Good news

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

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

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

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

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

new shoots on citrus
New growth on Citrus tree

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

big fat toad
Big fat toad!

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

olive flower buds
Olive flowerbuds

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

dried grasses
Getting a bit parched where soil is thinner

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

ready for rain
Newly cleared and seeded area ready for rain!
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Harvesting, germination and why we (sometimes) don’t like deer

I’ve not had much time in the garden recently since there are a number of issues that have arisen mostly relating to the shop.  One of my members of staff is poorly, so I had to do extra shifts.  An exciting delivery from a new supplier came during one of my afternoons off so I had to go back down to the shop again to unpack it.  Palmer and Harvey were one of my main suppliers, who have now ceased trading, so I’m having to work out where and if we can get the groceries we normally get from them.  And someone put a planning application for mirror faced cube camping pods in the Glen which I felt obliged to object to.  The weather had been better though – cool and still and a little damp.  S. has bought me for christmas (not really I hope!) two pallet loads of hardwood which arrived on Friday and we spend much of Sunday warming ourselves once by stacking it all away in the woodshed.

Back in the Polytunnel, I have managed to harvest most of the fruit.  I have four more sharks fin melons, ten bunches of ripe grapes, and a very few achocha.  I still have the kiwi to harvest.

polytunnel crops

The grapes were starting to go mouldy, it’s just getting a little cool even in the polytunnel to expect any further ripening.  I think maybe I wasn’t ruthless enough when I thinned out the bunches earlier in the year, although it felt pretty brutal at the time.  I have picked them over and placed them in a glass of water, which hopefully should enable them to keep a little longer.  I also dried some in the bottom oven to make raisins which worked pretty well.  I could do with an easy way of removing the seeds however!  I need to give the vines a good prune now.  I’ve always taken my own approach to pruning; which is to make a cordon stem of the vine from which the fruiting spurs come off.  This seems to work quite well.  I had left a lower branch as well as the high level one, but it still isn’t really growing well.  The branches that come off it are weak and tend to droop down, interfering with the crops at lower level.  This year I’m going to prune the lower branch right out, and remove the wooden framework which also gets in the way of the polytunnel beds.

grapes

I’m not sure I’ll try the achocha again.  I quite like it – it tastes like a cross between a cucumber and a courgette, but it seems not to set very many fruit with me.  Only the fruit later in the season have set.  Mind you, I have noticed a lot of spiders in the polytunnel this year and have suspected that they may be eating a lot of the pollinating insects this year.  Maybe I’ll give it one more go and try and start them off nice and early.

The sharks fin melon I consider to be a big success, despite not getting that many fruit.  They are huge and pretty, and tasty see here.  The noodles do retain their noodly texture when frozen, so I may roast the melons as I need them and freeze the noodles in portions.  I’m going to try and save seed (apparently they carry on ripening in storage) but also see whether I can overwinter the vine, since it is a perennial in warmer climates.  So far I have buried one vine root in kiwi leaves (which have mostly shed now) and covered another with it’s own vine remains.  Although it’s not been very cold for the last couple of weeks.

I seem to have got very good germination from the two lots of Akebia seeds.  Both the ones that I sowed direct and the ones I left on tissue in a polythene bag have almost all got root shoots.  I moved them inside onto a windowsill, rather than leaving them in the polytunnel.  If I can get them through the winter, then I may have rather more plants than I need!  If not then I have dried the rest of the seed and can try growing them  in the spring.

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The last few weeks have seen an intruder in the garden.  For the last few years we have seem thankfully little sign of the deer, and I have been thinking they don’t like the smell of Dyson.  However recently they have been in and caused a little damage to a few of the trees, and munched some of the greenery in the fruit garden.  Luckily I don’t grow much for ourselves outside, but I had been getting a little complacent.  We have planted a hawthorne hedge which I am hoping in the longer term will screen the garden and deter the deer, but that will be a long time before it is big enough to do any good.  I’m pretty sure I heard the stags calling in the rut this year for the first time as well.  I wonder whether one of them was looking for greenery to decorate his antlers?  I gather they do this with bracken at this time to make themselves (presumably) more attractive or impressive.  In the past when we’ve had damage to the trees it’s been in the spring, which is more likely to be them rubbing the velvet off their antlers which they grow new every year.

 

Reasons to tolerate caterpillars

Over the last few years we have noticed more and more caterpillars on the trees.  It wasn’t something I considered very much when we started planting them.  I was thinking about the trees, growing and producing firewood and fruit, maybe doing crafty things with twigs and fibre and exciting things with tree sap. It seems daft, but I hadn’t really considered the new habitat we are creating, albeit slowly.  The insects eat the trees and other things – birds and mammals – eat the insects.  As well as learning more flowers and plant species I am therefore learning more insects as well.  It is a little frustrating, since there is lots of information about butterflies, slightly less easily available about moths, but rather less about their larva.  I spotted a new one today with a fiery bum.  I think it’s a pebble prominent moth caterpillar.  There were a few feeding on one of the aspen trees, which would fit.  I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the moths.

Prominent moth caterpilar july 2017
Possily prominent moth caterpilar

We’re getting lots of looper caterpillars on the alders as well at the moment – possibly magpie moths, which are very common here.  When they’re undisturbed they feed in a continuous stream of caterpillars, but when they sense danger they all rear up and pretend, rather unconvincingly to be twigs.  When they are larger, and single I guess it works better, but I think they’re very cute.  Funnily enough we haven’t seen many sawfly larvae on the gooseberries this year.

 

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I’m also getting lots of caterpillars in the polytunnel.  Generally they are bright green ones eating the brassica, which I don’t mind much at this time of year (although I know it’s dangerous to encourage these things or you end up with a plague).  However I did find a few that had wandered onto my little apricot tree (which is still doing quite well) and were munching away, so I’m afraid they got relocated outside!

I spotted one chrysalis on a seed tray outside which I’ve left be, and I find them all the time if digging in the polytunnel.

Then there are the more glamorous adults.  These are two new ones for me this year: a  dark green fritillary and a common blue.  Neither is particularly rare, just I’ve never seen them in Glendale before.

dark green fritillery crop jul2017
Dark green fritillary on thistle
DSCN1441
Common blue butterfly in gully