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.

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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.

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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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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.

seedlings large
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.

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.

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.

May

DSCN1227I love May on Skye. Actually, as soon as the clocks change for summertime, life seems to get that much better. The day light gets longer and longer, technically it never gets truly dark now. The weather also starts to cheer up. Spring tends to be our dry season, and midge free whilst it lasts. Surprisingly that can actually be an extended period without rain, despite Skye’s reputation. We’ve only been here 10 years and have experienced one spring where we had about 16 weeks with no rain. This year wasn’t that dry (thankfully) and actually it didn’t dry up until towards the end of April. Then we had an idyllic week of almost unbroken sunshine, and day by day the vegetation on the croft started to unfold. I also start getting too excited and start digging and germinating far too many seeds with nowhere to put them!

This week I have shuffled almost all the logs on the log pile. For reasons I won’t go into, this particular delivery of softwood arrived sopping wet about 2 and a half years ago and we’ve been stuggling to get it away dry ever since. Finally the week of sunshine and drying north wind enabled us to get a whole lot cut and away (with a little help from our friends – thanks Dave). The ones that remain are still pretty wet, some were resting on the ground, so were getting wet from underneath, and they also have a lot of bark adhering which keeps them damp longer. So I have restacked, brushed off the loose bark as best I can, and moved the whole lot forwards back onto the ground bearing logs. As part of that exercise, I managed to bag up loose bark from under the pile to try and get some air flow through it, and also much of the sawdust created by the sawing operations. Hopefully now they are able to air off again we will get enough more dry weather to get most of the rest away soon. We’ll also have to estimate whether we will need another delivery to get us through the next winter. We do most of our cooking as well as all the hot water and heating using a wood fired range and it’ll be some time before we can harvest our own wood – although some by the river could do with a tidy up.

ground elder cover
Ground elder groundcover

I have used up the bark mulching round newly planted Glen Coe raspberries. These were belated birthday presents from my in-laws. The Glen Coe is supposed to be a clumping raspberry that fruits on this year’s growth. It has attractive dark purple berries and I’ve fancied one since I’ve seen them in gardening catalogues. Anyway, I have planted them in the front garden where hopefully they should be pretty sheltered – we have some big (well c. 25 ft, which is tall for here) sycamore trees, and I have also planted a willow ‘fedge’ to one side of the path which cuts through from the front door to the lower drive. To the north of the fedge are blackcurrant and raspberry bushes. These are under planted (well OK, I never planted them, but they make a good ground cover) with ground elder. This is also growing on the other side of the path, which is where I am starting to plant some of my ‘interesting edibles’, and these new raspberries. I have tried an experiment therefore: rather than digging out all the ground elder, I have planted the raspberries in a small hole, cut back the vegetation, then heavily mulched with cardboard weighed down with stones and covered with bark. I expect that the ground elder will grow through, which is probably OK, but it does look quite smart just now!

newly planted glencoe
Raspberries in cutback undergrowth
cardboard mulch
mulched with cardboard
finished front path 2017
finished planting and mulching

I’ve also taken a first cut of the comfrey in the fruit garden. This is on the south side of the polytunnel and again is partially enclosed by a willow fedge. This fedge was very slow to get going. Partly because the soil depth is pretty shallow in places and willow does not like to dry out, and partly I don’t think that variety of willow likes the salt wind, and it has very little shelter until the other trees on the top of the gully bank start to get a little bigger. The comfrey is interplanted around the fruit bushes. The idea is that the comfrey will grow and mulch the bushes – feeding them and keeping the weeds down, also hiding them from the birds slightly. The difficulty is in getting the spacing right. Too close and the comfrey smothers the bushes. Too far apart and they don’t keep the weeds down enough. I seem to have erred on the too close side, so I am going to have to cut the comfrey and remove the growth elsewhere. I think this is probably some of the best soil on the property. It is deep enough to have been the burying ground apparently for several dead livestock in the distant past, much to the dogs’ delight! It is almost impossible to remove comfrey once it is established. The roots are thick, long and fragile and, like dandelion, will regenerate a new plant from a small fragment of root. Luckily it does seem to be the non spreading/seeding version, possibly even Bocking14 which is supposed to be the best for green manures, but since it came with the property, I cannot be sure of this. Anyway, hopefully by cutting the comfrey, this will curtail it’s growth a little in the future so it won’t swamp the bushes so much. I have cut up some of the leaves quite finely and pressed them into two buckets in my shed, which I hope will make good tomato food later in the year. The rest is still in a wheelbarrow ready to be used to mulch around whichever plants I feel need it most.

I need to try and do a little more civil engineering in the fruit garden as well. Both nettles and couch grass are making takeover bids, as well as the creeping grass and buttercups. I have used woven fabric under the paths, but it doesn’t seem to be very effective at keeping the weeds down, and is difficult to get the roots out of. I’m thinking of using newspaper topped with sawdust on the paths. I have enough to get a fairly deep layer down, but I think I’ll have to dig as much couch as possible out first. I’m hoping to grow a load of skirret, silverweed and other exciting root vegetables in the worst weedy areas, so will have an excuse to give it another fork over in the autumn to get rid of some regrowth then.