Achocha explosion

south america
South America makes a bid for Skye takeover

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.

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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.

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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.

x super sweet 100
Super Sweet 100 tomato stating to ripen

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.

asapragus and millefleur
Millefleur tomato truss with asparagus

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.

marrow
Marrow

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!

grape lineup
Nice line up on Boskoop glory grape vine

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.

mess while pruning
Some of the debris after cutting back kiwi and bramble

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.

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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.

 

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Grapes and Apricots

lush tunnel
Lush polytunnel growth

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!

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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.

grapes thinned
Grape bunches after thinning

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.

courgette fruit
Male (top left) and female (right) courgette flowers (tondo di picenze)

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!

millet
Foxtail millet and nastutium

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.

goldenberry lanterns
Peruvian lanterns

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.

tomato virus on right
X supersweet 100 on left, Stupice on right

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!

tomato virus
Virus affected tomato?

Tidying up the Tomatoes

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.

tomato spirals
Tomato spiral supports

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.

milk vetch apricot and peas
milk vetch flowers, apricot new growth and peas!

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.

curcubits
Courgette Tondo di picenze on left, all green bush on right. Sharks fin melon at back

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.

cucumber
rather sorry cucumber (courgette leaf on right)

 

Polytunnel Perennials 2019

Polytunnel 19 May
Polytunnel from Top door May 19

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.

Shisandra flower
Single Schisandra flower

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.

 

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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.

Asparagus not dying back
Asparagus – still not died down in middle of March!

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.

Globe artichoke
Globe artichoke buds swelling

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.

goldenberry year 2
Goldenberry in second year – May 27

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.

grape vines before pruning
Grape vines new (to left) and old (to right) before pruning

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.

Kiwi blossom
Worth it for the flowers?

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.

bramble blossom
Bramble blossom

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.

First Strawberries
Gardener’s treats

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.

overwintered chilli
Overwintered chilli with tiny flower buds

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!

yacon etc
Yacon with unknown citrus and one of the Schisandras

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!

Tulip
Incredible edible petals

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

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