Autumn

sunshine and showers
Sunshine and showers

Well after a rather wet August, late September was not been too bad weather wise, although October is shaping up to be a bit windy (more on that in a later post!).  We tried to get a final cut of the pathways done, but haven’t cracked the timing.  With the wet mild weather in August the grass had grown long and lush.  Strong winds with rain had led to the grass falling over making it very difficult to cut, even after a couple of days hot and dry.  S. managed to go round the main trackway with the scythe mower, but with a rather poor result.  Some of this was possibly due to a lack of sharpness on the blades, which has now been addressed, but we think that leaving the cut till this late in the season is just not practical.  I guess if the weather had been better we may have been able to cut earlier, but still after the yellow rattle is ripe, however it often is wet at this time of year.

raking out
Raking up

What took S. half a day to cut has taken me about 5 times as long to rake up, and I still haven’t finished!  It is pretty hard work untangling the cut grass from the uncut turf whilst you have a dog trying to catch the rake head!  I have to take a fetch toy as well, but Dyson gets tired and would rather have more direct participation!  Once I have cleared the cut grass away, I can sow the collected yellow rattle seed.  As I tried to explain above, I don’t know whether we will succeed in creating the right rhythm for the plant, which needs clear soil to grow anew each year.  I don’t know whether we will be able to leave it long enough to ripen seeds, as we could do with cutting the grass before it gets too long.

sprouting hazel stick
Sprouting hazel stick (new spruce on right)

I’m planning on taking the cut grass and using it to mulch the trees in the area of the field where they are doing less well, particularly the new trees that I planted this spring.  I used fresh cut hazel twigs from my new hazels to mark the tiny new trees so that I could find them again in the long grass.  Recently I have been surprised to see that some of the hazel twigs started to sprout!  I don’t know whether they have actually formed roots or not.  Often it takes a while for the twigs to realise that they are dead, so they may just be zombies.  In the spring I will need to transplant some of the spruce, where two seedlings have survived in a single plant hole, so I will dig up the hazel twigs then as well.  Thinking about it, I will need to identify the ones that are sprouting now, since they will be leafless still in early spring, I’ll tie a bit of wool around the sprouting ones this week.

fallen leaves
Fallen Alder leaves

The turning of year shows in the drawing in of the evenings (and the later mornings).  Leaf fall gathers under the trees even though only the wych elm are practically leafless.  These leaves represent the carbon and nitrogen made solid by the trees, building soil and trapping carbon.  Autumn colours show briefly before being torn away by the wind.

fleeting gold
Fleeting Autumn

 

 

An unexpected newcomer

yellow rattle close

Yellow rattle: flowers and ripe seedpods

I came across a clump of a really pleasing new plant recently: Rhinanthus minor or yellow rattle.  I sowed some near the orchard area, but none have appeared there.  These ones appeared right down by the river on the north corner of the tree field near near where I coppiced the alder earlier in the year.  There seems to be a number of plants judging by the size of the clump, so it may have been seeding around for a few years unnoticed.  It wasn’t the flowers I noticed first, but the seedheads, which are a line of small  inflated bladders.

yellow rattle clump
Yellow rattle clump

Yellow rattle is a annual plant, so needs to resow itself every year.  It is semi-parasitic on grasses and other plants.  By reducing the vigour of grasses it enables a wider range of meadow flowers to grow.  The historic practise of cutting hay for winter feed suits it’s lifecycle.  When the seed is ripe they rattle in the bladders in the wind and the farmers knew it was time to cut the hay.  The seeds readily fall out, or are added with the ripe hay as supplementary feed into other meadows.  They need to overwinter before germinating, but have a short viability, so need to grow and set seed successfully in order to propagate.  How they seem to have managed to survive in the sheep field previously I don’t know!

Since some of the seed is already ripe, I have been spreading it along the trackways a bit.  If we manage to cut the grass properly in the autumn, this will expose the soil a bit (which is important to enable successful growth).  We can cut just a strip of narrow path to walk along again next year and the rattle (hopefully) can grow in the rest of the trackway, set seed and be cut in autumn again.  I’ll save some seed to scatter after the grass is cut this year as well.

When I read up about yellow rattle I was excited by the possibility of it reducing the vigour of couchgrass, but unfortunately it doesn’t like couch grass or other very vigorous grasses which swamp it.  However it is a happy addition to the flora and hopefully will increase the diversity of wildflowers in the tree field further.

 

Midsummer grass

We go through a period at midsummer where the spring flower start to fade and the late summer flowers are yet in bud.  The grass is overtall and swamps the smallest trees sometimes smothering them out.  We were too busy with construction projects to keep a path mown through the trackways recently.  Last week, after the damp grass made my feet so wet that I was able to wring water out of my socks even in wellies, I had to do some mowing!

cut just before the rain
The mist came down again after mowing.

 

We had a dry spell Sunday and Monday so S. made a start before lunch and I carried on on Tuesday and was able to put a single mower track down the middle of most of the rides and backways.  I made a new backway that I call the white orchid path, which matches up with one S. made to cut down from the middle to the pond area from near the royal oaks.  There is only one white orchid there, which I noticed for the first time two years ago.  It was quite a distance from the trackway, so it is nice to be able to take a closer look.  It’s just a common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) I think, but it’s more unusual for them to be white rather than pink.

white orchid path
White Orchid path

The dogs are very good about machinery, they know to trot behind, or do their own thing, however when it comes to raking up the cut grass Dyson is a bit of a pain.  His game is to try and catch the rake head (or broom or vacuum nozzle)  which makes the job about twice as long!  I ended up putting them in for an afternoon nap, so I could get on more quickly.  I hate all that mulch material going to waste rotting on the path and killing grass where I don’t want it killed.  I have been raking it up into piles, then the dogs can help (they think they are helping) piling it around some of the newer or more vulnerable trees and shrubs.  I’ve still got quite a bit to do, and two or three smaller paths haven’t been mown yet.

danish elder
New Elder tree from Denmark, uncovered but not yet mulched.
mulching trees
Mulched chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa)

It was nice to see several mushrooms, a sign of the fungal mycelium below which distributs nutrients around the field.  I guess they will be changing from grass and orchid loving fungi to tree loving fungi, but there is still quite a amount of open space from one cause or another.  I also saw several butterflies, caterpillars, a dragonfly and a frog.  The advantage of the scythemower is that, as well as coping with overtall grass, it is less likely to kill wildlife, since it cuts in one direction rather than circularly.

fungi flower
Fruiting fungi

I think I’m going to have to assume that this wild cherry (below) is not going to recover.  It got hit by late frosts, which are pretty unusual here, just as the buds were unfurling.  I did think it would stage a comeback, but it doesn’t look like it now.  There are several suckers from adjacent trees, at least one coming up in the trackway, so I could transplant one of these to replace it.  Alternatively, I could put something else there.

dead cherry
Dead cherry
enjoying trackway
The dogs love a free run

In praise of small flowers

I’ve not done much around the holding this week because Douglas, our dog, is recuperating from an operation.  This means I am spending much of my time in the house keeping him company, since he mustn’t do any running or jumping at present.  Hopefully he will make a good recovery, but at the moment has some healing to do.

small flowers
Dyson on trackway: upper loop

I have been taking our other dog, Dyson, out for intensive runs in the tree field to make up.  The summer orchids are starting again to show their impressive flowerheads, and I am marking the ones near or on the trackways with sticks, to try and avoid them being trodden on or mown.  However, this post I wanted to highlight some of the little, less showy wild flowers that tend to get forgotten about.  Individually the flowers may be small, but often they flower prolifically and make the trackways look like a medieval garden lawn.  Not all of these photos were taken this week.

showy orchids
Showy wild orchids

The obvious one is the pignut, but that almost qualifies as a large flower, albeit made up of tiny ones, but I have posted about it before.  Another that gives most of the field a golden brightness is the buttercup.  I have both creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), and meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), in the tree field.

sunny buttercups
Fields of gold

I may have the third UK buttercup, globe buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), since it does grow on Skye, but I have not identified it here yet.  When the sun catches the buttercup flowers they are a delight, even if the creeping buttercup is probably my most annoying weed in the areas I am trying to grow things.  Mostly because its leaves come away from the roots, which will then regrow.  The fact it can spread about 4 feet a year is also a nuisance for a rather laid back gardener like me.

creeping buttercup
Creeping buttercup surviving mulching and spreading quickly

I would include white clover (Trifolium repens), in the small flowers category.  The pink clovers quite often have such flamboyant flowers that they stand out alone.  White clover tends to be a bit smaller and lower lying, although forms large swathes of blooms on the trackways.  It is a food source for the common blue butterfly as well as a nitrogen fixing plant.

selfheal and clover
Selfheal and white clover

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) is rather like a tiny purple deadnettle.  Sometimes you can see the bright purple of the flowers, and sometimes just the magenta flowerheads.  I found one on the mound that had white flowers, but have not seen it since the first year of sheep eviction.

speedwell
Speedwell with some colour variation

One of my favourite flowers, speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), is definitely a small flower.  I love the colour, an enhancement of the sky above (if not clouded!).  Every now and then I come across a good clump of it and it brightens my day.  It is a food source for heath fritillary butterflies.  Although the flowers are tiny, the colour is so vibrant it is difficult to miss.  They also change colour from pink to blue, as they age, which I find fascinating.

eyebright path
Eyebright growing along compacted path in gully field

When looked at in detail the flowers of eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis agg) are just a beautiful as any orchid.  Pale pink snapdragon flowers have a yellow landing strip for insects but are only a few millimeters across.  They also only open one or two at a time on the flowerheads.  Unfortunately being so small they are easily overlooked, like those of mouse ear (Cerastium fontanum).

tormentil groundcover
Tormentil competing well with grass

One of the things I like about writing up my ‘blogs is that I almost always learn something by researching what I wanted to write about.  For example another plant disliked by gardeners is cinquefoil.  It was quite a nuisance weed for us on the allotment in Solihull, but didn’t seem to be such a pest for me here.  The reason being the Potentilla we have here is tormentil: Potentilla erecta, as opposed to cinquefoil which is Potentilla reptans.  Tormentil flowers usually have four petals (rather than five for cinquefoil) and the leaves are usually stalkless unlike cinquefoils leaves.  There is quite a bit of this growing in the tree field.  It is actually out-competing the grass in some of the areas where the soil is thinner.

Lastly for now I will mention thyme (Thymus polytrichus).  A bit like heather it is ubiquitous in the highlands and I am always breaking out into ‘wild mountain thyme’ when the sun shines!  Here it grows across the rocks and scree, and I am hoping it will take on my drivebank wall with some encouragement.  It makes a great cushion of purple and often is found on the banks of the burn together with heath bedstraw, a tiny cousin of cleavers that forms a cushion of white.

thyme and heath bedstraw
Thyme and heath bedstraw

 

 

 

 

 

 

May days

dry pond
Dry Pond

It’s been staying dry.  Not bone dry but misty-isle dry.  We’ve had a bit of mizzle, even some proper rain, but not enough to make the burns run again yet.  It’s a bit odd that the burns went dry so soon.  I can only assume that it must have been quite a dry winter – although it didn’t seem that way at the time.  This year the pond by the river has dried up completely.  I don’t know whether our tadpoles managed to survive or not….  We are forecast to have rain again on Saturday night, so maybe it will be enough to water the plants a bit.  So far, the rain just makes the surface of the soil wet, rather than soaking in.  Luckily our burn in the gully is fed by a deep spring so although down to a trickle, it still flows.  I am using one of the pools there as a dipping pond; filling the watering can there when I do the patrol with the dog-boys.  Then I can use the water on my pot plants or in the polytunnel.

dipping pond
Dyson in dipping pool

The bluebells are now putting on a lovely show in the tree field.  In places it looks like a bluebell wood!  Since it has also been staying quite cool (about 9 degrees celsius overnight and 11 during the day) the flowers are lasting well.

bluebell woods
Bluebell woods!

I am starting to see the orchids coming up in various places.  Some I remember from year to year, others are a surprise.  Unfortunately one of the big ones (probably a hybrid) in Dougie’s field got caught by frost.  That’s the first time I know that has happened.  Where I see them in the trackways, I have been marking them with sticks again so that S. can easily avoid them if he takes the mower down again.

marking orchid
Marking Orchids in trackways

I am hopeful that we have had a better set of cherries this year. It is still too early to tell yet really, however there definately seem to be cherries on this tree in the orchard area, and although I thought the morello in the fruit garden had none, I can now see those developing too.

cherries
Hopeful orchard cherries

More of the first planted trees are reaching maturity.  There is blossom on more of the hawthorne, and wild cherries.  Also and for the first time, there was blossom on at least one of the cherry plums, and a couple of saskatoons.  Maybe they liked the warm weather last year, or maybe they have just reached a critical size.  I don’t expect that there will be much, if any fruit, but it bodes well for future years.  One of the more exciting flowers for me was one of the hollies in the front garden has blossomed.  Holly trees are usually either male or female, and judging by the pollen on these flowers this plant is a male.  No berries yet then this year, but hopefully one or more of his neighbours will be female, and eventually there will be berries.

holly flowers
Male holly blossom

At this time of year the sycamores also come into bloom.  They are not really showy flowers, just a pale green chandelier, but the insects love them.  As you walk round the garden you become aware of a humming, and it is coming from the sycamores.  As well as bees there are wasps feeding on the pollen, and hoverflies and other flies.

buzzing tree
Bumblebee enjoying sycamore flowers

On the drive bank things seem to be holding on.  It has been difficult to water the plants on a slope, but they all got watered in pretty well when planted, so hopefully will survive OK.  The cooler weather means they are less stressed anyhow.  The bulbs leaves have faded as expected, and some of the tiny escallonia have flowers!  There are some signs of seeds germinating, the buckwheat and calendula I can identify, but there are also weed seeds as expected.  Not much grass yet so that’s good.  It will be nice to see the earth covered.

seedlings
Buckwheat seedlings on drivebank

My hablitzia are springing forth.  I think that this year I will try harvesting some, so watch this space….

happy habby
Happy habby bed

 

Ash trees and windbreaks

ash area
Ash grove in red (April 2018)

We are concerned about the central area of the tree field where we have planted a band of ash trees.  In retrospect I wish I hadn’t planted quite so many in such a large band, but I did have my reasons.  I had read that planting larger groves of the same sort of tree is better – they look better together than smaller groves or a complete mixture.  Also the soil there seemed a little shallow, not really thin – just over a spade depth generally, and I’d read that ash trees have shallow roots, so thought logically that they wouldn’t mind the soil being shallower.  So far so good.  However, the ash hasn’t grown that quickly.  Particularly below the trackway.

view summer 2018
Ash trees on right not as well grown as those on left (August 2018)

I think there are three reasons for this. First they don’t take exposure too well – there is quite a bit of dieback overwinter and those that are more sheltered suffer less.  Secondly the area which I planted them in is just slightly well drained, and shallower on the downhill side.  This is a good thing in some ways; ash trees don’t like to be sat in water.  However in the spring when we get a nice dry spell, I wonder if the trees are getting slightly starved.  There is competition from the particularly fine vigorous grass that likes the same well drained drier conditions.  Those that we managed to mulch along the track edge have done better.  The third aspect that I wonder about is that I found what appear to be vine weevil larvae all over the field, and again they like the drier conditions in this area.  Maybe they are also eating the ash roots?

vine weevil
Evil weevil grub

In the longer term I expect that we will have to replace the ash trees with something else (something that will like shallow drier soil…).  In the meantime I’ve obtained some spruce and pine seedlings and have planted them to form extra windbreaks in the future.  Hopefully they will give the ash trees a little more protection in the medium term, and if we do need to remove the ash due to chalera dieback, will protect whatever we replace them with as they get established.  I have marked the position with hazel stick cut from new hazel trees that were a birthday present.  These were rather larger than I have planted in the past, so I trimmed them back when planting so they would not suffer too much from wind rock.  We will aim to mulch some of these new spruce to give them a head start against the grass, but there are so many other things needing doing…. at least we will be able to find them from the hazel twigs when we do get round to it.

dog help
Dog help.

Although the spruce trees are tiny, I have planted them in a double spade width hole as I did with the original plantings.  It is easy to see now which way the prevailing wind is, by the direction of the grass strands across the turf.  I managed to plant a couple of bands of spruce perpendicular to the wind direction two or three trees deep amongst the ash trees.  The pines I mostly planted at the edges of the trackway and the very edge of the tree field where the track goes next to the southern boundary.

combed grass
Easy to see wind direction

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)

 

Orchard revisited – more pH testing

toad
Toad in orchard area

I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area.  I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching.  I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc.  I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together.  The soil does seem quite light.  I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much.  There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.

orchard clearing
forking over the orchard

I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid.  I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants.  I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred.  I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it.  I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial.  The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere.  I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down.  I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon.  I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant.  I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….

S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil.  Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops.  This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year.  We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility.  I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden.  Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.

On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn.  Again this has a bit of couch grass in it.  I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass.  I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short.  I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out!  Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary!  At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction.  I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)

blueberry plot
View to holding from opposite hill (taken Sept 2017)

I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass.  What would happen if I just left it be?  How competive is it as a weed?  I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch.  It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field.  I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer.  I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch).  Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!

pH testing kit
pH indicator chart

I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished.  I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart.  The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach.  All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5.  The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7.  I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time.  Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.

pH test potential blueberry plot
pH test for potential blueberry plot

 

 

 

August progress in tree field

bees on flowers
Common knapweed (centaurea nigra) and small bee

After a week of rain we have a sunny Sunday to leisurely wander and assess the growth this year in the tree field.  The late summer flowers are giving the busy bumblebees a help towards winter supplies.  I’ve been gathering various vetch seeds again, which I’m hoping to swap for favours.  The heath pea are just about over; the warm early summer meant I had quite a crop, and managed to harvest over an ounce of seed, with plenty that I missed to further spread into the field.  I have noticed it this year even in what I consider quite damp areas.  I think the reason it was mainly in the thinner drier areas at first was simply that these had been less well ploughed and the tubers were able to survive better.

marsh woundwort
Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris) flowers in tree field

One of the plants I got from the ART last year was Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort.  It is related to Stachys affinis – crosnes or chinese artichoke.  A native plant, it likes damp meadows and spreads by thick (edible) tubers.  As this grew, I realised it did bear a strong resemblance to a plant I have seen growing on the river bank.  A second opinion on the odour (it has a strong pungant smell, but my sense of smell is pretty poor) confirmed that I already have lots of this growing round the field.  I’m happy about this, and not sad I bought a plant I already had.  For one thing, the imported plant may be better for tubers, for another it confirmed something that might otherwise always be just suspicion.  There seems to be much more of it this year than I remember in previous years, so I may try and dig a little up this autumn and see what it tastes like (watch this space).

hairy caterpillar
Knot grass moth – acronicta rumicis on willow

I remembered seeing a particulary colourful hairy caterpillar down beside the pond.  As it turned out there were a few of the same variety there.  When going for a closer look at some aspen I thought had mildew (just downy leaves catching the sun), I found another one of these pebble prominent (Notodonta ziczac) which look like a cross between a caterpillar and a rhinocerous.

rhino caterpillar
Notodonta ziczac on Aspen

The willow cuttings that I put in this spring all seem to have taken despite the dry spring.  There is still plenty of space up near the hump at the top which is damp and relatively sheltered.  I’ll try and put some more in there since it does seem to do pretty well.

ash growth 2018
S. points out this years’ growth point on a particularly fine ash tree

This year we have seen some incredible growth on some of the ash trees.  Literally some have actually doubled in height.  Hopefully they won’t break off or die back too much.  They do seem to have a tendency to die back a few years growth in one go sometimes.  It’s not the ash dieback – that hasn’t reached us (yet).  Whether it is another fungal disease or something else I don’t know, but it is a bit frustrating.  I am hoping that by the time chalara does make it here the ash will be big enough to be useful firewood.  Certainly if they can maintain this rate of growth there is a fair chance!

We’ve started to make little pedestrian paths through the trees, just picking routes like the dog’s cut through to the pond.  This means we will be able to get up close and personal with the trees, and appreciate some different viewpoints without getting our feet too wet (assuming that we bring the mower round them at some point).  My challenge to come will be getting S. to appreciate that the seedheads are just as important as the flower stems when it comes to mowing the tracks.  I have marked the orchids with bits of stick, but these have tended to get lost over time.  Douglas does have a habit of stealing them on his way past!

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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.