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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Season of soft fruitfulness

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

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

raspberry jungle
Not so much fruit garden as raspberry jungle!

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

white himalayan strawberry
White Himalayan strawberry fruit

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

haskap berries
Haskap: dense fruiting in first year

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

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

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

blackberry Helen
Blackberry Helen fruiting well before the fly strike!

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

 

Going forth and multiplying

Whilst the weather is less clement (we’ve had a reasonable amount of rain since last Friday, and it continues a bit showery at the moment),  I can again spend a little time in the polytunnel and this time use the potting bench and give my cuttings and seedlings some individual space.  I had quite a lot of plants grown from seeds since I have been a member of the hardy plant society (HPS) and they do a seed distribution every year.  My interest is in edible plants, but more garden plants than you would think are also edible.  I therefore managed to get quite a selection of seed to try and nothing lost if they don’t make it.

Two out of the three varieties of passionflower have germinated: Passiflora edulis var. flavicarpa from chiltern seeds, and Passiflora incarnata  from California which was a gift.  I grew these for the polytunnel in the hope that they will not only flower (and fruit!), but overwinter in there.  I’ve put them mostly along the northern wall.  I think last year things suffered slightly in the tunnel from lack of light, since I grew so many climbers on the south wall of the tunnel.  I also planted out some of my akebia seedlings (which turned out to be Akebia trifoliata), two on the north wall, and two by the apricot.  Hopefully they won’t compete too much with it.  I still have several left, and a few passionflowers, which I have potted on into bigger pots, I may bring them in over winter to hedge my bets.

polytunnel in July
New climbers planted along Left hand (North) wall

I had various other pots of seedlings that need pricking out.  Two sorts of campanula: C. Takesimana (Korean bellflower) and C. Latifoliata, these have edible leaves and flowers.  Asphodeline lutea (Yellow asphodel) is another edible (roots, shoots and flowers).  Apparently slugs love it (which does seem to be an indicator of ediblility!). It prefers more dry alkaline conditions but it does tolerate maritime exposure.  They did each seem to be producing a substantial little rootlet when I potted them on, despite having been a bit congested in their first pot.  Also from the HPS seed were some dahlia, allium, hosta, martagon lily, angelica and fennel.  The last two didn’t do anything – maybe too hot.  I should have sowed earlier directly on an outside bed I think.  The dahlia seed produced four lovely plants with dark coloured leaves.  I have planted two directly in the polytunnel, and two just potted on into larger pots.  The allium germinated well but seemed to freeze at the tiny hook seedling stage.  The hosta seeds suffered from the dry weather, but I seem to have a few germinating just now.  I did have quite a few martagon lilies germinating, but again had a few losses due to irregular watering, just four left.  Sadly my Gevuina avellana seems to have died.  I was just thinking it was time to risk potting it on, but when I inspected it I realised that the stem had rotted.  I am quite upset about this, but am determined to try again!  It must like it really dry as a young plant, and just couldn’t cope with the recent inundation.

asphodeline lutea seedlings
Rootlet on Asphodeline lutea seedlings

I potted on a new type of globe artichoke which I think were from chiltern seeds and some wild rose seedlings which I grew from seed from a rose on the river bank which has larger hips than most of the dog roses around here.  I had pricked out some self sown good king henry, but almost all the tray perished in the dry heat (it was too shallow for them to stand much neglect!)  The last few survivors were potted into slightly larger pots, so they may have more chance now.  I’m going to try and spread some more of the seedlings, which are still close to the mother plant, around the garden.  They do seem to make a healthy plant for ground cover.  I have collected some seed as well to pass on.

I have cuttings of honeysuckle, escallonia and some perennial kale cuttings.  I have one surviving grape cutting (the rest all given away now).  These I grew by accident!  When I harvested the grapes last year, I cut them with a bit of stem attached (as recommended by Bob Flowerdew) and placed them in water, which is supposed to make the grapes last longer.  All the stems subsequently rooted in the water, and I had about eight quite nice little boskoop glory grape vine plants!  I have taken some cuttings of the little fuchsias that grow in my shop hanging baskets.  They do so well flowering, but are about four or five years old now, so I feel the need for back up. I have also taken cuttings of some of my tea plants since I lost so many over the winter, and some more escallonia which makes a really good hedge around here.

multiplication
Some of the new plants.

 

Planting out

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

tomatos in July
Tomato plants growing on well

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

polytunnel squash
Curcubits planted out
cat nests
Harry’s bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blackcurrant promise
Blackcurrants in tea garden showing colour

 

 

Mulching in the heat

summer flowers
Wild flowers in June

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

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

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

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

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

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

lonicera fruit
Lonicera caerulea berries

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

scented orchid
Heath fragrant orchid

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

Good news

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

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

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

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

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

new shoots on citrus
New growth on Citrus tree

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

big fat toad
Big fat toad!

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

olive flower buds
Olive flowerbuds

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

dried grasses
Getting a bit parched where soil is thinner

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

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

Catching up

So much to do so little time!  Summertime is here, the daylight and the shop hours are longer…We seemed to skip straight from winter into summer here – usually spring is the nicest time on Skye, drier weather, (often warmest too!) no midgies and fewer tourists (we love them really!)  I’ve been helped on my family research by my younger sisters and my mum coming for their holiday on Skye last week.  A folder of old family documents and letters shed some fascinating insights into some of the Kent branches of the family.  A few seem to have been soldiers and I’ve scanned in some of the documents to transcribe.  One letter is from a soldier in Madras, India in 1832 describing the effects of a cholera outbreak and urging his brothers and sisters to stay home and not be tempted abroad.  I haven’t placed him yet on the family tree, but he does seem to have survived to a ripe old age despite obviously in fear of his life at the time of his writing.

dead citrus
Dead citrus

I thought I’d just review the winter and what has done well or poorly this year.  Amongst my losses are my rock samphire plant (grown from seed – first winter), my sea beet (both an established plant that flowered last year but did not set seed and all of my seedlings in pots), some of my Camellia sinensis plants (small plants in the fruit garden – the ones in the tea garden are thriving), the unknown citrus in the polytunnel, my baby yacon seedlings, and a Luma apiculata that never made it out of it’s pot.  Considering  how cold the winter has been, not so much in intensity as in length, it could have been a lot worse.

mashua survivor
Volunteer Mashua plant

A surprising survivor is a mashua plant that appears to have grown from a missed tuber in the fruit garden.  I suppose since it can be grown as an ornamental perennial (think Ken Aslet) It shouldn’t be that surprising.  I will leave this one and see how it does.  I haven’t in the end planted any more mashua outside this year.

 

apricot bent branch
Apricot misaligned shoot

The apricot is doing well – I have now trained in seven shoots as described earlier, and they are needing tying in again.  Unfortunately I did get one of the shoots slightly wrong – pinched out too many earlier on and was left with one that was growing at the wrong angle.  I’m hoping it will straighten out as the plant grows.

akebia and passiflora seedlings
Akebia and Passiflora seedlings

I have grown a number of plants from seed this winter including what turned out to be Akebia triloba.  This was grown from seed obtained via the facebook edimentals group from someone who ate the fruit in Japan, but we weren’t sure until the leaves appeared whether it was A. quinata or A. triloba.  It should be hardy outside here, but will probably do better in the polytunnel.  If the plants survive I’ll try both.  I have also grown some passion fruit vines (still very tiny) Passiflora edulis and P. mollissima (I think).  Some of my other seedlings have struggled in the hot weather we had a couple of weeks ago – the pots dried up very quickly and the tiny plants may not have made it.  I had some martagon lily that I think have gone now, and some of my vetch seedlings have also gone.  These include, annoyingly, the Astragalus crassicarpus (gound plum) that I was looking forwards to establishing in the tunnel.  Luckily the single chilean hazelnut that germinated seems to be doing alright, and is now showing signs of sending up a second pair of leaves.  This is better than the seeding I achieved last year which faded out at a single pair.

earth moving may
Moving more soil….

I was busy outside trying to get on top of the creeping buttercup before it took over everywhere again, but got distracted moving more soil down the hill to landscape the orchard area.  This is nearly achieved, but more work to do on the south side of the trackway.  Just at the moment the buttercups in the field are making a fine display with the pignuts, and remind me that we’d be poorer if we succeeded in eliminating weeds!

bluebell mountains
Bluebells and Macloud’s Tables

Polytunnel progress

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

dog cut through
Dogs’ short cut to pond

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

new pine tree
Newly planted lodge pole pine

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

prunging apricot year2
Fan Apricot: second year pruning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xmas Harvests

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

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

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

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

 

 

mashua harvesting 2017
Mashua rootball on best plant

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

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

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

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

First frost and a different root crop

snow s
Skye Snow

Two nights running we have had a real frost.  This came together with snow, which is a little less usual for us.  So far the Yacon has sagged, the leaves on the sharks fin melon have flopped and the Achocha has had it!  The mashua doesn’t look too bad so far, although some bits are quite sad.  I have cleared out the last of the courgettes from the polytunnel.  I think the plants had died back some time ago.  One of the courgettes has a little frost damage, but the others should be alright.  One of them should be classified as a marrow rather than a courgette, but that’s fine – I love stuffed marrow!  The snow has mostly all cleared now, but the damage is done.

floppy Yacon
Floppy Yacon 😦
pond bed s
Cleared bed where polytunnel pond will be.

It’s been a bit cold and wet to work down by the river, so I have made a start clearing the bed that will become my pond/bog garden in the polytunnel.  This was much to the dogs’ disgust, since, as I have to tell Dyson quite frequently, ‘dogs aren’t allowed in the polytunnel’ and they do want to help!  The soil from this bed was covered in home made compost in the spring, and although I never got round to setting up an irrigation hose for it, it did grow a lovely crop of self seeded poppies, kale, fat hen and honesty.  The little row of lettuce leaves I sowed got swamped by everything else.  The poppies have probably self seeded again, the fat hen seed I have collected, and the honesty (Lunaria annua) dug up.  I was very surprised to see the size of the roots, up to 18 inches long and quite tender, despite having virtually no water.

roots s
Lunaria annua roots

Intrigued, I did a little research and convinced myself they were edible.  Honesty is in the brassica family which includes turnip and swede as well as cabbage and broccoli.  A tiny taste raw was quite horrid – really pungent.  I’ve not tried horse radish, but I expect that is what it tastes like, several of the references suggested it was a substitute.  However I took a few roots anyway and washed them.  I found that the skin scraped off easily with a knife like a new potato.  Cut into short lengths, I boiled the roots in water for a short time till they became tender.  I wondered a bit if I was going to regret it as I added them to my dinner of sausage casserole, but no.  Much to my surprise the roots are really quite nice with a mild turnip-like taste.  Unfortunately some of the roots are a bit stringy.  Either a core, or a skin within the root.  I guess if one was interested in this one could try and select for plants with less fibre, but I expect there are already root crops enough.  Normally honesty is grown for the flowers, not dug up after six months like these have been.  I’m really glad I tried them though, and still have plenty of roots to experiment with.

dinner s
Honesty roots and sausage casserole