Digging for Blueberries

I’m running a bit behind in my posting (got distracted by online novel reading) so will try and do a bit of catchup now.  I’m trying to get some preparation done for my blueberry patch down the hill.  I had covered the whole area with black plastic early last year to clear the weeds so it is now time to get the beds arranged, so I can start planting.

I decided to move the black plastic out to cover the area immediately surrounding the cleared patch.  I can either plant more blueberry bushes or other plants there.  It will be useful to have a weed barrier of sorts to try and keep the couch and other creeping grasses at bay.  There probably aren’t enough stones already selected to weight the plastic down properly.  Last year I had the benefit of large branches from the driveway spruce trees, but my intention is to use these to increase the woody content of the beds, so I will need additional weights this year.

new area
Forked area and extended mulch area

Since blueberries need well aerated soil, and the area I have chosen for them is damp and compacted with generations of sheeps trotters, I have forked over the cleared area.  I din’t turn the soil, just loosened it, so that it has a chance to dry a little over the coming weeks of spring.  I was a bit disappointed by the amount of couch grass that seems to be prevalent over the whole area, despite the light excluding cover.  I guess it was kept going by areas outside the plastic, and the fact the water could still get to it due to the fact the plastic is in strips, rather than a larger entire piece.  The other plant that seems to have survived remarkable well is pignut, Conopodium Majus.  The blanched spring shoots of this are all over the area despite having been covered for the whole of last year.

pignut blanched
Blanched pignut shoots

The thick reeds and other groundcover plants have disappeared to form a vole dispersed layer of compost.  The voles are more of a nuisance for attracting the attention of the dog(s).  They like to dig underneath the plastic sheets, thus letting in light and wind, so making the sheets less effective at weed cover.

My intention is to create sort of raised beds, with the woody trimmings, bracken remains, and leaf mould/grass clipping compost from the lodge, together with soil excavated to create drainage channels and paths.  As I was forking it over, I discovered that the soil depth is not consistent; it gets quite shallow at the downhill side of the patch.  Probably this rock forms a bit of a bowl, which is why it seems so damp there.  Until the area surrounding the cleared patch is also cleared, I won’t really be able to create the levels properly to ensure bed drainage.  I’m hoping that I can clear most of the couch grass out when the soil is drier as I create the raised beds themselves.

I have ordered some more blueberry plants, but haven’t managed to find some of the varieties I wanted.  If necessary, I will just sow some annuals to build up the soil structure and keep it covered and pre-order bushes for next year.  I know ART will propagate fruit trees to order, so they may do fruit bushes too.

Nothing much

The weather again hasn’t been kind recently.  Not really out of the ordinary; just unrelenting rain and wind, with not enough let up to get much done.  It’s not true that I’ve been doing nothing, and I probably haven’t achieved nothing, it’s just that I seem to have finished nothing!  The days are getting longer however.  I always feel that by Valentine’s day the worst of the winter is over.

ramp up
Ramp up hump

Outside I still haven’t completed the path round the hump.  Nearly there however, and the gradient of the ramp down has been improved by some of the turf that I have dug out of the widened path.  I have also made a bit of a ramp half way round as an alternative route down (although again this is not finished!).

I have a number of spruce and pine seedlings to bulk up the windbreaks and make some new windbreaks in the sparse area of ash.  Hopefully they will be surviving OK in the bag they are in at present, since they have been in there rather longer than I had intended.  The soil is rather claggy to be planting in as yet, although I have dug quite a few square holes in preparation.  I am also relocating some of the self seeded hazels that have planted themselves in less than desirable positions.  I have been making a little thicket of them on the lower south side of the main track loop.  This spot used to go by the unfortunate name of poo corner, since that was where Dougie usually felt inclined to relieve himself during a quick outing in the tree field.  It now has the alternate name of Harry’s corner, since we buried our cat Harris there recently.  He had a very quick illness, not we believe related to his ear condition, some sort of thrombosis that caused paralysis of the back legs.  He died probably of heart failure at the vets a day later.  Apparently it is often misdiagnosed in towns as traffic accidents, since the cats one minute are fine and the next are dragging their rear legs.  Anyway, now Harris has a hazel tree on his grave.

tree holes
Holes for windbreak improvements at top of tree field (baby monkey puzzle at left)

I have also started making holes along the main trackway.  I noticed the piles of cut grass that still were sitting along the track sides from last year, and it occurred to me that if I planted more berry bushes along there I could just rake up the grass and mulch them, rather than carting the grass to mulch somewhere else.  I’ve got some gooseberry and black currant cuttings that can be relocated, or I can strike some new ones this year still.

mulch mounds
Mulch spots along trackway

I received the seeds from the HPS seed scheme, and some from the Agroforestry Research Trust at the end of February, and organised them: ones to sow in spring, ones to sow straight away and ones that needed some stratification.  So some have been put away, some sown in pots outside or in the polytunnel and some have been placed in bags with damp tissue in the fridge to get a chilling.  Probably these could also have been sown outside mind you, since it is almost the same temperature out there as in the fridge!  Already some of my apple seeds have germinated in the fridge: saved from some UK grown russets and rather delicious cooking apples grown near Carlisle.  I’ll have to transfer those seeds from the fridge to pots outside as soon as possible to give them proper growing conditions.  I also noticed that some damson seeds I sowed from fruit eighteen months ago are now germinating in the polytunnel.  Although another job not finished, it’s nice to make a start on growing trees that may produce fruit for us in ten years or so!

seed sprouts
Sprouting apple seeds

I indulgently bought myself some plants that were not on my essentials list this year.  I found on ebay a seller of different Yacon varieties, who also had a different Mashua and Colocasia edulis as well as Apios americana and different tigernuts.  Well it seemed worth getting a few if I was going to get any!  They seem nice little tubers anyhow.  I have potted them all up in the polytunnel for the moment (except the tigernut which will want warmer conditions), and have also replanted a number of the Yacons I grew myself last year in one of the polytunnel beds.

new crops
New varieties

Unfortunately I’ve lost quite a few of my oca tubers to mice!  They had been sitting in a basket on the sittingroom windowsill, and I noticed this week the basket was somewhat emptier than it had been last time I looked.  Underneath the basket was a pile of tuber shavings!  I guess they liked the juiciness of the tubers, since they don’t seem to have eaten that much, just chewed them all up.  Some of the tubers were probably as big as the mice!  Luckily they didn’t find the different coloured tubers in their bags, so I quickly have planted four tubers to a pot in the polytunnel.  I selected four large and four small of the red tubers from Frances to see if that makes any difference to the plant yield.  It may take more than one generation to see a difference, if any, from selecting for tuber size.

I have also been digging up the kiwi vine: another nice indoor job, of which more later.  It will also soon be time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds.  I think I have some seed compost left, but I am out of the multipurpose compost and will have to get some more for planting out seedlings and potting on.  Another trip to Portree looms I guess.

For my birthday S. bought me a rechargeable reciprocating saw.  I am hoping that it will be robust enough to use for most of the coppicing work.  A chainsaw would be a little daunting, and using a hand saw is slow work!  It has been too windy to think about cutting trees down (although it will soon be too late as the trees start to grow!), but I have christened the saw by cutting up the pile of coppiced trunks that were cut last year and have been drying up by the house.  I’m pretty pleased with it.  The battery pack it takes is the same as S’s tools he used on the cars, so that should be convenient.  It did seem to chew through the reserves when I used it, although that was probably more intensive work than the more thoughtful process of cutting trees down.

new toys
New toy tool

On another happy note, my windowsill orchid seems to have enjoyed it’s holiday outside last year so much that it has put up the first flower spike in ten years!  It did try when we first moved up here, but unfortunately I didn’t realise there was a flower spike, divided the plant and the flowers all dropped off.  This time it seem quite content to look out the window.  I must remember to holiday it outside again during the summers – it definitely looked greener and plumper than before.

not a stick
Indoor Orchid flowers

 

 

Living in the future

rainbow
Winter rainbow

It always astounds me at the end of the year to realise that we are in the twenty first century!  I haven’t quite got used to the 1990’s yet!  I haven’t been doing much recently at home.  Because of a staff shortage I have lost two of my afternoons off, combined with having extra to organise for Xmas, and poorly cats, it seems that I haven’t been very productive.  The weather in November was remarkably clement – dry and cold.  December has been a bit more typical with a bit of wind and rain (and some sleet, with a little snow settling on McCloud’s Tables).  The polytunnel repair stood up to winds of about 65mph this week, which I am pleased about.  I do wonder whether it will stand up to the cat standing on it, but since it was partly the cat that caused the damage I’m not too inclined to be sympathetic if it does go through.

oca tubers forming
Oca tubers developing at surface

The Yacon and Oca are really dying back.  I want to leave them as long as possible, while the weather remains fairly mild, so as to bulk up the tubers as much as possible.  I gather that even after the leaves have been killed by the frost, the stems will carry on feeding the oca tubers, and they grow significantly over a few weeks until the stems are completely gone.  I imagine that the Yacon is similar.  I will clear them out over Xmas, or at least before the frosts come back in January.

path round hump
Black line of path around hump

The tree field is just bare bones now.  I did a bit more digging around the hump, but haven’t had much time and the weather is not conducive to digging.  The path is coming on, and will really make walking along it more pleasant when finished.  When I go down the hill with Dyson I bring back an armful of kindling or a few larger branches of dry wood for the fire.  Once the kindling is in the shed for a few days it dries out nicely and starts the kitchen stove really well with a little newspaper.   A good session with a sawbench and bowsaw will be required to cut the branches to length though.

yellow pine
Golden Korean pine, with shelter and feed pellets

I managed to get in contact with the supplier of the yellow Korean pine trees and they think that the trees are just lacking in nutrients.  I’m reasonably happy with that explanation – they are quite big for the size of the pot they were in, so basically just needed potting on, or in this case planting out.  The supplier sent some slow release feed for the trees which I did use around them when planting them out.  Normally I don’t use chemical fertilizers, but I’m looking on this as medicine for the trees, which will help them catch back more quickly.  If they do not seem recovered in early summer, I am to recontact the nursery.

I have planted the trees as three clumps of four trees.  One lot are planted adjacent to the one that I grew from seed, the others a little higher up the hill.  Pines are wind pollinated, so hopefully this will give me a better chance of getting pine seeds when the trees are big enough.  I have put tree shelters around each of the trees, which will hopefully stop them rocking around too much over the winter.  I also made a start at mulching them, but the weather stopped play again.  If I have an afternoon free from the shop, I generally get home about quarter to two in the afternoon, if we have a bit of lunch it is quarter to three before I get started on anything, and it is getting dark at four, so not much time to get things done outside!

peeling birch
Peeling birch

Several of the silver birch have quite suddenly developed white bark.  The darker bark has split off revealing really pale bark underneath.  Others still have quite dark bark underneath; they may not get pale like this, or they may turn silver when they get older.  It seems odd that the bark has split at this time of year.  You would have thought it would happen in the spring, as the sap rises, not in the autumn.  Maybe it’s like the leaves falling; materials getting brittle and parting company.  I’m thinking that I may be able to do crafty things with this lovely material, if and when we coppice these trees in the future.  Most of the birch are still a few years away from being big enough to be worth cutting down as yet.

 

Making its mind up

snow tops and dew drops

The weather doesn’t know if it’s coming or going at the moment.  We are swinging from hard frosts of -5 Celsius, to overnight temperatures of nearly +10 Celsius.  However, the frosts have been hard enough already to damage some of the sharks fin melon fruit.  Three of them had fallen off the vines before I could collect them, resulting in a little bruising, and a couple more were obviously frost damaged: The skin was soft and darker in colour.  Since these won’t keep, I have cooked a couple, and there are a couple in the fridge that I will cook sooner rather than later.  The noodley flesh, I have established freezes well.  There are also four good fruit that I have placed on the windowsill to keep for as long as I can.  Two of them however, I am not sure are sharks fin melon: they are darker green, and the flower scar is much bigger.  Either they are ripe fruit of the Tondo de picenze courgette that I didn’t spot climbing, or they are a sport of the sharks fin melon crossed with something else, or possibly the lost pumpkin nut squash.  I guess I’ll find out when I cut into them.

sharks fin melon 2019
Two on left dubious ancestry apparent

I have also harvested all the ripe goldenberry (Physalis peruviana) fruit.  There were many more on the plant that are not going to ripen now, and it is still flowering!  I have probably had about 15 or 20 fruit in total from the bush.  They are tasty, but maybe not that productive.  I have discovered that there is a dwarf form of goldenberry that may fruit earlier and so be more worthwhile.  I’ll maybe see next year if I can get seed for that, although getting my existing plant through another winter will be a priority.  I have bent over some of the branches to insulate the crown of the plant a bit, although the weather is mild again just at the minute.

goldenberry
Ripe goldenberry fruit

I also harvested all the chilli fruit off the plant that is in the ‘mediterranean area’ of the polytunnel.  It lost all it’s leaves in the cold, so I thought it was time.  I’m hoping that it will over winter OK there.  I have cut it back quite severely, and will put a cloche or fleece over it as well.  I do have the two other chilli plants in pots inside as back up.  Now I need to research how to preserve and use the chillies (ripe and unripe).  I’m thinking drying may be best.  In the meantime the fruit are in the fridge.

chillies 2019
Harvesting chillies

I also did a little bit of pruning in the treefield.  Some of the trees were overhanging the pathways enough to be a nuisance if driving a vehicle around, so I cleared these branches back.  There were also some self set willows down near the pond that made the track a bit narrow and an aspen that wasn’t very well anchored.  It rocked around in the wind leaving a hollow in the soil by its trunk.  I have taken this tree back to a stump, in the hope that when it regrows the top, the roots will also have strengthened.

aspen cut
Pruning overhangs and wobbly aspen

I took back one of the purple osier willows as well.  This time I left a short trunk.  These have a tendency to grow very spindly, as you’d expect from a willow grown for weaving!  I will use some of the longer stems I cut out as the basis for one or two Xmas wreaths.  Next year it should grown back strong and tall, with lots of potential weaving stems should I chose to do something a bit more exciting.  I have had a little weaving experience: enough to appreciate how much hard work it is!

purple osier
Purple osier stump and prunings

While I had the pruning saw and secateurs out, I cleared a new path in the front garden.  I can now go from the area under the trees by the front door to the top of the drivebank.  Hopefully this won’t affect the shelter from the wind too much.  There is a sycamore that had been pollarded some time before we came.  Possibly it had been damaged by the hurricane in 2004.  There is now quite a bit of regrowth from the bottom of the trunk, as well as branches further up.  I’ve left most of them, just cleared enough to get through.  I had to take a bit off one of the rowans as well.  I noticed that the japanese ginger that had sprouted there was looking a bit sad from the frost now.  The new path goes just past my new Mrs Popple fuchsia, which is starting to look a bit sad in the cold too.

cut through
Cut through to drivebank

 

 

Don’t do this

fasach view
Last leaves

I have been starting to buy some of the nice plants on my annual shopping list recently.  I have also added one or two that weren’t on the list but somehow I couldn’t resist!  I was very excited to find some Korean pine (Pinus Koraiensis) seedlings for sale at one of the forestry nurseries in Scotland.  They are quite slow growing pine trees, but should stand exposure and have large edible seeds on mature trees.  I have been trying to grow them from seed for a couple of years, but only managed to get one to germinate.  That was planted in the spring, down where the main trackway hits a T-junction near the river bend.  It seems to be still surviving despite being so tiny you can hardly tell it from grass seedlings!  The nursery also had some juniper seedlings at a fair price, so I added those on, winced at the delivery charge and awaited with excitement a package.

yellow pine
New saplings

The juniper seedlings look fine, but I’m not sure about the Korean pines.  They look decidedly yellow.  There could be a number of reason for this – lack of light, nutrients or they’ve sent me a yellow pine that may or may not be Korean pine.  I’ll give them a ring tomorrow and see what they say.  I don’t really want golden pines in my tree field even if they are Korean pines, and I don’t want to wait twenty years to find out they are not Korean pines either, since I am in the hope that they will produce edible seeds for me in my retirement.  In the meantime, I have been down and dug twelve tree planting spaces for the pines to go in: four by the lone pine and two other patches of four interplanting the edges of the dodgy Ash areas.  The baby trees are being hardened off by putting outside during the day and inside at night, on the chance that they are what they should be.

Whilst I was finding spaces for trees, I also checked on where to put the baby Junipers.  I thought that I had lost three of my six original seedlings.  Since I thought three was not enough of a population (you need male and female plants to set berries) I bought an  extra three seedlings.  However, whilst checking the previously planted Juniper and deciding where to put an extra three, I was happy to find one more of the original seedlings; making a total of four that have established well.  Unfortunately, I have also found, as I suspected when I planted them, that I am regretting using that carpet underlay to mulch them.  It was brilliant at staying put on the slope, and did a reasonable job of keeping down the weeds, but I hate the residual stringy bits that are almost all that is left of the original mats.  I have done my best to pull it out now, but the grass and weeds had embedded themselves pretty much through it, so it was a battle.

juniper mulch
Plastic threads from mulch around Juniper

I am now dreading the thought of removing the mulch mat roll that is fully entombed in grass from the original windbreak planting near the house.  I have been delinquent in not addressing that sooner, although I suspect that unless it was removed within a year it would still have been a horrid job to do.  It is easy for me to postpone a job like that that doesn’t seem constructive, if that makes sense?  I’m just glad I only used one strip rather than trying to mulch all the trees.

plastic mulch
Original mulch mat embedded in Alder

Having prepared an additional three planting positions for the juniper, I had a start at levelling the path that winds around the hump.  It follows one of the original sheep trails across the slope and makes it easier to ascend the steep bit of the hill.  It is really a little bit narrow, and is awkward in places, since it has quite a cross gradient which puts pressure on your ankles.  By taking a double spade cut of turf on the upwards side, and using that to back fill above and reinforce the path below, the path has virtually doubled in width.  I didn’t get very far this week, but feel it is worth persevering.  If I do the full path down to the flatter field below, we will be able to get the mower along the path, so making walking easier in the wet.

path cutting
Path widening

 

 

One thing after another!

green path
Green path

Starting on a positive note, I noticed the other day as I walked through the alder grove in the centre of the tree field, that the field is starting to smell like a wood.  I hadn’t really appreciated that woods have a specific scent, but realised that it wasn’t just the normal fresh air smell that we get, but the damp, woodsy smell of rotting leaves and fungi.  I wish that we had “smellovision” so that I could capture it!  The paths in this area are also much more green than the ground under the trees either side.  This is a bit deceptive I think, since the grass there hasn’t died out fully.  The grass on the path was mown at least once through the year and therefore is fresh regrowth, whereas the grass under the trees is straggly mature growth, admittedly covered a bit by leaves as well.

polytunnel hole
Excessive ventilation in Polytunnel

Then the trouble – Earlier this week it was a bit windy.  Not excessivly so.  Nothing to write home about, I would have said, except that my polytunnel got torn!  The wind was probably gusting to approaching 60mph (update – possibly a bit more; I’m told that over the hill the gusts were approaching 80mph, and since the energy goes by the cube of the speed that’s significantly more likey to cause damage), but the problem really was that earlier in the year the kiwi and the bramble had each decided that the polytunnel wasn’t big enough, and had punched their way through the cover.  This had been aided by the fact that one of our cats (Harry) sometimes uses the polytunnel as a look out station, so had made several tear-along-the-dotted-line holes near the frame hoops, as he climbed about on it.  I pruned out the growth from underneath and it fell outside the tunnel but left a bit of a hole, which is now rather ginormous!  I’m hoping that I can patch it up, since the tunnel cover is only a few years old.  Although it ripped across the width of one of the sections, it didn’t rip too far down, so at the moment is providing extra ventilation!

strapped down
Limiting the damage

I hastily threw the hose across the tunnel to try and stop it flapping in the wind and hence propagating down, weighting the hose ends with car tyres.  This may have helped, since we did have quite a bit more wind after it happened, but it is still only the top that is torn.  Now I need a dry still day to try and patch it up.  Tricky, since it is right at the top of the tunnel, so I can only really reach from the inside.  I have some spare polythene from the old tunnel, so I may stretch that over the top as well, and some ‘gaffa tape’.  I think I’ll need some ‘belt and braces’ if I can keep this cover going for a few more years!

ripe enough
Ripe enough!

I was wondering whether to harvest the Boskoop glory grapes, or whether to leave them a bit longer to sweeten up a bit.   They were mainly getting ripe, just a little bit tart to the taste perhaps.  Since the tunnel had ripped, I decided to cut all the bunches down and have a go at making grape molasses; see here for example method.  The idea was that since we don’t get round to eating all the grapes fresh, it would be a way of preserving them, as well as a fun way of creating a sugar substitute.  I did a bit of internet research and came to the conclusion that the wood ash was optional (some sites suggested adding chalk).  I think the purpose of the additive is to precipitate out the tannins; perhaps making the juice sweeter and less liable to crystallise.

All went well at first.  I picked all the grapes and saved three of the best bunches (1kg) for eating.  There was another 6kg initially, although quite a few were a bit mouldy – I think I missed a few bunches when I was thinning them out!  I crushed the grapes in a sieve and strained the juice through a jelly bag into my jam making cauldron. On the wood stove I then simmered it down from 4 litres down to 1 pint (excuse my ambi-units!), which took about 5 hours, and left it to cool overnight. We had the stove on anyhow – it is our heating source – so no extra fuel required for this operation.

cooking juice
At start of heating

The juice started off a light pink colour with terracotta flecks (not all had strained off).  As it boiled it did seem to create extra flocky bits in the juice and darkened to a dark brown.  It still tasted pretty sharp and hadn’t thickened much.  I think my grapes aren’t very sweet (I should have measured the specific gravity, but couldn’t be bothered to climb into the attic for the hydrometer).  On the following day I decided to boil it again and left it on the stove whilst I picked some achocha in the tunnel – big mistake!  I came back to a kitchen (and house!) full of acrid smoke and a black gooey mess in the pan!  I had left the firebox door open, so the top hot plate just got too hot!  On the bright side, the black mess did seem to comprise of burnt sugar, so I know if I had done it more gently I had a chance of achieving molasses!  I’m hoping I can recover the pan!

black death
Not pekmezi

Next year (or maybe not) I may try a variety on the theme.  First, maybe I’ll try adding chalk (or perhaps sodium bicarbonate) to precipitate out some of the tannins.  Or maybe I’ll do that secondly, since in my research I discovered that cream of tartar comes from grapes.  Actually it seems to come mainly from the bits left over from wine making. Unfortunately I had thrown my residue in the compost before I found this out!  The tartaric acid salts are less soluble in cold water than hot, so precipitate out when the solution is cooled.  When I had cooled the part-formed molasses overnight I did get a very small amount of crystals on the pan.  Again there are lots of articles that you (eventually) find when searching for this, this is one that I think may be most useful.  Since I use cream of tartar a bit in cooking, I think it would be fun to try and make my own another time!

So, not the best of week all in all!

 

 

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

 

 

Marsh Woundwort is good to eat

MARSH WOUNDWORT FLOWER
Marsh Woundwort flower

This is the most peculiar thing.  I can’t remember where I got the idea that marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris) was an interesting edible weed.  I think I came across it in an ‘Agroforestry News’ article from ART in 2017, and I certainly got a plant from them subsequently which confirmed that indeed I already had this plant growing wild on the holding.  I have just checked my books and none of them seem to mention marsh woundwort as a worthwhile edible, but I really rate it highly now I have tried it.  It is not in the weed bible: “food for free” by Richard Mabey, or “growing unusual edibles” by Simon Hickmott.  It is not even in the “Plants for a Future” book by Ken Fern, which I have found so much inspiration in, although it is in his database now, with an edible rating of three out of five.  Here is quite a comprehensive article I found about it.  It is the roots that are mainly eaten, although apparently the young shoots can also be eaten.  I have not tried these.

It is a plant that likes damp soil and seems to thrive here now that it is free to sprawl across the tree field.  There are several areas where the thin nettle-like leaves and spotted pink flowers cover several square metres of the field.  It doesn’t smother the grass out, but grows amongst it quite happily.  But it is underground that the treasure lies.  Marsh woundwort spreads with underground runners, and it is these that are the parts to harvest.

marsh woundwort patch
Spreading marsh woundwort patch

According to the Fern’s database the tubers grow better in damp soil.  I had tried growing it in the polytunnel pond, but it is not a plant that likes to be confined to a pot.  The roots were all twisted round at the bottom of the pot and there was not really enough to have a reasonable portion.  The offsets I planted in the gully field don’t seem to have come back this year either, but as I said, I have a few large patches down in the tree field, so I decided this week to dig up an area to try them.  In the middle of the patch a turf one spade wide and two long was enough to provide enough roots for a couple of portions.  I did try a bit raw, but it wasn’t that great.  Tasting like mild raw potato perhaps?  Cooked however, they are very pleasant, with a sweet artichoke flavour.  I just boiled them for about 10 minutes.  S. also says “they weren’t too bad at all” so I think he would be happy to eat them again!

digging roots
Digging the roots

The Latin name: Stachys palustris, gives away the close relationship of marsh woundwort to another, still unusual, but more widely recognised edible: Stachys affinis, crosnes or chinese artichoke.  I have tried to grow this once with no success: the tubers just disappeared in the predecessor to the fruit garden.  I suspect that slugs ate them, but can’t be sure.  Crosnes’ tubers are thicker and segmented, whereas the marsh woundwort tubers are longer, thinner, but smooth, so easier to clean of dirt before eating.  The woundwort tubers I dug were about 7-9 mm (1/3 in) at the widest, but they don’t need peeling, since the skins are quite smooth.

washed and ready to cook
Ready to cook

I cut them down to a couple of inch long segments for cooking, but they were originally limited in length mainly to where the spade had cut them in the turf.  Where I dug these plants isn’t the dampest place in the tree field (which is down by the pond probably), but there are a fair amount of reeds growing there, so it is certainly not the driest.  It also grows on the riverbank where the soil is pretty dry, although I don’t know what the tubers are like there.

The only disadvantage I can see is that the tubers need to be dug up.  Therefore as the trees grow, their roots may be damaged by digging up the tubers.  Also it’s a bit of faff needing a spade, rather than just gathering leaves above ground.  I may spread some of the plants to near the pond area.  The soil there is really wet rather than just damp, so it will be interesting to see how well the tubers grow there.  It seems that marsh woundwort will stand some shade as well as sun, so should continue to do well as the trees develop.

Summer rain

august view
Late Summer View

As is typical at this time of year, we are getting rather more rain and less sunshine.  Whenever we get a still day the midges make life a misery outside, so you either need a good midge repellent, keep all skin covered, or keep running!  I’m using ‘midge magic‘ at the moment which seems as good as any anti midge I’ve tried.  Last week was a bit windy, gusting to about 45mph or so.  The alder tree branches are very brittle, and quite a few have top branches partially or completely broken off.  I have also pruned a few more of the branches lower down to make the back pathways more passable in the wet.

broken branches
Broken branches

The coming of heavier rain last week also filled the pond back up with water.  It has been much emptier this year than last, although I didn’t think it had been very dry.  Douglas still likes to paddle in the puddle left when it is low, but to be frank he gets a bit stinky in the mud!  The river in spate has a lovely golden colour as it goes over the stones at the rapids, and is inky black with peat in the still deeps.  When the river is low it has almost no colour and is crystal clear.

peaty water
Amber river waters (and Dyson)

We’ve had more ‘free ranging’ sheep along the river banks this year, so there has not been so many wild flowers the other side of the fence.  The trees we cut back when they were felled by the floods have been browsed back as well, so there is still a good clearing letting in light.  There are some hazelnuts showing – usually in large clusters, but not so many as last year by far.

hazel nuts
Hazelnuts over inky water

The late summer flowers are making a show now, with meadowsweet, various vetches and knapweed the stars of the show.  Scabious and ling heather (calluna vulgaris) are also opening their flowers.  I have two of the three common forms of heather growing here: ling and bell heather (erica cincerea).  The bell heather is slightly earlier and the blooms are now fading, whilst the ling heather has paler flowers and is yet to reach its peak.  The third common heather, cross leaf heath, does grow up on the hills, but I’ve not see it on the holding.  It has fewer, larger and paler flowers.

bee on scabious
Bee on Scabious

There are more little hazel seedlings that I have noticed near the river in the tree field.  Some I can leave to grow where they are – they will probably be happiest not being disturbed.  Others, which are too close to the fence, other trees, or on the paths, I will try and remember to move this winter.  The trouble is they are much more difficult to find when they lose their leaves.  I should take down some sturdy long sticks and mark their places!  In the meantime, I try and clear the grass around them and mulch them with it, which makes them easier to find at the moment.

hazel seedling
Hazel seedling

I have pretty much cleared the bracken growing in the tree field.  There really wasn’t very much at all this year.  I should get out and pull the stems growing on the river bank as well, before it starts dying back too much.  The big builders bag of bracken that I pulled last year is still there down by the pond.  Unfortunately it is too heavy for me to move it.  I did think that as the bracken died down it would get lighter, but if it has it hasn’t made enough difference for me.  It is still not well rotted enough for compost, although would do as a surface mulch if I wanted.  I may wheel it up to the new blueberry patch when I get on with that.  Some nice light organic material will be just what the blueberries will like.

editing bracken
Editing Bracken

 

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.