Catching up at home

misty dogs
Misty Isle dogs

It’s been a few weeks since I got back and I’ve not done a lot.  Skye has been doing ‘misty isle’ again, just this last day or so turning colder and brighter.  The tree field does have some autumn colour.  Particularly down by the pond where it is a bit sheltered, the birch and willow have a few more leaves holding on.  There is a lovely clumping grass turning a golden shade by the pedestrian gate to the river.

golden grass
Golden grass

While the winds in the north we should have some fine weather, but I need to tuck some fleece or similar round the tea bushes to protect them from the winter cold.  We actually had our first frost this weekend, which was a bit of a surprise.  The green manures I sowed in the orchard just before the holiday have been a resounding failure.  The field beans were eaten by crows, no sign of the vetch or clover, and the remaining fodder radish is going to be too small and sparse to create any coverage!  I should have sown about a month earlier….I do have a nice crop of grass and buttercups coming, so I guess I’ll just have to sheet mulch in the spring, but this will kill off the desireable seeds I put in as well.

orchard green manure not
Failed green manure

The tea garden extension is still looking quite green and lush.  I’ll tidy this up a bit when we get some frosts, since I’ll need to think about harvesting the outside yacon, oca and mashua then.  The oca has had some tiny yellow flowers, rather bashed by the wet winds.

oca flowers oct 2018
Yellow Oca flowers

Neither the oca or mashua really like the exposed position.  Of the mixed selection of plants that went in, the self seeding kale has done well, and I have a few nice looking carrots along the edge.  The fodder radish has some good size roots, so I may pull some of these over the winter.  I think there will still be enough to give coverage.  Phacelia and borage are still blooming lovely!  In the original tea garden unfortunately I have a lawn of grass growing under the blackcurrant bushes, I’ll try mulching that in the spring also.  The himalayan strawberries had a second flush of flowers, but none have set this time.

fodder radish
Fodder radish – big roots!

The experimental sheet mulching with combined paper and cardboard has not been a  great success.  I think that the cardboard really does need two layers.  It seems to have disintegrated more quickly, and then does not keep the newspapers protected.  I do have some more cardboard, and have re-mulched the bit by the tea garden, I’ll need to try and do the orchard as well whilst we’ve got this nice weather.  The cardboard alone double layers have also suffered a bit, but some of this is definately dog damage, so I still think this is the better way to go.

tea garden failed mulch
Failed mulch (including dog damage)
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Orchard, Autumn and Tomatoes

I managed to just about finish clearing the section of orchard I was aiming to.  The weather has turned a bit damp now – so I’ve lost this years’ window for weeding.  The soil just gets too claggy when it’s wet.  I’ve left a nice sorrel plant there, and I may transplant some more in there.  I have found some with lovely large leaves in various places round the field.

large leaved sorrel
Large leaved Rumex acetosa – common sorrel

I have also planted a few of my seedling heath pea plants along the border which I plan to keep digging up, and a marsh woundwort plant as well.  I haven’t got round to tasting the roots of this yet.  It is related to crosnes (stachys affinis) and like crosnes the roots are edible.  This plant was rather pot bound.  It had been sitting in a puddle next to the polytunnel all year – an offset from the bought in plant.  I’m hoping it will be damp enough for it at the side of the orchard there.  We can get quite a bit of water coming down the track at times, as well as being generally damp climate wise.  The roots certainly look like they could be quite productive – long and tender.  I did snap a few bits off and popped them in the fridge, but forgot they were there when I cooked dinner yesterday.  I also put a couple of seedling lathyrus tuberosa (earthnut pea) seedlings.  These are from seed that I was sent (thanks Anni).  Unfortunately with one thing and another (weather and neglect!) I only have four seedlings and one of these looks a bit poorly.  I’ve put plant pot collars on them, since I have read that slugs really like these plants.  I’m thinking that they can climb up the apple tree.  Not the ideal spot for a root crop, but if they grow and like it there I can maybe propagate more plants from these.

orchard view north
Orchard view to North

I also spread around loads of seed: firstly some of the green manure seeds I obtained recently.  I spread field beans and fodder radish fairly generally over the whole area and red clover selectively around the bases of the honeyberries and apple tree.  It may be a bit late for the fodder radish, but I’m hoping that it will stay mild for long enough for them to put on a bit of growth before the winter (I can already see shoots coming on the field beans just a couple of days later!).  I also sowed some other legume seeds that I collected:  birds foot trefoil and bush vetch (vicia sepium).  I have been enjoying the odd nibble on the latter as it has reappeared around the tree field (see here for a little foraging guide).  The birds foot trefoil makes a nice low growing ground cover – it should be nitrogen fixing, but I’m not sure how well it will keep down the weeds.  This is the first time I’ve tried sowing it direct.  I did sow some in the spring in pots, but didn’t get a good success rate (again weather and neglect…): one plant.  I also spread some sweet cicely seed and good king henry which both have done well for me in the tea garden a little up the hill.  They both seeded themselves a bit up there, but I want to transplant those seedlings elsewhere.

birds foot
How bird’s foot trefoil gets it’s name

I started trying to dig out couch grass and docken from the rest of the orchard on the north side of the track.  There is a fair amount of both and I haven’t quite finished that.  It’s only a rough going over.  I will mulch it with newspaper and card and try and give it another go during next summer depending on priorities.  I did get out some of the silver weed I planted there in the spring this year.  It is still a bit early – they are in full leaf, and the roots look very white.  Generally they are up to 6 inches long and up to one quarter inch diameter.  I’m going to transfer some to the track border.  I may see if I can use them for pathways in the orchard area.  They have made a reasonable coverage after a bit of editing in the tea garden and certainly spread like mad!

It’s starting to feel a little autumnal now.  The first trees to lose their leaves are the Wych elm, but some of the rowans are turning colour, and one of the beech is rather a nice yellow.  I’m a bit worried by how red this apple tree is.  Last year it was the best for growth, this year it looks a bit strained – the others are all still quite green.  We don’t tend to get much autumn colour here – the winds strip the leaves off the trees before they can put on much of a show.  It looks like it will be a bumper year for hazelnuts – I spotted the first nuts on our own trees (planted 2010), but the ones along the river bank seem quite laden.  I did go along and pick up a fair few from underneath the trees, but they all seem to be empty (either shed by the tree or discarded in disgust by hopeful birds!).  It’s still a bit early.  Usually the birds get the nuts, which is fair enough.  I would quite like to get a harvest off our own trees in due time.  Although they weren’t bought as nutting cultivars, the seeds they apparently came from seemed a fair size.

bumper hazelnuts 2018
bumper crop on hazels by river

The local outside brambles are starting to ripen.  Funnily enough these don’t seem to be bothered by those horrid flies!  There was a new bush that has seeded in at the corner of the river  above the pond, which seems to have quite nice quality berries.

self sown bramble
tasty self sown bramble

Saving the best till last – in the polytunnel this week!

ripe tomatoes
First ripe tomatoes – (super sweet 100)

There was a little mildew or possibly blight on some of the leaves so I’ve pulled a few off the tomato plants.  I’m hoping that I will get more tomatoes ripening over the next month or so before I have to rescue them.  Some comfrey leaves are soaking in a bucket of water at the moment to add some extra tomato feed to try and give them a late boost.

Orchard revisited – more pH testing

toad
Toad in orchard area

I had second thoughts about just re mulching the orchard area.  I knew there was couch grass in there, so I thought it made sense to try and dig that out a bit before re mulching.  I have therefore been gently forking over the area that had been mulched and removing any couch, buttercups etc.  I have made a compost area at the top corner which the buttercups and other less noxious weeds can go, and the couch and the odd persistent dock root is bucketed and removed to my foul weeds pile where they can live happily together.  The soil does seem quite light.  I’m trying not to turn it over, just lift and separate out the weeds so as not to destroy the structure too much.  There already seem to be mycelium in the soil which should help to distribute nutrients to the orchard plants from the alder and other nutrient rich areas of soil.

orchard clearing
forking over the orchard

I’ve been mulling over what I want to plant and how to manage it, although the plan is still very fluid.  I know I want more fruit bushes and some good ground cover plants.  I don’t want it to be too much like a garden, since it is only once removed from a grassy field, so more conventional fruits and discrete herbaceous plants or natives will be preferred.  I have a few black currant bushes on the other side of the orchard that I can transplant, and I’ll take some more cuttings whilst I’m at it.  I may try and stick in some gooseberry cuttings as well – they make a good cordial.  The good king henry has done really well in the tea garden and has taken well as seedling transplants elsewhere.  I’m pretty sure there is still quite a few self seeded plants up in the tea garden, so although I probably won’t use much of it I’ll see if I can transplant some down.  I also have a rather tall fennel plant in the dog resistant garden that would benefit from being divided soon.  I think it would be slightly less tall if in a sunnier spot and that will be a good insect attractant plant.  I did want to put my asparagus plants down there, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough if the couch is still coming back….

S. has moved more rotten rock down to improve the gradient down the steep bit of the trackway (pity I’ve just about finished moving the soil down now!) and this has brought the trackway level up more like that of the orchard soil.  Since the couch grass seems to be in the trackway, I have devised a strategy for the orchard on this side – I will keep a two foot band adjacent to the trackway clear of shrubby perennials and leave it for annuals and root crops.  This way I will have a chance to dig out the couch grass as it comes through again as a natural part of harvesting the root crops each year.  We quite like salsify, but I seldom get round to harvesting it, so that is one possibility.  I could also try Yacon down there – I think it will be a bit more sheltered than the tea garden.  Oca and Mashua are other replant perennials that I may have more of next year.

On the other side of the triangle that makes up the north part of the orchard I have a grass path alongside the burn.  Again this has a bit of couch grass in it.  I’m going to try mulching that out rather than leaving it as grass.  I’ve got on pretty well with the newspaper paths I have made, although I think my supply of sawdust may be running short.  I know I put loads in the fruit garden just to have somewhere to put it a couple of years ago, so I may go and mine some back out!  Hopefully I can pull the couch out from the newspaper if necessary!  At the bottom of the orchard I stuck a load of comfrey roots. Hopefully they will out compete any couch that is liable to come in from that direction.  I still have all the lower part of the orchard to clear as well – that has been growing silverweed (amongst other things!)

blueberry plot
View to holding from opposite hill (taken Sept 2017)

I’m wondering a little whether I worry too much about couch grass.  What would happen if I just left it be?  How competive is it as a weed?  I have a patch of ground further down in the tree field that I am eyeing up as a potential blueberry patch.  It is nice and sheltered by some well grown alder just below the hump towards the south side of the field.  I left it clear of trees deliberately when we planted them since it seemed a little damp (well grown clumps of rushes) so I thought it might suit blueberries who like it wetter in the summer.  I haven’t had much luck with my blueberries in the fruit garden – I think I need a more vigorous variety (I got distracted online the other day choosing some for my fantasy blueberry patch).  Anyway, I took a soil sample from there recently and guess what I found – yes more couchgrass!

pH testing kit
pH indicator chart

I was re-doing a number of pH tests to see how things are now that my earthmoving has nearly finished.  I bought some more barium sulphate and indicator fluid off the internet, but it didn’t come with a colour chart.  The colour chart from my previous test kit is quite difficult to use – the difference between 6.5 and 5.0 is difficult to see so I’ve taken a best guess approach.  All the samples I took from various areas of the garden and tree field, including the polytunnel, were I believe between 5 and 6 except interestingly the tea garden extension which appears to have the highest pH at 6.5.  The polytunnel came out at 5.5 whereas last time it was 7.  I forgot to take a sample from the Habby bed this time.  Anyway 4.5 to 5.5 seems to be the preferred pH range for blueberries and I measured the pH in my proposed spot to be 5.0, so that at least should be fine.

pH test potential blueberry plot
pH test for potential blueberry plot

 

 

 

Editing the tree field. #2 Docken

cutting docken
Black currant bushes exposed as docken cut back

Actually it’s mainly the orchard area within the tree field that I have been clearing of docks in the past few weeks.  I have very nearly finished getting the levels sorted out, and managed to mulch with card some of the new surfaces (see here).  Some of the area I managed to sow with some left over green manure seeds (buckwheat and clover)  and these did germinate and grow to a certain extent but have not managed to outcompete the dock seed that is present in apparently vast quantities!  There is also some established docken from previous years that was probably growing on the site previously, or was in the soil before it was moved down to the orchard area and regrew.  The main priority was to get out the docken that were going to seed before they have a chance to spread more seed into the soil.  This involved going round with a spade and cutting through the taproot of the plants.  The tops were then loaded into a barrow along with a few bits of nettle and some of the couch grass that has apparently become established there also.  The barrows were dumped just below the original gateway to the lower field, which still stands like the doorway in Narnia, although the gate is lying down rather than hinging.  There is an area of soil below the gate which either didn’t have trees planted, or the trees didn’t take.  I think it was the former, since the soil was very compacted, full of docken and stones in the gateway.  Hopefully the loads of fertility in the form of weeds will help to rejuvenate the soil.  I think of it as a bit like segregating nuclear waste – concentrating all the nasties in one area.  I do the same with the rubbish I find: bits of rusty metal, glass, string, coal and brocken crockery get put into piles (or bags) until I can get round to deciding what to do with them.

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I had to go over the cardboard I laid on the north side of the trackway, since there were several docks that had punched their way through.  This has made a bit of a mess of the cardboard, so I will have to cover the area again before winter.  I have cut back all the seeding docken, and made a start at pulling out the juvenile plants that would go to seed from next year.  The slightly larger plants often come out cleanly with the taproot when pulled firmly with a twist.  I have been twisting off the leaves and leaving them on the soil surface and putting the roots in a bucket before adding them to the weed mountain.  Some may not be big enough to regrow, but there’s no point tempting fate.  The smaller plants will need digging out.  It seems counter intuitive, but the younger leaves tend to just come off in your hand leaving the tap root to regrow in the ground.  If the soil is gently loosened with a fork then the whole plant is more likely to come cleanly.  I’ve still got some of the larger plants to do, and almost all of the smaller plants.  I think I will go over the whole area lightly with a fork anyway and try and remove as much as possible of the couch grass.  It will probably grow back anyway, but if I can reduce a bit it will be worthwhile.  I’m going to quickly order some green manure seed: fodder radish, red clover and field beans to overwinter and keep down the weed seeds.  I may try and spread some of my vetch seeds and plants as well.

young docken
Juvenile docken with buckwheat flowering behind

I’ve made a start on the final area of the tea garden extension: there was a strip along by the trackway which didn’t need levelling, so is still full of weeds: docken, nettles, couch, creeping thistles, other thistles……I’m going to take the worst out and then mulch over the whole area.  The couch will grow back, but I’m hoping that the soil under the mulch will be nice and friable by spring, and a light forking will be sufficient to remove the couch.  I am trying out a variation on mulching again.  Since I seem to need an awful lot of cardboard to cover an area, I am going to make it go further by combining it with newspapers.  Previously when I’ve used newspapers I have weighted them down with grassy materials: old haylage, grass clippings, cut reeds etc.  These work to a certain extent, but there always seems to be a deal of work in cutting and moving the clippings, and then they sometimes blow off and I end up with newspaper decorating the fences.  This time I am going to spread a single layer of cardboard over the newspapers and weight it down with stones as usual, of which I have a plentiful supply collected out of the tea garden extension when moving the soil earlier in the year.  A double layer of cardboard does seem to last pretty well by this method, so we’ll see if a single layer with paper underneath does as well.

new mulch method
Starting to mulch edge strip of tea garden extension

They say the camera doesn’t lie, but I wanted to see whether I could take a picture that made my weed infested tea garden extension look great.  These pictures were taken from the same position, just crouching or standing up and show how easy it is to be misled.

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Editing the tree field. #1 bracken

I’m not sure who coined the phrase ‘editing the garden’.  It is very apt though.  I’m gradually adding and deleting plants around the holding; planting trees and encouraging flowers such as orchids and vetch, whilst removing (or trying to) bracken, creeping thistle and selectively docken and buttercups in the garden.

lephin and glendale august 2012
Dark green areas of bracken in general glen view (summer 2012)

You can tell the untended holdings around here by the rapid overtake of bracken across them. It spreads by fleshy underground runners creeping forward year on year.  It doesn’t seem to like very boggy ground or deep shade, but otherwise little seems to stop it.  The sheep don’t eat it, although their sharp little hoofs in the spring can knock it back a bit.  When we first took on the plot there was a little bracken down by the river, which was slowly creeping into the field.  On our northern side as well the bracken encroaches into our boundary.  Although grazed by sheep, the owner of the land lives away and the ‘tenant’ does not improve grassland that is not his.  I have been turning a problem into a benefit over the last few years.  The compost you can make from bracken has a far better texture than any peat free compost that I have managed to find to date.  I have heard as well that although it grows on potash poor soil, it is a potash accumulator, thus compost made from it will be relatively rich in potassium.  Although I haven’t checked this, I have been using it recently for my potting on projects in combination with a little ash-enriched general garden waste compost.

This year I have been successful in pulling all the bracken on the holding.  In order to reduce the vigour of the bracken year on year I physically go round and pull out the bracken stalks.  They come off fairly easily, although generally you need two hands (and gloves).  This should be done when the leaf is fairly well grown, but in the earlier part of the summer. Bracken spores are supposed to be carcinogenic, so it’s not good practice to spend too much time in amongst it later in the year.  Also I guess that it will be feeding the roots all the time, so it is better to stop this as soon as possible.  If you pull too early the plant simply shoots up a further load of leaves and carries on.  Generally there will be more leaves anyhow, and smaller ones that have been missed.  So it is as well to go back around after a week or so to pull this regrowth if possible.  Since I started doing this, and despite not managing to do it all every year, the bracken has reduced from being as tall as I am (over 5 feet) to waist height or less.

saving bracken
Bracken collected for compost making

What I have done this year is be more methodical and I have managed to gather the pulled leaves into a builders sack for recovery up the the garden area to rot down into compost.  All the leaves didn’t fit in however, so I’m leaving them to wilt a little in the hope that this will also reduce the weight of the bag, which is rather heavy for me to drag now!  If it doesn’t get much lighter, then I may have to decant some of the leaves out and take it up the hill in portions.  I’d quite like to be a bit more sufficient in compost next year by this method.

bracken autumn colours
Autumn colours

Mulching in the heat

summer flowers
Wild flowers in June

The weather continues unusually hot and dry for us.  One of our burns has dried up, and the other is down to a trickle.  Luckily there still seems enough to fill the pipe to the polytunnel, since the sunshine makes it very hot in there, even with the doors open.  The olive tree blossom has opened, and it looks like the toad has found his way into the pond which is good.  I had noticed mosquito larvae in there and some strange jelly creatures with whip tails which look really disgusting, but I assume are some other sort of fly larvae.  I was thinking I might have to import some fish to keep the vermin down, but maybe Mr Toad will sort them out for me.  It should be cooler for him in there and more comfortable.  I did make the sides sloping, so he should be able to get in and out reasonably well.  I’m thinking of maybe getting a small solar powered pump to keep the water from getting stagnant.

buckwheat around skirret
Buckwheat germinating around skinny skirret plants (Yacon on left)

I have mainly been working down in the tree field in the tea garden and the orchard area.  I have transplanted into the newly cleared and seeded tea garden extension some rather pot bound specimens of skirret, and salsify as well as some straggly alpine strawberries, a couple of mashua and a couple of yacon plants.  They will at least do better in the soil than in their pots for another year!  I also had some tiny callaloo plants which came from the heritage seed library.  This is a West Indian vegetable which is a selection of amaranth, grown for its succulent leaves rather than its seed.  They appear to be quite colourful, but so far don’t seem to be putting on much growth.  Since it has been very dry they may do better with a bit of watering in.  I did give them all a little when planted, but we have had no rain in a fortnight again, so the surface of the soil is very dry.  Underneath it isn’t so bad, although the surface springs have all dried up.

mulching with buttercups
buttercup mulch around current bush, new path emerging to left of bush

I still have a little more of the original tea garden to clear around the gooseberry bush (which seems to be bearing a good few berries despite still being very misshapen and small).  The buttercups taken out have been used to mulch around the lowermost blackcurrent bush.  I’m hoping that it has been dry enough to kill the dug up buttercup plants and that they will kill the buttercups underneath, or at least knock them back a bit.  I have decided that I need to extend the path so that it flows through to join the trackway in a natural flow. Previously I had terraced the slope, so the path had to turn 90 degrees at the step.  The side has now had to be built up with some supporting stones so that the path will have a smooth gradient.  It still needs finishing off, but I think it will work much better.

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Since it was too hot for doing much digging on Friday, I had a gentle day with the dogs mulching in the orchard area where I have been moving the soil (I had a strange virus attack on Thursday which left me feeling like I should take it easy, but feel fine now).  The earth moving is not quite finished yet, but the top terrace is just about there, so I thought I’d try and mulch it to keep the surface clear and stop some of the dock seeds germinating.  Hopefully it will then be ready to plant up next spring.  It is amazing how much cardboard you need for what isn’t a huge area.  I do like to have a fair overlap between the sheets, but I’ll need to get a few more deliveries in the shop to do the rest of the orchard!  I still have a few sheets in my plastic shed, which may finish off the top terrace with luck.

lonicera fruit
Lonicera caerulea berries

On the left hand side of the trackway my new “honeyberries”, or “earlyberries” as Lubera called them, Lonicera caerulea have turned colour, and I think are getting as ripe as they are likely to be.  Not over enamoured of the flavour so far – not as sweet as I’d hoped, bearing in mind the superb weather.  It may be that I was hoping for too much.  They are supposed to taste like blueberries when ripe, but maybe like blackcurrants they are more a berry for cooking with.  I am quite happy that I got any fruit, considering this is their first year with me, and the bees loved the flowers.  I have been very happy with all the plants I got from Lubera – nice quality, reasonable priced (and less than £5 delivery cost even to Skye) and some exiting selections.  I’m thinking of getting a second kiwi, or kiwiberry for my polytunnel and they have several to choose from….

scented orchid
Heath fragrant orchid

I always get quite excited about the orchids coming into flower  at this time of year.  Year on year we get more flowering, due to them not being eaten by sheep anymore.  I have loads more butterfly orchids on the orchid hill, and several more popping up above the cut through drain to the pond.  The most dense for blooms is the steep slope just above the pond, presumably this had not been ploughed so much.  One would have thought that there would be more coming out on the hump just below the barn, but so far I have only spotted a couple of butterfly orchids near our southern boundary, on the narrow path that winds around the hump.  Maybe the grazing pressure has been higher there due to being closer to the barn?  I would have thought the soils were not that dissimilar.  I spotted a new species of orchid as well this year – what I am fairly certain is a Heath fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia borealis) since it is the first I have found to really have a noticable sweet scent during the day.  I shall have to check for more of these, since I may just have missed them.

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!

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Newly cleared and seeded area ready for rain!

A nice problem to have

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Self sown seedlings in polytunnel bed

I’ve said before that I don’t keep a very tidy polytunnel.  A bit like Anni Kelsey, who curates glorious polycultures by letting things do their own thing a bit, I’ve been more hands off in the tunnel over the last few years.  By letting the good things go to seed (fat hen, leaf beet, claytonia, chickweed, kale), and trying to remove the undesirables (nettles, docken, grasses, buttercups….).  I usually have a range of lovely edible salads coming up in the empty beds.  Even over the winter there has been plenty of kale, but as the day length has increased and as soon as the beds are watered a carpet of seedlings soon appear.  For instance I wrote this on Friday, so as I have staff covering the shop through most of the day, I’m trying to get up to speed with my seed sowing.  These are mainly the perennials and the later sown summer crops that will need potting on later.   Whilst  I was out there taking stock of what needs doing in the tunnel I cut a swathe of salad from this bed to go with some scrambled eggs for lunch.

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Or….Mixed leaf salad!

Needless to say, I didn’t sow any of this, the original kale and claytonia were sown many years ago.  I can’t find anything non edible in the bit I cut.  Normally I would steam the fat hen for a little, but this is still pretty young and I think we’ll get away with it – too much and the saponins could give an upset stomach.  I just picked over a few older leaves, rinsed for livestock, and cut out the larger kale stalks, which S would probably not appreciate (I’ll hide the greens under the eggs for him).  Anyway weeds….or self sustaining salads!

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Fresh cut for lunch

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cutting Docken and grass

Again, the weather has been kind to me. I have been cutting the docken (don’t you just love that plural?) in the orchard area. I have lots of docks around the place, and often they get to seed before I cut them, thus seedlings grow and the docken proliferate. I have discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you get the growing top off the dock they don’t tend to grow back. So my technique is to cut with a spade, aiming to get a couple of inches of the tap root, and not worry too much about the rest of the root. We also have some sort of big pinkish white grub that eats dock roots – maybe they eat the remainder?

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Cutting Docken in orchard area

The orchard area was planted just over three years ago with plum, damson and cherry trees, and I added some apples 18 months ago. It is in a more sheltered dip at the top of the tree field, and I intend to add more soil to landscape the area. I wanted to give the trees as much soil as possible, and also try and keep them well drained. We get so much rain and this is one of the factors that make the fruit trees not grow so well and succumb to disease. At the moment the landscaping is partially done. The trees were planted on mounds, and I have been spreading soil between them. This is barrowed down from below the barn, where it was left from various trackway excavations. Although S. did move down some soil with the dumper, It took a lot of effort to then distribute it and dig out the couch grass and nettles that came too, so wasn’t really much of a labour saving in the end! The trackway down from the barn still needs grading, so is still a bit steep for comfortable barrowing, but at least the heavy bit’s downhill! Anyway, apparently along with the couch and nettles were also a lot of dock seeds which have subsequently germinated and done quite well (oh why aren’t they edible weeds?). So last week I and the dogs took the pink ball and the spade and barrow and set to work. One and a half days later we had cleared the docken, done a lot of fetching, discovered some nicely growing blackcurrant cuttings that I stuck in last winter, a big bone that Dougie had hidden there, a couple of very small spruce seedlings that were missed from several I had temporarily stuck in there eighteen months ago; that is the good news.

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Blackcurrant cuttings in orchard area

The docken were also lovely to dig up from the new soil – many came up with complete roots, so the soil should be good for other stuff to grow in. The bad news is that I also discovered that along with the docken we also have a lot of surviving couch grass (I now know what couch grass flowers look like), nettles and of course the creeping thistle that were in the field before the trees were planted. I’m hoping that continual pulling will deter the creeping thistles. This seems to have been reasonably effective in the tea garden, I had very little come back this year. It’s not the nicest job. You need need grippy gloves to grasp the stems so as to pull as much root as possible: I like the cloth ones with latex facing. However, the palms aren’t strong enough to stop all the prickles, so every now and then you have to pick out a prickle that has broken off in the glove and is sticking in you. I just pulled out the nettles (which will probably grow back) and ignored most of the couch. I know it’s going to grow extensively, but I’m hoping to complete the landscaping, and maybe do some planting this autumn. With a good thick mulch in the meantime and relying on the lovely light soil structure, I’m hoping it will come out then reasonably completely. Anyway, it’s only grass! I’ll probably plant out some of my exciting root crops there this autumn/winter since they will subsequently need digging out anyway giving me a second opportunity to remove the couch….

It was forecast to be dry until Thursday last week, and we were keen to get the paths in the tree field cut. It’s nice to have the grass long, but it makes my trousers wet as I’m walking through (even with wellies on), and S. also has difficulty telling the trees and other plants apart, so having a defined pathway makes it easier if he does have to drive a vehicle round. To be fair the docks are still bigger than some of the trees.  I’d asked him to get the mower out ready for me, so that I could cut the paths when I got home from the shop on Wednesday. It would be quite late, but the sun doesn’t set till gone ten for us at the moment, so there is still quite a bit of daylight. Anyway, he not only got the mower out, but he and the dog-boys went round all the trackways a few times. It wasn’t quite the way I would have done it. I’m not that keen on cutting the grass at all at this time of year. I would like the flowers to have set their seed. However, for reasons of practicality, a little pathway in the centre of the track seems like a good compromise. S. however, did the main trackway with several passes, and the main side loop also with a wider cut. I went round a second time trying to keep in the centre of the track, because the scythemower doesn’t cut that cleanly the first cut, and a second cut gives a more even result. A disadvantage of doing more than the minimum is that Muggins here then has to spend longer than neccessary raking up the extra cut grass. It looks slightly surreal with the long grass, trees and flowers, a mowed path, and the mounds of gathered cut grass.

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Hay mounds along mown trackway

Now I have a fair amount of material for mulching. I will have to wheelbarrow this up hill to the orchard area, where hopefully it will stop some of the noxious weeds growing back too strongly and feed the fruit trees in the longer term. If there is more than I need it can be used to mulch the trees nearest the path edge, or others strategically selected.
If we had more land I would like to cut some of it for hay. Corncrake have a hard time now on Skye, since most crofters just buy in their winter feed now and the in bye fields are now summer grazing. I heard one once here in Glendale a couple of years ago, but it didn’t stay.