A Long Harvest

25th March 2019.

coppice 1
First Cut

Almost ten years to the day after planting them, I coppiced my first alders down by the river.  It was hard to do.  Moderately hard physically, but challenging mentally too.  Not so much the act of cutting the trees down; I have faith that the trees will grow back bigger and faster than before (see below).  More challenging was which trees to cut so as not to lose all the shelter, and whether to cut back fully, leave a longer stump, or just take out one trunk or more of a multi stemmed tree.  The bowsaw is a bit blunt, despite having a new blade not so long ago, so I actually used my folding pruning saw for much of the cutting.  I must look and see what small electric saws are available.  I think a rechargeable could save quite a bit of elbow grease and be kinder to the trees as well as me!

regrowth
Tree to left of dog prematurely coppiced 5 years ago

I have to cut what I am going to this week.  Leaves are starting to open and buds to swell.  The trees will find it harder to recover if they put too much life back into what I am cutting back.  Also the wood would take longer to dry out ready for burning.

The alder wood is supposed to be useful in areas that are permanently damp – like the tree itself funnily enough.  They used to use the wood for clog soles and protective boot soles in foundries even after the second world war.  I don’t think my trees are quite big enough for that, although it would be amusing to make one’s own shoes.  It’s not excellent for firewood,  supposedly it tends to smoulder, but this is less of a problem in a stove.  It has the big advantage to us of being a fast growing, nitrogen fixing tree that likes damp soil.  I wish I had planted much more of it.  When first cut the wood surface is pale in colour, but it quickly goes an orange colour that then fades to brown over a few months.

alder rings
orange staining – alder growth rings

As well as larger trunks (some of which should be good for an ‘overnight burner’ or two) there is a vast amount of smaller branches.  These will still feed a growing fire and even the tiniest make good kindling.  What I have tended to do with the prunings I have gathered to date is leave it in piles down the field, roughly where it was cut.  Over six months to a year the twigs dry out, the grass dies back a bit underneath, and grows lush nearby where it is sheltered.  Every so often when taking the dog-boys down the hill for a run, I bring back an armful of kindling and put it in the woodshed to dry.   The more twiggy bits tend to break off and get left in the grass, but that adds to the soil biomass.

pruning paths
Lower branched pruned – top loop, prior to tidying into piles
twiggy piles
Summer time pruning pile

Taking the wood up an armful at a time isn’t going to be practical for the larger stuff.  We are intending to put up little shelters and pile up the branches cut to size near to where the trees were felled.  Hopefully we have enough pallets and fenceposts together with the old roof sheets off the byre to create shelters to keep the worst of the weather off.

S. has stripped out an old Land Rover Discovery vehicle and equipped it at the back with a framework to act as a saw bench.  This is also to be used to bring the dry cut wood up to the wood shed after it has dried for a year or so.  Although whether it will be worth keeping the vehicle mobile for many more years, remains to be seen.  The engine is sweet, but the electrics and chassis are rotten!

teuchter wagon
Teuchter wagon

Anyway, I definitely felt the first warmth of the firewood today.

first heat
First warmth
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Faffing about and Spring colours

sun break
Sun breaking through

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

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

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

first primrose
Surprising primrose on east facing bank

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

frogspawn
Frogspawn in pond

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

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom

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

Field bean and elder cutting
Elder cuttings

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

removing pale fuchsia
Preparing the access ramp

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

Jan 19

back ways in snow
Backways in snow

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.

after pruning
After pruning

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.

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom?

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!

too many pots
Too many pots….
greenhouse frame
Mini greenhouse frame (and polytunnel pond)

 

Catching up

So much to do so little time!  Summertime is here, the daylight and the shop hours are longer…We seemed to skip straight from winter into summer here – usually spring is the nicest time on Skye, drier weather, (often warmest too!) no midgies and fewer tourists (we love them really!)  I’ve been helped on my family research by my younger sisters and my mum coming for their holiday on Skye last week.  A folder of old family documents and letters shed some fascinating insights into some of the Kent branches of the family.  A few seem to have been soldiers and I’ve scanned in some of the documents to transcribe.  One letter is from a soldier in Madras, India in 1832 describing the effects of a cholera outbreak and urging his brothers and sisters to stay home and not be tempted abroad.  I haven’t placed him yet on the family tree, but he does seem to have survived to a ripe old age despite obviously in fear of his life at the time of his writing.

dead citrus
Dead citrus

I thought I’d just review the winter and what has done well or poorly this year.  Amongst my losses are my rock samphire plant (grown from seed – first winter), my sea beet (both an established plant that flowered last year but did not set seed and all of my seedlings in pots), some of my Camellia sinensis plants (small plants in the fruit garden – the ones in the tea garden are thriving), the unknown citrus in the polytunnel, my baby yacon seedlings, and a Luma apiculata that never made it out of it’s pot.  Considering  how cold the winter has been, not so much in intensity as in length, it could have been a lot worse.

mashua survivor
Volunteer Mashua plant

A surprising survivor is a mashua plant that appears to have grown from a missed tuber in the fruit garden.  I suppose since it can be grown as an ornamental perennial (think Ken Aslet) It shouldn’t be that surprising.  I will leave this one and see how it does.  I haven’t in the end planted any more mashua outside this year.

 

apricot bent branch
Apricot misaligned shoot

The apricot is doing well – I have now trained in seven shoots as described earlier, and they are needing tying in again.  Unfortunately I did get one of the shoots slightly wrong – pinched out too many earlier on and was left with one that was growing at the wrong angle.  I’m hoping it will straighten out as the plant grows.

akebia and passiflora seedlings
Akebia and Passiflora seedlings

I have grown a number of plants from seed this winter including what turned out to be Akebia triloba.  This was grown from seed obtained via the facebook edimentals group from someone who ate the fruit in Japan, but we weren’t sure until the leaves appeared whether it was A. quinata or A. triloba.  It should be hardy outside here, but will probably do better in the polytunnel.  If the plants survive I’ll try both.  I have also grown some passion fruit vines (still very tiny) Passiflora edulis and P. mollissima (I think).  Some of my other seedlings have struggled in the hot weather we had a couple of weeks ago – the pots dried up very quickly and the tiny plants may not have made it.  I had some martagon lily that I think have gone now, and some of my vetch seedlings have also gone.  These include, annoyingly, the Astragalus crassicarpus (gound plum) that I was looking forwards to establishing in the tunnel.  Luckily the single chilean hazelnut that germinated seems to be doing alright, and is now showing signs of sending up a second pair of leaves.  This is better than the seeding I achieved last year which faded out at a single pair.

earth moving may
Moving more soil….

I was busy outside trying to get on top of the creeping buttercup before it took over everywhere again, but got distracted moving more soil down the hill to landscape the orchard area.  This is nearly achieved, but more work to do on the south side of the trackway.  Just at the moment the buttercups in the field are making a fine display with the pignuts, and remind me that we’d be poorer if we succeeded in eliminating weeds!

bluebell mountains
Bluebells and Macloud’s Tables

Polytunnel progress

polytunnel snowWe continue to have a snowy winter.  Showers interspersed with milder days so sometimes it’s icy and underneath the soil is sopping wet.  Down the northern edge of the tree field the dogs have made a cut through path to the pond at the bottom.  I sometimes use it to go down that way, and sometimes go the longer way around the main rides.  Since the dogs don’t pay too much attention to where the baby trees are, some are rather close to the path.

dog cut through
Dogs’ short cut to pond

Last year I moved an oak that was right in the path.  S. mowed along the path in the summer and it was tricky to zigzag between all the trees.  I therefore moved three trees to improve the line of the path and make it easier to mow should we choose to do that again.  There were two birch and one hazel that were definitely in the way and I moved them to the lower windbreak line, which does still seem to have a few gaps in.  I have also been given a number of lodge pole pine seedlings (thanks again Frances) and those have been safely planted, some near the byre at the top, and some down in one of the lower windbreaks.

new pine tree
Newly planted lodge pole pine

The other things I have been doing are mainly in the polytunnel.  This week I got round to pruning the apricot for it’s second year training. Again this was a rather brutal procedure, cutting both main arms down to a length of about 12 inches.

prunging apricot year2
Fan Apricot: second year pruning

I need to be alert to how to train it during the summer growing seasons now, since this will be the last dormant pruning.  From the rhs website:

  1. “In summer, choose four shoots from each ‘arm’: one at the tip to extend the existing ‘arm’, two spaced equally on the upper side and one on the lower side. Tie them in at about 30 degrees to the main ‘arm’ so they are evenly spaced apart (using canes attached to the wires if necessary)
  2. Rub out any shoots growing towards the wall and pinch back any others to one leaf”

Not that I’m growing on a wall, but the principle will be the same I’m sure.

The other very exciting thing that I’ve been doing in the tunnel is creating the pond, that I’ve been wanting for a while.  I had some remnants of pond liner from when my mum had a large pond made in her previous house.  Unfortunately during storage both sheets have been slightly damaged by mice making nests, and I didn’t think either would be quite big enough for a pond approximately 6 feet by 5 feet and 2 feet deep.  The first step therefore was to mend the holes and extend the best liner so as to make it big enough.  While that was curing, the hole for the pond was finished off, with shelves at various depths around the edges.  I had some more bits of automotive carpet underlay which I lay mainly on the shelves and the base to protect the liner from stones in the soil.  Luckily the liner extension wasn’t needed in the end – the slope of the sides meant it wasn’t quite as deep as I’d calculated – just as well, since it was impossible to stop the liner creasing at the joint, so it would have leaked anyhow!  I used the wooden terrace side as one side of the pond, and another plank as a hard edge to access the pond on the opposite side.  Filled with water and edged with flat stones, the pond is now settling in nicely.  The few plants I’ve got so far (tigernut and sagitaria latifolia) are dormant in tiny pots at the moment, so I’ve made a very shallow shelf that they can just sit on in just a little water, as well as deeper shelves for bigger marginal plants in the future.  I’m hoping to get some other plants, and of course watercress may well be worth a try, although I’m not sure that we’d use very much.

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While I was in the polytunnel, I took the opportunity to tidy up a bit on the rhs as you look downhill: levelling out the soil (some of which had been heaped up from digging out the pond).  I also managed to clear out a load of couch grass that had grown in the bottom corner of the tunnel near the kiwi and bramble plants.  In fact it is growing around the kiwi root, and I expect it will come back again this year.  It also is able to punch it’s way through the plastic walls of the tunnel.  I’ll have to keep an eye out and keep knocking it back.  Since I choose not to use poisons it will be impossible to eliminate in this situation.  Anyway, half the tunnel us now clear and weeded.  I need to start watering it a bit, it has got very dry particularly on the surface.  Once it is damp again, I expect that some of the seeds will regrow – there are some nice claytonia seeds in there that prefers cooler temperatures so grows better in the tunnel in the winter.

I’ll write a post soon about the mashua and yacon harvests in the tunnel.

Trees for free

This year I was going to try and back fill the tree field with more local tree stock.  The first phase was taking cuttings from the willow that seems to be growing more quickly for me.  I’m not sure what variety of willow it is but it has seeded in the tree field in the pond area, presumably from the trees that line the river bank.

set set willow by pond
Willow seeded in by pond

I had already transplanted some of the nicer seedlings that were growing in what should be the track area, but there are a lot of other seedlings coming up beside the pond and in amongst the other trees.  I’m not going to bother to move them.  Willow should take easily from cuttings, so I just selected some longish twigs, removing which should improve the shape of the trees, and cut them out.  I then removed the side branches and cut the main stem (and any thicker suitable side stems) into approx 10 inch lengths.

creating cuttings
Trimming willow cuttings

I didn’t count the number of cuttings I achieved, so I don’t know whether it was 100, 75 or 130 potential trees.  I have pushed them at fairly close spacing (6 ft?) in the damper areas where there seems to have been failure of the previous plantings.  The area by the pond which is very damp, lost a fair few birch and aspen – damaged by voles mainly I think.  That area has been infilled completely.  I have also made a start up by the southern border just under the hump.

area for replanting top
Area above conifers planted with willow cuttings

This area had birch and hazel, but is often quite damp due to springs coming out at the base of the hump.  It is also on the boundary where the prevailing wind comes from.  The hazel struggled to compete with the grass and we lost quite a few.  The ones left are starting to do better as the other trees are coming on.  The birch are some of the ones that have suffered bad die back and I think it’s that they don’t like the damp soil.  The willow however should do better.  I’ve used up all the cuttings I took from down by the pond area.  There’s still more room but some of the saplings transplanted some years there are now pretty big so I should be able to take more cuttings from these to finish off.

hopeful new willow
Newly inserted willow cutting

Harvesting, germination and why we (sometimes) don’t like deer

I’ve not had much time in the garden recently since there are a number of issues that have arisen mostly relating to the shop.  One of my members of staff is poorly, so I had to do extra shifts.  An exciting delivery from a new supplier came during one of my afternoons off so I had to go back down to the shop again to unpack it.  Palmer and Harvey were one of my main suppliers, who have now ceased trading, so I’m having to work out where and if we can get the groceries we normally get from them.  And someone put a planning application for mirror faced cube camping pods in the Glen which I felt obliged to object to.  The weather had been better though – cool and still and a little damp.  S. has bought me for christmas (not really I hope!) two pallet loads of hardwood which arrived on Friday and we spend much of Sunday warming ourselves once by stacking it all away in the woodshed.

Back in the Polytunnel, I have managed to harvest most of the fruit.  I have four more sharks fin melons, ten bunches of ripe grapes, and a very few achocha.  I still have the kiwi to harvest.

polytunnel crops

The grapes were starting to go mouldy, it’s just getting a little cool even in the polytunnel to expect any further ripening.  I think maybe I wasn’t ruthless enough when I thinned out the bunches earlier in the year, although it felt pretty brutal at the time.  I have picked them over and placed them in a glass of water, which hopefully should enable them to keep a little longer.  I also dried some in the bottom oven to make raisins which worked pretty well.  I could do with an easy way of removing the seeds however!  I need to give the vines a good prune now.  I’ve always taken my own approach to pruning; which is to make a cordon stem of the vine from which the fruiting spurs come off.  This seems to work quite well.  I had left a lower branch as well as the high level one, but it still isn’t really growing well.  The branches that come off it are weak and tend to droop down, interfering with the crops at lower level.  This year I’m going to prune the lower branch right out, and remove the wooden framework which also gets in the way of the polytunnel beds.

grapes

I’m not sure I’ll try the achocha again.  I quite like it – it tastes like a cross between a cucumber and a courgette, but it seems not to set very many fruit with me.  Only the fruit later in the season have set.  Mind you, I have noticed a lot of spiders in the polytunnel this year and have suspected that they may be eating a lot of the pollinating insects this year.  Maybe I’ll give it one more go and try and start them off nice and early.

The sharks fin melon I consider to be a big success, despite not getting that many fruit.  They are huge and pretty, and tasty see here.  The noodles do retain their noodly texture when frozen, so I may roast the melons as I need them and freeze the noodles in portions.  I’m going to try and save seed (apparently they carry on ripening in storage) but also see whether I can overwinter the vine, since it is a perennial in warmer climates.  So far I have buried one vine root in kiwi leaves (which have mostly shed now) and covered another with it’s own vine remains.  Although it’s not been very cold for the last couple of weeks.

I seem to have got very good germination from the two lots of Akebia seeds.  Both the ones that I sowed direct and the ones I left on tissue in a polythene bag have almost all got root shoots.  I moved them inside onto a windowsill, rather than leaving them in the polytunnel.  If I can get them through the winter, then I may have rather more plants than I need!  If not then I have dried the rest of the seed and can try growing them  in the spring.

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The last few weeks have seen an intruder in the garden.  For the last few years we have seem thankfully little sign of the deer, and I have been thinking they don’t like the smell of Dyson.  However recently they have been in and caused a little damage to a few of the trees, and munched some of the greenery in the fruit garden.  Luckily I don’t grow much for ourselves outside, but I had been getting a little complacent.  We have planted a hawthorne hedge which I am hoping in the longer term will screen the garden and deter the deer, but that will be a long time before it is big enough to do any good.  I’m pretty sure I heard the stags calling in the rut this year for the first time as well.  I wonder whether one of them was looking for greenery to decorate his antlers?  I gather they do this with bracken at this time to make themselves (presumably) more attractive or impressive.  In the past when we’ve had damage to the trees it’s been in the spring, which is more likely to be them rubbing the velvet off their antlers which they grow new every year.

 

Apricot training

This is not a timely post. I just thought I’d catch up with one of the new exciting plants I’ve got new this year. I’d fancied an Apricot for a long time. Although they probably would grow outside here if you had enough shelter, I’m still a long way away from that. However, I am growing more and more perennial plants in the polytunnel, so I thought I’d like to try it in there.
The plant was a present – a one year grafted whip of Early Moorpark Apricot on Torinel rootstock and was a good height, perhaps 4 feet tall. The first hard thing I had to do on planting it back in February was to cut it right down to about 1 foot tall! This is the exception to the general rule about pruning stone fruit only in summer to avoid silverleaf infection. According to the RHS “Apricots bear fruit on shoots made the previous summer and on short spurs from the older wood” and unless growing as a bush (which I thought would be impractical in the polytunnel) should be grown as fans. I rather fancied an espalier, but again that wouldn’t work for an Apricot. I found the RHS website very helpful in giving directions for training from scratch. So I planted, cut back and watered, and waited, hoping I hadn’t killed my lovely tree!

DSCN0153
Newly planted Apricot
DSCN0156
cut right back!

Sure enough, as promised, several new branches grew strongly from the trunk, which was a bit of a relief – I hadn’t killed it. The next step for me, was to put up some training wires. A little less straightforwards for a free standing fan, since I had no wall to come off. The arch of the polytunnel also meant that I couldn’t put in two vertical posts and string the wire between. I ended up using some random bits of wood we had lying around to create the framework. I had one nice vertical fence post by the centre path in the polytunnel, and one sloping bit as far to the side as I could manage. Since neither was in deep enough to take much strain, I have braced them with horizontal bits of wood before putting across the neccessary horizontal straining wires.
Then came another hard part. Again I had to cut back my lovely tree. This time the object is to select two branches to train in a 90 degree ‘V’ shape. I actually left two on the out board side since I couldn’t decide between them. Since then however, one has lost it’s leading point, so I think the decision has been made for me and I now need to prune that one out.

DSCN0471
Framework and nicely branched Apricot
DSCN0473
Newly trained tree

So far I am very happy with the health of my tree. It has grown well and has had no signs of any problems at all. Since it is undercover I need to keep an eye out for pests. Spidermite may become a problem. I have had this in the past on other plants in the tunnel and it really does stunt the growth. Also the soil I have is not very deep, generally less that two feet and usually less than that. I can’t do much about that. Since the polytunnel is slightly terraced (it slopes from end to end) I have put the Apricot in the downhill bed where the soil is slightly deeper, and I have been careful to water well but seldom, to encourage deep root formation if possible. Next year in the early spring, I will need to bite the bullet again and cut the leaders back again to encourage further branching to create more of the fan structure. I wonder whether I will get any blossom? Very exciting!