Good news

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

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

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

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

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

new shoots on citrus
New growth on Citrus tree

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

big fat toad
Big fat toad!

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

olive flower buds
Olive flowerbuds

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

dried grasses
Getting a bit parched where soil is thinner

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

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

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

dead citrus
Dead citrus

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

mashua survivor
Volunteer Mashua plant

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

 

apricot bent branch
Apricot misaligned shoot

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

akebia and passiflora seedlings
Akebia and Passiflora seedlings

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

earth moving may
Moving more soil….

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

bluebell mountains
Bluebells and Macloud’s Tables

Polytunnel progress

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

dog cut through
Dogs’ short cut to pond

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

new pine tree
Newly planted lodge pole pine

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

prunging apricot year2
Fan Apricot: second year pruning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xmas Harvests

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

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

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

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

 

 

mashua harvesting 2017
Mashua rootball on best plant

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

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

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

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

First frost and a different root crop

snow s
Skye Snow

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

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

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

roots s
Lunaria annua roots

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

dinner s
Honesty roots and sausage casserole

Happiness and winter jobs

I hate it when the clocks change.  Suddenly the afternoons get very short so I can’t get much done on my afternoons off.  We’re not early risers (the shop doesn’t open until 11.00am. off season) so I don’t really appreciate having extra daylight at the start of the day.  We had a drop of cut logs last week, and worked very hard on Friday to get them all away in the woodshed.  We still have a very small amount of cured wood that needs cutting to length and/or splitting, but we should have enough wood so that I can have the stove ticking over most of the winter.  Happiness is a full woodshed in Autumn!

woodshed prior to last wood drop
Woodshed before latest logs added

As well as making the house more pleasant, and giving us plenty of hot water, it also means I can cook more easily rather than being restricted to kettle, microwave and toaster!  On Friday I cooked sausages, banana loaf cakes, and a huge pan of pumpkin soup.  These pumpkins were slightly bruised, but I overdid it on pumpkins in the shop, so am thinking of pumpkin chutney maybe on Sunday….

autumn colours glendale
Autums colours Skye

We had a little walk round the tree field with the dogs on Tuesday, admiring the autumn colours, seeing how well the various trees have been doing, and picking out a few of the spruce that may do for our xmas tree this year.  We also made a little list of jobs that were of higher priority – clearing summer grass from around some of the trees, a little bit of removing lower branches in places.  We had a little look at the routing for the drains for the new extension, and it looks like I may have to move one of my shrubs, I think it is a saskatoon, so I will probably do that this winter, before it grows another year.

river bank escarpment in spring
River bank escarpment in Spring

I had a fairly nice afternoon on Thursday.  I made a start on clearing back a few of the trees on the river bank.  We have an area of trees outside the deer fence that are basically self sown willow, hazel and the odd rowan.  There is an area at the south side of the pedestrian gate through the fence that is sheltered by a steep escarpment.  This is formed partly due to the rock shelves, partly due to river erosion and partly as a spring line.  There are springs along the whole length, particularly when we have had plenty of rain, but I think some are there all the time.  The springs make it rather boggy underfoot.  In the lee of the escarpment, and away from most of the muching sheep, the trees have grown moss covered and gnarled.  The hazel has naturally coppiced over the years, and has formed hollow rings, some are four feet across.  It would be fascinating to know how old they are.  Probably several centuries I should think.  It makes me want to be ten again, to build a den there!

hollow hazel stool jul 13
Hollow Hazel Stool in summer

Anyway, the reason for the clearance was that a couple of the trees between the escarpment and the river had been washed over in the floods a few weeks ago, so their rootball is perpendicular to the ground and the route through is impassable.  The idea is to cut the trees back (good slow grown firewood) and maybe settle the rootball back down, or at least clear enough out the way to gain access.  This will probably involve the chainsaw, but to get there and work safely some of the lower branches needed clearing away, and I’m going to take the opportunity of making a slightly drier path as well.

S and I have slightly different views on how to achieve this, but since I’m the one doing the work, I get to decide.  I’m intending to dig interceptary channels parallel to the spring line, and then a few main drainage channels down the bank to the river.  Hopefully this will make the ground generally a bit drier without changing the mystical character too much.  I cleared a few overhanging branches by the pond, so that you can walk along there without bending double, and did the same along the escarpment as far as the fallen trees.  There are still a few branches that need trimming back to the trunks, but the main weight is removed.  Most of the wood I cut is still to be extracted, but there’s no hurry.  It may come in for burning next winter.  It seemed wrong now to be cutting back tree growth having spent so much effort getting the trees in the tree field established!

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Raining and pouring

We had a downpour on Tuesday night which resulted in, amongst other things, our community hall being flooded.  This is for the second time in five years.  A combination of high tide and unusually high rainfall (10mm plus in 1 hour) meant that most of the flood plain of the river was being used.  A family of holiday makers who unaccountably had chosen to camp next to the graveyard (!) had to call out the emergency services at 4.30 in the  morning after the vehicle was surrounded by water and started to float.  It could have been worse, the only casualty was the vehicle.  A few residents have had water ingress through houses or barns on its way downhill.  We’re a bit higher up the valley but the river was higher that we’ve seen it in ten years.  Some trees beside the river have been damaged and some torn out.  The river was going in our pond at the top and coming out at the bottom, but we’ve got away with no major damage this time.  This sort of weather event may be more common in the future of course.  The other thing I noticed was erosion of the trackway down the hill to the orchard.  The buried watermain acts as an interceptary drain and the low point at which it overflows is about at the trackway.  It’s not been so bad since I repaired the burn bed, but in heavy rain it obviously still does divert a bit.  Something to bear in mind when S. does refinish the trackway.  Since the orchard is on a slope, and I’ve raised up the level for the trees, I don’t think it will be an issue for them.

DSCN2483
Grass caught on fence shows the flood level