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!

 

 

Autumn

sunshine and showers
Sunshine and showers

Well after a rather wet August, late September was not been too bad weather wise, although October is shaping up to be a bit windy (more on that in a later post!).  We tried to get a final cut of the pathways done, but haven’t cracked the timing.  With the wet mild weather in August the grass had grown long and lush.  Strong winds with rain had led to the grass falling over making it very difficult to cut, even after a couple of days hot and dry.  S. managed to go round the main trackway with the scythe mower, but with a rather poor result.  Some of this was possibly due to a lack of sharpness on the blades, which has now been addressed, but we think that leaving the cut till this late in the season is just not practical.  I guess if the weather had been better we may have been able to cut earlier, but still after the yellow rattle is ripe, however it often is wet at this time of year.

raking out
Raking up

What took S. half a day to cut has taken me about 5 times as long to rake up, and I still haven’t finished!  It is pretty hard work untangling the cut grass from the uncut turf whilst you have a dog trying to catch the rake head!  I have to take a fetch toy as well, but Dyson gets tired and would rather have more direct participation!  Once I have cleared the cut grass away, I can sow the collected yellow rattle seed.  As I tried to explain above, I don’t know whether we will succeed in creating the right rhythm for the plant, which needs clear soil to grow anew each year.  I don’t know whether we will be able to leave it long enough to ripen seeds, as we could do with cutting the grass before it gets too long.

sprouting hazel stick
Sprouting hazel stick (new spruce on right)

I’m planning on taking the cut grass and using it to mulch the trees in the area of the field where they are doing less well, particularly the new trees that I planted this spring.  I used fresh cut hazel twigs from my new hazels to mark the tiny new trees so that I could find them again in the long grass.  Recently I have been surprised to see that some of the hazel twigs started to sprout!  I don’t know whether they have actually formed roots or not.  Often it takes a while for the twigs to realise that they are dead, so they may just be zombies.  In the spring I will need to transplant some of the spruce, where two seedlings have survived in a single plant hole, so I will dig up the hazel twigs then as well.  Thinking about it, I will need to identify the ones that are sprouting now, since they will be leafless still in early spring, I’ll tie a bit of wool around the sprouting ones this week.

fallen leaves
Fallen Alder leaves

The turning of year shows in the drawing in of the evenings (and the later mornings).  Leaf fall gathers under the trees even though only the wych elm are practically leafless.  These leaves represent the carbon and nitrogen made solid by the trees, building soil and trapping carbon.  Autumn colours show briefly before being torn away by the wind.

fleeting gold
Fleeting Autumn

 

 

Summer rain

august view
Late Summer View

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

broken branches
Broken branches

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

peaty water
Amber river waters (and Dyson)

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

hazel nuts
Hazelnuts over inky water

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

bee on scabious
Bee on Scabious

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

hazel seedling
Hazel seedling

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

editing bracken
Editing Bracken

 

Tidying up the Tomatoes

I can’t convince myself there are tomato fruit yet, however the tomato plants are flowering well.  Since I hadn’t supported them, one or two had fallen over.  Usually I use a length of string to the crop bars in the polytunnel, but this time I pulled out my lovely spiral plant supports and used those for three of the plants.  These supports were a present a (cough) number of years ago and although lovely, I could never justify buying any more.  You simply put the plant up the middle, and guide it into the spiral as it grows taller.  For the other tomato plants I used the old washing line that snapped earlier this year.  It is plastic wrapped, so should be soft enough on the plants’ stalks, and may last a few years yet.

tomato spirals
Tomato spiral supports

I’m pretty happy with the tomato plants.  They look nice and healthy so far, with plenty of flowers developing.  Maybe I’m starting to get the hang of growing them!  I think some are getting a bit shaded by the kiwi and the artichoke, so I cut the artichoke back to remove all the flowering stalks to give the tomatoes a bit more space, and pinched out a few more of the vigorous kiwi shoots.

I also had a tidy round the bed opposite one lot of the asparagus.  There was a quite a bit of perpetual spinach going to seed there, so I cut back all but one of the plants.  The hoverflies love the flowers.  Although they are not showy – just green, they have a lovely fragrance.  I noticed another physalis goldenberry plant in the bed there. It had been completely hidden in the undergrowth.  Not as big as the other physalis plant (which has a flower open!) it seems to have been nibbled a bit at the base, so maybe this is regrowth.

Whilst I was there, I saw a solitary yellow bee happy at work on the milk vetch flowers.  She would pull the lower lip down, suck out the nectar and move on to the next flower, until she had done the whole flowerhead.  I planted the milk vetch (Astragalus glycyphyllos) to create a nitrogen fixing ground cover around the asparagus, and some of the other perennial plants in the polytunnel.  It tends to want to climb in a scrambling sort of way, so I should probably have pinched out the growing tips to make it more bushy.  The flowers again aren’t that special, being a pale yellowish green, but obviously appreciated by the bees!  I may try and save some seed again this year.  If it will grow as well outside as in the tunnel, it would be nice bulky legume for covering the soil in the summer.  It does die down in winter however.

milk vetch apricot and peas
milk vetch flowers, apricot new growth and peas!

The bramble is trying a flanking movement and has sent out a couple of long shoots down the side of the tunnel.  It doesn’t seem to fruiting so well this year, so I wonder whether it would be worth re-routing one of these branches to replace the main stem again.  The pruning guides all suggest renewing the stem every year, which I generally don’t bother with.  I’ve done it once before, when I accidentally cut through the main stem whilst pruning out new shoots.  It’s still a bit early to really tell what the crop will be like, although I have noticed at least one ripe fruit.  Perhaps I’ll keep one of the new stems for the time being and assess the yield later.

I’ve lost one of my apricot fruit but the other is hanging on still.  It is slightly paler in colour now, but I’m trying to resist touching it in case it also falls off.  I know I’m pushing it a bit having apricots this far north, but I did read about monks in Orkney that have apricots in their polytunnel, so I’m not alone in my optimism!

I have several sorts of curcubit in the polytunnel.  There were three courgettes (just using up old seed) two long and one round one.  I’ve lost the single ‘black beauty’ courgette that I planted out – I think Lou-Lou made a bed with it!  The others all look like they are doing fine.  One of the ‘Tondo de picenze’ plants already has a female flower developing which is nice – usually the first flowers are all male.  These are round courgettes; hopefully it will set.  The sharks fin melon are also looking OK; maybe a bit weedy but it is early days yet – they are starting to show signs of wanting to climb.  I couldn’t find the labels for the pumpkin nuts (a hull-less pumpkin for seed), so am not sure where that is!  Around the courgettes there is a nice groundcover of baby kale, chickweed and leef beet.  It doesn’t seem to be doing any harm yet, but I can pull a bit out around the plants and either eat, or use the weedings as mulch.

curcubits
Courgette Tondo di picenze on left, all green bush on right. Sharks fin melon at back

I am worried about my cucumbers though.  I haven’t tried growing them for a few years; although small ones would be useful to sell in the shop, we don’t really eat them ourselves.  These were cucumber ‘Tamra’ from real seed, and I don’t think they have put on much growth at all since being planted out.  I’m wondering at the moment if they are more susceptible to the dreaded spider mite.  I know I have this in the tunnel – It was particularly a problem in the early years, attacking the grape vine, courgettes and aubergine plants.  I don’t bother  with aubergines any more (although never say never!).  It may be that it has just been a bit cold for cucumbers.  I think they prefer it a little warmer, and we’ve not had much sun this week, and only a couple of warm days last week too.

cucumber
rather sorry cucumber (courgette leaf on right)

 

Rainy Season

This was going to be an update on the polytunnel, but I’m excited about some things in the tree field, so those come first.

Usually the dryish weather lasts into the middle of June, but this year it has broken a bit early.  There was a nice bit of rain last weekend, and again through this week so the burns and the river are now overflowing.

The first exciting thing then (not chronologically, but logically) is that the pond at the bottom is once again full.  During the week it just had a little puddle from it’s own catchment, but either the shallow springs are going again and/or the burn on that side is full enough to have water all the way down (often it disappears again on the way down).  This would have been quite exciting, but more exciting (especially to the dogs unfortunately) was what we found on the pond.  The dogs saw them first, and then I saw a lady mallard flying off with a squawk over the fence to the river.  Left behind were about three frantically cheaping baby ducks.  They are very tiny, and I have no idea where the nest is.  I’m thinking it must be on the river bank, otherwise the dogs probably would have found it before now.  The pond would have made quite a nice nursery swim for the babies if it wasn’t for my bad dogs.  The river is in full spate after the rain, so the little ones would be swept quite away.  Eventually the dogs came to me.  They had been more interested in the mother than the babies, so noone was hurt.  Hopefully the mum would soon have returned to the babies again.  We’ll have to keep the dogs away from the pond for a bit.  This is difficult, as due to some building work, part of the deer fence to the garden area is down at the moment.  I was going to put some temporary fencing up anyhow, so I’ll escalate that task for when the rain clears.

baby duck
Baby duck in pond

On the way back up the hill again I was on the lookout for something that I had found the previous day.  On the grass there had been what I thought was a tiny rotten birch twig.  I wondered how it had got there and had turned it over with a twig that I was hoping to mark orchids with.  To my surprise the twig moved!  Not a twig but a largish moth!  On that occasion I did not have my camera with me (it was raining!) so I was very glad to find the moth still in the (birch) tree to which I had moved it.  Looking it up later I found it was a buff tip moth.  Although quite common in the south of the UK it is less so in the north.

bufftip moth
Not a twig

The other interesting thing, is that I may have seen this moth as a caterpillar.  I didn’t post about it at the time, but last summer I noticed one or two alders that had clumps of caterpillars in them.  They were distinctive in the way they formed a mass of caterpillars.  I’m pretty sure now that they were buff tip caterpillars, so it is nice to see that at least one made it to adulthood.  They pupate in the soil, so that may be why this one was on the ground.  It must have just emerged.

buff tip caterpillars
Mass of buff tip caterpillars

The rain has come in good time to keep watering the seedling trees I have planted in the tree field.  As well as the tiny spruce, I have also relocated about a dozen tiny rowans (why do they like to germinate in the driveway!), a couple of sycamore (ditto!) and several plums, damsons and apples from shop fruit that was past it’s best, or used for jam making.  The latter’s seeds had been placed in small seed trays (actually fruit punnets) outside and I got quite a few germinating this spring.  Rather than leave them to starve in the seedtrays I was able to plant them out last week, with a proper double spade square hole.  They may not have good fruit that ripens here, but they may at least have blossom to cross pollinate my orchard fruit.  I could try and graft good fruiters onto the trunks in the future.  I am hopeful that the damson seedlings and the plums that we ate in late september in Devon may have useful fruit, if only for jamming.

plum seedling
Plum seedling

When we planted the trees in 2011 we experimented with planting comfrey around some of them to see if they would act as a living mulch.  I had found this quite successful in Solihull around established soft fruit so, since we had been having difficulty finding enough time to mulch the newly planted trees, I wondered whether this would be an easy way to keep the grass down.  We just stuck ‘thongs’ of comfrey, of which I had plenty growing in the fruit garden, into the turf about two feet from the trees.  It wasn’t that successful as it turned out.  We found that although most of the comfrey took OK, it was a few years before they could out compete the grass, and by that time the trees were already established.  They do make lovely flowers for the bees though through the summer.

I had read in one or two of my books that other people had found that a bank of comfrey several plants deep could be used as a weed barrier around planting areas.  Last year I planted several thongs below the newly mulched orchard area to the north of the trackway, in the hopes that these would eventually keep out the worst of the couchgrass.  It is dramatic that the only ones that have grown well have been the ones adjacent to the mulch.  The ones planted with turf on each side are still really tiny (although mostly still there).  I don’t remember there being any difference between them when planted out.  So on my mental list of things to do is to mulch between the comfrey there if I get time.  It’s probably not a high priority, since the comfrey will probably still grow and in a year or so form a canopy by itself.

comfrey mulch
Comfrey – also between mulch and trees

The grass has grown lush and green with the rain, and the buttercups and pignut have started flowering.  So pretty with the rain dewdrops sparkling in the sun.  The buttercups seem particularly profuse in the area just below the orchard, and the pignuts in the southernmost strip along Jo’s field.  The midges are here now too, so the rain is definately a mixed blessing.  We change to longer hours next week in the shop next week so  I will have to get to bed a bit earlier.  The sun was still setting at about 9.20 last night.  I could still see the sunlight on the hill opposite us.

douglas in sun
Douglas and pignut
pignut sparkles
Pignut sparkles

Turning Japanese or OK in the UK

I need to do a bit of research at the moment on Japanese cookery.  Particularly the use of Japanese spring mountain vegetables or Sansai (山菜).  There are a couple of reasons for this:  Firstly, these are predominately perennial plants gathered from the wild in Japan (or at least that was the case originally) and I am interested in perennial plant food sources.  Secondly, the climate in the mountains of Japan is a little cooler than elsewhere in Japan and these plants are likely to do OK in the UK.

Typically sansai are the fresh sprouts of leaves and flowers of perennial plants and trees that are cut and eaten when young.  Many of the plants are already grown in the UK as ornamental garden plants, and most Britons do not know that they can also be eaten.  As we also know, everything can be edible once, and edible does not always mean tasty.

For example there are believed to be links between the eating of warabi (bracken ferns, pteridium aquilinum) and various cancers, although this site says that prepared correctly, and eaten in moderation, they are both delicious and safe.  My mum says she tried bracken fern only once, so I guess she was not impressed, but maybe she did not prepare it correctly.  I think I may give it a miss just now though.  I do love to see it at this time of year as the bracken angels unfurl.  Eating it as I weed out the young shoots could be tempting!

angels
Bracken “angels”

I’ve found a couple of lists of sansei online: shizuoka gourmet  and organic growers school  for example, although some of these are not necessarily spring vegetables.  These are the plants I am most tempted by, with the Japanese vegetable name if known:

Indian cucumber root Medeola virginiana

Ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris, kogomi

Honewort Cryptotaenia canadensis, mitsuba

Bamboo Phyllostachys spp.

Japanese spikenard, Aralia cordata udo and yamaudo (bundle of blanched shoots) see here for example

Japanese pepper tree Zanthoxylum piperitum kinome

Angelica tree shoots Aralia elata tara no me

Japanese sweet coltsfoot, giant butterbur (unopened buds), Petasites japonicus giganteus, fukinoto

Plantain lily Hosta fortunei  kiboushi, Hosta montana urui, and Hosta sieboldiana

Glory bower peanut butter shrub Clerodendron harlequin kusagi

Indian plantain Cacalia delphiniifolia, C. hastata ssp. orientalis shidoke, or momijigasa

I already have varieties similar to the following:

Solomon’s seal Polygonatum commutatum and P. odoratum amadokoro

solomons seal
Solomons seal shoots at the correct age for cutting

Arrowhead Sagittaria latifolia

wapato
Sagittaria latifolia or wapato tubers

Chocolate vine (fruit) Akebia

Dogtooth violet Erythronium japonicum katakuri

dog tooth
Dogs tooth violet in flower (tubers are edible)

Orange daylily Hemerocallis fulva Nokanzou

Japanese ginger Zingiber mioga, Mioga

Japanese horseradish, Wasabia japonica, Wasabi

wasabi bed
New Wasabi bed – placed by kitchen door to receive teapot washings

Most of these are still being established so I am yet to try some of them.  The wapato tubers are slimy to clean, but taste innocuous like potatoes when cooked.  Solomons seal shoots were very bitter – I only cut a couple of shoots, so next year I will try changing the water.  Beneath the bitterness there was a sweet taste so I think they are worth trying again.

I’m not sure whether we will like wasabi, normally we’re not big eaters of mustard or horseradish, however when I read about it, wasabi seems to like conditions very similar to Skye’s normal weather – never above 15 celsius or below 5 celsius and wet all the time!  All it will require is protection from the strong winds.  Having an interest in expensive dining (having the three chimneys restaurant just over the hill from us) I thought it would be fun to try anyhow.  I have sourced plants from two different UK sources (hopefully about 4 varieties in total).  These I have put in an old wooden tub.  I changed half the compost for fresh peat free commercial compost.  The old stuff had been half and half soil and compost.  Mixed in, I hope it will be good enough for the wasabi plants.  They haven’t keeled over and died straight away, so I am hopeful that the bit of afternoon sun they will get on this corner of the house won’t be too much for them.  I tried a bit of leaf and stem, and these were surprisingly mild in flavour, so perhaps we will get to eat some of the harvest after all!