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

 

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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!

 

May days

dry pond
Dry Pond

It’s been staying dry.  Not bone dry but misty-isle dry.  We’ve had a bit of mizzle, even some proper rain, but not enough to make the burns run again yet.  It’s a bit odd that the burns went dry so soon.  I can only assume that it must have been quite a dry winter – although it didn’t seem that way at the time.  This year the pond by the river has dried up completely.  I don’t know whether our tadpoles managed to survive or not….  We are forecast to have rain again on Saturday night, so maybe it will be enough to water the plants a bit.  So far, the rain just makes the surface of the soil wet, rather than soaking in.  Luckily our burn in the gully is fed by a deep spring so although down to a trickle, it still flows.  I am using one of the pools there as a dipping pond; filling the watering can there when I do the patrol with the dog-boys.  Then I can use the water on my pot plants or in the polytunnel.

dipping pond
Dyson in dipping pool

The bluebells are now putting on a lovely show in the tree field.  In places it looks like a bluebell wood!  Since it has also been staying quite cool (about 9 degrees celsius overnight and 11 during the day) the flowers are lasting well.

bluebell woods
Bluebell woods!

I am starting to see the orchids coming up in various places.  Some I remember from year to year, others are a surprise.  Unfortunately one of the big ones (probably a hybrid) in Dougie’s field got caught by frost.  That’s the first time I know that has happened.  Where I see them in the trackways, I have been marking them with sticks again so that S. can easily avoid them if he takes the mower down again.

marking orchid
Marking Orchids in trackways

I am hopeful that we have had a better set of cherries this year. It is still too early to tell yet really, however there definately seem to be cherries on this tree in the orchard area, and although I thought the morello in the fruit garden had none, I can now see those developing too.

cherries
Hopeful orchard cherries

More of the first planted trees are reaching maturity.  There is blossom on more of the hawthorne, and wild cherries.  Also and for the first time, there was blossom on at least one of the cherry plums, and a couple of saskatoons.  Maybe they liked the warm weather last year, or maybe they have just reached a critical size.  I don’t expect that there will be much, if any fruit, but it bodes well for future years.  One of the more exciting flowers for me was one of the hollies in the front garden has blossomed.  Holly trees are usually either male or female, and judging by the pollen on these flowers this plant is a male.  No berries yet then this year, but hopefully one or more of his neighbours will be female, and eventually there will be berries.

holly flowers
Male holly blossom

At this time of year the sycamores also come into bloom.  They are not really showy flowers, just a pale green chandelier, but the insects love them.  As you walk round the garden you become aware of a humming, and it is coming from the sycamores.  As well as bees there are wasps feeding on the pollen, and hoverflies and other flies.

buzzing tree
Bumblebee enjoying sycamore flowers

On the drive bank things seem to be holding on.  It has been difficult to water the plants on a slope, but they all got watered in pretty well when planted, so hopefully will survive OK.  The cooler weather means they are less stressed anyhow.  The bulbs leaves have faded as expected, and some of the tiny escallonia have flowers!  There are some signs of seeds germinating, the buckwheat and calendula I can identify, but there are also weed seeds as expected.  Not much grass yet so that’s good.  It will be nice to see the earth covered.

seedlings
Buckwheat seedlings on drivebank

My hablitzia are springing forth.  I think that this year I will try harvesting some, so watch this space….

happy habby
Happy habby bed

 

Shorts and Wellies

waternish Skye
Ploughing at Trumpan, Waternish, Skye

I’ve been on holiday this week.  My friends AC and DC have been staying locally and have been pottering round with me.  The weather has just turned from cool and dry to warm and dry, hence the title.  I have been practically running round naked, (which I think of as when I’m down to single layers of clothing) and actually showing my knees today!  There is no danger of frost now, but I have noticed a little damage to the new growth on the grape vine in the polytunnel.  I have bought S. a weather station recently with an extra temperature and humidity sensor for the polytunnel.  We are still playing with it, since the signals are getting interfered with by our wifi, but the temperatures in the polytunnel were varying from over 30 deg. Celsius during the day to only 2 deg. Celsius at night.  The temperature at night is much warmer now (about 12 degrees or so) and I’m opening the doors more to keep it a bit cooler during the day.

finished tea garden
Tea garden after tidying and planting

Although on holiday, we have managed to achieve quite a bit (even some of the things I had on my list to do).  DC has been going round taking off tree shelters, and keeping the dogs amused.  It’s quite nice to think that these are some of the trees that he himself helped plant just a few years ago.  AC and I have been clearing and planting in the tea garden extension.  The ground is lovely to weed at the moment; so dry the earth just falls off the roots of the weeds.  I cleared out some docken and buttercups, but was quite pleased to find only a little couch growing in from the edge which had just been mulched last year.  I pulled off the tops of the weeds, left the leaves on the beds, and threw the roots to add to the soil around the adjacent trees, where the rock is rather close to the surface.   We planted the artichokes and potatoes that Frances of island threads sent me (thanks again!), as well as my saved oca (and some more from Frances).  AC also re-mulched with cardboard the area by the track that I left under mulch last year.  I had a trial clearing the end of the bed where I’d planted the peas.  Although the couch came out nicely, there was too much of the thinner stringy grass that creeps over the surface, so I’m hoping that another year will clear that a bit more.  We cut back and thinned out the kale that was flowering.  I think it will regrow again to provide another crop.  The tops we used to mulch around the lowest of the ‘new’ blackcurrant bushes.  Hopefully they will fruit a bit better this year than last year.

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The other blackcurrants in the tea garden had a lovely lush new lawn growing round them!  I didn’t manage to clear out the grass in the bed next to them before it went to seed and regretted it!  Hopefully cutting it back with shears and mulching with it’s own leaves and cardboard will be enough to clear it again.  There didn’t seem to be much in the way of  nasty weeds there, which is pleasing.  I was hoping to transplant in some of the sweet cicely and good king henry that has seeded in, but that will have to wait till next year now.

The weather is really too nice to be spending much time in the polytunnel (a bit like last year), however we have managed to clear the beds for the tomatoes (although not planted yet).  I have decided to plant them in the lower southern beds.  There is a awful lot of parsley going to seed in there, so we stripped off the leaves and have dried about four batches in the lower oven.  The kale was unfortunately a bit mildewy, which it usually is in the tunnel at this time of year, but there was a fair amount of leaf beet for spinach.

melon seeds
Sharks fin melon – 17 months after harvest

AC has sown my curcubit seeds.  We ate the last sharks fin melon a few weeks ago (nearly eighteen months after harvest and still perfect!) so I scraped out and saved some of the seeds before cooking it.  I have plenty of seeds as well for next year, just in case I get another failure.  The curcubit seeds have all gone in the propagator, although they could probably be sown direct in the polytunnel with the temperatures as they are now.  It looks like all my sweetcorn seeds have failed:  both those that were sown direct, and those in the propagator.  I can only assume that I drowned them.  I sowed them at the same time as the peas (which have germinated well).  They were fresh seed.  I presoaked them for a few days to rehydrate before sowing, but maybe I soaked them for too long.  It probably isn’t too late to try again.  I’ll see if I have any more of that seed and just soak it overnight, and sow direct this time.

While the earth is so dry I’ve been doing more weeding/editing around the fruit garden as well, getting out some of the comfrey that is persisting. and transplanting some strawberry plants.  I also was going to transplant some rowan seedlings in amongst the ash trees in the tree field.  They seem to like to germinate in the rocky scree of the driveway.  I managed to get out about a dozen little trees and one rather larger one, that were growing in less than optimal positions.  Then I started to turn some turfs for planting holes, in between the two bands of new spruce trees (that we have been giving a little water to in this dry weather). When digging the second hole, I found my right calf muscle seize up painfully with cramp, and it has been a bit painful the last day or so.  I think it was all the digging in the tea garden extension that worked it too hard.  It seems a bit better now with rest and ibuprofen, but I may have to heel the little rowans in somewhere else (they are in a pot of water at the moment).

finished blueberry mulch
Mulched patch for blueberries

DC and AC also helped me mulch the area where I am hoping to plant blueberries in the tree field.  First we had to shift all the conifer branches that I had placed there from the driveway tree pruning.  The grass had started to grow through them, but it wasn’t too difficult to disentangle them yet.  We then spread out several lengths of black plastic underlay (reclaimed a few years ago from the local hall when it flooded) and used the tree branches to weight them down.  This was easier with a few extra pairs of hands.  I’ll assess the couch grass at the end of the summer and decide whether to leave the plastic down for another year then.  I’m thinking of making slightly raised beds for the blueberries (since the area there is a bit of a bowl) and planting the ‘ditches’ in between with comfrey for mulching.  I’m thinking some well rotted sawdust and lots of bracken leaves is what I need to plant the blueberries into.

 

Frostbite

Ashtree
Ash dieback?

I was rather worried when I saw this damage this week.  Many of my ash trees are showing blackened leaves.  Particularly towards the bottom of the trees.  Some are fine however with fresh green leaves and unbroken buds, although some dieback over winter means that some of the buds are dead.  I thought this was chalera dieback for sure and was envisaging having to dig out and burn all my ash tree saplings.

ash trees
blackened leaves on several ash trees

I was glad then to see similar damage on other trees – first wych elm, then oak and sweet chestnut.  Not perhaps so many, but similar scorched new growth.

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My conclusion is that we have actually suffered a light frost that has damaged the new growth on some of the trees.  Up by the house we don’t seem to have been affected and nothing in the polytunnel seems to have been damaged.  The weather recently has been cool and fairly clear – dry with a north east wind.  I hadn’t realised it had been quite so cold as it obviously has been.

sunshine
Fresh spring leaves (f – b larch, willow, alder, beech)

The fresh young growth of the trees is beautiful at the moment.  The translucent leaves catch the light glowing vibrant shades of light green.  The larch in particular are lovely with soft fountains of bristles from the branches.  Many of the evergreen trees show a contrast in colour between the old and new growth.  The new holm oak leaves are a pinky cream colour, and the spruce tips lime green against the british racing green of the older leaves.  Actually the spruce are looking a bit sparce as they shed their older needles before regrowing new needles later.

Drivebank planting

Since I started the retaining wall down the drive I have become quite excited about what I can plant here.  It’s not quite what I envisaged when I was playing fantasy gardens in my head.  Indeed it has turned out in many ways to be a far better ‘microclimate’ than I was thinking.  Because the wall gives a possibility for a well drained, south facing slope I am able to plant some of the more tender plants that would otherwise struggle to survive a wet winter here.

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Having built the wall and the main steps from the house direction, I spent a bit of time getting two minor retaining walls and some further steps from the drive in the best place.  I hope I have put the paths where the dogs are most likely to want to run, since they can be a bit heavy footed at times.  The plants that I had collected were laid out in their pots to decide a planting arrangement.  I bought a few sacks of multipurpose peat free compost to try and improve the soil a bit, that was forked in before planting the plants.  The final stage was to sprinkle over various plant seeds that will hopefully provide some infill until the plants grow big enough to cover the soil.  I still have to finish off the north east corner back to the bank behind the barn (behind the lower Land Rover in the slideshow above), with some more steps, and I have the last few plants to go in at the bottom corner and at the far side of the path at the top of the bank.

As well as the Mediterranean herbs, rosemary and sage, that I bought in Portree, I also have a number of plants that I have been propagating over the past couple of years.  The plan is to have a windbreak at the top of the bank that will provide forward shelter a bit for the plants.  Although they will still get the driving salt rain onto them on occasion, hopefully this will provide a modicum of protection.  I have some Escallonia cuttings which are pretty well grown.  I am hoping that some of these have pale coloured flowers and some the standard dark pink that is more common around here.  The Escallonia has lovely flowers in the early spring, glossy green evergreen leaves and it seems to enjoy Skye’s bracing weather.  It can get a bit big for itself, but stands cutting back if necessary also.  I have also grown from seed this year some Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) which I have seen in flower around here and am hopeful it will fruit for me.  The fruit makes very nice jelly – like a lemony flavoured apple and the flowers are lovely.  Since these have been grown from seed I won’t know what the flowers and fruit are like until they happen.  Anyway, they should also make a tough wind resistant shrub at the top of the bank.  I’ve got a couple of shrubs that my mum gave me that were looking for a home – a variegated philadelphus (which should have lovely scented flowers if I’m lucky) and a variegated cherry laurel.  Hopefully these will be tough enough to cope with the wind there.

Since I haven’t finished clearing the orchard area of couchgrass, I have made the decision to plant some of my asparagus plants on the drive bank.  It isn’t ideal, the asparagus has a reputation for not liking root competition, and I also haven’t really improved the soil much for it.  It is probably a bit too exposed also, but that should improve as the Escallonia grows (competing at the roots as it does so!)  I just don’t think that leaving the asparagus in pots for many more years will do it much good either.  It should like the well drained sunny aspect anyhow.

I’ll put the planting plans in below although I suspect that the labels won’t be legible online.

1 Planting plan by steps
Planting by steps
2 Planting plan under tree
Planting under tree
3 planting plan peninsular
Planting at lower end

The seeds that I have surface sown include a sedum mix for roofs and walls, birdsfoot trefoil, bush vetch (vicia sepium), mexican marigold (tagetes minuta – old seed that never germinated well when it was fresh!), pot marigold (calendula sp.), Broom (cytisus scoparius), Licorice (glycyrrhiza glabra), Some sort of buckwheat that was supposed to be Fagopyrus dibotrys but has turned out to be a variety of annual buckwheat, Caraway, Crithmum maritimum (rock samphire).   I’m hoping that the bank will act as a nursery for some of these plants that can then be transplanted elsewhere; particularly the broom, which seems to struggle in pots for me.

I have also sown, mainly in with the asparagus, some milk vetch saved from the polytunnel.  I have been growing it amongst my asparagus there in the hope that it will make a non-competitive ground cover.  So far it doesn’t seem to be doing any harm anyhow.  It has fairly inconspicuous flowers, and lovely curled seedpods.  Hopefully it will provide a beneficial groundcover here on the drivebank also.

At present the planting looks a bit bare.  Soon the weeds will start growing as well as the groundcover seeds and the rest of the plants.  I hope I can keep this bit of the garden looking like someone cares, so will have to try and keep on top of the weeds in the early stages.  At least I don’t think I have couch grass on this bank, although there is the very fine red tipped grass that is almost as bad!

Spring fever

Now comes my favourite time of year.  From the winter dark, wind and rain, the days suddenly get longer and with the clock change to summer time at the end of March we also tend to get a change to dry settled weather.  Long days, wall to wall sunshine and a drying breeze soon turn the sopping muddy soil to a workable consistency and now is the opportunity to do any weeding or digging projects.  I start far too many things and still achieve half of what I want to get done!  The grass starts growing and seemingly overnight violets and celandines join the early primroses in the parade of spring flowers.

violets
First Spring Violets

It is also the time that the crofters set the hills afire.  The top growth of heather and dead grass is burnt away every few years.  This lets fresh new grass have it’s share of the sun and rain in order to feed the sheep when they return to graze on the moors after lambing.  There are rules now that should be adhered to, including not burning after mid April, so as to allow ground nesting birds to breed safely.  These (and other reasons) mean that the hills don’t get burnt so often, so every now and then the fires get a bit out of hand.  There was one that was burning at the far end of the glen for two days and nights last week, fanned by a strong breeze (it was mostly the other side of the hill).  They can sometimes set the peat underneath on fire, if it gets too dry, and can carry on burning underground, springing into life again seemingly from nowhere.  Someone locally whimsically wrote ‘here be dragons’ on one burnt road sign….

wild fire
Wild Fire Skye

I’ve been moving plants in and out of the polytunnel day and night this week, to try and harden them off ready to plant out.  I have also managed to plant out my ribes odorata or clove currant which was sat outside all winter.  This is a black fruited shrub from the US that has clove scented berries.  I hadn’t realised however, how ornamental the flowers would be.  Attractive yellow with a pleasant scent, they will make a nice show at this time of year.

Ribes odoratum flowers
Ribes Odoratum spring flowers

Unfortunately I have had to prune the bush right back after planting, since it was quite root bound in a small pot.  I have cut through the roots at the surface to try and encourage regrowth, since they are very  congested.  The top growth would have been far too much for the root ball, so I felt that removing most of the branches was the best thing.

root ball bound
Rather root bound!

Unfortunately it means I won’t be likely to get many berries this year.  I have stuck the cuttings in the ground adjacent to the bush in the hope that they will root, (removing most of the flowers and leaves) although it is really too late for that to be very likely.

Ribes odoratum planting 2019
Truncated clove currant left and hopeful cuttings right

I was excited to be given some crug zing japanese ginger roots.  Having seen this at Eden project last year, I was keen to see whether I could grow it here.  It seems likely to do well.  Jim at garden ruminations was happy to get rid of it, since it was a bit of a garden thug for him, with inconspicuous flowers at the base of luxuriant top growth.  However both spring shoots and autumn flower buds are esteemed as vegetables in Japan, so I look forwards to trying it here in future.  Since Jim gave me a substantial number of crowns (thank you!), I have been able to try it in several different places.  Notably near my Toona sinensis shrub where I may create an oriental themed planting area.  I was excited to note several Hablitzia plants sprouting along the willow bank around the fruit garden.  They actually look pretty happy so that is encouraging.  I think they could be a staple leaf crop through the spring and summer once established.

I have managed to get the steps on the drive bank completed, and am gathering up suitable plants ready to plant up the freshly bare soil before the weeds get a chance to recolonise it (hence the polytunnel daily migrations).  I was able to get a nice looking lavender and broad leaved thyme plant in Portree along with some house leeks – thanks Frances for that suggestion for wall crevice planting!  The picture below shows how much drier the soil is and how much the leaves on the sycamore have come out in just a week (even more so now).

wall plants
Gathering plants….

So much fun to be had….

 

 

Building walls

drive bank wall
Drive bank wall

Finally the drive bank is starting to look like I’ve been working on it (see also here for earlier work).  To any person skilled in the art, it looks like a pile of stones rather than a retaining wall, however, I know I can walk securely on the top layer of stones, so am pretty happy with it.  As a happy consequence of my ineptitude, there will be plenty of planting crevices to squeeze in a few little plants in the wall itself.  As it weathers, and with some planting to soften it, I think it will look well.

The area between the ramp (unfinished – it will have steps) and the sycamore tree should be quite a favoured microclimate.  It faces south west, but is partially sheltered by the workshop on the far side of the drive from the prevailing winds, and I’m also intending to plant some shrubs at the top of the bank behind it.  It should be well drained; being a bank with loose rocks on it’s face, and these rocks will absorb the sun through the day and protect a little from the frost.  It should be shaded first thing in the morning, so any frost can gradually melt rather than having an extreme change of temperature.  I’m therefore hoping that I can try a few things in this bed that are a bit tender.  It should certainly suit some mediterranean herbs like rosemary and lavender, maybe sage.  I have an Atriplex halimus (salt bush) plant that I grew from seed, that may do well there, although it may grow a little big.  If any of my Tropaeolum speciosum seeds germinate this would look stunning clambering up the tree.  In the short term I also have some perennials that I grew from my HPS seed last year.  I’ll have a bit of an audit over the weekend, since I am hoping to go to Portree next week (I need more compost) and can get some more plants if necessary.  I’d quite like this area to be a bit more ornamental in nature, rather than the more unkempt back-to-nature look that most of my garden has!

road bank
Fuchsia root by roadside

I managed to relocate two large lumps of white fuchsia roots to the road side behind the house (the house backs onto the road so our front garden is at the back, and the rear garden is just the road verge and bank).  The dogs like to run along the fence harassing pedestrians and chasing Donnie’s truck and the odd stray sheep.  The ground therefore is challenging for hedge planting, since it is compacted and trampled as well as having almost no wind protection at all.  There may be some forward protection due to the house behind and the spruce trees by the driveway.  At some point in the past it looks like someone attempted to put a second pedestrian access down the bank behind the house.  All that remains is a zigzagging canyon, forming a trip hazard and eyesore.  I have therefore planted the fuchsia roots at the top end of this zigzag, buttressing them with rocks and rubble and backfilling with soil and stones where I have been excavating the second tier retaining wall by the drive.  In my experience, fuchsia are tough plants so I expect the roots to survive both the relocation and the location to thrive.  In the event of them failing, I have got some younger stems covered with soil which I’m intending to stick in the ground to try and take new plants from.

The strawberry plants at the top of the bank by the sycamore, which got covered with soil when I was excavating the fuchsia and the ramp a few weeks ago, seem to be surviving under their blanket.  There are several fresh leaves appearing.  These are running alpine strawberries, which I bought in to try as a ground cover and am hoping will have useful berries (no sign last year).  On the bank below, near the tree, I found a single plant of sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).  By appearance it could have been a number of things, but the aniseed fragrance is a dead give away.  I suspect that I threw a few seeds around there in the hope that some would sprout.  I didn’t notice the plant last year, but this must be it’s second year judging by the little taproot.  I’ve transplanted this a bit further back near to where I have planted a bladdernut (staphlea pinnata).  I noticed that the good king henry plants, that I planted near the bladdernut last year, seem to be coming back OK.  The other plants that have been growing around the sycamore are……more sycamores.  I’m collecting them up into a little bucket and am considering planting them down in the tree field where the ash aren’t doing so well.  I didn’t plant many sycamore (just some potted seedlings I had been given) mainly because it has the reputation of being a somewhat anti-social tree.  However, I’m now just thinking if it grows….

scyamore bud
And the buds are beautiful