Polytunnel progress

polytunnel snowWe continue to have a snowy winter.  Showers interspersed with milder days so sometimes it’s icy and underneath the soil is sopping wet.  Down the northern edge of the tree field the dogs have made a cut through path to the pond at the bottom.  I sometimes use it to go down that way, and sometimes go the longer way around the main rides.  Since the dogs don’t pay too much attention to where the baby trees are, some are rather close to the path.

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Dogs’ short cut to pond

Last year I moved an oak that was right in the path.  S. mowed along the path in the summer and it was tricky to zigzag between all the trees.  I therefore moved three trees to improve the line of the path and make it easier to mow should we choose to do that again.  There were two birch and one hazel that were definitely in the way and I moved them to the lower windbreak line, which does still seem to have a few gaps in.  I have also been given a number of lodge pole pine seedlings (thanks again Frances) and those have been safely planted, some near the byre at the top, and some down in one of the lower windbreaks.

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Newly planted lodge pole pine

The other things I have been doing are mainly in the polytunnel.  This week I got round to pruning the apricot for it’s second year training. Again this was a rather brutal procedure, cutting both main arms down to a length of about 12 inches.

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Fan Apricot: second year pruning

I need to be alert to how to train it during the summer growing seasons now, since this will be the last dormant pruning.  From the rhs website:

  1. “In summer, choose four shoots from each ‘arm’: one at the tip to extend the existing ‘arm’, two spaced equally on the upper side and one on the lower side. Tie them in at about 30 degrees to the main ‘arm’ so they are evenly spaced apart (using canes attached to the wires if necessary)
  2. Rub out any shoots growing towards the wall and pinch back any others to one leaf”

Not that I’m growing on a wall, but the principle will be the same I’m sure.

The other very exciting thing that I’ve been doing in the tunnel is creating the pond, that I’ve been wanting for a while.  I had some remnants of pond liner from when my mum had a large pond made in her previous house.  Unfortunately during storage both sheets have been slightly damaged by mice making nests, and I didn’t think either would be quite big enough for a pond approximately 6 feet by 5 feet and 2 feet deep.  The first step therefore was to mend the holes and extend the best liner so as to make it big enough.  While that was curing, the hole for the pond was finished off, with shelves at various depths around the edges.  I had some more bits of automotive carpet underlay which I lay mainly on the shelves and the base to protect the liner from stones in the soil.  Luckily the liner extension wasn’t needed in the end – the slope of the sides meant it wasn’t quite as deep as I’d calculated – just as well, since it was impossible to stop the liner creasing at the joint, so it would have leaked anyhow!  I used the wooden terrace side as one side of the pond, and another plank as a hard edge to access the pond on the opposite side.  Filled with water and edged with flat stones, the pond is now settling in nicely.  The few plants I’ve got so far (tigernut and sagitaria latifolia) are dormant in tiny pots at the moment, so I’ve made a very shallow shelf that they can just sit on in just a little water, as well as deeper shelves for bigger marginal plants in the future.  I’m hoping to get some other plants, and of course watercress may well be worth a try, although I’m not sure that we’d use very much.

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While I was in the polytunnel, I took the opportunity to tidy up a bit on the rhs as you look downhill: levelling out the soil (some of which had been heaped up from digging out the pond).  I also managed to clear out a load of couch grass that had grown in the bottom corner of the tunnel near the kiwi and bramble plants.  In fact it is growing around the kiwi root, and I expect it will come back again this year.  It also is able to punch it’s way through the plastic walls of the tunnel.  I’ll have to keep an eye out and keep knocking it back.  Since I choose not to use poisons it will be impossible to eliminate in this situation.  Anyway, half the tunnel us now clear and weeded.  I need to start watering it a bit, it has got very dry particularly on the surface.  Once it is damp again, I expect that some of the seeds will regrow – there are some nice claytonia seeds in there that prefers cooler temperatures so grows better in the tunnel in the winter.

I’ll write a post soon about the mashua and yacon harvests in the tunnel.

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Trees for free

This year I was going to try and back fill the tree field with more local tree stock.  The first phase was taking cuttings from the willow that seems to be growing more quickly for me.  I’m not sure what variety of willow it is but it has seeded in the tree field in the pond area, presumably from the trees that line the river bank.

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Willow seeded in by pond

I had already transplanted some of the nicer seedlings that were growing in what should be the track area, but there are a lot of other seedlings coming up beside the pond and in amongst the other trees.  I’m not going to bother to move them.  Willow should take easily from cuttings, so I just selected some longish twigs, removing which should improve the shape of the trees, and cut them out.  I then removed the side branches and cut the main stem (and any thicker suitable side stems) into approx 10 inch lengths.

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Trimming willow cuttings

I didn’t count the number of cuttings I achieved, so I don’t know whether it was 100, 75 or 130 potential trees.  I have pushed them at fairly close spacing (6 ft?) in the damper areas where there seems to have been failure of the previous plantings.  The area by the pond which is very damp, lost a fair few birch and aspen – damaged by voles mainly I think.  That area has been infilled completely.  I have also made a start up by the southern border just under the hump.

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Area above conifers planted with willow cuttings

This area had birch and hazel, but is often quite damp due to springs coming out at the base of the hump.  It is also on the boundary where the prevailing wind comes from.  The hazel struggled to compete with the grass and we lost quite a few.  The ones left are starting to do better as the other trees are coming on.  The birch are some of the ones that have suffered bad die back and I think it’s that they don’t like the damp soil.  The willow however should do better.  I’ve used up all the cuttings I took from down by the pond area.  There’s still more room but some of the saplings transplanted some years there are now pretty big so I should be able to take more cuttings from these to finish off.

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Newly inserted willow cutting

Mulching on a slope

Almost all our holding is sloping.  There are small level areas, but generally the land slopes down from the road to the river.  A little below the barn is one of the steeper escarpments.  I have planted this area with trees that are less likely to be coppiced for fuel wood; such as scots pine, rowan, small leaved lime, beech and holly.  Most of these species also prefer it to be well drained.  Last year I also planted 6 small juniper bushes.  I discussed in a previous post using fiber insulation underlay as mulch material.

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New Juniper May 2017

One of the reasons I was keen on it was it would stay on a 45 degree slope with no additional weighing down even in our winds.  However, it is now showing signs of composting into the bank and grass seeding into it’s surface.  The plastic reinforcing fibres are quite obvious now, but are still enmeshed with the underlay.

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Juniper with worn underlay Dec 2017

I have therefore been round all the underlay patches and mulched over the underlay with cardboard on the slopes and newspaper (very old and damp) on the flatter areas.  Hopefully this time next year the underlay will have completely gone, and I can just peel back the cardboard and rake up the plastic fibres, if they haven’t got too much in the way of roots growing through them!  The newspaper on the level does not really need weighing down now – it is pretty consolidated although the birds are digging under it a little looking for treats.  It would have been too difficult to use on the slope however, so I have used 4 large sheets of corrugated cardboard.  These are overlapping with the juniper poking out the middle, and weighed down with some spare fence post stobbs that we had left over from our temporary fencing whilst evicting the sheep.  I’m pretty pleased with the way it looks, although the dogs think there is something very exciting hidden under the cardboard  – so I don’t think it will necessarily last as long as it should!

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Cardboard mulching on a slope!

Happy Habby garden, pH testing

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Hablitzia Tamnoides plant in tea garden

I’ve had a Hablitzia Tamnoides plant for about 18 months now. To say it is not thriving, would probably be pretty accurate. It’s a relatively unknown plant in the UK, at least until quite recently. Originating from the caucasus region, it is (supposed to be) a vigorous scrambling perennial plant, growing to about 6 ft with tasty leaves that can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Steven Barstow (http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=8606) has helped to popularise the plant with his ‘around the world in eighty plants’ book, which I heartily recommend by the way. My plant came from Alison Tindale of backyard larder (http://backyardlarder.co.uk), as a swap for some local Skye plants, and I planted it in the tea garden, where I thought it would be quite sheltered. As it turns out the tea garden hasn’t been as sheltered as I’d hoped. Also, I’ve since found out it’s native range is in limestone cliffs, so it prefers quite an alkaline soil.

(edit: I seem to have made up the limestone based on this comment from Steven Barstow, https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10154986079450860&id=655215859
I think I just assumed the cliffs in the picture were limestone.  Having done some hasty research online https://www.britannica.com/place/Caucasus, does mention limestone, so perhaps my guess was right. Alison Tindale also says it dislikes acid soils (which seems to bourne out by my experience) so I think I have added 2 and 2, whether my answer is right is luck rather than judgement!  What Stephen actually says in his book is that ‘It is found in spruce and beech woods, amongst rocks and in ravines and along rivers’)

It also benefits from quite a fertile spot. I don’t think the tea garden is particularly fertile, but relatively good for round here. Because I was so keen on growing this plant, I had also obtained some seed from Mandy at incredible vegetables (http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk) this spring, and got lots to germinate.

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Hablitzia Tamnoides seedlings

Potted on, they soon outgrew the fertility in their little pots and turned quite yellow. I’ve since potted them on again, and so far they are looking a bit more happy. I decided to make a ‘habby bed’ to make my hablitzia happy. This is in the shelter of the workshop by the drive. I dug out the soil and rocks as deep as I could (not very deep – a foot or before I hit bed rock). I then back filled with builder’s rubble (some of the old render from the byre which was falling off). On top of this I put compost from last year’s compost heap which was rather full of wood ash from the stove, so hopefully both nutritious and low in pH. Having mixed these two together (difficult with the stones) I topped the lot with not quite ready bracken compost, which hopefully will be relately weed free as well as adding to the nutrients in the longer term. I’ve planted three of my new hablitzia in the bed and so far they are just sitting there! Hopefully next spring I should see them putting on good growth in appreciation.  I need to think about some sort of climbing frame for them, since they should now grow quite tall.

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Hopefully Happy Hablitzia in Habby bed

This week I finally got round to doing a pH test on the soil here. I’m not sure why I hadn’t done it before. I think I had just gone on the gut feeling that it is quite acidic, without needing to put a number on it, and let’s just say I was right! The hydrangea here can have lovely blue flowers, and rhododendron thrive. I’m a bit surprised now that anything else grows – it just goes to show that plants don’t read books! I took a soil sample from approximately the centre of the tree field between the royal oaks, and the pH came out as very acidic. I tested the soil in my happy habby bed as well, and at this early stage my terraforming has been successful as it has come out as alkakine. It will be interesting to see how this changes over time. Hopefully the lime from the render will keep the worst of the acidity away. If necessary, I have a ready supply of ash from the house fires which could be used to top up.

I think I will do some more pH testing nearer the house to see if there is a difference in the cultivated areas. They may have been ‘improved’ by previous gardeners, or from lime leaching from the buildings. I do occasionally dig up what seems to be a bit of chalk, so the land does seem to have been modified in the past. I can’t think of any other reason for rock chalk to be lying about anyway.

10 years on – Photos

I’ve been trying to take photos of the same views every 3 months to give a record of how things have changed over time.  I didn’t start from the word go, but some of the photos date from when we first bought the site in 2007, since they are good views!  It has been ten years that we have been here now, so I thought I would share some before and after shots.

View from above the road.

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This is taken from the prevailing wind direction (South West) As you can see we have been trying to establish a wind break of trees along the top of the bank.  Our property boundary is the middle of the road  The ones by the road have done fairly well, the ones further along to the SE/right less well.  The soil is either too shallow, or too wet (the rock shelf holds the water) for them to thrive.  The spruce that were by the house have all provided their tops as christmas trees in the past to stop them getting too big (they are very close to the house).

Fruit Garden.

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These aren’t quite the same angle but give an idea of how the fruit garden has evolved.  The willow fedge was planted in 2009, and is still a bit sparse in places due to the soil being a bit shallow.  I put rubbish such as dock roots and bramble thinnings on the uphill side of it to try and build up the soil.  The tree that you can see in the centre on the earlier picture was a pear tree that did not survive.  The soil is a bit shallow there, even though I had built it up a bit I think the tree got a bit dry.  The morello cherry that was planted at the same time is doing well, you can see it in silouette against the polytunnel in the recent picture.  I pruned it to open it up a bit this year.  It had one cherry last year!  The monkey puzzles here were planted as 2 ft trees in 2009.  You can’t see them in the earlier shot, but I can see two ( towards the left) in this year’s shot.

From above orchard looking towards river

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Again, not quite the same view point.  The picture from 2009 must have been just after shearing!  I can just see the fenceline at the bottom where we had started planting the trees in the pond area at the bottom.  Note no deer fence in the earlier picture.  They are definately starting to look like trees now, and even woods maybe in places!

From North corner by river towards house.

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The trees here had been in a couple of years by 2012.  The deer fencing however had only just been erected, and we soon noticed a difference in the growth of the trees – or at least the growth which has survived.  Two houses to the north of us have been erected since we’ve been here.  These alders are amongst the best grown trees now.  We may consider coppicing them soon, before they get too big.

River from viewpoint

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The first picture was taken as we were planting trees along the south boundary.  You can see the temporary fence that excluded the sheep.  The deer fence on the perifery went up a few months later.  The spruce in the centre are slightly close together pehaps, but won’t grow back once cut down.  That will leave a clear space for planting something else.  It’s fairly damp there, so maybe more willow.  We’re especially pleased with the growth of the alders on the right hand side here.  In six years they have grown from foot high transplants to being able to exclude vegetation partially underneath them, and becoming an effective wind break.

 

 

 

Reasons to tolerate caterpillars

Over the last few years we have noticed more and more caterpillars on the trees.  It wasn’t something I considered very much when we started planting them.  I was thinking about the trees, growing and producing firewood and fruit, maybe doing crafty things with twigs and fibre and exciting things with tree sap. It seems daft, but I hadn’t really considered the new habitat we are creating, albeit slowly.  The insects eat the trees and other things – birds and mammals – eat the insects.  As well as learning more flowers and plant species I am therefore learning more insects as well.  It is a little frustrating, since there is lots of information about butterflies, slightly less easily available about moths, but rather less about their larva.  I spotted a new one today with a fiery bum.  I think it’s a pebble prominent moth caterpillar.  There were a few feeding on one of the aspen trees, which would fit.  I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the moths.

Prominent moth caterpilar july 2017
Possily prominent moth caterpilar

We’re getting lots of looper caterpillars on the alders as well at the moment – possibly magpie moths, which are very common here.  When they’re undisturbed they feed in a continuous stream of caterpillars, but when they sense danger they all rear up and pretend, rather unconvincingly to be twigs.  When they are larger, and single I guess it works better, but I think they’re very cute.  Funnily enough we haven’t seen many sawfly larvae on the gooseberries this year.

 

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I’m also getting lots of caterpillars in the polytunnel.  Generally they are bright green ones eating the brassica, which I don’t mind much at this time of year (although I know it’s dangerous to encourage these things or you end up with a plague).  However I did find a few that had wandered onto my little apricot tree (which is still doing quite well) and were munching away, so I’m afraid they got relocated outside!

I spotted one chrysalis on a seed tray outside which I’ve left be, and I find them all the time if digging in the polytunnel.

Then there are the more glamorous adults.  These are two new ones for me this year: a  dark green fritillary and a common blue.  Neither is particularly rare, just I’ve never seen them in Glendale before.

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Dark green fritillary on thistle
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Common blue butterfly in gully

Tree Planting on Skye – Woodland Design

Most of our efforts to date have been focussed on creating a woodland area that will in the future generate most of our wood fuel requirements.  When we bought the house we put in a wood fired Esse range cooker which has a back boiler.  This we use for most of our cooking, hot water and house heating requirements.  It doesn’t really generate enough heat for the house in the winter, but the house is another story….To try and futureproof our lifestyle it seemed sensible to avoid the need for mains electric and bought in fuel as far as is practicable.  With limited time, we have planted the trees in phases, starting with shelterbelts around the house and garden area.  Then we gradually evicted the neighbour’s sheep that were keeping the grass short, about an acre at a time over 6 years.  Now I can back fill and play with more unusual plants and crops.  I’ll post about ‘lessons learnt’ or what we would have done differently as well as what went well later.

We didn’t really consider a conifer plantation, although it could be a productive way of planting – thousands of acres in Scotland have to have been planted for a reason!  I think that the uniformity of this type of planting put us off – lots of bad things to be said about monocultures…..  Also practically, we would have had to replant every 20 years or so since once cut down most evergreens are killed.  We did consider short rotation coppice, where a fast growing wood species such as willow is cut every 2 – 5 years.  This seems to suit more automated heating systems such as wood chip fed boilers, or rapid heating rocket stoves, or masonry stoves.  It didn’t really seen to suit an electric-free system that we could use for cooking with and heating a draughty old croft house.  So we have ended up with long rotation coppice, whereby mainly deciduous trees are cut down every 7 to 30 years depending on species, and allowed to regrow from the stumps.

To protect the regrowing coppice we have designed in shelterbelts every 20m or so.  These are planted roughly perpendicular to the main wind direction (I shut my eyes and faced the wind with my arms outstetched – no need for a compass), and comprise of a mixture of different species.  Using various reference books (notably The Earthcare Manual – Patrick Whitefield, The Woodland Way – Ben Law, and Caring for Small Woods – Ken Broad) I decided on a three row mix of trees, with a mix of slow growing (Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Beech (Fagus sylvestris), added Holm oak (Q. ilex), fast growing (Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), lodgepole pine (P. contorta), added whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and western red cedar (Thuja plicata)) and shrubby (yew (Taxus baccata) (did not like it here), hazel (Corylus Avellana), holly (Ilex aquifolium), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), cherry plum (Prunus ceracifera), hawthorne (Crataegus monogyna)) trees in an alternating fashion.  The idea is to slow the wind down, not to stop it, or make it go round.

The main tree coppice areas are planted with a mixture of trees, since we didn’t know what would do well.  They were selected to be mainly native broadleaved trees that should like our mild damp climate, not mind the salt wind, and grow fairly fast (again with reference to the books mentioned above).  The main species are Ash (Fraxinus Excelsior) (We had to stop planting this after a few years due to spread of ‘ash dieback’ in UK – just as well we have a mix of species), Hazel (Corylus Avellana), Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Aspen (Popular tremula), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), and Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens).  Groups of the same sort of tree are planted together, although we also experimented with interplanting the coppice trees with Spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Larch (Larix decidua).  A few xmas trees (Picea abies) did not like the salt wind and have barely struggled to survive.

In addition, we have included ‘rides’ or trackways within the planting.  These are (hopefully) wide enough to drive a vehicle round to aid in harvesting, and loop round so there should never be too far to carry the fuel to harvest it.   Along the edges of these tracks I have planted trees and shrubs that have additional or alternative uses as potential food crops – crab apple (Malus sylvestris) (some of which I have successfully (and unsuccessfully!) grafted eating and cooking apple varieties onto), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) more holly and rowan.  I have now started backfilling with some more interesting fruiting or otherwise useful trees and shrubs: sloe or backthorn (Prunus spinosa), dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucaria), chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa), also some small leaved lime (Tillia cordata) and willow (some Salix pupurea, and some sort of native dog willow that has seeded itself in.  In a slightly sheltered spot below the barn I have planted some orchard trees – probably a bit prematurely, since they really do not have enough shelter, but hopefully by the time they are ready to fruit in a few years, the shelter (a thuja plicata hedge) will also have grown up.  I have also left a clear area just below the barn for a future pond.  There is a slight plateau area, so it shouldn’t look as odd as it sounds having a pond at the top of the hill.  I have a small fruit growing area/tea garden near the barn also (more about that later).

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View towards river from viewpoint of tree planting 2012

Note:  I am using ‘I’ and ‘we’ rather at random here.  My husband and I own the land, but the tree planting is mainly my project at this time – the chainsaw is his.  I have had considerable help in the planning from my friend Amanda Baker, and in the execution by Amanda and her partner David Clements.