Yacon = cake

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

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

Inside Yacon Oct 2018
Polytunnel plants competing for light

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

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

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

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

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

Yacon outside Oct 2018
Yacon outside on Skye October 2018

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

Outside Yacon harvest Dec28
Outside Yacon harvest December 2018

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

Yacon cake #2
Yacon fruit cake

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

 

 

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Oca: a first year

spring plants june
Oca plants in June before planting in tunnel

I have harvested all the oca now.  I had three tubers given to me by Frances of island threads, who lives on one of the outer Hebrides, so just over the water from me.  Her weather is probably even milder, and windier, but just a trifle drier perhaps.  I started the tubers off in pots and planted two in the polytunnel and one outside in June.  Frances assures me that she grows hers outside, but I wanted to be safe till I have enough tubers to risk.

Oca: oxalis tuberosa, is related to wood sorrel and has similar clover-like leaves that are edible but contain oxalic acid (like rhubarb leaves) so should only be eaten sparingly.  I think they are a bit tough in my experience anyhow compared to common sorrel, and with a less sharp lemon taste.  They are grown mainly for the edible tubers which come in a range of colours.  Like potatoes, they are propagated mainly vegetatively through replanting the tubers since although they flower, they appear to rarely set seed, at least in the UK.  A number of growers are aiming to get more productive varieties in the northern hemisphere, see cultivariable and the UK oca breeders project for example.

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Oca forms tubers after the daylength is less than 12 hours – generally said to be at the end of September in the UK.  This will of course vary with latitude.  On Sept 30th in Glasgow (55deg 51min N) the daylength is 11 hrs 37 min,  London (51deg 30min N) is given as 11hours 40min long.  Here on Skye we are at 57 deg north (or thereabouts) so a little shorter in daylength than Glasgow in winter.  At the winter solstice the days are pretty much as short as they get – still pretty dark at 8am and getting dark at 4pm.  Since we can expect hard frosts by the end of November that means the oca only has about two months here to form tubers outside.

I’m pretty pleased with the results from the outside plant as a first trial.  It grew happily despite having very little shelter from the wind.  It flowered at the start of September with delicate yellow flowers.  Light frosts in late October were survived, but it was knocked back completely in December.  Although I harvested the outside plant when this happened, I since read that the tubers can carry on growing for several weeks after the foliage has apparently died down – the fleshy stalks carry on feeding them for longer, so I maybe should have left it a little longer to bulk up.  However, I got almost exactly 8 ounces and all 15 tubers are of a size that can be used: up to about 6cm (over 2 in) long.   The plant received a little compost in the hole when it was planted, and otherwise was just let to get on with it.

oca harvest outside 2018
Oca harvest from one outside plant

At the start of February I harvested the two plants in the tunnel.  The plants had stayed green much longer, and it took a prolonged frost when we had the snow in January to fully knock them back.  Although the plants had never looked quite as good as the ones outside, I was hopeful that they would do better, since they were still quite green at the end of the year.  However the yield was quite disappointing: 3 1/2 Oz from each plant.  The tubers were generally smaller, with quite a bit of slug damage (or it may have been vine weevils?)  I suspect that it was a bit too dry for them in the tunnel. I have not been watering much in there over the winter, since it tends to lead to mildew.

oca harvest polytunnel 2 plants 2018
Oca from 2 polytunnel plants

I tried the smallest from outside raw and was bit disappointed in the flavour to be honest.  I had seen them described as crunchy  and lemony sharp, getting sweeter as they are exposed to sunlight.  I would describe the taste (fresh) as having a faint raw potato flavour, with a hint of lemon perhaps, but not nice enough to serve to S.  So far I have only cooked them by boiling and that was perfectly pleasant, like a creamy salad potato. The colour does fade a bit on cooking.  They can be boiled, fried, and baked just like potatoes.  In New Zealand they are known as yams and are very popular.  I have found a few suggestions for roasting them, so I may try that next.

ready to cook
Oca ready for boiling

I have enough tubers to grow next year, and enough to experiment a bit with different ways of cooking.  Some are in the fridge, and some on a cool windowsill.  I think I won’t bother with planting any in the tunnel next year, although I may try covering with fleece or cloches at the end of the season outside, if I can work out how to stop those blowing away!  They can go in orchard borders that need digging anyway to keep couch grass at bay.  I think they will definitely be worth growing again, and I have also got some different tubers of various colours from real seeds to try some different varieties!

2018: Going forwards looking backwards

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

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

xmas trree
Xmas spruce all dressed up

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

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

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

propagation
Propagation area in July

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

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

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

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

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

kiwi november
Kiwi ‘Jenny’ fruit in November

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

kiwi leaves
Kiwi leaf mulch in tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

nasturtium
This photo does not do the colour justice

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

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

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

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

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

tea garden pallets
Putting up windbreaks in Tea Garden

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

driveway wall construction
Driveway wall under construction

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

remembering summer
Remembering summer

 

 

Catching up at home

misty dogs
Misty Isle dogs

It’s been a few weeks since I got back and I’ve not done a lot.  Skye has been doing ‘misty isle’ again, just this last day or so turning colder and brighter.  The tree field does have some autumn colour.  Particularly down by the pond where it is a bit sheltered, the birch and willow have a few more leaves holding on.  There is a lovely clumping grass turning a golden shade by the pedestrian gate to the river.

golden grass
Golden grass

While the winds in the north we should have some fine weather, but I need to tuck some fleece or similar round the tea bushes to protect them from the winter cold.  We actually had our first frost this weekend, which was a bit of a surprise.  The green manures I sowed in the orchard just before the holiday have been a resounding failure.  The field beans were eaten by crows, no sign of the vetch or clover, and the remaining fodder radish is going to be too small and sparse to create any coverage!  I should have sown about a month earlier….I do have a nice crop of grass and buttercups coming, so I guess I’ll just have to sheet mulch in the spring, but this will kill off the desireable seeds I put in as well.

orchard green manure not
Failed green manure

The tea garden extension is still looking quite green and lush.  I’ll tidy this up a bit when we get some frosts, since I’ll need to think about harvesting the outside yacon, oca and mashua then.  The oca has had some tiny yellow flowers, rather bashed by the wet winds.

oca flowers oct 2018
Yellow Oca flowers

Neither the oca or mashua really like the exposed position.  Of the mixed selection of plants that went in, the self seeding kale has done well, and I have a few nice looking carrots along the edge.  The fodder radish has some good size roots, so I may pull some of these over the winter.  I think there will still be enough to give coverage.  Phacelia and borage are still blooming lovely!  In the original tea garden unfortunately I have a lawn of grass growing under the blackcurrant bushes, I’ll try mulching that in the spring also.  The himalayan strawberries had a second flush of flowers, but none have set this time.

fodder radish
Fodder radish – big roots!

The experimental sheet mulching with combined paper and cardboard has not been a  great success.  I think that the cardboard really does need two layers.  It seems to have disintegrated more quickly, and then does not keep the newspapers protected.  I do have some more cardboard, and have re-mulched the bit by the tea garden, I’ll need to try and do the orchard as well whilst we’ve got this nice weather.  The cardboard alone double layers have also suffered a bit, but some of this is definately dog damage, so I still think this is the better way to go.

tea garden failed mulch
Failed mulch (including dog damage)

Editing the tree field. #2 Docken

cutting docken
Black currant bushes exposed as docken cut back

Actually it’s mainly the orchard area within the tree field that I have been clearing of docks in the past few weeks.  I have very nearly finished getting the levels sorted out, and managed to mulch with card some of the new surfaces (see here).  Some of the area I managed to sow with some left over green manure seeds (buckwheat and clover)  and these did germinate and grow to a certain extent but have not managed to outcompete the dock seed that is present in apparently vast quantities!  There is also some established docken from previous years that was probably growing on the site previously, or was in the soil before it was moved down to the orchard area and regrew.  The main priority was to get out the docken that were going to seed before they have a chance to spread more seed into the soil.  This involved going round with a spade and cutting through the taproot of the plants.  The tops were then loaded into a barrow along with a few bits of nettle and some of the couch grass that has apparently become established there also.  The barrows were dumped just below the original gateway to the lower field, which still stands like the doorway in Narnia, although the gate is lying down rather than hinging.  There is an area of soil below the gate which either didn’t have trees planted, or the trees didn’t take.  I think it was the former, since the soil was very compacted, full of docken and stones in the gateway.  Hopefully the loads of fertility in the form of weeds will help to rejuvenate the soil.  I think of it as a bit like segregating nuclear waste – concentrating all the nasties in one area.  I do the same with the rubbish I find: bits of rusty metal, glass, string, coal and brocken crockery get put into piles (or bags) until I can get round to deciding what to do with them.

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I had to go over the cardboard I laid on the north side of the trackway, since there were several docks that had punched their way through.  This has made a bit of a mess of the cardboard, so I will have to cover the area again before winter.  I have cut back all the seeding docken, and made a start at pulling out the juvenile plants that would go to seed from next year.  The slightly larger plants often come out cleanly with the taproot when pulled firmly with a twist.  I have been twisting off the leaves and leaving them on the soil surface and putting the roots in a bucket before adding them to the weed mountain.  Some may not be big enough to regrow, but there’s no point tempting fate.  The smaller plants will need digging out.  It seems counter intuitive, but the younger leaves tend to just come off in your hand leaving the tap root to regrow in the ground.  If the soil is gently loosened with a fork then the whole plant is more likely to come cleanly.  I’ve still got some of the larger plants to do, and almost all of the smaller plants.  I think I will go over the whole area lightly with a fork anyway and try and remove as much as possible of the couch grass.  It will probably grow back anyway, but if I can reduce a bit it will be worthwhile.  I’m going to quickly order some green manure seed: fodder radish, red clover and field beans to overwinter and keep down the weed seeds.  I may try and spread some of my vetch seeds and plants as well.

young docken
Juvenile docken with buckwheat flowering behind

I’ve made a start on the final area of the tea garden extension: there was a strip along by the trackway which didn’t need levelling, so is still full of weeds: docken, nettles, couch, creeping thistles, other thistles……I’m going to take the worst out and then mulch over the whole area.  The couch will grow back, but I’m hoping that the soil under the mulch will be nice and friable by spring, and a light forking will be sufficient to remove the couch.  I am trying out a variation on mulching again.  Since I seem to need an awful lot of cardboard to cover an area, I am going to make it go further by combining it with newspapers.  Previously when I’ve used newspapers I have weighted them down with grassy materials: old haylage, grass clippings, cut reeds etc.  These work to a certain extent, but there always seems to be a deal of work in cutting and moving the clippings, and then they sometimes blow off and I end up with newspaper decorating the fences.  This time I am going to spread a single layer of cardboard over the newspapers and weight it down with stones as usual, of which I have a plentiful supply collected out of the tea garden extension when moving the soil earlier in the year.  A double layer of cardboard does seem to last pretty well by this method, so we’ll see if a single layer with paper underneath does as well.

new mulch method
Starting to mulch edge strip of tea garden extension

They say the camera doesn’t lie, but I wanted to see whether I could take a picture that made my weed infested tea garden extension look great.  These pictures were taken from the same position, just crouching or standing up and show how easy it is to be misled.

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Season of soft fruitfulness

Ben Gairn blackcurrant - fruit not quite all ripe
Ben Gairn blackcurrants ripening

Summer is, as yet, the fruit season for me.  The orchard is a dream for the future; not a single apple this year, despite the good weather.  I have been picking currants and raspberries however over the past couple of weeks.  The original Ben Sarek black currants did pretty well, over 13 pounds in total.  Not up to their usual quality however: quite a few split, and smaller than usual.  It’s been a slightly odd year due to a relatively hot and dry early summer, and I think this affected the berries.  Maybe the skins hardened too soon, since the Ben Gairn currant, which had a really good crop, had a lot split, which made the picking over quite difficult.  I like to remove the remains of the petals as well as the stalks, but it was a slow messy job.  I’ve made two batches of jam and still have some in the freezer.  The Belorussian sweet currant  I didn’t even bother picking.  The fruit was the first to ripen, but was really tiny and split. Hopefully in a more normal summer it will do better.  So far the Ben Sarek wins hands down.  It’s only the first year for the other two to fruit properly however, so we’ll see how they do next year.  The black currant bushes in the front garden didn’t have many berries.  I haven’t been pruning them, and they are getting a bit leggy.  I’ll try and make a point of pruning them hard this year.  The cuttings in the fruit garden are now quite productive bushes.  I’ve decided that the other currant next to the original Ben Sarek black currant bush must be what my friend calls the ‘nancyberry’.  It grew as a seedling in my garden in Solihull (originally between the paving stones of the path as they do!), I think it is a blackcurrant-gooseberry cross.  There it had lovely large sweet berries, but here it sets hardly any.  I have been gradually removing the bushes again, since they obviously don’t like Skye.  By removing this last bush it will give me a suitable space for my Charlotte Russe mulberry bush.  That was a present from my Mum when she came up this spring.  I am quite excited about this.  The garden is still pretty exposed, but I’m hopeful that the fruit garden is starting to get a bit more sheltered.

raspberry jungle
Not so much fruit garden as raspberry jungle!

The raspberries looked really promising, but the initial picking was a  bit disappointing.  I had a awful lot that were wormy.  I have had this to a certain extent in previous years, but probably more than half were wormy to some extent.  I’m not one to be too fussy about a few insects, but this was ridiculous!  It’s been a bit damp to pick the berries this last week.  The second picking was a bit better than the first: not so many ripe ones, but fewer with worm problems.  I’ve made a big batch of strawberry and raspberry jam (strawberries from the shop as yet, although I now have some plants getting established so watch this space!).  I have about four different sorts of summer raspberries, I was given a load of canes of an unknown variety from someone locally.  They fruit well, but have been worst affected by the worms and have a slightly watery taste.  I have  another which does pretty well, some of the berries have a tendency to be slightly double, but good cosmetic quality generally.  Malling Jewel is in the tea garden, struggling in a still rather exposed position.  One that came with the house: Glen Prosen, which is starting to do quite well in the dog resistant garden but took a long while to get established,  this is the best tasting fresh I think.  I’ve found that neither of the autumn fruiting raspberries do very well in our short summers.  They are too late getting started in the spring to flower in time before the weather gets colder and the days shorter.

white himalayan strawberry
White Himalayan strawberry fruit

Talking of strawberries, just a note on the himalayan strawberries in the tea garden.  It looks like getting some other plants from different sources was the right thing to do, since despite being set back by my weeding at a time of hot dry weather a few fruit did set.  Unexpectedly they have turned out to be white.  They are like large alpine strawberries, difficult to remove from the stem, with a pleasant citrussy resinous flavour when fully ripe.  They become very soft, so easy to crush.  Hopefully they will fruit better next year if I can avoid digging them up at the wrong time!  They do seem to make a very dense ground cover, which was their primary purpose.

haskap berries
Haskap: dense fruiting in first year

I’ve now picked the last of the Haskap/honeyberries.  It is impossible to tell whether they are ripe or not, until you bite into them.  When ripe, they have a quite plummy sweet/sour flavour and are coloured right through.  Before fully ripe they are sharper and less pleasant.  I’m very pleased with how well they fruited, considering this is their first year.  I’m pretty sure they will make a rather nice jam when I get a few more fruit.  They should be pruned by removing about a quarter of the mature branches to avoid overcrowding and should live for decades.  I need to try and not let them get taken over by weeds in the orchard area.  So far they are a successful experiment I think.  I’ve saved a few seeds so I can try to propagate them, they should germinate well when fresh, so I may try sowing some straight away.  They also propagate by cuttings, better from summer cuttings apparently, but I may try some of the prunings this winter since that is easier for me.

I’ve not harvested the grapes in the tunnel, but have thoroughly thinned them out.  I don’t think I thinned them enough last year, so I have been a bit more brutal this year.  I collected the thinnings as much as possible, and had enough to make a small batch of green grape jelly.  I had contemplated making verjuice, but I may try that next year.  The new vine (a white, Zalagyongye, which for some reason I thought would be seedless but apparently isn’t) has just one bunch of grapes, but they are not so far along as the Boskoop glory, so I’m not sure whether they will ripen off.  The vine is growing well, so I’m hoping that it will do better next year.

I still have redcurrants and gooseberries to harvest.  The invicta has done quite well.  The new red gooseberries, Pax, have mostly dropped, and are rather small.  I have two new red currants in the tea garden: redcurrant cherry and rovada.  I don’t think any of the redcurrants from Solihull survived, but I have a couple of small plants in the fruit garden.  These were grown from cuttings taken from a tough little plant growing in a dry stone wall in full force of the sea winds.  I’d like to take cuttings from a plant I pass going to the shop which blooms profusely, but the berries seem to either nor set or quickly get picked by birds.  It is such a dwarfed plant that finding a decent bit of stem will be difficult.

blackberry Helen
Blackberry Helen fruiting well before the fly strike!

The blackberry in the polytunnel is just starting to ripen, as is the new one ‘Helen’ outdoors.  It looks like this may be a disappointment, as I have yet to try the berries!  They are quite prolific and large but seem to be very attractive to blue flies which destroy the drops and make them discoloured and unappetising!  It may be they are ripening too slowly due to the damp weather this week and may do better in drier weather.  They certainly have been early, but I am at a bit of a loss about what to do about this.  It looks like I will have to move the vine pretty soon anyway, since we are intending to extend the barn to where this is currently planted now.  Maybe I should try it in the polytunnel?  But that wasn’t the point!

 

Planting out

As usual I’m late with planting out my plants in the polytunnel.  It has just been so hot in there!  Also I’ve become programmed to work outside if the weather is at all dry, since that is normally the rarer event on Skye. The tomato plants that I managed to get in a couple of weeks ago are looking quite healthy.  I especially like the look of one called ‘first in the field’ – it has a lovely thick stem and a dark green colour (front right hand corner in photo).  All the others look good too, and a few are starting to show flowers, so hopefully they won’t be a complete disaster this year.

tomatos in July
Tomato plants growing on well

I have succeeded in planting out in the tunnel two climbing courgettes, three bush courgettes, three sharks fin melon (saved seed!) and two japanese squash.  They all had a good few scoops of home made, wood ash enriched, compost mixed in to the planting hole, so should get away now despite being rather weedy looking plants.  No sooner had they gone in than Harry decided that the planting recesses made a really comfortable bed!  Luckily the japanese squash seemed none the worse the next morning!

polytunnel squash
Curcubits planted out
cat nests
Harry’s bed

I also planted out some basil which came from a friends saved seed – the best germination I’ve ever had!  I guess it’s because the seed was nice and fresh.  I’m going to see if I can get some of mine to set seed.  That would be good to seed around in the tunnel!  There are also two oca plants, which I am growing for the first time (the third went outside in the tea garden extension).  The chilli peppers and aubergine probably won’t come to much, but they were free seed anyway.  They’re such tiny plants I’m afraid they will be swamped in the tunnel, but they never get the attention they need in pots either with me, so this is the best option.  I also had some goldenberry seeds (a type of Physalis – like the ones you sometimes get dipped in chocolate with your coffee).  I gather this is a rather tender perennial that doesn’t mind poor soils (according to PFAF it can grow more leaves than fruit if the soil is too rich).  Hopefully this will be able to over-winter in the polytunnel, so will add to my perennial plants in there.  Although the sweetcorn plants also look a bit stunted I have given them a planting hole with extra compost and we’ll see how they do.  They mostly seemed to have pretty good roots on them so may still crop albeit later in the year than they should.

sweetcorn
I promise those are courgette plants on the left and sweetcorn on the right!

In the undergrowth I found my fuchsia berry in its pot.  This was a present from my Mum and had been waiting for a permanent home.  Unfortunately it does seem to have suffered in the hot tunnel, but somewhat to my surprise was actually still alive!  I therefore have found a suitable spot near the central path for it, and will try and keep an eye on it over the next few weeks until it is established.  It does seem to have larger, sweeter berries than my garden fuchsia, although these are also quite nice when properly ripe.  With regard to ripe berries, the flavour of the ‘honeyberries’ do seem to be developing.  One of them definitely has some richer plummy flavours coming through now.  So far they are hanging on the bushes well, so I’ll keep sampling them whilst they last.

tea garden extension squash
Sharks fin melon in tea garden extension (Douglas supervising)

There were four sharks fin melon plants that I did not have room for in the tunnel, so I have popped them in outside in the tea garden extension.  I don’t suppose they will come to anything – they really need a longer season than they will get outside, but you never know, and they will be a bit more groundcover to keep some of the weeds down as well.  There were a few more goldenberry plants as well – a little on the small side, they may fruit this year, but probably won’t overwinter.  There are various seedlings appearing in this area – some of which I sowed, but a lot of docken.  These I find harder to get out when they are small – the leaves tend to pull off too easily.  When they are a little bigger the roots come too if you are lucky.  I can see quite a few buckwheat seedlings, a very few phacelia, some wheat (not grass as I found when I pulled a bit out when weeding), quite a bit of what may be clover or alfalfa (too early to tell which yet), various brassica including a lot of fodder radish (which has very tasty pods if you allow it to go to seed), the ubiquitous kale and what may be cabbage (or sprouts?).  There’s definitely a bit of leaf beet (or spinach?).  The callaloo seedlings I put in seem to be doing pretty well despite the dry weather.  I’ve never tried it before – its a sort of amaranth that is grown for it’s leaves.  It is used quite a bit in Jamaican cookery, but apparently should grow quite well outside in the UK, we’ll see.  There’s still a little bit more relatively easy weeding to do, then I need to get the paths laid and the rest of the undergrowth cut back and mulched.

seedlings in tea garden extension
Seedling mix – red ones are Callaloo

The outside soft fruit are just a little way off ripe.  The blackcurrants are changing colour.  I’m hoping for my first harvest off the new plants in the tea garden.  The berries all look a little on the small side, but plenty of them.  The first raspberries are changing colour, and again I’m hoping for a good harvest there – watch this space!

blackcurrant promise
Blackcurrants in tea garden showing colour

 

 

Mulching in the heat

summer flowers
Wild flowers in June

The weather continues unusually hot and dry for us.  One of our burns has dried up, and the other is down to a trickle.  Luckily there still seems enough to fill the pipe to the polytunnel, since the sunshine makes it very hot in there, even with the doors open.  The olive tree blossom has opened, and it looks like the toad has found his way into the pond which is good.  I had noticed mosquito larvae in there and some strange jelly creatures with whip tails which look really disgusting, but I assume are some other sort of fly larvae.  I was thinking I might have to import some fish to keep the vermin down, but maybe Mr Toad will sort them out for me.  It should be cooler for him in there and more comfortable.  I did make the sides sloping, so he should be able to get in and out reasonably well.  I’m thinking of maybe getting a small solar powered pump to keep the water from getting stagnant.

buckwheat around skirret
Buckwheat germinating around skinny skirret plants (Yacon on left)

I have mainly been working down in the tree field in the tea garden and the orchard area.  I have transplanted into the newly cleared and seeded tea garden extension some rather pot bound specimens of skirret, and salsify as well as some straggly alpine strawberries, a couple of mashua and a couple of yacon plants.  They will at least do better in the soil than in their pots for another year!  I also had some tiny callaloo plants which came from the heritage seed library.  This is a West Indian vegetable which is a selection of amaranth, grown for its succulent leaves rather than its seed.  They appear to be quite colourful, but so far don’t seem to be putting on much growth.  Since it has been very dry they may do better with a bit of watering in.  I did give them all a little when planted, but we have had no rain in a fortnight again, so the surface of the soil is very dry.  Underneath it isn’t so bad, although the surface springs have all dried up.

mulching with buttercups
buttercup mulch around current bush, new path emerging to left of bush

I still have a little more of the original tea garden to clear around the gooseberry bush (which seems to be bearing a good few berries despite still being very misshapen and small).  The buttercups taken out have been used to mulch around the lowermost blackcurrent bush.  I’m hoping that it has been dry enough to kill the dug up buttercup plants and that they will kill the buttercups underneath, or at least knock them back a bit.  I have decided that I need to extend the path so that it flows through to join the trackway in a natural flow. Previously I had terraced the slope, so the path had to turn 90 degrees at the step.  The side has now had to be built up with some supporting stones so that the path will have a smooth gradient.  It still needs finishing off, but I think it will work much better.

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Since it was too hot for doing much digging on Friday, I had a gentle day with the dogs mulching in the orchard area where I have been moving the soil (I had a strange virus attack on Thursday which left me feeling like I should take it easy, but feel fine now).  The earth moving is not quite finished yet, but the top terrace is just about there, so I thought I’d try and mulch it to keep the surface clear and stop some of the dock seeds germinating.  Hopefully it will then be ready to plant up next spring.  It is amazing how much cardboard you need for what isn’t a huge area.  I do like to have a fair overlap between the sheets, but I’ll need to get a few more deliveries in the shop to do the rest of the orchard!  I still have a few sheets in my plastic shed, which may finish off the top terrace with luck.

lonicera fruit
Lonicera caerulea berries

On the left hand side of the trackway my new “honeyberries”, or “earlyberries” as Lubera called them, Lonicera caerulea have turned colour, and I think are getting as ripe as they are likely to be.  Not over enamoured of the flavour so far – not as sweet as I’d hoped, bearing in mind the superb weather.  It may be that I was hoping for too much.  They are supposed to taste like blueberries when ripe, but maybe like blackcurrants they are more a berry for cooking with.  I am quite happy that I got any fruit, considering this is their first year with me, and the bees loved the flowers.  I have been very happy with all the plants I got from Lubera – nice quality, reasonable priced (and less than £5 delivery cost even to Skye) and some exiting selections.  I’m thinking of getting a second kiwi, or kiwiberry for my polytunnel and they have several to choose from….

scented orchid
Heath fragrant orchid

I always get quite excited about the orchids coming into flower  at this time of year.  Year on year we get more flowering, due to them not being eaten by sheep anymore.  I have loads more butterfly orchids on the orchid hill, and several more popping up above the cut through drain to the pond.  The most dense for blooms is the steep slope just above the pond, presumably this had not been ploughed so much.  One would have thought that there would be more coming out on the hump just below the barn, but so far I have only spotted a couple of butterfly orchids near our southern boundary, on the narrow path that winds around the hump.  Maybe the grazing pressure has been higher there due to being closer to the barn?  I would have thought the soils were not that dissimilar.  I spotted a new species of orchid as well this year – what I am fairly certain is a Heath fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia borealis) since it is the first I have found to really have a noticable sweet scent during the day.  I shall have to check for more of these, since I may just have missed them.

Good news

I planted my tomatoes out this week.  I have worked out now what I was doing wrong and why my plants seem so stunted compared to other people’s.  I am over watering them.  The compost appears dry, we are having sunny weather and the polytunnel is getting super hot (too hot for me to work in there during the days).  I thought that tomato plants need lots of water and being in pots they would need more – WRONG!  This peat free compost I am using seems dry at the surface, but underneath it is sopping wet still so the poor little plants were trying to grow in a tropical marsh.  I transplanted them in to bigger pots (which is when I found they were not as dry as I’d thought) hardly watered them at all, and they perked right up.

healthy tomatoes
Happy tomato plants ready to move on – note water canes

The trick is to stick a length of cane or stick into some of the pots to the bottom, when you feel the urge to water, pull out the stick and feel how damp it is – that will tell you if the pots need water.  After two weeks the plants were looking a lot happier and had filled their new pots with roots.  Rather than pot them on again, I just planted them right out into the tunnel.  That involved cutting back much of my self sown salads, which are rather past their best now.  The kale still had some good pickings on and I was going to try making kale crisps (which are rather yummy) but unfortunately I just ran out of time that day and they all went rather limp.  I left the roots of the plants in the soil generally, dug a good sized hole, put about three shovels of my mature compost (rather grey from all the wood and paper ash that went in that heap) in the hole and mixed it in a bit.  I have found that since I’ve left the polytunnel untidy, leaving cut back plants on the surface, the soil has a better texture and doesn’t dry out as much.  The plant debris also stops seeds from germinating.  The tomato plants were popped in a random order, the soil level was deliberately left a little lower than the surrounding soil making it easy to water them in, and the holes can be backfilled to earth up the stems as the plants grow.  Hopefully I won’t lose the little labels telling me which is which.  I’m not expecting wonders from them this year, since I am late getting the plants in, but hopefully, now I know what I’m doing wrong, I can get a bit ahead next year!

newly planted tomatoes
Newly planted tomato area – looking very messy!

While I was clearing the undergrowth in the polytunnel I found three other good things.  Firstly the unknown citrus is not dead!  I had cut it mostly back but not removed it, more from wishful thinking than a belief it would recover, and hey presto! new shoots from near the bottom of the trunk!  I’ll tidy it up a bit once it’s a bit bigger, and perhaps fleece it next winter, but it may be that it will always die back and never flower.

new shoots on citrus
New growth on Citrus tree

Another good thing was a very welcome resident toad.  It was heading into the area I’d cleared in the polytunnel, so I had to relocate it back in a quiet area for its own safety, but I was very happy to see it.  A few years ago I saw a small toad in the tunnel on a number of occasions, but haven’t seen it for a while – maybe this is the same one, but it’s now rather fat and much larger!  I don’t think the pond made the difference – toads prefer running water I gather.  It’s funny, you would have thought, particularly over the last few weeks it would be a bit hot for it in there, but it is obviously happy enough!

big fat toad
Big fat toad!

Whilst I was in the tunnel taking photos I also noticed that my olive tree has flower buds.  I only bought it last year so am very excited about this.

olive flower buds
Olive flowerbuds

The final good thing was that it rained today.  This is not normally something one cheers about on Skye, more something one takes for granted!  However we have actually had about three weeks dry and rather warm weather, so the plants in the thinner soil were starting to get yellow, mostly things were fine for me though.

dried grasses
Getting a bit parched where soil is thinner

It was more the timing that was perfect.  I have been moving soil from under the barn to my orchard area.  A good exercise when the soil is nice and dry – lighter to carry and not slippery underfoot.  I had reached the end of the area, bar a strip near the track which will be harder work, since there is more nettles and couch grass in that bit, together with stones mixed in from the roadway.  Yesterday I dug the last little bit to make the area level, loosened the whole area to a fork depth to try and remove a bit more of the creeping thistle, marked out some paths with edging stones (I’d removed these as I went) and then broadcast all my old seed (and a little fresh seed) in the hope that at least some are still viable to compete with the weeds (I had quite a bit of green manure seeds that I bought for the allotment in Solihull and we’ve been here ten years now!).  Now we have a day of soft soaking rain and it couldn’t be better to water the seeds in!

ready for rain
Newly cleared and seeded area ready for rain!

Xmas Harvests

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I harvested the kiwi fruit recently.  They are a bit small to eat out of hand so I turned them into jam.  Because I have only one kiwi – Jenny, the fruit develop parthenogenically so have almost no seeds. That is also why they are a little small.  I wonder whether an actinides arguta or kolomitka would cross fertilise with the kiwi (a. deliciousa), or whether it would be worth getting another self fertile kiwi so they could fertilise each other?  I did a little bit of research into kiwi jam recipes online, and then made it up.  Most of the sites seemed to agree that kiwi fruit are low in pectin, so need some added to obtain a good set.  I decided to use lemon and lime eather than apple which I usually use.  I had about 2 lb of kiwi fruit, and over did it a bit on the citrus (2 lemon and one lime) which resulted in a jam that was rather more like a marmalade.  I had to add more sugar than intended also, to counteract the sourness of the citrus, and have ended up with three jars of rather precious and tasty kiwi and citrus marmalade.

Some people like to be sure to have their own sprouts for xmas dinner.  I’m never that organised, but I do like to try and include some home grown produce.  This year we had a starter of my own globe artichokes from the polytunnel.  They had been blanched and in the freezer since the summer.  A bit fiddly to eat, they made a nice change.  I also went out in the morning and dug the first mashua tubers from the polytunnel.  Roasted with other root veg they went down perfectly pleasantly.  Although they do tend to go soft rather than crispy.

mashua top growth
Top Growth Mashua in Fruit Garden (best plant)

I have now dug up all the mashua from outside.  I had four tubers planted in the fruit garden, four tubers downhill from the tea garden below the barn, and four tubers in the dog resistant garden.  There were two in each location from each of the tubers I grew last year.  I knew the ones in the tea garden hadn’t done wonderfully – there was very little visible growth amongst the buttercups.  All the upper growth seems to have died back now – including that of the ones in the polytunnel.

 

 

mashua harvesting 2017
Mashua rootball on best plant

Four tubers appear to have completely disappeared.  One of the tubers in the fruit garden had more usable tubers than all of the others put together – several had no usable tubers.  So I guess I can certainly say that the harvest is variable.  I had labelled the tubers from the two supplied last year, however, the ones that did better this year were apparently from the plant that did worse last year.  So either last year’s results were down to variability, or I mislabelled all the tubers!  Just as well I didn’t name any names!

Supplier upper growth vigour usable tuber weight (Oz)
Tea garden
A 2 4
B 1 0
A 1 0
B 0 0
Fruit garden
A 5 46.5
B 3 8.5
A 3 5
B 0 0
Dog resistant garden
A 4 7.5
B 1 0
A 0 0
B 0 0
mashua outside harvest 2017
Cleaned tubers and rest of root growth (fruit garden and tea garden)

I must admit I’m a bit disappointed with the yield outside.  I haven’t dug the tubers from the tunnel yet, but believe they have done much better.  Maybe Mashua just need a bit more warmth than we get on Skye.  I would say overall that the weather in 2017 was not bad for Skye, not too wet, not too dry, not too windy.  It could have been warmer – the best weather as usual was in May.  I suppose the fact that one plant did fairly well gives some encouragement.  I’ll dig up the polytunnel plants next – that will give me plenty of tubers to replant for next year.  The other thing I noticed is that last year the tubers grown in the tunnel had patches of quite dark maroon markings.  These tubers grown outside are all completely white – maybe indicating a lack of maturity?

I’m going to try outside again, hopefully with tubers from each source (I may try to get hold of some other varieties as well).  This time I’ll plant some nice ones straight away, as well as in pots to overwinter in comfort to see whether getting an early start makes a difference.  My feeling is that the later part of the season is more significant, but we’ll see.