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)

 

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Hazelnuts and truffles

You know the best presents?  They are the things that you really would like, but don’t buy yourself because they are just that bit extravagant.  Well my clever sisters got it spot on this year.  First to arrive was a pack of mushroom spawn to inoculate logs.  There are three different varieties of edible mushroom, and enough spawn to inoculate two largish logs.  What I may do is use half to innoculate a log each, and the other half to try again with newspaper ‘logs’.  I had a go a couple of years ago making huge rolled up newspaper logs fron unsold papers from the shop (we don’t get them collected so just recycle or otherwise use them locally) and incorporated spawn dowels in the layers.  Nothing happened.  I think that what went wrong was I was over concerned with the logs not drying out, so I wrapped the newspapers in black bin liners, and I think the mushrooms suffocated.  Given our rainfall, I think I will just stack them somewhere out of the sun and just water them a bit if we do get a dry spell.  In the meantime the spawn should be safe in the fridge door.

The second part of the present (it was a joint one) was a hazel tree innoculated with truffle spawn.  I could be digging up my own truffles in seven years or so!  I had looked at these a while ago, but decided against buying myself one since I had many other plants to spend my money on.  It really is a bit of a long shot anyway.  I hadn’t realised for example, that the truffle fungi likes it quite alkaline.  Thin soil over chalk is what they like.  I’ve got thin soil, but generally rather acidic.  What I’ve done therefore is select a spot, as close to south facing as I’ve got, on a slope, so well drained.  It hasn’t got a huge amount of shelter yet, but isn’t as exposed as some spots either, and as the surrounding trees grow up (other hazels and oaks) they will shelter each other.

truffle location
Truffle tree location

I dug my standard, two spade width turf turned over, hole for the tree and used all of a bag of ground dolomite limestone (probably 1kg? the label had long since gone).  I bought the linestone when I thought I might be doing more annual veg growing.  I mixed half in the soil below the top turves, and sprinkled the other half around the tree once planted, for a distance of about a metre radius.  Hopefully that will just give the truffle spawn enough of a pH change to get it started.  If the truffle fungi doesn’t make it we should at least have another hazel tree!

truffle planted
Truffle ‘tree’ with added limestone

I meant to do a separate post about hazelnuts, but it’s bit past time now.  Suffice to say that I got a fair share of the bumper harvest that happened last year.  In a few hours at the start of October I collected a carrier bag and all my pockets full.  Normally the birds and mice strip the trees, but there was enough for everyone this year.

nut hunting
Hazelnut hunting ground

I dried the nuts on top of the stove (I think that some may have got a bit scorched).  They have kept well in the shells, but I have shelled most of them with a hand cracker and have got about 8 Oz of hazelnut kernels.  A fair proportion (maybe 20% – 30%) had no kernel, or a shrivelled up one, but the rest were fine, if a little small.  Apparently getting empty nuts is quite normal for hazels.  The full ones should sink in water, so I may wash them next time to save some of the labour until I get a nut cracking machine!  Interestingly one of the trees appeared to have quite a few nuts with twin kernels.  Not really what you want however, since they end up a little small.

twin kernel
Twin kernel

Anyway, this bumper harvest has inspired me to look again at hazels as a nut crop tree.  We may not have the optimum climate for nuts, but that hasn’t stopped me planting apple trees, which also won’t crop well here most years.  What we do have is no squirrels, which are such a pest elsewhere in the UK as to present quite a challenge when getting any of the harvest.  I’ve still got a lot of other projects on the go this year, but I think over the next nine months I will try and work out where hazels for nuts might do best.  As usual they want somewhere sheltered and sunny (!), but I’ll also need to fit them into the existing tree planted areas.  Maybe interplanted in with the ash is one option (if I do lose the ash, there will be plenty of space) but there are other possibilities.

nut production line
Nut cracking production line

To help with nut tree selection and planting planning I also asked for and got for xmas, Martin Crawford’s book on nut growing.  This has got me over-excited about all the other nuts I could try.  Maybe not almonds (even I’m not that optimistic, although maybe in the tunnel…) but walnuts, or japanese walnuts may be a possibility to try, and perhaps I could find a more sheltered spot for some sweet chestnut, and there’s a few cute little nut trees related to horse chestnuts that are edible and may crop here…..

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)

Orchard, Autumn and Tomatoes

I managed to just about finish clearing the section of orchard I was aiming to.  The weather has turned a bit damp now – so I’ve lost this years’ window for weeding.  The soil just gets too claggy when it’s wet.  I’ve left a nice sorrel plant there, and I may transplant some more in there.  I have found some with lovely large leaves in various places round the field.

large leaved sorrel
Large leaved Rumex acetosa – common sorrel

I have also planted a few of my seedling heath pea plants along the border which I plan to keep digging up, and a marsh woundwort plant as well.  I haven’t got round to tasting the roots of this yet.  It is related to crosnes (stachys affinis) and like crosnes the roots are edible.  This plant was rather pot bound.  It had been sitting in a puddle next to the polytunnel all year – an offset from the bought in plant.  I’m hoping it will be damp enough for it at the side of the orchard there.  We can get quite a bit of water coming down the track at times, as well as being generally damp climate wise.  The roots certainly look like they could be quite productive – long and tender.  I did snap a few bits off and popped them in the fridge, but forgot they were there when I cooked dinner yesterday.  I also put a couple of seedling lathyrus tuberosa (earthnut pea) seedlings.  These are from seed that I was sent (thanks Anni).  Unfortunately with one thing and another (weather and neglect!) I only have four seedlings and one of these looks a bit poorly.  I’ve put plant pot collars on them, since I have read that slugs really like these plants.  I’m thinking that they can climb up the apple tree.  Not the ideal spot for a root crop, but if they grow and like it there I can maybe propagate more plants from these.

orchard view north
Orchard view to North

I also spread around loads of seed: firstly some of the green manure seeds I obtained recently.  I spread field beans and fodder radish fairly generally over the whole area and red clover selectively around the bases of the honeyberries and apple tree.  It may be a bit late for the fodder radish, but I’m hoping that it will stay mild for long enough for them to put on a bit of growth before the winter (I can already see shoots coming on the field beans just a couple of days later!).  I also sowed some other legume seeds that I collected:  birds foot trefoil and bush vetch (vicia sepium).  I have been enjoying the odd nibble on the latter as it has reappeared around the tree field (see here for a little foraging guide).  The birds foot trefoil makes a nice low growing ground cover – it should be nitrogen fixing, but I’m not sure how well it will keep down the weeds.  This is the first time I’ve tried sowing it direct.  I did sow some in the spring in pots, but didn’t get a good success rate (again weather and neglect…): one plant.  I also spread some sweet cicely seed and good king henry which both have done well for me in the tea garden a little up the hill.  They both seeded themselves a bit up there, but I want to transplant those seedlings elsewhere.

birds foot
How bird’s foot trefoil gets it’s name

I started trying to dig out couch grass and docken from the rest of the orchard on the north side of the track.  There is a fair amount of both and I haven’t quite finished that.  It’s only a rough going over.  I will mulch it with newspaper and card and try and give it another go during next summer depending on priorities.  I did get out some of the silver weed I planted there in the spring this year.  It is still a bit early – they are in full leaf, and the roots look very white.  Generally they are up to 6 inches long and up to one quarter inch diameter.  I’m going to transfer some to the track border.  I may see if I can use them for pathways in the orchard area.  They have made a reasonable coverage after a bit of editing in the tea garden and certainly spread like mad!

It’s starting to feel a little autumnal now.  The first trees to lose their leaves are the Wych elm, but some of the rowans are turning colour, and one of the beech is rather a nice yellow.  I’m a bit worried by how red this apple tree is.  Last year it was the best for growth, this year it looks a bit strained – the others are all still quite green.  We don’t tend to get much autumn colour here – the winds strip the leaves off the trees before they can put on much of a show.  It looks like it will be a bumper year for hazelnuts – I spotted the first nuts on our own trees (planted 2010), but the ones along the river bank seem quite laden.  I did go along and pick up a fair few from underneath the trees, but they all seem to be empty (either shed by the tree or discarded in disgust by hopeful birds!).  It’s still a bit early.  Usually the birds get the nuts, which is fair enough.  I would quite like to get a harvest off our own trees in due time.  Although they weren’t bought as nutting cultivars, the seeds they apparently came from seemed a fair size.

bumper hazelnuts 2018
bumper crop on hazels by river

The local outside brambles are starting to ripen.  Funnily enough these don’t seem to be bothered by those horrid flies!  There was a new bush that has seeded in at the corner of the river  above the pond, which seems to have quite nice quality berries.

self sown bramble
tasty self sown bramble

Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!

ripe tomatoes
First ripe tomatoes – (super sweet 100)

There was a little mildew or possibly blight on some of the leaves so I’ve pulled a few off the tomato plants.  I’m hoping that I will get more tomatoes ripening over the next month or so before I have to rescue them.  Some comfrey leaves are soaking in a bucket of water at the moment to add some extra tomato feed to try and give them a late boost.

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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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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Editing the tree field. #1 bracken

I’m not sure who coined the phrase ‘editing the garden’.  It is very apt though.  I’m gradually adding and deleting plants around the holding; planting trees and encouraging flowers such as orchids and vetch, whilst removing (or trying to) bracken, creeping thistle and selectively docken and buttercups in the garden.

lephin and glendale august 2012
Dark green areas of bracken in general glen view (summer 2012)

You can tell the untended holdings around here by the rapid overtake of bracken across them. It spreads by fleshy underground runners creeping forward year on year.  It doesn’t seem to like very boggy ground or deep shade, but otherwise little seems to stop it.  The sheep don’t eat it, although their sharp little hoofs in the spring can knock it back a bit.  When we first took on the plot there was a little bracken down by the river, which was slowly creeping into the field.  On our northern side as well the bracken encroaches into our boundary.  Although grazed by sheep, the owner of the land lives away and the ‘tenant’ does not improve grassland that is not his.  I have been turning a problem into a benefit over the last few years.  The compost you can make from bracken has a far better texture than any peat free compost that I have managed to find to date.  I have heard as well that although it grows on potash poor soil, it is a potash accumulator, thus compost made from it will be relatively rich in potassium.  Although I haven’t checked this, I have been using it recently for my potting on projects in combination with a little ash-enriched general garden waste compost.

This year I have been successful in pulling all the bracken on the holding.  In order to reduce the vigour of the bracken year on year I physically go round and pull out the bracken stalks.  They come off fairly easily, although generally you need two hands (and gloves).  This should be done when the leaf is fairly well grown, but in the earlier part of the summer. Bracken spores are supposed to be carcinogenic, so it’s not good practice to spend too much time in amongst it later in the year.  Also I guess that it will be feeding the roots all the time, so it is better to stop this as soon as possible.  If you pull too early the plant simply shoots up a further load of leaves and carries on.  Generally there will be more leaves anyhow, and smaller ones that have been missed.  So it is as well to go back around after a week or so to pull this regrowth if possible.  Since I started doing this, and despite not managing to do it all every year, the bracken has reduced from being as tall as I am (over 5 feet) to waist height or less.

saving bracken
Bracken collected for compost making

What I have done this year is be more methodical and I have managed to gather the pulled leaves into a builders sack for recovery up the the garden area to rot down into compost.  All the leaves didn’t fit in however, so I’m leaving them to wilt a little in the hope that this will also reduce the weight of the bag, which is rather heavy for me to drag now!  If it doesn’t get much lighter, then I may have to decant some of the leaves out and take it up the hill in portions.  I’d quite like to be a bit more sufficient in compost next year by this method.

bracken autumn colours
Autumn colours

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.