The Secret Garden

This year I have been trying to tame the next section of garden by the drivebank overlooking the barn, this is where I moved the kiwi vine to over the winter.  I have been calling this The Secret Garden in my mind.  It is not particularly hidden (although it will be more secluded once mature), it is just that almost all the plants in here have edible parts, although are normally grown as ornamentals in the UK.  Steven Barstow has coined the word ‘edimentals’ for these sorts of plants.

secret garden to tables
View from Garden end

I had already forked over the area and mulched it with cardboard at the same time as I planted out the kiwi vine.  One of my neighbours has lots of lovely hosta, which I had been admiring and they very kindly gave me several big clumps of it, together with what I think may be Elecampane (Inula helenium), and ladies mantle.  I have put most of the hosta in this area, there are at least two different varieties – one with quite blue leaves.  Hopefully it won’t be too dry for it.  I also planted out some of my Aralia cordata, which I had grown from seed, and my sechuan pepper (from a danish cutting), some Lady Boothby Fuchsia (from cuttings), some golden current (from cuttings) and my strawberry tree (bought as a plant). I also planted some hardy geraniums around the base of the strawberry tree.  These were grown from seed from chiltern seeds: .  It was supposed to be a mixed pack, but only two varieties seem to have made it – a small white flowered one and a small purple flowered one.  The rest of the geraniums were planted on the drivebank.

hosta shoots
Variegated Hosta shoots in spring

I  also got some hedging Sea buckthorne plants this spring, and have planted a number of these along the top of the bank above the barn, as well as in various places in the tree field.  Hopefully these will form a protective barrier as well as fixing nitrogen, and maybe producing fruit in the future.  They should grow fairly quickly, but I will probably cut them back fairly often to keep them bushy, assuming they do OK.

These plantings are all mostly doing fine.  The Aralia seems to be suffering a bit from slug damage.   There were three little plants, and I think one has not made it, one is OK and the other will probably be OK.  The Hosta doesn’t seem to have suffered too badly from slug damage so far.  One of the clumps is starting to flower, and they are all looking pretty healthy.  The kiwi is not looking great, but has some new growth, so may well make it.  The proof will be if it comes back into life next year!  Unfortunately the sechuan pepper plant was broken by some strong north winds we had – I did not stake it since it was so tiny.  It has sprouted below the broken point so I have removed the top part of the stem and stuck it in adjacent in the hope that this may form a new plant too.  So far the strawberry tree is looking very happy.  One of the sea buckthorne hasn’t made it, but the others look pretty happy.  I may replace the failed sea buckthorne with a female good fruiting variety if the others do well in the next couple of years.

secret garden path
Remulched secret garden

The weeds had been poking through the cardboard, so I have been going back over with some fresh cardboard, pulling out the nettles, docken and grasses that are a bit persistent.  Hopefully I can weaken them enough that they don’t come back next year.  I need to have more ground cover plants to stop the weeds seeding back in again (remember  rule #2)  The chilean plum yew plants I have are still a bit small for planting out yet I think, but could also be planted out next year.  I have also thickly covered the main path through to the front garden (it comes out where I have the dog tooth violet and solomon’s seal plants growing) with old newspaper and wood chippings/bark.  I still need to complete another ramp down to the barn and build a retaining wall to tidy up the join to the drivebank, however there is a Landrover parked rather long term just in the way at the moment, so this may have to wait till next year.

 

New friends and Old

cuckoo sparkle
Drenched in May mists

Having missed the whole of the spring season we are already heading into summer.  2020 will be remembered by all this year for the covid-19 virus issues. The lock down restrictions have had little effect on us, although we are busy in the shop trying to source essential supplies for our loyal customers and are grateful for where we live.  One staff member is still recovering from a (different) virus infection from before xmas, and another decided to stop coming to work to protect her family. This has left us with just one person to give me time off, so more work, less time. However we are so much luckier than many people, and are hopeful of having a new member trained up soon, so I can get another afternoon per week off.

cherries
Wild Cherries

The garden outside goes from brown and dead looking to fountains of green over the months of April and May. A moderately dry spring is now turning milder and wetter, with my first midge bites of the year recently, a bit of wind last weekend with maybe warm weather for the end of the month.

pink primrose
Pink Primrose

There were a couple of different plants down by the river this spring.  I was surprised to see a bright pink primrose and have no idea how it came to be here, many hundreds of yards from any garden.  I gather that they can be pale pink sometimes, but this is really bright pink.  I can only assume that the seeds must have washed down from a garden cross upriver, so I have relocated the plant to the front garden under the fuchsia bush.

coltsfoot
Coltsfoot by pond

The other plant that I had seen, but not realised what it was is coltsfoot.  I had seen the leave in the summer, but have never noticed the flowers before, which come out before any of its leaves are visible.  There were a few in bloom on the riverbank and a couple inside the fence by the pond.  They look a bit like dandelion flowers, with scaly stems and a bit more middle.  Allegedly they taste of aniseed.  I did take a nibble of one, but I think in the future I will just let them be.

april3rd
April 3rd planting trees

In the tree field I have planted some new tree varieties: italian alder and sea buckthorne.  The latter I have been wanting to try for a while, and the former I think may do better on the swathe of field where the ash trees are not doing very well.  I now think that they are struggling partly due to the soil getting dry in that area.  I’m hoping that italian alder may do better there, since it should cope better with dry soils.  The soil is not particularly shallow, being generally greater than a spade’s depth, but is well drained.  It occurs to me that beech may be worth trying here also – maybe next year – although beech is not supposed to coppice well.  I also got more common alder to backfill the windbreaks and alder copses, and have planted a new alder copse right in the bottom south corner adjacent to the windbreak edge at Jo’s field edge.  This will quickly give shelter to the area behind, which was originally planted mainly with hazel, which did not do very well.  I’m going to back plant with some self seeded hazel and locally sourced aspen.  I have taken some root cuttings from a tree below the old school, which hopefully will do better than the bought in plants which seem to not be completely happy.

bluebell bank
Bluebell bank

I can already see fresh shoots of orchids appearing on the pathways, and the bluebells are creating scented banks in several areas of the field.  Pignuts are starting to open, and cuckoo smock flowers create little pink chandeliers dotted around the field (photo at top).  The new ramp to the mound is blending in nicely, and a number of bluebells apparently transplanted with the turf are making a blue path through the trees.

emporer hawk moth
Emporer Hawk moth

I was lucky enough to spot one of the more spectacular moths of the UK this week.  An emperor hawk moth with it’s dramatic eyes was displaying itself on the grass down by the lower trackway.  I’ve only seen one once here several years ago, although have spotted the caterpillars a few times.

violet beetle
Violet oil beetle

Another welcome return was a violet oil beetle.  These ungainly creatures are the cuckoos of the insect world and are a sign of a healthy bee population which is nice!

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.

Eviction

Having decided that the Kiwi vine wasn’t worth the space and the daylight it took in the Polytunnel, I spent a few wet afternoons in January and February digging it out.  Since it was pretty much in the corner I had to be careful of the polytunnel sides when digging.  I wasn’t certain when I started whether I was taking the bramble out as well.  Actually I rather though I would be digging that out too, despite the great crop of sweet early brambles it usually gives.  However in the event, it really was too close to the polytunnel corner to take out.  Also it seems to be quite separate to the kiwi root mass so didn’t naturally come out at the same time.

kiwi roots
Kiwi roots

Although I tried hard to take up as much root as possible, the kiwi roots are surprisingly fragile, so most of them got broken quite short during the excavation.  Eventually the last roots going out under the tunnel wall were cut through and the rootball was undercut and freed.  It was interesting that most of the larger roots were extending into the tunnel rather than out into the damper soil outside the tunnel.  I think this indicates that the kiwi will prefer drier soil.  That corner of the tunnel outside however, is also particularly wet, since there is a shallow drainage ditch I dug along there quite early on, which doesn’t yet have a destination except just by the corner of the tunnel.  It usually fills with water there after any significant rain.

kiwi triffid
Out of polytunnel – giant Dufflepud

I had decided to plant the kiwi against the largest of the sycamores in the front garden.  I don’t expect it to be quite as vigorous outside as it is in the warmth of the tunnel.  It may not like the extra wet as well as the cooler temperatures.  However I remember seeing kiwis swamping a tree in the Fern’s field, so don’t want to plant it somewhere where the trees are still establishing.  In addition, it will be more difficult to prune the vine in a tree so I’m actually intending to let it run free as much as possible.  This means that I may not get so many flowers, but since I am not expecting to get any fruit outside it doesn’t really matter.

new position
Kiwi in new position

I started by working out roughly where the kiwi was going to be planted; a little way from the tree trunk.  It means that there will not be a way around between the tree and the road above the barn.  However, there wasn’t before either due to the way the soil has been heaped up, and the clump of branches growing from the bole of the tree.  I managed to get the kiwi up the drive bank and in position, with a bit of a struggle.  I loosened the soil where it was to go, and dug just a little bit out, since I needed to adjust the soil levels to a bit higher there to blend them in more.  I didn’t give the kiwi any extra compost; I’m expecting it, if it survives, to be quite vigorous enough already!  Having backfilled the hole to level, I lifted soil from adjacent to the barn roadway to smooth out and level the area between the kiwi and the drivebank.  There is quite a bit of nettles well established there.  Although I pulled out quite a bit of root, there is plenty more undisturbed there still.  I threw those roots I did pull out between the kiwi tree and the barn roadway.  There will be a little shaded wild spot where I don’t mind the nettles staying.  There were a few dock roots and couchgrass too, which will probably persist.

kiwi mulched
Newly mulched and levelled

Luckily over the past few months I have built up quite a reserve of sheet cardboard, so was easily able to mulch the whole area pretty thoroughly.  I weighed the sheets down with rocks that had been used to weigh down the cardboard at the top of the drivebank last year.  That cardboard is pretty much gone, and the soil underneath looks pretty weed free.  I’m now thinking about planting this area in the next few months.  What I found pretty exciting is that the soil I was moving from the edge of the barn driveway was pretty dry.  Despite the fact that this January was the second wettest month locally for about ten years.  I can therefore think about planting things that prefer to be well drained.  I’ve got several plants growing nicely already (for example those japanese and chilean plum yew may like it there) but also I’m thinking that along the drivebank edge may be just the spot for some sea buckthorne.  I’ve really fancied this shrub for ages,  especially after trying the fruit in Cornwall and Devon.  My research so far suggests it doesn’t like a damp soil, but should be OK with salt winds, although fruiting better with some shelter.  I’m intending to get some general hedging plants, but will maybe get some fruiting cultivars too.  I’m not sure whether I should get these at the same time, or instead, or try out the cheaper varieties before spending a lot on something that doesn’t do well.  Difficult decisions!

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

 

 

A bit breezy

Once you have lived on Skye a little while, your body calibrates to a different scale of wind and temperature.  Anything above 18 degrees Celsius is “bikini weather” and the wind reaches 40 or 50 mph before we count it as “a bit breezy”.  In the last two weeks we have had two spells of “really quite windy” (= gusting to 80mph) with a few chicken houses blown over (more experienced people have them strapped down to the rock) an old tree down over the road, a tile or two blown off and an old shed exploded into bits.

We’ve got away quite lightly here: one or two holly trees rocking a bit, due to the ground being a bit damp and the normal die off of fine roots in winter, a lost tile that had been loose for ages, and few more splits in the polytunnel.

The big split originated from where the Apricot had stuck a branch through, so again it was mainly my fault for not mending the hole sooner.  The funny thing was the way it propagated straight down one of the creases from where the plastic had been originally folded.  It is interesting how that still acts as a stress concentration feature.

new tears
Split extension

Initially the split extended over one polytunnel bay and after the first winds last week I managed to stitch it together with my polytunnel tape.  This time I could reach by standing on a step stool on the outside.  Unfortunately I didn’t mend it well enough to prevent it from extending again in a second, slightier gustier wind last Tuesday.  That was a little tricky, since the adjacent bay went over the pond in the tunnel which made it a bit more exciting reaching it on the inside.  However with more stitching from the outside and fully covering on the inside with the last of my tape, the cover is reasonably ept again.

inside tunnel
Inside tunnel with previous repair

What I am pretty pleased about, is that the repair I did on the top of the tunnel last autumn does seem to have held well.  Although the cover is starting to resemble a patchwork quilt now, I am hopeful that it will be a little while yet before I have to replace it completely again.

Inside the tunnel most things have died back now, so when the weather is poorer I can look to tidy it up, harvest the Yacon (watch this space!), and evict the Kiwi.  Astoundingly my asparagus is still growing!  I’m not sure what to do about this.  Should I harvest the shoots now, or wait till later in the spring?  The shoots don’t seem to mature, they just get mildewed and die off….

asparagus shoots in Jan
Asparagus in early January

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

 

 

Five letter ‘F’ word

Any gardener in temperate regions will understand the reference above.  As autumn eases into winter we start to think about bringing in the last of the tomato fruit and tucking up more tender perennials to protect them from the cold.  For us on Skye it has been rather more of a jolt into winter than normal.  Early December is more likely to be the first penetrating frosts, but several times in the last week it has already been freezing hard as I come home from the shop at about half seven in the evening.  I have therefore spent an hour or so this afternoon tidying up a bit in the polytunnel.

frost wilt
Frost wilt

The Yacon are starting to look a bit sorry for themselves, as are the sharks fin melon vines and achocha.  So far the nasturtium and mashua are still looking fairly OK.  There were rather more sharks fin melon fruit than I spotted before.  I’m thinking I should really bring these fruit in before the frost damages them, but this time my priority were the achocha, which already look a bit the worse for wear.

hidden melon
Extra sharks fin melon spotted behind apricot

Some of the achocha fruit is definitely frost damaged, and since it is predominately close to the plastic skin of the tunnel, it will be about the coldest in the tunnel.  There was a lot of fruit from the Bolivian giant achocha.  Much of the smaller fat baby one is overripe for eating, it turns a more yellow colour, so I have left that for the moment, since I was limited for time.  I managed to get a large box of Bolivian giant, and a smallish punnet crammed full of the fat baby achocha.  I haven’t decided what to do with the fruit.  I don’t think we will get round to eating it all fresh, so I might use it in a chutney at the weekend (it’s lovely to have a glut of something at last!).  I have the marrow (that got slightly crushed when the ladder slipped as I was mending the polytunnel roof) and some overripe apples from the shop, as a good basis for some chutney.  I also found this post  which suggests making jam with it, from an adapted cucumber jam recipe.

achocha harvest
Last of the achocha

The tomatoes were looking a bit mouldery, so I cleared those out as well.  They hadn’t got frost damage, but it is too dark and cool for them to ripen off now.  Having removed the fruit and separated off the various supports, I could pull the plants out of the soil.  It is one case where it is worth removing most of the roots, since there are various soil borne diseases that affect tomatoes.  I do try and plant them in a different part of the tunnel each year, so that it is only in a bed for one year in four to give the soil a rest.  I’m pretty pleased that the roots of the supersweet 100 plants looked quite healthy.  In the past, particularly earlier in my growing in the tunnel, the roots have been stunted and corky, but these were definitely much better.  The multiflora tomato plants less so.  I’m not inclined to choose them again over ildi.  They seem to have been quite late ripening and the set was quite poor too for the number of flowers.

time over
Past time for harvest!

Although there was no sign of damage yet, I was nervous about the frost harming my unknown citrus tree (see previous post), so I wrapped that up in windbreak fabric after giving it a bit of a prune.  Hopefully that will keep the worst of the cold at bay.  In the photo you can see the tall Yacon is quite burnt by the cold.  I will leave it in situ and let the top growth protect the roots, which will still be developing the edible tubers (I hope).  The longer they are left the better.

citrus wrap
Citrus wrap

 

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!