New friends and Old

cuckoo sparkle
Drenched in May mists

Having missed the whole of the spring season we are already heading into summer.  2020 will be remembered by all this year for the covid-19 virus issues. The lock down restrictions have had little effect on us, although we are busy in the shop trying to source essential supplies for our loyal customers and are grateful for where we live.  One staff member is still recovering from a (different) virus infection from before xmas, and another decided to stop coming to work to protect her family. This has left us with just one person to give me time off, so more work, less time. However we are so much luckier than many people, and are hopeful of having a new member trained up soon, so I can get another afternoon per week off.

cherries
Wild Cherries

The garden outside goes from brown and dead looking to fountains of green over the months of April and May. A moderately dry spring is now turning milder and wetter, with my first midge bites of the year recently, a bit of wind last weekend with maybe warm weather for the end of the month.

pink primrose
Pink Primrose

There were a couple of different plants down by the river this spring.  I was surprised to see a bright pink primrose and have no idea how it came to be here, many hundreds of yards from any garden.  I gather that they can be pale pink sometimes, but this is really bright pink.  I can only assume that the seeds must have washed down from a garden cross upriver, so I have relocated the plant to the front garden under the fuchsia bush.

coltsfoot
Coltsfoot by pond

The other plant that I had seen, but not realised what it was is coltsfoot.  I had seen the leave in the summer, but have never noticed the flowers before, which come out before any of its leaves are visible.  There were a few in bloom on the riverbank and a couple inside the fence by the pond.  They look a bit like dandelion flowers, with scaly stems and a bit more middle.  Allegedly they taste of aniseed.  I did take a nibble of one, but I think in the future I will just let them be.

april3rd
April 3rd planting trees

In the tree field I have planted some new tree varieties: italian alder and sea buckthorne.  The latter I have been wanting to try for a while, and the former I think may do better on the swathe of field where the ash trees are not doing very well.  I now think that they are struggling partly due to the soil getting dry in that area.  I’m hoping that italian alder may do better there, since it should cope better with dry soils.  The soil is not particularly shallow, being generally greater than a spade’s depth, but is well drained.  It occurs to me that beech may be worth trying here also – maybe next year – although beech is not supposed to coppice well.  I also got more common alder to backfill the windbreaks and alder copses, and have planted a new alder copse right in the bottom south corner adjacent to the windbreak edge at Jo’s field edge.  This will quickly give shelter to the area behind, which was originally planted mainly with hazel, which did not do very well.  I’m going to back plant with some self seeded hazel and locally sourced aspen.  I have taken some root cuttings from a tree below the old school, which hopefully will do better than the bought in plants which seem to not be completely happy.

bluebell bank
Bluebell bank

I can already see fresh shoots of orchids appearing on the pathways, and the bluebells are creating scented banks in several areas of the field.  Pignuts are starting to open, and cuckoo smock flowers create little pink chandeliers dotted around the field (photo at top).  The new ramp to the mound is blending in nicely, and a number of bluebells apparently transplanted with the turf are making a blue path through the trees.

emporer hawk moth
Emporer Hawk moth

I was lucky enough to spot one of the more spectacular moths of the UK this week.  An emperor hawk moth with it’s dramatic eyes was displaying itself on the grass down by the lower trackway.  I’ve only seen one once here several years ago, although have spotted the caterpillars a few times.

violet beetle
Violet oil beetle

Another welcome return was a violet oil beetle.  These ungainly creatures are the cuckoos of the insect world and are a sign of a healthy bee population which is nice!

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.

 

Butterflies and bugs

female small blue
Common blue butterfly female

It seems to have been a slightly better year for butterflies and moths this year.  I have seen more that I remember in previous years, or maybe I’m just able to be out in the sun at the right time.  As well as male common blue butterflies I saw a female this week.  Confusingly her colouring is much more multicoloured than the male, and I thought she was a different species until I looked her up.

heather bank
Heather bank in gully field

For the last few weeks I have noticed small black and red moths perched at the top of the gully bank in the sunshine.  Taking a closer look at this one the wings seemed quite transparent.  I think they are six spot burnet moths.

six spot burnet moth drying
six spot burnet

A bit further down the bank on the heather bush I found this cocoon, so I think these are new moths just hatching and puffing up their wings (I’m sure there is a proper name for that process!).  Apparently the caterpillars feed on birdsfoot trefoil, which I have fairly widespread over the holding, particularly where the grass is slightly shorter and the soil shallower.

six spot burnet moth cocoon
Cocoon in heather

I was pleased to get this photo of this chimney sweeper moth.  They are always quite a number of them at this time of year in the grass, but they are easily disturbed and, being small and dark, slightly difficult to focus on.  You can see how they come by their name – like flecks of burnt paper blowing about the grass!  The tips of the wings are rimmed with white, but the rest of the insect is sooty black.  The caterpillars feed on pignut flowers and seeds – so there is certainly plenty of that for them!

chimney sweeper
Chimney sweeper moth

This caterpillar I was also very happy to see.  Especially so when I looked it up.  It is the caterpillar of the emporer moth.  Which is a rather impressive moth with big eyespots on the wings.  The moths are usually about in April, but I’ve only seen an adult once or twice previously.  At least this caterpillar proves that there are still some adults about.  The caterpillars feed on heather, bramble, hawthorne as well as several other trees so should have plenty of menu options here.

emporer moth caterpillar
Emporer moth caterpilar

 

Finally a little show of some of the the other moths, butterflies and caterpillars recently seen, that I’ve been able to photograph and tentatively identify.  None are particularly rare, but each is a bit of magic.

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Midsummer grass

We go through a period at midsummer where the spring flower start to fade and the late summer flowers are yet in bud.  The grass is overtall and swamps the smallest trees sometimes smothering them out.  We were too busy with construction projects to keep a path mown through the trackways recently.  Last week, after the damp grass made my feet so wet that I was able to wring water out of my socks even in wellies, I had to do some mowing!

cut just before the rain
The mist came down again after mowing.

 

We had a dry spell Sunday and Monday so S. made a start before lunch and I carried on on Tuesday and was able to put a single mower track down the middle of most of the rides and backways.  I made a new backway that I call the white orchid path, which matches up with one S. made to cut down from the middle to the pond area from near the royal oaks.  There is only one white orchid there, which I noticed for the first time two years ago.  It was quite a distance from the trackway, so it is nice to be able to take a closer look.  It’s just a common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) I think, but it’s more unusual for them to be white rather than pink.

white orchid path
White Orchid path

The dogs are very good about machinery, they know to trot behind, or do their own thing, however when it comes to raking up the cut grass Dyson is a bit of a pain.  His game is to try and catch the rake head (or broom or vacuum nozzle)  which makes the job about twice as long!  I ended up putting them in for an afternoon nap, so I could get on more quickly.  I hate all that mulch material going to waste rotting on the path and killing grass where I don’t want it killed.  I have been raking it up into piles, then the dogs can help (they think they are helping) piling it around some of the newer or more vulnerable trees and shrubs.  I’ve still got quite a bit to do, and two or three smaller paths haven’t been mown yet.

danish elder
New Elder tree from Denmark, uncovered but not yet mulched.
mulching trees
Mulched chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa)

It was nice to see several mushrooms, a sign of the fungal mycelium below which distributs nutrients around the field.  I guess they will be changing from grass and orchid loving fungi to tree loving fungi, but there is still quite a amount of open space from one cause or another.  I also saw several butterflies, caterpillars, a dragonfly and a frog.  The advantage of the scythemower is that, as well as coping with overtall grass, it is less likely to kill wildlife, since it cuts in one direction rather than circularly.

fungi flower
Fruiting fungi

I think I’m going to have to assume that this wild cherry (below) is not going to recover.  It got hit by late frosts, which are pretty unusual here, just as the buds were unfurling.  I did think it would stage a comeback, but it doesn’t look like it now.  There are several suckers from adjacent trees, at least one coming up in the trackway, so I could transplant one of these to replace it.  Alternatively, I could put something else there.

dead cherry
Dead cherry
enjoying trackway
The dogs love a free run

Rainy Season

This was going to be an update on the polytunnel, but I’m excited about some things in the tree field, so those come first.

Usually the dryish weather lasts into the middle of June, but this year it has broken a bit early.  There was a nice bit of rain last weekend, and again through this week so the burns and the river are now overflowing.

The first exciting thing then (not chronologically, but logically) is that the pond at the bottom is once again full.  During the week it just had a little puddle from it’s own catchment, but either the shallow springs are going again and/or the burn on that side is full enough to have water all the way down (often it disappears again on the way down).  This would have been quite exciting, but more exciting (especially to the dogs unfortunately) was what we found on the pond.  The dogs saw them first, and then I saw a lady mallard flying off with a squawk over the fence to the river.  Left behind were about three frantically cheaping baby ducks.  They are very tiny, and I have no idea where the nest is.  I’m thinking it must be on the river bank, otherwise the dogs probably would have found it before now.  The pond would have made quite a nice nursery swim for the babies if it wasn’t for my bad dogs.  The river is in full spate after the rain, so the little ones would be swept quite away.  Eventually the dogs came to me.  They had been more interested in the mother than the babies, so noone was hurt.  Hopefully the mum would soon have returned to the babies again.  We’ll have to keep the dogs away from the pond for a bit.  This is difficult, as due to some building work, part of the deer fence to the garden area is down at the moment.  I was going to put some temporary fencing up anyhow, so I’ll escalate that task for when the rain clears.

baby duck
Baby duck in pond

On the way back up the hill again I was on the lookout for something that I had found the previous day.  On the grass there had been what I thought was a tiny rotten birch twig.  I wondered how it had got there and had turned it over with a twig that I was hoping to mark orchids with.  To my surprise the twig moved!  Not a twig but a largish moth!  On that occasion I did not have my camera with me (it was raining!) so I was very glad to find the moth still in the (birch) tree to which I had moved it.  Looking it up later I found it was a buff tip moth.  Although quite common in the south of the UK it is less so in the north.

bufftip moth
Not a twig

The other interesting thing, is that I may have seen this moth as a caterpillar.  I didn’t post about it at the time, but last summer I noticed one or two alders that had clumps of caterpillars in them.  They were distinctive in the way they formed a mass of caterpillars.  I’m pretty sure now that they were buff tip caterpillars, so it is nice to see that at least one made it to adulthood.  They pupate in the soil, so that may be why this one was on the ground.  It must have just emerged.

buff tip caterpillars
Mass of buff tip caterpillars

The rain has come in good time to keep watering the seedling trees I have planted in the tree field.  As well as the tiny spruce, I have also relocated about a dozen tiny rowans (why do they like to germinate in the driveway!), a couple of sycamore (ditto!) and several plums, damsons and apples from shop fruit that was past it’s best, or used for jam making.  The latter’s seeds had been placed in small seed trays (actually fruit punnets) outside and I got quite a few germinating this spring.  Rather than leave them to starve in the seedtrays I was able to plant them out last week, with a proper double spade square hole.  They may not have good fruit that ripens here, but they may at least have blossom to cross pollinate my orchard fruit.  I could try and graft good fruiters onto the trunks in the future.  I am hopeful that the damson seedlings and the plums that we ate in late september in Devon may have useful fruit, if only for jamming.

plum seedling
Plum seedling

When we planted the trees in 2011 we experimented with planting comfrey around some of them to see if they would act as a living mulch.  I had found this quite successful in Solihull around established soft fruit so, since we had been having difficulty finding enough time to mulch the newly planted trees, I wondered whether this would be an easy way to keep the grass down.  We just stuck ‘thongs’ of comfrey, of which I had plenty growing in the fruit garden, into the turf about two feet from the trees.  It wasn’t that successful as it turned out.  We found that although most of the comfrey took OK, it was a few years before they could out compete the grass, and by that time the trees were already established.  They do make lovely flowers for the bees though through the summer.

I had read in one or two of my books that other people had found that a bank of comfrey several plants deep could be used as a weed barrier around planting areas.  Last year I planted several thongs below the newly mulched orchard area to the north of the trackway, in the hopes that these would eventually keep out the worst of the couchgrass.  It is dramatic that the only ones that have grown well have been the ones adjacent to the mulch.  The ones planted with turf on each side are still really tiny (although mostly still there).  I don’t remember there being any difference between them when planted out.  So on my mental list of things to do is to mulch between the comfrey there if I get time.  It’s probably not a high priority, since the comfrey will probably still grow and in a year or so form a canopy by itself.

comfrey mulch
Comfrey – also between mulch and trees

The grass has grown lush and green with the rain, and the buttercups and pignut have started flowering.  So pretty with the rain dewdrops sparkling in the sun.  The buttercups seem particularly profuse in the area just below the orchard, and the pignuts in the southernmost strip along Jo’s field.  The midges are here now too, so the rain is definately a mixed blessing.  We change to longer hours next week in the shop next week so  I will have to get to bed a bit earlier.  The sun was still setting at about 9.20 last night.  I could still see the sunlight on the hill opposite us.

douglas in sun
Douglas and pignut
pignut sparkles
Pignut sparkles

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

 

Ash trees and windbreaks

ash area
Ash grove in red (April 2018)

We are concerned about the central area of the tree field where we have planted a band of ash trees.  In retrospect I wish I hadn’t planted quite so many in such a large band, but I did have my reasons.  I had read that planting larger groves of the same sort of tree is better – they look better together than smaller groves or a complete mixture.  Also the soil there seemed a little shallow, not really thin – just over a spade depth generally, and I’d read that ash trees have shallow roots, so thought logically that they wouldn’t mind the soil being shallower.  So far so good.  However, the ash hasn’t grown that quickly.  Particularly below the trackway.

view summer 2018
Ash trees on right not as well grown as those on left (August 2018)

I think there are three reasons for this. First they don’t take exposure too well – there is quite a bit of dieback overwinter and those that are more sheltered suffer less.  Secondly the area which I planted them in is just slightly well drained, and shallower on the downhill side.  This is a good thing in some ways; ash trees don’t like to be sat in water.  However in the spring when we get a nice dry spell, I wonder if the trees are getting slightly starved.  There is competition from the particularly fine vigorous grass that likes the same well drained drier conditions.  Those that we managed to mulch along the track edge have done better.  The third aspect that I wonder about is that I found what appear to be vine weevil larvae all over the field, and again they like the drier conditions in this area.  Maybe they are also eating the ash roots?

vine weevil
Evil weevil grub

In the longer term I expect that we will have to replace the ash trees with something else (something that will like shallow drier soil…).  In the meantime I’ve obtained some spruce and pine seedlings and have planted them to form extra windbreaks in the future.  Hopefully they will give the ash trees a little more protection in the medium term, and if we do need to remove the ash due to chalera dieback, will protect whatever we replace them with as they get established.  I have marked the position with hazel stick cut from new hazel trees that were a birthday present.  These were rather larger than I have planted in the past, so I trimmed them back when planting so they would not suffer too much from wind rock.  We will aim to mulch some of these new spruce to give them a head start against the grass, but there are so many other things needing doing…. at least we will be able to find them from the hazel twigs when we do get round to it.

dog help
Dog help.

Although the spruce trees are tiny, I have planted them in a double spade width hole as I did with the original plantings.  It is easy to see now which way the prevailing wind is, by the direction of the grass strands across the turf.  I managed to plant a couple of bands of spruce perpendicular to the wind direction two or three trees deep amongst the ash trees.  The pines I mostly planted at the edges of the trackway and the very edge of the tree field where the track goes next to the southern boundary.

combed grass
Easy to see wind direction

Faffing about and Spring colours

sun break
Sun breaking through

At first glance everything appear drab and colourless at this time of year.  Admittedly the spring planters at the shop are pleasing this year, with their new crocuses and tete-a-tete daffodils, but generally things appear lifeless….Until you look closer and then some startling colours stand out.

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I’m running around spotting the new sign of life and noticing all the things I need to be getting on with.  Spring is springing, the days are getting longer and we’ve had a nice spell of weather that looks like (barring an overnight storm) continuing into next week.  I’ve been trying out an app (gardenwize) to try and keep better records this year (one of my NY resolutions) but it doesn’t look like it will do quite what I want it to do (although about the best that I found).  I think I will have to go back to hardcopy and get myself some index cards and just write a new card for each crop.  It’s either that or write my own database, and I always get on better with spreadsheets.  At least I won’t have to worry about back up.

I have already managed to sow some of my polytunnel plants in the propagator: the achocha, tomatoes and a chilli pepper.   Some of the tomato seeds and the achocha are already sprouting after less than a week.  I’ve also got some shrubby seeds that have been stratifying in the fridge for several weeks or months, which mostly may as well be planted out now into seed trays.  Then it’s more sowing and potting on ad infinitum!

first primrose
Surprising primrose on east facing bank

Plants are definately feeling the spring now.  The tree buds are starting to swell, pig nut leaves are out and the first celandine flowers are showing.  I must get down the hill and coppice some of the larger alder before the sap risies too much.  I’ve got a bit of persuading S. that some of the trees would be better cut at this age.  Admittedly it will be a pity to lose some of the shelter that has been achieved, but the trees should grow even better if fully cut back, since all their roots are sized to feed a whole tree.

frogspawn
Frogspawn in pond

Other wildlife is also feeling the changing times.  There were a couple of lumps of frogspawn down in the pond.  I haven’t seen the frogs there.  It may be a little early yet, but I expect most of the spawn would survive a light frost anyhow.  Hopefully we won’t get a hard frost anyhow because look what I’ve got in the poytunnel:

apricot blossom
Apricot blossom

The Apricot buds are blossom.  There is actually a lot more than I thought there would be:  it is also all up the main branches.  Most of the buds are tightly furled, but they are just beginning to open.  I used a tiny bit of cotton wool to dab the flowers.  They seem quite scented, so if any of the moths whose pesky caterpillars were eating it last year are about, they may fancy pollenising it for me.

Field bean and elder cutting
Elder cuttings

I took a whole lot of elder cuttings since the bush has done so well for me.  I have also got some cuttings off three other bushes: One local, one imported like mine, and one purple leaved bush.  Some of the cuttings are in the orchard area which I tried to put down to green manures last September.  The area now has a fair covering of bittercress and grass.  Pictured above is one of the two field beans that seem to have escaped the crows’ attentions.

removing pale fuchsia
Preparing the access ramp

The other major project that I am hoping to get finished in the next week or so is the driveway retaining wall.  I spent yesterday afternoon scavenging round for rocks, since I had pretty much exhausted the initial supply.   Where the spade is in the picture above is where I plan to make a pedestrian access to the bank above.  I’m not sure whether it will be a ramp or steps – probably steps, since it would be too steep for a barrow anyway, and I can also get to it from the garden to the left.  I had to dig out half a big fuchsia bush that would otherwise be a nuisance growing across the path there.  That took me most of today, but I have three big lumps of bush as well as lots of sticks to make cuttings from if I want.  I think I will propagate some, since the fuchsia is tough as old boots (that bank is quite exposed to the south so gets quite a bit of wind as well as sunshine) but when in flower looks quite pretty.  This one has pale pink flowers rather than the darker pink that is more common as hedging plants around here.  It sets less fruit, probably due to the exposed position.

August progress in tree field

bees on flowers
Common knapweed (centaurea nigra) and small bee

After a week of rain we have a sunny Sunday to leisurely wander and assess the growth this year in the tree field.  The late summer flowers are giving the busy bumblebees a help towards winter supplies.  I’ve been gathering various vetch seeds again, which I’m hoping to swap for favours.  The heath pea are just about over; the warm early summer meant I had quite a crop, and managed to harvest over an ounce of seed, with plenty that I missed to further spread into the field.  I have noticed it this year even in what I consider quite damp areas.  I think the reason it was mainly in the thinner drier areas at first was simply that these had been less well ploughed and the tubers were able to survive better.

marsh woundwort
Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris) flowers in tree field

One of the plants I got from the ART last year was Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort.  It is related to Stachys affinis – crosnes or chinese artichoke.  A native plant, it likes damp meadows and spreads by thick (edible) tubers.  As this grew, I realised it did bear a strong resemblance to a plant I have seen growing on the river bank.  A second opinion on the odour (it has a strong pungant smell, but my sense of smell is pretty poor) confirmed that I already have lots of this growing round the field.  I’m happy about this, and not sad I bought a plant I already had.  For one thing, the imported plant may be better for tubers, for another it confirmed something that might otherwise always be just suspicion.  There seems to be much more of it this year than I remember in previous years, so I may try and dig a little up this autumn and see what it tastes like (watch this space).

hairy caterpillar
Knot grass moth – acronicta rumicis on willow

I remembered seeing a particulary colourful hairy caterpillar down beside the pond.  As it turned out there were a few of the same variety there.  When going for a closer look at some aspen I thought had mildew (just downy leaves catching the sun), I found another one of these pebble prominent (Notodonta ziczac) which look like a cross between a caterpillar and a rhinocerous.

rhino caterpillar
Notodonta ziczac on Aspen

The willow cuttings that I put in this spring all seem to have taken despite the dry spring.  There is still plenty of space up near the hump at the top which is damp and relatively sheltered.  I’ll try and put some more in there since it does seem to do pretty well.

ash growth 2018
S. points out this years’ growth point on a particularly fine ash tree

This year we have seen some incredible growth on some of the ash trees.  Literally some have actually doubled in height.  Hopefully they won’t break off or die back too much.  They do seem to have a tendency to die back a few years growth in one go sometimes.  It’s not the ash dieback – that hasn’t reached us (yet).  Whether it is another fungal disease or something else I don’t know, but it is a bit frustrating.  I am hoping that by the time chalara does make it here the ash will be big enough to be useful firewood.  Certainly if they can maintain this rate of growth there is a fair chance!

We’ve started to make little pedestrian paths through the trees, just picking routes like the dog’s cut through to the pond.  This means we will be able to get up close and personal with the trees, and appreciate some different viewpoints without getting our feet too wet (assuming that we bring the mower round them at some point).  My challenge to come will be getting S. to appreciate that the seedheads are just as important as the flower stems when it comes to mowing the tracks.  I have marked the orchids with bits of stick, but these have tended to get lost over time.  Douglas does have a habit of stealing them on his way past!

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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.