, and then I can get rid of the older seed. I was surprised how well some of the old seed did germinate, although slowly. The seedlings didn’t thrive however and (honesty now) got a bit neglected at a critical seedling stage, so I lost them.
The millefleur tomato (which came from the same source as the fated Stupice by the way) are yet to ripen. As promised they have enormous trusses of flowers, although so far not setting as well as the other multiflora tomato I used to grow (Ildi). It is still early days yet though and I would try them again before rejecting them. They are heavily shaded by the kiwi and bramble above them, which I think hasn’t helped.
Under the kiwi and grapevine the asparagus plants are growing well and some have flowered. So far just male flowers, which is supposed to be better for prolific spears. However I have read (I think it was from Bob Flowerdew) that the female plants tend to have fatter spears, which I agree with him may be preferable. Anyway the plants seem to be doing alright this year, so maybe I’ll get to harvest some next year (if they would only stop growing over the winter!). The courgettes seem to have given up actually setting fruit, so I have left the two that remain to grow into marrows. I’m pretty sure that at least one sharks fin melon has set too, although I will have to go on a gourd hunt soon to see if I can find and protect any pumpkin nut squash. If there are any they are well hidden in the undergrowth.
Other news in the polytunnel is that the black grapes, Boskoop glory, are starting to turn colour. There are a few grapes that are going mouldy, so I am trying to pick those out without damaging the rest of the bunch. I’m not sure if these got slightly damaged when I thinned the grapes out, or whether there is another reason for that, but I’m pretty happy with the crop overall. The white grapes are actually already ripe! Or at least some of them are. I felt them and they gave a little and I sampled a few from the end of the bunch! Being green and staying green means it is a bit more difficult to tell whether they are ripe and this seems extremely early to ripen, so Zalagyongye is a good variety to try if you have an early autumn!
I have hacked back both the kiwi and the bramble in the polytunnel and have definitely decided to evict the kiwi vine this winter. It has shaded that end of the polytunnel too much, and needs more than one prune in a summer to keep it from getting completely rampant. Although the flowers are very pretty and it does set quite a few fruit, these are a bit small and sharp for my taste. If I was to plant a replacement I would try a kiwiberry – Actinidia kolomitka or Actinidia arguta. The fruit of these are supposed to be smaller, not hairy, sweeter and ripen sooner than the larger kiwi fruit. They still generally need male and female plants (although there are a few self fertile varieties: issai and vitikiwi for example). I think I will leave the bramble to grow again and see how that does by itself: it will be very difficult to get rid of now anyhow! It is nice to get early sweet clean brambles, and it has done a bit better this year than last but it has still struggled to get space and light with the kiwi adjacent to it. The kiwi I will try and transplant. It can grow up one of the sycamore in the front garden. I don’t suppose the fruit (if any) will come to much outside, but I may still get flowers.
The Yacon plants that I planted out first in the tunnel (on 26th March) have grown simply HUGE! Literally some are almost taller than I am! The ones that were planted slightly later (10th June) are much smaller. I’m a bit surprised that they didn’t catch up more. None had any compost in the planting hole, although I have been liquid feeding them both on occasion. It is possible that the later ones are a bit more shaded, with large parsley going to seed nearby. The real proof will be in the harvest of course, so watch this space.
Finally I will just mention the Fuchsia berry. It has put on a lot of growth recently. The flowers are yet to open, although are getting larger. I have pinched out quite a few of the growing tips, to make the plant more bushy, the thought being more branching = more flowers. However, we are getting quite late in the year now for setting much in the way of fruit. I may try and take some cuttings. It would be good to have a back up plant or two on the windowsill in case we have a hard winter.
Well, the sad news is that the remaining apricot fruit didn’t make it to ripeness! I think a drop of condensation landed on it and it started to rot during the warmer weather we had in early July. It was definitely changing colour, but was still hard and (yes I did try it!) sour. I’m pretty happy to have got fruit set in the first proper year of the tree and am learning more about how to prune it! I have given it a rather more brutal late summer prune than I think will normally be required. It has surprised me quite how vigorous the tree has been. So much for dwarfing rootstock! I wish the trees outside were as vigorous. The shelter and extra warmth of the polytunnel will of course be contributing much to the lush growth. I have taken one of the branches right back in the hope that the tree structure will improve, with more branching – I need to prune harder next time in the spring!
I had my ‘champion of england’ peas from the HDRA growing up the apricot, they are starting to dry off nicely now, and an achocha vine is also making a tentative effort. Those are generally doing better this year than I have achieved in previous years and have some fruit developing on the standard variety. The large fruited achocha variety, with the pretty cannabis like leaves, is flowering, but I have not noticed any larger fruit yet.
The new grape vine Zalagyongye has a few nice bunches of grapes and Boskoop glory had lots of lovely bunches. I think the kiwi vine is rather shading the grapevine, since most of the Boskoop grape bunches were either right at the start of the vine, or towards the far end, where there is less shade from the kiwi. I know I should have thinned out the bunches earlier, but again we seem to have had a lovely dry summer, plus I was busy with the building work, so didn’t play in the tunnel so much. The grapes within the bunches were also packed quite tight at that stage so it was awkward to get in there with the scissors to cut them out. A little shuffling with my fingers was required to gain an angle of access. I invested years ago in a special round ended short bladed pair of scissors, which minimise the damage to grapes that are left on the bunch.
I took quite a number of bunches out completely and have juiced them to make ‘verjus’. At first I tried to use my hand juicer, which looks a bit like a plastic mincer. Unfortunately it wasn’t up to the job. I was afraid if I put any more force on the handle it would snap! The pips were jamming it I think. Instead I blasted the fruit in my food processor and then seived the puree. Verjus or verjuice is a condiment used like vinegar or lemon juice. I’m yet to experiment with it, but this recipe looks like a simple one to try. At first the juice was cloudy, but it settled out after a day in the refrigerator, and I could pour off the clear juice from the top. In an attempt to help it keep, I heated the juice to almost boiling, then poured it into sterilized bottles.
I have had a few fruit off the courgettes – I never get the gluts that other gardeners boast complain of. They are still flowering happily however. I probably don’t feed them enough. The cucumbers have tiny female fruit that just seem to have been sitting there for weeks. I don’t know if they have been fertilized, but they haven’t rotted away either. I suspect one of the issues may be lack of light. They are now almost completely swamped by the adjacent courgettes, but still seem to be fine otherwise. I lose track on the pumpkin and sharks fin melon – there are certainly several vines creeping around and climbing with female flowers, but no significant swelling of fruit yet. I live in hope!
The sweetcorn seem to have all disappeared – just a total washout there. I have a single self seeded nastutium that is making a bid for world (or at least polytunnel) domination. Unfortunately it is just a scarlet one, not the lovely tawny one that I had last year that I think it seeded from. At the edges of what should have been the sweetcorn bed I planted out some foxtail millet (Setaria italica), which grew from HPS seed. This is now showing tiny flowers, so that is exciting for me. The fuchsia berry has grown quite lush, but is only now starting to flower. I’m worried that the berries (if I get any) won’t have time to ripen before the frosts come, or the autumn damp rots them off.
The goldenberry (Physalis peruviana) has lots of tiny lanterns. This page says to wait to harvest these till the fruit stem turns brown, which will be much later in the year. I couldn’t find much else about growing it, but apparently the fruit is also effective in treating diabetes. I found lots of recipes on goldenberry jam and using goldenberries – mostly dried. I don’t expect I’ll get that many fruit. I’m still not sure where the other physalis came from (near the asparagus) I’m wondering if it could have been a seed that didn’t germinate that somehow got lost in the compost and redistributed. The plant is much smaller, so I think it is a new season plant rather than one that overwintered.
Elsewhere in the polytunnel the tomatoes are doing mostly fine. No sign of any ripe ones but plenty set on the supersweet 100 and little yellow multiflora. I’m not happy with the stupice however. That was new seed, but the plants are slightly strange with distorted leaves and few fruit set. Looking this up I think it is tomato mosaic virus. The RHS says that this can be transmitted through seed, and since this is the only variety affected I think that may be what has happened. I’m a bit annoyed about that, since this may compromise my other tomatoes in the future. I’m probably best off not saving seed at all this year. As far as I can find out the only control is to pull as much of the affected plants out as possible, which i have now done. A bit annoying to say the least when there are fruit on the vine! Also annoying me is that I don’t seem to have noted where I got the seed from, despite trying to keep better records. I’m pretty sure it was new seed this year, so I may have it noted in the paperwork somewhere!
I can’t convince myself there are tomato fruit yet, however the tomato plants are flowering well. Since I hadn’t supported them, one or two had fallen over. Usually I use a length of string to the crop bars in the polytunnel, but this time I pulled out my lovely spiral plant supports and used those for three of the plants. These supports were a present a (cough) number of years ago and although lovely, I could never justify buying any more. You simply put the plant up the middle, and guide it into the spiral as it grows taller. For the other tomato plants I used the old washing line that snapped earlier this year. It is plastic wrapped, so should be soft enough on the plants’ stalks, and may last a few years yet.
I’m pretty happy with the tomato plants. They look nice and healthy so far, with plenty of flowers developing. Maybe I’m starting to get the hang of growing them! I think some are getting a bit shaded by the kiwi and the artichoke, so I cut the artichoke back to remove all the flowering stalks to give the tomatoes a bit more space, and pinched out a few more of the vigorous kiwi shoots.
I also had a tidy round the bed opposite one lot of the asparagus. There was a quite a bit of perpetual spinach going to seed there, so I cut back all but one of the plants. The hoverflies love the flowers. Although they are not showy – just green, they have a lovely fragrance. I noticed another physalis goldenberry plant in the bed there. It had been completely hidden in the undergrowth. Not as big as the other physalis plant (which has a flower open!) it seems to have been nibbled a bit at the base, so maybe this is regrowth.
Whilst I was there, I saw a solitary yellow bee happy at work on the milk vetch flowers. She would pull the lower lip down, suck out the nectar and move on to the next flower, until she had done the whole flowerhead. I planted the milk vetch (Astragalus glycyphyllos) to create a nitrogen fixing ground cover around the asparagus, and some of the other perennial plants in the polytunnel. It tends to want to climb in a scrambling sort of way, so I should probably have pinched out the growing tips to make it more bushy. The flowers again aren’t that special, being a pale yellowish green, but obviously appreciated by the bees! I may try and save some seed again this year. If it will grow as well outside as in the tunnel, it would be nice bulky legume for covering the soil in the summer. It does die down in winter however.
The bramble is trying a flanking movement and has sent out a couple of long shoots down the side of the tunnel. It doesn’t seem to fruiting so well this year, so I wonder whether it would be worth re-routing one of these branches to replace the main stem again. The pruning guides all suggest renewing the stem every year, which I generally don’t bother with. I’ve done it once before, when I accidentally cut through the main stem whilst pruning out new shoots. It’s still a bit early to really tell what the crop will be like, although I have noticed at least one ripe fruit. Perhaps I’ll keep one of the new stems for the time being and assess the yield later.
I’ve lost one of my apricot fruit but the other is hanging on still. It is slightly paler in colour now, but I’m trying to resist touching it in case it also falls off. I know I’m pushing it a bit having apricots this far north, but I did read about monks in Orkney that have apricots in their polytunnel, so I’m not alone in my optimism!
I have several sorts of curcubit in the polytunnel. There were three courgettes (just using up old seed) two long and one round one. I’ve lost the single ‘black beauty’ courgette that I planted out – I think Lou-Lou made a bed with it! The others all look like they are doing fine. One of the ‘Tondo de picenze’ plants already has a female flower developing which is nice – usually the first flowers are all male. These are round courgettes; hopefully it will set. The sharks fin melon are also looking OK; maybe a bit weedy but it is early days yet – they are starting to show signs of wanting to climb. I couldn’t find the labels for the pumpkin nuts (a hull-less pumpkin for seed), so am not sure where that is! Around the courgettes there is a nice groundcover of baby kale, chickweed and leef beet. It doesn’t seem to be doing any harm yet, but I can pull a bit out around the plants and either eat, or use the weedings as mulch.
I am worried about my cucumbers though. I haven’t tried growing them for a few years; although small ones would be useful to sell in the shop, we don’t really eat them ourselves. These were cucumber ‘Tamra’ from real seed, and I don’t think they have put on much growth at all since being planted out. I’m wondering at the moment if they are more susceptible to the dreaded spider mite. I know I have this in the tunnel – It was particularly a problem in the early years, attacking the grape vine, courgettes and aubergine plants. I don’t bother with aubergines any more (although never say never!). It may be that it has just been a bit cold for cucumbers. I think they prefer it a little warmer, and we’ve not had much sun this week, and only a couple of warm days last week too.
So how are the perennials in my polytunnel fairing?
Five flavour berry (Schisandra chinensis): I have three different varieties of this, but they are all quite young plants. One did have a single flower. but it doesn’t look like it has set any fruit. One is a seedling and the other two are supposed to be self fertile. Normally you need two different plants to get berries.
Olive (Olea europaea): This has survived the winter (it was pretty mild generally). It has lots of new growth, which I have been pinching back so it grows more bushy than leggy. It seems quite happy. I have it growing in the soil in the polytunnel, but haven’t watered it this year. I am assuming that it’s roots will seek out enough water going sideways at the edges of the tunnel. I thought it wasn’t going to flower this year, but this week I spotted a single bunch of flowers. This is a little disappointing, since last year there were lots of flowers (but no fruit). Maybe as it gets older it will be able to flower more. The flowers this year were on last years’ growth, whereas last year they were on same year growth I think.
Apricot: I have given this an early summer prune, according to the RHS website instructions (as best I could). Last year I didn’t prune it hard enough, so the fan frame is a bit leggy. I may have to cut back some of the branches quite hard to rejuvenate it later this summer. The early summer last year was just too nice to be inside! I did get loads of flowers in spring this year, and two green fruit are still there.
Fuchsia berry: This overwintered alright having survived sitting in it’s pot for too long last year. Now it is in the soil it is growing quite well. It has a funny trilobal growth habit. which I don’t know if it will grow out of, although I knocked one of the branches off whilst watering! No sign of flowers this year yet. I stuck the broken branch in the soil, near the parent plant. Maybe it will root.
Asparagus: These confused me by not dying down for the winter! This meant that they didn’t get a rest period when I could mulch them (if I was organised) and watch for the new shoots in spring. I compromised when tidying that part of the tunnel, by cutting back the old shoots, but I didn’t think the subsequent shoots were really fat and prolific enough to take any this year. Some of the new leaves now have flowers. I’ll have to check what sex they are. These plants were grown from seed in about 2015 and have been in position now for two years. I have two varieties: Connovers colossal and Argenteuil early. I think that Connovers colossal is slightly the more robust looking overall, although it is probably too soon to be sure.
Artichoke: The globe artichoke is flowering well again. I thought they were going to be a little small, but the first buds are a fair size now. I am thinking of selling them in the shop, since S. isn’t that fussed about eating them. I could give them a few days and then have them for my lunch if they don’t sell. I’m not sure what to price them at – probably about 80p each. I have also planted two seedlings on the drivebank, and have one ready to plant in the tunnel on the opposite side.
Goldenberry: I thought that I had two plants that survived the winter. They had died back to the base and I covered them with dead plant material to insulate them a bit. In fact it now looks like one of these is actually a weed plant which pops up both in the tunnel and outside. I think it is nipplewort. When they were both smaller they looked very similar, but now the difference in leaf shape and texture is obvious, and the weed is preparing to flower, unlike the golden berry! I think I may have weeded another goldenberry out when preparing to plant the sweetcorn. It was quite small, so may not have done well anyhow. So far I have proved that they will overwinter in a pretty mild winter, it remains to be seen whether I will achieve any sort of harvest from the one plant this year. It is certainly more developed now than seedlings would be.
Akebia: These seem to have overwintered pretty well. Both those in pots and those in the ground in the polytunnel have survived OK. They were grown from seed last year, but it doesn’t look like they die back herbaciously; they remained green despite being very small. I accidently cut back one that was growing next to the apricot, which was probably doing the best previous to that. The foliage is not that easy to spot. I expect it will take a few years before I get flowers or fruit. I planted two little plants outside on the drivebank and they seem to be quite happy there, although not growing quite so fast. It will be interesting to see if they will over winter for me there also.
Apios americana: I thought this would be a bit more robust than it has turned out to be so far. I grew it outside in the dog resistant garden a couple of years ago, but it dissappeared the first winter. I think it may like it a bit warmer, so am trying it in the polytunnel. I am worried however that it may prefer it rather damper than I generally make it in there, since one of its names is “swamp potato”. I wonder whether it would prefer it in a pot in the pond? Anyhow, I have a few tubers from Edulis growing in the bed adjacent to the apricot. They seem to start growing quite late, even in the polytunnel, only emerging at the start of June this year. I have found two shoots so far, I think there is one small tuber that is still to appear.
Grapes: Both grape vines are starting to flower now. The new one seems to have quite big bunches. There was a little scorching from overnight frost on the new growth earlier in the year, but no real damage. I have done an initial pruning: pinching out the spurs a couple of leaves beyond the flowers and taking off a few overcrowded spurs. I haven’t yet thinned out the bunches of grapes. They should be thinned to one bunch every eighteen inches or so. I think that won’t be necessary yet for the new vine, but the old one, Boskoop glory, is quite prolific so could do with a bit of thinning out.
Kiwi: Given a reprieve and being shortened, the vine has flowered beautifully. I do like the blossom; like huge cream apple blossoms that darken to peach as they fade. I’m still not sure it is worth the space, even though I have shortened it quite drastically this year. But the flowers are pretty. It is still a little early to say how good the fruit set will be.
Bramble. The first flowers on this are fully open just now. I could do with a few more training wires near the lower door to tie back the side branches to. Hopefully I won’t have such problems with flies this year, we’ll see.
Strawberries: The first fruits were the biggest! I shared the first two with S., but he doesn’t know about the others that never left the tunnel. Only one of the plants is really doing well. I find it difficult to keep them watered enough over the winter. I have transplanted into the tunnel some more plants that came from this one that have been growing in pots outside. They are blooming well, so may set a few fruit if I’m lucky.
I didn’t manage to overwinter my sharks fin melon two years ago, although potentially it is perennial. I also didn’t get any seed to germinate last year, but this year my saved seed germinated second time trying. I’m wondering whether to try digging up the parent plant after harvest, cutting it back and moving it indoors for the winter. It may mean an earlier start to growth and flowering, although it may be a pain to accommodate the plant frost free in the earlier part of the spring.
I did manage to overwinter three little chilli pepper plants that AC gave me. They had been on the study windowsill, being watered occasionally, since last spring. They gave the tiniest little chillies, that AC says are very hot, so I am rather nervous of using! One plant I cut back quite severely in early spring, the others were left. The one that was cut back seems to be budding up already. This one I repotted into a slightly larger pot with fresh compost as I did one of the others (whilst cutting that one back slightly too). These are in the tunnel now, as is the third which I have planted out into what I am thinking of as my Mediterranean bed. This is the area next to the Olive tree. I have a bench there (although it tends to get used as a dumping ground rather than a seat) and have also planted the three surviving Astragalus crassicarpus plants there. The idea is to plant things that require little water there. I don’t think the chillies will survive in the tunnel over the winter, but I may leave this one in, to see how it does. If the ground is dry it may well survive better. I have grown some less fiery, hopefully larger chillies from seed, which are now planted out. I will try potting these up in the autumn after (hopefully) fruiting to try and over winter these inside.
I never did harvest the mashua in the tunnel. I don’t think it did so well after the hot early summer last year. Although it should have overwintered OK, most of the plants seem to have disappeared over the winter. Just one bed is growing away strongly. I guess that the tubers did not form well on the other plants. I did miss at least one tuber in the tea garden extension. The foliage is very distinctive when it starts to grow! I also have a couple of oca plants growing in the tunnel, so it looks like I missed a couple of those tubers too! One of the dahlias is growing in with the tomatoes; another unharvested plant which has overwintered well. The passion flowers haven’t made it however. I should probably have overwintered them inside until the plants were a bit bigger. Maybe next year I’ll try growing some new plants.
The Yacon(s) I potted up when I harvested the tubers, splitting the crowns slightly, where they naturally wanted to break. I potted them into smallish pots in compost in the tunnel. Some were planted into the polytunnel beds either side of the Apricot, they are still pretty small. The rest are actually still in pots. One of my jobs to do is to plant these outside, although this should probably have been done a while ago, it has been so cool since March I don’t think they would have done very much growing!
One of the last plants to mention are the pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) These are growing quite lush in the lower part of the tunnel. I have been nipping back the tips of the growth to encourage a bushy habit, since I read somewhere they have a tendency to become leggy. There is no sign of flowering this year! The flowers are also supposed to be tasty, even if the fruit doesn’t ripen. I say these are one of the last, since I am hopeful that the tulip bulbs planted adjacent to the pineapple guava will come back again next year. It is not the bulbs of tulips that can be eaten, but the petals. The flowers are toxic for cats, and some people also can have a bad reaction apparently. I did have a munch on some of the petals, and they were fine – a little sweet and quite juicy. It just seems a bit of a pity to pick flowers for eating somehow!
I’ve been on holiday this week. My friends AC and DC have been staying locally and have been pottering round with me. The weather has just turned from cool and dry to warm and dry, hence the title. I have been practically running round naked, (which I think of as when I’m down to single layers of clothing) and actually showing my knees today! There is no danger of frost now, but I have noticed a little damage to the new growth on the grape vine in the polytunnel. I have bought S. a weather station recently with an extra temperature and humidity sensor for the polytunnel. We are still playing with it, since the signals are getting interfered with by our wifi, but the temperatures in the polytunnel were varying from over 30 deg. Celsius during the day to only 2 deg. Celsius at night. The temperature at night is much warmer now (about 12 degrees or so) and I’m opening the doors more to keep it a bit cooler during the day.
Although on holiday, we have managed to achieve quite a bit (even some of the things I had on my list to do). DC has been going round taking off tree shelters, and keeping the dogs amused. It’s quite nice to think that these are some of the trees that he himself helped plant just a few years ago. AC and I have been clearing and planting in the tea garden extension. The ground is lovely to weed at the moment; so dry the earth just falls off the roots of the weeds. I cleared out some docken and buttercups, but was quite pleased to find only a little couch growing in from the edge which had just been mulched last year. I pulled off the tops of the weeds, left the leaves on the beds, and threw the roots to add to the soil around the adjacent trees, where the rock is rather close to the surface. We planted the artichokes and potatoes that Frances of island threads sent me (thanks again!), as well as my saved oca (and some more from Frances). AC also re-mulched with cardboard the area by the track that I left under mulch last year. I had a trial clearing the end of the bed where I’d planted the peas. Although the couch came out nicely, there was too much of the thinner stringy grass that creeps over the surface, so I’m hoping that another year will clear that a bit more. We cut back and thinned out the kale that was flowering. I think it will regrow again to provide another crop. The tops we used to mulch around the lowest of the ‘new’ blackcurrant bushes. Hopefully they will fruit a bit better this year than last year.
The other blackcurrants in the tea garden had a lovely lush new lawn growing round them! I didn’t manage to clear out the grass in the bed next to them before it went to seed and regretted it! Hopefully cutting it back with shears and mulching with it’s own leaves and cardboard will be enough to clear it again. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of nasty weeds there, which is pleasing. I was hoping to transplant in some of the sweet cicely and good king henry that has seeded in, but that will have to wait till next year now.
The weather is really too nice to be spending much time in the polytunnel (a bit like last year), however we have managed to clear the beds for the tomatoes (although not planted yet). I have decided to plant them in the lower southern beds. There is a awful lot of parsley going to seed in there, so we stripped off the leaves and have dried about four batches in the lower oven. The kale was unfortunately a bit mildewy, which it usually is in the tunnel at this time of year, but there was a fair amount of leaf beet for spinach.
AC has sown my curcubit seeds. We ate the last sharks fin melon a few weeks ago (nearly eighteen months after harvest and still perfect!) so I scraped out and saved some of the seeds before cooking it. I have plenty of seeds as well for next year, just in case I get another failure. The curcubit seeds have all gone in the propagator, although they could probably be sown direct in the polytunnel with the temperatures as they are now. It looks like all my sweetcorn seeds have failed: both those that were sown direct, and those in the propagator. I can only assume that I drowned them. I sowed them at the same time as the peas (which have germinated well). They were fresh seed. I presoaked them for a few days to rehydrate before sowing, but maybe I soaked them for too long. It probably isn’t too late to try again. I’ll see if I have any more of that seed and just soak it overnight, and sow direct this time.
While the earth is so dry I’ve been doing more weeding/editing around the fruit garden as well, getting out some of the comfrey that is persisting. and transplanting some strawberry plants. I also was going to transplant some rowan seedlings in amongst the ash trees in the tree field. They seem to like to germinate in the rocky scree of the driveway. I managed to get out about a dozen little trees and one rather larger one, that were growing in less than optimal positions. Then I started to turn some turfs for planting holes, in between the two bands of new spruce trees (that we have been giving a little water to in this dry weather). When digging the second hole, I found my right calf muscle seize up painfully with cramp, and it has been a bit painful the last day or so. I think it was all the digging in the tea garden extension that worked it too hard. It seems a bit better now with rest and ibuprofen, but I may have to heel the little rowans in somewhere else (they are in a pot of water at the moment).
DC and AC also helped me mulch the area where I am hoping to plant blueberries in the tree field. First we had to shift all the conifer branches that I had placed there from the driveway tree pruning. The grass had started to grow through them, but it wasn’t too difficult to disentangle them yet. We then spread out several lengths of black plastic underlay (reclaimed a few years ago from the local hall when it flooded) and used the tree branches to weight them down. This was easier with a few extra pairs of hands. I’ll assess the couch grass at the end of the summer and decide whether to leave the plastic down for another year then. I’m thinking of making slightly raised beds for the blueberries (since the area there is a bit of a bowl) and planting the ‘ditches’ in between with comfrey for mulching. I’m thinking some well rotted sawdust and lots of bracken leaves is what I need to plant the blueberries into.
For the first time in a few years, I have planted peas outside this year. In the past they have done pretty well for me, and it was more that I didn’t really have anywhere to put them that put me off growing them. I have grown them in the polytunnel, and they do grow well in there also. They don’t generally make it as far as the kitchen however! With the tea garden extension, I have a fair amount of space. So this year I have used some longish side branches cut from the alders that I felled, and some side branches from the alder grove just below the hump at the south side, for pea sticks.
The pallets in the tea garden don’t quite overlap enough to give brilliant wind reduction at the moment. I have enough pallets to finish the job, thanks to the delivery driver arranging a few spare pallets to be dropped over. But I still need to dig out the couch and nettles along the edge by the trackway, so the ground levels still aren’t right there to complete the fences. Anyhow, I planted out the bare root hazels that had been ‘heeled in’ in one of the sections and cleared it in preparation. The peas went in a row parallel to the windbreak, and the pea sticks leant up at an angle just past them. These were carlin peas that I had saved from peas grown in the front garden in 2011. They had been put in water to soak a couple of days prior. There were lots of them, so I just sowed them really thickly. Between the peas and the pallet I transplanted some good king henry and sweet cicely seedlings that had self sown near my plants in the tea garden.
Along the edge by the access path I have planted the colourful oca tubers that I bought from real seeds. I have tried to put colours not too similar next to one another so that I can keep the resulting tubers separate when it comes to harvest. There did appear to be some duplication of tubers (as expected) so some will bulk up numbers more quickly than others. One tuber also does look like the variety I have grown before.
Also planted at the edge are a few heath pea (lathyrus linifolius) plants that I grew from seed last year. They have been neglected in modules, but most seem remarkably to have survived no watering and little compost, they are tough little plants it seems! Also planted in here were the last perennial kale plants. The ones that I had planted out as soon as they rooted grew far bigger than the ones left in pots. I also planted out an angelica plant that I had bought from Pointzfield herbs this spring.
I had three varieties of peas I wanted to grow this year. As well as the carlin peas, I wanted to try the tall purple mangetout, that I have grown only in the polytunnel till now. Because I want to try and save fresh seed from these, I have planted up a wigwam of alder peasticks in the front garden. This is the other side of the barn from the tea garden, so there is little chance of the plants cross-pollinating. I have also planted out in this area some of the plants that have been (mal)lingering in pots. I put a few of my new sweet violet plants against the sycamore trunks, a little honeysuckle to grow up them, a few campanula latifolia along by the path and some rather small martagon lily seedlings that I grew from my HPS seed last year. I’m currently debating with myself as to whether to plant one of my new mint plants in there too, or whether to confine it to a pot to keep it in restraint.
The third variety of peas that I have planted are some Heritage Seed Library seeds that I didn’t grow last year. Champion of England is a tall (could be up to 10 feet!) marrowfat pea. Since I only have a few seeds I decided to grow these in the polytunnel. I have planted then in the bed below the apricot (which I must read up about pruning!). When preparing the bed I inadvertently dug up some Apios americana tubers that I had forgotten were there. They have only just started into growth. Hopefully I haven’t damaged the growing tips too much.
It all looks great before the weeds start to grow!
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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).