Exploring the Fruit Jungle

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The fruit garden became a fruit jungle.  This is mostly because of the raspberries, which like to move around.  There is also quite a bit of nettle(s), which make it not conducive to casual browsing.  The nettles are a good sign actually, since they prefer richer soil.  Probably decades of manure from the byre in times past have increased the fertility of the area, although there has been no livestock since we’ve been here.  I’ve tried to tame various areas in the past, but am fighting a bit of a losing battle; it looks beautiful for a few months, then nature happens.  It is probably the soft herbacious layer that I don’t understand yet and haven’t got the balance for.  Hopefully in time I can get the groudcover plants established so that the nettles and docken don’t dominate quite so much.  In the meantime I have been pulling these perennial weeds out, sometimes by the root, sometimes not.  They will probably come back next year, maybe not as strong, we shall see.

strawberry patch
Strawberry flowers

The comfrey still seems to come back in patches where I thought I had removed it.  I think if I carry on digging out as much as I can it will eventually give up.  In the meantime the lush growth is useful to mulch around the fruit bushes.  I’ve got quite a nice patch of strawberries, although they tend to get damaged outside before they get a chance to ripen off.  They do much better in the polytunnel.  The Toona sinensis seems pretty happy, if not that vigorous. It can be seen sprouting earlier in the year in the strawberry picture above (at least if you know where to look).  It is only it’s second year and I haven’t tried eating any yet.  It is supposed to taste like ‘beefy onions’, used as a cooked vegetable in China.  The patches of Good King Henry have established well.  They will stop some weed seedlings coming up next year.  The Japanese Ginger is very late coming into growth again, and does not show much signs of being too vigorous in my garden.  I just hope it survives and grows enough that I can try that as a vegetable as well.  I forgot I had some Oca in by the Ribes Odoratum last year.  That seems to have come back of it’s own accord.  I have a feeling that Oca volunteers will be as much of a nuisance as potato volunteers tend to be, albeit somewhat less vigorous.

mulching lower path June
Mulching below path

I have mulched around the ‘Empress Wu’ Hosta, which I planted in the trees just beyond the fruit jungle, with cardboard.  I wanted to protect it before the grass grew and swamped it too much.  The bistort has come back nicely as well this year and set seed, which I just sprinkled close by.  I wish now I had sowed the seed in pots so I could determine where to plant out new plants if they grow.  I mulched the area between the path and the lower parking area as well.  The new large fruited haw there, Crataegus Shraderiana, is growing well, and it is underplanted with a Gaultheria Mucronata cutting and a Mrs Popple Fuchsia cutting.  The latter had been growing quite nicely, but unfortunately got broken off once planted, possibly by Dyson sitting on it, or the cardboard shifting against it.  It seems to be growing back again OK now.

elderflower
Elder in flower from above fruit jungle

The original elder bush, which came as a cutting from Solihull is coming into it’s own now.  It flowers really well, despite being on the windy side of the willow fedge that protects the fruit garden from the worst of the prevailing winds.  It doesn’t seem to have set many berries again though.  Hopefully some of the local elder cuttings that I took will cross fertilise it and help a set; it may just be the wind though.  It’s worth it’s position just from the blossom and extra shelter it provides, although fruit would also be nice.  I used to make a rather tasty cordial from elderberries…..and I read somewhere that it used to be cultivated to make a port-like drink back in the day.  Certainly I have drunk some rather good home brewed elderberry wine (not mine I hasten to add).

upper path
Purple is the colour….

The rest of the fruit jungle is living up to it’s name.  The original rhubarb has provided a batch of jam and a batch of chutney, I could have picked more… The Champagne Early rhubarb are starting to establish well with a lovely pink colouration (I made a batch of rhubarb and ginger liqueur which is maturing as I write), and the Stockbridge Arrow is coming on, although still quite small.  The Ribes Odoratum flowered well, although only one berry appears to have set.  I will maybe try and take some cuttings from these this winter.  They are very pretty while in bloom, although it would be nice to get a bit more fruit from them.  The Saskatoon remains a bit disappointing.  I was hoping it would be setting fruit better by now.  There are a few but not many.  It maybe that it requires more ‘chill days’ to flower well, since we have much milder winters here than it would be used to in it’s native North America.  A bit of research indicates that the bushes may need pruning, or just be immature.  The raspberries are starting to ripen now, and the black currants (all Ben Sarek in the fruit garden) are tempting with a heavy crop, but need a few more days yet.  There is also at least one flower on the globe artichoke which is a division from the polytunnel plant (spot it in the top photo after clearing).  It is encouraging that it is returning and getting stronger year on year.  The cardoon seems to have succumbed this year.  I don’t think any of my new seed have germinated, but I may be better getting vegetable branded seed rather than HPS seed, which is more likely to be an ornamental variety – they are rather spectacular in bloom.

apple blossom
Apple blossom

All of the apple trees also flowered well.  Only the Tom Putt apple seems to have set any fruit though.  I’m not too perturbed about that.  The Worcester Pearmain is unlikely to ripen anyhow, and the Starks Early (which I grafted myself!) is still very young.  Given a halfway reasonable summer however, I am hopeful of getting more than one apple this year.  There don’t seem to be any surviving fruit on the Morello cherry unfortunately, which is looking rather tatty.

Nancy puzzle
Monkey puzzle with yours truly for scale

The monkey puzzles as yet are far too young to expect nuts.  They were planted in 2009 and have grown really well in the fruit garden.  All three are about twice as tall as I am.  By special request from Maureen, I’ll put a photo of one of my monkey puzzle and I above.  They are also getting wider in diameter; both in trunk and in branch reach  The branches are so prickly this means that the original path at the top of where the fruit tunnel once stood is no longer viable.  I therefore need to have another think about path routeing this winter, particularly in the upper raspberry dominated area.

The Secret Garden

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

secret garden to tables
View from Garden end

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

hosta shoots
Variegated Hosta shoots in spring

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

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

secret garden path
Remulched secret garden

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

 

Digging for Blueberries

I’m running a bit behind in my posting (got distracted by online novel reading) so will try and do a bit of catchup now.  I’m trying to get some preparation done for my blueberry patch down the hill.  I had covered the whole area with black plastic early last year to clear the weeds so it is now time to get the beds arranged, so I can start planting.

I decided to move the black plastic out to cover the area immediately surrounding the cleared patch.  I can either plant more blueberry bushes or other plants there.  It will be useful to have a weed barrier of sorts to try and keep the couch and other creeping grasses at bay.  There probably aren’t enough stones already selected to weight the plastic down properly.  Last year I had the benefit of large branches from the driveway spruce trees, but my intention is to use these to increase the woody content of the beds, so I will need additional weights this year.

new area
Forked area and extended mulch area

Since blueberries need well aerated soil, and the area I have chosen for them is damp and compacted with generations of sheeps trotters, I have forked over the cleared area.  I din’t turn the soil, just loosened it, so that it has a chance to dry a little over the coming weeks of spring.  I was a bit disappointed by the amount of couch grass that seems to be prevalent over the whole area, despite the light excluding cover.  I guess it was kept going by areas outside the plastic, and the fact the water could still get to it due to the fact the plastic is in strips, rather than a larger entire piece.  The other plant that seems to have survived remarkable well is pignut, Conopodium Majus.  The blanched spring shoots of this are all over the area despite having been covered for the whole of last year.

pignut blanched
Blanched pignut shoots

The thick reeds and other groundcover plants have disappeared to form a vole dispersed layer of compost.  The voles are more of a nuisance for attracting the attention of the dog(s).  They like to dig underneath the plastic sheets, thus letting in light and wind, so making the sheets less effective at weed cover.

My intention is to create sort of raised beds, with the woody trimmings, bracken remains, and leaf mould/grass clipping compost from the lodge, together with soil excavated to create drainage channels and paths.  As I was forking it over, I discovered that the soil depth is not consistent; it gets quite shallow at the downhill side of the patch.  Probably this rock forms a bit of a bowl, which is why it seems so damp there.  Until the area surrounding the cleared patch is also cleared, I won’t really be able to create the levels properly to ensure bed drainage.  I’m hoping that I can clear most of the couch grass out when the soil is drier as I create the raised beds themselves.

I have ordered some more blueberry plants, but haven’t managed to find some of the varieties I wanted.  If necessary, I will just sow some annuals to build up the soil structure and keep it covered and pre-order bushes for next year.  I know ART will propagate fruit trees to order, so they may do fruit bushes too.

An unexpected newcomer

yellow rattle close

Yellow rattle: flowers and ripe seedpods

I came across a clump of a really pleasing new plant recently: Rhinanthus minor or yellow rattle.  I sowed some near the orchard area, but none have appeared there.  These ones appeared right down by the river on the north corner of the tree field near near where I coppiced the alder earlier in the year.  There seems to be a number of plants judging by the size of the clump, so it may have been seeding around for a few years unnoticed.  It wasn’t the flowers I noticed first, but the seedheads, which are a line of small  inflated bladders.

yellow rattle clump
Yellow rattle clump

Yellow rattle is a annual plant, so needs to resow itself every year.  It is semi-parasitic on grasses and other plants.  By reducing the vigour of grasses it enables a wider range of meadow flowers to grow.  The historic practise of cutting hay for winter feed suits it’s lifecycle.  When the seed is ripe they rattle in the bladders in the wind and the farmers knew it was time to cut the hay.  The seeds readily fall out, or are added with the ripe hay as supplementary feed into other meadows.  They need to overwinter before germinating, but have a short viability, so need to grow and set seed successfully in order to propagate.  How they seem to have managed to survive in the sheep field previously I don’t know!

Since some of the seed is already ripe, I have been spreading it along the trackways a bit.  If we manage to cut the grass properly in the autumn, this will expose the soil a bit (which is important to enable successful growth).  We can cut just a strip of narrow path to walk along again next year and the rattle (hopefully) can grow in the rest of the trackway, set seed and be cut in autumn again.  I’ll save some seed to scatter after the grass is cut this year as well.

When I read up about yellow rattle I was excited by the possibility of it reducing the vigour of couchgrass, but unfortunately it doesn’t like couch grass or other very vigorous grasses which swamp it.  However it is a happy addition to the flora and hopefully will increase the diversity of wildflowers in the tree field further.

 

Not vine weevil actually

alder sawfly
Sawfly larvae on Alder leaf

As the leaves fill out and mature on the trees, the insect larvae get busy eating them.  Hopefully the birds are enjoying eating the larvae as well.  Otherwise we are going to have a problem with the alder sawfly in future years!  This is not it’s real name, but I see a lot of them on alder trees and have not noticed them elsewhere.  I first notice just a few holes in the leaves, and then the tiny dark coloured caterpillars can be seen at the leaf edges.  When bigger they are paler with dark spots.  When disturbed they rear up in an amusing manner.  I don’t know what the adult flies look like.

 

bug on flower
Bright bug

This picture looks really tropical, but the scale is really small.  This is an unknown bug on a knapweed flower.

vine weevil
weevil larvae

I have been worried ever since we started planting trees in the tree field about the number of what I thought were vine weevil grubs I was digging up.  These are little maggots with a brownish head.  Vine weevil are notorious amongst gardeners for destroying plants from the roots – particularly strawberries.  One interesting thing about vine weevils (maybe other weevils too?) is that females can reproduce parthenogenically (they don’t need a male).

not vine weevil
Not vine weevil

However this year I spotted these beetles on some of the trees (mostly willows).  They were obviously weevils, but didn’t look like vine weevils – they are smaller and have a smoother back without the bronze speckles that vine weevils have.  I was surprised when I tried to find out what they were, how many different sorts of weevil there actually are in the UK (see here).  So I’m not sure exactly which these are – but I’m happier that I don’t have widespread wine weevils all over the holding.  I know I have them up by the house, but so far they don’t seem to cause too much damage.  Maybe the ground beetles keep the population under control; I have seen a black beetle happily eating an adult vine weevil in the polytunnel so I know they will take a few at least!

bonking beetles

I’ll just share this photo of red soldier beetles, if only because of their common name of hogweed bonking beetles.  They were happy (!) on the hogweed flowers.

 

In praise of small flowers

I’ve not done much around the holding this week because Douglas, our dog, is recuperating from an operation.  This means I am spending much of my time in the house keeping him company, since he mustn’t do any running or jumping at present.  Hopefully he will make a good recovery, but at the moment has some healing to do.

small flowers
Dyson on trackway: upper loop

I have been taking our other dog, Dyson, out for intensive runs in the tree field to make up.  The summer orchids are starting again to show their impressive flowerheads, and I am marking the ones near or on the trackways with sticks, to try and avoid them being trodden on or mown.  However, this post I wanted to highlight some of the little, less showy wild flowers that tend to get forgotten about.  Individually the flowers may be small, but often they flower prolifically and make the trackways look like a medieval garden lawn.  Not all of these photos were taken this week.

showy orchids
Showy wild orchids

The obvious one is the pignut, but that almost qualifies as a large flower, albeit made up of tiny ones, but I have posted about it before.  Another that gives most of the field a golden brightness is the buttercup.  I have both creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), and meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), in the tree field.

sunny buttercups
Fields of gold

I may have the third UK buttercup, globe buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), since it does grow on Skye, but I have not identified it here yet.  When the sun catches the buttercup flowers they are a delight, even if the creeping buttercup is probably my most annoying weed in the areas I am trying to grow things.  Mostly because its leaves come away from the roots, which will then regrow.  The fact it can spread about 4 feet a year is also a nuisance for a rather laid back gardener like me.

creeping buttercup
Creeping buttercup surviving mulching and spreading quickly

I would include white clover (Trifolium repens), in the small flowers category.  The pink clovers quite often have such flamboyant flowers that they stand out alone.  White clover tends to be a bit smaller and lower lying, although forms large swathes of blooms on the trackways.  It is a food source for the common blue butterfly as well as a nitrogen fixing plant.

selfheal and clover
Selfheal and white clover

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) is rather like a tiny purple deadnettle.  Sometimes you can see the bright purple of the flowers, and sometimes just the magenta flowerheads.  I found one on the mound that had white flowers, but have not seen it since the first year of sheep eviction.

speedwell
Speedwell with some colour variation

One of my favourite flowers, speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), is definitely a small flower.  I love the colour, an enhancement of the sky above (if not clouded!).  Every now and then I come across a good clump of it and it brightens my day.  It is a food source for heath fritillary butterflies.  Although the flowers are tiny, the colour is so vibrant it is difficult to miss.  They also change colour from pink to blue, as they age, which I find fascinating.

eyebright path
Eyebright growing along compacted path in gully field

When looked at in detail the flowers of eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis agg) are just a beautiful as any orchid.  Pale pink snapdragon flowers have a yellow landing strip for insects but are only a few millimeters across.  They also only open one or two at a time on the flowerheads.  Unfortunately being so small they are easily overlooked, like those of mouse ear (Cerastium fontanum).

tormentil groundcover
Tormentil competing well with grass

One of the things I like about writing up my ‘blogs is that I almost always learn something by researching what I wanted to write about.  For example another plant disliked by gardeners is cinquefoil.  It was quite a nuisance weed for us on the allotment in Solihull, but didn’t seem to be such a pest for me here.  The reason being the Potentilla we have here is tormentil: Potentilla erecta, as opposed to cinquefoil which is Potentilla reptans.  Tormentil flowers usually have four petals (rather than five for cinquefoil) and the leaves are usually stalkless unlike cinquefoils leaves.  There is quite a bit of this growing in the tree field.  It is actually out-competing the grass in some of the areas where the soil is thinner.

Lastly for now I will mention thyme (Thymus polytrichus).  A bit like heather it is ubiquitous in the highlands and I am always breaking out into ‘wild mountain thyme’ when the sun shines!  Here it grows across the rocks and scree, and I am hoping it will take on my drivebank wall with some encouragement.  It makes a great cushion of purple and often is found on the banks of the burn together with heath bedstraw, a tiny cousin of cleavers that forms a cushion of white.

thyme and heath bedstraw
Thyme and heath bedstraw

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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!

Pignuts are OK to eat

Pignuts (conopodium majus) are a common wild flower in the tree field here.  I had read about them being edible; the tubers are quite pleasant to munch on raw, with a flavour a bit like hazelnuts.  When I have tried them in the past, I got a slightly unpleasant nauseous feeling, so haven’t explored eating them much.

I have a fondness for the plants.  The foliage is one of the first to show new growth in early spring, and the tiny white flowers cover the field for much of the summer.  Rather than repeat what so many others have written I’ll give a couple of links that are interesting:

https://originaloutdoors.co.uk/wild-food-directory/pignut-conopodium-majus/

https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/and-pignuts/

and a few pictures from the tree field illustrating their growth:

spring shoots
Pignut foliage growing in early spring
flowers
Pignut blossom in midsummer
seeds
Burgundy seeds in late summer

When I was digging holes for the new spruce trees I could not avoid digging up several pignut tubers.  Often they were cut in half by the spade.  I guess the field is pretty thick with them now, as can be seen in the flower picture above.  In the past I have sometimes given them to Dyson to eat (he knows them as ‘nuttys’) and he obviously enjoys them with no ill effects.  This time he had the small, or damaged ones and any larger ones I collected in a bag for me.  They were quite easy to find with my (gloved) fingers in the soil of the upturned turfs.

turning turf
Pignut – cut through on face of turf (possibly a whole one to right?)

Most foraging guides suggest you follow the roots down from the flowering stems to the tuber, so as to be sure what you are harvesting.  This would be very hard work in turf like mine!  I would suggest also, that once seen, the tubers are quite distinctive and nothing like bluebells or celandine tubers, both of which are quite white in colour, rather than covered in dark brown skin.  The lumpy shape of the pignut tubers is also quite distinctive.

measuring
Bag of tubers with rule for scale

I collected about 8 ounces of tubers once they were cleaned and trimmed.  The ones I kept were generally just over an inch in diameter, although there were a few that were nearly two inches.  Most of course were much smaller, and these I left in the turf (or Dyson ate!).  They seem to carry on growing quite happily having been inverted, if left in situ, judging by the later emerging leaves.  I believe that the plants form very small tubers in the first year of growth (about the size of a pea) and the tuber grows larger and larger year on year.  I suspect some of those I gathered may have been decades old.  I don’t suppose they grew very much when the sheep were grazing on them!

Gathering nuts was a by-product of an activity I was doing anyway.  I will point out however that digging the turf like this is quite hard work!  So although I gathered more than enough for a meal for two in a few hours, this would not compare for ease to say digging potatoes.  Also, these tubers took several years to reach this size, so you would have to leave the ground for a few years to recover and regrow sizeable tubers again.  They do self seed readily and grow happily without any intervention from me, so it is quite nice to feel there is a bit of a larder there should I need it.

washing mud
Washing tubers

Because the tubers are quite uneven in shape they were tricky to wash.  I gave them a quick rinse in a bucket outside, them scrubbed them with a brush under the kitchen tap.  I couldn’t be bothered to remove all the skins, which is quite fine, and did rub off a bit anyhow.

cross section
Washed and halved tuber

We tried a few tubers simply boiled or baked and ate them as an accompaniment to our main meal.  They were quite pleasant, with a spongy texture not unlike parsnips, and a somewhat similar mild sweet taste.  The resemblance to their rooty relatives is more obvious when cooked.  S. preferred the roasted ones, so, having established that neither of us suffered the nauseous feeling induced by eating the raw tubers previously, we had the rest of the tubers roasted in a little oil.  Again they passed the test and we may well have them again when I need to dig holes in the field.

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….